3 part peice
Past Incursions 2
Holyhead - Untitled
NoVisible Means of Support
Ten years ago I interviewed a group of painters in New York, which included Mary Heilmann, David Reed, Jonathan Lasker, Shirley Kaneda, Jessica Stockholder, Fabian Marcaccio, Tom Noszkowski and Gary Stephan. In the early 1990s the visibility of what was referred to as ‘New Forms in Abstraction’ (featuring many of the above) allowed a certain reopening of issues around abstraction, together with questions about how these might be theorised. Perceptually, the work was eclectic and often decorative, engaging with what Mary Hellmann had called, “all that bad stuff that wasn’t considered serious.” Many of these artists were engaged with a critical dialogue with the inherited narratives of abstraction – serious enough as it turned out - and as a consequence re-investigating one of the driving forces of modernism itself. What happened to these debates? Are they at all relevant to the present situation? Here, I want to look at the work of a diverse group of practitioners – not necessarily ‘abstract’ in the conventionally understood sense of the word, but none-the-less positioning their practice in relation to a notion of abstraction.
Looking back, one of the reasons for abstract painting’s lack of visibility in the 80s was the voracious appetite for an almost ‘pure representation’ and its related interpretative tools. With the 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 Greenberg and 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 90s practitioners of abstraction – though not a coherent group – had also inverted many of those formalist signposts. The reciprocal unity of object and perceiver was questioned, and the connotations of autonomy, reduction and ‘essence’ 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. Although, some commentators argued this was not an abstraction at all – but simply a gathering of historically mediated and representational ‘cues’. Such an argument leads to the sometimes fruitless and circular discussions of what, technically speaking, abstraction actually is. Leaving this thorny question aside, let it suffice to say that abstraction in the present context will be seen as, in the words of Kobena Mercer, “A disruptive agency” – whether literally, spatially, or in relation to its specific or global meaning. “When viewed in the round” Mercer states, “abstraction’s defining quality is its openness” It is an increased sensitivity to this openensss (in contradistinction to any “quasi-monotheistic” paradigm). And rather than any rigid demarcation between abstraction and representation, it is this openness that allows an increased concentration on form and its engagement with historical and contextual meanings. Together with this, is to be added the possibility of each work participating in fluid states that develop transitions between material, sign and recognition.
On one level a notion, or possibility, of ‘post-formal’ abstraction still engages with these issues. Ten years on, its practices are more diffuse, less likely, and less defensively, to be found in the ghetto of ‘abstract painting’ shows. It remains an articulation of ‘relative autonomy’ – that is, a more dialectical interface between the thing, the imagination, and the world, or its signs and codes, at large – that defines the approach. The medium itself is neither an opaque source of meaning in itself, nor some transparent plane that allows access to the psyche or intentionality of the artist, and yet still figures as a site of investigation. Hence the traditional poles of abstraction as expressivity or pseudo-scientific materialism would appear to have been both rendered redundant by current circumstances. Somewhere between, or even beyond these poles, lays the possibility of abstraction as an active working upon the real - as an interception or intervention, a ‘disruptive agency’. Think of Helio Oiticica’s magnificent yet flawed and ultimately unrealised project, stemming originally from a Latin American assimilation of concrete art and concluding with an attempt to insert his abstractions into the fabric (literally) of the everyday. Oiticica’s concerns with architectural space, incorporating found objects and video, damn the previously polite ‘cultural domestication’ of abstraction, and at the same time articulates a series of ‘unreadable’ or at the very least highly unstable signs. 30 years on from Oiticica’s experiments we can sense that the particular openness he was advocating is more commonplace. Not that this kind of installational practice replaces painting or sculpture, but there is something about a notion of an ‘augmented’ abstraction that might be resonant. How individual pieces require articulation within an ensemble; how images, or recognisable objects or representations can be used in such a way that they are ‘filtered’ through an abstract approach. Sculpture, significantly absent from any recent re-investigation of abstraction, would seem at present buoyant. Artists like Eva Rothschild whose intriguing combination of both geometric and ‘organic’ form, playfully enlist the relationships between mass, space and viewer. Perhaps this resurgence in sculpture is because of the issue of space in all its guises and registers – rather than its suppression or approximation to the flat surface - appears once again central to developing issues of form. Vanessa Billy is another artist who seems to encapsulate a new found freedom to think across surfaces, appearances, representations and develop an intense dialogue with the viewer, as in works such as Agnostics, 2006. Billy’s sensibility to draw things together – a static version of cinematic montage in telescoping events within narrative – has also found its way into an artist’s book entitled, No Visible Means of Support. The images are carefully held together ordered in a poetic yet highly formal means of connecting and visually thinking across the appearance of different materials – whether adverts, ethnographic images, or original photos. The interweaving of these textual layers create a marvellous counterpoint, translating them from one context to another. This transposition of each element, akin to a ‘dÈtournement’ inverts our usual relationship to these images enabling a new formal communication between things, objects and images. Billy’s enunciations of ‘impossible’ spaces bring spatial contradictions out into the open, into free play. They represent fragments of perceived, staged, lived spaces, allowed a momentary interpenetration that the ‘abstract’ world of administered spaces disallows.
Another sculptor, Sam Porritt, also exhibits a strong connection to formal sculpture and displays familiarity with a wide range of modernist practices while also attempting something outside of the range of the latter. Porritt’s trajectory takes in melting portrait heads (rather like a latter day Medardo Rosso), minimalist structures and almost ‘formless’, un-nameable stuff. Porritt’s recent installation, Hard & Fast, Soft & Gentle, shows how, like Billy, he is essentially thinking across materials and forms. As a foil to a disparate collection of objects within the space Porritt spread out a chain, across the join of wall and floor, of pastel coloured visually soft (but in fact physically hard) forms. Somewhere between a draft excluder and elongated beanbag, these forms exhibit a Guston-like sensibility in their lumpen physicality; and also construct a peripheral frame to the harsher structures occupying the room. There is a theatricality to Porritt’s work (exemplified by the address of the components of the piece to one another – and on a literal level by the presence of theatrical masks) that catches the viewer in a kind of cross–fire of glances. If his sculptures develop a space, it is one that oscillates between the optical and the embodied. Yet this kind of address, in both Billy’s and Porritt’s work (different as they are) locates the viewer within the work itself, either via the work of imagining, perceiving or literally being in it. What differentiates this work from other installational approaches is the way it figures a viewer singularly rather like the medium of painting does. Neither artist, while interested in relationships and connections, succumbs to what Nicolas Bourriaud has called the “’network mode’ in the handling of artistic work”. Here, as in Bourriaud, interactive and ‘transactive’ approaches become a kind of capitalistic Marxism, transferring the language of business to radical ends. As laudable as much of this activity is, it can also fetishize contexts and relationships to the extent that absolutely nothing is transformed or changed, so long as some collective activity is figured. Of course, interesting work can operate within this arena, but it is perhaps the notion that the singular perceiver rather than the socially positioned event can also have access to radicality, one which doesn’t partake solely in either idea or narrative as pre-givens, and without flagging up the mechanisms of everyday interchange. I have pointed out elsewhere the composer Morton Feldman’s suggestion that abstraction was in fact a “consciousness”, a thread between viewer and artwork: “The most difficult thing in art is to keep intact this consciousness of the abstract.”
Dee Reynolds, writing on earlier manifestations of abstraction and the influence of symbolism, has written on this ‘address’ of abstraction not only to the viewer but also to space of the imagination “The long held associations between image and representation of known objects and between imagination and subject-centred philosophies have led to the view that that the ‘imaginary’ is incompatible with subversive signifying processes. […] it is possible to conceive of imagination as an activity which is stimulated by the medium itself to defy conceptual definition and synthesis.” This perhaps comes close to what Feldman meant, as Reynolds further elucidates, “reflexivity enables the receiver to be positioned both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ imaginary space, becoming […] both actor and spectator, conscious of the ephemeral and fictive status of imaginary space, which none the less infinitely expands the possibilities of the medium.” While this describes perfectly well the position of the viewer in Porritt’s and Billy’s work, we could also apply this sense of ‘augmented medium’ to paintings such as Christopher Hawtin’s. Here, the surfaces of the two variant paintings, Past Incursions 1 and 2 owe as much to the big screen as the surface of painting. Hawtin’s paintings are haunted by imagery (often the landscapes of a war-zone, or the sci-fi catastrophe) and develop a spatiality that alludes to depths and clearings, in such a way that evokes sensations of being both distanced observer and participant. Hawtin has spoken of the importance for the painting “not to be flat space”, and the floating ribbons of painterly gesture undercut any possibility of this happening. Knotted textures evoke unstable viral and extra-pictorial sensations in these works. As Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe has pointed out, “we are in a way less interested in the phenomenal space we occupy than we are in the surfaces that both make up our world and through which we spend so much time looking at (an image of) it.” Hawtin reveals his imagery and explosive handling of it through this screen-space, reminiscent as it is, of a camera caught in the action, as in those moments where the illusion of the invisible lens becomes compromised.
On another level, both Sharon Hall’s and Robert Holyhead’s paintings explore a different kind of physicality of the surface. In Hall’s case, these are not screen-like, but barely contained boundaries of colour; Hall is interested in early Italian painting and its modes of illusion, viewing positions and, within the baroque, disruptive spaces. In Three–part Piece, 2006, Hall allows a literal and physical articulation of space reveal itself, playing with the overlay of canvas panels. Saturated colour forms dominate the exterior panels as in literalised cartoon cloud forms straddling a concentrated knotted calligraphic central motif. But, rather like the frescoes of Domenichino, one space reveals another in order to puncture an otherwise comfortable reading of a unified representational plane. Robert Holyhead’s spaces, of all the work discussed, requires a consistency of surface that holds an extremely refined painterly sensibility. Grey 2007, denotes the twists and turns of brushstrokes that create a poised intersection of planes; and it is this balance that Holyhead pushes to an edge. Untitled of 2006 seems to, at first glance, begin with a unity and slowly dissolves it, each of its forms pushed to edge and yet occupying the space in a different way. Holyhead’s paintings seem – unlike the ‘big screen’ action of Hawtin, the theatricality of Hall and Porritt - to posit a viewer that requires an intimate relationship with these simple forms in order to experience a hovering balance slowly unfurling a contradiction of relations. Abstraction, for each of these artists, is part of a process; a development of viewing relations, other than origin (pre-given) or an end in itself.