Painting & Structure was at the Kennington Residency, London from 9th to 24th February 2017
Have you watched Larry Poons on YouTube where he considers the luxurious drapery in a Velasquez and says ‘that’s what you want’? Did you hear the one about Kenneth Koch asking Willem de Kooning whether he had read Frank OHara’s poem called ‘Radio’ in which it is said…
Well, I have my beautiful de Kooning
to aspire to. I think it has an orange
bed in it.
Willem de Kooning is reported to have mentioned how he was interested in mattresses because they were pulled in at certain points and puffed out at others ‘like the earth’…
Or to put the histrionics on hold for the moment, let’s think about how our notions of ‘a future’ affect the present tense- or even ‘the past’. Maybe consider one of those old fashioned sci-fi stories where one exquisitely machined pill (a white and slightly over sized lozenge) takes the place of a hearty 3 course meal. All that messy business of yearning, gratification, ingestion and excretion done away with. Replace all that with a glass of water and a hard swallow followed by a swollen stomach and a tiny flurry of gas expelled on the march down those long dark corridors. The ones that connect the living quarters to the mines being dug under Mars’ new exploratory colony.
Hold those images in the mind for a moment… Close your eyes… Then open them again and find yourself at the Painting and Structure exhibition at the Kennington Residency on Kennington Lane in south London… This show brings together an interesting mix of painters who tend to ‘play’ with the tension between crafted excess and severe reduction. Excess can take different guises though. One might immediately think of impasto with gusto for instance. But what dominates here, is extremely fine tuned attention to details, to surfaces, to materials, to the history of the medium, to the throbbing gristle called culture in which it all stews… But what is finally distilled after all this excessive boiling down and fastidious reduction? Well, that is the question.
Whether it be an orange mattress or a white pill or a Pope’s skirt there are so many structures on which the painter can hang an idea, a starting point, a way in to something new. But I think it is the art historical notion of ‘the grid’ as ‘structure’ that is the ghost at the dinner party to a greater or lesser degree in the work of nearly all of the artists gathered here in Kennington.
Donald Judd was obsessed with ridding art of its connection to its decadent Old World European past. The Minimalists turned on the old concept of what happens in one part of the painting directly effecting what happens in another part and replaced it with the pragmatism of the grid. Marks, actions or colours are quietly and equally placed across the surface of the painting, er, or should I say ‘object’? This New World Puritanism was soon to be undermined though. Since the late 70s various artists have taken their turn to humiliate and ridicule the grid. Judd’s and many other’s minimalist works were referenced in the shelving units, vitrines and display cabinets (think Koons’ basketballs, Hirst’s ‘specimens’, Bickerton’s logo clad wall boxes) in the art of the 90s. In terms of abstract painting Peter Halley has suggested since the 80s that his work is based on a ‘strong mis-reading’ of Minimalism. Mark Bradford has said that he is attempting to inject subject matter back into Minimalism.
So from this historical perspective the grid never went away so much as periodically being on the receiving end of a good kicking like every piece of well-worn visual rhetoric should. But it is the unstable correlation between this stoic, if macho, rationality of the grid and the skewing by ‘painterly’ or sculptural means going on in this show that creates interesting historical tensions and connections. But are these works strong enough visual experiences in their own right to go beyond their anchorage in the shifting sands of art history?
Daniel Sturgis’ paintings seem to play directly on the optical buzz of Minimalism’s thrill seeking cousin Op Art. Op received a serious mangling by the likes of Ross Bleckner in the 80s. He filled Bridget Riley’s stripes with failure and death via nostalgia and Gothy kitsch in his appropriations of Op. Sturgis seems to set up skewed chess board- like and playful (if not at times wistful) visual paradoxical games with it. One can’t help for example of seeing the 2 red dots in ‘Passion and Distance’ 2008 as balls or marble like characters poised almost melodramatically on slopes of off-kilter pinky orange and murky green or yellow cliffs. A thrust and parry of camp flourishes, dead spaces and arch references haunt this work.
James Campion’s work seems to look more directly to Halley or maybe to Robyn Denny? And this difference could be important. Denny translates the languages of hard edge and field painting in a late modernist surge of optimism for the future. Halley uses a very similar vocabulary to question why that future never really arrived. Rather than ‘conduits and cells’ though, Campion gives us fine lines of copper leaf that act like hot wires on circuit boards taking our eyes around the paintings’ edges. These red monochromes lean in on each other, set as they are on the two walls of a corner; they echo and amplify each other’s electrical fizz. All heated up by beautifully crafted and worked surfaces they throb and intensify at their stretcher’s edges. One could almost warm one’s hands by them.
Mali Morris intimates the grid but in an altogether different way. ‘Among Days’ 1997 is a knotted pulsating black central form built up of translucent washed out brush marks that squirm unsettlingly before the eyes. But this riveting central image with its disturbing upper central dark spot opens up against quietly orchestrated lime brushmarks that are set at near regular intervals. They suggest both a pulsing grid but at the same time, with an uncanny incongruity, a ghostly lime green brick wall. And they are strokes in the true sense of the word, delicate but precise, notional but persistent. Morris calls up the grid once more in the small painting ‘Dark Ashbery’ 2013. But here she has melted right angles into translucent and glowing criss-crosses of vibrantly coloured brush strokes. They are punctuated by cleverly orchestrated circles or dots that phrase her colour rhythms in intervals of blood reds, luminous limes, sunny yellows and cooler glassy blues.
Another less well known influence that can be felt in the work of Andrea Medjesi-Jones and Sophia Starling is the mostly French ‘Supports and Surfaces’ movement from the late sixties. This approach focused on processes in painting essentially involved in the materiality and objecthood of the painting surface itself. They prioritised the importance of site and the reduction of painting to bare essentials, foregrounding the structural support of the stretcher for instance or leaving canvases bare or unstretched, folded or suspended, tied off or draped. Medjesi-Jones utilises oak poles that suggest the idea of the rolled up canvas, only revealing tiny fragments of larger wholes that are bound up or wrapped round a strong supporting rod. Oddly delicate and almost decorative, fringes and frills unhinge the other snippets of what look like hard edge luminous lines and grid like structures painted on the rolled up canvases or long thin box stretcher bars. For all the hard edge rhetoric these works feel fragile and eccentric- batons containing some kind of indecipherable gridded code. They naturally seem to colonise the domestic layouts of the townhouse come gallery rooms, lingering uneasily beside doorways or breaking out of hidden corners.
Where Sophia Starling is concerned, I think you have to consider the now historical figure of that post minimalist Eva Hesse and an artist who came to prominence in the naughties Angela de la Cruz. As Hess debased the Minimalist aesthetic, de la Cruz’s work is about the vulnerable body politic. She has pulled the ‘high art’ ‘monochrome’ down a peg or two. She has made it homeless and wholly uncomfortable with itself- with all its shambolic ‘underbelly’ and bodily failings exposed. Starling’s free standing piece ‘Cluster’ (Silver-Black) Vertical’ 2016 feels much tighter and more crafted than an earlier de la Cruz. It hinges on the twisting of the canvases against the concave circular gun metal burnished helmet-like forms. They are stacked on top of one another like those pre-historic Horse Shoe Crabs- all caught in a frenzied layer cake of primeval spawning. The image hums with the tension between a squeezing sense of claustrophobia and a strange kind of self satisfied containment and protection. The wall piece feels forlorn and vulnerable in comparison, relying solely on the tension between tightly stretched and neatly rounded white and stacked shaped canvases. They push out from the wall, twisting up against an abject and tussled sheet of canvas (think Poons and Velasquez, de Kooning and his mattress and that lozenge-shaped pill again- but with none of the glamour…)
Kes Richardson brings the most provisional qualities of picture making to this gathering. He also foregrounds the objecthood of the surfaces he works on but very little of the obvious crafting of form remains. His process seems to pivot on subtractions and additions in his removing of layers of canvas. He cuts away sections of the work, leaving gestural marks and faux naive hand drawn triangles. Painted in colours reminiscent of children’s poster paints, they are set adrift in voided spaces that echo the hacked out shapes and cut away scraps. These scraps then seem to return to the surface as collaged elements, reconfigured in uncomfortable relationships with an unstable set of layers. They are like half hearted templates from oversized and violated flip charts or pads used for note making in management meetings for some bigger but forgotten plan.
The best works here do not purely function as ciphers that belong to a hermetically sealed art historical continuum or an academicism of ever more subtle refinement. They function because their facture, their material qualities encourage powerful ‘strong misreadings’ that encroach upon, and throw into question, the distinct boundary lines drawn up between disciplines and the straight forward art historical narratives that protect them. These issues of tradition vs. innovation always seems especially intense in the highly contentious realm called ‘painting’. What is the difference between simply forcing a novel kind of nihilism into one’s work and attempting, by means of visual art, to extend physical and mental realms of human thought and feeling? A pill, anyone?