What If It’s All True? What Then?
Mummery+Schnelle, 83 Great Titchfield St, London W1W 6RH Part I: 6 April – 14 May, Part 2: 17 May – 25 June 2011
Taking its cue from an early John Baldessari text painting that the artist destroyed as part of his 1970 Cremation Project, titled Suppose It Is True After All? What Then? , this exhibition draws us in to a world of hesitations, revisions and adjustments, of artists enthralled with caveats and qualified positions. The claim [in Anna Mosynska’s accompanying text] is that these modes of doubt operate in terms of painting [currently being made] that has the ability to instigate a form of careful attention, to engender a quasi-contemplative thought process in the viewer’s mind. This might operate, as much as anything, out of the artists presenting a range of options within their work, out of a shared doubt that can be generative in its ability to take an abstract cliché somewhere not obvious or familiar. Meanwhile Chris Townsend’s text lays out the roots of the enquiry in terms of tracing Malevich’s Black Square, as a sort of via negativa, through the work of Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella, via the writing of TJ Clark, and ending up as an apologetic for the work of Paul Caffell included in this exhibition. Caffell’s paintings are undoubtedly good, being more complex and ambivalent than the presiding rhetoric of the time when he first emerged as an artist in the 1970’s generally permitted. However this text is perhaps more suited to a monograph on Caffell than to this exhibition, seeming to lean too far towards the American dominated lineage of abstraction for much of the other work included here. And then there is Stuart Elliot’s careful and concise text, which takes David Ryan’s book Talking Painting, 2002 as a moment in UK criticism when the point was made that abstraction does not need to be build from a crude, oedipal relationship with its forebears. Eliot also provides the concept of the unreliability of recollection for the exhibition, his own slightly wrongly remembered version of John Baldessari’s text painting becoming the title.
Mis-remembering is quite distinct from nostalgia, for to think more carefully about the mis-remembered past, is to provide some sort of corrective to what is being recalled. The motive here becomes one not only of a need to cross check the facts in order not to appear foolish or naïve, but also to take account of what it was that generated the imprecise or false memory in the first instance. How the discrepancy between the two might get played out in any new response becomes an inspiration for new work. Without fail the artists here demonstrate understanding of the caveats that painting abstraction has been freighted with since its various heroic phases in Modernism, but they remain unfazed by such considerations, finding their own ways to generate work from specific problems or in some instances the lack of tension they feel about the apparent problems face by non-representational work. While this can sometimes means that the exhibition’s two parts are not always exactly infused with lightness of touch, it does show that most of the artists selected posses the ability to turn in tight corners, so to speak, and find a way to angle their ideas out of a seeming impasse. By taking such a subtly different approach to the discourses around art and abstraction [in particular in the UK] this exhibition puts clear water between its position[s] and the sort of journalistic and media friendly approaches to impact and sensation that accompany the general poverty of discourse around such territory.
At its strongest points the selected paintings here generate attention as a conundrum, either through deliberately uneven propositions or considered inconsistencies between materials and idea, working the tension between an artists’ signature style and desire to undermine style to make something more analytical, or sometimes even just through simple visual ambiguities of foreground and background. Thus Alexis Harding takes his standard out-playing of formal grid against the disordered wrinkling of incompatible paint types in to a new and excessive filigree on round supports which, for him, are an unusual format; Oliver Perkins’ German Bite uses shallow relief formed by doubled stretchers of different thickness to miss-match the spatial perception viewed from a distance with what is seen close up; Ian Homerston works with the notion of a two-panelled conversation, a painting in acrylic on paper with cut out triangular forms sharing echoes with a canvas alongside, also using acrylic, full of that liminal suggestion of form and shadow which has been Raoul de Keysers particular gift to abstract painting over the last twenty years.
Meanwhile Ingo Meller, in his linen work fixed un-stretched to the wall and painted with unmixed colours directly from the manufacturers tube, continues to deconstruct gesture, colour and the rhetoric of the heroic mark on canvas and Avis Newman provides a seven-part painting made over two years, where the unfolding of decisions and adjustments suggests that intuition is always subject to revision; it is a work which is perhaps nearer to the visual world of Jurgen Partenheimer than that for which she has become known. There are, too, parallels between Rebecca
Salter’s subtle work, which has consistently occupied the same territory of slowly built striations of pencil and paint since the early 1980’s and Simon Callery’s early work with which he made his name via the Saatchi Collection in the early 1990’s. Callery’s constructed painting in this exhibition however, is more loaded, freighted and awkward than his early work, and stronger for its tenacious use of illogical and homemade structures. De La Cruz is still wrestling with the shadow of Steven Parrino, but here the oddly modest scale of her work here gives it a different sort of grace. I have to say I mistook Louise Hopkins’ painting as one of Robert Bordo’s delicate evocations of a night sky [Bordo has exhibited at Mummery+Schnelle] until closer inspection revealed its dense encrusted and multi-coloured covering of a map, a work perhaps more committed to the ambiguities of a painted surface than her usual approach. Peter Joseph, a consistent and severe painter whose position has been unjustly overlooked, is now making more fluid and open works where the two colour division of canvas he has stuck with over many years has been broken or part dissolved, as if he has discovered a way of inviting the viewer to complete the painting.
Stuart Eliot, through writing as well as painting, follows a way of working that can be traced back to artists/writers/curators such as Jon Thompson, whose own painting in this exhibition is part of the series that takes its cue from a performance of Bach keyboard music by Glenn Gould. The polyvalence of this association is suggestive of Systems Painting [in particular the work of Jeffrey Steele], the complex interaction between an ordered mathematical unfolding [the Fugue] and the personal and subjective bending of time and phrase in Gould’s interpretation of the music. Thompson’s writing often reveals a poetic leaning, the discipline of poetry suggesting a way back to a syntactical view of formalist painting, as an ordered progression of composition, mark and touch. Gravity and Grace, was the title of Thompson’s 1993 Hayward Gallery exhibition, taken from the book of the same name by French philosopher and social and
Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of.
Simone Weil, School Studies p.111 from the book of collected essays and letters Waiting for God.
Weil’s writing is probably unfashionably difficult at the moment, shot through as it is with apparent contradictions; Jewish, Communist, a convert to Catholicism and resistance fighter for her beloved France, who analyzed religion and society from the point of view of radical doubt, ending up starving herself to death in exile in England. But there is also a plangent philosophical discipline to her thought, which might suggest a way forward in terms of how attentiveness operates in the territory this exhibition aims to occupy. A lack of fear concerning the difficulty of paying attention to what is before us, a willingness to occupy contradictions and the effective agency of abstract painting within this paradigm, provide a necessary position in the contemporary world, amply demonstrated in What If It’s All True? What Then? by a willingness to place paintings in the context of such ideas.