Abstract Critical

An Uncomfortable Armchair

Written by Lee Triming

Dan Sturgis, No Other Home, 2011, Courtesy of the artist / Galerie Hollenbach Stuttgar & Zurich

I have a particular soft spot for exhibitions curated by artists, and The Indiscipline of Painting (curated by Daniel Sturgis), while it gets off to a bit of a slow start, builds the kinds of polyvalent and open relationships between works that I look forward to in an artist-curated show; one of its principle pleasures lying in how the assembled paintings address a clear set of preoccupations without ever consolidating these into a dogmatic argument.  Flatness and frontality (as both visual and art historical tropes), for example, are addressed throughout; it’s no surprise though, given the way in which Sturgis’ own work reveres these qualities while consistently putting them on the wonk, that they recur via the work of artists who play with, question, and at times disrupt or counter these exceptionally freighted qualities.  Sometimes this play is both subtle and engaging.  And sometimes it isn’t.

Keith Coventry, for example, makes a bit of a dispiriting opener.  His England 1948 (1994-2011) greets you on entering, and you rather wish it wouldn’t. Occupying the wall opposite the gallery entrance, its conflation of the grid with 1930’s house paints nods dryly toward strands of early British Modernism, filling your field of vision with an unrewarding sprawl of dully-coloured oblongs, like the side of a grimy Donald Judd seen through the unwashed window of a National Express coach.  Not much of a welcome.   “Oh yes”, I thought, and moved on.

Things get better, but it takes a while.  Fairly tame tweaks at the unrumpled garment of high Modernism from the likes of Niele Toroni, Michael Craig-Martin and Bob Law populate the first of the gallery’s three rooms, punctuated, thankfully, by moments of resistance from Robert Ryman and Olivier Mosset.  Ryman’s Untitled from 1965 – a small square canvas striped by four perfunctory strokes of white paint – seems utterly inconsequential and low, and works as a perverse stumbling block as your eye moves along the smooth and rather boring trajectory that its been led to follow up until this point.  Mosset’s Yellow blp (1987) complements it by playing a hand so completely and self-consciously hollowed out in its caricatured Greenbergianism that its pure, facile tone chimes in opposition to Ryman’s gruff materiality, whilst according with its appropriation and strategic redeployment of high Modernist gestures.  Other high points in this first room come in the shape of a lovely untitled silver Steven Parrino from 1992, crumpled up like something Billy Name might have left in his cubby hole at the back of Warhol’s Factory, and Peter Young’s #16-1968 (Dot Painting).  This latter, a field of black spots casually dispersed across a white ground, comes on at first like a hastily executed but pretty straightforward exercise in Op Art; but on closer inspection, the faint pinks and blues which from a distance you assume exist only on the surface of your overloaded retinae turn out to have been loosely painted into the picture’s ground, turning the Op gambit inside out and encouraging you to read actual phenomena as virtual.  A cheeky and understated Mary Heilmann (Pink Sliding Square, 1978) hangs modestly next to the Young: two faintly pearlescent pink squares occupy a black ground, attended by a couple of ‘smudges’ added to look like the by-products of a process that never took place.  It looks a) as if it took about 20 minutes to knock out and b) pleased as punch with the results.

Bernard Frize b 1949 Suite Segond 100 No 3 1980 Alkyd Urethane lacquer on canvas 162 x 130 cm Collection of the artist, courtesy Simon Lee Gallery, London

Heilmann’s fun-loving and tricksy gesture turns out to accurately signpost pleasures to come.  The gallery’s second room starts out with a Bernard Frize (Suite Segond 100 No. 3, 1980), composed using overlapping skins of household paint lifted straight from their cans, punned against Frank Stella’s Hyena Stomp (1962). Francis Beaudevin’s wall painting The Only Truth (2012) riffs not only on traditions of graphic design, but also on the check and dot motifs so prevalent in Sturgis’ own paintings (such as No Other Home, 2011, displayed here in the same room).  The back-and-forths between colour, gesture and painterly gambit within this section of the show are particularly rich and condensed: Tomma Abts’ Thiale (2004) plays its understated pictorial ambiguities off against Sturgis’ loud and buzzy collision of checks and flat colour; Peter Halley’s Two Cells with Conduit and Underground Chamber(1983) echoes Sturgis’ off kilter composition and clear contrasts while the physicality of its hard-edged, textured squares picks up on Abts’ exploitation of her own underpainting. Halley’s dark squares, pressed to the picture plane from the outside (their solidity nodding, by way of inversion, to Heilmann’s pink squares, which are actually underpainting revealed by apertures in their dark ‘ground’), also converse with Dan Walsh’s repeated oblong motifs, which occupy the canvas more like the pattern of a printed textile. What at first seems a simple, decorative composition gradually reveals subtle imbalances within its organisation, informing in turn the way you then look at Sturgis’ areas of both checked and flat colour which, seemingly collaged together at random, never allow the eye to settle into a stable visual experience, always calling it away to some contrasting point or field at the periphery of that particular area of the painting to which it is attempting to pay attention. Returning to Thiale, Abts seems to ramp this game down to the subtlest level in an image that hums with pictorial assonances.

Tomma Abts, Thiale, 2004, acrylic & oil on canvas, 18.9 x 14.96 inches 48 x 38 cm, Courtesy greengrassi, London

The rest of the show continues to play out in a series of more or less dynamic propositions and counter-propositions; relationships between works are frequently compelling, though not without falling occasionally flat (Andy Warhol’s brilliantly garish 1982 work Eggs, for example, makes neighbouring works by Tim Head and Richard Kirwan look staid and thin, its deadpan exuberance overshadowing everything else within its ambit).  Tauba Auerbach and Jacob Kassay do, however, manage to snatch a tender moment in a corner of the gallery’s third and final room.  Kassay’s chemically treated silver monochromes are very seductive (and the positioning of this untitled work from 2009 nicely closes the brackets around Warhol’s Eggs which Parrino opened two rooms earlier), but they already feel too known to demand sustained attention.  Auerbach’s Untitled (Fold) (2011) is better: its flat surface displays an airbrushed trompe l’oeil image that makes the taut canvas appear crumpled, as if recently unfolded.  The delicate shift of sprayed colour through a warm, misty spectrum of oranges and mauves is as seductive as its neighbour’s silvered surface, and recalls the photogram (the chemistry of which links to the liquid silver baths into which Kassay lowers his paintings) while also referring back to Parrino, thereby bolstering Kassay’s painting and bringing it into a flattering conjunction where it gains unexpected interest, like a good-looking teenager seen lunching with Truman Capote.

Moving into the home straits, the conjunction of Peter Davies’ Small Touching Squares (1998) and John M Armleder’s Brillian Xanthinus Arborescens (2008), shown on opposing walls, showcases their differing approaches to repetition as play.  The intense engagement with process and the investment of time required to produce Davies’ work is apparently pitched in contrast to the speedy, off-the-cuff execution of Armleder’s pour paintings, which he treats as an unending series, a conveyor belt of auto-appropriation; but then, you might equate the gesture of making a single Armleder painting with Davies drawing and filling in a single square – each gesture similarly contributes to the production of a field or corpus composed of elements each of which relies on its fellows for affect.

It is this sense of relatedness and dialogue, where paintings work on each other in ways both consistent and inconsistent with established lines of art historical discourse, that builds into a satisfyingly complex weave as the show progesses.  Its fitting, then, that the last word here goes to Mary Heilmann, who rounds things off with the deliciously sloppy Primalon Ballroom (2002) and a pair of her Club Chair’s from 2009.  The jerry-rigged aping of Modernism in the painting as well as the chairs simultaneously recalls and deranges both the stiff functionality of the Bauhaus and Matisse’s ideal of the painting as comfortable armchair, proposing new and more fidgety pleasures at odds with both.


  1. ZoeC said…

    Really enjoyed this exhibition despite its flaws. Showing abstract paintings from the last 5 decades alongside each other made me look at artists I knew in a fresh way.

    Thought this article was spot on too.

  2. Paula Clare said…

    I liked the way this show was put together exploring aspects of abstraction and possible ways forward mainly in ;what paint and surface effects and referencesto other images,for example the Malevich. The comparisons of one work with another gave an added dimension. However, I missed an element of newness which I think abstract and other forms of art need now: art with direct meaning.