Abstract Critical

And then again – Daniel Sturgis at noshowspace

Written by John Bunker


Daniel Sturgis, And then again, installation view, noshowspace, London. Photo credit: Peter White.

Daniel Sturgis, And then again, installation view, noshowspace, London. Photo credit: Peter White.

I don’t know about you but I spent a lot of last year wading through show after show of thick muddy impasto daubed on tiny canvases. I’ve been bombarded with revelations of artist’s ‘personal obsessions’ whether they be from the history of art, Brutalist architecture or Hello magazine (or sometimes a hellish combo of all of the above!) So it was with some pleasure and relief, at the beginning of a new year, to find myself in the company of recent work by Daniel Sturgis at the Noshowspace.

Not that Sturgis shies away from the big bad issues of where abstract painting fits in our post-this, post-that world of competing visual cultures. He has been developing an abstract painterly realm saturated by forms that evolve from a complex interweaving of drawing, painting and painting’s histories. They are all re-energised by the seductive colour and technological hard edges of commercial design.

The Noshowspace’s modest proportions have been respected by the positioning of the work. The show could have been damaged by enthusiastic overhanging (another problem plaguing many shows I’ve seen recently). One is engaged immediately by a 6 by 6 foot painting as one enters the space. ‘Over and Above’ 2014 is an instantaneous visual hit charged by a play of negative positive oscillations of space created by what Sturgis calls “Boulders”. These deranged, almost comical, geometric forms range from black to simple graduations of greys. They all jostle for position on the red ground of the square canvas. It’s a deep intense red ground by the way, the sort that catches your eye from supermarket shelves or roadside signage as well as High Modernist art.

The red ground intensifies a sense of spatial vertigo and one is left looking for some kind of visual equilibrium, some ideal position from which to view the work. But this vertiginous feeling is playful rather than physically off-putting, it draws you in closer to the painting. Small circular shapes, like marbles of various hues, including delicate blues and yellows balance on particular boulder’s hard edges. They seem to almost mimic and, all at once, counter one’s attempt to visually organise and control the painting. As one is drawn in, one becomes aware of the paintings facture. On closer inspection, we can see a whole other level of subtle re-adjustments of painterly texture and contour gently energising the shapes and enhancing the unexpected or unpredictable sense of movement. Pencil lines are another ghostly echo, bouncing off the boulders as they in turn seem to bounce around the painting. I couldn’t help but wonder whether these re-adjustments in drawing, smaller circular forms and painterly attention to texture could not be extended, amplified and explored with more intensity? Does Sturgis play his cards too close to his chest? Are his paintings’ irregularities too self-conscious? What is avoided in his careful stripping down of different formal languages?

Daniel Sturgis, Happy in Your Skin, 2014, installation view, noshowspace, London. Photo credit: Peter White.

Daniel Sturgis, Happy in Your Skin, 2014, installation view, noshowspace, London. Photo credit: Peter White.

The engaging, if pared down, introduction to the show is followed by a second space, more claustrophobic and visually disturbing but strangely riveting. Op art relied on a visual hit gleaned from the idea of total immersion, one perhaps related to Colour Field painting. In ‘Happy In Your Skin’ 2014 Sturgis cuts up this ‘gestalt’ into long strips and then re-shuffles them into visually deranged off-kilter checkerboard squares across the canvas. These Op cut-ups are contrasted with an almost too obvious ‘skyline’ letting us and the very top edge (and a gap on the left) of the painting breathe – but only just! Here on a grey ground a pink disc is balanced. As we are drawn back into the almost sickly, shallow and bulging illusionism we find more of these disks. In a sense they reconnect one’s body to the act of looking – anchoring us for a second, offering some kind of respite from the shredded, suffocating and ‘heady’ optical onslaught.

There is a frisson between strands of art historical DNA, namely abstraction (geometric/Op/Pop) with that of commercial design, packaging and graphics. It could so easily be a cyclical trend like so many others. But Sturgis shows a commitment to the craft and a real recognition of abstract painting’s contested relation to a rapidly changing world. This show pushes beyond the facile and the purely decorative into a painting experience that is decidedly phenomenological. I was left both wanting to see more large scale paintings together and figuring how Sturgis will re-invigorate an already highly refined approach to painting… That’s not a bad way to leave a show at the beginning of 2014.

Daniel Sturgis ‘And then again’ is on at noshowspace until the 7th of March

  1. Robert Linsley said…

    Sturgis’ work has a few features I could endorse, though it’s hard to judge from an internet mediated distance. The presiding genius seems to be Mary Heilman. Interesting to ponder the distinction between these “boulders” and the soft rectangles of Gouk/Pollock et.al., if there is an important one. I call them “characterless” forms, meant to guarantee abstractness. I think there’s a better way, but all resemblance can’t be banned. Maybe it comes down to a question of how much of the world you think should be allowed.

    • Sam said…

      Hi Robert, I like this ‘characterless forms meant to guarantee abstractness’ (do you think of your forms in relation to that?) & agree that it comes down to how much of the world an artist thinks should be allowed (in that there has to be something of the world there, in someway or other). Sturgis intentionally and obviously plays with pushing his boulders into figuration – as literally cartoon boulders; also with his little discs that he balances on the boulders, which seem like cartoon characters. I don’t like this approach – this is partly taste, but it does seem self-limiting, and aimed at a particular and restricted niche (in the red painting the small cartoon dots balanced on the boulders seemed to serve almost no function, perhaps apart from identifying the paintings as by Sturgis). However when I visited I liked the two larger paintings more than I expected to – perhaps this was the hang, but they had enough visual – graphic – energy to keep me engaged.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        As I said, it’s hard for me to really know how to take anything from here, but the “cartoon” look, if that’s what they have, is old hat, so not very interesting.
        I started to think about this because of an interest in Vasudeo Gaitonde, an important Indian modernist, and because yes, the forms in my watercolors are pretty characterless and generic. But where I depart from the norm is that the total arrangement of the forms is not some equally generic grid or implied grid.
        Instead of banning figuration maybe it’s an idea to be more precise about exactly what kind of figuration counts as abstract enough. Probably Impossible to decide. Or we could try and decide how much of all the many things that the people around us care about we should ignore. A political stance. Or maybe these things can’t be decided theoretically. But then if “abstract” art turns out later to be figurative after all we’ll just have to accept that and move on.

  2. Mark Jackson said…

    Very good, nail-on-the-head-question:

    “What is avoided in his careful stripping down of different formal languages?”

    … and why avoid?

    Is it maybe about holding on to a precarious and yet clearly identifiable position within the saturated field of abstraction? Dan’s as carefully placed as one of his boulders?

    • Sam said…

      At the risk of sounding corny, I’m tempted to answer “life”

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Sturgis has found his “niche” in modern painting. It’s a tried and tested (and academic) way of building a career, because everyone recognises your style; but, like many other painters, his is a pathetically narrow little niche, and he can’t afford to move around too much in case he falls out of it altogether.

      (I should add that his paintings are not abstract at all, but are a very graphic and simplistic kind of figuration.)