Almost… but Not Quite…
Nearly ten years ago I was introduced to a painter in Mexico City. He told me about his involvement with a project devoted to creating a museum of abstract art; deep in the heart of Mexico, the future museum and the home of the project was to be a disused prison. The cells were projected galleries constituting different ‘wings’ of practices and genres of abstraction. Nobody could doubt this particular painter’s enthusiasm for, or dedication to, this project – he was a modernist painter of an older generation and a participant in the development of abstraction in Mexico under the auspices of European–orientated intellectuals such as Octavio Paz who favoured cultural modernism over nationalistic imagism. As it turned out, the project itself was eventually realised in, as far as I know, another location and with a different inflection from its original conception, becoming much more personalised in its scope. But, as a purely conjectural image or idea, the possibility of this museum of abstraction housed in a prison remained intriguing in itself. On one level, however, it would seem deeply unappealing that abstraction at the beginning of a new century could be presented, or even thought of, as all but hermetically sealed in the various wings of a prison house (even in this localised context). And what, it should be asked, is the meaning of isolating abstract art? How would such a project be organised? What would be categorised as bone fide abstract and what would not? Where would it ‘start’ and ‘end’? These questions also plague how we conceive of the practice and history of abstraction today, and this proposed ‘museum of abstract art’ would imply abstraction’s completion as a project in itself; as an image, albeit unintentional, the ‘prison house of abstraction’ might sum up what so many have longed to escape ever since abstraction was projected as the core of modernism, with an infallible sense of vanguardism or historical sense of mission.
La peinture est presque abstraite, a project that brings together French and British artists, can be seen as forming a very different field of enquiry than the projected Mexican museum. It could be seen as its opposite in fact. The current project is open in its format, forming a cluster of exhibitions that are not determined by any particular exhibiting space - in short, it is the site for discourse rather than the closure of the museum. While it clearly muses and incorporates the history of abstraction as a critical practice, it also views it as a living process rather than being defined by the deadening spaces of the archive or the retrospective. As a project it provides one piece of the complex jigsaw of contemporary involvement in the issues of abstract painting and the processes of abstraction in the visual arts. Since the 1990s these concerns have been part of an ebb and flow, a cycle of appearance and disappearance (on the part of the ‘scene’ or market that is) but also a constant problematic to be engaged with by artists in their studios. That is to say, whether deemed ‘relevant’ or not by the artworld, many artists have been engaged with the suggestive ‘unfinished business’ of abstract painting, and this is what brings the artists in this current project together.
Looking back, one of the reasons for abstract painting’s lack of visibility in the earlier decade of the 1980s was the voracious appetite for an almost ‘pure representation’ (or its critique) and its related interpretative tools. With the burgeoning assimilation of ‘cultural theory’ into the machinery of visual criticism, curating, and producing, abstraction was seen to be synonymous with a previous modernist hegemony – unfolding (and upholding) notions of autonomy, unity, and a related unified field of perception. While the modernism of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried remained a coherent formalist theoretical mapping from which to move away (often tediously and endlessly a starting point for ‘post-modern’ theories of the visual), the practitioners of abstraction in the 1990s – though not a coherent group – had also inverted many of those formalist signposts. These included Mary Heilmann, David Reed, Jonathan Lasker, Shirley Kaneda, Jessica Stockholder, Fabian Marcaccio, Tom Noszkowski, Juan Uslé and many others. The reciprocal unity of object and perceiver was questioned in their work, together with the connotations of autonomy, reduction and ‘essence’ being replaced by complexity and semiotic connectivity. Many of their concerns re-connected with earlier forms of abstraction, and yet each of these artists were well aware of the complexity of signs and signifying structures in relation to a perceptual mode of reception. That abstraction could work across certain conventions in order to disrupt them was a central theme of this new abstraction. Some commentators strongly argued, though, that this was not an abstraction at all – but simply a gathering of historically mediated and representational ‘cues’ that referenced the look of abstraction. But this leads us to the question of how we define abstraction, what condition are we describing? How useful is this term now?
What is in a name..?
The implications of abstraction in the visual arts have changed from period to period. It would probably mean something really rather different to a protagonist in Moscow in 1919, to one in Eighth street in New York in 1952, and right down to a present-day occupant of a Parisian studio in 2009. It continues to raise hackles, to be seen as obfuscating and misleading, and it possibly doesn’t really sustain a close analysis. But, we know what we mean by certain traditions of abstraction, at least on a superficial level (which creates its own problems) – it has become a convenience as a descriptor. In a studio discussion on abstraction, the late Noel Forster - a British painter - described it in terms of a slice of bacon and a pig; bacon is the abstraction of the pig - and such a relationship had nothing to do with his painting process he protested. It is this notion of extraction, reduction, synecdoche or diagram that continues to offend or mislead. But all the alternatives have their own problems – for example, the term ‘concrete’: which apparently disallows illusion; or ‘non-representation’: which implies a transcendent materiality refusing worldly communication. For all its confusion, as practitioners and critics, we are often led back to ‘abstraction’ knowing its flaws and yet imbricated in its usage. “An atomic scientist”, suggested Umberto Eco in his seminal Theory of Semiotics, “knows very well that so-called ‘things’ are the result of a complex interplay of microphysical correlations, and nevertheless he can quite happily continue to speak about ‘things’ when it is convenient to do so.”[i] And so it is with ‘abstraction.’ But the need is, as many others have felt, also to refine and re-define one’s usage of this term within the present context.
Here, in connection with the paintings produced by Xavier Drong, Olivier Gourvil, Geoffroy Gross, Jane Harris, Richard Kirwan, Nicolas Royer, Daniel Sturgis, and Claude Temin-Vergez, abstraction as a concept will no doubt shed some unifying light on their production but will never provide any final definition or explanation. Each of these artists is very much concerned with traditions of abstract painting and all that that entails, but each mobilize these concerns beyond the perceived coded limits of abstraction. This is done by mean of particular choices of ‘sign-vehicles’ or associative forms. Each present a focus and clarity of conception and execution that would be unthinkable without the ingrained knowledge of certain traditions of abstraction - even if the classification itself sits uncomfortably with their production. Rather than any rigid demarcation between abstraction and representation, it can be seen as what Kobena Mercer describes as “A disruptive agency”[ii] – and that “When viewed in the round, abstraction’s defining quality is its openness.” It is this very openness that allows an increased concentration on the possibilities of form, and allows a practice’s engagement with historical and contextual meanings to unfold more fully. Together with this, it could be said that each of these works participate in fluid states that develop transitions between material, sign and recognition. But we can also add one other sense of abstraction, one that I have alluded to elsewhere, and that is the American composer Morton Feldman’s formulation of abstraction as a processual interface between painting and viewer.[iii] It is by working through these different perspectives of abstraction in relation to the above group of artists that both the jigsaw piece of this specific project and its surrounding broader context will, hopefully, fall into place.
‘To be clear at all costs’
Stendahl, apparently, had a large sign above his desk – ‘to be clear at all costs’. And clarity, in relation to the paintings of Drong, Gourvil, Gross, Harris, Kirwan, Royer, Sturgis, and Temin-Vergez, is very much present. It is striking how most of these paintings have either a very clearly defined field or a focused centrality of image. Even those artists amongst them who maintain a relationship to traditional painterliness – such as Harris or Drong – this is bound up with, and at the service of, the clarity of image. Half a century ago abstraction would have been a byword for the picture arising out of indeterminate chaos. In 1957 Meyer Schapiro could write, “[the painter’s] goal is often an order which retains a decided quality of randomness as far as this is compatible with an ultimate unity of the whole. That randomness corresponds in turn to a feeling of freedom, an unconstrained activity at every point.”[iv] Schapiro points to a resulting emphasis and semantic framing of the residua of the paint-act: drips, scratches, formlessness. That a painting could be constructed from such marks and point to generic structures of feeling and meaning seems, superficially at least, far from where we are today. Automatism, chance, aleatory procedures, and the “great importance of the mark, the stroke, the brush, the drip, the quality of the substance of the paint itself, and the surface of the canvas as a field of operation – all signs of the artist’s active presence”[v] pointed to a rather intentionally unfocussed activity that sought its meanings in just that (we might think of Harold Rosenberg’s apt phrase, ‘apocalyptic wallpaper’). One clue regarding this shift in emphasis from aleatory to the demand for sharpness lies in Schapiro’s positioning of 1950s abstraction as a search for meaning within the individual and thus a critique of mass alienated labour, which found its voice in an Abstract Expressionist hyperbole of hand-madeness and self-expression. As he points out, “The theory and practice of communication today helps to build up and to characterize a world of social relationships that is impersonal, calculated and controlled in its elements, aiming always at efficiency.”[vi] Thus, we arrive at a familiar modernist narrative of ‘Action Painting’ and Art Informel turning their backs on this world by intensifying the aesthetic realm as a value in and for itself, as Schapiro further alludes: “the work of art is an ordered world of its own kind in which we are aware at every point, of its becoming […] the experience of a work of art, like the creation of the work of art itself, is a process ultimately opposed to communication as it is understood now.”[vii]
This schism between the worlds of everyday communication and making and receiving art became a symbolic, often tense, dialectic that has time and time again attempted to be deconstructed by most postwar artistic manifestations. One narrative of the breakdown of this dialectic would be through the interactive, social and appropriational activities of Pop Art and Conceptual Art, both extremely active reference points for contemporary art. Yet this very dialectic (famously referenced by Walter Benjamin as two halves of a torn piece of paper that don’t quite fit together) persists and haunts abstraction, which, by its very nature, creates its aesthetic through aesthetics rather some ‘explosion of art and life’ as in environmental, or performance, or socially orientated work of recent years. If we take a painter like the German London-based artist Tomma Abts, her work might well fit, still, something of Schapiro’s musings on the social positioning of abstraction circa 1957. Abts presents an ‘ordered world of its own kind’ and one that certainly circumnavigates our normative consumption of images in terms of temporality and purpose. And yet her work is so different from anything Schapiro would have had in mind in its identity as a painting-object. Abts presents us with singular painterly puzzles or conundrums that are resolved through the act of both painting and viewing – they are subdued, often possessing centralized motifs of a symmetrical nature. This proceeds in creating both a ‘faciality’ of surface, and intimacy of address – a psychological space where the painting seemingly mirrors the viewer’s mental space. Painterliness and process in Abts’ work is extremely understated and of a slow ‘tempo’ but visible nonetheless; a ‘becoming’ in relation to image. Such a concern with process and, for want of a better term, image, is also to be found in the work of Jane Harris. Both artists present these abstract images with extreme clarity, and in Harris’ case, creating a strong relationship between a brushed surface and an inflected event that either seemingly grows from, or is embellished, within it. The painterly gesture is refined to a highly controlled denotation of surface, and it is generally a shift in gear of these brushed marks (either in terms of scale or directionality) that governs the implicit boundaries and formation of the crisp forms. Ovoid forms confront the viewer with their centrality, almost as a mirror that yields blankness, such as can be seen in the painting Spirited (2008). Framed by virtuosic kneading of the brush, these forms recall rococo decorations that transmute, at times, into biological primordial bodies – as in Flying High (2009). These are the kind of visual allusions and metaphors that the viewer enters into, which are also pertinent to Abts’ statement about her own work: “the more specific they are, the more open they become”[viii]. Harris’ paintings possess a severe control, concentration and, paradoxically, a lush sensuality that is arrived through the discipline of the process.
Olivier Gourvil’s paintings appear to desire a similar extremity of clarity in relation to process and realization as well as the resulting focus of centrality that produces a direct one-to-one contact with the viewer. Gourvil’s ‘one-to-oneness’ also develop a spatial projection on the part of the spectator, resulting a kind of behavioral form: how form ‘sits’, how it holds itself, whether its components are gathered or dispersed etc. This is what the American painter Jonathan Lasker has described as a tendency, in his own work, “To unfurl the sensation of being in a space […] As human beings we are always looking for another human being, i.e., we project onto an abstract shape some kind of human tendency […] you could say these are basic primary identifications which haunt the act of looking.”[ix] Gourvil’s anthropomorphism is filtered through an immense repertoire of sign-structures, some sifted through urban signs or the signs of the body as seen in comics or graphics. Some of the paintings’ forms can have the look of architectural plans, pre-fabricated design units, the bulbous forms of graffiti or elements from modernist painting. These are usually intertwined with Gourvil’s emphatic linear demarcations of diagrammatic volumes and his playful sense of protuberance and organicism. This emphasis on drawing in space and the clarity of line leads to an almost icon-like presentation of form – with their centrally focused events, concentrated form, and anthropomorphic connotations. If the traditional notion of the icon is rooted in resemblance (in its usual context, the copy of a divine original, the copy providing a material link to the original, thus ensuing a transference of presence) then in Gouvil’s painting this implication is reversed[x]. Through the processes of drawing - developing into painting - he is searching out a fecundity of form and connotation that has no basis in an original underlying model; the iconic form in this context might well embrace various allusions but loops back to its own materiality, its own clarity of being held as an image in the mind.
Iconicity and identity (in the sense of the perceived identity of the paintings themselves – what is apprehended in the memory, or describable, transferable, about a painting) are also bound up not only with the processes of ‘reading’, but also the painting’s potential transaction – its life, that is, in other media: the spaces of reproduction. Many aspects of Pop or post-Pop have been seen to almost privilege this aspect of post-production, and iconicity can be seen in relation to this foregrounding of the communicable, transferable image. This, too, is no doubt part of the contemporary drive for the clear concise image. While some works appear to simply live out their lives in this media afterlife, I would say Gourvil’s and all of the paintings associated with the current project, require the image to be re-grounded in viewing its material practice/presence. It brings us back to the notion of what is excessive to the ‘transactive’ image, and I feel both these articulations – towards the crispness of the image and, simultaneously, honoring the demands of that which slips outside of immediate denotation – have marked aspects of recent works that point to the tradition of abstraction.
If semiotics as an all consuming cultural field of investigation often floundered when encountering painting, it was due to ambiguous sub-signs (that which marks the meaning of a painting but is not gatherable as a sign in itself), that stubbornly remained signifying aspects of the medium. Few theorists could agree on stable sign systems as common units (was it a whole painting, a segment of a painting, a graspable form, a mark? etc.) and Levi-Strauss refused to consider either abstract painting or atonal music as viable models for the analysis of communication for this reason. Many others reversed the structural logic whereby painting was seen to generate codes rather than operate as the passive vehicle for their excavation. This is a line that passes from Roland Barthes through Hubert Damisch to Yves Alain-Bois. Painting is viewed, in this light, as a generative activity creating its own structures and becoming a “theoretical operator”[xi]. Painting is inevitably opened out rather than closed down here, partly because of this lack of reducibility to a structural linguistic model of langue/parole, and through what Umberto Eco refers to as extracoding or ‘pseudo-combiatorial units’ (operating as if linguistic structures, being indentifiable from one work to another). For Eco these are ‘psuedo-combinatorial’ because they cannot be clearly designated as having a clear sign function but are in the realm of ‘open signals’ – which, in turn, are expressive or formal components that take on signification and framing through their repetition and manipulation within an artist’s production. As Eco suggests, “the establishing of pseudo-combinatorial units does not precede the making of the work itself; on the contrary, the growth of the work coincides with the systems. And provided these forms convey a content (which is sometimes identical with a metalinguistic account of the nature of the work and its ideological purport) an entire code is established as the work is established.”[xii] But what do we make of this ‘entire code’? In Eco’s terms this, too, is ultimately unstable and pliable in terms of generating content.
Comparing, say, a Joan Mitchell painting, one that is contemporary with Schapiro’s essay of 1957, and two paintings of Harris and Gourvil then this idea of a working code (or rather a code that is the product of work) becomes more palpable. Untitled of 1957 consists of horizontally orientated marks that gravitate towards the centre of the canvas creating a density there akin to the optical visual field demarcated by the eye itself, but also the centralised gathering of form visible in both Harris and Gourvil. It forms an image through the interplay and melding of these strokes and their residues. Paint is held thickly in places bringing attention to its viscous, almost autonomous materiality; it drips down the canvas which, in itself, becomes a raw field for the reception of the image. It speaks ‘nature’ and approaches what Eco would describe as a non-linguistic ‘textural cloud.’ The coded work of the image is implied by speed and interconnective energy between marks which evokes its kinship both as a representation of nature and as ‘natural’. Gourvil and Harris, by contrast, eschew the notion of a passing fugitive image, and the coded work of the paintings speak about a more complete physicality of the image, but one which must reinforce its blurring as a cultural signifier. It is not simply a case where painterliness and facture is more present in the Mitchell and not in the others – it is, rather, worked differently and therefore takes on a very different meaning. In the later works, the image is precise and yet its affect is fugitive. Here, the role of the sign is arrived at as a highly indeterminate image. Unlike Mitchell’s unbounded desire to connect with nature, both Harris and Gourvil set up a circuitry that suggests other artificial or cultural objects and things, and yet, in each case, the control of the image is, simultaneously, the total control of the complete surface. This ‘circuitry’ implies that the later abstractions have a more complex relationship to signs and the negotiation of different fields (not necessarily at a conscious level): a thinking and working through both the ontology of the object and the circulation of images in the world.
Another example might be the work of American artist Mary Heilmann – now an extremely influential abstract painter; the importance of Heilmann’s work is the conciliation of the formal demands of the work and the absorption of her life experience within these formal structures. It is the necessary formulation of an extrovert formalism; in that forms have been lived through and are re-presented through a repertoire of signs and motifs. Speaking of a new found openness of painting, Heilmann has reflected, “Thinking back to my student days, none of the interesting people did painting; they were involved with performance art, ‘happenings’ or conceptual art. But what happened was this process of destroying painting, of taking it apart, really re-energized it, and it has eaten up all of that material and used it to make new work […]”[xiii] Nicolas Royer would agree that painting as a purist self referential activity has long gone, “all art is conceptual – it has to engage with ideas and the broader scope of how we exist in the world.”[xiv] And while Royer’s work begins with the premise of painting it clearly uses this as an interface for observing and engaging with a kind of micro-politics. Painting might be seen to operate as a triadic model for Royer: an expanded field of the social sign; the formal constraints that bind the idea and the work; and finally, the depth with which the form can create a specific dialogue with other works and traditions within the practice. A work such as Play-Mobil (2009) refers not only to the miniature social world of the German manufactured toy figures but also the murky world of oil commerce and its environmental effects. In both Teinpure and Sceau and Peinture and Sceau (2009) a cloth ground is emblazoned with the titles, and the form of the lettering refers, explicitly, to another oil giant, Esso; at the heart of the medium, Royer seems to be saying, lies a set of economic, environmental and social problems. Another earlier set is the Suite Kebab (2003-4) – a series of paintings which references fast food; Royer here contrasted the ‘artisanal’ kebab against the ‘industrial’ hamburger (Macdonalds), while also conjuring in the background, such French systematic approaches to painting as Bernard Frize’s Suite Segond. What Royer also does is to reduce the kebab motif to a series of gestural marks – a rectangle, a curved verticale line and an arabesque, snaking flourish. It is through a relentless repetition that these rapid, almost slithery marks (reminiscent of Frize’s transparent mark-making) locate the site of difference and repetition back within the system of the everyday.
Part of Eco’s ‘entire code’ is undoubtedly how a work is made, its visible (and perhaps invisible) production. Facture in this group of painters is often restrained, but always considered: from Gourvil’s sometimes surprisingly thickly knifed surfaces, through to Temin-Vergez’s delicately drawn traceries, and the measured informality of Drong and Royer. New York-based painter David Reed, whose mysterious surfaces have intrigued and beguiled for over two decades, slowly layers his paintings – as his recently published working drawings testify - and, sealing the surface, sometimes buries the visual clues of what actually happened when in the painting process. “I’m very mistrustful, now,” he declared in an interview, “of easy entries into painting, especially through tactile materials. I feel that these entries are accompanied by a nostalgia for defined times. […] It’s taken for granted that the wall is a real and solid referent. Now, when a painting is on a wall, there’s no sense or guarantee of that reality. Paintings now hang on a wall as though floating on a screen[…]”[xv] For Reed, this articulation of surface – and the absence of a traditionally physically painterly presence of the mark – will impact upon how the work connects to its spatial and viewing context. In many ways both Richard Kirwan and Daniel Sturgis also develop this notion of surface as a both a consistent and key element as to how the work is read. Sturgis’ surfaces are pristine and accommodating of a range of patterns and figures that often sharply cut across the picture plane, as dealt out in the painting Still Squalings (2009). Here, Sturgis plays with scale and balance – in that what looks, at first glance, a sharp, cool post-painterly hard-edged abstraction slowly reveals its precarious balance and playful edge. Repeated checkerboard patterns oscillate between figure and ground and three blue dots inhabit the space rather like figures in an 18th Century sublime landscape. In fact Sturgis’ paintings invite these kinds of mental games where the life of forms flicker between the viewer’s identification and its formal positioning in space. Sweet Emma (2007) displays a very different juggling with forms – seemingly settling into place quietly, with the large expanse of fleshy colour occupying the central block, a kind of hard-edged progeny of Philip Guston’s Head of 1965.
Richard Kirwan also exemplifies a virtuosic restraint in his undemonstrative and painstaking articulation of forms via an almost untouched–by-hand surface. Unlike Sturgis, Kirwan prefers to dispense with relational composition; his pieces are made up of disjunctive fields divided or repetitive accumulations that tend to approximate diagrams of cellular structures or microscopic units. But they also, clearly, celebrate a rampart Pop culture; as in False Fire (2009) with its ‘Ghostbuster’ or computer game personages. In Foreign Tongue (2009) a backdrop of brightly coloured bands provides the foil to a repetitive cluster of silvery forms which resemble a stack, a pile or dump. These are controlled formal units that take on both a patternistic role, and yet spark memories and associations of the way things behave in the world at large, but they are marked by a hardness or brittleness; of almost inhuman manufacture.
In an essay entitled ‘The Surface of Design’ Jacques Ranciere talks of work on surface, and work on what appears on that surface; it is this which always transgresses the formal: “By drawing lines, arranging words or distributing surfaces, one also designs divisions of communal space. It is the way in which, by assembling words or forms, people define not merely certain forms of art, but certain configurations of what can be seen and what can be thought, certain forms of inhabiting the material world.”[xvi] The formal is always a point of departure in these works – a means of locating resonant forms that become, in themselves, complex and indeterminate sign-structures.
Figures, Doubles, and the ‘Time of Painting’…
“When I see a form – any form, any shape at all - I am also seeing a body. I may be looking at only a smudge on a piece of paper, but I see it as a single form, a unit unto itself, a thing, a body. […] ultimately I take an interest in every isolated smooth continuous object because I am interested in bodies.”[xvii] So wrote James Elkins in his book, The Object Stares Back alluding to the inescapable projection of the body with, and the seeing of bodies in, the processes of looking. “We try to see something like ourselves, a reflection or an other, a doppelganger or twin, or even just part of us […]”[xviii] Even in music, we might experience something of this; in the late music of Morton Feldman we sense an evolving process but also a formation of a palpable body created over time. There is an overwhelming sense of not just listening to, but being with something in this late music, and this is what Feldman would refer to as the ‘Abstract Experience’: this temporal and formal experience that will bind the viewer and object, even if momentarily. It is both a process of absorption and yet a stepping back from the process of totally entering a world; it is marked by this split process between the opacity of material and the transparency of its various levels of signification. David Reed has also spoken of this process, “Part of me would identify with the painting, as if I were inside it…another part of me would stay outside and watch what was happening. I felt split in two.”[xix]
Doubling, or twinned forms, is implied in many of the works under discussion – in Harris’ painting, Traveling Light (2008) for example, where one form sits above its inversion. Or, in Claude Temin-Vergez’s work, where the surface operates as both an articulated field which mirrors itself in various form of symmetries, and a place where individual refined traceries can be both lost and unraveled in the process of looking. Temin-Vergez develops forms that traverse identifications: from sexual connotation, through Baroque ornament, to formations of nature. Both the surface and image are, in this sense, metamorphic in their nature with forms constructed from a linearity that traces a force across the canvases. Meta Drawing #5 (2009) and Frame #2 (2009) both explore this relationship between this linear movement and accumulation of a symmetrical static web of intertwined lines which, in its mirroring or twinning, becomes a form – perhaps a vessel-like shape or a body of sorts. Another manifestation of Temin-Vergez’s work is a series of paintings that explore colour – here, the meandering linearity exists as the boundaries for specific colour relationships; overall, for a multi-chromaticism in fact. In this sense they are the necessary complement to the linear works. In Big Wave #3 (2008) we see this tension between the movement or flow of both drawing and colour that surge across the canvas, distorting and bending the implied space. This is not so much the encapsulation of the body but the presentation of a situation to effect the body.
More literal is Gourvil’s Eurostar (2007) a bold diagrammatic exposition in black and yellow of a sexualized body – a body of overlapping folds of flesh, a grotesque hybrid of hanging udders and protuberant lumps. Such an image might have a distant relationship to American artist Carroll Dunham’s almost obsessive concern with psycho-sexual imagery; his is a language of body parts and organs, in turn both graphically rendered and suggestive. In Dunham’s series of drawings Interiors (2004), the space of these interiors create uncomfortable environments for testicular forms and bulbous head-like shapes. It is a hybridized, fragmented figuration that informs Dunham, close at times to the late Guston. And both of these painters hover in the background as direct influences of both Gourvil and Xavier Drong. Drong creates a tension in his canvases between bodies (again this can be seen as a mirroring or twinning) whether literal or metaphoric – in the earlier work we find the repeated motif of two head-like forms are connected by a tongue; a sexualized connection that becomes, at times, violent. In the recent work, this dualism becomes more ambiguous - in that the canvas, though still conflicted or split in many ways, appears the result of a cartoon style explosion that ruptures the space, as in PBL-02 (2008). In colour and atmosphere, Drong’s canvases speak the language of the science fiction comic; transparently brushed and overlaid violets, reds, pinks, yellows and blues are reminiscent of the computerized colouration of graphic novels, while the confrontation itself has all the graphically exclaimed punch we expect from the comic book; these are virtual worlds of conflict, a visual sublimation of real terror.
The kind of drawing, albeit in its different ways to be found in Dunham, Gourvil, and Drong, has a distant echo in the work of Geoffroy Gross. In the latter’s case – the drawing of a line might have a hint of this notion of the body – in the untitled polyptyque (2009), for example, which forms an associative ‘tree’ or a ‘hand’. This particular form is held in check by the distribution of eight rectangles of colour, which collectively form a kind of colour chord. For Gross this drawing is not necessarily an image at all, but rather the realization of a tension that grows directly out of the process of making. It reflects the sorts of drawing processes that inform these polyptyques but are not necessarily traceable in the final work. In a photograph of this particular piece at an early stage, we can see a process of finding the form in an improvisatory way, which is then fixed, with the articulation of the line becoming very definite in the final paining processes. Gross’ grids are not only emblematic of modernism but also point to a game space that, for him, reflects the possibilities of abstraction at present: “to find a way” he has said, “to make abstract painting with all its history, and yet for it to remain open; a site of play.”[xx] For Gross, this is not simply a sense of ‘process painting’ – for example, in a very French lineage, to include the work of Francois Morellet or more recently Bernard Frize, who he sees as using process as an ‘end product’ to an extent. Rather, we might cite Sol Lewitt or Robert Mangold, where system can become an open game that moves towards a sense of clarity and lightness and, as Lewitt’s later works show, needn’t eschew aesthetic value or judgement.
In this context, it is how Gross moves through different spaces – from the space of drawing, through to the space of the wall, and finally to the spaces of his tableaux. As with all the painters discussed here, this kind of movement, how it is thought and framed, affects the way the painting operates, how the final arrested object that we perceive in the gallery or museum will compose itself; it is the movement through these spaces that also forms the crucial relationship of one painting to another, work in a broader sense. Each of these aspects constitute the work of painting, and they will frame the practice as a whole as well as its specific products; but what is it to work towards abstraction? Feldman, writing in the early 70’s, declared, “Years ago there were procedures, questions of what you were going to put in and what you were going to leave out. Today there is no ritualistic way to ‘get there’. It has to happen. It’s the immediacy that counts. Whether that immediacy takes ten minutes or ten years is irrelevant. The leap into the Abstract is more like going to another place where the time changes. Once you make the leap there are no longer any definitions.”[xxi]
Is it right to suggest a ‘moving, or working towards abstraction’? Perhaps that seems too much like a goal-orientated developmental process; or it insinuates abstraction as some sort of ideal (is this what Feldman had in mind?). We could say it is more a sense of orbit - an orbit around and through a set of practices, ideas, and outlooks that still provides a capacity for moving practice in itself. Any fantasy of purism or completion such as what drove certain notions of abstraction for so long would seem no longer viable or desirable. It is not a theory to be applied, nor is it a completely known or determined set of principles that are excavated from the dead, so to speak (“Once you make the leap there are no longer any definitions”). It is for each painter (and this is in the spirit of how Feldman discussed the Abstract) to find their own sense of abstraction through the processes of making – this is the only way to work beyond a deadening classification (the pointing to an ‘abstract painting’ or to talk generically of ‘abstract art’ – a museum of abstract art no less) and create a workable situation for abstraction in painting. “It has to happen” suggested Feldman implying that we can’t just figure it out without working through it in practice – I would agree.
David Ryan, London 2009
[i] Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics, Indiana University Press, 1976, p.5
[ii] Kobena Mercer ed., Discrepant Abstraction, 2006 InIVA, MIT Press, Cam. Mass. P.7
[iii] See Mali Morris: The Painterly and the Singular in Mali Morris, New Paintings, Angle Row Gallery, Nottingham , 2002
[iv] Meyer Schapiro, Recent Abstract Painting’, 1957, in Modern Art, 1979, Braziller Press, New York, p. 221
[v] Ibid. p. 218
[vi] Ibid. p. 223
[vii] Ibid. pp. 218-223
[viii] Turner prize Video, Tate Britain 2006
[ix] Interview with the author, ‘Visible thoughts’ in Art Papers, Sept. 2001, p.31
[x] Using the term icon is not without problems. It can be used, dismissively, as shorthand for a sense of religious reverence for the art object, as Jacques Ranciere has used it recently. In developing a classification of the operation of images within aesthetic practice, Jacques Ranciére suggests a tripartite model, which consists of: the naked image; the ostensive image; and the metamorphic image. Crudely, these might relate, in order, to the archival or aesthetic power of the raw image (or object); secondly, to an art of ‘pure presence’, and thirdly to the possibilities of transforming images already in circulation – suggesting simulation, appropriation etc. Of the second classification, which has a direct parallel to the above discussion, Ranciére uses Thierry du Duve’s curation of the exhibition Voici as an example, and refers to the fact that, “Presence opens out into presentation of presence. Facing the spectator, the obtuse power of the image as being-there-without-reason becomes the radiance of a face, conceived on the model of an icon, as the gaze of divine transcendence. […] The works of so many icons attesting to a singular mode of material presence, removed from the other ways in which in which ideas and intentions organize the data of sense experience.” But, as in the work presently discussed, there is movement between classifications and an iconic mode (thinking in terms not just of resemblance but also of a ‘readable face’, a repeatable sign) needn’t exclude other modes and references. ‘Presence’ (which also doesn’t necessarily follow from iconicity as I am using it) and ‘icon’ should cease to be triggers for simply sniffing out ‘reactionary’ aesthetic positions. See Jacques Ranciere, the Future of the Image, London/New York, 2009, p. 23
[xi] Yves–Alain Bois, ‘Painting as Model’ in Painting as model, MIT press 1990, p. 257
[xii] Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics, p.244
[xiii] ‘Mary Heilmann In Conversation’, in David Ryan, Talking painting, Routledge, London/New York 2002, p. 117
[xiv] Conversation with the author at La Transpallette, Bourges, 2009
[xv] ‘David Reed in Conversation’ in David Ryan, Talking Painting, p.202
[xvi] Jacques Ranciere, ‘The Surface of Design’ in the Future of the Image, p.91
[xvii] James Elkins, The Object Stares Back, Harcourt, New York, 1996, p.120
[xviii] Ibid. p.120
[xix] Qouted in Richard Schiff, ‘Love Her as Herself’ in David Reed - Leave Yourself Behind: Paintings and Special Projects, 1967-2005, Ulrich museum, Wichita state University, 2005, p.34
[xx] Conversation with Geoffroy Gross in his studio in Bourges, 2009.
[xxi] Morton Feldman, ‘After Modernism’ in Morton Feldman Essays ed. Walter Zimmerman, Cologne 1986, p.107