Peter Halley’s latest show at Waddington Custot coincides with the death of a certain Margaret Thatcher. One could be forgiven for suffering the terrible delusion of being dragged (kicking and screaming) down Cork St and back through time straight into the 1980s! So here goes a little time travel of my own to set the scene for some thoughts on Halley’s new work and the pros and cons of his influence since that decade.
Neo Conservatism Strikes Back…
A [not so] long time ago in an art world [not so] far, far away…
Once the 1st wave of Abstract Expressionism and then Post Painterly Abstraction had been over taken by Pop, Minimalism, Conceptualism and Deconstruction, the 80s saw Neo Expressionism taking centre stage in the media and the marketplace. This was part of an almighty conservative back-lash echoed in the wider culture of the 1980s both by an imploding, nihilistic Left (probably best exemplified by the writings of Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio) and the rise of a neo-conservatism busily mining the ‘failures’ of the social and political experimentation of the 60s for future political capital.
So how did abstract painting deal with these challenges? How did it begin to assimilate these paradigm shifts? Halley responded with a form of painting which takes the notion of ‘abstraction’ as a kind of host or petri dish in which to grow conceptual strategies; and as a model from which to produce ever more sophisticated illustrations of a single idea. It is an idea about self and identity (or lack of?) that has its roots in the alienation inherent to the dark side of modernity. We get the rhetoric of a dystopian urbanism tinged with a jaded pop sensibility. Rather than non-referential the work represents ‘systems’ – it is symbolic of social control and the networks that supposedly control our western cultural and financial centres. His painterly narrative seems strangely prophetic, intensified by the mass availability of computer technology. What might of been another ‘end game’ for painting has been transformed by new generations of artists into many new games now being played out between the screen and the canvas.
Halley repeats endless variations on this visual/historical frisson and creates psychological resonances from simple, almost playful juxtapositions. For this show he is really pushing the boat out by allowing his Roll-a-Tex ‘prisons’ and ‘cells’ to float or sit suspended by ‘conduits’ in artificial skies! See ‘Glee’ for example. The colours remind one of an infant’s first toys. The titles of the pieces are appropriated from cable TV dramas. High Abstract, harangued by High Theory and tickled by High Camp – a flirtatious threesome that seems to have been an ongoing fascination for certain abstract painters (especially for the geometrically inclined) for the last 20 odd years… See The Indiscipline of Painting.
For all their critical strategies Halley’s paintings are also continual reworkings of a highly personalised visual vocabulary. Halley’s ‘brand’ is in overdrive. Here lies the tension for me as we look back at Halley’s career and those of others similarly turbo-charged by early success in the 80s. Behind Halley’s repetitive illustrations of a critical-theoretical position is a very particular stymied tragic/comic narrative. It’s the same old story of modernism’s questing and pioneering spirit unraveling.
I would hope that we’ve got past all that. An ironic and parodic approach to abstraction and its simulations might have seemed appropriate in the face of Neo Expressionism’s over-whelming conservative, historicist revival of notions of individual genius and willful self expression – so prevalent in the excesses of the elites rising to power in the 80s. But Halley and other artists of his generation personify a ‘passive aggressive’ relationship to a notion of modernity’s past that has itself (rather ironically) set a historical precedent. Are attitudes to abstraction now still somehow caught up in Halley’s pop ennui? A seductive and toxic side effect of Warhol’s legacy? Maybe. Certainly since the 80s Halley’s ironic and referential strategies have dominated the way we think about abstract art and its histories. This tactical and critical approach to abstract painting is underpinned by a reassertion of the pivotal power of language in the making and understanding of art, a media savvy complicity with the market, and a re-evaluation of the duplicitous aura of art object as commodity. But it is also a standard model that promotes pragmatism over action, careerism over politics, hands off nihilism over engaged agency.
Neo-Geo’s value for painting was that it took up the challenge of questioning the tenants of ‘High Modernism’ from ‘inside’ abstract painting – pulling abstract art down a peg or two, rubbing its face in the ‘real’. But ‘the real’ according to some artists seems to be everyday job of making art and selling it: the mundane realities of art-making become conflated with the ‘hyper’ reality of the artist as celebrity or cultural theoretician. It’s a glib, academic and pragmatic approach to process that enforces a cynical stereotype of artist as ‘player’, as arch strategist riding the bloodied surf in the ebb and flow of shark infested capital. In other words it personifies a certain mind set that echoes through the 80s of ‘Wall St’ and Thatcherism right into the present day. Halley sends these uneasy thoughts backwards and forwards down his conduits between prisons and cells. I just hope he hasn’t locked us all up for good in his endless maze of Roll-a-Texed 80s motel rooms.