Abstract Critical

Michael Stubbs at Cass Gallery

Written by John Bunker

Michael Stubbs, Installation Shot, Cass Gallery, London Metropolitan University, 2013, courtesy of the Artist and the Laurent Delaye Gallery, London

Michael Stubbs, Installation Shot, Cass Gallery, London Metropolitan University, 2013, courtesy of the Artist and the Laurent Delaye Gallery, London

Firstly, I’d like to share a re-occurring fantasy I have. It’s the one where abstract art suddenly becomes a vital visual challenger to the dominant hegemony of conceptually driven discourse. Abstract art becomes a piratical swashbuckling freedom fighter swinging through the masts of art history’s eternally sinking ship. It’s a version of abstraction that takes on the dead eyed zombies of the hyper-reality painting-as-cypher brigade. It elegantly duels with the maniacal painting-as-commodity fetish cohorts and those purveyors of an ‘institutional critique’ that has been so fully absorbed by the institutions they set out to critique.

Michael Stubbs, Installation Shot, Cass Gallery, London Metropolitan University, 2013, courtesy of the Artist and the Laurent Delaye Gallery, London

Michael Stubbs, Installation Shot, Cass Gallery, London Metropolitan University, 2013, courtesy of the Artist and the Laurent Delaye Gallery, London

So it is refreshing to get some visual ‘kicks’ from an artist like Michael Stubbs working in the idiom of abstraction who seems determined to talk about things other than the history of abstract painting. Things like the internet, the impact of violent news reports 24/7 or the potential in an unholy alliance between abstraction and popular culture. I say this because abstract art has always had problems justifying its existence and right now the current dominate mode seems to be a kind of formalism-lite; it treats history as something to be referenced to give it meaning: another series of academic boxes to tick. It asks ‘How many historical references can I cram into a painting?’ or ‘How many systemic hoops can we jump through?’ It’s a contrived rhetoric whether you call it ‘double dealing’, ‘bursting the boundaries of one’s own restrictions’, ‘reclaiming’ or ‘turning in tight corners’. At best it’s novelty. At it’s worst, the trivialisation of history. There is nothing so boring as an art form/critique that talks only to and about itself….

Michael Stubbs, 'Flesh Head', 2012, household paint and tinted floor varnish on MDF, 198 x 198 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and the Laurent Delaye Gallery, London.

Michael Stubbs, ‘Flesh Head’, 2012, household paint and tinted floor varnish on MDF, 198 x 198 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and the Laurent Delaye Gallery, London.

That said, Stubbs has forced a heady, almost sickly, sumptuous combination of glossy household paints and varnishes into a kind of dialectical tension with the post painterly abstraction of the likes of Morris Louis. Par for the post-modern course you might think… But crucially he then layers the work (not clear in reproduction – an irony I’ll return to later) adding and subtracting what looks like polyurethane plastic stencils. In a painting like ‘Grenade Head’ this process creates fascinating optical stresses and ambiguities with great use of colour. Seductive games of hiding and revealing buried imagery vie with overt signs from the history of abstraction. This process, in Stubb’s hands, remains lively and open rather than another systemic, deadening ‘strategy’. This active, engaging approach to imagery from sources exterior to abstraction’s history is a welcome visceral and sensuous foil to the dry and fallow ground ploughed over and over again in shows like ‘The Indiscipline of Painting’ from last year.

Michael Stubbs, 'Brush Head Drawing #2', pencil on watercolour paper, 60x42cms (73.2x56cms framed). Courtesy of the Artist and the Laurent Delaye Gallery, London.

Michael Stubbs, ‘Brush Head Drawing #2′, pencil on watercolour paper, 60x42cms (73.2x56cms framed). Courtesy of the Artist and the Laurent Delaye Gallery, London.

The result is gratifying in its spatial dexterity while frustrating the hunt for a resolved image. I like this frustration. At its best Stubbs’ work makes one aware of our self-reflexive negotiation with the image saturated world: it’s a reflexivity played out nicely in the smaller scale collages and drawings arranged throughout the exhibition, like subtle echoes of the larger works. This reflexive impulse, the connection it makes between the imagery of paintings and the wider world, has its roots in the very beginnings of modernity. It is something that the impulse to abstraction could still have a powerful connection with. A healthy tension between subjectivity and objectivity remains a central lynchpin to the best in abstract art. In this work painting becomes a liminal realm, a place where inner and outer realities meet in the manipulation of the chosen medium.

M.Stubbs-'Virus Drawing #37, 2009, vinyl and ink on watercolour paper, 41x31cms. Courtesy of the Artist and the Laurent Delaye Gallery, London.

M.Stubbs-’Virus Drawing #37, 2009, vinyl and ink on watercolour paper, 41x31cms. Courtesy of the Artist and the Laurent Delaye Gallery, London.

Stubbs’ press release talks well about these uncomfortable relationships that we are developing with new media and the internet etc. But what was intriguing about this show was the importance of the actual physical reality of the paintings. They are undeniably present, in the gallery space. The layering process is overt. Ridges of paint protrude from the masked areas of polyurethane. Their glossy surfaces reflect and distort the light from a large window that looks straight out on to Whitechapel High St. They do not glow like so many undead cyphers made to emulate the screen. All this is lost in the slick reproduction of the work that float on my screen as I write!

I want to just throw in a ghostly whisper from history that Stubbs work seems to conjure.

“The climate at the moment is fine for sensational art about issues, but less favourable for abstract art, particularly abstract painting. It seems impossible for a modern fashionable audience to find the idea of an aesthetic type of art exciting- its just too much to ask….”

That was Matthew Collings’ playful musings on the state of British abstract painting in 2001. Michael Stubbs makes me ask- What’s changed in 12 years?

All hands on deck Me Heartys!…… Charge!

 

  1. Robin Greenwood said…

    “…an aesthetic type of art…” Eeuww! That’s where Matt went wrong.

  2. John Holland said…

    I agree, and this points to something very fundamental that underlies so much talk about abstraction, and, indeed, all art now; should it be realistic or idealistic?
    ‘Reality’ is not what it was; it is increasingly becoming devoid of all non-human or unmediated content. Nature, in the broadest possible definition of the term, is leaving human consciousness.
    Whether this is a ‘delusion’ to be opposed, or an inevitable reality to be engaged with, seems to me to be the essential question for art now, and for culture generally.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      Recently put up something on the blog about that very point:
      http://newabstraction.net/2013/02/11/sublime-delusion/

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Perhaps ‘reality’ never was what it was. Haven’t artists always created their own? Actually, probably everyone does, but artists are supposed to be more convincing at it. Aren’t artists, on behalf of everyone else, the mediators of nature? In which case, the only delusional aspect is how good you think it is; and the mediation to be avoided is interpretation (especially by curators) or technologies (especially the computer).

      • Robert Linsley said…

        Fair enough, but I think I can find a reality outside of the fantasies of other people, which is what the mass media are. If mass media images are a new or expanded “reality” then I resent it mightily because I didn’t have any say in it. I’m a consumer only, and to sit in passive contemplation of media, as if they were a landscape or other aspect of nature is pathetic in my view. There’s plenty of artistic modes that are much better at handling that kind of stuff. Make videos and put them on TV. At least then you would be in the game.
        But then that’s not really what you are talking about, most of which I agree with.

  3. Robert Linsley said…

    Very good article. I share your dream, but don’t believe that mass media images form the reality that we want abstraction to talk to or about. More like the delusion that abstraction – as an art of concrete particulars – so not really “abstract” – stands against. For me.