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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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’, North & South Galleries, White Cube Bermondsey
25 November 2015 – 24 January 2016
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.
Photo © White Cube (George Darrell)
A COMPETING PROPOSITION
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?
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.
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.