Thursday, 10 February 2011

Abstract Critical Launches at the London Art Fair

This year’s London Art Fair (19th- 23rd January 2011) hosted the press and public launch of abstract critical. We held a stand with Poussin Gallery, hosts of the first abstract critical sponsored exhibition High-abstract, which runs from 11th February – 13th March ( for more details).
The fair showed the work of 124 galleries from all over the country to an estimated 25,000 visitors over five days. A preview of some of the works from High-abstract were on display at the London Art Fair, and during the week we were also visited by some of the artists involved who were able to talk to visitors directly about the works on show, as well as the exciting plans abstract critical has for the coming months.
You can read a review of abstract critical’s stand at the fair and a preview of High-abstract by Bethany Rex in this month’s Aesthetica Magazine.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Gary Webb at the Approach- Is it Abstract?

I recently visited Gary Webb’s solo show, ‘Key Largo’ at The Approach, London. This was my first exposure to his work in the flesh, and after reading a seemingly contradictory range of descriptions of his practise I did not know what to expect. It is clear that the work is driven by materiality, and definitely not figurative, yet my first question was; is it abstract? For some, ‘abstract’ is a very pure concept, and deviations on the theme render themselves invalid. For others it’s more of a grey area- a notion to be played with. But the Tate’s description of Webb’s work as ‘mixing abstraction with geometry and synthetic found objects with invented forms, he has created an unique hybrid language of his own’ (Tate Collection, ‘Gary Webb’, Elizabeth Manchester, 2004) left me confused. Is abstraction the merely a stylistic device, like geometry, that can be used in this way?

My first impression of the three works in the space was of disappointment, and mild irritation. I had come wanting to know who Gary Webb was, and what his work was about. However the works were so separate, so distinct from one another that any kind of conclusion was impossible to draw.
The first work, Miami Poo Pipe (2010) was a large, cast aluminium shape, a little like a distorted streetlight. This was painted white, and in places with camouflage patches, which apparently were changing colour in response to heated areas within. The base of this rose up like an egg cup, holding a bulbous piece of blown-glass containing distilled water.
The second, Dorset Knob (2010) comprised of four panels of bricks, which had been attached to metal supports and hung on the wall, so as to look like fake brickwork. Rising up out of the brickwork was the outline of the cartoon character Calvin (from the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons by Bill Watterson) urinating over the adjacent panels.
The final piece, Tom’s Music (2010) is based on a four-sized glass trapeze with a collection of yellow brick (or stone) pieces stacked on top. Resting on these is an organic, shiny pink shape with a hole in it, and protruding from the right of the piece is a mirrored shelf, supporting a globular transparent orange form.  

There was a laughing evasiveness throughout; a sense that Webb was refusing to be categorised, refusing to assume any pretentions that the work had any meaning beyond the sum of its parts. The press release was an irreverant interview with the artist, where he deliberately avoids associating his work with any external ideas.
‘What about the Calvin cartoon character?’ ‘I don’t know anything about him’. ...
‘What were you doing in Woolwich [where you first got the idea for your sculpture ‘Dorset Knob’]?’ ‘Buying toilet roll.’

However, he talks enthusiastically about the materials he uses, all of which are extremely specific and bespoke. What struck me though, as I spent time with the works, was how well made they were, and how thoughtfully they’d been put together. These were not experimental combinations which had been toyed with in a studio- these were manufactured artefacts, made to specification. Every facet was the result of a considered decision.
It is hard to find any writing about Gary Webb that isn’t predominantly descriptive. Aside from the materials of which the works are made, it’s very difficult to speak about what they actually are. Any attempts to assign significance to the elements of the work are quickly brushed aside by the light-hearted titles and the deliberate arbitrariness of his selections. Nevertheless, this rejection of external associations makes you really look at the work in front of you- the colours, textures, and forms and enjoy them on a purely material level. They are simply a juxtaposition of sculptural ideas, and viewed in this light, they’re fresh, fun and eloquent.
However, Webb doesn't let you off the hook quite this easily. I suspect the image of Calvin (the only part of the show which is overtly figurative) exists to confound any conclusions that this is pure abstract materiality, and is deliberately included as a symbol of the ‘non-abstract’. “His art resists description. He's an abstract sculptor, but there are representational elements in his work. He's a pop artist for the 21st century, but with a retro-aesthetic looking back to the 1960s”. (Richard Dorment, ‘Driven to Bliss’ The Telegraph, 2004) As for the matter of whether or not it is abstract- his clear refusal to be drawn one way or the other speaks for itself. Any discussion of his work within the notion of the pure abstract must surely be irrelevant.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Artwork looking inwards- a solitary practise?

When walking through an exhibition such as the Bloomberg New Contemporaries (initially at the A Foundation in Liverpool, now open at the ICA until January) my first instinct was to attempt to summarise the works included. I wondered what it said about contemporary art today, and as an artist- how I fitted in to the ‘scene’, as it was presented.
However, it soon became apparent that with such a broad and exciting range of artwork on display, it would be futile to try and declare an overriding theme or style. These artists are career-minded, and fully aware of the dangers of being associated with anything as temporary as the fashionable. As a result, there was very little work which could comfortably be categorised at all. Nearly all works had a wide range of references and influences; they were keenly individual and highly reluctant to be a part of a pre-existing conversation.
The notable exceptions to this rule were the abstract paintings of Alice Browne and Ian Homerston. These works boldly acknowledged their nature as abstract paintings, yet they were small and subtle works- gently explorative and questioning in their style. There were no large, high impact paintings in the show at all. Is this the taste and preferences of the selectors, or truly reflective of the work young artists are making today?
Alice Browne’s work was immediately distinctive from the other work in the lower galleries of the ICA, as almost the only colour in the room. These works were quick to halt any attempts to search for external subject matter, forcing you to dwell on their making: the colours, forms, gestures and the illusory tricks you allowed them to play with you. The paintings made you fully aware of the fact that you were looking inwards –at them- rather than being re-directed to outside ideas.
You could compare this to the work of Nathan Barlex for example, whose work was perhaps more typical of the way most of the other artists in the show used paint. It was not seen as a thing-in-itself, but simply another tool, or reference point in the complex web of associations which make up his work. Throughout the show there were frequent uses of found objects and pop culture artefacts, alongside other languages and the work of other thinkers or writers. As a viewer you are left piecing together parts of a perhaps deliberately incomplete jigsaw puzzle.
The self-contained and introspective nature of the work of the two abstract painters was also distinctive in one other artist- Caline Aoun, whose work I particularly enjoyed. The two works shown by Caline Aoun were inkjet prints onto paper; process based and abstract in appearance. One, ‘At A Glance’ was a long strip of newsprint, perhaps 8 feet in length, which gradually changed colour from flesh pink to dove grey. It appeared to have been made in one effort, though this is hard to believe as the minute gradations between the blending colours are impossible to distinguish. The work was graceful and eloquent and seemed to be of a different pace to the other works in the room. The use of a less-traditional medium meant that it somehow fitted into the curation slightly easier than Alice Browne’s paintings- yet both seemed at odds, and somewhat isolated amongst the other, more confrontational works.
Both Alice Browne and Ian Homerston’s work were hung in tight, secluded clusters, as though the curators were almost afraid to let them interact with rest of the room. The fragile layering of Ian Homerston’s work seemed to suffer most from this hanging method, as a tentative, exploratory mark became a repeated pattern when five works were pushed so close together. I really enjoyed these quiet, challenging paintings, and would have preferred to have seen three rather than five- in order to give them space to breathe. These tight groupings also enhance the isolation of these artists from the rest of the pack.
So was this simply a side-effect of this particular exhibition, or will these inward-looking artists always struggle to be fully integrated in non-abstract shows? Looking inwards turns the artist away from the world, and as a result away from collaborations and interactions. Is the abstract artist destined by nature to be the solitary outsider, or can they function within surveys such as New Contemporaries? I would welcome your thoughts.