Abstract Critical

Grit to Gold: Collaging the Abstract

Written by John Bunker

L-R John Bunker, Totemsmoker, 2012, mied media; Scott O-Rourke, X-Fantasy Butter, oil on board, 2012; Frank Bowling, Rachel's Gift II, 2002, mixed media on canvas

L-R John Bunker, Totemsmoker, 2012, mixed media; Scott O-Rourke, X-Fantasy Butter, oil on board, 2012; Frank Bowling, Rachel’s Gift II, 2002, mixed media on canvas

Grit to Gold closes at Standpoint Gallery on the 16th of February.

In advanced capitalist economies of control and calculation, only artistic production retains an atavistic semblance of magic, reminiscent of the power of desire, that had once generated transformations in myth and fairy tales: e.g. the transmogrification from small into large, of bad wine into good, of straw into gold, or in more recent modernity, the conversion of outdated refuse into a sublime aesthetic object

Benjamin H D Buchloh

The whole world, everything which surrounds me here, is to me a boundless dump with no ends, or borders, an inexhaustible diverse sea of garbage. In this refuse of an enormous city one can feel the powerful breathing of it’s entire past. This whole dump is full of twinkling stars, reflections and fragments of culture.

Ilya Kabakov (The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away Moscow 1977)

These two quotations sum up for me the contrary currents of thought that are the genesis of Grit to Gold. One is historical, objective, political and, most of all, questions the painter’s position in society ‘now’. The other is lyrical, melancholy, and suggestive of a sensuous delight in the objects that bind us to the everyday world, to our rituals and habits – to the past, to the future. Both ring true to the ‘collagist’ in me – but how do they relate to abstract painting?

Works by Scott O'Rourke, all 2012

Works by Scott O’Rourke, all 2012

I have chosen to show two artists with very particular ideas of what painting might be, alongside my own, because they seem to play with ease and great skill directly on these contrary impulses through the medium of painting – and in doing so – also suggest alternative views as to the important role collage has played, and might still play, in abstract painting in the future. It is in the idiom of ‘abstraction’ that all three of us have tried to explore the limits of what a painting might be- with paint itself as the central but not always dominant player. Grit to Gold might suggests by its title a nod and a wink to the ‘alchemical’: the idea that an impure coalescence or collision of materials (that both signify and undermine time-honoured ideas about abstraction) might lead to an exciting detournement from our current rather binary approach to abstraction (hot/cold, biomorphic/geometric, flat/recessive etc).

Both Frank Bowling OBE RA and Scott O’Rourke (Graduate of RCA 2007) have become intimately involved in developing the languages of painting by foregrounding the paint itself; by seeing what it can do, where it can go and where it can take us. But both artists are also reinvigorating painting as a tradition. Frank is guided by the experience of a long and courageous career as a Modernist painter, but has been acutely aware of the need to keep abstract painting out of aesthetic cul-de-sacs. Scott’s work evolves from his painterly engagement with mediated imagery, and a painstaking and virtuoso use of bricolage. In my work I am concerned to expose the structure/skeleton of a painting – recycling its body parts, turning it both in on itself and out on to the world. We are artists, in our different ways, who are intensely delighted by paint’s viscosity, its infinite subtleties, but also employ the dynamic interruptions of collage to keep our painting practice lively and open to change, more importantly, open to the world.

Collage makes a direct connection to the brain’s readiness to associate, to form bridges between objects and spaces, times and places. But it also shatters patterns, disrupts control and breaks laws. Painting then, from this perspective, becomes a realm in which the mind’s cognitive processes are echoed or played out. Paint itself acts as a kind of binding agent transforming anything it touches, bringing disparate elements into new relationships, by turns masking and revealing, heeding some boundaries and breaching others.

Grit to Gold: Collaging the Abstract

Grit to Gold: Collaging the Abstract

We live with the givens that our ‘subjectivity’ is mediated by language and institutions. The awkward truth is that while we still walk around in bodies there will always be an ache for the sensual manipulation of form and surface inherent to painting and enhanced by collage, that will resonate with a viewer in all kinds of intimate ways. I would like to think that Grit to Gold might go some way in exploring this intimacy that is usually so often overlooked in the many discourses that revolve around abstract art. Anne Ryan, a highly underrated and too-little-known abstract artist working with collage in New York during the ‘reign’ of Abstract Expressionism, put it like this: ”most abstract art leads to sterility – to Law.”

Frank Bowling, Ducks & Drakes, 2002, acrylic on canvas; Scott O'Rourke, Untitled, 2012, oil and enamel on board

Frank Bowling, Ducks & Drakes, 2002, acrylic on canvas; Scott O’Rourke, Untitled, 2012, oil and enamel on board

It is the transmutability of paint, and its relationships to almost any other material (and its uncomfortable associations with lived experience) that might keep abstract painting alive and kicking. Abstract painting has, I think, a special role to play in exploring human subjectivity, through a dynamic engagement with the materiality of paint (and any other kind of matter) without recourse to obvious mimesis. I’d like to think that the artists in Grit to Gold are putting abstraction back into direct relationship with life lived, and in so doing, expanding our sensual understanding of the world.


  1. Noela Bewry said…

    Interesting article, it describes the show really well.
    I like the way John Bunker has used the word ‘play’ quite a few times because , apart from the two contrary currents of thought that created the impulse for the exhibition, I did get a sense of playfulness.
    The scale of John Bunker’s work was surprising, and an effective contrast to Scott’s solid , thick as a brick intensities .
    Frank Bowling certainly disrupted a few patterns and aesthetic cul-de-sacs by introducing objects that shattered the serenity of some of his paintings.
    Very interesting show.