Abstract Critical

Peter Halley

Written by John Bunker

Peter Halley, Suburgatory, 2013, 47 1/2 x 55 in / 120.7 x 139.7 cm, Acrylic, day-glo acrylic, and Roll-a-Tex on canvas Courtesy of Waddington Custot Galleries, London

Peter Halley, Suburgatory, 2013,
47 1/2 x 55 in / 120.7 x 139.7 cm, Acrylic, day-glo acrylic, and Roll-a-Tex on canvas
Courtesy of Waddington Custot Galleries, London

Peter Halley’s latest show at Waddington Custot coincides with the death of a certain Margaret Thatcher. One could be forgiven for suffering the terrible delusion of being dragged (kicking and screaming) down Cork St and back through time straight into the 1980s! So here goes a little time travel of my own to set the scene for some thoughts on Halley’s new work and the pros and cons of his influence since that decade.

                                             Neo Conservatism Strikes Back…
                         A [not so] long time ago in an art world [not so] far, far away…

Once the 1st wave of Abstract Expressionism and then Post Painterly Abstraction had been over taken by Pop, Minimalism, Conceptualism and Deconstruction, the 80s saw Neo Expressionism taking centre stage in the media and the marketplace. This was part of an almighty conservative back-lash echoed in the wider culture of the 1980s both by an imploding, nihilistic Left (probably best exemplified by the writings of Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio) and the rise of a neo-conservatism busily mining the ‘failures’ of the social and political experimentation of the 60s for future political capital.

Peter Halley, Raising Hope I, 2013, 48 x 39 in / 121.9 x 99.1 cm Acrylic, day-glo acrylic, and Roll-a-Tex on canvas. Courtesy of Waddington Custot Galleries, London

Peter Halley, Raising Hope I, 2013, 48 x 39 in / 121.9 x 99.1 cm
Acrylic, day-glo acrylic, and Roll-a-Tex on canvas. Courtesy of Waddington Custot Galleries, London

So how did abstract painting deal with these challenges? How did it begin to assimilate these paradigm shifts? Halley responded with a form of painting which takes the notion of ‘abstraction’ as a kind of host or petri dish in which to grow conceptual strategies; and as a model from which to produce ever more sophisticated illustrations of a single idea. It is an idea about self and identity (or lack of?) that has its roots in the alienation inherent to the dark side of modernity. We get the rhetoric of a dystopian urbanism tinged with a jaded pop sensibility. Rather than non-referential the work represents ‘systems’ – it is symbolic of social control and the networks that supposedly control our western cultural and financial centres. His painterly narrative seems strangely prophetic,  intensified by the mass availability of computer technology. What might of been another ‘end game’ for painting has been transformed by new generations of artists into many new games now being played out between the screen and the canvas.

Halley repeats endless variations on this visual/historical frisson and creates psychological resonances from simple, almost playful juxtapositions. For this show he is really pushing the boat out by allowing his Roll-a-Tex ‘prisons’ and ‘cells’ to float or sit suspended by ‘conduits’ in artificial skies! See ‘Glee’ for example. The colours remind one of an infant’s first toys. The titles of the pieces are appropriated from cable TV dramas. High Abstract, harangued by High Theory and tickled by High Camp – a flirtatious threesome that seems to have been an ongoing fascination for certain abstract painters (especially for the geometrically inclined) for the last 20 odd years… See The Indiscipline of Painting.

Peter Halley, Glee, 2013, 43 3/8 x 43 in / 110.2 x 109.2 cm, Acrylic, day-glo acrylic, and Roll-a-Tex on canvas. Courtesy of Waddington Custot Galleries, London

Peter Halley, Glee, 2013, 43 3/8 x 43 in / 110.2 x 109.2 cm, Acrylic, day-glo acrylic, and Roll-a-Tex on canvas. Courtesy of Waddington Custot Galleries, London

For all their critical strategies Halley’s paintings are also continual reworkings of a highly personalised visual vocabulary. Halley’s ‘brand’ is in overdrive. Here lies the tension for me as we look back at Halley’s career and those of others similarly turbo-charged by early success in the 80s. Behind Halley’s repetitive illustrations of a critical-theoretical position is a very particular stymied tragic/comic narrative. It’s the same old story of modernism’s questing and pioneering spirit unraveling.

Peter Halley, Camp, 2013, 40 x 45 in / 101.6 x 114.3 cm, Acrylic, day-glo acrylic, and Roll-a-Tex on canvas. Courtesy of Waddington Custot Galleries, London

Peter Halley, Camp, 2013, 40 x 45 in / 101.6 x 114.3 cm, Acrylic, day-glo acrylic, and Roll-a-Tex on canvas. Courtesy of Waddington Custot Galleries, London

I would hope that we’ve got past all that. An ironic and parodic approach to abstraction and its simulations might have seemed appropriate in the face of Neo Expressionism’s over-whelming conservative, historicist revival of notions of individual genius and willful self expression – so prevalent in the excesses of the elites rising to power in the 80s. But Halley and other artists of his generation personify a ‘passive aggressive’ relationship to a notion of modernity’s past that has itself (rather ironically) set a historical precedent. Are attitudes to abstraction now still somehow caught up in Halley’s pop ennui? A seductive and toxic side effect of Warhol’s legacy? Maybe. Certainly since the 80s Halley’s ironic and referential strategies have dominated the way we think about abstract art and its histories. This tactical and critical approach to abstract painting is underpinned by a reassertion of the pivotal power of language in the making and understanding of art, a media savvy complicity with the market, and a re-evaluation of the duplicitous aura of art object as commodity. But it is also a standard model that promotes pragmatism over action, careerism over politics, hands off nihilism over engaged agency.

Peter Halley, Revolution, 2013, 53 x 52 in / 134.6 x 132.1 cm Acrylic, day-glo acrylic, and Roll-a-Tex on canvas. Courtesy of Waddington Custot Galleries, London

Peter Halley, Revolution, 2013, 53 x 52 in / 134.6 x 132.1 cm
Acrylic, day-glo acrylic, and Roll-a-Tex on canvas. Courtesy of Waddington Custot Galleries, London

Neo-Geo’s value for painting was that it took up the challenge of questioning the tenants of ‘High Modernism’ from ‘inside’ abstract painting – pulling abstract art down a peg or two, rubbing its face in the ‘real’. But ‘the real’ according to some artists seems to be everyday job of making art and selling it: the mundane realities of art-making become conflated with the ‘hyper’ reality of the artist as celebrity or cultural theoretician. It’s a glib, academic and pragmatic approach to process that enforces a cynical stereotype of artist as ‘player’, as arch strategist riding the bloodied surf in the ebb and flow of shark infested capital. In other words it personifies a certain mind set that echoes through the 80s of ‘Wall St’ and Thatcherism right into the present day. Halley sends these uneasy thoughts backwards and forwards down his conduits between prisons and cells. I just hope he hasn’t locked us all up for good in his endless maze of Roll-a-Texed 80s motel rooms.

  1. nick moore said…

    Peter, I wouldnt go into a burger king anyway because i know what I am going to get on my plate and on the wall!!! rather spend the time painting.

    • Peter Stott said…

      Lol…I try and avoid it myself but sometimes one needs a burger even though one knows it’s going to be a sordid affair. How about a virtual burger bar? Halley could sell these to South Park and exhibit them virtually in an episode, cheap motel or burger bar or even South Park Jail, if there is such a thing. That would be enough visual punishment for anybody.

  2. Alan Fowler said…

    I’m a fan of geometric abstraction but Halley’s paintings leave me cold – or, rather, irritated by their absence of subtlety, lack of structural rationality. and absence of any relationship between the forms and the colours. And I don’t like being visually shouted at – the effect of his garish colours – particularly when there isn’t a worthwhile message.
    Has Halley ever studied Albers for a lesson in the effectiveness of restraint in form and colour (and I’m not thinking only of his homage to the square series); or Lohse to see how colour and form can interact and be mutually reinforcing. – as in his Funfzehn Systematische Fahrbreihen mit Vertikaler und Horizontaler Verdichtuing.

  3. Robin Greenwood said…

    I think the tenants of ‘High Modernism’ should ask for a rent rebate.

    If I was half–ways clear as to what John B. was arguing for here, I’m pretty sure I’d disagree with it. It’s all over for this sort of rubbish, isn’t it. Who believes in it apart from people with more money than sense?

    • Peter Stott said…

      The idea that abstract art has something to say about politics is an absolute joke, I’m sure no painting when asked, could put forward a view on Margaret Thatcher. It reminds me of market research questions like ‘Do you think this beer is confident?’ It’s actually quite amusing to think of it, but the idea of an artist adopting a strategy toward it, is ridiculous. OK, having a laugh in the face of the futility of the endeavour, may be classed as art, but reality has so much overtaken the art that it has no power. Aint it awful? Yes it is, I already know, I don’t need awful paintings to remind me, who does?

    • Sam Cornish said…

      Ah, the misspelling alert – the first refuge of the truly engaged! (though perhaps only a sic mind would reach for the tool at seemingly every opportunity).

      Despite the slightly OTT language (which I personally enjoy) John’s description of the discourse around Halley’s work and the consequences of this discourse are convincing. To recognise a situation or a belief is not to say you approve or are a believer! The references to Thatcher and the 80s in general are probably jammed in a little awkwardly but to me John lays out and then pretty effectively skewers a mindset which is all too prevalent around abstract art.

      • Peter Stott said…

        I’m not convinced by any of it, neither the paintings nor the discourse around them. It’s pure self-delusion apart from the fact that Halley is a recognized artist with a documented history so therefore he’s taken seriously. It’s a case of people believing his kidology, believing in a mediated history of art that means nothing to me. The pictures don’t contribute to any dialogue about picturing, nor do they offer anything about other issues, such as politics. These picture should be exhibited in Burger King, where they belong.

  4. Peter Stott said…

    I find these paintings indescribably dull, I have no idea what the intended buzz is, from looking at such work. Not in terms of geometry, form and space, colour, surface or any other aspect of the 2D data. They remind me of the interiors of Burger King, which are made to be so hideous that one eats up and gets out of the place as quickly as possible. They have skillfully employed the art of the hideous more than any abstract painter can ever do, more than any art theory can make a case for.

  5. Zino Pece said…

    Halley has not significantly moved on. These frequent shows at Waddington’s always disappoint me, yet at the same time there is usually something to admire. On this occasion, I did like the first one on the right as you walk in, a mainly pink one. The others though, in various degrees, are so garish and out of control, almost to the point of not being able to look at them. The colours interfere with other colours to the detriment of the picture. You get that fuzzy effect, which can work for Op. Art, but not with these. The poor lightfastness of day glow paint woud worry me if I was a collector his work.

  6. Sam said…

    Completely agree on Denny over Halley. Interestingly Denny seems to have lots of the ideas about the city, and about abstraction being a model for modern experience that Halley is seen as bringing to abstraction a few decades later. But I’d say that Denny superiority as a colourist is the more important.

    If you’re in London Laurent Delaye have one on display at the moment (and it’s only just round the corner from Waddingtons)

  7. ayejay said…

    I am always drawn to the use of geometry in art, Halley’s I can take or leave it, but if I was looking for something to ‘inspire’ me in this vein, with the informed use of colour, then I need to look no further than Robyn Denny’s work in the 60s… which is still relevant… and visually exciting to me at least… Halley’s use of colour reminds me of a packet of Spangles sweets… almost too bitter to taste…