What is the position of abstract critical within what might be called, oxymoronically, the mainstream avant garde? Does abstract art, in the conception normally put forward on this site, have any place at all within contemporary critical discourse, or is it doomed (or blessed) to eternal ideological irrelevance?
Two exhibitions in London at the moment exemplify the terms in which abstract painting may be allowed in to the discursive tent. David Webb and Robert Holyhead are ‘contemporary’ artists in a way that in a way that Douglas Abercrombie and Peter Hide at Poussin Gallery are, for better or worse, not. Central to the difference lies in Dan Sturgis’s phrase about works that are “representations of abstract paintings’’. This is what makes them, in the eyes of post-structuralist critics, ambitious – and in formal critical terms, hopelessly unambitious.
There is a more-or-less unbridgeable gulf here between the basic assumptions surrounding aesthetics, epistemology and indeed what work of art actually is and can be, most of which turns on changes in the critical consensus some time after Jasper John’s final literalisation of the picture surface. Not since then has the meaning of a painting been looked for primarily in its specific unmediated visual properties, or in the phenomenological encounter with the individual viewer. The languages of what could be called, for simplicity’s sake, conceptualism and formalism are wholly incompatible; attempts have been made in discussions on this site to conflate them, to apply the criteria of one to the products of another, and the result was epistemological gridlock. The embrace of metaphor, symbolism, and the wonders of the free floating signifier is also the rejection, the antithesis, of the modernist project that informs most of the writing on this site. What you see, to contradict Stella, is not what you get. What you get are cues – triggers for cultural or ontological interpretation.
As artists working to a large degree within this consensus, David Webb essentially uses abstract painting as a vehicle for sociological and narrative content, and Robert Holyhead makes ontological investigations into the indexical traces of oil paint left by moving a loaded brush over canvas. Both artists’ paintings are read for significance outside of their strictly visual content – they are the sort of paintings that are at ease with the interpretative economy of the signifier, and the contemporary critical framework that’s been built around it. Both are mainstream and progressive.
David Webb’s paintings at Transition gallery are all small (mostly about 30 by 40cm), unassertive, tonally subdued (soft greys and olives, the most muted of oranges) and gesturally pellucid; quite nice, to borrow a critical term from Rosalind Krauss. The acrylic paint is uniformly thin, though occasionally some grit has been added to give a little more body, and the forms are clearly defined but ambiguous. Some of them suggest landscape, or unreadable objects, or a kind of generic geometric abstraction. What they don’t do is form a sustained visual exploration- compositionally, spatially, there’s not actually much to connect them. The reason for this is that they are in fact synechdoches for an autobiographic narrative that we learn about in the gallery blurb, and the relationship between the pictures and the particular memory that’s their trigger is opaque without these accompanying explanations. Eleanor Moreton writes about the pictures ‘’transcending abstraction’’. ‘Pachyderm’, a pooled pale grey blob on a dark grey ground, is an abstraction of a toy elephant given to Webb by his Grandmother; some curving blue shapes on a white ground (‘Tourist Smoking Room’) are, apparently, the legs of the chairs in a Tanzanian waiting room; the geometric abstractions are in fact based on a pacheesi board – also a childhood memory of Africa. The board is spatially opened out in the painting (‘Parcheesi VT), in a kind of reversal of Jasper Johns’ dense and haptic targets- but I’m not sure how much significance this has. Likewise, what is the relationship between the sentimental memory of the toy elephant in ‘Pachyderm’, and the painting, which without the parallel information is unrecognisably abstract? The elephant is subsumed into the pictorial concerns of the painting.
Eleanor Moreton delights in this investment of meaning into what she seems to see as the communicative shortcomings of abstraction, and goes into some detail in her essay about Webb’s childhood biography; so the discourse accepts the apparently abstract format of the art, because it can be made to signify a story that can give it meaning about memory, family, even colonialism. These themes are interesting, even if abstract painting isn’t. Consequently if a painting looks a little uninventive or over-determined there’s an escape hatch; they can’t quite escape the formal arbitrariness of their sources, but they don’t need to. A certain formal arbitrariness is part of their meaning: transcending the visual.
Robert Holyhead transcends the visual too, in his exhibition at Karsten Schubert. He uses the provisionality of his disinterested, generic paint application to attempt a kind of reification of doubt, stripping the means of painting down to the basics in a Cartesian search for the bottom line. ‘’What is painting’’, he asks in an interview. His answer seems to be ‘not very much’.
Many of the paintings are as small as Webb’s – that awkward size that can be too immediately graspable, too object-like, to allow room for the passage of time or movement in its perceptions. Sign-like, in other words. They also share Webb’s thin, liquid paint application, but used to make closed, self-reflexive meta (or sub) paintings – simulacra. Abstract painting as a tool for the investigation of its own ontology of facture. Naturally, their utility as a philosophical tool is in inverse proportion to their visual complexity.
Every painting uses the same technique: a thin monochrome layer of oil paint is brushed, smeared or pushed around on a glossy white ground, the paint just thick enough to bear the traces of the brush, cloth or finger Holyhead uses to make his meta-gestures (brushmark as readymade?). Round or straight-edged areas are removed using a cloth to reveal the white base as a negative shape. Callum Innes uses the same technique of accretion and removal, though his paintings seem to evoke the Romantic Sublime by comparison. The colours in this show don’t have Webb’s overarching tonal sensibility though– they feel arbitrary. Saturated red or blue, watery pastels, lemon yellow, black, washed-out grey; and since colour works through its relationships to other colours, the single hue of each painting is like a simple fact without significance – another readymade. Equally fruitless, for me, was the attempt to find any meaningful formal sense in the arrangements of bared white areas, which merely seem to make up an indexical list of possible arrangements – some symmetrical, some unbalanced. It’s true that the ‘holes’ have an ambiguous spatial relationship to the colour around them, sitting in front of, but also cutting through the surrounding paint; and several paintings go as far as combining more than one type of mark – a long straight swipe forming a border, say- but the much discussed dialogues with the history of abstraction remain tantalisingly difficult to find.
Consequently, they remind me of someone repeatedly clearing their throat but never actually saying anything.
It’s interesting that, along with ruminating on the semiotics of paint, and searching for hermeneutical clues in the bleeds of paint on the stretcher edges, art professionals spend quite a lot of their time promoting the formal, visual qualities of Holyhead’s paintings- though in such airy and generalised terms that it really doesn’t help. Another example, perhaps, of categorical confusion, or maybe the critical trope of seeing visual sensitivity as adding a subsidiary charm to the serious work of interrogating the subject, like the colourful cover on a philosophical treatise. But then, if you were to take the expressive possibilities of abstract painting at all seriously, one that’s a simulacra of itself, or a synecdoche of the concept of abstract painting in general, would almost certainly be simply a bad abstract painting.
So these two artists are working within our artistic paradigm because they transcend, to repeat Eleanor Moreton’s phrase once again, the abstract; they work within the consensus that meaning lies largely outside the direct phenomenological experience of the painting and art is a network of codified meanings invoked by visual signifiers. Under this conception, the evaluative means used by most contributors to abstract critical- essentially pre-Post-Modern, and more often than not, using Matisse as a lodestone as the essential Modernist – are not just inadequate, but regressive, even reactionary. But then Matisse is the least relevant, most intractable Modernist for contemporary theory, for exactly the same reasons that he’s so revered by Abercrombie and the sort of painters represented by the Poussin Gallery – he is, to use Duchamp’s term of contempt, the most ‘retinal’ of painters.
Of course, there’s nothing especially natural about abstraction, or art that eschews symbolic content. Children paint symbols, not what or how they see, and most pre-Modern art is a hugely complex synthesis of truly visual content with the symbolic demands of the culture. High Modernism emphasised the former against the increasing corruption of the latter, and now the pendulum has swung comprehensively the other way. Now the visual is capable of only mimesis and decoration without a concomitant verbal explication to give it significance. Moreover, it’s a discourse that hints at an almost Hegelian historical determinism which denies the possibility of engaging with the art of the past on its own terms; the history of art is viewed as a series of long-exhausted strategies. Gary Wragg’s phrase, from his abstract critical piece about Turner, Monet and Twombly- “…of their time but as timeless as the first handprint on a cave wall made forty thousand years ago..”- is an anti-historicist offence to all neo-structuralist art theory, and an apologia for cultural necrophilia. It exemplifies as much as anything the ‘outsider’ position of abstract critical, how wide the gulf is between it and the zeitgeist.
Such assumptions about psychological continuity are usually now associated with a conservative rather than a progressive view of the contingency of human nature; likewise, Emyr Williams’ metaphor of the corkscrew to represent the teleology of art history is wholly opposed to the determinism of the current critical model. These are counter-revolutionary thoughts, whether in a spirit of combat or of lofty detachment, by artists who are, in terms of the mainstream, regressive or naive. But whether regressive or not (and the meaning of this is mutable in an art-world where radical iconoclasm is ubiquitously institutionalised), there’s progressive value in the search for objective sensory facts as a basis for broader judgements, in the context of a curious consensus of unchallenged assumptions, false rigour and breathless subjectivity. Whilst Webb can enlist the warm aura of childhood memory to underpin his paintings, and Holyhead invoke a weighty simulation of philosophical enquiry, the attempt to pare painting and sculpture to the self-evident facts, not in the sense of Greenberg’s reductive literalism but in a spirit of clear-eyed exploration, can’t meaningfully be labelled a dead strategy of the past. Which is not to say that any of the ‘retinal’ abstract painting discussed on this site has escaped from Matisse’s shadow, or, in fact, that painting itself has any claim to eternal privilege in the technological flux.
Robert Holyhead: New Paintings in on at Karsten Schubert until the 11th of January. David Webb: Tourist Smoking Room is on at Transition Gallery until the 25th of November. There is a Pdf of Eleanor Moreton’s essay on the Transition Gallery website.