Abstract Critical

Webb and Holyhead – The Uses of Abstract Painting

Written by John Holland

Robert Holyhead, Untitled (large dark), 2012, oil on canvas, 114.3 x 76.2 cm © The Artist 2012. All rights reserved. Courtesy Karsten Schubert, London

What is the position of abstract critical within what might be called, oxymoronically, the mainstream avant garde? Does abstract art, in the conception normally put forward on this site, have any place at all within contemporary critical discourse, or is it doomed (or blessed) to eternal ideological irrelevance?

Two exhibitions in London at the moment exemplify the terms in which abstract painting may be allowed in to the discursive tent. David Webb and Robert Holyhead are ‘contemporary’ artists in a way that in a way that Douglas Abercrombie and Peter Hide at Poussin Gallery are, for better or worse, not. Central to the difference lies in Dan Sturgis’s phrase about works that are “representations of abstract paintings’’. This is what makes them, in the eyes of post-structuralist critics, ambitious – and in formal critical terms, hopelessly unambitious.

David Webb, Parcheesi (VT), 2012, acrylic on canvas, 38 x 45.5cm, courtesy of the artist

There is a more-or-less unbridgeable gulf here between the basic assumptions surrounding aesthetics, epistemology and indeed what work of art actually is and can be, most of which turns on changes in the critical consensus some time after Jasper John’s final literalisation of the picture surface. Not since then has the meaning of a painting been looked for primarily in its specific unmediated visual properties, or in the phenomenological encounter with the individual viewer. The languages of what could be called, for simplicity’s sake, conceptualism and formalism are wholly incompatible; attempts have been made in discussions on this site to conflate them, to apply the criteria of one to the products of another, and the result was epistemological gridlock. The embrace of metaphor, symbolism, and the wonders of the free floating signifier is also the rejection, the antithesis, of the modernist project that informs most of the writing on this site. What you see, to contradict Stella, is not what you get. What you get are cues – triggers for cultural or ontological interpretation.

As artists working to a large degree within this consensus, David Webb essentially uses abstract painting as a vehicle for sociological and narrative content, and Robert Holyhead makes ontological investigations into the indexical traces of oil paint left by moving a loaded brush over canvas. Both artists’ paintings are read for significance outside of their strictly visual content – they are the sort of paintings that are at ease with the interpretative economy of the signifier, and the contemporary critical framework that’s been built around it. Both are mainstream and progressive.

David Webb, Pachyderm, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 40.5x46cm, courtesy of the artist

David Webb’s paintings at Transition gallery are all small (mostly about 30 by 40cm), unassertive, tonally subdued (soft greys and olives, the most muted of oranges) and gesturally pellucid; quite nice, to borrow a critical term from Rosalind Krauss. The acrylic paint is uniformly thin, though occasionally some grit has been added to give a little more body, and the forms are clearly defined but ambiguous. Some of them suggest landscape, or unreadable objects, or a kind of generic geometric abstraction. What they don’t do is form a sustained visual exploration- compositionally, spatially, there’s not actually much to connect them. The reason for this is that they are in fact synechdoches for an autobiographic narrative that we learn about in the gallery blurb, and the relationship between the pictures and the particular memory that’s their trigger is opaque without these accompanying explanations. Eleanor Moreton writes about the pictures ‘’transcending abstraction’’. ‘Pachyderm’, a pooled pale grey blob on a dark grey ground, is an abstraction of a toy elephant given to Webb by his Grandmother; some curving blue shapes on a white ground (‘Tourist Smoking Room’) are, apparently, the legs of the chairs in a Tanzanian waiting room; the geometric abstractions are in fact based on a pacheesi board – also a childhood memory of Africa. The board is spatially opened out in the painting (‘Parcheesi VT), in a kind of reversal of Jasper Johns’ dense and haptic targets- but I’m not sure how much significance this has. Likewise, what is the relationship between the sentimental memory of the toy elephant in ‘Pachyderm’, and the painting, which without the parallel information is unrecognisably abstract? The elephant is subsumed into the pictorial concerns of the painting.

David Webb, Tourist Smoking Room (Snake), 2012, acrylic on canvas, 51×40.5cm

Eleanor Moreton delights in this investment of meaning into what she seems to see as the communicative shortcomings of abstraction, and goes into some detail in her essay about Webb’s childhood biography; so the discourse accepts the apparently abstract format of the art, because it can be made to signify a story that can give it meaning about memory, family, even colonialism. These themes are interesting, even if abstract painting isn’t. Consequently if a painting looks a little uninventive or over-determined there’s an escape hatch; they can’t quite escape the formal arbitrariness of their sources, but they don’t need to. A certain formal arbitrariness is part of their meaning: transcending the visual.

Robert Holyhead transcends the visual too, in his exhibition at Karsten Schubert. He uses the provisionality of his disinterested, generic paint application to attempt a kind of reification of doubt, stripping the means of painting down to the basics in a Cartesian search for the bottom line. ‘’What is painting’’, he asks in an interview. His answer seems to be ‘not very much’.

Robert Holyhead, Untitled (large pale), 2012, oil on canvas, 104.1 x 71.1 cm © The Artist 2012. All rights reserved. Courtesy Karsten Schubert, London

Many of the paintings are as small as Webb’s – that awkward size that can be too immediately graspable, too object-like, to allow room for the passage of time or movement in its perceptions. Sign-like, in other words. They also share Webb’s thin, liquid paint application, but used to make closed, self-reflexive meta (or sub) paintings – simulacra. Abstract painting as a tool for the investigation of its own ontology of facture. Naturally, their utility as a philosophical tool is in inverse proportion to their visual complexity.

Every painting uses the same technique: a thin monochrome layer of oil paint is brushed, smeared or pushed around on a glossy white ground, the paint just thick enough to bear the traces of the brush, cloth or finger Holyhead uses to make his meta-gestures (brushmark as readymade?). Round or straight-edged areas are removed using a cloth to reveal the white base as a negative shape. Callum Innes uses the same technique of accretion and removal, though his paintings seem to evoke the Romantic Sublime by comparison. The colours in this show don’t have Webb’s overarching tonal sensibility though– they feel arbitrary. Saturated red or blue, watery pastels, lemon yellow, black, washed-out grey; and since colour works through its relationships to other colours, the single hue of each painting is like a simple fact without significance – another readymade. Equally fruitless, for me, was the attempt to find any meaningful formal sense in the arrangements of bared white areas, which merely seem to make up an indexical list of possible arrangements – some symmetrical, some unbalanced. It’s true that the ‘holes’ have an ambiguous spatial relationship to the colour around them, sitting in front of, but also cutting through the surrounding paint; and several paintings go as far as combining more than one type of mark – a long straight swipe forming a border, say- but the much discussed dialogues with the history of abstraction remain tantalisingly difficult to find.

Consequently, they remind me of someone repeatedly clearing their throat but never actually saying anything.

Robert Holyhead, Untitled (yellow), 2012, oil on canvas, 45.7 x 30.5 cm © The Artist 2012. All rights reserved. Courtesy Karsten Schubert, London

It’s interesting that, along with ruminating on the semiotics of paint, and searching for hermeneutical clues in the bleeds of paint on the stretcher edges, art professionals spend quite a lot of their time promoting the formal, visual qualities of Holyhead’s paintings- though in such airy and generalised terms that it really doesn’t help. Another example, perhaps, of categorical confusion, or maybe the critical trope of seeing visual sensitivity as adding a subsidiary charm to the serious work of interrogating the subject, like the colourful cover on a philosophical treatise. But then, if you were to take the expressive possibilities of abstract painting at all seriously, one that’s a simulacra of itself, or a synecdoche of the concept of abstract painting in general, would almost certainly be simply a bad abstract painting.

So these two artists are working within our artistic paradigm because they transcend, to repeat Eleanor Moreton’s phrase once again, the abstract; they work within the consensus that meaning lies largely outside the direct phenomenological experience of the painting and art is a network of codified meanings invoked by visual signifiers. Under this conception, the evaluative means used by most contributors to abstract critical- essentially pre-Post-Modern, and more often than not, using Matisse as a lodestone as the essential Modernist – are not just inadequate, but regressive, even reactionary. But then Matisse is the least relevant, most intractable Modernist for contemporary theory, for exactly the same reasons that he’s so revered by Abercrombie and the sort of painters represented by the Poussin Gallery – he is, to use Duchamp’s term of contempt, the most ‘retinal’ of painters.

Of course, there’s nothing especially natural about abstraction, or art that eschews symbolic content. Children paint symbols, not what or how they see, and most pre-Modern art is a hugely complex synthesis of truly visual content with the symbolic demands of the culture. High Modernism emphasised the former against the increasing corruption of the latter, and now the pendulum has swung comprehensively the other way. Now the visual is capable of only mimesis and decoration without a concomitant verbal explication to give it significance. Moreover, it’s a discourse that hints at an almost Hegelian historical determinism which denies the possibility of engaging with the art of the past on its own terms; the history of art is viewed as a series of long-exhausted strategies. Gary Wragg’s phrase, from his abstract critical piece about Turner, Monet and Twombly- “…of their time but as timeless as the first handprint on a cave wall made forty thousand years ago..”- is an anti-historicist offence to all neo-structuralist art theory, and an apologia for cultural necrophilia. It exemplifies as much as anything the ‘outsider’ position of abstract critical, how wide the gulf is between it and the zeitgeist.

Such assumptions about psychological continuity are usually now associated with a conservative rather than a progressive view of the contingency of human nature; likewise, Emyr Williams’ metaphor of the corkscrew to represent the teleology of art history is wholly opposed to the determinism of the current critical model. These are counter-revolutionary thoughts, whether in a spirit of combat or of lofty detachment, by artists who are, in terms of the mainstream, regressive or naive. But whether regressive or not (and the meaning of this is mutable in an art-world where radical iconoclasm is ubiquitously institutionalised), there’s progressive value in the search for objective sensory facts as a basis for broader judgements, in the context of a curious consensus of unchallenged assumptions, false rigour and breathless subjectivity. Whilst Webb can enlist the warm aura of childhood memory to underpin his paintings, and Holyhead invoke a weighty simulation of philosophical enquiry, the attempt to pare painting and sculpture to the self-evident facts, not in the sense of Greenberg’s reductive literalism but in a spirit of clear-eyed exploration, can’t meaningfully be labelled a dead strategy of the past. Which is not to say that any of the ‘retinal’ abstract painting discussed on this site has escaped from Matisse’s shadow, or, in fact, that painting itself has any claim to eternal privilege in the technological flux.

Robert Holyhead: New Paintings in on at Karsten Schubert until the 11th of January. David Webb: Tourist Smoking Room is on at Transition Gallery until the 25th of November. There is a Pdf of Eleanor Moreton’s essay on the Transition Gallery website.

  1. Jai Llewellyn said…

    It seems to me that the work of these two artists, particularly that of Webb’s, has provoked much valuable discussion. In this case it is both successful painting and relevant within the broader realm of contemporary practice, albeit abstract or not.
    I also find that, as with many discussions of this nature, the point can be lost and we end up arguing over words rather than painting. No words will ever equate to good painting, only painting can answer to painting.

  2. paul barker said…

    I read a lot of this before I realised it was bringing me down, what alot of words to balance on such tiny pictures. A lot of the article & the responses read to me as a sort of pseudo-politics.
    I cant speak about Holyheads work, I cant actually “see” them but the Webbs looked OK. The catalog essay sound like nonsense but thats usually the case with commercial galleries isnt it ? I very much doubt the artists approval was sought.

    • Sam said…

      Hi Paul, I agree on the pseudo-politics, and on the mis-match this creates between the images and the words (though one of the general complaints of John Holland and Robin Greenwood, is of a lack of ambition). From what I understand Webb commissioned the essay, but gave Eleanor Moreton a free reign in what she wrote. Transition is not really a commercial gallery in the normal sense

    • diogdyknees said…

      I agree with Paul Barker. This is not a criticism of the essay as such, but generally with ‘theoretical’ reviews of painting shows. It feels like someone has gone into a Ferrari showroom and is complaining that they can’t fit a cement mixer and ten sheets of plasterboard in the back.

  3. Paul Petard said…

    Your article states that children start with painting symbols. This isn’t true, they start by spilling their milk and chucking their food on the floor.

  4. David Sweet said…

    This essay fails to distinguish between critical judgement and allergic reaction. David Webb cannot be classified as meeting the criterion derived from Sturgis. He is plainly not making ‘representations of abstraction’. His paintings aren’t abstract. They are easily placed in a very straightforward tradition, and are obviously influenced by Marsden Hartley, Milton Avery, and the Greenwich painters, as stated in Eleanor Moreton’s rather homely catalogue note.

    Robert (not Richard) Holyhead’s paintings cannot be validly categorised as ‘representations’ of abstraction either. The discourse around his work does not make claims of that sort, neither does he, and nothing that can be seen in the work warrants that assumption.

    These are not artists with great reputations who need to be taken down a peg or two. They are engaging intelligently, in a contemporary context, with a medium largely abandoned by others of their generation. They are part of the present and future of painting and of abstraction. They deserve to be taken seriously and not greeted by the uninformed and slightly flaky reaction from what seems like the internet troll school of art criticism.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      I think, David, this essay falls a long way outside of trolling. It’s true that, rather than simply review the two shows, John Holland uses the work of Holyhead and Webb to make his point and open up an issue about the relationship between ‘contemporary’ abstract painting and ‘old-school’ modernism, but personally I think that is both necessary and interesting. I see no problem with John taking a view on the work in relation to that issue, and if it is not one that conforms to the ‘mildly approving of everything’ school of art commentary, so much the better.
      As far as I recall, no one has a guaranteed passage into the future, but I’ll check the small print on my contract.

    • Terry Ryall said…

      In the light of the statement that David Webb’s paintings “aren’t abstract” I’m a little puzzled as to how his work can be seen as “part of the present and future of painting and of abstraction”. Surely Webb’s paintings have to conform to some sort of definition of ‘the abstract’ even if it’s just in the sense of appropriating ‘the look’.

  5. Robin Greenwood said…

    You are a dry old wit Mr. Holland. I like this article a great deal; you have an interesting feedback loop going about what abstractcritical is doing. An interesting though slightly nauseating title too – ‘The Uses of Abstract Painting’. I bet you’d have trouble applying that to sculpture. I suppose you are saying that abstract painting is now a set of accepted devices and conventions that a painter can dip into as and when required to fulfil his or her requirements for their current philosophical or psychological project. And no need to invent something new, only to appropriate.

    I think this is why I am close to giving up on ‘abstract art’ as a definition. It is abundantly clear to me that neither Webb’s nor Holyhead’s work is abstract at all. Webb’s is simply obscure (and romantic and subjective) figuration that mimics abstraction – a lot of people seem to like that at the moment, and good luck to them. Webb’s painting seems to me to have weakened recently, but I agree with Sam that you don’t quite do him justice. He is indeed closely and directly connected to the tail-end of modernism and to many of the painters who have shown at Poussin. But I think tail-end modernism slides into ‘provisional’ contemporary painting in a lot of artists’ work at the moment, and Webb is a good example. As is common now, he cares little for a definition of his work as either abstract or figurative; it’s ‘just painting’, starting out from his very subjective motivations. That’s a little glib for me, not least because this approach always appears to diminish any true and disinterested ambition for the work itself. I’m not quite sure why this is (other than the sheer subjectivity of it), only that I repeatedly observe it; and I think therefore that the attempt at definition and separation is important, in order to better facilitate the discovery of yet more and still newer ‘abstract-ness’. And if this abstract-ness has to be a thing newly discovered, as I believe it does (otherwise you are re-presenting something!), then works which rely on formulaic tropes fall a long way out of it on my sliding scale. I think, for example, that the apparent novelty in Webb’s work disguises a very conventional approach (the frequent ‘framing’ of the image in both Webb’s and Holyhead’s work is a giveaway). I’m just reiterating John here. Holyhead’s work is on the face of it very different from Webb’s; a marginally new variation on materiality and process, and exceptionally tiresome for that; literal can’t be abstract, even if it mimics it.

    It’s not for want of trying on my part that I fail to get to grips with so-called ‘contemporary’ abstract art. I would have dearly loved to have shown younger artists at Poussin who I felt were genuinely engaged with abstract-ness, and were not, like some of the older artists, in hock to late-flowering modernism or the wizened wisdoms of Clem, because I too want very much to move on. But I couldn’t find any. The current show at Poussin of Abercrombie and Hide, two good artists who are nevertheless at the arse end of modernism, will be the last – until, that is, something genuinely new and strong emerges that I can show. Actually, I know something is emerging, but for the moment Poussin has run its course. It began seven years ago looking at abstract painting from the seventies, which I consider to be just about the last time any truly visual painting or sculpture was credited by the wider art world (and in fact was often better quality than the sixties), before it disappeared underground.

    By the way, I don’t personally equate ‘visual’ with ‘retinal’, but that’s maybe because I am primarily a sculptor. I often use the term ‘visual’ as shorthand for something more like ‘visual/physical’, which feels like something very different, and is certainly a long way from Fried’s ‘optical’. Personally, I think I would happily apply ‘visual/physical’ to the best of Matisse.

    A couple of comments on the comments:
    From Sam: ‘Of course a semi-abstract figuration, or a semi-figurative abstraction are common contemporary tropes and can be irritating, a kind of built in excuse, get out clause, or simply seeming the result of indecision, but Webb’s pictures go beyond this. What matters is not how abstract something is but rather whether it works formally, and whether the relation it implies between figuration and abstraction are convincing, necessary within the pictures’ own terms.’
    I think this is a rather lame idea now, not new at all (abstraction has long been ‘tainted’ by figuration, and vice-versa. Remind me Sam, just when was this phase of ‘pure abstraction’ that we are now at last getting over? Mondrian? No way. Minimalism? Ha ha ha. Sounds like Ashley). We need to move on; and one good way to move on would be precisely to work out how abstract a thing is, and what would make it more so. In any case, what does ‘works formally’ mean, as a justification for your ‘controlled ambiguity’? Are we back with Greenberg? Or is it just your taste against mine?

    As for Ashley, well, there is just no telling you, is there! You too bring up that word ‘pure’ again, in relation to things I say, no matter how many times I refute it. Not pure form, Ashley, but newly invented form. As impure as you like, just make it new. Don’t appropriate from somewhere else in order to import a bit of spurious ‘meaning’. Make your own.

    • Ashley West said…

      Well you have used the term ‘truly visual’ here Robin. I use the terms ‘purely visual’ and ‘pure form’ – obviously I don’t mean pristine! New? Not sure if there’s anything truly new in the sense of invention – it’s all as old as the hills: this physicality we inhabit, the landscape, ‘a good idea’ – ‘original’ to me means to reconnect with or to rediscover – no wonder so many artists connect with the landscape, the figure, process and so on – they are the ground we walk on. You might call this appropriation – but when you reconnect or rediscover for yourself it is as if new (so what if it can’t be marketed as the next best thing…). It seems as if for you Robin, it has all become old and tired. Not sure you will find this newness in the way you’re looking.

    • Sam Cornish said…

      First, it’s slightly galling to have words put in my mouth so they can be laughed at. I was thinking of Noland, Morris etc. Perhaps pure was the wrong word; and domination was a too loaded one.

      Then, if you think can get beyond taste, I really think you are kidding yourself. Of course we can argue about it and minds can be changed but ultimately you will end up at individual, subjective response. Your ‘abstract-ness’ is just that, isn’t it? A feeling that this structure or group of structures or whatever is meaningful, holds itself with purpose: what could that be apart from subjective? Striving for objectivity may be a good artistic idea, but beyond that..

      Though I respect the way you want to create a serious context for abstract art, the insistence that there is only one way for abstract art to be serious is too much for me. I don’t think Webb’s show is perfect and I also would prefer a more ambitious committed, dramatic and forceful abstract art, but I think there is a place for what he is doing; because he is doing it well.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        So if objectivity is a good artistic desire, why not strive for it, even though unattainable? Why give up on it? Is it good or not?

        And I think I’m on record as saying there are as many ways to make good abstract art as there are good abstract artists. What is the ‘one way’ that you think I insist upon?

        And who is denying David Webb his place?

      • Sam Cornish said…

        “I think this is a rather lame idea now… We need to move on” seems a denial to me.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        I’m refuting your idea that a mixture of abstract and figurative is some kind of new idea, or a particularly good one.
        More importantly, I would like to know what is the ‘one way’ that you think I insist upon? I think you should get that out in the open. Is it the ‘relational’ thing?

      • Ashley West said…

        Apologies if I’m interjecting here, but you know what the ‘one way’ is Robin, as you’ve been proposing it for months now and rejecting so much else along the way, so why not play it straight rather than suddenly dodging the issue which you yourself have set up? Objectivity IS something to aim for but I’m not sure it can be attached to a particular kind of painting or sculpture. It could be argued that ‘abstract art’ failed to shake of subjectivity, context, aboutness and so on – it just looked superficially like it had. So now painters are working with what is undeniable in front of them – the whole thing: context, psychological, visual, referential and so on – the whole field in which the visual/physical of course plays a primary part. That seems to me like honesty, being a little less naive, and taking responsibility. To attend to all those aspects of the work is to be more critically aware – and one can only do that from a more objective standpoint – it’s a tall order, but the more objective one can be, the more one can include under ones gaze. Because this ‘field’ has opened up, painters can engage with it in many different ways to produce very different ‘takes’ on the world. In a sense this is very healthy because it allows for such diversity. This doesn’t mean it’s all good. The fact that anything is possible does mean that it can be ‘milked’ where the level of objectivity, ‘skill’ and intention is suspect. Personally there’s something about Webb’s work that I find interesting, just as I find Avery’s work compelling. I’m interested in his take on the world – it’s not what I choose to do, but I can appreciate it (live and let live). I’m not totally sold on it, but it makes me look again and think – not a bad thing. What you propose sounds suspiciously close to Mondrian’s or Itten’s suprematist/utopian ideals, which from the present perspective seems a little naive. Now I’m a bit of a purist (whoops!) myself, but I’m not prepared to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        That’s as clear as mud then. So what is the ‘one way’ I insist on?

      • Ashley West said…

        You set up a serious subject for discussion then respond with smoke and mirrors Robin, which is disingenuous and unhelpful, and certainly doesn’t help your cause.

      • Sam said…

        Ok, maybe it’s not one way, though ‘make it more abstract’ does suggest this. But whatever you are suggesting it does rest on a lot of rejection. Of course that is fair enough to an extent. As an aside, though it seems slightly futile to press this point it’s pretty obvious you are not just refuting me, you are arguing against how Webb’s art works: to suggest otherwise is disingenuous.

        I don’t think I suggested that abstract / figuration was a new idea. Indeed when I said they looked back to earlier modernism, I had this aspect of his work in mind. I don’t see why it is necessarily a bad idea, indeed some of the best art of the twentieth century was involved with it. It was the subject of Braque’s great studio pictures. In a very discreet and obviously less ambitious way it is also the subject of Webb’s paintings. I don’t think this denies other types of experience what can be had with art, and I think is worth engaging with on its own terms.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        My urging to ‘make it more abstract’ is an attempt (albeit apparently a failing one) to broaden abstract art, rather than narrow it. I would claim that originality is rare at the moment because of the reliance by many artists upon accepted modes and tropes that go the rounds. One only has to look at all of the illustrations in this article to see how conventional and how similar things are (which is even more telling, given that these two artists start from very different positions). Were we all paying more attention to, and being more creatively imaginative with, the plastic and spatial reality of what we are doing (instead of wittering on about life, the universe and everything), we might see more deeply original things emerging, leading to greater differences between individual abstract artists.

        Of course art is subjective, but I see no reason to encourage yet further subjectivity in abstract art, or to endorse yet more discourse that is not broadly speaking striving for objectivity. There is enough of the alternative out there already.

        Can I also point out that I have said lots of specifically positive things about art on this site?

      • John Holland said…

        At the risk of repeating my earlier response, my difficulty with Webb’s pictures is exemplified by their contrast with Braque’s studio pictures that you mention. Where the symbiosis between the figurative source and the final painting is lucid and natural in the Braquea, the Webbs seem hamstrung, the ‘subject’ both obscure and overbearing, the two elements pulling in different directions.

  6. Sharon Hall said…

    Why is the Dan Sturgis quote (presumably lifted from his Indiscipline show catalogue ?) being used to describe Robert Holyhead’s paintings? Robert Holyhead was not included in that exhibition and neither, as far as I am aware, has Dan Sturgis ever written anything about him?

    • Sam said…

      Presumably (and self-evidently) because John thinks it describes them. If he thinks that is the case then its really pretty irrelevant whether or not Dan Sturgis was thinking about Holyhead at the time or not. Also does your ‘lifted’ imply that John has done something wrong in quoting Sturgis? (should he have supplied a footnote?)

      I assume you don’t think its an accurate description?

      • john holland said…

        Thanks, Sam- seems an odd objection to me. Can I not call something Platonic if Plato didn’t write specifically about it?
        Thanks also for your long response to the piece- I’ll reply when I can.

      • Sharon Hall said…

        so we are dealing with generic ‘types’ of abstraction then, thanks for clearing that up.

      • Sam said…

        Things in general can be grouped together can they not? We use words like modernism; post-painterly abstraction; cubism etc. Of course they are all leaky or blurry and open to question. John it seems to me is not even grouping within ‘generic types’: he is suggesting that aspects of some abstract paintings function in a similar way, which he thinks is illustrated by Sturgis’ phrase. For my money it seems to resonate with Holyhead, but not with Webb. I guess you don’t think it applies to either: why?

  7. Sam said…

    As rabble-rousing polemic (not necessarily a bad thing – good abstract art often seems to be accompanied by it) this piece has a lot going for it. As a negative take on Holyhead’s work, also. From what I have seen of his work in the past (I am yet to see this show) it fits Sturgis’ description of ‘representations of abstract paintings’; the idea that its answer to the question what is painting is ‘not very much’ also seems on the money; as does the suggestion that their visual attractiveness is just a sweetener for serious discussion…

    But as a description of David Webb’s paintings this piece seems inattentive at best, myopic at worst. Much of the problem (ironically given the against interpretation pro-visual stance) seems to come from arguing with the essay which accompanied the show, rather than directly discussing the paintings. I was also annoyed by the accompanying essay – though as the Eleanor Moreton is a figurative painter, phrases about the inability of abstraction to communicate meaning can perhaps be excused. But it annoyed me because it gave the wrong impression about the paintings, not because getting annoyed created a rather convenient – and easily hit – target for polemic. Its obvious the paintings don’t ‘transcend abstraction’ as Moreton’s essay states; they use it – not negatively as John’s title implies, but as a foil for figuration. The model here is surely not Jasper Johns but rather earlier modernism, albeit approached, as it were, backwards, with a less heroic mindset, and after the domination of a ‘pure’ abstraction.

    Following the essay John takes it as read that the we need to know the backstory which Webb uses as a beginning. I don’t think this is the case at all. Perhaps it could be argued that Webb leaves himself too open to this (and the titles – particularly in the case of Pyramid – are sometimes too literal). But I knew the story (or at least its gist – I lightly skimmed the details given in the essay) in advance of seeing the show, and felt I could see past it. Or rather the pictures seemed to open up enough to not need it. They do imply a cancelled figuration, or an origin in something seen, but that is as far as I can see OK.

    Of course a semi-abstract figuration, or a semi-figurative abstraction are common contemporary tropes and can be irritating, a kind of built in excuse, get out clause, or simply seeming the result of indecision, but Webb’s pictures go beyond this. What mattters is not how abstract something is (and why we’re here that is – as far as I understand it – an ontological question that runs through modernism, not just a problem that Jasper Johns introduced) but rather whether it works formally, and whether the relation it implies between figuration and abstraction are convincing, necessary within the pictures’ own terms.

    Those in this show may be ambiguous but their ambiguity is controlled, crafted. Rather than having no formal qualities as John suggests (beyond ‘overarching tonality’) each image was discretely and certainly built, with a lot of attention to how areas of colour abut or overlap, and the effects these can generate. They are not relational paintings (neither are Mali Morris’s, or Geoff Ridgen’s – two artists shown by Poussin excited, as is Webb, by Matisse): they do not allow an involvement based on a weighing of parts against each other. Rather they are singular images and their formal strength qualities seemed to me to come from allowing space into each image, so that they had a sense of expansion, tautness, that was more than just graphic. That’s probably enough for now…

    • john holland said…


      I didn’t find Webb’s paintings lacking in formal qualities-
      colour and application were sensitive and intelligent I thought, though I am guilty of not dicussing them at greater length. The ‘uses’ of abstract in the title refers more to the critical uses of them than the artists’, particularly in Webb’s case, but the difficulty I find with the relationship between his autobiographical ‘subject’ and the final paintings I think is valid.

      This content is unavoidable in a way that, say, Scott’s abstractions of domestic objects is not, partly because I find many of the paintings, particularly the more pictogram-like ones, where there is an ambiguous shape on a simple ground, not so visually interesting. They feel, in the context of the insistant theme of the titles, awkwardly like conundruma to be solved. If he does’nt want us to spend time thinking about chair legs in waiting rooms and their place in his memories, then surely he would cut the link. Paintings like the Parcheesi ones, without the simple figure/ground dichotomy, I like a lot more- and far from citing Johns as a model, I was trying to make a contrast. They both have made paintings using a flat sign as a starting point, but Johns closed it down, and Webb opens it up.
      I stand by my comments about the unresolved nature of the narrative content and the visual one- I find it unsatisfying, and it isn’t because I think semi-abstraction or figuration are invalid. A painting of the crucifiction or a bowl of fruit would not suffer from the same problem, and like I say, I don’t think Scott’s or Clough’s do either.
      You’re right that I spent a lot of the time arguing with the essay- but then Webb must have approved of it, and as I say, my essay was concerned, rightly or wrongly, with critical attitudes (You’re also right to suggest there’s a certain amount of hypocracy about that.)

      Ultimately, I think you find them more successful than I do, which is a reasonable difference of opinion, though I regret not making clearer the contrasts, as well as the connections, between Webb and Holyhead, who’s work I really do find lacking in real visual qualities.

  8. jenny meehan said…

    Lots of brain fodder here! Thank you for this. So well focused and sharp edged.

  9. Ashley West said…

    I agree; this essay certainly gets down to the nitty gritty – and it’s making me think, which isn’t a bad thing. What I’ve been mulling over is something that I’ve probably already said before in different ways, and I can’t get past that (as some of you have so kindly pointed out!). As has been said, many artists have gone beyond the arguably mistaken premise that abstract art can be what it set out to be: abstract, or perhaps more accurately, following Robin’s cue ‘purely visual’. I think, as a painter, I have come to accept that – it can’t be autonomous, and why would you want it to be? What would a purely visual experience be? Totally uninteresting? Why? Because it would exclude connection with what is beyond it. It would exclude ourselves, and we are much more than painting. Like any other medium of expression it is only useful in enabling us to explore what we are. So Aboriginal painting for example, while visually interesting, its meaning is naturally connected to experience of the landscape. Thinking about the essay on Gillian Ayres, why would we want to exclude those billowing forms from reminding us of currents of air and moisture, or indeed movements within the body. It is natural that human beings search for meaning – the meaning of being human, and natural that we look for metaphor – because that is what we need – they carry significance. Painting or sculpture or music or philosophy, on its own, devoid of this, is surely empty – pure form, but devoid of meaning. There is something in this advocation of the purely visual that I absolutely agree with – the importance of what is in front of us, of quality, of criticality and so on, but if it excludes so much that is being explored in a valid way by so many contemporary artists, isn’t it in danger of becoming a kind of fetish, and a backwater, that ignores so much thinking that has opened our eyes to a world of relationship that ‘pure’ abstraction as advocated here ignores? There must be so many out there who are of a similar mind, but have either turned away or are simply bemused. I’m sure neither Robin or John Holland would want you to be put off by their self assured eloquence!

    • John Holland said…


      I take your point about the proclivity of people to look for metaphores and connections, but how can any human activity “exclude ourselves”? If you think that abstract art is inherently meaningless without something extrenious added, then you are in agreement with plenty of people who insist on the exclusive legitimacy of figuration.
      But then a Bach fugue is a mathematically rather pedantic collection of abstract notes- does it need some added meaning too?

      • Ashley West said…

        It can’t exclude ourselves John – that’s my point, but much that has been said seems to advocate a visuality that excludes any kind of ‘aboutness’ or metaphor or suggestion of landscape etc. etc. (remember Robin’s statement that one shouldn’t use a horizontal because it might suggest a horizon? Let alone the oven hobs one!). This associating/connecting/re-visiting/metaphor thing, happens it seems to me, for a reason – we need to connect, we need to ‘become whole’ – it’s more important than painting – so, if you like, the painting, and indeed any activity serves that. You can’t take a painting with you when you go! This visuality does sound more and more like something exclusive that prohibits such connection. Interesting you mention Bach as I was going to refer to him in what I said. His activity was bound up with his sense of what the music served was it not? Now, curiously I think the two – the music, and its associations, and his faith are not necessary at odds, but are connected in an important way – this goes back to my comment in relation to Beuys in response to an earlier essay. That doesn’t mean that in creating a work you don’t try to apply the utmost rigour. This comes back to my exploration of the word ‘integrity’. The work must have a formal integrity. Somehow I think that is bound up with honesty/criticality/integrity of the artist (in the act of making), and on a wider level it serves to make us more whole – if it doesn’t what’s the point? It’s just an indulgence – an escape if you like. Most assume that we/ourselves cannot be excluded from any activity – I think this is an assumption that most of the time goes unquestioned. Most human activity is devoid of this connection – in its truest sense. I don’t think great Art can be. Abstract art isn’t inherently meaningless to me, because I think there is always a connection. Which is why abstract is perhaps the wrong term. It’s always about something; it always tells a story if you like – everything does. But I don’t necessarily start with those connections. I work with the medium, with forms, with relationships, not really knowing what I’m doing most of the time, and there’s an intense focus on what is in front of me, and trying to make something work in an interesting way – but sure to hell it all tells a story whether I’m aware of it or not.

  10. John Bunker said…

    Great stuff- at last we’re getting down to it!
    I see most of the essays on this site as personal points of view and starting points for debate rather than manifestos from AbCrit. It would be good to get some more perspectives that develop these arguments with positive engagement with contemporary abstract art practice across generations…….
    We are in ‘interesting times’ right now. All this ‘signage’ and simulacra is wearing really thin for younger artists as well as old. Thanks to your articulate and insightful essays on this site John -change could be in the air.