Abstract Critical

Double Vision At the Lion & Lamb Gallery

Written by Adam Walker

Until July 14

Double Vision is the third show at the Lion & Lamb Gallery, quite literally a few white walls within the pub of the same name.

As eluded to in the title, this exhibition of contemporary abstract painting sets out to explore a series of binary oppositions: figure and field, surface and depth, chance and system, symmetry and asymmetry.

Ian Bottle, Rift, 2012, acrylic on wood, 57 x 47cm

While these are well-traveled avenues of exploration, the quality of the works on display makes revisiting them worthwhile. For in this surprising setting at the back of a pub are some beautiful paintings (amidst several other very good ones and, as is almost inevitable in any group show such as this, a few which I found uninteresting).

Installation view Lion & Lamb Gallery

The quality of the works makes the context of the exhibition especially intriguing, adding further narratives to the dialogues being explored. Despite being only five minutes’ walk from the try-hard nightspots of Hoxton Square and Shoreditch, the Lion & Lamb is assuredly not a pub for self-designated hipsters. Double Vision is here presented in an authentically unprepossessing east London boozer sitting amidst council estates. This context opens up another set of binary oppositions to be explored, between democracy and elitism, exclusivity and inclusion. The series of paintings on display would look perfectly in place in a white cube space, but this is very far from that.

Abstract painting has perhaps suffered more than most ‘genres’ in being viewed as inaccessible and existing within a self-referential bubble. Would this alternative, possibly more accessible display context overcome this or would preconceptions leave the gallery as a perennial empty space at the back of the pub? I will return to this question.

Estelle Thompson, Look at Now And, oil on panel, 50 x 40cm

The hang here is also worth noting. No doubt in part simply a result of the confines of the space, the works are scattered across the walls in loose groupings and assemblages. I normally find anything straying from a conventional hang in which every painting has its own space distracting, but here it works. Perhaps the relatively uniform and small size of the paintings is what makes this possible. The eye of the viewer is subtly directed from one painting to another, and the sense is of considered composition rather than cramped fitting in. With two dozen paintings on display, the below is a snapshot of those works I found most interesting. Inevitably another viewer may have arrived at an entirely different selection.

Mali Morris, Degrees of Freedom, 2005 acrylic on canvas, 36 x 46cm

The first painting to catch my eye was Mali Morris’ Degrees of Freedom. Stages between transparency and opacity are integral to Morris’ paintings. Here translucency allows a faint suggestion of what lies beneath to pass through to the surface, and hints at the process of building up which has taken place. In the swirling creamish top layer there is a beguiling organic freedom in the brushwork and a frothiness at the points where it meets or leaves the canvas. The central molecule-like structure was created by the erasure of the uppermost layer of paint; this erasure is explicitly stated as a considered decision, yet the flowing brushmarks around it contain just as much decisiveness in judging the moment of when to leave them as they are.

In creating by erasure or excavation Morris reverses the more typical process of placing form upon field. In Degrees of Freedom the almost isometric angle of the molecule-like structure gives a vague suggestion of perspectival space, hovering within the translucent layers. This is an intriguing additional dimension to this painting, not found in the isolated circular forms her paintings usually reveal.

Alice Browne, Untitled 2, 2012, oil on canvas, 45 x 40cm

Sitting on the same wall, Alice Browne’s untitled work more overtly explores perspective. Eight simple lines break up a dark shape to create a sense of looking into a void. As the eye is drawn into the centre of the composition, the dark shape presses out to the edges so that any sense of relief in space is reduced to a few mere slivers of light.

Chris Baker, Metan, oil on canvas, 75 x 60cm

In Metan by Chris Baker depth seems to have dissolved as lines fall into disorder; the painting seems intensely planar, an irregular grid hovering in front of an indeterminable space beyond. In referencing and partially disordering the structure of the grid, this painting enters into dialogue with a number of works in Double Vision which explore the tension between chance and system. Many works feature certain compositional or process-related decisions which have been minutely planned, while in others there is a sense of much freer, more lyrical experimentation where the decision to stop is the crucial one.

Isha Bohling, Divider, 2012, acrylic and mixed media on board, 26 x 20cm

Isha Bohling’s Divider appears to encapsulate a means of composition based on a system being devised and followed through. The morphing diamond motifs work almost like fractals. But that ‘almost’ brings a vital ambiguity to it: in certain sections the system seems to have been corrupted, and in these ‘imperfections’ the hand of the artist seeps back in.

Dan Roach, Bridgegate, 2012, oil, wax on panel, 16.5 x 19cm

Another work connecting with Morris’s painting is Dan Roach‘s captivating Bridgegate. This beautiful painting plays in its own way with opacity and transparency. Again each layer offers glimpses of those beneath, through the sweeping yet juddering brush marks. Particularly enjoyable is the sudden vertical line of white within the green polygon where the outward spiral that creates it abruptly ends. Further poise and balance is achieved through the way in which the green polygon’s satisfying outline of sharply pointed and smoothly rounded corners is mirrored by the fragile, transparent, white fragments of the topmost layer.

Danny Rolph, Return 2, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 35 x 25cm

I was still very interested in the unusual display context and returned to the Lion & Lamb one evening several days later to see how the inter-relationship between gallery and pub functioned when it was busy. Would being in such a social space re-inject something more overtly human into these abstract works? Sadly there was no interaction while I was there; the pub goers staying in the other half and the gallery remaining empty.

Yet even with only limited visitor crossover the pub-gallery hybrid model (which should be seen as distinct from the not uncommon ‘spaces for hire’ that some pubs may have) holds many benefits. It allows artwork to be put out on display in the socio-cultural arena without having to be too concerned with the economic. The risks, practicalities and cost of operating even a temporary space are taken care of, offering greater possibilities for experimental and idiosyncratic curation. And art is placed centrally in a community rather than being reified in inaccessible white cubes. Surely any artwork must be considered differently when viewed between the beer taps down at the local, and it’s worth taking the opportunity to see it in such a way.

  1. P Gould said…

    My recent experience of the lion and lamb (bearing in mind this show/thread are old) is that there are many groups of people who come to the pub and that makes those of us interested in painting look like the niche culture they/we are. It’s normal for a pub to function like this. I don’t think an outreach program is necessary.

  2. Adam Walker said…

    That’s good to hear Andy.

    Ruth, although I don’t know the landlord myself I think he must have a love of (or at least a strong interest in) art: prior to the gallery space being set up, the previous time I was in the pub was for the launch party for a new edition of Turps Banana (contemporary painting magazine).

    So the pub has had an extended engagement with contemporary art before the setting up of the gallery. Peter Ashton Jones is both the Director of the gallery space and co-editor of Turps Banana so I would guess he may be the link.

    Jenny, for me the kind of unscripted social engagement around the art the Andy describes is a more appropriate engagement with the art in this setting than a planned talk would be? ‘Re-inject something more overtly human’ was referring simply to the way the lack of representational presence in an ‘abstract’ work can often extend out into quite a cold, minimalist white cube display space which for me can often seem very de-humanised. The Lion & Lamb space is clearly very different to that.

  3. Andy Parkinson said…

    I was the first person in there on a Monday afternoon and the guy behind the bar, who claimed to have no art education, gave me a quick tour. We chatted about some of the work (the Isha Bohling and the Katrina Blannin)and also about the amount of visitor crossover, which (agreeing with your article) he said was limited but did happen. I asked about the crossover in the opposite direction: “does it ever happen that a gallery visitor doesn’t buy a drink?” I was amazed to hear that the answer was “yes” – though he qualified it by “not very often”.

    • Ruth P said…

      Having revisited the article and images, I have to say that if I went into my local pub/bar/cafe and saw an exhibition like this I would be very excited indeed. How lucky that landlord and his customers are to have the chance of looking at such wonderful work. Even the Arnolfini Cafe in Bristol (where I live) disappointingly does not ever hang any original work, just posters of previous exhibitions. Okay, but not as engaging as original works.
      Plenty of exposure to all kinds of painting really does hone your critical awareness.I find myself being hungry for something my eyes can feast on, especially when I’m eating & drinking.

  4. jenny meehan said…

    Mmm, I agree Ruth.

    It IS great to have work in pubs, etc. I rely on placing my work within existing community establishments of various kinds, and wish that there were more of them.

    I wonder if any “Meet me, I did this! …And why on earth did I do it? ” introduction talks took place? Maybe they did???

    Did they?

    “Would being in such a social space re-inject something more overtly human into these abstract works”

    Why would it? I don’t understand? (Is there a drug problem, or something?) !!! Apologies, I jest.

    I suppose it’s about expectations, and if the company is good, (the human type), then who needs a dialogue with a painting? People need a reason to engage with work which offers no recognisable hand of familiarity. The work looks very interesting to me, particularly Mali Morris, whose painting has always managed to resonate with my inside.

    I’m in a slight degree of agony myself, as I work on paintings I will place in a workplace setting, which will receive a critical eye, (a critical eye which looks not at my relationship with paint,and what I personally am developing with it, but on what it sees from its own perspectives). Perspectives which are founded and placed in different areas and experiences, different values, with different reasons for looking. Maybe just a glance, in a moment of boredom?

    Is there any information about the work on display?


    …The people that see my work will have to look at it, whether they like it or not!! All day, at work!!! I’m beginning to feel quite sorry for them, it makes my “lot” seem much less agonising!!!)

  5. Ruth P said…

    I like the look of the show very much. But has anyone talked to the locals about the work or asked them what they think? I’m assuming that the landlord is an art lover?

    (Please ignore this if the answer is yes!)

    Isn’t just placing art, especially abstract art centrally in a community without building relationships with the customers, rather arrogant? Socialising and getting to know the customers and talking to them about the art always works. They relax & become less intimidated, start to be interested. Otherwise, left to itself the work becomes wallpaper.

    All the best
    Ruth Piper
    Owner & curator of The Searchers contemporary gallery project, Bristol

    • mick finch said…

      The sense that abstract painting can be thought of as, or has become a ‘genre’ is perhaps because there have been many shows of late that address abstraction as a discreet category. In a sense such curation hives off abstraction, and abstract painting, into a specific and autonomous, bracketed activity – in short as a genre. The fact that some of the binaries presented are in fact ‘figural’, compositional and formal modes suggests that a more extensive curatorial or critical work needs addressing that would include works that are not ‘abstract’ per se. There is the implication that there are issues which the category of ‘abstract painting’ cannot, as a category, address and subtend. I find it difficult to understand what curating within a genre will achieve; by doing so masks what is critically at stake with questions of both abstraction and ‘painting’.
      The question of a public here is also unclear. Has not abstraction for many years now been absorbed by a series of publics and ceased to operate as a radical artistic address?