Ann-Marie James and Annie Lapin are two artists who make ostensibly abstract paintings, but who use the art of the past in a self-consciously Post-Modern sort of way. They quote it, in other words, deconstruct it, “employ it”, to use James’ utilitarian terminology, “as a tactic”. It’s not an enticing introduction. And whilst both artist use the language of strategies, of doing things like reconfiguring our notions of art history and referring, as is more or less obligatory now, to Deleuze, Annie Lapin, at least, largely fails to fulfill these promises, and manages to make some intriguing paintings.
Both artists appropriate the ‘look’, for want of a better word, of a particular period of art – the Baroque in James’ case, and late 18th / early 19th century English landscape painting in Lapin’s. Stand twenty feet from James’ ‘All Other Places’ (in her current exhibition at Karsten Schubert), squint your eyes, and it looks remarkably like Rubens’ oil sketch for ‘The Apotheosis Of James I’. Look closer, and you see that the elaborate and writhing composition is contrasted with antithetical elements – carefully controlled Manga-style graphics closely following the painterly gestures made sometimes directly by the fingers, complicated layering and glazing pulling it all into one slick, oleaginous surface and setting up the over-familiar dialectic of two or more contrasting sources challenging our understanding of each. She does it with great technical skill – they cleverly achieve a kind of over-heated Baroque-Gothic-Manga-biomorphic collision – but I don’t find this splicing together of found styles as strategic commentary a very fertile model. The paintings here share not only the same dimensions (as conceptually-inclined paintings almost invariably do for some reason), but essentially the same single idea; some are dark and more Gothic (‘Besotted And Doomed’), some are pale and ethereal (the Matta-like ‘Always Spring’), but none of them really transcend this air of the strategic. It’s exemplified by the way James uses the word ‘beauty’ in that odd, contemporary sense of some kind of discrete quality that can be appropriated at will, an effect – invariably one of dense, near fractal abstract detail with a spurious whiff of the Romantic Sublime (see also Richter’s squeegee paintings).
There is also a series of found book plates in the exhibition, early 20th century photographs of Bernini sculptures that James has added meticulous ink and watercolour accretions; vaguely Surreal (or vaguely quoting Surrealism), they respond to the sculptures (or the photographs) with a kind of psycho-sexual doodling. Lovers are tied together, limbs emit trails of ectoplasm, faces are fused by elastic growths. They remind me of the commercial Surrealism of ‘70’s record covers. The exhibition is named after the Bernini sculpture of the goddess of spring, not the goddess of spring herself – the difference is significant. Now that outside the gallery the plane trees are belatedly bursting into bud, this work feels necrophilic, both in its over-ripe aesthetic and its use of the art of the past under the assumption that it’s a dead language fit only for strategic redeployment.
Annie Lapin’s paintings at Josh Lilley share some of this art-historical self-consciousness. It’s immediately obvious that most are using late 18th – early 19th century English landscape painting as their source, while a series of semi-figurative tondos more glibly evoke the portraits of Rembrandt. These tondos are the weakest pieces I think, and they share the limitations of James’ work. They are monochrome, tarry umber ‘portraits’ formed by wiping away the dark paint with solvent to reveal the golden highlights of torsos that are suggested, but never fully described. Swipes, stabs, flicks and smears coalesce, alluding not only to Rembrandt’s light, but to Bacon and De Kooning’s expressionism, but to no very productive end.
The ‘landscapes’ are much more interesting. Lapin talks of the paintings being about the functioning of memory, both cultural and pathological (hence the show’s title), but this kind of thematic exposition doesn’t seem to me very relevant to the way the paintings actually work. After all, every image is about the notion of memory in some way, which is why it’s trivial as a ‘subject’; likewise her desire to “target the historical understanding of painting”- all original art will do this. Maybe I can choose to put all this to one side as the kind of language necessary to gain legitimacy in L.A. art circles – the study of the functioning of memory has a nice, firm, sciencey heft, an importance to it that mere painting hasn’t.
They do seem at first glance quite generic; most of them have a light-filled ‘sky’, a lower dark ‘ground’, suggestions of clouds and water, blues and greens, and an expansive sense of external space; but unlike James’ paintings, they use these familiar tropes as a starting point to be broken down, contradicted, played with and evolved into something specific to itself. They transcend the strategic. ‘Picture Shell For Hermit Projection’ suggests an Italianate, Turneresque landscape – cerulean blue sky moving down into pale ‘clouds’, a tree shape framing the right hand side. But the landscape comes apart as you look at it, and without the top half to lend it the feel of a gorge in shadow, the lower part of the painting would read as vertical abstract gestures that create a space that’s very difficult to define – a sort of vertical layering replacing the expected perspective – while the gestures’ ‘tree-ness’ is shown to be only a function of their position. ‘Concrete Highlight Sculpt’ uses the familiarity of the horizon but doubles it to make a completely different structure. The colours are the soft greens and pale blues of the picturesque, but the twin horizontals are contradictory and unsettling, simultaneously like two superimposed sketches and two forms hovering with an odd feeling of both mass and weightlessness. Every passage of the painting reflects familiar features of the genre but nothing resolves, the paint always maintains an indefinability balanced halfway between illusion and material fact.
A bright lime green is used in many of the paintings, a colour just a bit too lurid to be natural but still suggesting sun-lit foliage – in ‘Upward land Colour Projection’ it has echoes of Constable’s wind-blown, flickering trees, though the shadow of the nominal tree is more palpable and solid than anything else except an oddly placed bar beneath. The rest of the tree shape is as vapourous and open as the blue behind it (which in turn rests on a contrary scumble of black). Of course, these are quite tricksy paintings, and sometimes they fall over. ‘Genre Bridges’, as the name suggests, yokes together the atmosphere of a dappled grove with an umber ‘portrait’, which lurks behind the lime highlights as a sort of spooky shadow, with some exposed linen flecked with artfully shadowed gobbets of paint to underline its artifice, and some scratches turn a brushstroke into the eponymous bridge to create a disjuncture of scale. The more you look at it, the less it works.
Both ‘Mask Hut Land Man’ (there are some terrible titles) and ‘Deep Body’ use the ambiguous scale and mass of cloud forms, giving them a dense, looming quality. In ‘Mask Hut..’. these are played off against almost arbitrary-looking brush marks. Viridian and turquoise strokes, unrelated to any landscape feature, make three sides of a square sitting over a dark, cloudy form that appears to float through it and towards us; the form casts a deep shadow while the square exists outside the more or less naturalistic light of the rest of the painting. ‘Deep Body’, on the other hand, eschews generic colour – there’s a lot of black, with flecks of orange, and a cloud-like shape that sits in the space with a kind of menace. Despite some dissembling gestures, it has a more conventional and cohesive sense of space than any of the other paintings.
I like Annie Lapin’s work, it has a very subtle sensibility, but hers is a strange answer to the question of what to paint right now – and surely she can only deconstruct a genre in this way for so long before it suffers the law of diminishing returns. Contrary to the ‘interrogatory’ model now in vogue, you could say that the paintings lack ambition, lack the confidence to stop playing around with the familiar. Then again, ‘House For Three Visions’ shares with some images of new work on her website a much more self contained and genuinely abstract sense of space, colour and structure. There is some residual hint of landscape – it shares with nearly all the other paintings the modulated cerulean blue that functions, wherever it sits in the compositions, as a sign for sky, but here it’s a big frenzied painterly mass framed by grey, pink and black straight-edged planes. It relies less on dichotomies and either/or ambiguities, and it’s less contingent as a result, more ‘of-itself’.