Abstract Critical

Mapping the Abstract: Robert Fry, Benjamin Brett, Blake Daniels

Written by Dan Coombs

Mapping the Abstract installation view. Work on left by Robert Fry, two to right Benjamin Brett. Photo: Oskar Proctor.
Mapping the Abstract installation view. Work on left by Robert Fry, two to right Benjamin Brett. Photo: Oskar Proctor.

 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, Untitled, 2013, oil on linen, 188 x 235cm
Benjamin Brett, Untitled, 2013, oil on linen, 188 x 235cm

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.

Benjamin Brett, Untitled, 2013, oil on linen, 188 x 235cm; Dancer, 2013, oil on linen, 70 x 60cm. Photo: Oskar Proctor.
Benjamin Brett, Untitled, 2013, oil on linen, 188 x 235cm; Dancer, 2013, oil on linen, 70 x 60cm. Photo: Oskar Proctor.

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. 

Blake Daniel, Ag Pleez Daddy, 2012, oil on canvas, 152 x 110cm
Blake Daniel, Ag Pleez Daddy, 2012, oil on canvas, 152 x 110cm

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?

Robert Fry, Related Study E, 2011, acrylic, oil and enamel on canvas, 175 x 145cm
Robert Fry, Related Study E, 2011, acrylic, oil and enamel on canvas, 175 x 145cm

 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



  1. Patrick Jones said…

    Hi John,I dont think age has anything to do with anything.I think the fact that an aspiring artist has seen[or not] Albers colour theory,knows that colour works in relation to its neighbour,is extremely important.I think that an understanding of Picasso and Gonzales experiments in metal after synthetic cubism are so fascinating,I personally have no intention of giving them up.I think Robins wrong on this as he is dismissing the horizon line.Its about whether the thinking is lazy or vital.Let me see you come up with curatorial new possibilities,and reposition Abstract Art culturally,Ill be delighted!

  2. Chris Fortney said…

    I’m interested in the thoughts you shared about inconsequential moves in painting. Of course it’s all subjective, but I’ve found by working through large scale paintings at the quickest speed I’m able to, I feel that burning sense of risk as I go. I can think of specific parts in one particular painting that weren’t quite polished, the stroke or color just off and out of place. I call them gremlins! They have appeared as weird trees or dumpsters, maybe a shadow that was too heavy handed somewhere. And for me maintaining that sense of consequence in painting has a lot to do with balancing the necessary gremlins, which should not be worked over, with the correctly executed moments.

  3. Peter Stott said…

    I realize this is not exactly part of the discussion about these paintings (which to me, look OK) but a personal gripe about the title “Mapping The Abstract”. The phrase ‘mapping’ suggests some sort of scientific appraisal of the 2D data, yet it is inevitably used to mean something else, quite what, in this case, I don’t know. As things stand, there isn’t the computer vision technology to carry out this task, the possible 3D forms and spaces that an image might represent, cannot yet be articulated, as such, the form/space content of abstract painting remains mysterious, beyond ordinary human cognition and present levels of scientific analysis.

  4. Patrick Jones said…

    Thats what you get by ditching Modernism,uninformed cynicsm,anything goes.And yet so much of what Sam posts as young painting is depressingly similar, despite the anarchy.

    • John Bunker said…

      As much as I agree with you on this Patrick, I would have to admit that so much of what calls itself Modernist art seems to be repeating the same o’l signage. I think a 23 year old can go through the process of reinventing the wheel a good few times (even if it is in public). I don’t necessarily think its cynicism. I would be far less patient with a 45 to 65 year old doing the same old same old in the name of something that, at best, is a highly disputed set of historical assumptions and contradictions….. Whether they be Modernist or Post Modernist in character ( its Academicism). I think the real challenge now is to get the work out there! Creating new curatorial opportunities. Testing out some of our time honoured ideas about what abstract art can actually achieve as a cultural force. Get it seen somehow. Maybe that means seeing the work in a different light too, getting, dare I say it, younger writers, thinkers and artists looking at the work! Creating debate! Which is what I think AbCrit is all about.

      (And this is in part an answer to Terry’s comments concerning the first Brancaster discussion- it’s things like the Chronicles that are triggers for discussion, they are not earth shattering, paradigm shifting revelations of legendandary proportions! They are starting points….. By raising the stakes too high you end up throwing the baby out with the bath water.)

      • Terry Ryall said…

        Well John, you disappoint me. I had you measured as a man of high ambition for whom no stakes would be too high! In contrast I fall into categories that generally aspire to low expectations (60 plus, Charlton Athletic supporter etc. etc.) so I certainly didn’t intend to present as looking for paradigm shifting revelations of legendary proportions from the Chronicles format. Oh no. If you don’t mind I’ll post something further to the Anne Smart discussion based on your comments (and thanks for yours).

      • John Bunker said…

        I look forward ( as always) to your insights Terry!

  5. Robin Greenwood said…

    I know it doesn’t matter or anything, whatever, but was there actually any abstract painting in the show, at all, by chance?

    • Sam said…

      Here could abstraction be seen as substance in which figuration is dissolved? Of course the title might be something dreamt up by the gallery, with the artists involved not making any particular claims. This may not be a completely satisfying type of ‘abstraction’ but I’m interested in how these young painters (the youngest 22 or 23) are approaching it. Though I’m yet to see the show myself…