Paulo Nimer Pjota @ Maureen Paley, April 28 to May 29, 2016.


Paulo Nimer Pjota, exhibition view, ground floor, Maureen Paley, London, 2016.

©Paulo Nimer Pjota, courtesy Maureen Paley, London.

At certain times of the year in London, when the sun is shining at a certain angle, a brightly coloured wall might give off more reflected heat and light than is reasonable for this part of the world, or a taxi might surprise you with the warmth of its wake as it passes. At that moment you are transported by memory to cities where it is gloriously hot more often than not, if not always.

At Paulo Nimer Pjota’s show at Maureen Paley in London, I felt transported in just this way. If artworks often take on the aesthetic ingredients of their surroundings, whether intentionally or not, then it is hard to imagine these paintings having been done in anything but a hot climate. They breathe hot colour and swarm with casual, effortless marks. In some ways they are hardly straightforward paintings. Pjota himself admits that he is not really concerned with the idea of being labelled specifically a painter at all. And this refreshing nonchalance translates well into the finished artworks he creates.

The show, entitled Synthesis of Contradictory Ideas, and the Plurality of the Object as Image Part 2, consists of unstretched canvas and sheet metal pinned adjacent to each other like constructed paintings on the wall. Close by, on the floor beneath these paintings, are unglazed ceramic vessels and resin casts of bottles, a bust and some garlic. Some of the ceramic receptacles appear in more elaborate painted form, at roughly the same scale, in the paintings.


South landscape with gold and my memory about Northeast

acrylic, spray paint, brick pigment, pencil and pen on canvas and iron plate, with ceramic objects from Portugal, Bahia and São Paulo, 218 x 288 cm – 85 7/8 x 113 3/8 in, 2016.                                                          

©Paulo Nimer Pjota, courtesy Maureen Paley, London.

Pjota speaks of the legacies of colonialism and social and political issues in Brazil being key concerns for him when he approaches making his work. But the final effect is mercifully short on historical critique or explicit social commentary. These elements, in so far as they appear to any recognisable degree, take equal prominence amongst what initially appear to be incidental marks, scratches, doodles, text, fridge magnets and painted imagery. The juxtapositions; a smiley face next to a traditional hand-painted pot, or carved tribal statuary next to Darth Vader’s mask, might seem to suggest the emergence of a fully formed critique. The associations however, are left hovering in the abstracted space of the painted, or marked, surface. Continue reading “Paulo Nimer Pjota @ Maureen Paley, April 28 to May 29, 2016.”

Jules de Balincourt | Stumbling Pioneers @ Victoria Miro, 15 April – 14 May 2016.


California Native, 2016 Oil and acrylic on panel 111.8 x 121.9 cm 44 x 48 in.

Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London

© Jules de Balincourt

When Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the musicians behind Steely Dan, moved out to LA from the east coast in 1971, they found the visual equivalent of their slick and expansive music in the heat haze and palm-lined avenues of the Pacific metropolis. Or is it more likely that their music started to open up in response to the grand, languid and unwalkable vistas of the west coast?  Landscapes can engender complex responses; mythologies, iconography and aesthetics which, more often than not, leave the real thing struggling to fulfil expectations. The various mythologies of the American West, being among the most ubiquitous in modern culture, also make it difficult to view almost any artwork which takes them as its subject with fresh eyes, such is the power of the iconography which has already accumulated around the subject.

In each of the paintings in Jules de Balincourt’s current show at Victoria Miro, ‘Stumbling Pioneers’, we encounter many of the visual triggers we might expect on the subject: empty swimming pools, a truck stop, a molten sunset, a freeway winding through the edgelands of the city. It is almost surprising to see each motif dealt with so concisely in individual panels. The initial impression is of an outsider’s perspective; an attempt to document the city and its surroundings in a series of illustrative vignettes, executed by someone who is seeing them for the first time perhaps. De Balincourt is in fact painting these works after a period of 20 years spent outside LA. So after such a long absence one could be forgiven for feeling, at least partly, like an outsider.


Night Moves, 2016 Oil on panel 121.9 x 101.6 cm 48 x 40 in.

Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London

© Jules de Balincourt

The works are of various dimensions, painted on wooden panels which float about an inch or so off the wall on recessed wooden supports. The hidden supports are each treated with the predominant colour of the image itself. Some of these colours are almost fluorescent, and the effect from a distance is of a subtle coloured backlight to each panel. Most of them are painted in oil, but some use both oil and acrylic. The application of these two very different types of paint on the same panel is executed so well as to make them almost indistinguishable. Continue reading “Jules de Balincourt | Stumbling Pioneers @ Victoria Miro, 15 April – 14 May 2016.”

Kurt Schwitters @ The Armitt.


Untitled (Cal), Collage, paper, carton and wallpaper, 1947. ©Private collection (courtesy of the Armitt Trust).

Last week I returned to London after a two week residency at the Kurt Schwitters Merzbarn site in Elterwater, Cumbria. I say site because, in a number of ways it is more appropriate to think of it as the site of an event than as a place to visit and see an artist’s work in the flesh, or in stone and plaster as might be the case. The original wall on which Schwitters worked between March and July 1947 was removed and placed on permanent display in the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle in 1965. All that physically remains of the construction, which the artist hoped would develop into a new and perhaps more significant Merzbau than his Hanover original, is a section of plasterwork resembling an arm reaching across the upper left hand corner of one of the remaining walls. Even this was in fact added to Schwitters’ original by Harry Pierce,  the owner of Cylinders estate, after the artist’s death. The original Merzbarn construction had not developed beyond the limits of the western wall of the building by the time Schwitters suffered a haemorrhage in July 1947. He died on the 10th of January, 1948.

Schwitters is not an easy artist to love. When I first became aware of his original Merzbau, which was destroyed in an allied bombing raid, I was more confused by my attraction to this obscure installation than I was definitively impressed by it. Long before I became aware of its influence on artists and architecture students and its implications for immersive installation art, I found myself wondering why I should be so engrossed in its seemingly measured randomness. The fact that only a few black and white photographs of the Merzbau were in circulation meant that I couldn’t even contrive a sense of having understood it through gazing at it; in the way a hermit might attempt to understand the wilderness through time spent getting lost in it. Now it only existed in the imagination.

As frustrating as it was as a teenager to find my access to the Hanover Merzbau blocked by the opacity of an old photograph, it strikes me as in keeping with the mythology of Kurt Schwitters to arrive at Cylinders Estate to find the Merzbarn wall long gone and stories and photographs in its place. In a further twist, the woods surrounding the Merzbarn itself, in which visitors’ children play hide and seek and in which adult visitors wish they could, were not there in 1948. Sitting outside the Merzbarn, Schwitters would have had a wider vista than is afforded to the visitor today. As a visiting artist trying to make sense of the site, I found myself disappearing into the woods around the Merzbarn, and further afield, with a sketchbook, easel and paints, much as Schwitters himself did in various locations around the Lake District. Perhaps, I thought, the most appropriate testament to a person for whom a particular place was important, was to try to see it as they did. The sense one gets at Cylinders estate is of the echo of events past and current, all of which become small against the backdrop of the unchanging and indifferent mountains.

Smithy Brow by KS.jpg

Smithy Brow, oil on wood, 1945/1947, ©Courtesy of the Armitt Trust.

Added to this sense of ephemerality, the difficulty implicit in forming an unmitigated appraisal of Schwitters’ trajectory as an artist, is exacerbated by the very real disruption to the artist’s life in the 1940s.  Elizabeth Burns Gamard, in her book about the Merzbau, reminds us that “…the war and subsequent exile from Germany left (Schwitters) destitute and disoriented in the most literal sense.” (1). Schwitters moved to London following a period of internment in detention camps around the north of England. After an unsuccessful period in the capital he subsequently found himself staying on in the Lake District as the result of an extended holiday. To sustain himself there he produced a large number of landscape paintings and drawings of local scenes, such as the Bridge House in Ambleside, and portraits of local personalities and acquaintances such as Charles Simpson, Dr. George Ainslie Johnston, and Harry and Ida Pierce. Harry Pierce, the owner of Cylinders Estate and the building which was to become the Merzbarn, was a retired landscape architect for whom Schwitters had great respect. “(Pierce is)…a genius…he lets the weeds grow, yet by means of slight touches he transforms them into a composition as I create art out of my rubbish.”  (2).

Schwitters continued to produce collages in England right up to the end of his life. Some of these are amongst the best he ever produced, and formed a major part of a large survey exhibition at Tate Britain in 2013. And it is true to say that, in part due to the difficult circumstances of the artist’s arrival and subsequent life in the UK, the landscapes and portraits Schwitters produced in Cumbria are commonly seen as a negligible aspect of his oeuvre. It is difficult to evaluate the impact his change in circumstances had on Schwitters’ confidence as an artist. The mythology, as it is taken up with his departure from Germany, reads variously as the story of an artist whose unshakeable vision led him to abandon a country which had abandoned sanity, or of a once important, cosmopolitan, European artist who had been left with no choice but to run to wherever he would be accepted.

View from Blue Hill 1.jpg

View from Blue Hill, Ambleside towards High Pike, oil on board, 1945/1947, ©Courtesy of the Armitt Trust.

It hardly seems important now, to pick through the minutiae of Schwitters’ career path from Germany to Norway, and finally to England. By trying to build a picture of the artist’s life in two sections; pre-displacement by war and post-displacement, we risk forfeiting the appreciable continuity in Schwitters’ work and in his thinking. Between 1909 and 1914, Schwitters received an academic training in art at the Dresden Kunstakademie. He continued to draw and paint throughout his life, not just in the Lake District, but also in Norway, and not just to earn a living, but also in response to the considerable effect the landscape had on him. He also paid close attention to what was happening in painting in particular, “(working) through the development of modern painting on his own…(and) these self-described phases of development were not successive, one replacing the other, but rather incorporative.” (3).

It is this ‘incorporative’ strategy which forms perhaps the most defining characteristic of his life’s work. I refer to it as a strategy because Schwitters was, in all likelihood, fully aware of what he was doing as he jumped from genre to genre. In this way, Schwitters could be seen as the archetype of what we now see as a common model of a contemporary artist; one who, at best, moves between media and genres in a sophisticated yet apparently effortless way. Through his experiments in different genres, Schwitters also settled on what Burns-Gamard calls a ‘grandiosity of…vision’ (4). Throughout her book on the Merzbau, she puts considerable emphasis on Schwitters ‘transhistorical’ vision. Contrary to popular perception, the artist emerges as more indebted to German Romanticism than political or social revolution. Doubtless the reality of Schwitters’ life and work in Germany is far more complex than any reductive designation that can be applied to him retrospectively. And this is also true of the artist’s life in England.

Untitled Wood on Wood 1946.jpg

Untitled (Wood on Wood), Relief, oil and wood on wood, nailed, 1946, ©Courtesy of the Armitt Trust.

What we can say about his work in the Lake District is that he was in every way continuing along the path which he had established before he was displaced. The landscapes and portraits Schwitters produced in Cumbria can seem troubled and hard-won when we gaze into their brushwork, but his lines in these landscapes are equal to those he produced in Norway. And given Schwitters’ close reading of painting’s history and forms, combined with his heavy involvement with modern art movements in Europe, it should come as no surprise that he could switch so easily from genre to genre. The fact that Schwitters used found material from wherever he happened to be living, whether it be Hanover, London or the Fells around Ambleside, demonstrates that his eyes were wide open to those locations as potential artistic source material. For anyone interested in Schwitters, Cumbria is a particularly rewarding location in which to reflect on the artist’s life and work. Unlike in London, both the living and the dead have room to exist and tell their stories.

Whilst I am averse to pilgrimages of all sorts, in the Lake District I did find myself continuously returning to comparisons of Schwitters’ life there in the 40s and my passing through there now. This was the effect of place over preconception. Having had a long-standing interest in Kurt Schwitters, I had had plenty of time to imagine the urban artist’s rural life in England. The longer I spent there however, the more the locations themselves took over. Of all the wonderful encounters I managed to squeeze into two weeks, two things served to give form to a life I had only imagined from looking at reproductions. The Ambleside Flower Show, in which Schwitters won 1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes in 1946 was being advertised on banners in the street while I was there, and The Armitt Gallery unveiled their newly enlarged collection of Kurt Schwitters works, making it the largest permanent collection of the artist’s work on display in the UK.

Visit the Armitt Museum website for more on Kurt Schwitters: Armitt Museum

Visit the Cylinders Estate Merzbarn website: Merzbarn in Cylinders Estate, Langdale

Visit the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle: Hatton Gallery, Newcastle

Visit the Merzbarn Residency blog of artists Robbie O’Halloran and Hamish McLain: merzbarn16



  1. Elizabeth Burns Gamard. (2000). Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau. New York; Princeton Architectural Press.
  2. Kurt Schwitters quoted in: Barbara Crossley. (2005). The Triumph of Kurt Schwitters. Armitt Trust.
  3. Elizabeth Burns Gamard. (2000). Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau. New York; Princeton Architectural Press.
  4. Ibid.

Jost Münster / New Neighbours @ TINTYPE, February 25- March 26, 2016 & Djordje Ozbolt / Mars in Capricorn @ HERALD ST, February 25 – March 26, 2016.



Left: Djordje Ozbolt installation shot, Photo by Andy Keate, courtesy Herald St, London. Right: Jost Münster installation shot, Photo by Cameron Leadbetter, courtesy TINTYPE, London.


Of all the paths a painter might decide to follow from a relatively early stage, there are two that could be seen as equally limiting or full of potential, depending on your point of view. The first is a committed career working within the tiniest patch of artistic territory; say Geometric Abstraction for example. The second is a broader approach, wherein the artist acts as a kind of commentator on vast areas of visual culture, cherry-picking from all available forms and styles. The former approach suggests the role of field-worker, with the artist constantly getting their hands dirty through experimentation. The latter suggests a perhaps liberating detachment from the agonizing process of trialing new forms and combinations. Two concurrent shows in London, Jost Münster at TINTYPE and Djordje Ozbolt at HERALD ST would seem to represent, at least superficially, these two trajectories.


Jost Münster, New Neighbour 7, 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 152 cm x 117 cm, Photo by Cameron Leadbetter, courtesy TINTYPE, London.

Jost Münster produces canvases which are spare in incident but not minimal. They are slow to reveal their complexity, yet at the same time immediate in visual impact. They are also intentionally limited in graphic vocabulary but not limiting in interpretive potential. In the main gallery space at TINTYPE, the canvases have been hung at comfortable intervals. The sense of dialogue between the paintings is emphasized by a temporary partition, which blocks off the potentially distracting view of the gallery office, and creates a third wall in the space. The visitor walks into a multi-directional conversation between equal parties. The canvases, being equal in dimensions (152 x 117 cm), encourage us to register their differences in other ways. Münster’s refined and consistent treatment; chalky yet translucent washes of acrylic on unprimed canvas, allows him to use a selection of geometric devices whilst retaining an overall coherence across the series.


Jost Münster, Installation shot, Photo by Cameron Leadbetter, courtesy TINTYPE, London.

There might be the temptation to run with the same motif in various iterations across a series like this, but the artist has instead allowed subtle echoes into these paintings of many different lessons learned. The gestures themselves retain a rewarding amount of evidence of their imperfect manual production; an effect which is difficult to intentionally manufacture yet easy to lose through negligence. There is no sign of equivocation in these paintings, which appear to have been thought about intently over a long period but executed relatively quickly. The concept behind the installation, New Neighbours, reinforces the idea of a democratic dialogue between equal agents. Whilst sharing common qualities of scale and surface, the paintings are each highly idiosyncratic. Münster is evidently committed to exploring the capacity for paint to say a lot through limited means.

Djordje Ozbolt’s current show at HERALD ST’s Golden Square space is impressively well resolved as an understated installation of painting and sculpture. There are four paintings in total and one sculptural installation, ‘Let the sunshine in’, a series of African totems cast in resin in an assortment of loud colours. The paintings seem to depict similarly coloured sculptural objects presented against neutral grey backgrounds. It is tempting to imagine that they were painted from real-life mock-ups, and if this was the case, I would love to see them.


Djordje Ozbolt, Deflection, 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 152.4 cm x 121.9 cm / 60 x 48 in, Photo by Andy Keate, courtesy Herald St, London.

Looking back at Ozbolt’s project over a number of years, we see the artist navigating through a large stock of iconic imagery in a series of carefully staged presentations. In many paintings the traditional vernacular of what might be High Renaissance landscape painting is blown apart by choreographed interventions from the future: Picasso heads, Henry Moore’s reclining figures or Mickey Mouse’s silhouette. This is iconography which to us is just as much in the past as the landscape into which it appears to have been beamed. When elements are alien to each other but presented as equal, it is hard to refer to any one as an anachronism. This is witty play on the notion of a linear narrative within art history. Indeed there are cohabitants in Ozbolt’s paintings which come from cultures that were never part of that assumed narrative to begin with. The recurring motif of the African totem in some paintings is presented as a form in its own right, in addition to appearing in others in the form of its post Cubist assimilation.

Ozbolt tracks a convincing path through the territory between painting, sculpture and installation. But the overwhelming sense is that the artist has an uncorrupted love of painting and a genuine attachment to the vocabulary from which he cherry-picks his imagery. In previous work Ozbolt presented us with a range of disparate motifs grafted onto the same surface with a light painterly touch. In his current show the artist’s visual play has been refined further from this intentional sparring between unexpected elements to a kind of visual double-play within the same vernacular. Geometric constructions perform double functions. A precarious tower of simplified geometric shapes casts an anthropomorphic shadow in the piece entitled ‘Deflection’. Similar geometric assemblages stand obediently for a family snapshot in ‘La famiglia’. And the eponymous ‘Bulgarian weight lifter’ appears to us alternately as a face with eight ball eyes or a full dumbbell-carrying figure. The humour in Ozbolt’s painting is catchy. And unlike a host of artists whose apparent irreverence can often amount to little more than a cool play on visual culture, Ozbolt manages to invest his work with a more profound understanding of the forms he is using.

Albert Oehlen @ Gagosian, London / February 5 – March 24, 2016

OEHLEN Untitled (Baum 30), 2015_GG_cc

ALBERT OEHLEN Untitled (Baum 30), 2015, Oil on Dibond, 118 1/8 x 78 3/4 inches, 300 x 200 cm. © Albert Oehlen. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Stuart Burford.

London looks better in winter. The trees are stripped back to their trunks and slender branches. There is not so much elegance to a London Plane tree in winter, but without its leaves it affords more visibility to one of the city’s greatest statements about its past; its architecture. Without leaves, the trees, with their tangled, spindly branches sprouting from battered trunks, appear less organic and more like rudimentary diagrams of trees, rendered by someone who has never actually seen one.

Albert Oehlen’s current works at Gagosian are ostensibly renderings of trees. Are they depictions however, or are they impressions, stylisations or abstractions of trees, and if so to what extent is the tree the subject? Before approaching the work in this show in isolation, it may be useful to consider the artist’s earlier career. Viewed out of the context of Oehlen’s previous work, this show can give the impression of being a snapshot of work representative of an ongoing series; such is the consistency of approach to each panel. However, Oehlen’s relationship with the medium of paint has long been one of planned experimentation and deliberate digression. Before starting a series of work his strategy has often involved laying down a set of self-imposed rules. These ‘limiting’ devices, such as using a computer to ‘design’ paintings or setting out with the intention of making a ‘bad’ painting, might seem coldly intellectual, but they have yielded some interesting results, not all of them easy to look at. With the current series of paintings it is hard to be sure how involved the artist is with his subject beyond it being just one of several limiting devices put in place in order to allow the work to take shape. Amongst Oehlen’s previous limiting strategies, perhaps the most telling has been the self-imposed edict to ‘work slow’. This may be an inevitable result of years of aesthetic excess. Oehlen worked closely with Martin Kippenberger during the 1980s and 90s; a period of large, witty statements in paint. After the fin-de-siècle party of course, painting, along with everything else, still had to account for itself.  

Almost ten years ago, looking at Oehlen’s paintings in the Whitechapel Gallery’s survey of the artist’s work, I Will Always Champion Good Painting, it was hard to see beyond the bombastic scale and wilful gaudiness of the large canvasses on display. Perhaps it is due to the diminishing relevance of the debate about the future of painting, and the merciful distance we have now achieved from those endless art school debates, that makes it easier to look at Oehlen’s new work on its own terms, in a clearer, less cluttered light. The scale of the work is still considerable; a factor which adds an extra level of consistency to the artist’s project overall. If the 80s and 90s were about big canvasses, then by not suddenly abandoning this large scale, Oehlen’s choice can safely be said to be one of genuine preference. In an over-intellectualising climate it can be easy to forget that painters still make gut decisions about things such as scale and colour. 

OEHLEN Untitled (Baum 44), 2015_GG_cc

ALBERT OEHLEN Untitled (Baum 44), 2015, Oil on Dibond, 98 7/16 x 98 7/16, 250 x 250 cm. © Albert Oehlen. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Stefan Rohner.

When compared to the sinister woodland quiet of the Baum series at Gagosian, much of Oehlen’s previous work seems to clamour with the rowdy ghosts of the city. The trees in this present series, rendered in black oil and spray paint, seem demonic, as though they threaten to step off the painted Dibond surface. Are these trees simply vehicles for paint; their imagined branches turning into meandering paths of abstract paintwork? They have no centre, no perspective, no orientation. Again, we could be looking up through the bare black silhouette of a Plane tree at the white-grey London sky. Oehlen has primarily allowed himself two other colours in this series; Magenta and what appears to be Phthalo Blue. Across the series of thirteen panels these colours are further restricted to floating rectangles and squares, within which they are applied in gradations. What is perhaps a single application of paint gives up a diminishing amount of colour with each successive stroke. This nominal ‘shading’ threatens to trick us into imaging we are looking at a sky or a receding wall. These geometric features however are somewhere between Abstract Expressionism and Analytical Cubism; somewhere between Hans Hofmann’s floating ‘push / pull’ devices and Fernand Leger’s trompe l’oeil tubes. Used in this way, the vocabularies of AB EX and Cubism take on the look of having been rendered by someone who has never seen either one but only heard their identifying features described. It requires skill and self discipline to use such references in a way that doesn’t dominate the work, and Oehlen has been committed to the free use of such painterly references in his work for a long time. The skill lies in not allowing oneself to get too involved with these motifs; in maintaining a critical distance. AB EX, amongst other forms, is arguably a style of painting which will continue to be debated, examined and even re-presented, some might say rehashed, others, remixed. Oehlen’s intention is not to bring it back to life, but to use it casually as just one more visual device. After all, the point is to keep working. 

The existential crises in painting around the turn of the Twentieth Century exert a retroactive pull on those who remember them. Oehlen’s response has been to use a series of inventive personalised strategies, each of which demonstrate the impossibility of reaching an end point in painting. The cumulative result of these strategies of self-limitation is a body of work which has remained true to itself, created by an artist who has continued to paint through the debate.


Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse @ Royal Academy, London, January 30 to April 20, 2016.

Key 36
Auguste Renoir, Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil, 1873
Oil on canvas, 46.7 x 59.7 cm
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Bequest of Anne Parrish Titzell, 1957.614
Photo (c) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT


The opening pages of The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James take place against the backdrop of a garden as neat as a Nineteenth Century drawing room. James could evoke the intimate and the domestic spaces of privileged life like few other writers. The action, which would normally take place inside, unfolds instead in the garden. In this instance the garden has become a continuation of the interior space. It is even described as such. “Privacy here reigned supreme, and the wide carpet of turf that covered the level hill-top seemed but an extension of a luxurious interior.” (1)

Against the backdrop of the industrialised Nineteenth Century, with the modern city growing in the background, the private garden was becoming not only a pastime, but an artistic subject in itself. Public parks and other communal garden spaces were also developing. But it is the intimate space of the private garden, glowing in the dense stillness of a summer’s day, that is the most common component of the current show at the Royal Academy. If the garden, by the end of the Nineteenth Century, had become a private space of leisure for a comfortable minority, it had also become one of the principal subjects, along with the domestic interior, for an artist to master. The garden space, as distinct from landscape, is a subject which arguably lends itself more to a discussion of medium than subject matter. The domestic garden, along with the domestic interior, relates to the artist and the viewer on a very human scale. Some of the most interesting works in the show, from a painter’s perspective, are those in which there is little or no reference to perspective, scale or depth of field. These are paintings which might comfortably be carried with outstretched arms, perhaps even from the garden to the studio and back again. They are paintings in which the subject so fully occupies the picture plane as to become flattened, thus leading us into a more intimate examination of the paintwork.

The domestic interior as a subject in painting was a space within which all figurative elements: pieces of furniture, statuettes and plaster casts, bowls, rugs, windows and even people were often given the same importance. This democratisation of all pictorial elements was carried through with a lifelong consistency by Braque in his studio interiors, and, as can be seen in the present show as represented by two strikingly spare canvasses, by Matisse. The room itself becomes a kind of shallow display cabinet of forms of equal value. Figures are no longer shifting forward or receding in scale. Instead, they interact within a flattened plane.

Key 64 new
Henri Matisse, The Rose Marble Table, Issy-les-Moulineaux, spring-summer 1917
Oil on canvas, 146 x 97 cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1956
Photo (c) 2015. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence / (c) Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2015


The private garden with its arrangements of domestic and exotic flower and plant species, ornamental garden features, and the lawn or the hedgerow acting as a sort of neutral ground, provided a painterly space of the same order as the domestic interior. There are plenty of choices in this show which could be seen as reinforcing the notion of Impressionism as pure visual pleasure. For the artists however, it wasn’t always a pleasurable process. Monet spoke of painting as ‘continual torture’. And it is hard to imagine a more difficult subject to paint than an undifferentiated field of plants in full bloom. In any case, not all the work on display is, strictly speaking, Impressionist. Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee are represented in the later rooms with canvases which are clearly looking at the subject of the garden with a new-found awareness of the developments underway in painting.

However, the most convincing argument for the power of paint beyond image-making is made by Monet through the famous Water Lily series.  The artist worked on the fringes of his water garden in Giverny between 1914 and his death in 1926. The panoramic canvases, which are his best known of the series, are dependent on their large scale to such an extent that it is difficult to know if they can really be spoken about as being from the same series as the much smaller canvases of the same subject. These larger canvases involve the viewer on such an experiential, physical scale that they no longer seem to be paintings alone. By virtue of our sheer smallness in front of them, we are once again within the image. In the inverse of the way we might imagine ourselves reclining in the dead heat of summer, on a cool flat lawn, when we look at some of the smaller more ‘pictorial’ works in the show, we feel as though one wrong step in front of Monet’s gigantic canvases and we risk tumbling into the lily pond.

Key 87

Claude Monet, Nympheas (Waterlilies), 1914-15
Oil on canvas, 160.7 x 180.3 cm
Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Museum Purchase: Helen Thurston Ayer Fund, 59.16
Photo (c) Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon.


Scale is critical in painting. The decision to blow up the dimensions to a cinematic level changes every aspect of the work. Monet, by expanding the field of his Water Lily canvases, could be seen as pre-empting the experiments of a later period in the history of modern painting. It would be quite a convoluted association to make however, to claim true similarity of intent in the practices of Monet and Rothko for example. I find it more comfortable to suggest that Monet’s larger Water Lily canvases create a more theatrical space; one in which the viewer can no longer hold the painting at a metaphorical arm’s length.

As with Monet’s super-sized canvases, large scale paintings of interiors also force the viewer into an appreciation of the depicted space which necessarily involves their own body. Could the viewer’s space for example be an extension of that of the painting and vice versa? The smaller Water Lily canvases address the subject on a scale which neither reduces its effect to that of illustration; true pictorial space, nor inflates it to a scale where the intellectual richness of the paintwork becomes swamped by visceral physicality involving our own bodies. When limited to the scale of a comfortable arm’s span, the Water Lily series invites many enticing speculations. For example, are these works in fact upside down?  The water occupies the majority of each canvas; but it is the inverted reflection on that water of sky and foliage which constitutes the image which we ultimately register. The lilies themselves are suspended somewhere between water and sky as there is no perspectival reference point except for the slight difference in size between the flowers at the top of the canvas and those at the bottom. The paint itself sometimes disappears near the edges of the canvas; whether or not this was intentional on the artist’s part, the effect is to add to the feeling of zero gravity. These are just some of the questions which these profound paintings raise. Staring into their depths, it is even more remarkable to think that the artist was painting them during a time of upheaval, with the sounds of war audible even in a clear blue sky.
(1) “…The great still oaks and beeches flung down a shade as dense as that of velvet curtains; and the place was furnished, like a room, with cushioned seats, with rich-coloured rugs, with the books and papers that lay upon the grass.” Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady, Penguin Books, London, 2003, pp 60, 61.


Tim Stoner ‘Wisdom of the Crowd’ @ Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London 15 January – 13 February 2016

Tim Stoner, wisdom of the crowd, Modern Art, exhibition view 
Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

Beautiful is perhaps the most non-specific word that could be used to describe a painting. On the same day that I visited Tim Stoner’s current show at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, I overheard at a gallery across town, a gallerist and a buyer in discussion over a tiny painting worth $500K. After the gallerist had announced the price, and the ensuing silence during which it wasn’t clear if everyone was in rapture to the painting or the number, the word beautiful was used to describe the piece. Hardly a $500K word I thought.

Later that day however, beautiful was the very word that kept coming to mind as I stood in front of Tim Stoner’s large canvases (The majority of the works are a satisfying 200cm+ in scale). Part of the problem with the word beautiful is its association with the idea of art as pleasure and a higher form of leisure. And the subject matter of these paintings might not help matters for the viewer who is averse to that which might seem simply easy on the eye. There are street scenes of café terraces in Spain and London, beaches with rudimentary figures that sometimes seem to merge with the landscape, perhaps out of sheer enjoyment. There are domestic interiors infused with light and atmospheric contrast. It’s the kind of subject matter your Gombrich might have referred to as bourgeois; the kind of material Manet so cleverly manipulated. To see these paintings as pure pleasure however would be to miss the point.

The beauty of this work lies in the set of decisions the artist has evidently made to be able to produce the work. Stoner has set his parameters solidly and confidently. Whilst there are fascinating passages of paintwork, which are charged with the energy of split-second decision making, there is little evidence of re-working or significant changes within the paintings. The scale always seems appropriate to the subject. The surfaces are oily enough to warrant really close inspection but far from superficially glossy. The subject matter is resolutely simple in essence, perhaps allowing our interest to more easily access the depths that the paintwork admits us to, should we decide to look deeper.


Tim Stoner, San Pedro, 2015, oil on linen, 240 x 330 cm, 94 1/2 x 129 7/8 ins
Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London 

Georges Bataille spoke of subject matter in Manet’s Olympia as “the mere pretext for the painting itself.” (1) Without straining too hard to see Tim Stoner’s canvases as a theoretical or intellectual planchart, it might all the same be useful to keep this observation in mind when we come to assess the various references, whether explicit or coincidental, that become apparent to us as we walk through the exhibition. For whilst the subject matter of Stoner’s work might be resolutely ‘bourgeois’, and notwithstanding the consolidating effect of the shared large scale of the work, there is evidence of a considerable variety of treatments, approaches, and perhaps even styles from canvas to canvas. ‘San Pedro’, a café terrace scene, presumably in the south of Spain, where the artist is also based, is reminiscent of Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon in its treatment of the figures assembled on the terrace as fractured, iconographic, mannequin-like. They all but disappear into the environment of the café terrace, sharing as they do the graphic hatching and colouration of the background. The entire canvas seems to have been worked from dark to light by a process of masking off and then removing or perhaps scratching into the surface to reveal the light canvas ground. The overall effect is of the largest linocut ever created. And yet, despite the potential weight of such a graphic approach on such a large scale, this is a light piece which the artist has pulled off expertly.

The problems raised in each of the canvases have been dealt with on a case by case basis. Palm trees appear in more than one piece and the treatment varies accordingly. In one they become diagrammatic, more like children’s windmills. Palm fronds become wheels rotating in a warm breeze on top of long gently curving trunks. In another piece, ‘La Playa’, they are blocked in as large flat angular shapes against a rudimentary expanse of sand and sky. The figures in ‘La Playa’ are more comical than in the other canvases. They stand around in an awkward composition of bleached Mediterranean tones which bring to mind the blandness of Picasso’s ‘Fall of Icarus’ mural of 1958. This is perhaps the best treatment for a painfully boring day on the beach.


Tim Stoner, Brockley, 2015, oil on linen, 204 x 244 cm, 80 1/4 x 96 1/8 ins
Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London 

Unless an artist’s work is cleverly choreographed, any sudden jumps in approach or style can be viewed negatively. Even Kurt Schwitters, perhaps one of the first modern multi-disciplinary artists, suffered from the perceived inconsistency of his project. (2) For a painter this can be even more treacherous territory as the medium of paint itself and the decision to use it preclude any option for what one might call a fresh start. As a medium, paint carries so much historical baggage that any unexpected stylistic jumps can easily come across as dilettantism. In Wisdom of the Crowd however there is a consistency of ‘look’ to the show overall. Somehow, the fact that the artist seems to be treating each canvas quite differently doesn’t detract from the effect. Looking at what is arguably the most striking piece in the show, ‘Brockley’, I would suggest that the consistency which runs through the canvases is best demonstrated here, in the undifferentiated treatment of the figures and the background. This can be seen in all the canvases on display but seems most skilfully treated here. In this piece all the elements come together beautifully. These elements are; scale (this piece is somewhat more human in scale than the more monumental ‘San Pedro’), the composition, which utilises the natural picture planes of walls and windows within the interior and which are counterbalanced by the careful arrangement of chairs and table tops, and the colouration, which is almost jarring and unbalanced (bright red, pink and green offsetting the heavy blue in the far corners).  

The figures turn their backs to us as if to discourage us from looking for content; to abandon our search for subject matter. There is something of Matisse in this. This silence of the subject runs heavily through the best paintings by Matisse. This is arguably what raises his work above the level of mere decoration. In ‘Brockley’ Tim Stoner has revivified the classic joy of painting at its best, when the parameters of scale, medium and subject matter have been set and the artist can get on with the task of creating something simultaneously complex and beautiful.


(1). Yves-Alain Bois, Rosalind Krauss, FORMLESS A User’s Guide, Zone Books, New York, NY, 1999, p.14. Yves-Alain Bois is quoting Georges Bataille on the subject of Manet’s ‘Olympia’. The full caption reads: “…Manet tightens the noose around eloquence; reduces painting to silence; erases the text that under-girds it, by taking the subject as “the mere pretext for the painting itself.””

(2). “…many of his (Kurt Schwitters’) contemporaries viewed his work unfavorably, both in terms of the expansiveness of his approach as well as his tendency to situate his work at once outside of and within the incipient norms of the various movements which populated the artistic imagination of post-World War I Europe.” Elizabeth Burns Gamard, Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau The Cathedral of Erotic Misery, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, NY, 2000, p.20.

‘Tightrope Walk: Painted Images After Abstraction’

‘Tightrope Walk: Painted Images After Abstraction’, North & South Galleries, White Cube Bermondsey

25 November 2015 – 24 January 2016

Tightrope Walk Painted Images after Abstraction, White Cube Bermondsey, 25 December 2015 - 24 January 2016 1

Photo © White Cube (George Darrell)

There are many reasons to put on a group show. It could be to draw attention to a common style, to address a unifying theme, or perhaps the artists, if they are peers, feel a straightforward connection, so why not show together? For new art school graduates there can be strength in numbers. If the show is curated, there may be a conceptual brief. In the latter case however the artists would typically produce work with the concept in mind. Tightrope Walk; Painted Images after Abstraction, is one of those rarer breeds of group show where the individual contributors necessarily play second fiddle to the concept. Barry Schwabsky and White Cube have assembled a concept exhibition featuring some big hitters in painting; both alive and dead. I say featuring, in the knowledge that this word could be misleading. Nobody really features in this show. In fact, to discuss the individual merits of this or that painting in the show would seem to me to be like asking what breed Schrödinger’s cat was. Notwithstanding the fact that I am a huge fan of the paintwork of Picasso, Katz, Tal R and Morandi, amongst other artists in the show, it is hard to imagine an exhibition in which solidly impressive works by these artists seem almost hard to find; such is the homogenising power of the concept behind the show and the way it has been hung.

And that concept is about as big as they get.  The press release speaks of an effort to “…illuminate how the act of making a representational painting became redefined over the past century, following the emergence of abstraction as a competing proposition.” A sizeable selection of “representational painting” has been gathered and hung in such a way that it frustrates (perhaps intentionally) any attempt at comparison between individual works, and also discourages the viewer’s natural instinct to categorise the works according to any hierarchy based on quality, painterly virtuosity, renown or notoriety of the artist, or even based on unmediated visual pleasure. It is difficult to simply sit back and enjoy the painting. And why should we expect to? Clement Greenberg lamented the “laziness” of the public when confronted with what he called “advanced” art and “difficult” artists. (1) In this case it would seem to represent a missed opportunity as much as laziness not to address the concept of the show but to just sit back and admire the paintwork.

Tightrope Walk Painted Images after Abstraction, White Cube Bermondsey, 25 December 2015 - 24 January 2016 3

Photo © White Cube (George Darrell)


The tightrope of the show’s title is taken from a quote by the painter Francis Bacon. As a metaphor it suggests the potential for artwork to fall definitively into one of two distinct territories; representation or abstraction. It also implies a narrow space which is almost uninhabitable; at the very least a space in which it requires the greatest level of skill and concentration to remain. Let’s not squeeze Bacon’s observation too tightly however. He was speaking about his own work very specifically and as an image with which we might seek to represent the central concept of this show, it tells us about as much as a ringtone does about the caller. By announcing its concerns to be abstraction and representation the show raises several interesting questions. If there is a space between abstraction and representation, was it always there just waiting to be noticed? If representation and abstraction are indeed two distinct territories, has the latter wrested territory from the former, and if so, is that territory lost forever to abstraction. Is abstraction an improvement on representation? And perhaps most difficult of all; what do we mean by abstraction?

By way of example, with regard to difficulty, let’s take a brief look at just one assessment of the theoretical minefield that is the territory of abstraction. Andrew Benjamin discusses abstraction via Clement Greenberg, who was averse to lyrical obfuscation when it came to interpreting artworks. As Benjamin notes, Greenberg’s reading of abstraction, albeit mainly limited to Abstract Expressionism, took as its starting point this type of painting’s immediacy to the viewer. The question of temporality was critical to Greenberg’s opinion of what constitutes an abstract painting. “The time of viewing is linked to the object maintaining and thus containing a single temporality, a temporality that would be united in the act of sheer presentation.” (2)  In other words, we no longer have to spend time, even seconds, chasing a narrative or a reference to something external to the painting itself. According to Benjamin, for the viewer “The interpretive consequence…is that there is no need to interpret painting from within the framework of representation.” (3) The point of this kind of abstract painting is “…the object’s own work.” (4) Greenberg focused on the evidence of the medium in front of the viewer. By this measure, when we look at an abstract painting we are looking solely at the object that is there in front of us, an object freed “…from the necessity of having to be the negation of representation.” (5) So abstraction is not just the opposite of representation. It has something to say in its own right, which doesn’t depend on comparisons to representational art for legitimacy. Or does it?

Tightrope Walk Painted Images after Abstraction, White Cube Bermondsey, 25 December 2015 - 24 January 2016 2

Photo © White Cube (George Darrell)

It is easy to see some of the difficulties inherent in abstract art when we look back over the Twentieth Century and the claims that have attached themselves to it in all its forms. It’s hard to love something that turn’s its back to us. Writing about Robert Ryman’s painting Yves Alain Bois speaks of “…ineffable silence.” (6) This apparent silence has meant that throughout the Twentieth Century abstract art has been used in the service of a great many movements, ideologies and social experiments. Its malleability as mute, immediate form has allowed it to be taken up time and again in different contexts. At times the vocabulary employed has verged on the hysterical or the religious. Its apparent refusal to articulate a recognisable narrative has led to the idea that abstraction either has nothing to say or that it is saying all things at once, depending on our reading of it. The liberation of painted forms from “…extrinsic conventions…” of narrative, description and depiction meant that “…abstract painting…(could)…tell the final truth and thereby terminate its course.” (7) Without the “extrinsic conventions” of representational painting, abstract art it seems will necessarily make itself redundant. This redundancy has been re-enacted time and time again since the early Twentieth Century.

Despite the efforts of critics such as Greenberg to attribute a voice to abstraction, it remains difficult to talk about abstract painting in terms of the object in and of itself. We are constantly drawn back to the language of representation, if only to draw distinctions between the two. Representation it seems can be spoken of without referring to abstraction, but not the other way around. The language employed to put shape on abstraction so often reverts to the familiar vocabulary of representation. For Bois, Rymans paintings “…(cut) short any attempt at associative readings…” (8) These are works which “…suggest their own commentary,..define their own discursive terrain…” (9) I tend to believe that some of the best work being produced today which could be called abstract, admits more than a token amount of commentary. By this I mean that it looks abstract but often makes reference to recognisable sources, and in fact embraces “associative readings.” Patricia Treib would be one example.

Tightrope Walk Painted Images after Abstraction, White Cube Bermondsey, 25 December 2015 - 24 January 2016 5

Photo © White Cube (George Darrell)

It could be seen as anachronistic to put on a show nowadays based on such a binary division as the one between representation and abstraction. For quite some time now the general assumption has been that we have moved on from seeing painting as either one or the other exclusively. I was surprised to see so much work which was determinedly representational and so little that really seemed to be consciously trying to operate within the narrow space between the representational and the abstract. Of all the work in the show I would wager that many of the artists had decided to retreat altogether from any debate about the space between the two territories. Again I was struck by the feeling that so much of the work on display was being mobilised to help illustrate a concept which is far more complex than the evidence of these paintings on their own could do justice to. Given the central idea behind the show; to assemble representational painting which has been made “in cognisance of abstraction”, I wonder whether a more homogenous grouping of artists would have made for a more coherent argument.


  • Clement Greenberg: Hans Hofmann,(1961) essay: Paris: Editions Georges Fall, 1961
  • Andrew Benjamin. 1996. What is Abstraction? London: Academy Editions.
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.
  • Yves-Alain Bois. 1993. Painting as Model. Massachusetts: MIT Press.
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.




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