Some thoughts on abstract painting prompted by Alan Gouk: New Paintings at Poussin Gallery, and other recent abstract painting shows.
If… perish the thought… I were to offer advice to an abstract painter starting out today, I would suggest they copy the artist they most admired until they got somewhere near to competing with them, and then move on to someone better; and so on, until there was no-one left and they themselves were the best of all (I’m an idealist). Comparisons might be odious, but there is no better lesson than holding up what you do next to the work of someone better than you. This is probably the direct opposite of advice currently handed out in art schools; and it is, I admit, not the sort of advice I myself would have followed as a student. But there seem to be a lot of enthusiastic abstract artists around who seem well intentioned but are re-inventing wheels that have not so very long ago been proved tread-bare. Because of a lack of comparison, all is forgotten: the moderate and minor successes, the serious inadequacies, and the outright failures of quite recent abstract art are all unremembered. We make very little progress, if any, this way.
One of those defective wheels to abstract painting, which keeps being taken out of the boot as a spare at least once a decade, when other things have deflated (I’m trying hard to keep this metaphor rolling), is truth to materials (and/or its close associates, truth to the object and truth to the process). This surfaced in sculpture in the fifties (Henry Moore’s woodcarving!) and sixties (minimal/process art), and gets taken out and driven once around the block rather too often in the history of modernism. In the discipline of sculpture, where it once had some traction, it has ironically become an impossibility, since there is no such truth to be found in sculpture’s current obsession with an appropriation of anything and everything. For painting, however, stuck as it is (in order to be called painting and not become sculpture) with a medium on a ground, it continues to reappear, right up to the present (What if it’s all true? What then? At Mummery and Schnelle; Matter at APT Deptford, both recent). It supposedly entails being honest about medium and ground, paint and canvas, and eschewing illusion. As spectators, we are (these days, perhaps rather more gently than previously) urged to acknowledge the ‘reality’, the quiddity and, often, the cod spirituality of these paintings-as-objects. Must we, yet again?
What’s missing from this, what makes it a defective raison-d’être of painting, is the recognition that paint can carry more potency and meaning through its use as a designator and articulator of form and space than it can by any literal demonstration of its real-world properties. To suggest that the literal ‘materiality’ of paint – or indeed the process of applying it as a performance – is truer to painting than the fullest, richest fulfilment of its potential as an illusionistic medium is to belittle and falsify it. Such a philosophy of painting (for such it is) exhibits a failure to recognise that the meaning in abstract art is not what it is, but what it does. Herein is both enigma and illusion, since what abstract art precisely does cannot be easily described verbally (if at all, and there would be little point to it if it were otherwise), and all painting contains illusion; all good painting contains a convincing matrix of illusion. Every mark on a two-dimensional surface creates an illusionistic (re)presentation of space. With figurative painting, no problem; but how do we reconcile illusion with being abstract? This conundrum is probably why the phenomenological aspects of medium and ground keep being obsessed over, as a desperate attempt to sidestep the problem and make painting ‘real’ again.
Abstract painters generally seem somewhat dulled to the possibilities of working through this dilemma (which is the only way out of it; theory won’t crack this nut on its own, it needs plenty of graft). Here’s a good example, from a recent exhibition statement by the London abstract painter Cuillin Bantock (who is by no means an unintelligent writer): ‘Sixty years ago the British painter Patrick Heron pointed out that non-figuration was an ideal impossible of achievement, commenting further that Ben Nicholson’s painting of four greyish circles in a greyish square eventually came to resemble the hob of an electric oven. The point being that the brain is hard-wired to make literal sense of what the eye sees.’ The brain might well be hard-wired in such a way, but that is surely all the more reason, if we want to make new abstract art, to be less complacent about the problem, not more. Art is, amongst many things, perhaps a way of expanding the wiring of our brains. Bantock continues: ‘It was the critic Tim Hilton who pointed out that any horizontal division of a canvas inevitably evokes a landscape’s horizon, tacit acknowledgement of Heron’s comment that a painted image is always going to look like something.’ To which I would say, for starters, stop making abstract paintings with obvious horizontal divisions in (see late Rothko, and a thousand others). And, for that matter, hold off on any more circles in a pattern that resembles a cooker hob. Or circles at all. Or at least, having done it once, get over it. Why would we want to be stuck now with making more cooker-hob paintings, whether beautifully aesthetic or nay; or in Heron’s own case, for example, beautifully judged and proportioned and exquisitely varied and coloured cooker hobs. We really do have enough of these. So the problem for painting is this – how to move on into new abstract territory, whilst understanding that to paint any ‘thing’ is to risk a kind of representation. If we are seriously ambitious for abstract painting, we will want to work our way through and out of that dilemma.
I have no wish to deny abstract painting (or indeed sculpture) its materiality. In fact, I think visual art needs a hearty dash of it. But for me this materiality needs to be in the service of something else, that something being meaning, and that meaning being wrought out of form. Too often it seems that painters use materiality to compensate for deficiencies elsewhere in their art, or as a replacement for an interest in involved visual structure. Just to take examples recently featured on abstract critical: the slump of paint in the work of Alexis Harding or the ‘icky’ technicalities of Katy Pratt, where materiality becomes clunkingly literal; the over-wrought paint-dollops of Basil Beattie’s pictographic drawing where material gives physicality to slightness of subject-matter; or in Jonathan Lasker’s paintings where materiality is simply imported as an extra ingredient to the appropriated mix, to give content-less art something – anything – to connect it to the real world.
Alan Gouk is an abstract painter not completely immune to the aforementioned cooker-hob syndrome. He has some orthogonal formats that he drops into, as if by default, from time to time. Nor has he been averse to a good bit of lascivious materiality in his day. But in mitigation for the right-angles and circles and the trowelled-on (in the old days, even shovelled on) paint, there is an understanding deep within Gouk-the-painter that nothing can or will take precedence in his art over the architectures of visual form, and that those architectures will be put to work in the picture, orthogonal or not (and increasingly not), in the service of meaning. Thus, the problems of illusion ‘in the abstract’ are right here, being tackled, in his new work. Gouk might seek as much as any other abstract painter to make his art felt as a profound presence in the room with the spectator, but he does it, whether in thin paint or thick, through the controlled construct of making one passage of colour do something in relation with another, and on throughout the painting, end to end, top to bottom, spatially, structurally, significantly; to the extent that the painting begins to modify and give purpose back into our very own world of literal architecture – the space we exist in. To quote Gouk (from the book Principle, Appearance, Style): ‘The world of painting is the world of sensuous architectural spaces, to which the picture contributes, opening out the wall-space, reflecting and enhancing the proportional harmonies of the architectural spaces of rooms and galleries.’
The problem of how to do this is hinted at in his own recent catalogue essay:
‘I hesitate to use the word dialectic – let’s call it a mood swing; my work tends to veer between two extremes – the Cézanne/Hofmann derived overlapping painterliness, and the flatter planarity of Matisse/Heron. I test myself against the latter, since it is the high road of modernism, find it uncongenial – I can’t say everything I have to say that way – and so I veer back again to a more modelled painterliness. I tend to oscillate, some would say vacillate, between the two, though a fusion of the two modes seems to be reaping rewards. There is a tension there, a meeting of opposites which can be fruitful, and the natural world is always there somewhere in the background. After all, an immersion in nature is the reason why most of us became painters in the first place, although naturalism, or what is patronisingly called “lyrical pantheism”, is not enough to sustain innovation in painting. There has to be an “architecture”.’
Perhaps ‘the brain is hard-wired to make literal sense of what the eye sees’. Perhaps; so isn’t it all the more wonderful when art allows us a glimpse of a world beyond the literal. Is ‘non-figuration …an ideal impossible of achievement…’, as per Heron? Can one make a truly abstract painting (or picture)? This is my own vacillation at the moment, but I am absolutely sure that Gouk and others can make a lot of good stuff on the way to finding out.
Alan Gouk: New Paintings is at Poussin Gallery, 25th Jan – 18th Feb.
Robin Greenwood is a director of Poussin Gallery