Tribe: New & recent collages by John Bunker was at Westminster Reference Library, 35 St Martin’s Street, London; now closed.
John Hoyland: Power Stations At Newport Street Gallery, Newport Street, London until 3rd April 2016.
[This is the third article on Abcrit with views on the Hoyland show – see also #19 and #26. for other opinions and more illustrations]
Choosing to visit two exhibitions on the same day should always be considered with care, for one might critically overshadow the other. If you are fortunate the two will complement, or resonate with one another in some way. So, having spent the morning looking at the predominantly cinematic John Hoyland canvases in the inaugural ‘Power Stations’ exhibition at Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery (NSG), an afternoon session viewing John Bunker’s comparatively small collages at the Westminster Reference Library was a suitable combination and, by good chance, seen in the right order.
After the impressive, no-expense-spared, attraction of the curatorially upmarket Newport Street location (just a 15 minute walk from Tate Britain), the unassuming public library, almost surreptitiously skulking down a side street, but only a stone’s throw from the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, provided a haven of quiet consideration amongst the all-pervading commercial enterprises of central London. This scholarly location encouraged silent contemplation.
In a small but adequate space, eight of Bunker’s recent collages were arranged in linear fashion, encouraging the viewer to step up to each one to inspect the various elements. Something like double-portrait sized and displayed at head height, all but one of the collages were nailed to the wall – the odd one out was framed and a little superfluous. These islands of matter floating, though fixed, presented unassuming stuff from the urban world and, by association with the process of collage, the studio floor.
The collages were intimate, despite the attention of the spotlights, and fell silent in appropriate surroundings; whereas the high ceilinged, well-lit chambers, of Damian’s gaff in Newport Street created an uplifting sense of awe that could have elicited cries of “wow” from visitors. Not that a comparison between Hoyland’s paintings and Bunker’s collages is crucially relevant, or even fair, but the range of sizes and the visual impact of imagery in these works, posed questions of audience experience of the exhibition as spectacle – which can create a fulfilling encounter, large or small as the show might be.
Certainly, the aptly titled ‘Power Stations’ display would have impacted on the viewer for the sheer physical size of many of the canvases. And also, with an emphasis on visually explicit colour subject matter, and a celebratory exposition of the act of painting, the compelling experience of offering examples of a range of tour-de-force performances from the studio (a Rachmaninoff piano concerto perhaps – though with Hoyland there’s a New York city jazz twist) may not be too fanciful. It depends on the viewer’s preferences for painting, and music, I dare say.
Temperamentally, Hoyland was always an ‘action’ painter of sorts, at times not unrelated in fervour to Jackson Pollock; but in nature (I want to say organically, but not sound naff) more European, like one of his esteemed seniors, Hans Hofmann. The show also provided a pointer to the hard-to-imagine optimism of the 1960s which young and middling generations of artists today might find disconcerting. A sub-theme might also reference the changed cultural and media specific, fine art contexts from which the work was produced as the show is experienced now, in 2016.
On the subject of size, it should be noted that the dimensions of 28.10.65 (1965) by Hoyland (approximately 2.3X4.6m / HxW) is a little more than 10 metres square: translated into floor space this would provide a small studio in London right now – where prices are making both studio and gallery rental challenging. Is this comparison arbitrary? Not in the sense that available spaces, and materials, have always partly affected the possibilities and limits of what artists produce and, if London is to remain a centre of the international art community, there could be trouble ahead. Apparently, John Bunker’s studio in east London is twice the size of a Big Hoyland painting – a sobering thought.
But I digress.
Hoyland’s works, in Hirst’s 1964-1982 collection presented at the NSG, represented three distinct phases from the very early, post-figuration years of Hoyland’s career. Power Stations confirms Hoyland’s boundary-pushing attitude to embracing change and development in the history of modernist/abstract painting on a very personal level. Hoyland’s painterly, ‘expressionistically’ inclined, version of colour/shape abstraction steered clear of the sometimes aloof, emotionally reserved, minimalist aesthetic embraced by, say, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly or Kenneth Noland. The inherent, expressive, visual, physically challenging characteristics, “dependent upon the act of looking”, to quote Andrew Lambirth of The Spectator, placed Hoyland in the European wing of abstraction, despite his career-enhancing links to the New York avant garde.
But Hoyland was never obliged to be non-European. He indisputably straddles both a European and a North American, transatlantic, fusion of interests in developing the scope and subject of painting. The ‘classic’ Hoyland’s of the mid to late ‘60s present a commitment to colour-shape monumentalism, although this super-sized intimacy, generally constructed from a few rectangular shapes, or colour-fields, of greys, reds, oranges, blues and greens, could be imagined as the achievements of a Giorgio Morandi on LSD, taking colour on a trip and expanding canvas sizes to almost literal, mind-blowing proportions.
Hoyland was truly ‘out there’, unafraid to push his engagement with the visual and psychological experience of colour. He was untainted by any additional figurative referencing – despite possible representationalist readings of doorways, skyscrapers, monoliths, perspectival planes, cosmic portals or other associations generated by the viewer (not the paintings). Attempting to define abstract imagery for anything other than what we are actually experiencing in front of our eyes is understandable – but worth avoiding.
In spite of needing to stand well back to view these paintings: e.g. 12.6.66  is approximately 2.6×3.6 metres; 28.6.67 (1967) is 3 metres in height and 9.11.68  is over 3.6metres wide – to fit the whole of these compositions into your field of vision, you also have the contrary option to get up close to experience the colour, the shapes, and the very physical, almost haptic, presence of visual space. (A quality echoed later at the Bunker exhibition.) But this is not a didactic quality of the works – it’s more of an invitation to experience something quite straightforward, and raw. Indeed, to coin a phrase from Stella, “what you see is what you see”.
Coincidentally, the American art critic Barry Schwabsky references Morandi’s still life paintings in relation to the “pale tones of earth and flesh” (in the ‘Out of The Trap’ essay in the ‘Power Stations’ catalogue) from Hoyland’s next series on display (from 1970/71). These may have been the more challenging paintings to take on board if, as is generally the case, strongly hued colours are often expected in non-figurative painting (a misnomer, of course). In the nine canvases displayed, the pastel and tertiary mixes of colour, enlivened by controlled, expressionistic splashes might be interpreted as manifestations of an exceptionally brave move away from the colour palette that Hoyland typically used in the preceding stage of his career. Perhaps being away, albeit intermittently, from New York and London at his Market Lavington Wiltshire retreat influenced his decision to add so much white? In this chalk downland landscape, not far from Neolithic Stonehenge and the Avebury stone circle, it is conceivable that Hoyland unconsciously absorbed a naturalistic palette mediated by the external environment. A heresy to some back on the East Coast, where the sublime was to be found on the canvas, and not in nature anymore.
By some oblique association, I was reminded of Tuscan architectural colours in Hoyland’s canvases from this intermezzo period: namely, the chalky, coloured stucco walls in representations of those stage-like props of interiors and exteriors in 13th and 14th century Italian painting. Duccio’s ‘Maestà Predella’ panels in the NG are a prime example. In such works there is an aura of simplicity in constructing layers, segments or passages of visual space on a two-dimensional surface, which is not quite yet subjugated by the doctrine of clever perspectival systems and sophisticated illusionism. But I digress, again.
At some point an artist will simply experience a need for change. Was there a struggle with personal doubt in the loneliness of the studio? Or was Hoyland extending his boundaries, vigorously challenging where his painting could go next? There is always a sense of optimism in his work, despite the risk of being denounced as being reactionary, or nature-inspired, about what was developing from a body of work, still unfettered by figurative imagery. Whatever the circumstances, Hoyland’s paint application loosens up. He becomes more gestural and splashy, but retains a strong flavour of his own developing visual language in which there would always be a Hoylandesque characteristic present, who or whatever was influencing him.
In the third and final stage of the show (1978 to 1982) Hirst presents eleven of Hoyland’s canvases that are now identified with a named title, in addition to the dating system he had been using for many years. ‘Longspeak 18.4.79’ , still quite large at a little over 2.4×2.1 metres, like other works from the 1970s and ‘80s, appears to connect with Patrick Heron’s ever-developing achievements for abstraction in painting, as much as Hofmann’s example clearly reveals itself for both of these painters.
Replete with more pronounced diagonal content than before, Hoyland’s project now emphasizes flatness and abstract pictorial space even more expertly. Interestingly, Bunker, who is actively interested in Hoyland as, for example, he has commented at length about the ‘Power Stations’ show and his contribution to British abstract painting for ABCRIT, is critical of this period of Hoyland’s output, characterising it as a “burn out”, and is distracted by his “old Marxist teachers”. My advice here would be, trust your own eyes, and not someone else’s theories or political agenda.
Though admittedly, in the wider context, both political and cultural (let’s blame the Conceptualists, the Punks, Reaganites, Thatcherites, Critical Theorists, the Higher Education system, the new wave of curators espousing the ‘new media’ of film and video, the Arts Council with their new-fangled ‘inclusive’ policies, ‘bureaucratisation’, futuristic agendas, other publically funded organisations anywhere and everywhere, the zeitgeist, Uncle Tom Cobley…) art is never produced in a vacuum. But Hoyland did go on to make loads more vital work that is not represented in Hirst’s collection as it ends as the dominion of the YBA’s was on the horizon. But I digress into territory beyond the scope of this article.
John Bunker is a guest speaker at the Chelsea College of Arts (UAL) symposium – Colour, Emotion, Non-Figuration: John Hoyland Revisited (March 2016), where “The day will explore Hoyland’s art and times, while opening his painting up to new perspectives and the peculiar pressures of the ‘expanded field’ in which art now operates.”
This expanded field for many painters has taken them into sculpture, often with an installation vibe. If this ‘pressure’ still persists in questioning the relevance of painting today then, indeed, Hoyland might be a standard bearer for the ongoing interest in painting. Before Hoyland died in 2011 the ‘new media’ had started its transformation (more of a segue) into the digital realm, and subsequently, towards the post-Internet era that appropriates and references the phenomenon of the digital for the sake of modernity.
But that pesky painting and a ‘back to materials’ approach are not so unfashionable after all. For many young (ish), would-be-painters, it’s a form of ‘painterly-objecthood’ that the likes of Lydia Gifford, Helen Marten, Laura Owens; or Fiona Rae, Katharina Grosse and Pia Fries, (the latter, painters that appear to see paint as overtly medium-specific), espouse in their work. And that’s just the girl-band. There you go lad, digressing again.
An aspect I found refreshing in this small exposé of Bunker’s collages in the Westminster Reference Library was in the materiality of the contents. Like all of those words and pictures reproduced in the books and periodicals (pre-Internet formats) under the same roof, you have to deal with the real. The collages, consisting of purposely fragmentary, torn and cut materials, we have all seen somewhere before in another form. Most especially if we are painters or collagists, these materials come back to confront us with a sense of redemption. The bits and pieces that litter our studio spaces, congeal in the Brownfield car park, or blow around in the alleyway, are materials with nine lives.
Bunker’s collages are disarmingly straight talking, pick ‘n’ mix patchworks of materials that have had other uses – maybe even as failed paintings, collages or out of date posters from advertising hoardings. Maybe as stuff ready-made for or from the bin or skip. Out of the discarded – and way beyond a corny aesthetic, school project, ‘up-cycling’ exercise, you can nail it to your wall without recourse to a designer trash Habitat readymade frame.
Additionally, looking like an arrow or a devil’s tail in one composition, the odd acrylic painted paper segment interjects like signs in the metropolis outside might do. In the glass, metal, brick, asphalt and concrete jungle the colourful neon, stencilled or hand painted sign sometimes offers surprising visual delights.
That we live, work, and play in a collage – a competing assemblage of forms, structures, colours, textures, fragments, attention grabbing commercial visual dross, graffiti, pealing paint, sounds and actions – combining old and new materials in transitory environments – might be a matter of opinion, perspective, or reveal a Dystopian state of mind. But Bunker’s collages have a vitality and freshness about them that I found surprisingly uplifting, because out of the abject sprouts an optimistic reconfiguration. Bunker re-presents real surfaces, colours and shapes that we may otherwise have overlooked. It’s all very Wabi-sabi – but not in a precious, pseudo-spiritual kind of way.
For these collages (except Widows Son, 2015, which is framed) there is no physical ground or support. We see skins of paper and other fibres; two-dimensional objects that are image and object combined. There is no actual, physical, subjectile (to loosely reference Antonin Artaud), for there is nothing under the surface. This feature suggests sculpture – though not overtly in an extended field context. But the artworks are surely subject and object (to very loosely reference Jacques Derrida) and situate the work in the historic direction, of Kurt Schwitters and Dada, Arte Povera and the NeoConcretists, as much as from the tradition of abstract art. For undoubtedly there are abstract tropes too: colour shapes, suggested geometry, gesture and the performative – offering visual-spatial readings, formality and expression, clarity and mystification.
So, are they wall-mounted sculptures? Does it matter? (Bunker also produces larger pieces that are better termed constructions – and perhaps owe something to Rauschenberg). I also wondered if these were collages produced by a painter – and admonished myself immediately with the retort that they do not need to be. Collage, like drawing, does not, is not, and cannot be subservient to painting. The language, like the medium, is similar, only different.
Rather like Hoyland, Bunker’s project is not programmatic. There is plenty of healthy individualism on display without any pretentious, self-expressive indulgence. Both exhibitions demonstrated a conviction to explore the endless realm of the visual in the concrete. Abstract or otherwise.