Abstract Critical

At The Point of Gesture…

Written by David Sweet

This small, intergenerational exhibition has an unplugged, acoustic quality, which would, no doubt, be lost if amplified by critical over-interpretation. The curatorial aim was to select exhibits featuring the out of favour component of gesture, an aim that inevitably includes an emphasis on materiality, paintedness, and especially the role of the hand, even the fingers. (This makes some exhibits literally digital, but of course, the opposite of digital as currently defined.) Nevertheless, within modest parameters, a wide range of gesture’s possibilities as an abstract language that fuses writing, drawing and painting, are productively explored and made visible in satisfyingly compact pictorial offerings.

David Ryan, Fame in California/1964

David Ryan, Fame in California/1964

In Fame in California/1964 by the show’s curator, David Ryan, the dynamic of gesture is slowed down, pulsing inside a schema of anchored and packed forms to trouble the surface with the brushed marks of painterly touch. But the consoling spell of painterliness is broken by the taped, inappropriately sharp edged rectangle in the top left corner and the strongly drawn central key like configuration, limned in a green that is a partial complementary to the orange/red/yellow of the ultimate ground plane. This central character might be described as glyphic. It isn’t actually made by incising, but nor it is the product of brushing, or any method which explicitly relies on paint’s fluidity. It jumps out like a linguistic device, though thankfully indecipherable so don’t worry about what it ‘means’, an impression enhanced by the pink tablet shape onto which it is blazoned.

Gabriel Hartley, Flack

Gabriel Hartley, Flack

A similarly glyphic, but not as articulate intervention occurs in Gabriel Hartley’s Frack. It is a less decisive feature because, instead of pulling clear, it is dragged back into the overwhelming context of the work’s heavy impasto. The literal thickness of the pigment is optically defeated by a technique that Jules Olitski used in the eighties where he blew powder horizontally across the striations of still wet paintings, bathing the ridges with an uncanny chiaroscuro illusion. The result in Olitski’s case I remember was something resembling a relief map of mountainous country or the view of earth’s surface seen from space. In Frack, at least to begin with, one is reminded of the cave wall, illuminated by flickering rush lights, where painting started. Some of the paint is scraped back and overlaid, or rather undermined, by a rudimentary pattern created by the index finger making short accented, almost pre-linguistic gestures across the vertical grain of the soft ground. But unfortunately the initial upper paleolithic associations can’t be sustained, and are replaced by stale memories of grimy passages in Frank Auerbach paintings. Hartley’s other work is better.

Gabriel Hartley, Kelp

Gabriel Hartley, Kelp

In Kelp the pigment solidifies the light. Thicker drifts of paint accumulate round the edges, but the centre opens up and in the gaps are glimpses of a sparser, more anxious surface. The finger has traced a more viable structure than in Frack, so it’s possible to identify a lattice, a triangle and assorted flattened curves, connected by an underlying rhythm that holds the pictorial contents in an all-over tension, characteristic of work from the gestural tradition that emphasises drawing.

The action of writing rather than drawing influences the gestural component of Clem Crosby’s Little Wing. The structure that results does not depend as much on creating a system of linear threads, pulling against each other to maintain tension. The strings of paint are not taut but fold lazily back on themselves in relaxed knots, through which pass extended loops, loosely woven in two interlocking webs of black and red. And the writing analogy holds to explain a secondary effect, clearly associated with the properties of the Formica support, where the ghostly remnants of previous tracks leave a palimpsest from which the network emerges. In a drawing, these traces would be evidence of prior decisions, progressively revised to form the final structure. Within a writing system however, they simply show that a page has been used before, and some practical steps have been taken in order for it to be used again.

Alaena Turner, Secret Action Painting 3; Clem Crosby, Little Wing

Alaena Turner, Secret Action Painting 3; Clem Crosby, Little Wing

In Andrea Medjesi-Jones’ Balkaneska, gesture takes up a more familiar role, wedded to the implicitly violent action of expressionist painting. That action seems designed to persuade paint to generate forms by a stirring motion that breaks up a larger, quasi-sculptural mass into smaller elements that then swirl around, jostling each other, in the current that produced them. The contours running through the painting map the fault lines along which the original mass was dismembered, connecting the various subsidiary entities into an arrangement that preserves their volumetric character. But the meatiness of the individual forms militates against an abstract reading of the painting, which I think is limiting. Moreover, because the enhanced colour that normally accompanies expressionism is rejected in favour of a tonal palette of olives, browns and greys, the result is perhaps too reminiscent of the life room. Given that gesture tends to be a sign of liberation, this seems a peculiarly academic outcome.

In Secret Action Painting by Alaena Turner, painting itself, rather than its contents, is dismembered. With the art form under stress, pigment alone is called on to save the day by metonymically invoking the material tradition that is being dismantled before our eyes. It nearly works. It aligns paint with dirt, permitting it to contaminate the geometric neutrality of three panels, two circular and one hexagonal, and the wall against which they lean. The action, gesture if you like, is mildly transgressive, but not too much is at stake. Luckily the panels turn out to be home made, and one feels the wall can be easily made good in time for the next exhibition. No irreparable harm has been done, either to painting or the gallery. A formalist critic insisting on exercising aesthetic judgement, whatever the circumstances, may point out that the disc on the wall is placed too high, and too far away from the other elements. It changes the piece from a constellation, which would operate in a pictorial field, to an installation, where different rules apply. Two feet lower, or whatever that is in centimetres, would have been better.

Although low-key, and in an unassuming blue-collar venue, ‘At the Point of Gesture…’ provides an opportunity for a style of connoisseurship that is less defensive than that usually needed to navigate the world of contemporary art. While criticality can be maintained, the hype-resistant, curator-averse, sceptical attitude that is the modern viewer’s default exhibition setting, and which turns so easily into cynicism, can be suspended. What you get is what you see, and vice versa.

At the Point of Gesture was on at the Lion and Lamb.