Daniel Buren: One Thing to Another, Situated Works, Lisson Gallery, 29 Bell St, until 14 January 2012
Robert Currie: Latest Works, Gimpel Fils, 30 Davies St, until 14 January 2012
Francois Morellet, Annely Juda, 23 Dering St, closed 22 December 2011
Abstraction is everywhere at the moment. It’s all across London, coming over from Brazil, and infiltrating the north. So what is all this abstraction doing, and where’s it heading?
Three artists currently showing in London – Daniel Buren, Francois Morellet, and Robert Currie – at first glance have quite a bit in common. They’re making things that allude to painting but aren’t – wall mounted structures, sculptures, and hangings – and doing interesting things with nylon and neon. They all have an acute ‘critical consciousness of history’,  but in fact utilise it in very different ways, variously manoeuvring historical modes of abstraction into contemporary space; or using abstraction as a tool to reveal physical and metaphorical structures; or as a mirror reflecting back through abstraction’s past.
Downstairs at Gimpel Fils gallery, Robert Currie is showing a series of rather beautiful wall mounted Perspex boxes with taut nylon threads and videotape suspended and stretched across inside. Painted various colours, they do funny things to your eyes, and as you move they appear to shiver and dance like a whirling flick book.
With titles like ‘45,000cm of Black Nylon monofilament 2010’, they acknowledge their history, and the gallery blurb locates them firmly in the exploration of ‘motion, rhythm and volume through the use of line and geometric structure’. Sure – but what kind of rhythms, what sort of motion?
In these boxes, Currie creates an abstract space that continuously dissolves and rebuilds as you look at it, hitting a point of perfect alignment before frittering off into a zillion lines. Somehow it actually looks like sound, like the white noise of the screen, an ‘exploration of space without depicting mass’. 
Though in the main abstract, there are images too. One looks a bit like a Sarah Morris painting, it’s a slice of building that moves in and out of focus, as if we’re whooshing up through corporate space in a glass lift. In another there’s an image of something like a post war pre-fab, or a chalet in Rhyll, or an Ed Ruscha, shuddering about like a flickering silent film.
But it’s not a contest – Currie uses abstraction and image as tools to explore looking, seeing, and moving, treading an intangible line between rhythm, order and chaos. As you look, the depth resolves into surface, and to me it is the motion of the screen, and the new rhythms and spaces of technology, that these works, ultimately, begin to talk about.
Where Currie is obliquely situated within a historical lineage through Gabo and LeWitt, overlaid with a contemporaneous reading of space, over at Annely Juda, Francois Morellet is showing direct re-workings of Malevich’s Suprematist series. There are a few of those historic drawings in the show, along with Black Square – I’m thinking that this little cracked rectangle is such a magnificent full stop, how can anything compete?
On one wall Morellet is showing a series of white canvases with bands of white neon running down them, inset with circle, cross, and square. Like Currie’s work, they’re optically disturbing, the neon humming with brightness. Oddly shaped shiny black canvases hang on the opposite side, with white neon strips running around the outsides. Three white canvases lean against the gallery wall. A little bit Angela de la Cruz, I’m intrigued as to what they’re waiting for.
It’s the question of return and re-interpretation that interests me. More than a historical consciousness, Morellet is filtering Malevich’s work through his own (Minimalist) history, re-positioning these forms and ideas, and holding up a crooked mirror back to the originals. Are they meant to be a continuation of Malevich’s project, or really about the history of abstraction itself?
The re-reading of one movement through another seems both an homage, and a question – a kind of what would have happened if? Are these works the if?
Ideas of return and repetition lead me to Daniel Buren’s show at the Lisson Gallery. At first it seems all a bit polite for Buren, with his history of entering art shows uninvited and annoying Donald Judd at the Guggenheim with a massive stripey cloth.
There are flimsy lengths of material that at a glance look like paintings – stripey flags, in colours that shout market stall, with their breezy mid tone greens and oranges. Where Morellet uses the neon of minimalism, Buren uses woven fibre optic, which is visually quite deceptive and illuminates these works from within, like some sort of readymade glowing altar piece. When they’re not ‘on’, they appear as simple white squares – a neat un-striping, a displacement of Buren’s signature, a removal of status. Outside there is a kind of pergola, a simple grid construction with a coloured acrylic roof. In the back room there is a similar canopy running around the perimeter, which again gives the impression that people might be flogging stuff underneath it.
Where Morellet re-presents one movement by way of another, Buren smashes together the monochrome and the readymade, to create a stripey, structural language that interrogates space and what happens in it. It’s a tricky language though. These pieces are not installations but ‘situated works’, not creating new space but drawing attention to existing structures; they refer only to themselves, but are simultaneously a ‘seeing tool’, a device through which to look at something else – the something else being institutional structures and systems.
Isn’t Buren, though, an absorbed and established figure within these very systems? Have the stripes in themselves become institutionalised?
Reading this show through Buren’s history of striping in both sanctioned and unsanctioned spaces, I am sure we’re being drawn to look again at this gallery as a space of consumption. The stripes are slippery and try to avoid exact definition and commodification, and perhaps here what they illuminate is this very tension between unveiling the gallery constraints, whilst being in demand to show within it. It is the very repetition of this abstract device which creates a self-conscious look, an awareness of Buren’s continuous revealing of particular spaces, and our eyes bounce off the works into the place itself.
Looking at these three artists’ work offers up so many possibilities for where abstraction might head next. Whether it’s the abstraction of technological culture; the re-reading of grand movements through other languages; or the idea of abstraction as a tool that reads space physically and metaphorically, it’s obvious that the abstract object doesn’t need to be sealed up or lost in circular arguments.
Yet for all these interesting interplays, critical consciousness of history, and explorations of new models of space, I can’t help wondering if there’s something missing? Is it all a bit cold, lacking in mistakes, splodges, emotional engagement? Maybe there’s also a place for an injection of humanism into the next avenues of abstraction.
1. ‘Critical consciousness of history’; Hal Foster, ‘Who’s afraid of the neo-avant-garde?, Return of the Real, MIT Press.
2. ‘Motion, rhythm and volume through the use of line and geometric structure’; Gimpel Fils 2011
3. ‘Exploration of space without having to depict mass‘; various sources referring to the work of Naum Gabo.