Abstract Critical

‘I Killed A Viper’ – Clare Price

Written by James Finch

The universe wants to play, acrylic and oil on canvas, 2014, 178 x 153cm

The universe wants to play, acrylic and oil on canvas, 2014, 178 x 153cm

Clare Price’s new paintings are currently on show at Bethnal Green’s Acme Project Space, in two triangular galleries. The pictures face each other at odd angles, in close proximity, as the back walls converge to a vanishing point. There are six large canvases (three resting on the floor to emphasise their gravitational pull), three quick rounds of small canvases along the left walls, and a last small painting, unnoticed until I turned my back to leave. Some are engulfed in the black of interstellar space (sample title: The universe wants to play), while others have the cosmetics-shop palette of a Karla Black installation.

Price’s pictures know they’re being watched, and they often tell you just what to look at. In the large canvases, swirls of paint (‘Brushed up by brushy winds in brushy clouds’ to quote from a Wallace Stevens volume I bought nearby on the way to the exhibition) draw my attention with their painterly handwriting. They’re targets, but decoys as well. It’s only with time I found myself exploring the areas around, and underneath. These are centrifugal canvases, exploded views.

Price excels in contrasting textures and techniques – drips, splats, puddles, drags and sudden highlights like Turner on varnishing day (marker pen on the sofa). What unsettles is that these techniques are all estranged, refugees from their home territory. As a result they have the appearance of discrete gestures, moves in a chess match. They speak to me, not to each other.

Clare Price, Quirver, acrylic and oil on canvas, 178 x 153cm

Clare Price, Quirver, acrylic and oil on canvas, 178 x 153cm

Considering the layering of these paintings, I thought of the sculptor Raymond Mason writing of Rodin that ‘as in painting, in order to advance, to improve, the artist must cover up and often ruin the happy effect of the previous day’. The work is always an autobiography of decisions taken, building up like sediment. Generous areas of blank canvas remind me that there was a time before the painting existed at all. These painting are constructed, adding depth, building towards the viewer, who in the mirroring of looking at someone else’s painting (I’d like to follow the process but it remains a mystery) has to work backwards from the final result. Aesthetics as forensics.

This being the case, some artists expertly cover their tracks (see the Tate conservators trying to figure out Rothko’s process when working on Black on Maroon). But Price’s pictures are made from different layers, different techniques superimposed over one another in unpredictable combinations, and awareness of that layering is an integral part of viewing the paintings.

As a result I don’t take in these paintings all at once in the way I do with others. But completeness is a strategy in itself, just as incompleteness is (compare Moore and Giacometti). Some works dazzle with their surface, while others are more interested in enticing you into their depths. This is the category of Price’s paintings. Each one shows its workings, teases you to ponder its chronology, to wonder how and why decisions were made.

Untitled, acrylic, oil and paint pen on canvas, 2013, 36 x 31cm / Untitled, acrylic and oil on canvas, 36 x 31 cm

Untitled, acrylic, oil and paint pen on canvas, 2013, 36 x 31cm / Untitled, acrylic and oil on canvas, 36 x 31 cm

For me, Price’s paintings are about the tension between painterly mark-making and the order offered by geometric forms (an earlier show was named ‘Digital Tenderness’). The relationship is sometimes complimentary, sometimes antagonistic. Her often-mentioned use of computer software as part of the process is less evident here than in earlier work, although several works show lattices recalling Bacon’s space-frames, or polygons laid over the images like colour filters or searchlight beams.

Their clean lines contrasting with the swirls, flicks and stabs, these translucent shapes intercede between us and the painterly images beneath. If the picture is a window, looking at these pictures I’m constantly reminded of where I stop and the paintings begin. Take The universe wants to play, for example. Halfway up on the right a quadrilateral (just about legible in reproduction) jars, like a patch on a garment. It’s the subtlety of the interruption which makes its intention so puzzling.

Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 2013, 36 x 31cm / Untitled, acrylic and oil on canvas, 2014, 36 x 31cm

Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 2013, 36 x 31cm / Untitled, acrylic and oil on canvas, 2014, 36 x 31cm

These shapes are one way in which the paintings keeps their distance. The other is Price’s technique of dragging paint across the surface, invariably horizontally. In the series of five smaller canvases this gives the impression of the same action having been applied to each simultaneously (possibly after hanging, before the paint dries), sweeping the spectator from one canvas to the next. Richter, systematically striating his surfaces to defamiliarise and distance, is the obvious reference. Something of the sort is going on here, but where Richter so often achieves a uniformity of surface, Price’s application is localised. One area is blurred only to throw another into sharper perspective.

Flighty piece, acrylic and oil on canvas, 2014, 178 x 153 cm

Flighty piece, acrylic and oil on canvas, 2014, 178 x 153 cm

I have been writing as if Price’s pictures were a series of Photoshop procedures carried out on initial Abstract-Expressionist images, alienation effects to raise suspicions about the authenticity of any painterly signatures. But as indicated at the beginning, those Twombly-esque swirls are often Price’s final contribution, and therefore the first impression made on me. Strangely (and this will seem absurd from looking at reproductions only) I thought of Greenberg on collage: ‘in their very first collages, Braque and Picasso draw or paint over and on the affixed paper or cloth, so that certain of the principal features seem to thrust out into real, bas-relief space […] while the rest of the subject remains imbedded in, or flat upon, the surface’. That gauze of geometry so often spread across the paintings like a barrier turns out to have been preparatory, a cloth of paint to be triumphantly covered in the final gesture of immediacy which becomes my first impression.

‘Oddly enough, I even like Rembrandts under glass. And it’s true to say in many ways they’re more difficult to see, but you can still look into them’ (Francis Bacon). This is how I feel about Clare Price’s pictures. Looking at them on a hot, sunny day, the light projecting Price’s name from the window onto the gallery walls, catching reflections off the glossy surfaces, I felt a long way from what lies concealed within these paintings. But I could still look into them.

Clare Price, ‘I Killed A Viper’ is on at Acme Project Space until the 29th of June