Drop, Roll, Slide, Drip… Frank Bowling’s Poured Paintings 1973–8, Tate Britain, 30 April 2012 – 30 April 2013
Alexis Harding: Substance and Accident, Mummery & Schnelle, 11 May – 23 June 2012
Holton Rower: Pour, Shizaru, 23 May – 15 July 2012
Otto Peine: A Retrospective, Mayor Gallery, 23 May – 27 July 2012
Malerie: Painting As Object, Transition Gallery, 9 June – 1 July 2012
Paint stressed as physical stuff, or painting-as-object/object-as-painting, is present in a few exhibitions now on or recently on in London. In solo presentations of work by Frank Bowling, Alexis Harding and Holton Rower paint is shown poured, with gravity to a lesser or greater extent having been allowed to take its course. Though he also uses poured and thrown and dripped paint, the key to Zero founder Otto Peine’s ‘fire paintings’ is that he sets them alight.
Bowling most clearly manipulates his pours within the spatial possibilities of the pictorial; Peine much less so, and instead relies on the more up-front drama of paint or image as ‘event’ (as Harold Rosenberg famously put it). Both artists also allow their abstractions to take on resemblances to things in the world, chiefly natural occurrences. Bowling’s resemblances are subtler and richer, perhaps to precisely the extent that his paintings are also more pictorially complex and more spatially active. It is worth noting that Peine saw painting and the canvas as traps and moved into an expanded field of activity (the show also has an early strobe light and proto-disco balls). For Bowling, in contrast, pouring itself eventually became a restriction and he adopted more actively controlled means of constructing pictures, though he has recently revisited the technique as a part of his repertoire.
Alexis Harding moves further away from the pictorial than Peine and more emphatically ties paint’s materiality to the literal solidity of painting-as-object. This solidity, given a kitsch or Pop twist, particularly in the series of dripping pink paintings that were displayed in Mummery and Schnelle’s backroom, supports what could be described as an ersatz eroticism. Though his work has a professional completeness to it and he achieves surface effects that are at times attractively glutinous, Harding’s work seems to me to lack a real urgency (if not to the extent that this is a problem in the work of the quite similar Ian Davenport). Perhaps this lack can be attributed to Harding moving too far away from a sense of the pictorial: though his poured paint literally records movement, as this is not activated by the illusions of space his canvases become visually inert rectangles.
Ramping up Harding’s rainbow colours, Holten Rower takes the kitsch or pop twist to an eye-popping, stomach-churning, ‘fun’ Op extreme (and not a happy one). Fun, as in the Rower exhibition signaled rather than actual, was also on the agenda at Malerie: Painting As Object at Transition Gallery. There is an installation shot here.Here a tondo painting by Harding stood out by achieving an actual physical presence, with the tondo itself seeming to usher in a more condensed and effective structure than the elongated rectangles shown at Mummery and Schnelle. Physical presence was lacking in the other objects displayed (despite the press release’s claims to the contrary). Though the works were clearly meant to stand in relation to painting and to transgress its conventions, there was no tension wrung out from between convention and transgression, between painting and an expanded field now taken for granted. Without a sense that anything was at stake the objects felt limp and inconsequential.
Tate Modern’s Autumn blockbuster is called A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance. According to the exhibition announcement by ‘contrasting key paintings by Jackson Pollock and David Hockney it considers two different approaches to the idea of the canvas as an arena in which to act: one gestural, the other one theatrical’. The seeming prevalence of a kitsch-pop-fun twist on paint which has been flung, poured and dripped makes the conjunction seem timely. It will perhaps be a good opportunity to try and work out whether a defence of abstract painting as first and foremost a pictorial art is still viable.