#102. Robin Greenwood writes on Critical Mess

Grayson Perry in front of his Summer Exhibition. Photograph Neil Hall EPA

In his five-star Grauniad review of this year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, curated by Grayson Perry, Jonathan Jones – the Ernie Wise to Adrian Searle’s Eric Morecambe – writes:

“This year, getting selected is not such an honour. For Perry has filled the summer show with crap. I mean actual garbage: talentless, throwaway rubbish, a lot of it apparently made by jokers after getting home from the pub….

…There’s something odd happening in art, and Perry has caught the moment. Boundaries of age and style, cool and uncool no longer seem to have anything to do with art’s future. Perhaps its future lies in the past. Or vice versa. I don’t know where I am after this crazy show. This is the most liberating exhibition of new art I’ve seen for ages, because it obliterates definitions of what’s good or bad, archaic or modern, and invites us to sample all the ways people can use a thing called “art” to express feelings and ideas.”

Something odd, by god, but it still gets five stars – because it “liberates”! It “obliterates”! Worn out, tired old definitions of good and bad are passé. Is it the crap, or the curation of crap, to the point of no return, that liberates? Have we reached critical mess? Things seem really bad, but probably not. No… this will just go on and on. Things will get worse and worse. Things were so much better back in the sixties, don’t you think? So much deeper and more thoughtful, more serious and profound. We didn’t, back then, have much of an idea about how to “use” art so shamelessly to “express feelings and ideas”. We tried, but we could never manage such profound levels of shallowness.

What are us old buggers left with? There’s David Sweet’s god-like dogs, wherein banality reaches new depths, or complete lack of it. Or how about this:

This thesis re-investigates Clement Greenberg’s discredited abstract expressionist claim that painting should seek its own purity through the acknowledgment of its material. I argue that Greenberg’s physical, bodily determination of painting (but not its purity) is re-located as a criticality in contemporary practice because of the changes brought about by the simulacrum and the digital. By utilizing the particularities of ‘painterly’ issues such as materiality, depth and opticality into the virtual, this claim responds to Arthur C. Danto’s ‘end of history’ theories where he argues that artists are no longer bound to the dictates of grand master narratives of art. For Danto, contemporary art has irrevocably deviated from the narrative discourses which define it such as Greenberg’s.

Not satisfied with either postmodern strategies of parody in painting that claim a linear end to the modernist canon, or with recent claims that contemporary painting is beyond postmodernism, I convert Greenberg’s physical determinism using Andrew Benjamin’s notion that contemporary abstract painters, through making, accept and transform the historical/modernist premise of the yet-to-be-resolved object/painting by staging a repetition of abstraction as an event of becoming.

This ‘re-styling’ of abstract painting is then examined as an ontological conjoining of Greenberg with Merleau-Ponty’s claim that the painter transforms the relationship between the body and a painting by overlapping the interior sense of self with the world of external objects. I argue that contemporary painting can offer a philosophical dialogue between the painter’s subjectivity as a mirroring of the painter’s personal style through objective ornamental materiality. This dialogue is developed through Stephen Perrella’s Hypersurface theory which proposes a non-subjective, deterritorialised, architectural parallel of the digital as a transparent, fluid system of multidimensional signs in which the contemporary subject traverses. Consequently, I suggest, the symbolic virtual changes the body’s sensuous relation to time and space and is central to contemporary painting’s criticality.

That’s just the abstract/intro from the 2003 Goldsmith’s thesis of John Bunker’s mate, Michael Stubbs, the rest of which you can read here, should you wish: https://research.gold.ac.uk/175/3/art-Stubbs-Thesis-2003_GRO.pdf. I wonder if Michael now regrets stating the problem so simplistically. It’s not a very nuanced view of post-modernist abstraction, is it? You know, in any case I think we might have made a little progress since he wrote so lucidly and movingly about conjoining Greenberg with Merleau-Ponty. Such progress is surely evidenced by the horizontally-challenged Pink Panther threading its way three-dimensionally through an abstract canvas that appears behind Grayson Perry in the above photograph, which at first glance you might mistake for Grayson’s arms. Take that, Greenbergian physical determinism!

We could, of course, resort to yearning like David and Patrick for an art as achingly beautiful and banal as Morris Louis. Watch it again here and die: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_6Q-wSjCqho. How the hell did he make those huge paintings in that 12ft. square living room? Why did he make those huge paintings in that 12ft. square living room? They are indeed so much more exciting than “the flailing about which Ab Crit thinks is Painting ,a dreadful hangover from expressionism ,heaping mark upon mark ,creating depth by rote ,looking exciting but in fact terribly monotonous and ultimately futile.” What does this mean? And who is this Ab Crit? But then again, as somebody else said recently, why would anyone take any notice of the opinion of somebody who puts the space in front of the comma?

Alan Gouk’s gone off in a huff since I besmirched everything he has ever stood for in his entire life, in all of its unarguable purity and high-horsedness. He is seemingly never going to return except once a year to correct his own mistakes about Heron influencing Hitchens (or the other way around). We should care, I suppose… As for John Bunker, his ElectricLadyLoveIslandLand has nicked nearly all the other Abcrit writers, so there’s the end of it.

So much for abstraction and its hundred-year history, now demonstrably irrelevant to the majority of the artworld and its commentators. And the majority of the normal world too, who would much rather ogle the real Love Island than apparently anything else. Not having a telly, I wouldn’t know anything about it, except it’s in the Grauniad every day.

And even in amongst our tiny little clique of nutcase abstract artists we cannot even agree that the history of abstract art must be open to being problematised in order for us to move on. I’m feeling a little non-subjectively deterritorialised.

The sixth year of Brancaster kicks off soon, thank the dogs.


  1. Whoever wrote this tripe:

    ““This thesis re-investigates Clement Greenberg’s discredited abstract expressionist claim that painting should seek its own purity through the acknowledgment of its material……Greenberg’s physical determinism…”

    …has no understanding at all of Clement Greenberg’s thinking.


  2. “…as the audience began to laugh at lines which he thought crude and clumsy, he felt under siege. He did not laugh once; he thought not a moment was funny, but more importantly, he thought not a moment was true. Every line, every scene was acted out as though silliness were a higher manifestation of truth. No opportunity was lost in portraying witlessness as wit…”

    from Colm Toibin’s “The Master”.


  3. Richard – About thirty years ago the Hayward mounted a superb Pissaro show. The curators coupled it with work by some English academic painter whose name I forget. The irony was that the curators had not read their own catalogue (by John Rewald !!) in which it was pointed out in no uncertain terms that Pissaro spent his whole life fighting just the sort of painting he was being coupled with !


      1. No. Time will sort out this low brow, staged by curators and indeed, created by ‘artists’ lack of ingenuity from the best of painting and sculpture. Look at the best museums. The herd has to be got through the door somehow, that’s all it is.


  4. The discussion over on instantwhipland is going grindingly slowly, so here’s a new painting of mine that perfectly fulfils Patrick’s amusing and punctuationally challenged comment:

    “…flailing about which Ab Crit thinks is Painting ,a dreadful hangover from expressionism ,heaping mark upon mark ,creating depth by rote ,looking exciting but in fact terribly monotonous and ultimately futile.”

    I’m trying to make non-figurative spatiality in this and other new paintings, and I think this is the closest I’ve got so far. Hopefully it’s better than looking at poo or Grayson Perry. Any thoughts welcome.


    1. Although viewing a painting on an iPad could seem unfair, it does sometimes show up key attributes and forces within a work. There seems to be a spacial movement from the central green area (and linked to the green in the bottom left area) up to the top right and left via light linear elements to the right and patches of colour to the left. I do feel however that my roving eye and brain start to configure a garden landscape. I am sure that up at the ‘paintface’ it would have a different feel. It would be good to see it for real, will you have it available to see after your Brancaster exhibition/discussion?


    2. From New York, from a guy who hasn’t read Noela’s or Richard’s comments, a guy whose name I can’t mention without getting “blocked.”

      “Pretty good paintings really. Some good color changes and an eye for making color plastic- no repetition for one thing. Value structure – hard to say. It is a wonderful attitude (style) toward painting but it always resembles foliage.”

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve only got it very tiny on my phone here. Looks like it might be really good, but I’d call it tree/garden space.
    I think there may be such a thing as “harmless” or “transparent” figuration that doesn’t interfere with seeing a painting in terms of its (for want of a better term) abstract content. It kind of settles the restless mind’s ” what is it?” question without imposing a subject matter. Just personally for me this would be engine blocks for your hanging sculptures. I don’t see this as a criticism at all, but rather as a possible route to expressive abstraction.


    1. Thanks for the response, Richard. I don’t really agree about the harmless figuration, its something I try and avoid at all costs, but fortunately I can’t see a tree or a garden (or the engine blocks, thank goodness).
      Maybe this doesn’t come across in the image, but I think the space opens up in a way that denies that kind of reading (I hope). It also denies the thing that you have often said you consider important, of bringing everything (back) to the surface. At the moment, I’m going away from that, maybe towards a movement through open volume…


  6. I can’t see your surface here – it’s the part of a painting that most suffers ( or benefits) by reproduction on a screen.
    We’re all free to choose our own conventions/disciplines, so good luck with abandoning the surface in search of abstract spatiality. I’m for holding on to the surface as much as possible and am more relaxed about “found” figuration. The other way of doing things is always going to look like a cop-out whenever one’s own self-imposed rules are being ignored.
    Conciliatory noises at an end, I agree with David Sweet’s assessment at the beginning of his last essay – making space is easy, combining space with surface is what confers quality. It’s got something to do with its contradictoriness. Like a magician putting an egg into a hat and pulling out a rabbit. Just making space is more like putting a rabbit into a hat and pulling out ….. a rabbit.


    1. I agree, in painting making space is easy. Obviously, judging from yours and Noela’s comments, making ABSTRACT space is more difficult (but still I cannot see the bloody garden!).

      I think I am a bit fed up with ‘surface’ – there are several shows on at the moment in London that have the word in the title in various clever combinations, and I can’t say any look up to much. I suspect it is a very threadbare old modernist idea that is cited to get round the fact that nothing much is happening, and it is a trope that badly needs to be put to rest. It’s surely damned easy to make surface.

      And though I like the idea of reconciling three-dimensions with two, I don’t really see the focus on surface being a part of that. Anyway, for better or worse, I don’t care, I’m off somewhere else for the time being. Surface – and colour too – seem to me to need to be in the service of something else (something bigger?), they are not enough in themselves, and yes… it has to be in the service of content, and that content has to really drive the agenda. And we agree that there is at the moment no better ‘term’.


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