H-A-R-D-P-A-I-N-T-I-N-G at Phoenix Brighton, 13 January to 11 February 2018.
Spaces available to show contemporary art in Brighton are limited, but Phoenix Brighton is undergoing a public engagement transformation that will be further re-calibrated with a refurbished gallery space in 2019. The last significant painting shows here were ‘32 Paintings’ (2013) and ‘20 Painters’ (2014) that showcased a broad range of styles and interests from Sussex based artists and were co-curated by Patrick O’Donnell (with Nicholas Pace and June Frickleton, respectively). During the second exhibition a public discussion event took place with Peter Ashton Jones, co-founder of Turps Banana magazine and art historian Peter Seddon. A lingering memory of that evening was of a rather polite assembly of listeners who did not rise to the bait (if that was the intention) of having the range of work on display described as “Home Counties” painting (aka provincial?). Nevertheless, hopes for an ongoing debate about contemporary art (not just painting) were kindled by this initiative, and rightly so, for the gallery space, with or without a forum, is the most appropriate public arena for a meaningful debate to take place.
Four years on we have H-A-R-D-P-A-I-N-T-I-N-G to revive this delayed conversation, which again involves O’Donnell, with Phoenix Brighton artists Ian Boutell, Phillip Cole and Stig Evans as co-curators. To broaden the range of contributors beyond the Phoenix studios (and Sussex to avoid possible charges of provincialism), several more abstract painters were approached, from whom Johanna Melvin and John Bunker were added to the troupe. Also, to give the exhibition some historical perspective, and a visual example of the thinking behind the show’s title, a work by Tess Jaray from a private collection was also added. This is an original silkscreen entitled, ‘Minuet’  which she gave permission to include.
The intention for the show as a whole appears to make a continuity argument about a particular kind of abstract art, which the press release has “identified as exploring the possibilities inherent in space, colour, line and edge, and seek(s) to develop a conversation around the language of paint. The exhibition presents a collection of paintings that have been developed through pre-meditated and choreographed processes; in developing the images, the artists favour intention over accident.”
Before seeing the exhibition fully installed (I had visited initially when the hang was in a state of flux to write a preview) I was already forming reservations, but an internal quarrel with the polemic of the exhibition title seemed inappropriate, especially as provocation is a useful tool to stimulate reaction. In a nutshell, I expected something free from improvisation and overt gestural involvement if pre-meditation and intention was to characterise the selection. In anticipation, adjectives for what might transpire that initially sprung to mind were: steady, cool, unhurried, considered, planned, balanced, repetitious, meticulous, sequenced and programmatic.
To give a little enticement to draw an audience, the press release further explained that works on display would be: “Painting that is hard edged, non-figurative and abstract / Painting that endures / Painting that is a complex and esoteric distillation of ideas” – Was a Neo-Geo renaissance on the cards?
Fortunately, the resulting display of work was broad enough, and of sufficient quality, to demonstrate that ‘painting’ (in it’s loosest term, as print and collage was included) could be as personal as it appeared impersonal. Each artist’s work maintained its own internal rhetoric and systematic coherence, and a variety of reactions to the many works was experienced, especially with an opportunity to re-visit the show after the busy (almost frenetic) opening that attracted 180+ visitors.
As mentioned earlier, Tess Jaray RA just had one work on display (and perhaps it was reasonable that the most established ‘name’ was restricted in this way) giving attention to the less well-known names. In Jaray’s image, the geometric, flattened out, perspectival spatiality (a fascinating contradiction) of ‘Minuet’ set a tone of systematic coolness and restraint that was also inherent in the other exhibitors’ works.
If we extend the sobriquet of ‘super-cool’ to two of the participants’ work, Patrick O’Donnell and Philip Cole appear to have it in spades. But their work is so very different. O’Donnell’s combined paintings and drawings are calmly uncoloured from black to white, in tones that are perceived in, and extracted from, segmented architectural spaces (and could be based, by implication of extended time invested in looking, on observational drawing more than photography); whilst Cole’s works present (rather than explore) printed colour palettes that will be found tucked behind the glued down forms of mass-consumption packaging.
Cole’s paintings are typically made from polystyrene resin, which, though wall hung and 2D as imagery, suggests a sculptural association. He also employs an engineered, machine-led process of production to create a non-painterly visual effect – despite leaving drips of resin on the edges of the support board. Although Cole’s imagery appears abstract, the predominant subject matter is derived from the peripheral or overlooked registration marks of commercial printing, such as colour bars and bulls-eye targets. The paintings also have a smooth and highly polished surface that, superficially, may allude to 2D digital production processes that denies the craft aspect of the handmade – but they directly contrast the notion of the machine made with a highly skilled (and labour intensive) hand crafted and hard-edged, geometric and colourful range of imagery – albeit under strict control. What might first appear to be superfluous abstract eye-candy deserved, and demanded, longer looking. For example, by drawing the viewer’s attention to the methodical and contradictory 3D construction of printed colour in his pieces, the pleasurable experience of observing a simple sequence of a variety of CMYK colour mixes in ‘Ultra-Peripheral-Lovely Lolly 2’ , was quietly mesmeric. The building-block squares of colour alluding to an accurate construction of the missing virtual image might allude to a simple yet sophisticated structuralist visual trope: neither symbol or icon, but an invisible indexical sign nonetheless. But in some instances, the esoteric is best experienced for its pure visual pleasure and Cole’s works satisfied either option.
Patrick O’Donnell’s charcoal and acrylic paintings also present a highly refined and controlled production process. But where Cole’s colour palette includes (at least by implication) every primary and secondary subtractive colour mix, O’Donnell’s stark imagery is devoid of colour but full of silent pathos. There is a sense of severe understatement about the flat and planar, but perspectival, folded forms that characterise the essential features of constructed spaces. Oddly, a first impression was of segments of non-organic geometric form taking on the persona of the still life or the anonymous portrait. The sober and dignified, monochromatic images also emanate an emotional kind of piecemeal, but visually resolved, architecture. There is a sense of the mnemonic fragment of the particular about these quasi-domestic monoliths.
This poignant and disturbing element instinctively sensed in the work became more overtly humanised when O’Donnell explained that his visual language and sparse imagery had developed from a visit to the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The Libeskind Building, known as the Holocaust Tower, made a deep impression on him. Subsequently, O’Donnell worked for a year drawing in charcoal, developing his ascetic and sombre, shape-shifting imagery. The most recent works in H-A-R-D-P-A-I-N-T-I-N-G are responses to compositions derived from various corners within his recently deceased father’s house. More concrete than words, the works could augment Gaston Bachelard’s ‘The Poetics of Space’, but with a singular sense of anonymity in the simplicity of forms that evoke universality rather than the personal idiosyncrasies of a private familial space – unless you were the author of the work.
Also working with imagery with an architectonic feel is Ian Boutell (he trained as an architect at Manchester University). The freedom to develop a more individualised art practice was established more recently, having completed a degree in Fine Art as a mature student. Several works made from Perspex are displayed which form collage reliefs, but it is his two tondos that stand out in this show. ‘Never Ending’ and ‘Falling’ involved spray painting and the use of tape to make loosely geometric but fragmented de-constructivist compositions. The yellow and black stripes might reference hazard-warning tape that is used to cordon off off-limit spaces and initial doubts about this methodology for constructing so-called hard-edge abstraction (recalling early Sean Scully) initially left me feeling indifferent. But having given more time to view the surface of ‘Never Ending’ close up, I was perversely pleased to notice subtle changes in the gloss and semi-gloss black surfaces. Edges of yellow had leaked as some of the paint had penetrated beneath the masking tape during production. Deliberately leaving the technical faults on view, however subtle, gave way to evidence of the handmade process that had undermined refined slickness and a machine-like perfection. These two works also balanced the strictly geometric form of the disc with an inner revolving sense of movement created by Wyndam Lewis-type Vorticist zigzags and restricted choice of flat colour.
The remaining H-A-R-D-P-A-I-N-T-I-N-G co-curator from Phoenix Brighton, Stig Evans, is clearly a perfectionist. He presents minimalistic works that balance painterly mark making with carefully chosen and mixed hues. In these combinations of the geometric with the hand-painted (are the sub-dividing coloured fields behind or in front of the gestural screens?) he also makes reference to paintings from the past. For example, ‘The Ravished Image (Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake)’  references Nicholas Poussin’s version in the NG in London. But disappointingly it is placed at what feels like one of the two end points of the show. I make this point as there was a sense of several solo shows having been mixed up to form the mainstream group show. In the largest gallery space (technically there are five adjoining spaces) two of Evans’ paintings, ‘The Ravished Image (Apocalypse)’ was placed next to ‘The Ravished Image (Virgin and Child with Saints)’ [both 2017] and the triptych possibilities of adding the first work might have appealed to an art historian’s sensibilities.
Evans also displayed many works on paper that juxtaposed traditional colours with modern-day equivalents; for example, ‘Blue Verditer/Dulux Trieste’  demonstrates similarity and difference, and a potentially nostalgic nod to history. That Evans is also a Paintings Conservator at the Royal Pavilion and Museum in Brighton may come as no surprise.
Completing the Magnificent Seven (sorry, I couldn’t resist) are Johanna Melvin and John Bunker. Interestingly, Melvin’s backgrounds (particularly in the series of six ‘Tower’ paintings) echoed the painterly swathes of singular colour in Evan’s largest canvases – or a whitewashed window in an urban setting that could reflect changing ambient colour and light. The foregrounded blocks of solid colour might also be derived from a contemporary range of household colour charts that added to a sense of image construction that explored repetition and diversity.
Despite the implied abstraction, the repeated silhouette reference to the tower blocks placed the imagery in Melvin’s London environment, rather than Brighton (where such architecture is carefully restricted), and a macabre association with Grenfell Tower was unintentional but sadly unavoidable for me. ‘Pink Shed’ , however, had no such association and combined flat, solid colour shapes with thinner more painterly and amorphous patches of colour. Whether the ‘shed’ reference was represented by the floating salmon-pink shape, or the thin frame-like inner border on the right hand side seems irrelevant, and this work joined the dots between O’Donnell’s and Evan’s works to maintain coherency in this group show.
John Bunker’s collage work is well known to Abcrit readers and his employment of risk and spontaneity might have precluded him from this show, but the ‘considered’ and ‘balanced’ placement of found collage material with painted or printed visual content expanded the potential of predetermined rules or recipes for abstraction. The inter-relationships between the melded, shapely parts and the concrete materiality of various mixed media combinations – linked by overlapping or overpainting – makes the work visually persuasive as being in and of the inhabited, social realm where materials and imagery have potential for attaining the aesthetically beautiful or it’s dialectical sparing partner – detritus and wastage.
It was good to see the pairing of companion pieces, ‘Wall Flower + Just Blood and Shadow’ [2013-14] which pull apart the confines of the rectangle and set up a kind of double-portrait of abstract collage. Also, ‘Old Roan’ , from the Tribe exhibition at Westminster Reference Library in 2016, demonstrated how two potentially separate collages could conjoin with just a slight overlap to create a duality that feels resolved. Bunker’s last show (Leave It….) at the Unit 3 Project Space confirmed the independence of his collage from painting as such, but these slightly earlier works (especially ‘Ram Raider’ that was first shown at Fold in 2014) pre-empt the indicative installation element of current progress. In fact the placement of the wall-based assemblage, ‘Ram Raider’, subtly leaving the background of the wall by its placement on the floor, added an indicative installationist dimension to the exhibition that had been explored by O’Donnell’s ‘Floor to Ceiling’ corner construction. This work, which takes the paintings and drawings back into three-dimensional space, activated an otherwise typically dead space. Likewise, a temporary wall painting by Cole (‘Anthropo-scene’) gave strong hints of what might provide a potential follow-up show that could tip over into arenas of so-called expanded painting (for “painting endures” to reference the short manifesto presented by the curators) which evolves without necessarily rejecting its own history.
The opening evening of H-A-R-D-P-A-I-N-T-I-N-G brought together a large contingent of the local community for an exhibition of abstract art which augers well for the future. For a cold night in January that is impressive.
A Preview of the exhibition by Geoff Hands was published on fineartruminations before the show opened and has links to the artists’ personal websites :
For the Abcrit review of John Bunker’s exhibition at Unit 3 see: https://abcrit.org/2017/12/08/88-geoff-hands-writes-on-john-bunker-at-unit-3-london/
Phoenix Brighton website: https://www.phoenixbrighton.org