Abstract Critical

Otto Piene at Mayor Gallery

Written by Nick Moore

Exhibition open until 27 July

This retrospective exhibition of the founder of Group Zero ranges across the whole of Piene’s career from the early sixties to the present; it includes works on paper, canvas and clay, as well as an example of his inflatables, Les Fleurs du Mal, a cluster of six black spiky inflatable flowers that burst into life at regular intervals accompanied by strobe lights; and a dark room showing the Light Ballet from 1983. In this review I will concentrate on the paintings, but these works need to be acknowledged as major strands of his practice.

Installation Shot II. Courtesy The Mayor Gallery

Piene stated in a catalogue in 1959 (Hessenhuis, Antwerp) that ‘A painting is a field of forces, the arena where its author’s impulses all come together, there to be transformed, to be re-formed into a movement of colour.’ Walking into the front room of the Major Gallery was an exciting experience, with an immediate impact of colour and energy; you are faced with a range of medium sized brightly coloured paintings, mainly in reds and yellows, all with dark exploded centres. As one starts to look at them one by one, over time, they reveal a mix of drip and pour and some contained gestures, with layers of colour built up, some with the quality and subtleties of watercolour. The common element to all of them is the bubbled, blistered, glazed and congealed paint where they have been set alight. Literally. This dramatic action is the focus of each painting, and it is in the centre with few exceptions. Taking time to look at the paintings is rewarding, revealing layers and textures that belie a casual glance.

Schwarzer Komet 2010/11 Oil and fire on canvas 70 x 70 cm. Courtesy The Mayor Gallery

The two black and white paintings in the first room, Die Fledermaus, 1984, and Schwarzer Komet, 2010/11 stood out from the high colours of the rest of the room. The first, a landscape format, has a black core of three charred nuclei ranged across the centre of the canvas, each of which has a series of poured tails off to the top left, whilst from the outer two plumes of smoke fall downwards. The white background is subtly smoked. The second painting is a smaller, square shape with a shiny, burned, black central core, with crackle and blister and gobs of paint, enclosed in a ring of scorched material; from this small particles and paint trail off in runs to the bottom left corner, giving a diagonal energy up across the painting.  Whereas Die Fledermaus has no immediate associations, Schwarzer Komet suggests a comet burning its way through the white atmosphere engulfed in a smoky halo, a jellyfish or more poetically a charcoal seed. Despite being over a quarter century apart, they could have been made in the same year, the facture was so similar.

Battle of the Amazons c. 1985 Oil and fire on canvas 200 x 200 cm. Courtesy The Mayor Gallery

On the back wall of the room is the largest painting at 2m square, Battle of the Amazons c.1985; it is a huge explosive piece with black paint erupting in all directions from the burned core, covering a similarly dynamic area of red which trails and splatters off the edge of the canvas. There are thin trails of black paint that have been flung on the canvas from the centre, as well as a thinner, more feathery area on the right. A concentrated mass of trails flow diagonally down to the bottom right edge of the canvas from the centre, giving a sense of dynamism and movement upwards; penetrating the orange/red centre, which has been painted over the black, is a fiery seed that appears to have come from the bottom edge. In the central burned area are a variety of textures including those like sand furrows on a beach; threads of bright red peep through cracks in the glazing and on the left side where a length of the burned glaze has cracked off, two streaks of dull red are revealed showing the fugitive nature of the process.

Heat (mit Rahmen) 1975 Oil and fire on canvas 83 x 102 cm. Courtesy The Mayor Gallery

The earlier works on paper in the third room, all untitled from the sixties, are more subtle explorations of fire and gouache, more softly smoked than burned, with a very delicate, quiet quality. But Piene seems to lose his way with the raucous rainbow paintings of the early seventies, with subtlety abandoned, before re-grouping with the bursting energy of the volcanic canvases Heat (mit Rahmen) and Kilauea, both from 1975. Heat (mit Rahmen) has an almost white hot flow of orange paint issuing from a hard edged black triangle, with arches of green and a peacock blue area above in the smoked red background; Kilauea has a charred central upthrust with livid orange trails and a network of glazed excrescences against a moody smoked background with a semicircle of bright red at the top of the canvas. It is hard to describe them without resorting to some kind of image – volcanoes, lava, foreground/background – as they are more overtly representational than their companions.

Geo 2000/02 Oil and fire on canvas 120 x 170 cm. Courtesy The Mayor Gallery

In contrast, Geo, 2000/02 is less dense, and has a wealth of subtleties in its thin layers, on a yellow background with the central burned area like a peacocks feather – blue/black with yellow speckles; there is a softened grey and orange shadow behind it which is blended into the smoked yellow ground. Leading to the lower right corner is a broad area of paint that has been glazed and has the appearance of snakeskin. With Plusquamperfekt, and Dots Galaxy, both 2003, this shows a developed subtlety from the denser paintings of the 70s like those mentioned above, from Fruhlings Erwachen, through Embers and Shadows, 2000, For Greco, 2001, to Feuer und Wasser, 2000/02.

Embers & Shadows 2000 Oil and fire on canvas 70 x 90 cm. Courtesy The Mayor Gallery

However despite this development, as I noted with the black and white paintings Die Fledermaus and Schwarzer Komet 2, all of the ones in the front room look like a series that might have been made over a couple of years, so consistent is their appearance. There is an almost formulaic approach to them, all but one being similar sizes with layered background and burned core; if this selection is representative of Piene’s work then perhaps his energy went into the inflatables and light projects as there appears to be very little development in the paintings themselves.

I am drawn to compare Piene’s work with that of another fireman, Burri, in a recent survey of similar size. They both began exploring the possibilities of fire from about the same time, in 1957. The paintings of both share a degree of visceral materiality, though Burri takes it further into the realms of felt content precisely because of the absence of a recognisable image and the physicality of the viewer’s experience of the work. With Piene there is a separation of  the activity of painting from the transformative effects of fire – the works are painted, then burnt – but in Burri’s work, the material, be it burlap, plastic or metal, along with paint to a lesser or greater degree, is inseparably bound up with the effects of his activity on it. The latter will stay with me, seared into my being, whereas those of Piene, although visually exciting, engaging and satisfying, are limited and will not have such a deep seated impact.