DAVID RYAN CONSIDERS THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN NEW YORK ABSTRACTION AND ITS BRITISH COUNTERPART
SEEMINGLY by coincidence, a number of events have recently revived the contemporary debate regarding painting’s relationship to abstraction and reflexivity. Last autumn saw a conference entitled ‘Abstraction and the Everyday’, organised by Alex Coles at Tate Modern. At the same time, Peter Halley (an artist and commentator who has long been dealing with these questions) had a solo exhibition at London’s Waddington Galleries, the most comprehensive showing of his work in this country to date. And in the last few months London has played host to exhibitions of work by younger American-based abstract artists such as James Hyde and Matthew Ritchie.
Most recently, concurrent shows in London and Salzburg have provided a further opportunity for fuelling this debate. Vivid at Richard Salmon Gallery, London, featured both British and American artists, including Dona Nelson, Dennis Hollingsworth, Joan Key, Jonathan Feldschuh and Diana Cooper. Meanwhile, at the Academia and Mario Mauroner galleries in Salzburg, Concepts of Images brought together work by mid-career artists from, or based in, New York, including Peter Halley, Jonathan Lasker, Jessica Stockholder, Juan Usle and Christopher Wool. Admittedly, Concepts of Images was planned before the tragedy of September 11. As a result the works featured were from European
galleries and collections, and not a single painting originally chosen during studio visits in New York actually made it to the hanging.
Nevertheless, both Vivid and Concepts of Images suggest that contemporary abstract art is re-examining certain classic thematics of modernism, revisiting not only the lessons but also the tensions of the early 1970s. These largely consist of colour field painting on the one hand, and minimalist and post-minimalist art on the other.
It is tempting, but perhaps dangerous, to categorise these concerns along geographical lines. On the surface at least, it is those Americans featured in Concepts of Images who have distanced themselves most radically from the tenets of modernist abstraction, while the British artists seem to have looked more to minimalism and post-minimalism in order to ‘toughen’ themselves up.
Of the artists in Vivid, Torie Begg, Clem Crosby, and – though less ‘purist’ – Michael Stubbs and Martyn Simpson, operate in this latter area, combining task-like activities, where a ‘mirage’ of discourse hovers close to the surface, with an overt sense of materiality in the manufacture of the physical object. These two poles remain the dominant dialectic, however diverse the practice, and serve as a reminder of abstraction’s original search for technique within the material and its general search for meaning beyond itself. These ideas of matter/form/meaning can be seen in a Heideggerian sense, with each intermeshing to create the work’s sense of ‘world’.
Many of the works in Vivid presented the feeling of arrival at a particular technique, where the manipulation of the material in the final image is both clearly visible and equally clearly retrievable as process. Both Crosby and Begg ‘spell out’ the temporal and manipulative moves in such a way that simply ‘reading’ the final image cannot fulfil; one has to engage almost physically.
Crosby uses very specific grounds, consisting generally of a mechanically smooth, laminated surface. This provides the foil to his broad, sensuous approach to gesture. By throwing the deliberately hand-made into the mix, Crosby re-asserts the difficulties of contemplating the simplest of manufacturing means: the brushstroke. Within modernism, a tension between the mechanised and the hand-made has existed at least since the appearance of the first neo-impressionist painters, and Crosby’s relation of mark to ground amplifies this dialogue. The Next 10 Minutes (2001) presents a series of oversized, robust gestures hovering upon the buttery surface. Crosby occasionally allows a strong residual romanticism, a Turneresque overtone, to permeate what can more readily be seen as a purely deadpan and objective procedure. In emphasising the facture or ‘making’ element, he refuses any tendency toward the ‘plastic inevitable’, a term used recently by Jonathan Lasker to describe the post-Warholian emphasis on artificiality and mechanical process. But while Lasker seems to castigate the mechanical as a dead end, he also acknowledges the degree to which it has underpinned the resurgent emphasis on the ‘how’ of painting in recent years. Michael Stubbs’ elegant and beautifully made paintings using tinted varnish, eggshell paint and other materials, certainly address this issue. In these works there is, because of the meticulousness of their design, a perverse re-staging of the notion of craft. Technical resources in these paintings are at the service of a razor-sharp clarity and, paradoxically, a viscous liquidity, both held together in a precarious balancing act.
This dialectic between quasi-technology and the hand- crafted permeated Vivid in a subtle, almost unconscious way. Jonathan Feldschuh’s paintings seemingly encase gestures and trails of paint, creating a surface which distances the original mark-making from the viewer. Dennis Hollingsworth allows himself a direct luscious play with oil paint – unusual for his generation – which becomes almost overdetermined and congeals into an image that ultimately might have more in common with cartography than abstract expressionism.
Another anomaly in this context is the brilliant, but as ever understated, Tom Nozkowski. Despite the self-imposed constraints in terms of limited format – most of his images are on 16 x 20 canvas boards – there is constant invention. Forms interlock and wreathe around each other, rather like pictorial depictions of absurd formalist sculptures in landscapes. Nozkowski does not flinch from revealing a process of layering which records the arrival of these quirky forms in an intensely plastic way – full of pentimenti and abrupt changes of mind.
It is not a huge step to move from the hand-made within the physical limitations of the canvas to the hand-made which questions the boundaries of painting. Martyn Simpson’s Straight Lines (2001) consists of carefully painted alternate flat areas of gloss paint around the pattern of laminated chips of sterling board, the result having some connection to the fractured brush marks of a post-Cubist nature. These boards are then installed leaning against the wall. It is Simpson’s sense of architecture, here, which makes these pieces work as interventions within the space.
Their relationship, in this context, to doorways and archways, entrances and exits, lent them a confrontational air, a sense of being displaced.
Joan Key’s Shelf Paintings function in a similar, though more subtle way. Key is interested in almost fugitive images, and the shelf paintings pursue this in a further direction. Hers is an interesting solution to thinking of paintings as objects, as the works are placed together so as to conceal part of the imagery. Stacked on shelves, the usual sense of ‘presentation’ is undermined, leaving these works in that limbo state of seemingly waiting to be hung and seen.
Finally, Diana Cooper’s installation The Dispenser (1999-2001) evokes a different kind of notion of craft. It is rather as if Blue Peter had commissioned Heath Robinson to produce a machine which created genetically modified cotton wool balls, all put together with sticky-backed plastic, card, and, of course, pipe cleaners. Cooper’s aesthetic lies somewhere between outsider art, an unwieldy school project, and an elaborate doodle realised architecturally. It plays with scale and causality, together with notions of both ‘model’ and. the processes of machinery..
These formal concerns regarding the flatness of the picture plane were also present in the New York-based abstraction featured in Concepts of Images, most notably in Lydia Dona’s painting. Dona’s position is complex in that it takes the process of painting apart, continually retranslating the various stages of the activity as conceptual markers and building up an ever-expanding framework of references, such as machine imagery, lipstick colour, deconstructionist architecture and biological fields. These paintings are not what they seem; they reconvene a disjunctive relationship between the viewer and what a painting might ‘hold’. They demand to be installed sympathetically – ideally as an installation – otherwise they appear constrained by their own boundaries, becoming too pictorial, as was the case in Salzburg.
Many of the artists presented in Concepts of Images use previously ‘autonomous’ forms in order to unlock narratives, even if such narratives are, in themselves, self- reflexive. Peter Halley is the most literal example of this. In attempting to purge geometry of its ‘muteness’, and in freeing-up formal qualities and their potential ‘stones’, he develops a site for a discursive model that has its roots in post-structuralism. Halley raises interesting problems – interesting in the sense that he points clearly to the way that existing forms can be ‘colonised’ discursively in diverse ways – although these remain unresolved, as the linguistic model which ‘explains’ the work becomes caught up in its own static referencing.
Juan Usle’s paintings allude more purely to the history of abstraction, but in the larger canvases could also be seen to represent a strange notational space: marks that become signs for pathways, or routes travelled, taking on an almost aboriginal symbolisation.
Jessica Stockholder was shown at her best here, her installation comprising a long serpentine gesture of found objects and light. However, there was no David Reed or Polly Apfelbaum, both of whom had been announced for the show, while Shirley Kaneda was, for several unfortunate reasons, represented by only one small canvas, though still managing to signal her admirable continuing re-evaluation of form and method.
Being so estranged from its original concept, it was difficult to judge this show. Unlike Vivid, the lesser-known artists didn’t hold their own here: Steven Parrino’s play with the objecthood of paint, canvas and wood looked as if it belonged in 1950s Italy, while Carl Ostendarp’s goofy minimal imagery felt flatter than flat. These exceptions apart, however, most of the paintings in Concepts of images had a virtuosity to them, which suggested a link to the jazz festival taking place in Salzburg at the same time.
Abstract paintings and jazz? This too might align the exhibition with another era. Thinking about the theme of the festival – jazz from New York – it struck me that there might be some common contemporary problems here, linked to the issue of virtuosity. Traditionally, jazz is the product of the city, as Mondrian’s late paintings attest. Peter Halley’s recent comments also locate his work within this tradition: ‘I’ve now realised what I’ve been doing all these years as a New York painter without really thinking about it: responding to the wonder of this city – its cacophonous energy, its shimmering sense of social reality.’ Moreover, at the Tate Modern conference, ex-Blues musician-turned-art critic Dave Hickey also made some allusions to the status of abstract painting and the marginalisation of jazz.
Having sampled some of the New York jazz on offer at the festival, however, my impression was of stagnation: watching young New York musicians stuffed into evening suits and churning out 1950s style entertainment to the apparent delight of the audience was disturbing to say the least. The music was beautifully played but dead, and this is also the current concern with abstraction. With all the dangers of becoming embedded in a craft or reified process, is abstraction anything more than a technical exercise that has become distracted by its own repetitive production of familiar images? Perhaps both painting and jazz could do with more of what John Cage called ‘spiritual virtuosity’: not mystical mumbo jumbo, but a condition where the stakes are raised so high that any physical sense of technique, facility or craft has to be completely overhauled and deconstructed.
CONCEPTS OF IMAGES was at Galerie Academia and Galerie Mario Mauroner, Salzburg, 10 November 2001 – 2.5 January 2002.
PETER HALLEY was at Waddington Galleries, London, 24 October – 1 7 November 2001.
VIVID was at Richard Salmon Gallery, London, 24 October 2001 – 26 January 2002.
DAVID RYAN IS A PAINTER AND LECTURER. HIS BOOK TALKING PAINTING: INTERVIEWS WITH 1 2 ABSTRACT ARTISTS HAS JUST BEEN PUBLISHED BY ROUTLEDGE.