Tomma Abts @ greengrassi, London, April 28 – June 18, 2016.

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Installation view, Tomma Abts, Greengrassi, London, 2016.

Photo: Marcus Leith. Courtesy of greengrassi, London.

Painters tend to approach the work of other painters in a matter of fact way. When they walk around a show they might go straight to the side of a canvas to scrutinize how the artist dealt with the edges, or perhaps contort themselves into unnatural positions to verify whether the surface reflects the gallery spotlights, or instead resists their potentially cheapening glare. More often than not, painters will point to the craft of a painting, how it was put together, rather than what it is trying to say or how it makes them feel. It’s a bit like the art world version of kicking the tyres at a car show.

With Tomma Abts’ work one could talk about craft, and how the paintings were produced, for longer than most people might listen, before ever getting around to subjective responses. There is so much to discuss regarding the physicality of Abts’ work, despite the fact that in reproduction it comes across as unremittingly graphic. This work has to be seen in the flesh, as it is only when the viewer is face to face with it that it truly discloses.

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Lya, 2015
acrylic & oil on canvas
48 x 38 cm (18 7/8″ x 14 1/2″)

Photo: Marcus Leith. Courtesy of greengrassi, London.

For some reason, whenever I think of Tomma Abts’ work I get the sensation that I am looking at work which is minimal. Perhaps it is the cumulative effect of so many sharp edges, and the general predominance of a single colour in more or less each painting, and the overall equivalence of tone within canvases that have several colours, that leaves the single abiding sensation of having seen something exceptionally understated. This is not the case however. There is a great amount of general activity going on in each of these paintings. Up close, there is a rawness to the masked out edges of straight lines, which betrays the handmade reality of these paintings. There is relative discord too in the colour schemes; no more so than in the piece entitled ‘Oeje’. Then there is the support itself; a slight plumpness in the folds of the canvas around the corners of the stretcher interrupts what, from a distance, looked more like a machine cut panel. This added level of physicality becomes even more apparent on such small canvases than it would on much larger ones, and might threaten to become an irksome feature in itself were it something that the artist had simply overlooked. But it is inconceivable of course that Abts had not considered the consequences of using a material of such thickness. It is the evidence of the handmade that arguably makes this work even more interesting than reproduction might suggest. Continue reading “Tomma Abts @ greengrassi, London, April 28 – June 18, 2016.”

Erika Verzutti @ Alison Jacques

Erika Verzutti at Alison Jacques London from Oct 13 to Dec 17, 2015

MAIN GALLERY 8

© Erika Verzutti
Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London

Erika Verzutti has found a way around some of the difficulties any self-aware painter might find themselves dealing with when they come to question what they do. This is all the more notable given that Verzutti’s work is not strictly painting at all, and the fact that her work which preceded the type we see in her show “Two Eyes Two Mouths” at Alison Jacques, London, is more recognisable as sculpture. The works are relatively shallow, square or rectangular wall-mounted panels made of cast and painted bronze. Yet despite the fact that they reveal themselves to be bronzes, they have lightness and range which defies the homogenising effect of bronze. In a very painterly way these works deal with questions of surface, depth, scale, finish, and colour.
Verzutti speaks of the moment she lifted her sculptural works off the ground and hung them on the wall as resulting in making “…a sculpture of a painting” (1), and they do look very much like paintings at first appearance. In carrying out this apparently casual relocation from floor to wall she might appear to be diminishing the efforts of the kind of painter who agonises over the weave of a canvas, the depth of a stretcher, the mattness of a finish or the hardness of an edge; painters to whom this show is beautifully infuriating.
Of course the decision to relocate the sculptural object within the traditional context of the painted canvas both is and isn’t as simple as it sounds. The inverse action carried out by Pollock in the 1940s in taking painting off the wall has generated so much accumulated theorising over the intervening decades that the work itself can often seem to disappear under the sheer weight of commentators’ discussion about it. Nowadays, when an artist choreographs a shift of context for their work, it will inevitably be seen as having intent, as being a knowing gesture. Verzutti however, speaks about this moment as a discovered one. Of the process of lifting her sculpture off the ground, she says “It felt like I was doing something inappropriate” (2). While this is a credible image; of the artist playing around in the studio and making chance discoveries in the process, it is impossible to believe that she is not scrutinising every subsequent decision she makes with her work. The movement from floor-bound to wall-bound, whether a chance occurrence or not, is a transition in which the artist has spotted vast potential. The inappropriacy that Verzutti felt, as she reinvented her sculpture as painting tells us that she is more than aware of the weight of history in the field of painting. The word inappropriate implies a trauma around the practice of painting, which may be a result of endless theorising on the end of this medium. Could the artist be feeling self conscious about taking the retrograde step of hanging a sculpture on a wall, and by doing so, cutting off so many hard won possibilities? Of course that debate has also run out of steam and artists in general now feel comfortable cherry-picking from a vast archive of movements, styles and forms. Looking at the way Verzutti manipulates the vocabulary of painting, it is far more likely that her feeling of inappropriacy came from a slight sense of guilt at having stumbled upon something that successfully addresses so many issues in painting with such ease.

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Bikini, 2015
Bronze and acrylic
61 x 40 x 9 cm
24 1/8 x 15 3/4 x 3 1/2 ins

© Erika Verzutti
Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London
Informed audiences have become used to multiplicity, cross-referencing, re-readings, reinterpretations, to such an extent that a certain amount of complexity is presupposed in the work of many artists. This complexity need not necessarily be immediately apparent in the work itself; a fact which allows for the artist to have quite a lot of fun making it. So much great work being produced today looks relaxed and effortless and very much like it was enjoyable to make. Verzutti’s works are playful, almost comical looking at times. The artist refers to the way some of the pieces began to look like crude makeup sets, with variously shaped indentations filled with colour. One of them resembled a Flintstones’ makeup set, according to Verzutti. Another looked like an abstract painting. So far, so whimsical. The decision to cast the work in bronze however, means that all the casual experiments of the studio, the meandering references to whatever comes to mind, the unsophisticated rendering, and the playful irreverence to the ghost of painting past, have been reconciled as equal in a medium which was intended to remain above the chaos of shifting tastes and interpretations. If bronze is a memorialising medium, then it can be no accident that the apparently spontaneous decision to raise sculpture off the ground and into the traditional space of painting has been delivered to the viewer in this most permanent of materials.
With regard to painting, the work in this show operates simultaneously from two fertile positions. It involves on the one hand an acknowledgement of the threshold of what defines a painting; even today when so much critical analysis would suggest that this discussion is outdated. On the other hand it shows disregard for any of those definitions that one might care to mention, of what a painting should be . As paintings we could speak about their generally rectangular shape, the relatively shallow box mimicking the stretched canvas, the exaggerated impasto effect created by the impressions of the artists’ fingers, which have been captured in the final bronze, and the fact that dull acrylic paint has been added in places to imply a horizon here or to create a highlight there. But why press the issue of what these works are, of whether they are painting or sculpture? Well as we have heard, Verzutti herself has commented on the significance of the moment when she re-situated her work from the floor to the wall. Of her earlier work she has spoken of having “…a favourite angle for every sculpture”. It would seem that her view of sculpture was already leaning towards the two dimensional, if not exactly the pictorial. With this in mind, it would seem to be a logical next step to transfer the work to the wall. Primed to accept the works as painting, they now look somewhat like they have been carefully excavated from a larger plaster frieze in some alien Pompeii. They look like fragments of something pictorial. But at what stage then did they become painting? Was there any significant adjustment made in order to make a sculpture a painting besides hanging it on the wall? Not likely. It is more credible to see these pieces as having developed into paintings well before they were hung.
If we try to forget what we know about the artist’s development of these works from sculpture, our impulse to see them as a series of pictorial reliefs is both encouraged and disrupted as we approach each piece individually. There are occasional pictorial suggestions; ‘Van Gogh with Eggs’ is an appropriately berserk rendering of blue sky and yellow cornfield, both of which meet unceremoniously to create a horizon in the middle of the cast bronze. Another piece, entitled ‘Bikini’, is a confidently executed anthropomorphic abstraction. We can imagine the artist pausing momentarily as she works the dumb clay and spotting the opportunity for a beautiful one-liner by creating the eponymous motif with no more than four marks. To call something a one-liner could in the context of a lot of other artists’ work be considered a criticism. The consistency of the work with regard to its scale, treatment and choice of medium act as homogenising factors on the series. The disruption of the pictorial impulse as we walk around the show however makes us continually question whether we are looking at painting or sculpture. Within the squares and rectangles on display our eyes constantly adjust to accommodate what we imagine is beyond the edges of the work. Some of the pieces have a horizon and contain all the ‘pictorial’ information we need, others have one single motif, as in the piece entitled ‘Black Sun’, and some appear to be details of figures or landscapes, which we find ourselves standing back from in order to take in the space around the panel. If we were to approach this work as painting in the first instance, we would find ourselves coming around to sculpture again and again.
The playfulness of this work is intoxicating. A diptych entitled ‘The Dress’ uses the surprisingly golden tone of the bronze to riff off a recent puzzle in popular media about perception of colours as we believe we can see them. It’s a story that will be forgotten quickly, but nonetheless, it was one of the rare instances of genuine curiosity about perception infiltrating popular culture. As such, the question of whether the dress is blue or whether it is black will continue to have wider implications for as long as we continue to make objects to look at.

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Van Gogh with Eggs, 2015
Bronze and acrylic
52 x 46 x 9 cm
20 1/2 x 18 1/8 x 3 1/2 ins

© Erika Verzutti
Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London
If Verzutti were not so adept at using the vocabulary of both painting and sculpture, the question of which category these works fall into might not be as persistent as it is. The pictorial is suggested but it never materialises fully. It remains as a sort of shorthand. Marks imply things which the titles reinforce. The artist is playing with our desire to pictorialize and perhaps hers too. Thankfully they never deliver on this and the images that we sense are about to emerge end up being withheld. It may be their debt to the sculptural which gives these works their licence to play so fast and loose with the pictorial. If these works were paint on canvas, we might not spend so long with them. Their rudimentary forms and rough textures and edges might not be nearly as rewarding had Verzutti not chosen to cast them in bronze. This decision, and the restraint with which she has painted them, work to consolidate all the wit and playfulness the artist has brought to the work.

(1) Taken from a video interview with Erika Verzutti on Guggenheim UBS Map. Artist Profile: Bronze, Clay and Paint.
(2) Ibid.