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.