Abstract Critical

Rosa Lee and Sarah Dwyer

Written by Sam Cornish

Rosa Lee: Paintings, Eagle Gallery, closed 30/3/12
Sarah Dwyer: Falling into Positions, Josh Lilley Gallery, closed 30/3/12

The painting I liked most in this show was one given prominence in the hang and was also the last Rosa Lee painted (this is the first solo exhibition of her work since her early death in 2009). In method Untitled (2009) was clearly related to a number of other works on display. This group of five paintings, about half the number in the show, were all comprised of a network of narrow ridges of various colours prominently raised off the surface of the painting; generally, to my mind, these ridges existed in unresolved (mildly disturbing, though more crucially, unconvincing) relation to the illusionistic effects that operated closer to the paintings’ surfaces. Caught unsatisfactorily between two distinct levels, paintings such as Ether (2005) or Flight (2005) were murky or vague.

ROSA LEE Untitled 2009 oil on canvas 118 x 122cm. Courtesy Eagle Gallery

Untitled rose above this confusion. It struck me more clearly and immediately as a whole, all-over image and sustained itself as one. This was in part connected to the tension its lines expressed, the way they grew out of each other and actively responded to the edges of the picture (whereas the lines in Flight stopped short of the edge and in Ether were cut off by it). As an image Untitled had a light, aerial quality, a little like I was looking through a net flung up and suspended against the sky. Yet a singular or dominant reading was avoided by the way in which the ridges merged with the background (so  that  ‘sky’ and ‘net’ were forced into impossible relation) and because of the presence of other, more interior intimations, most obviously an aquatic or perhaps sub-aquatic shimmering.

ROSA LEE, Elision, 2000, oil on canvas, 38 x 36 cm. Courtesy Eagle Gallery

The group of paintings including Untitled, Flight and Ether attempted different registers in order to capture fleeting or elusive feelings or impulses. Untitled seemed to me to provoke a greater range of these, though it is difficult to know if I am saying this because I liked it for more narrowly formal reasons, or even simply because, my attention held, I allowed it to work on me for longer. These sort of uncertainties and the attention paid to slender, just caught sensations meant this group were in general private and intimate. A larger orange painting, decorated (not a pejorative) with lively blue stenciled arabesques was more public, though still for me troubled with a surface quality that fought uncomfortably against its overall structure.

Sarah Dwyer Tevy 2012 Oil on linen 185 x 204 cm/ 73 x 80 inches courtesy of Josh Lilley Gallery

Intimacy was a feature of Elision, the other painting I liked, where the ‘surface problem’ (if I can call it that) was resolved, not with the open suspension of Untitled but through a kind of dense semi-organic, jewel-like mosaic. Elision reminded me a little of the post-war European abstract painting I have mainly seen in old books, which avoided the scrawl of l’informel and the totalizing impact and expansive scale of Abstract Expressionism. Though I can see why American painting was so attractive to British painters of the Sixties and Seventies, I would like to see a good show of artists like Poliakoff, Manessier or Bissière (to pluck three from Skira’s 1960 Modern Painting: Contemporary Trends). This would perhaps counter the very common easy bandying about of ‘Modernism’ by showing its diversity (in the Rosa Lee catalogue Sacha Craddock mentions ‘modernist freshness’, whilst in the same breath referring, slightly cryptically, to ‘obvious finite notions of quality as such’). More importantly it seems to me that such an exhibition would chime well with the intentions of many abstract painters of about my age, who, if not courting a Pop gleam, frequently show a preference for small scale, quiet painting.

Sarah Dwyer Third Memory 2012 Oil on linen 204 x 185 cm/ 80 x 73 inches courtesy of Josh Lilley Gallery

It was in part because  Sarah Dwyer counters this trend for the small and simple (and very often the tentative or half-present) that I am sympathetic to her exhibition at Josh Lilley. She makes big, complicated paintings (all nine dated this year and most  around two metres high) and throws a lot into the mix. A number of paintings, which as the press release stated owed a lot to Arshile Gorky, worked well from a distance, the biomorphic shapes cutting into each other and establishing themselves with certainty. I particularly liked Tevy, Turning Vacancies and Absolution in this regard.  Yet when I moved closer the details of the paintings intruded and things laid awkwardly on top of each other or else seemed sketched out or filled in; they lacked a sense of a felt reality operating between the painted marks and the overall structure these marks combined to depict (see the current Joan Mitchell or Gary Wragg exhibitions for what I mean by this). Third Memory in part avoided this problem by leaving parts of the canvas unpainted and so allowing its structures more room to exist in. It contained my favourite moment in the show, in which a beautiful ribbon of paint broke free of the melee and struck out to hit a free floating patch of pink and implicate a curved yellow line, with both floating patch and curved line described directly.