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.
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.