A Road Not Taken: Eleven abstract painters exploring painting and the metaphor of the journey is at the Crypt, St. Marylebone Parish Church, London, 16 June – 6 September 2018
A journey, even a short one, can be harrowing. The five-minute walk from Baker Street underground station to St. Marylebone Parish Church at the wrong time of day obliges a stop-start, half-gyrating weave through the throngs of tourists queuing (and not queuing) to get into Madame Tussauds™. So it was with relief that I arrived intact in the Crypt in the lower church. I half expected a musty, dark basement but was pleasantly surprised to find myself in a warm and bright environment. Ample lighting and white-painted walls created the ambience of the modern gallery, albeit with some additional Christian iconography displayed on pillars in the centre of the space. The quiet was not so surprising of course and this created a meditative space in which to consider the twenty paintings on display. Co-curator Stephen Buckeridge pitched the exhibition to Contemporary British Painting (a broad church) some two years ago and revived the idea with Terry Greene more recently. The support and infrastructure of this organisation is to be welcomed for many painters working on the periphery of the gallery system.
Some of the exhibitors in A Road Not Taken will be well known to Abcrit readers, others not so. The decision not to label the works obliges the viewer to consider the work in itself, without influence of favour based on personal interest or preference (though an illustrated list of works is available). In addition to their own work, the curators have selected paintings by nine others. Greene has written:
“The Road not Taken is a ‘journey’ of encounters that explores the idea that art offers us abstractions of experiences. By considering the physical act of painting in terms of a journey, the art object describes or embodies the inner territory through which the artists navigate. The art object functions as evidence for a ‘place’ visited, seen and experienced.”
This is a fascinating statement. The “inner territory” implicates notions of a metaphysical space and the paintings, I assume, act as outpourings from the ‘self’ (of the artist). The paintings also embody the notion of a map, much more than a diagram, of itself with no obvious or specific external reference points, places or personas. The ‘physical act’ is a given really, and we can see that the physical is constituted both in the medium specificity of the paint and from the process of application, in various ways, in the works on display. The paintings are also records of a certain kind of thought process, generally unplanned and improvised. Such practice is most likely supported by habit and pull of future projects, however tenuous.
Curatorial statements aside, the work is paramount. What is presented is certainly of interest and may, I suspect (I hope), leave the viewer wanting more. The exhibition is a taster of sorts, especially if you are unfamiliar with these painters. But it’s also a polemical position to take up for abstract painting, even if it falls short of constituting a manifesto, as the argument I see implied is that – beyond “an abstraction of experiences” – a certain mode of painting remains valid that offers the viewer a particular kind of choice. So where the paintings leave themselves, is in the engaged ‘space’ determined by the viewer and the image/object. The artist, ultimately, has to leave the scene.
The conception of the journey, which is a way to consider the making and development of creating a painting, could be applied to any genre but abstraction provides the opportunity not to be restricted by appearances or overt narrative. If there is an implied narrative for the exhibition, if only for the purpose of making the show gel, as an album title might for a musician, or to guide selection A Road Not Taken directly references the title of a poem by Robert Frost. In this poem, containing symbolism and metaphor, humour and sadness, the reader in effect is invited to consider their own personal journey. Applying the idea of the courageous decision to step into the unknown in many forms of abstract painting might indicate a state of tension that many painters (and sculptors) can relate to. For the viewer, the spirit of adventure required might be one of opening up to possibilities and closing in on specifics – to mirror or realise the originator’s intentions or to simply indulge in a visual experience that exercises personal value judgments.
The limitations of the display space, which was obviously not intended as a contemporary gallery, make arrangement and distribution fairly straightforward. Three walls are available, divided into nine distinct sub divisions, including one end wall without the arches of the crypt architecture creating a frame of sorts that restricts choice to relatively small works. Visitors will most likely walk around clock-wise as the initial pairing of paintings are on the left on entry. The room is spacious but small enough for the visitor to stand in the centre and see three distinct lines of work. The various combinations of works are hung in twos and threes, with one work by Susan Cantrick (‘SBC 2015’) placed on its own. Her other painting ‘SBC 200’ is placed next to Sue Kennington’s ‘Trapdoor’ and these are the first two paintings to study. Cantrick’s is busy, Kennington’s minimalist – but both working with a simple rendering of flat shapes. Cantrick, an American working in Paris, also uses digital printing within the multiple layers of her works, although you would be hard pushed to see where. Cantrick’s two compositions partly stood out as the only two mounted and framed works as they are on paper and have a print-like quality. The vertical and horizontal formats both suggested landscape, including aerial views of shape/pattern configurations. Her paintings, involving Photoshop techniques (e.g. layering, cut and paste, adding, subtracting, re-working) still return to a painting sensibility implied by a subtly shallow relief surface.
This flattened, screen-like surface quality is one of the essential qualities of Sue Kennington’s ‘Trapdoor’ and ‘Meat Jam’. The former work was the one I kept returning to as it holds a sense of soft light and illumination in its tone and colour – even with a wide insistent vertical band of black to one side. The trap door grey shape in the centre hints at an element of perspective, which enables light to emanate out of, or from, the surface of the canvas. The cool, light yellow bands of differing widths to extreme left and right hold the whole composition together and the black is kept from dominating the scenario. ‘Meat Jam’, displayed on the opposite wall, contrasts in some ways as it is a vertical format and the colours are more strongly insistent. But the rounded ends of the four mystery forms embodied gently pneumatic pillows of colour and were surprisingly calming.
This choice of two quite different images from one artist was also seen in Karl Bielik’s pair of canvases, which were hung side-by-side. Here, process appears to constitute the journey in two quite different works, ‘Bone’ and ‘Pigmental’. The latter canvas demonstrates that he’s not afraid to underwork a canvas or to juxtapose the translucency of glazes with solid bodies of colour, as bulbous pods and diagonal slugs of colour create a maelstrom around the central black spine. ‘Bone’ presents a purple and green network of overlapping stripes that hint at a nefarious underground system that mirrors the dark ambience of his band’s music (check out ‘Funny Man’ by Lark on Spotify). Bielik has that useful ability to stop a painting before he has gone too far, which is no mean feat.
I do wonder if Terry Greene’s ‘AB1515’ and ‘AB1517’ should also have been hung together as they make for an obvious pairing – which could be a reason not to do the obvious, such is the nature of the diversity of the whole show. The overlapping stripes in each work, one black the other white, with disappearing acid yellow and ochre backgrounds respectively, hold a static dynamism that suggests a speedy journey with a sense of in-your-face blockage and occlusion. Contradictory qualities such as these reveal his interest in an exploration of paint as, ultimately, a dry, structuring and compositional framework on a flat surface; and as agency and action in its physical usage where time has a more organic, liminal and transitive quality.
A sense of the transitory is even more pronounced in ‘Agriculture’ from Claudia Böse. Her work depicts what might be a hole (or a planet) in the centre, set within a square superimposed on two postcard-type rectangles. An unsettling surround of green, yellow and orange covers the larger square format of the framing background of the whole work. The green and especially the yellow drips seem to offer the choice of hanging the work any way around, implying a kinetic sense of spinning. She has a second image on the invitation card, titled ‘Making Sense’, which would have been interesting to see in the flesh and suggests that her painting journey is very much process lead.
The improvisatory nature of much of the work in A Road Not Taken is most epitomised in two paintings from Tony Antrobus. ‘Untitled’ and ‘Blue One’ could have antecedents in the European ‘Art Informel’ movement of the 1950s, albeit with a flattened kind of tachisme that did not disguise the physical properties of the medium. In ‘Blue One’, a combination of chance and judgment manifested itself from the thin washes of grey and blue tones that dripped in the background, via (possibly) blue/black urban markers on the frontal picture plain, to a cool yellow rectangular ‘body’ and a red road sign triangle hinged on the top edge of the canvas. It had a Frank Auerbach-type urban feel that suggests a journey to Antrobus’ studio.
‘Blue One’ has quite a presence in the show as a whole, as, like Catherine Ferguson’s ‘Blah, Blah, Blah’; it possesses a sense of agitation. But if ‘Blue One’ is disturbing in mood, then ‘Blah, Blah, Blah’ is more energetically animated by the blue/red and yellow/green colour combinations that dance in front of a lurking brown-wash background surface. Her other contribution, ‘Moments Together’, with a dominating ultramarine blue ‘figure’ flowingly wiped, writhing on a brown ground with dripped islands of cream bounded by a green border, is more sober and pensive.
Likewise, the two canvases from Stephen Buckeridge possess a sombre aura. They have been given poetic titles: ‘One belongs here or there – there is no middle’ and, ‘This stroke drove our present apart like a wedge’ (both El Lissitsky lines that are quoted in John Berger’s essay on The Moment of Cubism most recently published in Landscapes by Verso). Berger often referenced the social and political conditions that influence art of any time and there is certainly a sense of a darkly dystopian, ‘here and now’ effect in these works. The five or six intermingled green slashes on the right-hand side of ‘This Stroke…’ seem freshly added against a stained crimson red pool that disturbs the brown sackcloth-type grain of the canvas support. A thin diagonal line, that separates background from foreground, might about to be plucked by the green fingered daubing. This work is clearly instinctual and Buckeridge appears to be a painter who allows his paintings to take him on a journey by a process that rejects the cul-de-sacs of prettiness that abstraction sometimes turns into.
‘Piece with Big Loop’, from Ashley West, also has a feel of directness and of testing a process without forcing the issue. Knowing when to stop is a constant predicament facing abstract painters. West has a loosely constructivist approach and the paper and card is on an equal footing with the drawing and the acrylic medium. Likewise, the acrylic on wood paintings from Katrin Mäurich – ‘Lark’ and ‘Lark Returned’ – also lend that sense of the painting as material construct and image combined. Irregular, shaped plywood supports also confer an organic element, like a fragment of rock. I can’t help but read these paintings as secretly figurative as the top half of a figure with raised arms is implicated. The figurative and narrative reference is openly declared in David Webb’s – ‘Vermont Landscape (for CM)’, though less so in ‘Reservoir (Gold),’ as the title has more varied, implicit meanings. This work may contradict the aims of the exhibition curators but neither painting looked out of place. Looking for, or speculating upon, explanations of images via titles can deflect from the visual impact of a work. Some sense of materiality or surface is emphasised by the pumice that has been added to the acrylic and the composition has a synthetic Cubist ambience. We can assume that Webb is referencing a trip to North America in ’Vermont Landscape’ and he has reduced information to a skeletal layer of acute light-beam triangles that converge into a central void.
Whilst the Crypt is not a pop-up gallery, the alternative nature of the space and location reflects a sign of the times. We can all support these initiatives by making that journey.
Private View: Tuesday 10th July 2018, 6pm – 8pm
Exhibition dates: 16 June – 6 September 2018
The Crypt, St Marylebone Church, 17 Marylebone Road, London NW1 5LT
Opening times: Mon – Fri 9am – 5pm. Sat 9am – 4pm. (Sun closed)
Occasionally The Crypt closes for private meetings, you can phone ahead to check times on 020 7935 7315 or 07809330592.
About Contemporary British Painting
Poetry Foundation – Robert Frost poem