Abstract Critical

Bonfanti and Bowling: Brief notes on two very different exhibitions of abstract art

Written by Sam Cornish

Arturo Bonfanti: Paintings, Reliefs and Sculpture 1960-1972, at Austin Desmond until 27 July
Frank Bowling: Recent Paintings, at Hales Gallery until 27 July

Composizione 101, B. , 1962 Oil on board 46 x 55 cm

Austin Desmond is currently showing paintings by Arturo Bonfanti, an artist sought after in his native Italy but with almost no profile here. It is perhaps unsurprising that his paintings have not made a bigger splash. They might be described by some as quiet and unassuming, though others might, not without some justification, decide that they are safe and more than a little tasteful. Bonfanti’s career as a graphic designer is perhaps too apparent (for a more self-conscious conjunction of artist and designer see Dan Coomb’s review of Mike Meiré). As a somewhat sweeping aside, tastefulness was something very much in evidence in the Estorick’s small survey In Astratto: Italian Abstraction 1930 – 1980. But whereas the tastefulness of classic English modernism seemed often tied to reticence, modesty and rustic, old-fashioned craft, the Italian version as shown In Astratto came closer to an polished style or sophistication, and so often tipped over from the tasteful to the vulgar.

K510., 1972 Oil on canvas 90 x 108 cm

There are however a number of good paintings in the Bonfanti show. One of the interesting ways in which they fight against being simply tasteful or decorative arrangements is the sense some have of being made from occlusions and omissions as much as from direct and wholly visible assertions, so that they appear deconstructed as much as constructed. Some of the shapes seem as if they had been folded backward onto the picture; this creates the implication that there is a part beneath which we could not see and that what we can see is in fact a reverse, and as such an ‘inferior’ side. Other shapes are formed negatively through over-painting so that they ambiguously appear part of a larger but invisible whole. Rather than the clearly lit (Platonic?) idealism of earlier brands of geometric or constructivist painting, Bonfanti at his best operates in a shadowy region, at a slight and uncertain distance from the forms which comprise his art.

Due T. 183., 1964 Oil on burlap 60 x 70 cm

The second way Bonfanti turned away from the straightforwardly tasteful is the manner in which many of his smaller shapes are anthropomorphised or at least given something like a personality or a persona. Though personality inflects shapes in a few of the pictures, the most obvious example is the triangle in Due T. 183., 1964, which seems to perch precariously on a cliff edge dwarfed by a vast expanse. I found this a much more unsatisfying strategy, though it is difficult to fully say why. It certainly has something to do with an appeal that is too direct, too cute and too ingratiating. More formally it also serves to break the ‘whole’ of a picture into a (too literal) figure-ground relationship and imposes too restricted a scale. As a move it reminded me of paintings by Daniel Sturgis or by Peter Kinley though I’m sure there are other examples. Kinley got over this halfway house between abstraction and cartoons by moving much closer to cartoons, something which is obviously central to the films of Oskar Fischinger.

Midwinterstump, 2012, Acrylic paint and acrylic gel on canvas, 80 x 63 in

Frank Bowling’s paintings at Hales Gallery, all made within the last two years, are obviously different in almost every way from Bonfanti’s and as they are only presented together here through convenience I won’t explore how. There is a lot to say about Bowling’s paintings, and Abstract Critical plan to upload an interview with him sometime over the summer. For now I can say that what struck me about the paintings was the frequent appearance of a just submerged symbolic imagery. Something similar can be seen in his 70s paintings at the Tate, most particularly in the repeated statement of a heroic upright. However the 70s paintings are tight, formal and so restrict an associative reading, whereas those at Hales billow and find associations with weather (storms and tempests) and with more directly figurative spaces. A few of the recent paintings seem to stage a specifically Christian imagery: Simonspoint shows a cross; Iona’s Prompt perhaps the three crosses at Calvary; whilst in the context of these allusions the bowed frame in Ponsonby Welch Overlooking Fyrish Maze takes on something of the appearance of the hanging cloth of a Veronica image. Of course these readings can be taken too far and it needs to stressed that they are constantly cancelled out by the paintings’ exuberant materiality and by more clearly abstract forms and structures; but equally it would be hard to deny that are not present at all.

Ponsonby Welch Overlooking Fyrish Maze, 2012, Acrylic on canvas, 304.8 x 188 cm

Simonspoint, 2011, Acrylic on canvas, 180.3 x 190.5 cm