Lisson Gallery’s summer exhibition of new minimalism, Where Were You? shares its name with a 1978 single by The Mekons, detailing a man’s creepy, one sided fixation with an unsuspecting woman. During a repetitive three minutes of post punk sulking we learn that he watches, obsesses, then cries himself to sleep at home as his attentions go unnoticed (or more likely, are completely unwanted):When I was waiting in a bar, where were you? When I was buying you a drink, where were you? When I was crying at home in bed, where were you? When I watched you from a distance, did you see me?
The exhibition press release uses this unpalatable notion of ‘obsession’ to re-introduce us to the outdated construct of the artist holed up in a studio working through ‘often complex ideas or extended periods of time spent contemplating, reworking and refining’ their creative processes. Where Were You? is a group show of ten international artists that are claimed to articulate a minimalist aesthetic despite the dialectic nature of each artist’s practice. In actuality, the framing of the exhibition as Minimalist feels imprecise, and the tired references that allude to the model of the artist as introspective genius are both irritating and dull. Sadly, this exhibition falls short of success from the outset in its conceptual positioning.
The selected work is not all bad, but some does suffer from being incarcerated in the pretexts of this poorly reasoned exhibition. Cory Arcangel’s large, slick chromogenic print from his series of Photoshop Gradient Demonstrations is named after the set of instructions needed to create the image in Photoshop, like a post-net Sol LeWitt work: Photoshop CS: 84 by 50 inches, 300 DPI, RBG, square pixels, default gradient “Blue, Red, Yellow”, mousedown y=5750 x= 8250 mouseup y=14000 x=14050; tool “Wand”, select y=20750, x=3650, tolerance=40, contiguous=off; default gradient “Blue, Red, Yellow”, mousedown y=22800 x-4200, mouseup y=17970 x=11760 (2014). It’s in many ways a seductive object; seamlessly fabricated and exuding the vibrant perfection of a mechanically generated image. The precision of its manufacture and the didactic process employed seem largely out of place amidst the expressive brushstrokes and manipulation of materials in the rest of the exhibition, but it probably comes closer to articulating the minimalist aesthetic advocated by the curatorial vision of Where Were You? than many of the other pieces in the show.
Much here lacks the reductive aspects of Minimalism, feeling more closely akin to the painterly subjectivity of Abstract Expressionism. Robert Janitz’ Love is an Object (2014) is one such example of this. Janitz employs a combination of materials to create broad, gestural paintings, intending “to conceal painting with painting to show painting”. Whether he ‘conceals’ painting is disputable – the work looks intrinsically physical and focused on an active process of making. In Love is an Object a red ground has been partially obscured with a cloudy yellow mixture of wax and flour. The resultant painting succeeds in defying optical logic by being both simultaneously garish and muted. David Ostrowski’s F (Plötzlich Prinzessin) (2014) is, like Janitz’ painting, a large abstract work defined by its haptic qualities. Reminiscent of Rauschenberg’s 1950s monochromes, Ostrowski’s canvas documents tumultuous brushstrokes of thinly layered black and blue paint over an unprimed canvas. The surface appears imperfect, having collected detritus such as hair, dust, footprints and scuffmarks. Ostrowski asserts that he invites women to walk across the surfaces of his paintings prior to exhibiting them, tediously positioning his work as an extension of his self-proclaimed foot fetishism. Too many examples of the work in Where Were You? seem as much about subject as they are about object – this being directly at odds with Minimalism’s traditional abstention from emotional engagement and actually, quite boring.
The spirit of Rauschenberg is also present in the 2014 Untitled works by Dan Shaw-Town. Transferred images from newspapers are partially obscured by layers of enamel ink and graphite, or cut into suggested letterforms. These works feel overly conscious and self-indulgent, and the sampled media imagery is clichéd: bikini-clad women, Chanel adverts and cowboys on horseback. His earlier graphite sculptural drawings, which sit diminutively on the gallery floor, have a purer, more understated aesthetic that contrasts well with the several monolithic works in Lisson’s main gallery space. They feel more resolved and purposeful than his later confused mash-ups of found images and arbitrary mark making. Michael Rey achieves a consistent purity of form with the generation of a peculiar surface of painted plasticine in what he calls, without irony, ‘ibjects’: a hybrid of image and object. With barely the inference of an image and no meaningful sculptural relationship with space I would question whether these are ‘ibjects’ or wall-mounted reliefs. Regardless of how they should be defined, these works possess an interesting strangeness that puts them amongst the more convincing works in the exhibition.
For me, the paintings by Julia Rommel were the most engaging works in Where Were You? After covering a stretched canvas with a uniform field of color, Rommel re-stretches it allowing the staple marks and initial creases to move around the composition. This process is repeated to create contrasting areas of colour and texture. The two smaller works of Rommel’s, Comedy Club (2014) and Whale Watcher (2014), feel particularly active yet self-contained. Rectangles of thick, monochromatic plastic-like oil paint lie against thinner glazes of colour, punctuated with staples, holes, shredded edges of raw linen and paint-splattered wooden stretchers. There is a sense of genuine inquiry and persistence in the paintings, achieved though lengthy processes of layering and erasure. Compared to some of the other physical painting in the exhibition, these works feel less mannered or formulaic, displaying a purity of vision that goes some way towards articulating the minimalist aesthetic alluded to in the press release.
There are works with some merit in Where Were You? but overall the exhibition’s virtues are outweighed by its weak concept and sloppy curation. For instance, Allora and Calzadilla’s Shape Shifter (2013) may look like an abstract painting from a distance, but it isn’t one. Their sandpaper samples collected from Detroit construction sites and mounted in a grid on a canvas have a literal, political meaning, which sits comfortably in the context of their wider practice but relates only tentatively to any consideration of Minimalism in this exhibition. I suppose that ‘adopting a minimalist aesthetic’ is not necessarily the same thing as working in a Minimalist tradition, but this then makes the references to Lisson’s history of showing Mangold, Ryman, Judd etc in the press release feel cosmetic and pointless. Ultimately, Where Were You? fails to deliver any intelligent thoughts on contemporary minimalist abstraction, and instead offers an underwhelming and confused positioning of Lisson Gallery in the context of its previous, and more serious engagement with Minimalism.
Where Were You?, Lisson Gallery, 52 Bell Street, 19 July – 25 August. Allora & Calzadilla, Cory Arcangel, N. Dash, Robert Janitz, Paulo Monteiro, David Ostrowski, Michael Rey, Julia Rommel, Dan Shaw-Town