Abstract Critical

From Abstract to Abject

Written by Alan Shipway

In his first piece for abstract critical, Edinburgh-based painter Alan Shipway, the second of our current Writers-in-Residence, reflects on two, very contrasting shows by younger artists at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, Ingrid Calame at Fruitmarket Gallery and Anton Henning at the Talbot Rice and draws some highly personal conclusions….

By and large, the best art of the last sixty years or so has been abstract.  Yet abstract painting and sculpture have long been marginalised, not only by the contemporary art world but by wider culture beyond it, whose attention is taken up by the realm of spectacle and intellectual entertainment into which contemporary art has largely evolved.  New art comes in with superficial narratives of itself, narratives readily accommodated not just by contemporary art journals but by wider, middlebrow culture – the broadsheet newspapers, literary reviews, and television:  culture to which the reticence of abstract art has no sensational narrative to offer,  and in which it no longer seems to have any place.  Any sort of  art, not just abstract, can be on a high level:  yet whatever it is that puts art on this level also makes it elusive to narrative, to being made explicable.  This has always been true, but is true now in an even more pressing way:  for it’s very much as if we’ve become incapable of looking at art disinterestedly, through our own eyes, without some diverting rationale.  Abstraction and other forms of un-sensational, un-entertaining art now go relatively unnoticed – the absent guests at the table of contemporary art.

At the same time, it could be argued that this very marginalisation has contributed to the renewal of abstraction.   I would like to think so, though if it were true some evidence would have to be provided of this vigour and newness, which remains to be seen in a definitive way so far.

Anton Henning at Talbot Rice Gallery. Image courtesey of Talbot Rice Gallery and Chris Park, 2011.

Anton Henning at Talbot Rice Gallery. Image courtesey of Talbot Rice Gallery

Despite the promising-looking images of abstract painting from the advance publicity of its current Edinburgh showing, Anton Henning’s painting explicitly sets out to be bad (despite this, some of it is worth looking at).  Abstract and figurative indiscriminately, its whole intention is ironic – to either affront good taste or maybe even to escape taste altogether.   But in its very attempt to disregard restrictive conventions,  Henning’s painting simply falls into another convention – transgressive art, which no longer surprises anyone.  However abject it sets out to be for the sake of intellectual amusement, no amount of irony can let his art or any other art escape from value judgements and taste, sensibility in other words:  the ability to see what art on the highest level is, which is what judges all art in the end, inexorably and inescapably.   Artists all know that most radical art has looked ugly at first – but forget that not all ugly art is radical.

L.A. River at Clearwater Street, 2006–8 (detail), 2011 Wall drawing Photograph: Ruth Clark

Ingrid Calame, an American artist, is actually a contemporary of Henning.  But her drawings and paintings are beautiful in an un-ironic way, fresh and clean-looking.  Her generation don’t set out to be abstract in an old-school way and instead find incidental strategies of being abstract – of backing into it.  (Rachel Whiteread’s casts of the interior spaces of things, for instance, enter Minimalism through the back door, if you like.)  Calame’s drawings are enormous:  minute, complex  tracings in colour pencil that must have taken hundreds of hours to complete, works that are calm and iridescent.  Her paintings seethe with colour and visual energy, though when you look closely, every single mark seems to be painstakingly filled in by hand (I thought they were screen­-printed, at first).  Collectors’ pride in these works must inevitably stem from the fact that that they have cost the artist so many hours of her life.  The truth is, just as with any other artist, that some of her paintings are better than others, no matter how long they’ve taken to make:  if the works have any aesthetic impact, it comes from their formal qualities, their design and colour, not from this sheer investment of labour.

Installation view Ingrid Calame, The Fruitmarket Gallery Photograph: Ruth Clark

Abstraction can come about with any kind of strategy, it seems.  In the end, it’s aesthetic ends that count first and foremost, not means – yet it’s the means that are so often made so much of.

L.A. River at Clearwater Street, 2006–8 (detail), 2011 Wall drawing Photograph: Ruth Clark

  1. John Holland said…

    Thanks for a lucid piece of writing.

    I thought the concept of much abstract-ish contemporary work entering the territory via “the back door” was interesting, eg Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture that takes domestic and utilitarian objects and turns then into (semi? psuedo? neo?) minimalist abstractions.
    The contemporary value placed on means, rather than ends, is interesting too. One important reason I’ve made increasingly ‘abstract’ work lately is precisely to emphasise the relative autonomy of the end result, the object in front of the viewer, rather than any perceived strategies, literary concepts or mutually agreeable ‘statements’ that might try to justify the work prior to the experience of the picture itself, the means, in other words, as opposed to the ends.

    Judging from the accompanying photos here only, it does look as though the first artist is making some work conflating “modern art” and interior design. That does seem a very dull thing indeed to be concerned with.

  2. thishydramadeofpaint.blogspot.com said…

    I’d have to say that I’m mostly in agreement here. The old gallery standard viewing shuffle has been replaced by a new dance which goes side to side rather than back and forth.