Abstract Critical

The Screen and the Workshop: Robert Holyhead and Geoffrey Rigden

Written by David Sweet


Robert Holyhead: Peer Gallery, London, 16th May – 7th July

Geoffrey Rigden: Poussin Gallery, London, 6th – 30th June

In painting, facture counts for a good deal. In ‘abstract’ painting it confers particularity on components that, encountered outside the pictorial domain, are otherwise generic; lines, planes, discs, triangles, parallelograms, etc. It’s not just a question of style, of giving the work a certain overall look, but of creating and managing its constitutive formal activity.

As if to conveniently demonstrate the influence of facture on form, the work in Robert Holyhead’s show divides into two sections; in one room, a large number of small watercolours, perched on three racks, like an array of magazines, and in the other, six modestly sized canvases, at least four of which might be classed as easel paintings.

Installation view, Courtesy of the artist and PEER

The watercolours are freewheeling excursions into possibilities and variations of shapes and colours. Their status lies somewhere between sketchbook ‘ideas’ and working drawings, resolved enough to settle the early questions posed by the empty, bright gesso surface that greets Holyhead at the start of the oil painting process, but not wholly pre-emptive. What happens when forms are transferred from one medium to another is that their promise and triviality falls away. They become more serious and more connected to significant events in the history of modernist painting.

Untitled 2012 Oil on canvas 48.3cm x 33cm. Courtesy of the artist and PEER

The two works that best exemplify this connection, and the two best paintings, are Untitled 2012 [blue] and Untitled 2012 [pink]. The shapes in the blue painting are constructed from the intersection of diagonals. Some, around the edges, are blank, others towards the centre register the legible movement of fluid pigment, brushed with or against the axis of the conjoined geometric figures. In those places where one flow of pigment reaches the edge of its shape and meets paint travelling in another direction, or at a different speed, a membrane forms which keeps the two apart. Where the central field abuts the white ‘ground’, the division is more abrupt.

Untitled 2012 Oil on canvas 61cm x 33cm. Courtesy of the artist and PEER

Similar phenomena can be observed in the pink painting. The indented triangle on the right edge and the more compound zigzag shape on the left are filled with slightly different gestural velocities and densities of thinned red. In the central zone the same red is encouraged to hang onto the surface, then allowed to drift down, under the forces of gravity and its own inertia, to leave characteristic tide marks of a darker value. The otherwise total pink field is interrupted by a white tapered oblong shape, which sits high up towards the top right, its sides echoing the angles of the adjacent structures.

Untitled 2012 Oil on canvas 45.7cm x 30.5cm. Courtesy of the artist and PEER

In both of these paintings, and in Untitled 2012 [green] to a slightly lesser extent, the constitutive formal activity creates optical conditions that can be usefully compared with those in works by Jackson Pollock in particular Cut-Out, ca. 1948-50, and the better known Out of the Web, 1959. Both examples make use of the physical removal of parts of the canvas, allowing another underneath to show through. Unlike a collage, where it’s easy to detect the extraneous material and its literal relation to the supporting plane, the excision method causes certain optical problems. Briony Fer talks of an ‘anamorphic moment’ in respect of Out of the Web, claiming that in it Pollock made visible ‘the spectator’s failure to master the visual field’. Michael Fried likens the lacuna in Cut-Out to a ‘blind spot, a kind of defect in our visual apparatus’. Confronting these examples, the desire for formal coherence and resolution is not fulfilled within the viewing experience. Instead, as Fer and Fried attest, the viewer is presented with a combination of two irreconcilable spatial systems, like two magnetic fields of the same polarity, neither of which will give way to the other, nor be subsumed under some higher unifying principle.

The blue, pink and green paintings involve a similar disturbed and conflicted visual experience. Where the colour is cut away to reveal the white gesso, the relationship between the two elements is not of positive to negative, for both are positive. Nor is it of figure to ground, for the white appears as another field, on the same level as the colour. But there is an extra layer of complexity. Within the colour, the bounding membrane described above acts like a further cut, slicing the area into component sub-fields, each slightly at odds with its neighbour.

Compared to Holyhead’s delicate finessing, Geoff Rigden’s paintings look like a version of abstraction made by a village carpenter. The surfaces of his earlier pieces such as Off-Minor 1985 and Cycladic Violet 1990, still retain something of the nap of the underlying cotton duck, and the brush-marks and forms sit back into the fabric, occupying a slightly absorbent space. But later works seem constructed out of paint that bears no trace of its liquid ancestry, drying to a crust, on top of crust.

Geoffrey Rigden Indoors, 2005 acrylic on canvas, 35 x 50 cm

In paintings like You and Me 2005, Indoors 2005, Composition with Gourd 1996 and Meetings with Remarkable Men 2005, the viewer is given no spatial invitation. Occasionally gaps are visible between a shape and its immediate environs, affording a glimmer of the under-painting, but if anything such glimpses confirm the resistance of the locked surface rather than offer the eye any relief. By cutting off the viewer’s escape route ‘into’ the painting Rigden can organise his formal language strictly across two dimensions, inhibiting any gratuitous ‘push-pull’ play between the components. The forms then acquire the anatomy and behaviour of symbols or hieroglyphs, having a particular individual articulation and fixed relationship to the next symbol in the queue or sequence. Indoors and Meeting with Remarkable Men consist of a left to right parade of typecast ciphers. The first emphasises the internal division of the vertical black lines, imprisoning the bursts of colour, like leaded glass. In the second, colour abuts colour, and the three shades of green work together to melt the left hand butterscotch L-shape, which forms one side of a proscenium-like border. In the second painting, more happens.

Geoffrey Rigden Meeting with Remarkable Men, 2005 acrylic on canvas, 41 x 41 cm

Not much needs to happen however, for in a rigid system marginal flexibility can have disproportionate power. The slight departure from the symmetrical enlivens Coochie Dancer 2005 no end. In Composition with Gourd, the small effect of dilation and contraction, produced by the interaction of the central eponymous shape with its cognate disc and half-rhymed reverse C, adds to the alternating cubist-like plan-elevation interpretation of the total pictorial schema, opening up the eau-de-nil flatbed picture plane to the welcome possibility of an ambiguous reading.

Geoffrey Rigden Composition with Gourd, 1996 acrylic on canvas, 51 x 61 cm

Entrance 2004-8, succeeds by different means. It goes for a solution that redefines the role of black as the darkest available value in a tonal continuum rather than a non-colour amongst colours. The two dark greys on either side appear to rotate around the fold of the central armature like the recto and verso wings of a book, while the different levels of light in the gaps between the black lines participate in the dominant monochrome dialogue much more effectively than do their chromatic equivalents in Indoors, or Mirror 2002-4.

But, outside of the issues of art criticism of a formalist sort, one might end up wondering about the contemporary positioning of these two painters and the politics of the different surfaces that each produce. Rigden’s crustiness harks back to the rough finish of 20th century canvasses while Holyhead’s smooth and shiny glazing evokes the uninterrupted texture of photography and screen based media.

Geoffrey Rigden Entrance, 2004-08 acrylic on canvas, 50 x 55 cm

Meanwhile, over in White Cube, Damien Hirst is exhibiting new work. He is learning to paint so obviously they look like student paintings, (Hirst, D. 57%, 2:2). But they are housed in beautiful chromium frames and under glass, so it’s hard not to see the show as an installation of vitrines, in accordance with the artist’s usual practice. As is to be expected, the paintings themselves contain passages of semi-impasto and thin washes, but their localised facture is mediated through the intervening glass, which becomes the final, official surface of the work. The implication is that the ‘normal’ surface of a painting is somehow inadmissible or ‘inappropriate’ in the context of the contemporary public realm, as problematic as would be the surface of a dead fish or cloud of flies, which the glass protects us from in other circumstances. Isn’t this the reverse of what used to be the case? Wasn’t the glass there to protect the painting, not the viewer?

David Sweet