Abstract Critical

David Webb: Fragmentarium

Written by Emyr Williams

David Webb: Fragmentarium, installation view, dalla Rosa Gallery. Image courtesy of dalla Rosa

David Webb: Fragmentarium, installation view, dalla Rosa Gallery. Image courtesy of the dalla Rosa Gallery

If you ever watch a golfer playing a bunker shot, you will see him start by doing a sort of shuffle in the sand to anchor his stance – the club head must not touch the sand lest it moves the ball, so the stance is even more important. This shuffling-in gets the player into the feel of the shot too. He then takes a few practice swings, all the while getting into that shot. Likewise, you can tell a good hairdresser (a proper cutter) by the sound of the moving clicks of the scissors when not cutting, the hands mimic the actions and feel their way around the hair before committing to the correct cut. This tuning in to the activity happens in all sorts of disciplines.

I remember seeing a film of Matisse painting; watching the brush likewise twitch, weighing up the mark, hovering then committing to the stroke…like the hairdresser, like the golfer. Painting is such a physical medium; the paint needs controlling, surfaces have to be created, colour orchestrated, space opened, light generated.

David Webb: Fragmentarium, installation view, dalla Rosa Gallery. Image courtesy of dalla Rosa

David Webb: Fragmentarium, installation view, dalla Rosa Gallery. Image courtesy of the dalla Rosa Gallery

 In knowing David Webb’s paintings and having seen his current one person show at dalla Rosa Gallery, Clerkenwell, London, I can see many of these painterly qualities and such a tuning approach. This gradual honing in to an essential colour, the unearthing of a surface, the finding of a shape. Any element in any of his paintings is weighed up, considered and arrived at rather than simply painted in. Webb is a visually intelligent artist and enjoys using paint in a variety of ways: from watercolour stains of delightful delicacy to sandy textured, muted colour that feel like a sun drenched exotic wall or to a leaden, matt, almost gunmetal grey – flat as a pancake but animated by a pleasing curviness of shape.

Tourist Smoking Room (Gold), 2013, acrylic on canvas, 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy of the dalla Rosa Gallery

Tourist Smoking Room (Gold), 2013, acrylic on canvas, 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy of the dalla Rosa Gallery

This is a modest show of new works, mainly acrylic on canvas with a paper piece (one of the stronger works) behind glass. Most of the works under an arm’s span; the majority inside the shoulder’s reach. There is one large work of which I will return to. Of late, linear elements have found their way into his paintings adding a welcome scale shift and also a surprise texture when you notice they are often drawn in charcoal. These lines echo or declare edge, their extremities sometimes turning at their end in gentle arcs to prevent a rigidity setting in. One would be mistaken also for thinking the internal colour edges are taped, as upon closer inspection it seems that they are hand-wrought. Even a relatively small section of saturated colour seems hard won, almost laboriously applied in stages with smaller floods of colour, which eventually reach the limits of the shape. Pliability is much in evidence. This is clearly a person who loves to paint.

Parcheesi (Twist Grey), 2013, acrylic and pumice on canvas, 81 x 66cm

Parcheesi (Twist Grey), 2013, acrylic and pumice on canvas, 81 x 66cm. Courtesy of the dalla Rosa Gallery

A good friend of mine from America once said to me “never fall in love with your car or your house!” To that I would add “or your painting.” Sometimes I sensed Webb flirting a bit with some of the works, when a colder eye may have demanded a tiny bit more from the colour’s intensity and a little less from the application. Grey is used often to key in the primaries – all nicely pitched. Webb uses darks and lights extremely well too, with black or deep greys against creams, beiges and washed out colour – often a particularly memorable yellow appears. All of these qualities are evident in a work like “Parcheesi (twist grey)” with the split stacking being interrupted by the angular intrusion of washy blue grey. This is a contemplative work with quite puzzling spatial shifts.

Tourist Smoking Room (Fragmentarium), 2013, acrylic on canvas, 183 x 131 cm. Courtesy of the dalla Rosa Gallery

Tourist Smoking Room (Fragmentarium), 2013, acrylic on canvas, 183 x 131 cm. Courtesy of the dalla Rosa Gallery

The largest work, “tourist smoking room” I felt was more of a statement of intent than a resolved whole, in the way that many of the other works were. Working on this larger size is something that needs a slightly different strategy in dealing with the ‘blank’ areas which were a little stark – maybe more evidence of that “shuffle” and a change of, or more than one, neutral colour to talk to the elements’ colours more? The turquoise smudge at the base being an attempt to soften the abruptness and a tiny flick of paint occupying the void between the tall dark handsome, yet peculiar form on the right and the parrot-like image to the centre. These devices work on smaller sizes and the paintings are peppered with subtle adjustments to corner, edge and area, but sometimes subtlety is not always the best policy.

I enjoyed this show for all the qualities that I have mentioned: the sensitivity, the colour juxtapositions, the delicate surfaces, but – dare I say – I believe Webb would reap even greater rewards if the subject matter was removed and he went off piste more. All these qualities of paint handling would also be put to the test and greater demands placed upon them and a deeper synthesis could be achieved. Unnerving, undiscovered spaces may well reveal themselves.

JP in Mexico (2012), acrylic on canvas, 41 x 51 cm. Courtesy of the dalla Rosa Gallery

JP in Mexico (2012), acrylic on canvas, 41 x 51 cm. Courtesy of the dalla Rosa Gallery

For myself, I prefer to see the subject up front – if there is one, rather than discover it; subject matter can lock in the experience of the colour – like travelling on train tracks instead of hiking on an open road. “JP in Mexico” is a case in point, with its refreshing, bang, there’s the landscape feel, whereas some of the other works often had a tantalising opening up into the abstract held in check by a sense of the local. (This being the modus operandi though granted.) Webb is widely travelled and uses these recces into other country’s geographies, climates and cultures to inspire his work. Plenty in the tank then to go for it from scratch maybe? As Tennyson said, “I am part of all that I have met, yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades forever when I move.”

Laguna San Ignacio II, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 20.5 x 25.5 cm. Courtesy of the dalla Rosa gallery

Laguna San Ignacio II, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 20.5 x 25.5 cm. Courtesy of the dalla Rosa gallery

In fairness though, this is not a claimed as a show of abstract painting per se, rather one of covert figuration with pared down forms, sections and passages, which are informed by landscapes, both viewed and remembered. Many of these places have an intensely personal resonance, adding a poetry to the raison d’être of the exhibition. I would hasten to add though, whereas this may be significant to a viewer, it is not to a viewing. Subject matter can be a bit like the trap to a greyhound, framing its view of the situation; yet once the race starts, the dog has left it behind…

David Webb: Fragmentarium 11 October – 9 November 2013, dalla Rosa Gallery, 121 Clerkenwell Rd, London EC1R 5BY

 

  1. Pete Hoida said…

    Thanks for John Bunker’s Nov 12th post. As he mentions Meyer Schapiro it may be worthwhile drawing attention to a review in the current New York Review of Books, November/December issue no 18, where Julian Bell succinctly reviews “Magicians and Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture” by Jed Perl. He develops this issue rather clearly.

  2. Sam said…

    How about only people that have seen the show contribute to this thread? Am planning to get there in next few days…

    • John Bunker said…

      Aaah! The Witchfinder General of Abstract Critical is out on the rampage again. So obsessed with ridding abstract art of those all too human frailties (such as the interdependence of the artist and the cultural and social context in which she/he exists; something David Webb is attempting to explore). Does he not recognise that these perceived weaknesses can be some of abstract painting’s great strengths?

      Philip Guston. “There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art: That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, and therefore we habitually analyse its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is ‘impure’. It is the adjustment of ‘impurities’, which forces painting’s continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden….”

      I know that some believe that the likes of Raoul De Keyser have had a negative impact on what has happened in abstract painting, especially with the rise of ‘provisional’ painting and ‘casualism’- the worst of which seems muddy, dull and unambitious to put it mildly. BUT David Webb’s work for this show feels a million miles from that! On close looking they seem to be extending territory staked out by Mali Morris and Geoff Rigden. Others are imitating them but David seems to be very clear that his work is an exploration of image and memory and how they are stimulated by colour and form- ‘mysterious’ to the Neuroscientist as well as to the best of critics and artists. But there is no deliberate mystification. Whats wrong with a complex and engaging interplay of identity politics with an exacting drive for formal resolution? I do think its a bit disingenuous to call the complex process by which this artist makes his work, ‘appropriation’ of tropes or some kind of self deception- you could throw that particular stone in this glass house and the history of abstract painting would be in pieces in seconds….

      I don’t think there is anything wrong with bringing something anterior to abstract painting into the work. What might seem emotional, sentimental or an escape into subject matter could actually be a visually dynamic challenge to the painter and to abstract painting generally. de Stael , Diebenkorn and Alan Davie come to mind in this respect. You want ‘visual complexity’? I think David’s painting provides it but by a very different route.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Whoah, what’s this? John B. nailing his colours to the mast:
        “…’provisional’ painting and ‘casualism’- the worst of which seems muddy, dull and unambitious to put it mildly”.
        That’ll lose you some friends, John!

        Ah, but wait a minute. I see he has a rucksack full of nails and, indeed, he has a shedload of colours. Oh yes, and many a fine ship’s mast to nail them to. But wait again! All his ships, far from sailing close to the wind, are laid up in dry dock, and he’s having to drag his big bag o’ nails overland “by a very different route”. It’s an anterior route; he’s going via the art-supermarket: “de Stael, Diebenkorn, Davie”, blah de blah de blah…

      • John Bunker said…

        I refuse to be pinned down by the weight of your metaphors never mind the weight of my own bag of nails!

      • John Holland said…

        John- when it comes down to brass tacks, when it comes to being faced with the actual painting, where do you see identity politics? The artist’s interests and methods are one thing, but it’s the final result that’s the point.
        That’s nothing to do with notions of purity, it’s just the facts of what you see.

      • John Bunker said…

        Hi John,
        Personally, I am grateful when an artist talks about how her/his work may have been informed to some degree by a very personal set of historical (artistic or otherwise) and social contexts. I know this position is fraught with difficulties. And so it should be! I’ve grown up in a cultural regime that wants to smother us with ‘context’ and of course political correctness.

        Emyr, in his perceptive review, very succinctly laid out some of the pitfalls that David’s approach to painting could encounter. After spending time with the work at dalla Rosa gallery I felt compelled to answer critiques made by people who had no intention of seeing the show but had already made their mind up as to its value. I realise that it’s not possible for everyone to see every show they might like to comment on- but it made me realise there is another issue smouldering away here! How do we talk about abstract art in an engaging and accessible way? How do we open the history of ideas up? Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann’s excellent article on the ‘Inventing Abstraction’ show at MoMA earlier this year highlights with real clarity how difficult this process has become.

        Ben’s article was exciting for me because it seemed to hinge on a kind of very fertile seesawing tension between Alfred Barr’s famous streamlined diagram of the history of abstract art and Meyer Schapiro’s contention that abstract art is part of a more complex heterogeneous modern culture. It is…. ” too varied according to time and place, to be considered a self-contained development issuing by a kind of internal logic directly from aesthetic problems”.

        In another thread Pete Hoida’s comment about ‘New Labour speak’ was very pertinent. By the ‘S word’ did Pete mean ‘Socialism’- as in how many times Blair managed to avoid saying the word? Well, could the same be said about how the ‘F word’ is used (I mean ‘Formalism’)? I think this is an interesting area for debate…….. Sorry, this probably doesn’t make any sense but WTH!

      • John Holland said…

        It makes sense, John, but I think the F-word is misused so often these days to include any discourse that centres on the visible. Context is one thing, esoteric symbolism or invisible subtext quite another.

        I suppose I’m suggesting a greater degree of empiricism would be a good thing now in all art talk- when people make such wide-ranging claims for the ‘content’ of work, they should back it up with specific and real reference to the visible facts of the thing. That’s not much to ask, and it’s not formalism- it’s just taking the medium seriously and not treating it as an adjunct to verbal concepts.
        Not that I’m accusing you of doing this particularly, it’s just that Webb’s work is a bit submerged in this sort of chatter; though I don’t know how much significance he gives it.

  3. sam said…

    Hoida vs Greenwood is surely an arguments that is particularly heated because what one is saying is not actually that materially different from the other. A difference in kind rather than degree; or rather that for the sake of the argument the respective positions are exaggerated…

  4. Robin Greenwood said…

    Hallowe’en comes around again, with the seasonal visit of those spectral horsemen of the abstract apocalypse, “Presence”, “Mystery”, ”Atmosphere” and (most insatiable by far) “Metaphoricallusion”.*

    Mr. Hoida (as with Mr. Caro and endless multitudes before and after) carelessly and at his own peril invokes these formless spirits of the undead as an antidote to the “boring” old mundane and earthbound composites of abstract art such as “colour, spatial complexity, three-dimensionality”. Well, I’ll have a dose of the latter any day, thank you very much, and I’ll be damned if you know what you are talking about. I suspect (from swilling around the tealeaves) that you are the one who was “non-plussed” by Mr. Skilton’s forthright blanking of your pretentions to lyricism and romance. I know of no-one working at the moment who has a more purposeful and realistic grasp of how to go about making the very best abstract art he possibly can. A “technical view of the situation”, indeed!

    As for Mr Beattie, on whom it appears we (worryingly) do agree, it is unquestionably upon all those previously mentioned phantoms that his reputation depends. The fawning of the likes of Mr. Patrick Jones, etc., over his recent work can only be the result of believing in such gobbledygook in the face of all prevailing evidence. For Mr. Beattie’s work does indeed have “Presence” and “Metaphoricallusion”. He gains “Presence” from the scale of his canvasses and the materiality of his paint, in all its clunking literalness; the over-wrought paint-dollops of his pictographic drawings engender a gratuitous physicality entirely at odds with meaning in abstract art. “Presence” does not privide content, but can mask its absence. As to why the “Metaphoricallusion” of staircases should excite the likes of Mr. J., I’m clueless to understand. Perhaps as a signed-up member of the undead you can enlighten us, Mr. H.

    Likewise, I would have thought you would buy into the works of Mr. Webb and his own brand of “Mystery” and “Metaphoricallusion”. Perhaps he uses the wrong sort of mystery? I know you cultists can be very particular – dare I say it, subjective – about what you think achieves that hard-to-define “Singular Presence”.

    As for how you view “The Old Masters”, by which I presume you mean “figurative painting”, I can only say that many is the time when I have gone round a gallery and not taken in a single subject-matter in my entire visit, obviously completely missing the point, and indeed, the art. And there was I, in my ignorance, thinking that “mere abstraction” didn’t need that baggage…

    If Mr. Hoida would care to enlighten me as to all my other problems, in the form of a full list, I will attempt to address them with spells and poultices. I suspect, though, that my problems are his problems, and everyone’s problems too. Meanwhile, I’ll return to carving my Jack-o’-lantern and sharpening my wooden stake.

    *(True that Mr. Hoida doesn’t mention the latter, but it surely lurks just out of view)

    • Pete Hoida said…

      Robin, if you read carefully you will see that far from dismissing “qualities of colour, of texture, spatial complexity and three-dimensionality” I end the sentence by clearly stating “solely in themselves” amount to mere abstraction, not painting, not sculpture. What I demand is synergy.
      As for your comment on figurative painting and your gallery going experience, I am pretty sure that the subject (beyond early infancy) is the first thing that hits any viewer, one then goes on to engage with the painting. If Titian does a pope you can’t help but notice a pope.
      As for metaphor, I have no time for it, especially in such obfuscating sentences as “invoking the spirits of the undead”.
      It may surprise Robin, if he reads again, that I obviously enjoyed the complexity involved in Mark Skilton’s work. No, I was not non-plussed by Mark. I did note however a nod in the direction of doctrine, the preserve of all high-priests, that I have had the temerity to query.

      • Sam said…

        ‘often disconcerting’ is not what I wanted to say – I meant mysterious or unknowable presence

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        whoooooooh!!!

      • Sam said…

        I posted that on the wrong bit of the thread – perhaps you could respond to my question – see below…

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Am I allowed? I still haven’t seen the show.

      • Sam said…

        Haha… Was just trying to point out that your definition of ‘images’ seemed strangely inadequate for a thing you so strongly want to reject

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Maybe I’m just not that interested. But then I think you conflate “images” with “paintings”.

        Meanwhile there are three questions for you awaiting answer still on the John Carter feed… be carefull of that marble dust, if you stir it up too much it could turn into yet another ghostly spectre…

      • Sam said…

        Surely paintings are and have always been a subset of images – they may be other things as well but they are certainly images. You’d need to have a pretty good argument to convincingly deny that. I’m not sure I have a good definition of what an image is but I don’t think you can just wish paintings weren’t images – or rather I’m not sure you’d be left with if you did. I’d like to say that one definition of the development of abstract painting would to create things (pictures, paintings, whatever) that contain some of the qualities of images, but without overt representational content.

        If you are going to make a v clear distinction between images and content (and even try and impose this on others?) it is a bit disappointing to say you are not interested in images. Particularly as ‘content’ seems vague enough to be meaningless. I think Pete Hoida was definitely onto something with his “propelled straight into philosophy, a subject which most (all?) artists are poorly qualified to deal with.” [with the addition that it is not just artists who are poorly qualified to deal with it].

        I’ll cede on the John Carter – my objection was much more to the tone of what you said than your argument itself…

    • Robert Linsley said…

      Robin Greenwood is agile, pointed, witty, very amusing and sometimes downright hilarious. And he seems to be most inspired when he is irritated. A master of invective – always enjoyable. I guess that’s one of the main reasons I come back to AbCrit.

      But the question that always arises in my mind is whether he is able to channel that energy into his work. Actually, to the extent that it’s a matter of where he puts his energy I’m sure he can, but will it show in the product? Will his sculptures also make me laugh? If they could they would be truly great. Can abstraction do it all? Or does art need “content” or an image? The jury is still out, and good intentions won’t carry much weight with the court.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        “Will his sculptures also make me laugh? If they could they would be truly great. Can abstraction do it all? Or does art need “content” or an image?”

        No to “images” (being mostly figurative things we already know about), but yes – of course – to “content”. What that abstract content will be is yet to be imagined in its fullest extent, though I suspect this will turn out to be a case of “the more we know, the more we realise we don’t know”. In other words (though I’m not fond of art/science analogies), real three-dimensional abstract content for sculpture will unfold exponentially over time in similar fashion to the complex discoveries of high-energy physics. Who would have predicted such complexities even a few decades ago? We are, to continue the analogy, still in billiard-ball territory.

        The jury is indeed out. That’s fine and fair. I see John B. is scolding me again above with the words of Guston, suggesting I’m after some kind of “purity”. Poor argument, and I’m not. And, well (to borrow a phrase), so what?

      • Sam said…

        Images are ‘mostly figurative things we already know about’ – can you explain what you mean by that? It seems curiously underdeveloped…

        Why ‘mostly’? And ‘we already know about’ seems a fairly odd way to describe things that have had such a rich, effective and often disconcerting presence through the whole of human history, doesn’t it?

      • Robert Linsley said…

        Notice that I put “content” in scare quotes to convey the distaste I feel for it. Robin’s weak point – an unspecified meaning. A fully abstract art can hardly tolerate meanings and “content” if it can’t bear “metaphoric allusion.” Or maybe “metaphoric allusion” is unavoidable.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Robert,
        Would you care to specify the meaning of any great art? To my way of thinking it is manifold. It is certainly not encompassed by subject matter. That doesn’t mean that it is meaning-less. Nor does it mean that we cannot attempt to talk about it, as objectively as we can (see Brancaster).

        To state at its simplest, content in abstract art is what it “does”, rather than what it looks like (and for me this is true of all art). The artist’s search for content is thus a rather different and greater proposition than the creation of images. I’d go so far as to say that images must be “overcome” in some manner in order for a work to become either painting or sculpture, which are so dependent upon the physical facts of their existence for their meaning. Which is why reproductions (which are images) are not much use in determining the full meaning of a work of art. To me, the argument becomes very clear and unanswerable when you think about abstract sculpture (it would have to be some infinite set of images – ridiculous!), but I think it holds for painting too.

        Painting as a “subset of images” (as per Sam) is a very mean kind of definition of painting. Maybe there is a reductivist truth in it, but it’s looking at the thing the wrong way through a telescope. I’m not sure it’s of any use at all.

      • Sam said…

        Robin,

        I don’t understand in how what a painting “does” can be separated from its quality as an image, from the fact that it is an image? Or what it “does” from what it looks like? Surely how it looks is an inseparable part of what it does? (on this note I share Pete Hoida’s skepticism about your claim never noticing subject matter of a painting).

        Of course there is a problem of talking about painting just as an image or just as subject matter, but no one here is suggesting that this is what should be done (except from you?). The divide you suggest as so absolute simply does not exist, except as a long-running polemic, or as a willful act of blindness (perhaps really the problem is writing so polemically about what are v complicated issues).

        It seems to me that if anything your definition is the mean and reductivist one (which does not mean that I respect that it may have a great potential for how you think about and approach your own work). The Brancaster Chronicles are enjoyable and interesting and their mainly formal slant is obviously one I have sympathy for and think is useful, particularly as a corrective to lots of vagueness about abstract art; it is also obviously even more useful for practicing artists.

        But I don’t think that they encompass all the ways art can be approached or thought about. It seems to me their “objectivity” consists mainly of being able to point to things in the paintings on display – this is useful for the reasons I’ve just said, but I don’t think it is a surefire way of recognising or engaging with great art.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        I’d like to just continue my exchange with Robert… Are you really saying, Robert, that abstract art can only be meaningful if it has some kind of metaphorical allusion? And that in your opinion, abstract art should therefore be meaningless and content-free? And minimal?

        This is a really important point! Can you not find meaning in things that are wholly or predominantly visual/abstract? Like, say, coming upon a view of an unfamiliar landscape, and how it “comes together” in the eye and the mind, becomes “of a piece” all of a sudden, feels “whole”? Does that not add up to a meaningful experience? Are we perhaps just arguing over the word “meaning”, or is this something more fundamental? I would say the “buzz” I might get from the sight of some great mountains, for example, (or the physically arresting sight of a great painting, before you even know what it is “about”) is meaningful in a deeper and more direct and “real” sense than any metaphor or allusion could be, at least in terms of “things visual” (I speak not of literature, etc., only visual art). Is this not similar to how abstract art might act upon us? Certainly it is – if only our “content” (visual) could be as rich and complex and coherent as those mountains; and how that content is achieved is surely the proper subject for this site. I rather think we define that word “content” differently too. Of course, there is a lot more complexity to the experience of both mountains and art. You can so choose to journey on, into the mountains… but I still think metaphor would be in the nature of excess baggage. You don’t need it for a memorable day out.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        If you insist, though the topic is getting too abstract, too general, too far removed from actual work. I cringe when I hear the word “meaning” because it seems like the last piety (to borrow a favourite term of Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe). No matter how abstract art gets, how far over the boundaries of taste it goes, there is always “meaning” to make it all right and understandable. “Meaning” is reassurance for viewers who can’t follow the work where it wants to go. And they don’t have to know what the meaning is, just that there is one. If you insist on meaning in abstraction you are just delivering it over to conceptual art. And it’s unquestioned on every level by every kind of practitioner and viewer. Everyone assumes that meaning is a good thing in itself, like “the meaning of life.” Does your life or mine have a meaning? If it was a story written by some didactic author I guess it would. Why should we insist that an artwork have what you or I don’t? Because it makes us feel warm and content?

        But I’m not disagreeing with anything you said in the last two posts. I set no limits on art and advocate no style other than my own. In practical terms I’m mostly concerned not to posit meaning ahead of time, and won’t interfere when the work delivers up something from itself. Meaning, or even metaphoric allusion, can’t be banned, but our attitude toward can change. We don’t have to waste our time dreamily expecting it will come.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Robert,
        I understand better where you are coming from – quite a forbidding place. To return to where we started – if I could make a sculpture that made you laugh, would that be meaningful – or at least show that abstract art could be full of everything, as full as the best figurative art, including both humour and humanity? And warmth…? Or am I dreaming?

      • Robert Linsley said…

        I’m not sure if abstract art is capable of the full range of expression. I really don’t know. The dream of abstraction, and the ambition, at the beginning, was certainly that it could. It’s worth trying. And I may be deficient in responsiveness. Certainly the demand for intelligibility, or meaning as we might put it, makes it more difficult to recognize what a work really is, or what it is doing. Above all, speculation should not get ahead of practice, though it does sometimes despite all best efforts. Everything I say is what my work has told me, and if I’ve failed I’ve failed to listen to the work. By that standard it’s wrong to expect art to offer up what we already know as feeling or expression, to present ourselves as the measure. Maybe it has its own sense of humour. In that case I guess I should retract the remark about laughter.

        Coincidentally I just discovered a forgotten blog post from a year ago that says something about this. http://newabstraction.net/2012/10/31/befuddlement/

  5. Pete Hoida said…

    One of Robin Greenwood’s problems is that he doesn’t seem to understand that painting, and the criticism of it, is a “fuzzy” subject”. If you don’t accept that, you are propelled straight into philosophy, a subject which most (all?) artists are poorly qualified to deal with. One of the annoying things about Robin is that he sometimes gets it right, case in point here, re Webb and Beattie.
    However, this discussion is getting somewhere towards the problem that abstraction, and pure abstraction, finds itself in. Recently visiting the Skiltons’ studio I asked Mark wether his sculpture was completed when it achieved its character. He appeared non-plussed by this as though the concept was alien, and replied that he “stopped” when he could take it no further. This was I suppose tantamount to a technical view of the situation, deliberately avoiding any hint of a lyrical or romantic notion.
    Earlier today looking back over film archive on Anthony Caro I noticed that in his interview with Robin he mentioned just this essential, offering that an abstract work with no character (or subject ?) is simply boring. Skilton’s work was far from boring, so I was slightly surprised at his take on it, though I suspected that doctrine lay behind it. An additional pleasure for me was in the individuality of the elements (car parts, forged pieces) of the (I caution), “incidents” that made up the totality of the work. One had to work hard to discriminate and differentiate between the relative qualities between works, another good thing to boot.
    But the problem of much current abstraction might be considered thus; when you view an old master work what you immediately see is the subject, Moses and Aaron perhaps, then you begin to look at the painting, it confronts you, you question it. The same really must apply to an abstract work. It must hit you first as “something”, then its qualities can reveal themselves. Qualities and marks, of colour, of texture, spatial complexity, three dimensionality, solely in themselves, amount to mere abstraction, not painting, not sculpture.
    I suggest Webb has simply not taken anything far enough in order to get to a position to find out what the ongoing work is trying to say, hence its obscurity and retreat into mystification. Beattie falls into the trap of having little beyond a hastily arrived at subject. In its simplicity the subject, an ideogram or pictogram, obtrudes, and the painted qualities offer minimal payback to the audience. The understandable appeal of Guston is that he produces paintings, despite his affront to abstraction.
    Surely it is only to a question of achieving a painting or sculpture, which of necessity means having that balance of singular presence (hard to define, yes), a something which doesn’t push itself at you (idea). Caro often succeeded, he did it, it was always “something” with its resonances, atmosphere, mystery, character: the suggestion of life beyond itself, of which it comes.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      I agree, though without cutting off any possibilities. Definitions are always inadequate. You might have something to say about the ongoing conversation on the Caro film.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      I don’t agree, as per my comment on the Caro feed about ‘character’ (or ‘presence’) being just another kind of covert figuration. We are back with the old chestnut of metaphor in abstract art, and how it might free itself of such encumbrances.

      I think Pete is even wrong about how you look at and see figurative art. Well, for me anyway, fuzzily speaking.

  6. David Sweet said…

    This may help, but then maybe not.
    You can’t criticise a painting for being figurative any more than you can blame another for being abstract.
    The abstract and the formal are not the same. Abstract paintings can be formally weak and figurative paintings formally strong. Abstraction is no excuse for formal ineptitude. If a figurative painting is formally weak it can still find itself an audience. If an abstract painting is formally weak, it’s curtains, literally and metaphorically.

  7. Robin Greenwood said…

    To reiterate what I said a year ago when we last discussed David Webb, his work is wilfully and subjectively obscure figurative painting that mimics the more familiar tropes of abstract painting. I don’t mean to imply anything other than to make a general observation about the work, and I know David’s motivations are honest; nevertheless, despite its apparent simplicity, the work falls short of a basic and forthright lucidity – I expect good art to clarify, not mystify. Some would suggest that the simplification in this work implies just such a clarification, but it seems to me the content of the work has become diluted by that process (with a consequential downgrading of pictorial ambitions), rather than concentrated and focussed. That might in part be the result of the simplifications being brought about by appropriation rather than discovery.

    ‘Deceptive’ is perhaps not the right word, but I was re-writing a common aphorism. I too admire Emyr’s inventive deployment of them.

  8. John Bunker said…

    Sorry… Probably jumped the gun here and punching way above my weight (as usual).But what do you mean by ‘deceptive’?

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      No need to apologise… but I asked you first. If you tell me why you think they are ‘highly relevant to abstract painting now’, I’ll tell you why (at the risk of further alienating David) I think the paintings are ‘deceptive’ – though Emyr, in his more conciliatory manner, pretty much hints at the same.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        …or did you mean Emyr’s aphorisms are highly relev… Oh WTF

      • John Bunker said…

        Yes, I did mean Emyr’s ability to wrestle out some heavy issues with a real lightness of touch… ‘the paint needs controlling, surfaces have to be created, colour orchestrated, space opened, light generated’. I caught that on the AbCrit Twitter feed advertising E’s review. Great stuff! And I do think there is something exciting happening in the architecture of David’s paintings. Geoff Rigden comes to mind- something I can’t quite put my finger on at the moment…..

      • John Bunker said…

        Now I’ve finished laughing can we talk about the word ‘deceptive’ in relation to these paintings?

  9. John Bunker said…

    Life is short but I hope you have managed to fit time in to actually see Mr Webb’s show.

    Emyr’s ‘aphorisms’ and insights are beautiful AND edgy! Highly relevant to abstract painting right now!

  10. Robin Greenwood said…

    Life is short, art is long, Emyr’s aphorisms fleeting, David’s paintings deceptive, judgment… defeated.