Abstract Critical

As Wide As A Door Is Open

Written by Sam Cornish

AWAADIO, installation image. L-R: Dominic Beattie x 2; Stephen Buckley; John Bunker; Dominic Beattie; Stephen Buckley

AWAADIO, installation image. L-R: Dominic Beattie x 2; Stephen Buckley; John Bunker; Dominic Beattie; Stephen Buckley

Currently on at Fold Gallery is As Wide As A Door Is Open, an exhibition I’ve curated along with Kim Savage, the gallerist. The exhibition mixes generations. There is not a single message, more a hunch that if abstract art is to re-appear as a real force in contemporary art it would need to be diverse and excitingly visual, that its engagement with the past of modernist abstraction should be both direct (not dominated by pastiche) and somehow wayward. Above all I think that the strangeness of abstraction needs to be recovered – something which can only happen through the art itself, not through written argument. Of course people will disagree as to the extent each of the artists in the exhibition match-up to these slightly lofty goals. The rest of this text is the exhibition press-release…

AWAADIO, installation image. L-R Stephen Buckley; Christopher McSherry x 4; Stephen Buckley

AWAADIO, installation image. L-R Stephen Buckley; Christopher McSherry x 4; Stephen Buckley

At its richest abstract art involves the simultaneous discovery and creation of new visual worlds, territories that provoke an obscure recognition but ultimately remain unknowable, enigmatic. Picking up on hints hidden in the accumulated conventions of the strange class of objects we call pictures, the early abstract artists began this exploration. The five artists in As Wide As A Door Is Open extend it, each developing personal formal languages which go beyond form.

Abstract art needs its own newly found reality, or at least a vivid sense of unreality. Dominic Beattie, Stephen Buckley, John Bunker, EC and  Christopher McSherry do not share a single approach to achieving this, beyond a desire to anchor their illusions of space and structure as tangible physical presences.

AWAADIO, installation images. Works by EC

AWAADIO, installation images. Works by EC

John Bunker and EC employ collage with the excitement of gestural abstraction. EC’s have the urgency and fragility of an intense personal communication; a sense of claustrophobia is lightened with moments of freedom or release.  Bunker is more directly concerned with pleasure – his energies are precisely controlled, and his richly-coloured spaces shift from the fluid to the fractured. Stephen Buckley, Christopher McSherry and Dominic Beattie emphasise their images’ status as objects. Buckley builds his canvases methodically, slowly layering piece on piece, part on part. The overall effect is hypnotic in its melding of a cryptic withholding of meaning with decorative pattern and a sly wit. Sharing some of Buckley’s attraction to pattern, Beattie works faster, cutting and cropping his geometries before splicing them back together again – his painting are punchy and immediate. McSherry’s acrylic tablets belie the material’s unprepossessing qualities, and combine elegant contours with surprisingly delicate colour.

AWAADIO, installation image. L-R: John Bunker; Christopher McSherry x 4

AWAADIO, installation image. L-R: John Bunker; Christopher McSherry x 4

The images in As Wide As A Door Is Open are to be understood instinctively, whether this comes with a jolt or a slowly dawning realisation. To understand them verbally is to not understand them at all.

As Wide As A Door Is Open: Material Images is on at Fold Gallery until the 11th of October.

  1. Sam said…

    I quite like the idea of John Bunker’s collages working between the abject and the decorative, though I don’t think that dynamic to any extent describes the whole of the way they function.

    I walked past an abandoned deckchair on my way home yesterday and am kicking myself I didn’t pick it up (in my defense I was about half an hour from home and was planning to get fish and chips on the way).

    • Noela said…

      I think John Bunker’s pieces in this show are very dynamic, the composition is extreme, but maybe I have the wrong meaning of the word. I am also interested in what makes a piece of work decorative .

      • Peter Stott said…

        Extremes are the perspectives of the architectonic resolutions as of-paint aggregates of visual language come to pictorial function in the act of becoming prefect representations of immaterial form, forms of mind manifesting as apparent external objects. “Now focus in and hold the architectonic resolution. Hold. …And rest.” :-)

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Sam,can you then say some more about how they do function? You say in your previous comment that my comparison with Stella is misguided because it detracts from what John “might be trying to do”; but I have no knowledge of that, and, who knows, maybe John doesn’t really know either. My original comment was trying to put down specifically what I thought had been achieved, not what was intended. We both agree the “Ram Raider” piece is really good, and I have been as particular as I can be at the moment about why and how I think it works. I may have got it wrong, but if you could do the same, it might help. I think this piece of work is worth making that effort for.

      • Peter Stott said…

        The Installation Photo number !, photo, for example, according to art theory one could see all that picture as one pictorial immaterial architectonic object, some sort of detail of it, as it becomes an architectonic illusion. I am now putting this theory to the test. Don’t try this at home, especially in extreme conditions.

  2. Robert Linsley said…

    The Stella comparison is valid, for many reasons not mentioned. For one, the two corresponding drawings cut into circles and placed like eyeballs or other organs at the top – we “see” them complete even though they are partially blocked by overlapping pieces.

    What gives Stella an edge and makes him great is that he does not strive for wholeness, but for freedom – which doesn’t stop him from getting it anyway.

    Noela is right, but this is a technical problem for which there is no single valid solution. My works have always been organic wholes, and I’m benefiting from letting some grit into the oyster.

  3. John Pollard said…

    I don’t think most of John Bunker’s work can be called “decorative”. Decorative should be reserved for the important visual dressing of our everyday surroundings and is more accurately applied (in the visual arts) to minimal art (the ‘Farrow and Ball’ colour chart artists) where generally nothing much is happening (‘less’ is really, certainly generally, ‘less’) and the art blends in with the minimal and ‘decorative’ gallery surroundings.

    As soon as you have visual ambition you need a bit of complexity: less is not more unless you really are decorating…………

  4. Detlef Holz said…

    There are some significant highlights in this show. For me there is a cool sophistication in the elegant and beautifully-made works of Christopher McSherry. They have an understated presence that, belying their diminutive size and subtly muted colour, dominates the show with its subtle manipulation of minimalist form.

    By contrast, but equally engagingly, the small collages of EC exude energy and a
    relentless, determined vitality in their joyful struggle with simultaneous constraint and expansiveness. (Incidentally, I don’t see in them any of the “claustrophobia” claimed – presumably by Sam Cornish – in the press release.)

    Henri Matisse famously (and perhaps unwisely) suggested that he wanted his paintings to function like “a comfortable armchair for the tired businessman”. In contra-distinction, the work of John Bunker functions rather like an uncomfortable skip-rescued deckchair for a tired avant-gardeist.

    I rarely trouble myself to quarrel with armchair critics of the ilk of Robin Greenwood, but I am so bemused by his comments above that I feel obliged to. That he can compare Bunker’s work here with the late works of Frank Stella suggests a blindness that I can only, generously, think might result from never having seen Stella’s work except in photographic reproduction.

    His claims for it would be marginally more understandable had they been made for ‘Wallflower’ rather than ‘Ram Raider’, since the former is much the stronger work of the two in the show. The relative strength of ‘Wallflower’ is though, given the chance nature of Bunker’s accidental (he would probably call it improvisational) method, more by luck than judgement. There is a clumsiness and (intentional or not, it makes no difference) awkwardness in Bunker’s work that contrasts so sharply with the superlative finish in Stella’s work that renders Greenwood’s comparison inane.

    • Sam said…

      Hi Detlef. I think you are right about EC’s work. My excuse would be seeing them almost piled on top of each other in a fairly small, dark flat – they certainly changed a lot in the gallery context, with space and little around them (interestingly the larger paintings, eventually not included in the show & generally more gestural, coped less well under the bright lights. This is likely due to the large amounts of white gloss in them, which may have made more sense within the environment they were made in – EC talks about this in my interview with her http://abstractcritical.com/article/both-sides-of-many-coins-an-email-exchange-with-ec/).

      I think you are half right (maybe a quarter) on the Bunkers. I agree with you that Robin’s Stella comparison is misguided – I think it distracts a little from what John might be trying to do (incidentally I wrote about seeing a Stella show, which I went to primarily to see the late works here: http://abstractcritical.com/article/frank-stella-in-wolfsburg/).

      I very much disagree with your valuing of Wallflower above Ramraider – I think the latter is very exciting, though perhaps in slightly different ways to Robin. Wallflower is strong, but ultimately its strength is more or less conventional (imagine it with a rectangle around it – it is similar territory to say, John Hoyland). I really can’t see the clumsiness or awkwardness of Ramraider. Unless I am wrong, maybe you need to look more or look harder; or perhaps it is simply a taste thing – for me’superlative finish’ can certainly never be a decisive quality in way you seem to suggest.

    • Sam said…

      PS I’d like to suggest that John’s next show is entitled:
      “An Uncomfortable Skip-Rescued Deckchair for a Tired Avant-Gardeist.” I thought that was a good line

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      ‘Armchair critic’! Ouch. Sorry for the trouble.

      • Detlef Holz said…

        “Armchair critic” was of course a joking allusion to the Matisse reference rather than a slight of the “armchair general” kind, so I hope Mr Greenwood’s “ouch” doesn’t mean he’s finding the armchair too uncomfortable.

        As for the show title, if Mr Bunker is good humoured enough to agree with you Mr Cornish, I will of course gladly waive any claim to intellectual property rights!

        I’m intrigued by your notions of fractional correctness, and in many situations would be glad to be even a quarter right, but I’d still want to claim being at least seven eighths right about the relative merits of ‘Wallflower’ and ‘Ram Raider’ – I’m conceding the eighth on the basis of your very interesting idea of ‘Wallflower’ being comfortably constrained within a conventional rectangle.

        Incidentally I wasn’t claiming ‘superlative finish’ as a decisive quality so much as using it as a material distinction (one of many) that render the Bunker-Stella comparison pointless. I’m an admirer of work that completely abhors ‘finish’ and in that sense I think Mr Bunker’s work would often be more successful if it pursued the potential of genuinely abject surface and transgressive form, rather than approaching both tentatively and then stepping back politely into the realm of the decorative.

        I read and enjoyed the thoughtful and illuminating insights EC provided in the interview that you reference. I haven’t, though, seen your commentary on late Stella so I shall read that with interest as soon as I conclude my comment here. – I’m on my way to it now….

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        “I think Mr Bunker’s work would often be more successful if…” is a rather armchair-ish, not to say Pooterish, sort of phrase, is it not?

        As for “the realm of the decorative”, I’d reserve that polite description for the “cool sophistication” and “elegant and beautifully-made” qualities of the soporific McSherrys.

        More tea, Vicar?

    • Noela said…

      I don’t think John Bunker’s work is decorative. I remember thinking some images Robert Linsley posted a few months ago were veering towards a kind of decoration because they seemed to be shapes with colour and texture applied afterwards rather being an integral part of their structure. (I hope he forgives me for bringing this up again). John’s work feels like the coloured elements are brought together and layered to construct an interplay with visual impact very much like a process that could be used in painting.
      Whilst I think ‘RamRaider- Fugitive’ is the stronger more outrageously dynamic piece, I do also prefer ‘Wallflower’ which has space and balance and strong directional forces which hold together well .

    • Robert Linsley said…

      “Detlef,” can’t you make up your own pseudonym?

  5. Adam Hanson said…

    The ‘Ram Raider’ piece brings to mind the combine paintings of Robert Rauschenberg especially ‘First Landing’. I get the gusto in the work and there is this sense of the city and its boundless energy and constant visual stimulation.
    The colours and application seem very ‘now’. I aim to see this exhibition very soon.

  6. Robin Greenwood said…

    I’m not sure I get the ‘strangeness’ that Sam talks about in his introduction. I was disappointed to find some of this show weakened by the over-familiarity of issues relating to quiddity or painting-about-the-process-of-painting. Even the work of E.C. I would only partially exempt from that charge.

    By contrast, the large “Ram Raider – Fugitive” piece by John Bunker http://johnbunkerart.tumblr.com/image/94642969493 is different; so much so that I’m not quite sure why it’s in a show with this other stuff (or vice versa), free as it is to make a head-on charge at some real-world abstract content. I’ve seen it twice now and it has increasingly convinced me of its originality and importance. It’s abstract art that really gets up, gets going and does something new, creating its own dynamic of meaning from scratch, rather than sitting back and posing aesthetically like the worst in this show, expecting us the viewer to see reflected in its minimal efforts our own intellectualised tastes.

    “Fugitive” is a large frameless assembly of lots of different brightly-painted and found parts – shaped bits of board, material, paper etc., as well as many different kinds of paint application (not found, all done by John), from gestural to hard-edge. Such a casual description makes it sound like a kind of late Frank Stella wall relief, but it is considerably better than anything of this kind I’ve ever seen by Stella. The parts constitute a whole, despite being extremely varied, in a way that Stella never manages. Stella gets the variety, but not the coherence. Why does this work? So far, my insight is limited to the idea that the area of orange fabric on the left-hand end of the top cross-bar, which might well have got trimmed off in any attempt to make too concise an ‘image’ or ‘figure’ out of the whole thing, does, in being allowed to remain, not only mitigate all those red spikes which would otherwise jangle rather alarmingly; but much more crucially, it facilitates the big diagonal leaning moment of the whole kit and caboodle as it drags rightwards and out of symmetry across the orange, leaving the left-hand flank exposed. The repercussions of that movement pass down through the work, setting off various turnings and conflicts, finally meeting resistance, perhaps, in the crossed planks’ counter-revolutions in the lower part of the work. But then why pick on that orange part when so many parts are integral to the activity, right through the work, right down to the pale blue at bottom-right? It reads as a whole because it is active and animated, not in spite of it.

    John has a Brancaster Chronicle coming up very soon on this site, where the issues of working inside and outside of a rectangle are discussed, as well as revisiting problems for abstract painting relating to centralised images on a background (is that orange a vestigial background?). With this piece, John has gone a long way to working out those problems, as well as banishing some doubts about the sustainability of unsupported and unframed collage/wall-constructions and how their abstract pictorial content might surmount the literalness of their fabrication (if, indeed, that is what they need to do). He’s progressed in leaps and bounds over the past couple of years, and this piece especially is art of a very high order. (That will probably annoy John, since his aim is for a low art of the lumpen proletariat – ha!) He would have to go on, and go yet further still, to convince me completely that this sort of collaging/wall-construction is without limitations, with all the potential for greatness and variety of structure and expression that oil on canvas once had for figurative painting, or that steel construction now has for abstract sculpture. He has managed to put a lot of stuff into it, and make it all work together. I’m less sure of whether he has quite brought into existence a whole new range of spaces to work together – which for me remains a key question-mark hanging over all abstract painting, including the best of what is currently being made. To achieve that would take it to a whole other level. But meantime this is an altogether optimistic, challenging and heartening piece of work. It’s the real deal. Well done John Bunker.

    • Peter Stott said…

      I like the comment about the ‘strangeness’of abstraction. It is strange, in fact very strange, alien, even. I agree that it’s about the search for new visual experience, akin to space exploration, form exploration too.If there is alien life out there, what does it look like? By the fusion of chance marks, perhaps one might stumble across pertinent imagery, in the act of random form generation. However there’s also the act of composing this ‘random form generation’ into some sort of order that satisfies the artist, that’s the peculiar thing.