Thursday, 3 August 2017

Painting on the Edge:Demonstrations of Elasticity?

"Categories like painting have been kneaded and stretched and twisted in an extraordinary demonstration of elasticity" - Rosalind Krauss, 1979.

These are the words that greet you as you enter Painting on the Edge:A Historical Survey in Mayfair's Stephen Friedman Gallery. Krauss, an American art theorist, has sections on her Wikipedia page about Picasso's collages being explicable in terms of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure's ideas about the differential relations and non-referentiality of language, Jacques Derrida's grammatological idea of spacing, and a subsection heading of 'Translating ephemeralities into prose" so you know you're either gonna have to do a lot of work or go away scratching your head.

The overlying concept is that the curators have brought together works by a small group of artists (Alberto Burri and John Latham being the only two I'd previously been aware of) who have, in the post-war period, veered away from the traditional methods of painting by 'knotting or completely removing the canvas, using shaped stretchers, and testing alternative materials'. In contemporary art that seems to be almost the norm but the earliest works here date from the start of the sixties so they must've been something of a shock, or at least a novelty, at the time.

Alberto Burri - Bianco Plastica I (1961)

Gunther Uecker - Untitled (1962)

But more than half a century later does the shock of the new still work as the shock of the old? To be honest, not really. I found myself casting my eye over these pieces and, essentially, thinking they either looked nice or didn't look nice. I'm not totally sure if some of these artists were aiming for purely aesthetic, and adjectivally unimaginative, responses. Certainly if you take on board the theories of Krauss art works, or should work, on a much deeper level.

Further text applied to the wall claims that these post-war practioners 'sought to challenge existing modes of making art, particularly using performance in painting to make work that was relevant to a changing and disillusioned world'. Well, we're in a world like that again now so, perhaps, these pieces should've spoke a little louder to me.

Krauss had taken quite in interest in Jackson Pollock, believing his art to be both a culmination of modernist painting and a breakthrough to later developments and later artists like Andy Warhol and Richard Serra. Pollock died before the oldest work in this exhibition was made and, like Warhol and Serra, he was American and, it seems to me, it was in the US where the greatest breakthroughs in these new approaches to painting were pioneered. Taking that as a given this show can never hope to tell the whole story but viewed as an adjunct, rather than a comprehensive overview, it's quite a nifty, and informative, little thing.

Alberto Burri was associated with Italy's Arte Povera movement and was interested in the 'formal balance' that poor and industrial materials gave, Germany's Gunther Uecker used nails in his work to create unsettling, if strangely pretty, images, and John Latham (whose recent Serpentine show was a mix of the impenetrable and the curious) used singed books, wire, and plaster in 1963's Distress with the Law. Perhaps the Zambia born British conceptualist was commenting on the Nazi's book burning, he had commanded a motor torpedo boat in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in World War Two. 

John Latham - Distress with the Law (1963)

Howardena Pindell - Untitled (1977)

Though the wider meaning of Burri, Latham, and Uecker's works failed to really strike home with me they were at least interesting to look at and made me think. I'm afraid I couldn't get very excited about Howardena Pindell, Marcos Grigorian, or Harmony Hammond's efforts.

A simple Google search reveals that Pindell, a Philadelphian African-American, made some stunning works full of colour and life but, unfortunately, that's not what Stephen Friedman have gone for. Perhaps 1977's Untitled piece would've worked well in a retrospective of Pindell's work as a counter to her more illuminated pieces but in this show, without that context, it was very easy to dismiss.

The Iranian-American Grigorian and the Chicagoan Hammond, also, have made much more interesting works than Upstairs Downstairs (which looks like the underside of a trestle table) or Huichol (which looks like nothing very much at all, even less so in photographic representation) and again would've been served better by allowing the visitor to compare and contrast with the rest of their oeuvre.

Marcos Grigorian - Upstairs Downstairs (1968)

Harmony Hammond - Huichol (1975)

Carol Rama - Untitled (1977)

Carol Rama ploughed a similar furrow of minimalism in the seventies and the different shades of black used to build up her work have a certain sheen, glossiness, and allure to them. Much of the Italian self-taught artist's work was underpinned with an almost aggressive eroticism and peppered with references to female sexuality and sensuality and, as such, it provides a bridge between the rather dreary minimalist straw and burlap of Grigorian to the more colourful, more sensuous, and livelier, Japanese group of artists.

Tsuyoshi Maekawa was a member of the Gutai Art Association, Japan's most significant avant-garde collective of the post-war era, Kimiyo Mishima is a contemporary ceramicist who uses newspapers and magazines in her work, and Sadaharu Horio's Failure to the Tableau Thought bulges out from the plywood canvas, bound by string and bulging with pieces of cloth like an inversion of a surrealist classic.

There's very little information available on these artists, or at least I can't find it, but between them they add a huge dash of colour, some passion, and I guess a sense of otherness, to this otherwise quite monochrome experience.

Tsuyoshi Maekawa 1963 G 100-3 (1963)

Kimiyo Mishima - Push-A (1965)

Sadaharu Horio - Failure to the Tableau Thought (1970)

With Eleanore Mikus, Ted Stamm, and Zilia Sanchez it seems that monochrome would be a decadence, something ghastly that only a show-off would indulge in. These works are grouped together in a small area that could almost belong in a tile showroom. Mikus and Stamm are both Americans and Sanchez was born in Cuba but permanently settled in Puerto Rico in the early 70s.

Mikus' work, it has been written, is said to have been made in the minimalist style but that it contradicts that style's coldness and distance though I can't say I felt a lot of warmth. Stamm's work is preferable, Sanchez's better still. Stamm took influence from graffiti and baseball and then, over the years, narrowed that down so that only trace levels, ghostly memories, were left. Sanchez stretched canvas over hand moulded wooden armatures and painted them with acrylic to create soft, rounded shapes that dimly, as if the light's gone out and the passion has gone, echo the Japanese artists' more fully pronounced voluptuousness.

Eleanore Mikus - Tablet 142 (1965-1966)

Ted Stamm - 78WW-9 (1978)
Ted Stamm - 78WW-6 (1978)

Zilia Sanchez - Lunar VI (1986)

Sergio Camargo and Jorge Eielson do the best work with this pared-down, barely there aesthetic. Brazil's Camargo, who died in 1990, said of his reliefs "Perhaps innate, these structures derive from their own anteriorities or interiorities, however you wish… They are only what they know how to be" which is nearly as confusing as some of Krauss' art theory but doesn't detract from the fact that his work catches the eye and holds its attention. It's kind of beautiful and ugly at the same time, like Uecker's nails but more so, and I'm torn between being repulsed by it and wanting to caress my hand over it.

The quipus of Peruvian Eielson holds no such quandaries. It's a piece of rare beauty. The twisted linen stretched over the panel is said to refer to an ancient Andean memory device of 'talking knots'. Eielson, born in Lima in 1924, moved in that city's artistic and literary circles but also had a great knowledge of ancient Peruvian civilisations. By combining what may appear to be two very disparate sources he was able to make a work that spoke both of modern and ancient Peru. It opens you up to an investigation of his antecedents and influences, it makes you interested, and it looks great too. In fact by making it look good Eielson has made us more interested in the concept that lies behind his work. That's something some of the other artists in this mixed but intriguing show might've taken on board.

Sergio Camargo - Relief No.324 (1970)

Jorge Eielson - Quipus 49-C1 (1973)

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