John Bunker

#54. John Bunker writes on “Painting & Structure” at the Kennington Residency, London

Sophia Starling, “Stack (Marble)”, marble dust and acrylic on linen. 190x170x15cm.

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?

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#41. John Bunker writes on Robert Motherwell at Jacobson

Installation, Robert Motherwell at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London

Installation, Robert Motherwell at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London

“Robert Motherwell: Abstract Expressionism” is at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London, 16th september – 26th November 2016.

It’s a hard task to corral 40 odd years of painting history into a modest if well proportioned gallery space – especially if it’s the career history of an artist like Robert Motherwell. But what is lacking in breadth, here at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery, is more than made up for in focus. One is, of course, also very aware that this gallery is attempting to shine a bright light on Motherwell in the somewhat long shadows cast from across the road by the Royal Academy’s dizzying ‘Abstract Expressionism’ show. Here we have the likes of the portentous Clifford Still dominating the proceedings. It’s funny how so much verbal fire and brimstone can turn so quickly to miserly one-upmanship and tawdry painterly theatrics. But that’s Abstract Expressionism for you – well, a certain kind of it anyway – one that to my mind, Robert Motherwell, with his graphic flair and visceral clarity, has quietly eclipsed – a rogue moon leaving the orbit of a dying star.

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#39. John Bunker writes in anticipation of “Abstract Expressionism” at the RA

Lee Krasner, “The Eye is the First Circle”, 1960, oil on canvas, 235.6x487.4cm. Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016 Photo Private collection, courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York.

Lee Krasner, “The Eye is the First Circle”, 1960, oil on canvas, 235.6×487.4cm. Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016 Photo Private collection, courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York.

“… Like a Tongue to a Loosening Tooth.”

Thoughts in anticipation of the upcoming Abstract Expressionism show at the Royal Academy, 24th September 2016 – 2nd January 2017.

“…It seems that I cannot quite abandon the equation of Art with lyric. Or rather – to shift from an expression of personal preference to a proposal about history – I do not believe that modernism can ever quite escape from such an equation. By “lyric” I mean the illusion in an art work of a singular voice or viewpoint, uninterrupted, absolute, laying claim to a world of its own. I mean those metaphors of agency, mastery, and self-centredness that enforce our acceptance of the work as the expression of a single subject. This impulse is ineradicable, alas, however hard one strand of modernism may have worked, time after time, to undo or make fun of it. Lyric can not be expunged from modernism, only repressed.

Which is to say that I have sympathy with the wish to do the expunging. For lyric is deeply ludicrous. The deep ludicrousness of lyric is Abstract Expressionism’s subject, to which it returns like a tongue to a loosening tooth.”

TJ Clark, “In Defence of Abstract Expressionism,” Farewell to an Idea.

The RA blockbuster autumn extravaganza promises to seduce us with its knock-out line up of Abstract Expressionist paintings in its lofty neoclassical halls. But scrape beneath the veneer of showtime spectacle and the history of this movement is a battleground of interpretation. It is littered with the burnt out wreckage of a thousand blood-thirsty intellectual engagements between titans of art history from the Left and the Right. By comparison, art making now seems to operate in the uncanny silence that has descended on an ideological no-mans land. But first, please forgive a digression…

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#26. John Bunker writes on Hoyland at Newport Street: Another Perspective

John Hoyland, 12.6.66.

John Hoyland, “12.6.66”.

It is somewhat taken for granted that the art of painting allows us to engage intimately with the work of another’s hand and eye. Some might even suggest through the marks and traces locked in the gestures and dispersal of paint on canvas, we are witness to some special marriage of spirit and matter. As makers and viewers of paintings, artists have always exploited these contrary sensations of the public and private at work in the mind during the act of looking. Are you a voyeur or co-conspirator? Lover or fellow member of the dispossessed? Intrigue, desire for narrative and the visual unravelling of secrets all elicit deep fascination, bound up as they are in the articulation of the medium itself. Figurative painting’s power, to a lesser or greater degree, hinges on the frisson of implied intimacy or its denial. But what about abstract painting? It was these sorts of questions that kept coming to mind as I walked round Power Stations, the show of mostly large scale abstract paintings by John Hoyland spanning the period 1964 to the very early 80s.

The tension between the public and private roles of art intensified in the debates around abstract painting in the post-war period. In fact there is something faintly absurd about the size of Hoyland’s paintings in at least the first 4 rooms of the Newport St. gallery. They portend to the dimensions of great history paintings, yet give us such little detail or sniff of a narrative of any kind. ‘Handling’ is reduced to a minimum, either locked into a deep staining of the canvas or in the masking-off of flat, high-keyed ‘blocks’ of colour. Their size is institutional, municipal, dare I say it, communal. Overtly public in their forthrightness and seeming simplicity, they ask to be shared as visual experiences by the many rather than owned by the one or the very few (unless you are a millionaire artist-come-collector-come-property-developer with mansions of large dimensions – but more on that later).

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#13. John Bunker writes on Jackson Pollock at Tate Liverpool

'Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots', on display at Tate Liverpool, © Tate Liverpool, Roger Sinek

‘Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots’, on display at Tate Liverpool, © Tate Liverpool, Roger Sinek

Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots at Tate Liverpool, 30 June – 18 October 2015

‘I don’t paint nature, I am nature’ is only a couple of stops up the art historical track from ‘It’s art because I say it is’ and only a few more stops down from ‘Pollock blew the picture to hell’1. But what if we get off this particularly well ridden bandwagon of art-speak clichés? We are used to those grindingly repetitive narratives of courageous innovation leading to a numbing bubble of celebrity, crippling self doubt and full-blown self destruction. I was hoping this show might help in beating a new path toward fresh and original ways to apprehend Pollock’s later art.

Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots at Tate Liverpool did not start with a painting but with a small photograph. We are told it’s an image of a mother and child. Areas of the two entwined bodies are blotted out by the artist with black ink. Other areas of the grainy creases of skin, limbs, hands and eyes are left exposed. The image has at once been destroyed and remade, obscured and revealed. And it is interesting that our ideas of Pollock, the person and the artist, are so utterly entwined with photographs and film. These famous images have indeed created peculiar ‘Blind Spots’ of their own. They introduced a wider public and fellow painters to a new and emphasised exploration of an artist’s processes and materials. They de-mystified the way the artist worked while at the same time re-enforcing the myth of ‘Jack the Dripper’. Pollock and his art were transformed into a series of consumable images and a lifestyle package (‘flawed genius’ having its own particularly enduring history).

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#1. John Bunker writes on Richard Tuttle

Richard Tuttle. I Don’t Know. The Weave of Textile Language, at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.

Richard Tuttle, I Dont Know . The Weave of Textile Language, installation view 2014. Photo credit Stephen White

Richard Tuttle, I Don’t Know. The Weave of Textile Language, installation view 2014. Photo credit Stephen White

It’s easy to take for granted the shape-shifting and transitory ‘almost there’ quality of Tuttle’s work and forget the length of his career to boot. It is too easy to have caught a glimpse of 3 or 4 of his pieces over the years and think that you know his work. I caught such a glimpse last year in a large collection of American art. I was impressed by the subtlety and focus to his colour play, hard won, it seemed, from the frailty and ubiquity of the throw-away materials he manipulates or strings together somehow. No matter how fragile, or how far they wavered from the painterly rectangle, the works still held the wall and seemed to hold their own too against the more robust conglomerations of good ol’ American trash that the likes of Rauschenberg, Kienholz or Brecht could throw at me from the same show.

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