The title of this show conjures such an intriguing mix of associations. To get to the Laurent Delaye gallery one has to navigate all the suited mannequins, tailor’s dummies and stuffed shirts of Savile Row. There is nothing new about an artist somehow re-animating a lifeless form, talking in tongues, as it were, through an effigy; occupying the burnt out husks of the formal innovations of the past. But Andrea Medjesi-Jones traverses Modernism’s darker histories. She enters those claustrophobic in-between spaces that formed the political and cultural challenges and debates that have haunted abstract art since the Second World War. Medjesi-Jones witnessed the disintegration of her own Yugoslavia into bloody civil wars between ethnic groups – a story being echoed across the globe since the demise of the Soviet Union, the rise of radical Islamic nations, the US lead invasion of Iraq and what was called the Arab Spring. Let’s say Medjesi-Jones has shot through the corpse of gestural abstraction with the crackle of energy charged up on a formidable power supply of repressed histories and formal, painterly devices.
On first glance Work or Riot gives us a clear graphic hit. A restricted palette of black line and orange bouncing off blocks of off-whites and light blues intensifies this clarity. It’s a confident spatial dexterity that holds the gaze as in Franz Kline’s virtuoso calligraphy. But there is another history at work here too: the hard line and simple colours and contours of the Lo-Fi propaganda poster. In contemporary art Robert & Roberta Smith’s pithy tongue in cheek rallying cries for ‘Art’ or Monique Prieto’s personal/political painterly bubble writing comes to mind. But there is something spikier and altogether darker at work in Medjesi-Jones’ canvases. Work or Riot takes us down to the dark and dingy basements and store rooms full of the tattered archives of the failed revolutions, the riots and manifestos. From Trotsky and the pick axe to May ’68; from the simmering resentments of Modernity’s masses and the industrial revolution to modern Europe’s mass unemployment and impending global ecological disaster. Medjesi-Jones has been collecting an array of marks, layers, painterly additions and subtractions that uncannily bring to life our shadowy, alienated, schizoid idea of Modernism and Modernity as a political/social entity. Down the left hand side of the canvas runs the afterthought ‘ONE OR THE OTHER’. Notions of struggle have not been aestheticised, so much opened up for scrutiny. The high road to a better future has become quite literally torn at the edges.
In a formalist reading of art abstraction would be the rational way to get to the perfect painting. Unencumbered with the need to depict anything artists can work cosily within the limitations of their medium. But we all know that this notion of perfection is constantly under debate. Social and political contexts and generational battles constantly undermine any conclusive reading of what pure painting or sculpture could ever really look like….Or whether it is an ideal worth pursuing in the first place. And of course there have been artists in the vanguard of post-war abstraction who maintained links to a political stance. Motherwell would be an obvious example but there are other lesser known ‘Elegies’ too from that period. The ‘Napalm Elegies’ of Rudolf Baranik come to mind and some of the ‘Black Paintings’ by Norman Lewis. It’s a little ironic to think that the CIA had quite a hefty file on Mark Rothko. Our new technological world means the CIA has a file on practically everyone! But it is interesting that Medjesi -Jones works seem to invoke and quote the aesthetic qualities of print and torn papers rather than the screen. There is the palpable sense of Work or Riot’s surfaces being torn apart and being reconfigured. The energised marks and scraped surfaces create a constant visual buzz; though the physical flatness of the surface remains intact. The action seems to happen in the surface rather than on it.
The other three large paintings in the main space of the gallery jettison the use of words - this heightens the visual tension in the surface of the paintings. They strongly register a quality of news print or the old Xerox machine. In No More (2011) the immediate visual hit is impressive but we are drawn to the actual facture of the surface more forcefully by this contrary and puzzling lack of material presence of the mark making. There is an intensified use of rollers and combs(?) that seem to push and scrape pigment right into the surface of the canvas. An incredible patchwork of edges and scrapings reveal that what looks like an immediate image created in an easy gestural manner is in fact a highly contrived set of visual stops, starts and erasures. Again colour is reduced to bleached out blues that work as translucent veils or mists giving subtle variation and a certain respite from the antagonised, dried out surface of the inky blacks, chalky whites and then the white of the canvas itself.
This collagic energy is captured more overtly in some of the smaller works that contain figurative signs of the head and the eye. Here we clearly see photographic print cut and laid over paint scraped through with a comb again or such like. The image is literal. A head or an eye being broken open, the contents spiralling out, a phantasmagoria of painterly abandon – but not quite!
Sometimes we ask ourselves what abstract painting is supposed to do ‘now’. What is it for? What has it to offer in the 21st century? Well, Medjesi-Jones offers us a fascinating and strange duality. An extreme excess of contrived painterly incident but somehow emptied of depth and material presence. It takes us to a twilight realm where we are somehow caught in the visual no-man’s land of painterly actions and representations of those actions. This creates what I can only describe as a mute intensity, a sort of silent scream that echoes back through Modernism’s own war torn history.
Ventriloquist is on at the Laurent Delaye Gallery until the 27th of July.