Confronting your demons is now taken for granted as a means of maintaining psychic health, and representing them is also a way of keeping them at bay. A lot of abstract painting, especially the work of Abstract Expressionists such as Pollock, is born from the idea that art’s function, both for artist and viewer, is to affect an inner freedom by externalising psychic forces in all their rawness. Therefore, a lot of modern or contemporary painting is about a search for ugliness rather than a search for beauty. Ugliness is something to confront rather than enjoy yet in its own way ugliness brings its own pleasures. In the case of Philip Guston the search was for the most grotesque ugliness he could muster. Guston depicts a debased quotidian and utilitarian world where heads, eyes, arms and legs are severed from their source and become part of bizarre still-lives of cartoon objects, emanating a tragi-comic down-troddenness. Guston’s move into self-hatred for a long time obscured the brilliance of the late paintings. Now they appear very complete and almost classical. Back in the Seventies they were still too smelly, too funky to be appreciated properly.
The works in this exhibition try and capture some of that directness, that rawness. The battles that are being waged in the work of these three artists seems to be about a letting go of all belief, but not a belief in good painting. The desire to make a good painting seems to be the overriding desire of all three artists. Although Pollock shared this desire, he would risk the painting’s possible destruction or descent into chaos in order to push through another quality, an aliveness or authenticity that can only come when the painting has been purged back to its point of origin. Although comparing these artists to Pollock is unfair, the comparison, especially with early Pollock, holds true for all three artists in their use of signs and symbols, runes, letters and grotesque distortions. A difference perhaps lies in the intensity of energy employed by Pollock and the relatively slow pace of the paintings in this show. Although, granted, no-one can make faster paintings than Pollock, the point remains that the presence and feel of a painting is as much defined by the energy put into it as what it might depict. Paint is the most sensitive trace and carrier of energy from the brush and every area of the painting has to be pulsating somehow.
Benjamin Brett’s take is to keep it all hanging together, keeping tabs on the elements in the recycling centre of his soul. Like many postmodernists before him he has found that what lies beneath is often not the unknown but in fact the overly familiar. In “Untitled” (2013) Brett can’t resist the pair of Mickey Mouse gloves and insouciant handling. The objects, personages and creatures occupy the virtual space of the painting as happy non-sequiturs that don’t seem to have much to say to each other. The feeling of the painting is one of frustration, angst even, symbolised by the charred or bandaged head and the skeletal dog owner. His doodle of a dog-man and string of juicy sausages is not explained, neither are the crooked armchair, the lamp, the flat cat and the useless mute cylinder. The paint is handled with aplomb and the images hover pleasingly within the painted field, but overall the painting is too inconclusive to generate any real pain. “Untitled ” (2013), opposite, is more sophisticated. The black and white diamond tiles face us both as abstract painting and as the possible receptacle of a wet mop. Spray painted fluorescent doodles hover barely above the ground, like the hallucinations of an exhausted janitor. “Floorswamp” makes a different move and replaces flat tessellation with deep space, so the glyphs have to work a bit harder to maintain their position on the surface. Meaning-wise the images are even more of smorgasbord, hovering around an X marking the spot. It is curious that the simplest sign, the X, also has the most spatial clarity. Brett’s paintings have a lot of qualities but he has difficulty maintaining the integrity of an image. “Dancer” (2013) occupies an in-between state in this regard – it seems underdetermined in its identity, unsure of what it is.
The work of Blake Daniels is more figurative and more obviously grotesque. In both “Ag Pleez Daddy” (2012) and the smaller “My Dear Dead Dad” (2012) Blake depicts the figure of an old wizened man splitting apart, penetrated in one painting by mysterious feminine fingers, his face detaching itself from his head and revealing the raw exposed brain. In the other painting, the old man seems to be disappearing back into the shrubbery and the rock garden, his mattress strangely interpolated by a garden wall. Its unclear whether the tone is towards empathy or repulsion or towards an appreciation of Daniel’s satisfyingly chunky brushstrokes.
Robert Fry’s paintings come from a less familiar place – like ritualistic diagrams they immediately evoke psychological scenarios and confrontations between selves – self and other or self and self. “Related Study E” (2011) has a bottom strip covered in the repeated word Panic – the word seems in contrast with the scene above,which is a passive and stilled depiction of two pin-headed figures facing each other. “Red’ is a more complex and sophisticated proposal on a grand scale. Life size male silhouettes morph like shadows, conveyed sideways across the picture plane like mannequins. One of the figure’s heads has detached and framed itself in an elliptical green frame – another has a head disintegrating into upward streams of light, like a saint on high. Another headless body is niggled by a hovering detail of an unresolved Rubik’s Cube. The whole composition has a primitive frieze- like quality, like Pompeiian wall painting , mid-Eighties computer games or hieroglyphics. The colour scheme is another thing altogether – all Venetian reds and purples, like astral charts or aristocratic upholstery. The colours, and the peculiar narrowness of their range , gives these paintings a somewhat elevated air that is not necessarily earnt by the imagery. What does it all mean?
Of course paintings can exist without meaning – paintings can simply exist. But how do you earn the right to exist, the mark of quality? All the paintings in this show are handsome and could grace a wall like a tapestry, but they kept reminding me for some reason of children’s games, like the ones I used to play as a kid; Ker Plunk, Operation, Connect Four and Sorry! are the ones I remember .The paintings involve play rather than passionate emotional weight or the desperate urge to paint yourself out of a corner. A judgment becomes charged and dramatic when something is at stake, and in these paintings, like in the children’s board games, the moves are light and beautiful and slightly out of control, but ultimately a bit inconsequential.
Lightness is one way to go – Brett meets Dufy for example. There is also the path of meaning what you say- Munch, Guston and Jean Michel Basquiat all meant it, the poor bastards. Or deliberately not meaning what you say, Jasper Johns is a master of this; or pretending to not mean what you really mean, which is Andy Warhol’s province. Being able to make a distinction between creation and appropriation would be a good start. Everybody has to lift stuff, but seeing that as equivalent to the creation of original form is a cultural delusion of the late nineties – the era when the DJ was king. Richard Prince is not a Picasso – he may not even be a Me. What is at stake in exhibitions like this – the work of young painters developing their voice – is to what extent they can take possession of their own language and form their own consciousness, even if its garbled, even if its useless.
Mapping the Abstract is on at Beers Lambert Contemporary Art until the 21st of September