Abstract Critical

Abstract Possible: The Birmingham Beat

Written by David Sweet

Photograph by Stuart Whipps, courtesy Eastside Projects.

The star of this show is the floor. In the main area of the gallery, apart from the floor, there are two exhibits that look like exhibits, and two other offerings that look like books.

An adjoining space contains an installation that includes stretched canvases in various shapes and sizes, on which are images so faded they may just have been breathed onto the linen surface. Some are propped up casually on parts of a dismembered chair.

The floor is by Wade Guyton and based on another floor in the artist’s studio. (When I say ‘by’ I mean it was Guyton’s idea) It’s made of thick plywood, painted with black gloss, once very shiny but now slightly frayed. As it’s a floor, it is taken for granted initially, but fairly soon its presence becomes more demanding of interest. That may be partly because it has material properties that the other things in the space lack. Because it fills the whole area, it isn’t encountered as an object, but discovered part way through examining other pieces in the room, therefore avoiding theatricality. Once recognised, it picks up pace as a locus of aesthetic experience, like looking at an Ad Reinhardt. It reflects the roof and lights, adding ‘real’ illusions to supplement the small variations of surface produced by the wood-grain and the visible seams, where individual panels abut. These phenomenological complexities seem stronger because they are glimpsed, then lost, obscured by other exhibits, furniture and visitors.

Photograph by Stuart Whipps, courtesy Eastside Projects.

The piece that obscures the biggest part of the floor is ‘Hotel Eden Revisited’ (2011) by Jose Leon Cerrillo. It consists of eight, square plexiglass panels set in an angled sequence and passing through a paper curtain, all side lit by two bright lamps. Geometric shapes are printed onto the plexiglass. It does a couple of interesting visual things. The panels vary in transparency, so some are see-through and others reflect. At two points in the horizontal cascade, phantom four-sided boxes appear, formed by the reflection of one panel seen in another, and this reflection then continued in a further reflection, each of course receding and dimming, in compliance to the optical law of the inverse square. However, the work does not make much, if anything, of this effect. It would be a lot better if it did, but it has other fish to fry. With capitalism to critique, the exploration of epiphenomena must come a distant second in artistic priorities.

Photograph by Aeron Bergman, courtesy Eastside Projects.

Taking up less space is a video called ‘Abstract Your Shit Is’ (2009) by Alejandre Salinas and Aaron Bergman. Again, ‘by’ is slightly misleading. Actually, the soundtrack is a short speech by a guy called Kenneth Cockrel, recorded in 1969. The images on the screen, and on the billboard outside the gallery, resemble the work of Noel Forster, but Salinas and Bergman can’t be expected to know that. The visual source turns out to be printed money, but ‘abstracted’, which presumably accounts for the symmetrical, slightly decorative end product. After forty odd years, from a time when the left was a good deal more influential in art than it is now, Cockrel’s anger comes through. His identification with those who suffer from capitalism’s cruelties is clearly authentic, and his economic analysis accurate.

Apart from Cockrel’s recorded passion, the works in the main gallery tend to be devoid of feeling. An overt political emphasis, though it limits artistic ambition, means that the visitor is not emoted at, and doesn’t have to emote back, which is liberating. However, in the side gallery, Yelena Popover’s ‘Portrait Gallery Withdrawn’ (2012) might be making some low key, non-specific emotional demands on the viewer. It’s as if you are being called on to feel slightly sorry for someone, but can’t find anyone to sympathise with, apart from the invigilator. But he seems fine, reading his book, just out of earshot of the video soundtrack.

Photograph by Stuart Whipps, courtesy Eastside Projects.

Elsewhere, in the main space, the video’s message is audible and insistent. For the twentieth time it reiterates its simple theme about economic relationships between those who labour and those who speculate, between the realities of working life and the abstraction of share ownership. But as it repeats its narrative, about a trader in an office in Wall St., who is ‘in oil’ or ‘in mining’, but not in any tangible, productive sense, it sets up a line of thought that ultimately cuts away the moral basis for the exhibition itself. Are the exhibitors artists or just ‘in art’? Aren’t those who deal in obscure financial instruments similar to curators? What kind of ‘work’ are practitioners doing when they appropriate the authentic anger of political radicals from another era? Are they not trading in commodities? And that floor: what is the power relationship between the ‘idea’ of the floor, which is abstract, and the material manifestation under the visitors’ feet? Twelve millimetre ply isn’t ‘cheap’, as the catalogue states. There’s a lot of it. Somebody had to cut it, lay it, and paint it at least three or four times, the last two coats with a spirit based gloss that must have filled the gallery with fumes. What did they get paid, the going rate for painter/decorators? (I hope so, because I like the floor.)

Inevitably, in such a highly thematised exhibition, the work can seem secondary to the exposition of a curatorial viewpoint. At this venue the emphasis was on economic or social rather than ‘formal’ abstraction, so had less to say about the history or experience of abstract art. In the face of capitalism’s excesses abstraction and art do seem to offer an alternative. But outside these unsponsored spaces, art and economic practice have become interchangeable. Art is not just the servant of capitalism; it has become capitalism. Damien Hirst for example, is an economic, not artistic genius. He found a way of monetising Duchamp, of creating a market-driven avant-garde, of spinning assisted readymades (and cheap paint) into gold, dollars and RMB, like Rumpelstiltskin, only real. It’s commendable that other, non-commercial artists want to provide a critique of capitalism, but as Marx might have said, the problem is not to interpret the world but to change it. I’m not sure close-ups of money will do that.

‘Abstract Possible – The Birmingham Beat’ is at Eastside Projects Gallery, Birmingham till December 1st. There is more info about Abstract Possible here.

  1. John Holland said…

    I’m at a bit of a loss as to the political critique invoked by either the floor or the panels.
    The thought about the payment of the workers in the context of the supposed radical intentions of the work occured to me recently when looking at Boetti’s ‘collaborations’ with Afghan embroiderers. I hope they were invited to the New York private view.

  2. paul barker said…

    You were so bored you spent most of the time staring at the floor. Thanks for warning us off.