Abstract Critical

Paintings by Francesca DiMattio and Alejandro Ospina

Written by Sam Cornish

Francesca DiMattio Painting from the Zabludowicz Collection: Part I, Installation View, with Francesca DiMattio. Courtesy Zabludowicz Collection. Photo: Tim Bowditch

Francesca DiMattio, Diptych, 2008, oil and acrylic on canvas, 274 x 406 cm.
Painting from the Zabludowicz Collection: Part I, Installation View, with Francesca DiMattio. Courtesy Zabludowicz Collection. Photo: Tim Bowditch

There has been much talk of the screen on abstract critical recently. It has appeared as both a threat to abstract painting and as a potential resource. One thing that runs through much of the talk is an observation of a relation between the glow of the screen and the infinite-shallow space of much modernist painting, specifically that in the post-painterly mode of Jules Olitski or Kenneth Noland. Indeed David Sweet has written that the screen itself has undergone its own modernist progression: ‘it could be argued that screens have been unwittingly involved in a modernist, medium-specific purification, as they have approached these norms, declaring their delimited flatness ever more brazenly in successive innovations.’ This is in a way quite clever, except that very few people sit watching their TVs or computers when they are switched off, despite Modernism persuading us to look at more or less empty pictures.

Rather than an empty, glowing flatness our TV or computer screens are parts of an almost unavoidable cultural barrage, the source of countless unrelated images, both vivid and transitory; images that both transfix us and create a state of nervous tension. That is of course a cliché, the stuff of weekend opinion columns (and the stuff of art from Richard Hamilton to David Salle and beyond). I’m not sure I have anything particularly interesting to say about this seemingly unavoidable aspect of our lives, except that it is the starting point for compelling paintings by Francesca DiMattio (Diptych, 2008) and Alejandro Ospina (Spectacle of Normalcy, 2012); and that I felt a sense of recognition when looking at them – they in different ways seemed to depict aspects of my own experience. I haven’t really unpicked what this recognition comprised of – it wasn’t just the fact that the pictures clearly drew on the barrage of media images, but something about how this was done that felt familiar, that seemed – sorry for the awful word – contemporary. In the case of the DiMattio it was perhaps something to do with the painting’s hard, bright light. This recognition is perhaps the primary positive experience of art for most (non-art) people have, but it was a bit novel for me: most of the time I try to see paintings for what they are (whatever that means!) more than for what they reflect back to me.

Alejandro Ospina, A Spectacle of Normalcy, 210 x 160cm, 2012. Courtesy of Image Music Text

Alejandro Ospina, A Spectacle of Normalcy, 210 x 160cm, 2012. Courtesy of Image Music Text

But this recognition is only worth anything because the paintings managed to create structures that could hold my attention. Unfortunately the paintings reproduced here were by far the strongest paintings in each of the shows. But both had much more to offer than other paintings I’ve recently seen which worked with more or less the same dynamic – say Albert Oehlen’s Evilution (on show in the next room to Diptych and which despite my early enthusiasm I have to admit did ‘fall apart’ when I went back for a second look) or those by Michael Stubbs recently on show at CASS.

Both Spectacle of Normalcy and Diptych employ a large space defined by perspective – like a theatre set, perhaps – which then stages a large diversity of heterogeneous and fragmentary elements. In both paintings the interaction of smaller elements is the main event but they are charged, gain much of their sense of reality, from the effects of the larger surrounding space: a sense of the containing space permeates down through the smaller fragments. In Spectacle… the central elements are more or less integrated into the surrounding space, and this space is fairly consistently worked on – warped, bent or brought into focus or projected in distance – by the elements it contains (the red in the reproduction is wrong, and stands out much more than it did in real-life). Whereas in Diptych there is greater disjunction, and once I became involved in the painting the surrounding edges of the pictures become more or less irrelevant, or at least removed from my direct attention. Certainly you could not say that it works ‘as a whole’ but I think it is very possible that too much stress is laid on that criteria anyway (this means that the image above only gives a very limited impression of the painting – you can see more in this portrait of the artist, which also has the advantage of showing some of the painting’s texture).

I find Michael Stubbs’ pictures unconvincing because each of his elements (each of the different images which his pictures collage together) feels disconnected from the rest, as if each was a separate layer on Photoshop and they had been laid fairly casually over the next. Various textures and a few neat tricks (too neat, really) for relating one layer to the next only exaggerate this problem: as the different elements slide over each other nothing really gets going, little pictorial tension is created. Of course this problem could easily be interpreted away (a move which seems to be the primary function of much current criticism): it could be seen as saying something about the thinness of digital reproduction, the distanced and impenetrable nature of the screen, or the confusion created by the imagery we are bombarded with. But in the end this is not enough – it might save them as translations of ideas, but not as paintings.

Part of the advantage that DiMattio and Ospina (at least as expressed in Spectacle… and Diptych) have over Stubbs is that they are much more willing to use painting to get inside their source images: rather than repeating these images whole they reconstitute them, building each fragment up, and creating spaces and relationships, vivid substructures within the total image. In Spectacle this fragmentation and reconstitution takes on a woozy, slightly trippy hermetic quality (the numb sensitivity of the slightly stoned?). A deadpan application which suggests transcription turns to his advantage the slightly naive handling of the other pictures in his show. Diptych is more obviously accomplished, slicker: where Spectacle… presents an interior image that at least in part follows the abstracted Surrealism of Arshile Gorky, Diptych is impersonal, closer to the Pop Art antecedents I mentioned above. Its transitions from part to part are harsher, more aggressive, and make use of an ability to construct intricate juxtapositions with skillfully controlled changes in texture, physically emphasising the manner in which different elements of the picture cut into each other. The manner in which these juxtapositions build into sequences variously running across the central section is the picture’s main attraction.

The fragmentation and complication of both Spectacle… and Diptych implies an active viewer. There is much more to do here than simply bask in a single glowing presence. Beyond a relation to the screen – or to any aspect of wider culture – this seems like a more profitable direction for abstract painting to head in.

Alejandro Ospina: Megalopolis was on at Image Music Text Gallery in February; Painting from the Zabludowicz Collection: Part I is on at the Zabludowicz Collection until the 5th of May.

  1. Robin Greenwood said…

    Having now seen both the DiMattio ‘Dyptych’ and the Albert Oehlen ‘Evilution’ at Zabludowicz, I am unable to share your enthusiasm for either. They are both comprised of predominantly figurative elements collaged together; in DiMattio’s case using a conventional if disjointed perspectival drawing; in Oehlen’s, just very sloppy bad representations of a column, a figure and some skulls, turned sideways (radical!). Over the top of these is some ‘abstract’ stuff (i.e., you can’t make it out), but in neither painting can I detect a coherent attempt to pull together some kind of meaningful and relational pictorial space, abstract or figurative. I know they both chime in with your theory, Sam, about mashing figurative elements into abstract painting, but the results here are without integrity or completeness. I think they both end up in the camp of surrealism, and that is certainly where the rest of the work in the two shows resides, particularly DiMattio’s gruesomely awful ‘sculptures’, and Oehlen’s painting with a film projected on top of it.

    One of the other Oehlen’s – ‘Deathoknocko’ – which has an inkjet image printed on to the canvas with overpainting, is a dead ringer for a mad-cap Stella, a bad example of which you can see in Jacobson’s collage show at the moment. There’s just nothing to recommend about the experience of looking at them.

    We’ve had a few viewpoints on abstract painting’s relation to the screen now, and I’m still non-plussed by the insinuated connection. The big question that all this work (and your essay) seems to take for granted is whether one is to judge and value painting as just another variety of image-making (singular or multiple), alongside and in competition with the manifold other sources of available images, including those on screen; or whether the experience of painting (in the flesh, rather than in reproduction) could and should be some other manner and measure of experience altogether. I certainly want and get more out of good painting than mere image(s), so collaging stuff together like this, although it challenges the conventions of formalist abstract painting, turns out to be as meaningless a protest as a flicked V-sign. None of these guys, not DiMattio, not Oehlen, not Stella, are coherently working through the problems of abstract painting in a developing way; they are just muddying the water even more, flitting from image to image.

    As you know, I have as little wish to ‘bask in a single glowing presence’, à la Rothko etc, as you. I want complexity AND wholeness – that’s the measure of great art. We may not really know what we mean by wholeness in abstract art (or in figurative art, for that matter) but it refuses, in my mind, to be anything less than an imperative.

    • Sam said…

      Lot to respond to here. Will probably be a few days before I get down to it…

    • Sam said…

      Beyond pointing out that I’d already thrown the Oehlen off in the comments to Dan Coombs piece, I would say that the relation to the screen very much came second in my interest in (excitement by) the DiMattio (which was good over a second extended visit). And if it wasn’t for the articles by David Sweet (and the clear connection to the Ospina) I may have concentrated on the painting, without even mentioning the screen. If that sounds like a get-out clause it may well be one, but I’d prefer to stand by the painting rather than the theory.

      For me the images in Diptych had their own reality, their own concentrated and striking sets of structures and substructures (I admit the other paintings fell down and the sculptures, unfortunately the most recent things, were pretty dreadful – real high-end luxe baubles). Because of the way the piece was collaged together, because of how vivid the various cuts, overlappings, disjunctions, rhymes and rhythms were within the work I can happily throw off a hypothetical ‘complexity and wholeness’ (the relative inaction of the colour was for me a more nagging problem, but again I can live with it). You may say this lacks commitment; and I would certainly agree to the extent that in a painting which puts all its eggs in the unity basket (!?) wholeness is a make or break clause (at least in the negative sense of not leaving any holes in the fabric). But I think it is important to keep hold of the things one responds to. Obviously not being an artist I do not have the same drive to this as you; but then again I would question the idea that narrowing down to “clear-water” examples is necessarily the most productive route to go down.

      As a final (and not very important) point I think the flicked V’s comment may have some validity to Oehlen, but is clearly not at all relevant in DiMattio’s case – I really don’t think she has given a second thought to offending abstract painters. There are probably some “transgressive” thoughts but it seems unlikely they are aimed in that direction…

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        You are backtracking a tad here, so much so that you’re gonna have to turn about or you’ll stumble. The DiMattio was an awful show going nowhere, and although you might make a case for the Diptych painting being OK-going-on-interesting, it’s not exactly new or a breakthrough in our territory of abstract art, is it? And if it has anything going for it, it’s looking like a one-off.

      • Sam said…

        Have to say in the original review I had already said it was the best thing in the show; and have pretty much already dealt with the rest of the comment as well. I’m not sure everything has to be a ‘breakthrough’.

  2. Gloria Ospina said…

    Very good interpretation of modern and contemporary art looking at the works of Francesca DiMattio and Alejandro Ospina:”the fragmentation and complication of both Spectacle.. and Diptych implies an active viewer. There is much more to do here than simply bask in a single glowing experience…”