Art criticism by Cherry Smyth

Amy Sillman, 'Landline' at Camden Arts Centre, 28 September, 2018 - 6 January, 2019
Published in Art Monthly, Issue 421, November, 2018

Amy SillmanAmy Sillman's dynamic, complex and bolshie show of recent work enacts a duet and a duel across a range of forms, including painting, drawing, silkscreen prints and video animation. The intimacy of the duet is played out in paintings like Avec, 2017, where harmony with the self or another is suggested by two bed-like shapes framing the top and bottom of a central formal set of calmly coloured green blocks or screens. A thin line links the 'beds', suggesting the landline of the show's title, but also an unperturbed connection across an urban landscape or an online existence. The painting is loosely layered, generous and confident, with fruitful tensions between smooth, aqua green and earthbound purple. The duel is however at this show's core. It gives its name to a painting of 2011, in which a pair of long gloves hangs suspended over the faint calligraphy of a crowd that seems crammed into an underground train, while the subject has abandoned the struggle. But Sillman doesn't give up without a fight. Throughout the works, protagonist and antagonist appear locked into their versions of each other: the protagonist often presented as a naked, prone female and the antagonist as a Pinocchio-nosed male, spewing vomit. With friction among the genders at a combustible height, Sillman invites us to enter the both funny and appalling stage of these dramas at a domestic and a political level.
           In many ways, Sillman could be called a non-binary painter, moving fluidly between abstraction and figuration, canvas and zine, hunting down that third or fourth space, complicating the restrictions of polarising definitions. She uses video animation to revisit Ovid's Metamorphosis and make fun with the ceaseless demand for the female persona's reinvention, just as poets from Anne Carson to Amy McCauley use classic dramatic forms to reinvigorate feminist poetics. In McCauley's Oedipa, for instance, it's an all-female cast but claustrophobic sexual ambivalences are rife:
           'I could never get under the/skin of/no/not properly/what is it I'm frightened for/the body's mystery/the buggering muchness of the world...'
           Corporeal mystery and data muchness vie for dominance in Sillman's works where a female figure often navigates the architectural interface of street, bedroom, desk. In Pink Ground, Face Down, 2017, a prone figure is slung over a table, its arm inert. Is the inanimate a prop or a trap? The landline has left the land; the treeline become a roofline; painting has morphed into HD; and the body reduced to a state of mechanical hopelessness or redundancy. The painting's compositional layering and scale can't be reconciled. The green portal is not an opening. Nothing holds up, but can't fully collapse. In TV in Bed, 2017-18, two horizontal bodies reach across a turquoise expanse towards an intimacy which is deferred or imagined. Are they estranged lovers, or merely a plasma reflection? This theme of failed interdependency is more starkly expressed in Back of a Horse Costume, 2015-16, where a lumpy, limp-legged form folds over a box, waiting to be animated and completed. The pantomime over, the truncated figure is immobilised by defeat, or disuse.
           The doubling trope recurs in Dub Stamp, 2018, a potent series of site-specific, large, two-sided drawings that span the gallery diagonally and builds on the force of an earlier sequence, Rebus for Camden, 2017-18. On one side, Sillman presents a bleak frieze of portraits in thick black ink, from the figure of the tyrannical, verbal splurger to the demeaned female subject, who crawls towards a disintegrating selfhood, her body shaken into scattered marks. On the reverse, Sillman has silkscreened abstract shapes, blocks of colour, pixelated dots over the outlined figures as if to redeem them, disguise their pain, alleviate the violence. In one image, reminiscent of Sigmar Polke, a figure, head-bent at a desk, is infiltrated with tens of black lines, webbing her to a wider set of complications, communications, fraught and monopolising. In another, the prone motif is empowered by red and a suggestion of a clenched fist rises above her. If the verso is the private reality, the recto is the public image to the world, meditating the media, the work persona, the redress of painting itself. To survive, the oppressed subject has to endure subjugation and its denial through defiant process, whether it is activism or art or both. What happens on the coloured, multi-layered reverse draws on the wit and vitality of Sillman's zines and animations, and celebrates the resonant rescue of art-making. This outstanding sequence coheres Sillman's methods and meanings, leaving a sense of indelible resistance.

Photo: Amy Sillman, 'Landline' at Camden Arts Centre

Magali Reus, 'As Mist, Description', South London Gallery, 23 Mar - 27 May, 2018
Published in Art Monthly, Issue 421, November, 2018

Magali ReusThe elaborate, meticulous and profound approach to materials shown in this exhibition gives Magali Reus the distinct aesthetic that earned her a nomination for the forthcoming Hepworth Sculpture Prize. If the show had a temperature it would be cool, but caring, prompting us to ask what assembly line produced these disparate metal frames and moulded plastic display units that are presented as high-tech, purposeful construction, but read as defunct.
            The show opens with 'Crane', (all works, 2017) that hovers between the human and the post-human, suggesting a reception desk in two parts, one at elbow height, recalling at once the ugly cream utilitarianism of the dole office or a Soviet Union travel bureau, and a fold-away bed, evoked by the ticking design along the bottom. A plastic, holey voice-guard, used at public counters like banks and post offices, is situated too low to function, making us realize the decline of that live interface in our daily lives. Some of the counter edges are worn suggesting over-use and a few fiberglass copies of ancient terracotta pots are set out, stamped with QR codes and auction lot numbers. The Country Without a Post Office (1997) was how poet Agha Shahid Ali described his native Kashmir and this reads like a counter without a country. There is a scattering of polystyrene S-shaped package fillers to prevent cracks in transit, reproduced in some hard and durable material. Grey reliefs jut out from the side of the counter with the word 'Hostelry' visible but reversed. Some sort of exchange happened here in this Argos of conceptualism: but what?
            'To prevent cracks in transit' seems an apt way to enter this, at times opaque, and densely coded exhibition. As we speed into a new future for work and communications, we look for safeguards and systems that can help us cope, evinced by the 'Sentinel' series. Here the watchmen or guards are fire hoses made from 'custom weave viscose' embroidered with the eponymous word. In each, the un-used hose is deliberately folded or loops from its housing armature to a moulded shelf unit which seems to have melted. One shows a small drawing of smoke pouring from a high-rise, with its painful connotations of the Grenfell tragedy. Questions of safety are emphasized by small playing card-sized drawings of warnings against forest fires with the punchy graphics of rippling alarm. But the too-short hoses act as mere security prompts: they can't prevent fire deaths but use a combination of sleek design and technology to reassure that they can.
            It's this disconnect between form and function, or human need and technological imperatives that lies at the heart of Reus' project. The third element of the show is the 'Hwael' series, in which powder-coated aluminium and steel structures frame a working environment that veers between nostalgia and alienation. Analogue clocking-in devices state 'home' or 'away', while a plastic folding fork and spoon are marked 'am' and 'pm'. Some of the objects exude the pleasing neatness of cutlery and plates strapped into a picnic hamper. Several cases or 'backpacks', as Reus calls them, are attached to the frames, one covered in sports' autographs and another in prototype drawings. A weight hangs from a balance that is fixed and therefore cannot work; a well-crafted handle has no door to open. The pieces are so specifically made-to-measure, that we have to ask, made to measure what?
At the show's periphery, on a wall partition, a column of numbers is indented, suggesting nautical measurements. This clearly links to 'Hwael', the Old English for whale and the disappearance of one of the biggest industries of the 19th century, extracting whale oil and baleen we no longer have a use for. Reus' pieces invoke the inert functionality of de-industrialization. These once high-functioning objects have slipped into obsolescence and the framework no longer able to contain what work itself looks like. These are implied spaces full of implied dangers and implied redundancy, like the conveyor belt of a fidget-spinner factory, or a British car manufacturer.
            It's reckoned that 35% of jobs will be automated in the next 10-20 years and as Yuval Noah Harris attests, we have lost the ability to plan for the long-term and can't predict the consequences of 'disruptive technologies'. However, if, as others assert, machine values are human values, function will always be humanized by aesthetics and work by personalised quirks and subversions, little markers of territory that defy the streamlined efficiency of mass-production.

Photo: Magali Reus, 'As Mist, Description', South London Gallery, 23 Mar - 27 May, 2018

'Once opened, robbed'
Catalogue Essay for 'Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow & Blue' at the Old Big School Gallery, curated by Emily Glass

‘as if some ancient tomb
were opened, and once opened, robbed
half with delight, half dread.’ (1)

There is an opening, into consciousness, the artist's and your own, if you let it, that is one of the joys of looking at abstract painting. The looker is invited to lean into something unknown and wrestle with the decisions that brought this strange, wonderful thing into being. An apparently random series of colours and marks, takes you back to the blank canvas, and if you wait long enough, right to the source the artist tapped to create it. The viewer gains access to the physical experience of a nagging, awesome kind of insatiability - calm yet dissatisfied, serene but active - an ease that isn't always easy. To understand the painting, you have to stand in for the painter in an intimate, expansive exchange that remakes how we see and 'feel' seeing.
           Each of these three painters approach the challenge of reinvigorating abstraction in distinct yet congruent ways. For Gill Ord, the aim is to 'break the horizon', invoking and interrogating the conventions of landscape painting to propose a part-dream, part-futuristic fantasy. Julian Brown's template is geometric abstraction with its gridded rules and symmetries which he blasts apart with often anarchic exuberance. Virginia Bodman plies and pushes the figurative tradition into a riotous and amorphous evocation of what constitutes 'nature' and 'the natural' around us.
           In paintings like 'Fallen', 2014, Gill Ord exploits the tension between the seriousness of compositional rigour and the almost off-kilter, long drops of paint off precipices. Here is a sense of slow splurge of vertical forms, whether it's molten lava emerging under pressure, or the tidy accumulation of drips to form stalagmites and stalactites that poise between stasis and imperceptible movement. Ord pulls the eye from surface to depth using a graphic efficiency of colour - dirty tangerine, cool mauve and faint jade. This is friendly cool, not ironic cool. There's edgy chemistry in the patterns of 'Novydvur', 2015, and questioning points where brown equals yellow, pale green sings to dark grey and the eye floats between the shapes like water trying to find its own level. There is less languid fear in 'Syntax', 2014, where the precipices have become structures - the body or buildings - and the confident alignment of shapes suggest the unfolding of a package into flaps and lids. The rougher limb of primrose yellow acts as a parvenu on the left and threatens to derail the balance but yet doesn't. I'm reminded of Zaha Hadid's attempts to collapse the distinctions of up and down, inside and out that she called 'Planetary Architecture'. Ord's seductive conceptual headlands and refusal of spatial hierarchies could be dubbed 'Planetary Abstraction'. 'Mithras' Cap and Saturn's Sickle', 2016, presents a harder won obduracy where anxiety is much more apparent and a less lyrical experiment takes us to another, more denuded and bad mood, planet.
           In an essay 'Painting Beside Itself,' David Joselit argues that the body of a painting that enters the digital network is degraded, dislocated and degraded. (2) Joselit developed his thesis in a recent catalogue essay, arguing that the painterly brushstroke is the 'subjectobject' which often appears 'beside itself' as a gesture and a cipher of that gesture at the same time. (3) These ideas are demonstrated clearly in Julian Brown's work whose recurrent trope of the dashing curve (which could suggest a boat, a cradle or a smile), also acts as a critique of all it can signify. Like squatters, areas of shabby pink and polluted green disrupt and complicate the recurrent pattern in 'Baltic Moon', 2016. Brown's mucky aesthetic revels in the temptation of the prettiness of pattern and its tyranny. While artists like Philip Taaffe and Fred Tomaselli succumb to the demands of geo-abstraction, Brown wrecks the party with his anti-purity, fairground shoddiness. 'Comic Relief', 2010/11, almost obliterates itself in green slime swipes. This permission to fail swings from joy to trepidation and this swinging place is the daring, dynamic site of the ugly. 'What difference is there between ugliness and repugnance to ugliness?' asks Susan Medina. 'Ugliness is always social, it doesn't exist in nature. It may be that ugliness is a form of fear of the unknown.' (4) In paintings like 'Mamaroneck', and 'Galleon', both 2015, the rhythmic riot of movement is enjoyed not resisted and chaotic energy channeled into glossy resolution. Brown has swung back into the beat and synergy of happy labour.
           Once, a girl who gained her sight and could only recognize objects through touch, described a tree as 'the tree with lights in it'. (5) In Virginia Bodman's noisily expressive paintings the sunholes and gaps in trees, are given as much weight as the leaves. Her large plosive canvases test the boundaries of space and form, navigating the line we've drawn between 'nature' and 'human' and capturing the glorious moment of its dissolution. 'Headless', 2014, moves from the stable, grounded legs and skirt of a figure up into streams of vertical green ribbons and white and purple dots that inundate it. Bodman's question is how to emerge from profusion or stay happily merged within it. There's great tension and physicality between the planted figure and the fragmented filtering around it. 'Bridle Path', 2004-6, 'Somewhere', 2006-9, and 'Spring', 2006-7, teem with sensually dissonant blood reds, acidic greens and frank blue. They ask when is the artificial natural and vice versa, can we discern the difference and does it matter? Here is the legacy of the maternal lineage of floral wallpaper and paisley carpets that brought 'nature' into the domestic setting and defined strict rules of 'natural' femininity. Bodman posits an energetic and defiant 'now' against the invasive and often cloying experience of culture and tradition. The paintings may promise sweetness but they soon spoil it with the beauty of decrepitude and discolouration edging into raucous celebration.
           Painting is always at a self-conscious juncture of possibility, always asserting itself as the new imperative and these three painters excel at exposing the stoniness and landslides of the contemporary rockface, balancing the mass and mess of agitation with the steady holding of nerve.

(1) Marianne Boruch, from 'Raising Lumber', Descendant (Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1989)
(2) David Joselit, 'Painting Beside Itself', October, Fall, No. 130 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009)
(3) David Joselit, 'Reassembling Painting', catalogue essay for 'Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information Age', Museum Brandhorst, Munich, 2015-16
(4) Susan Medina, from Medinations, Gorse No. 5 (Dublin: March 2016)
(5) Annie Dillard, The Abundance (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2016)

Whitney Biennial, March 7-May 25, 2014
Art Monthly, June 2014

Jacolby SatterwhiteThe primary effect of inviting three curators to each curate their own floor of the Whitney undoubtedly makes curatorial strategies themselves the dominant artistic practice on show. None of the three – Michelle Grabner, Anthony Elms and Stuart Comer – adopt a thematic overview although concerns around hybridity, multiplicity and expansiveness overlap among the 103 selected artists. There is a sense of sharing disciplines, platforms and skills, rather more among artists than with us as social practice. Grabner, for instance, selects Gaylen Gerber who uses a painted canvas wall entitled Backdrop, 2014 to curate three different artists for a few weeks each and Comer includes painter Tony Greene, curated by Catherine Opie and Richard Hawkins. Grabner presents what she calls ‘a curriculum for other artists’ and at times this packed section of the exhibition suffers from the pedagogical anxiety of an over-conscientious instructor.
            Elms’ approach is the most relaxed and elegant, perhaps stemming from his experience as an editor and publisher of artists’ books, which has bestowed a respect for white space. There’s quietness in the airmail blue ink drawings by Paul P. and in the letterpress printed series of short fractured poems by Susan Howe in Untitled (from Tom Tit Tot), 2013. Howe’s syllables, pilfered from varied sources, flicker and fidget in dense, almost illegible, clusters. Elms also curated Zoe Leonard’s extraordinary camera obscura, 945 Madison Avenue, 2014, built into a room overlooking the street which is projected on to the walls, floor and ceiling of the gallery. The subdued panorama makes architecture, traffic and people living ghosts: a fitting farewell to the building as the Whitney plans a new downtown site. But Elms also introduces two loud chords in the piano mood. Chicago-based Carol Jackson’s sculptures offer a visual blast of materialized ideas that use the iconography of early American advertising, western saddlery and Chippendale furniture as starting points. In BLEHH, 2012, she’s hand-tooled a leather surround, complete with foliage and angels, but rather than support a mirror, it holds a ring of spewing silver thongs, like an unruly mouth disrupting the nostalgic glory of a culture before it became consigned to kitsch. In Slip, 2014, Jackson sets a digital landscape print into an angular papier mâché mould that pushes out from the wall like a cartoon head painted in silver and day-glo orange. These are assured and resourceful works, deeply bothered by what America has made and made itself into. Also noisy is My Barbarian, a three-person collective, formed in LA in 2000, that employs masks, theatre, music and video ‘to perform historical problems’. Their video Universal Declaration of Infantile Anxiety Situations Reflected in the Creative Impulse, 2013, is a rambunctious updating of Grey Gardens, 1975, a camp, delirious enactment of motherhood that features artist-pioneers, Mary Kelly and Eleanor Antin, as well as the artists’ mothers. This celebration of feminist legacies and queer drag, with theoretical underpinning, has a bonkers beauty and bold body.
            Motherhood is the surprising core of Jacolby Satterwhite’s Reifying Desire 6, 2014, one of the crowning pieces of Stuart Comer’s curation. Satterwhite’s hallucinogenic, kaleidoscopic 3D animation features the artist donning a gold and black spiderwoman’s catsuit to perform dance moves culled from William Forsythe and vogueing. Some sequences document his avatar’s ecstatic interventions in New York City streets, while others are inserted into a techno-dreamscape he calls ‘an unlimited sci-fi surrealist paradise’ built from his mother’s drawings of prototypes she hoped would make her fortune. Items like a flavoured, scented labial lipstick and a pool-cleaning robot are multiplied and queerly repurposed.
Satterwhite asks himself, ‘How am I extending the frame?’ and Comer responds to the same by installing a homage room to the radical publisher, Semiotext(e) for its 40th anniversary. Three days would barely be enough to watch the 8-hour interview with Deleuze, and read the 22 commissioned pamphlets by writers such as Eileen Myles, Chris Kraus, Dodie Bellamy and John Kelsey. The inability to reduce and consume induces an aggrieved frustration. How much easier to sink into what Kelsey dubs ‘this bottomless blackness and soul-chopping otherness ….integral to all communication.’ But what a calm, slow and deep antidote to the neighbouring installation of Bjarne Melgaard and Travis Jeppersen’s brutalizing banality. A deadening, joyless orgy. And much as I love the exquisite, lyrically bright paintings by the Lebanese octogenarian Etel Adnan, I was left thinking, ‘Whoa, what, America now? Really?’
Much more America now, with all its cynicism and insincerity, is the work of Donelle Woolford, curated by Michelle Grabner. I enjoy her two paintings, Joke Painting, 2013 and Detumesecence, 2013 with their satirical riffs on Richard Prince and look forward to Woolford in drag performing ‘Dick’s Last Stand’, a Richard Pryor stand-up routine from 1975. Wow, here’s an African-American female painter taking on the sexist art world and the fetish of the great black cock: great! How come I haven’t heard of her? Then I read that Woolford is the invention of white artist Joe Scanlon and is played by five different black women, including actress Jennifer Kidwell and feel cheated. If only young women artists didn’t fear ‘coming out as female’ and Grayson Perry’s alter ego wasn’t the woman artist who gets the most media coverage and we had more than a dozen black women artists we could name, I might get the joke.
            Nonetheless, there is abundant generosity and reciprocity in this section of the exhibition. People in Pain, 1988, a vinyl and neon word wall by Gretchen Bender, who died in 2004, is remade and presented by Philip Vanderhyden. Jennifer Bornstein’s vigorous dance video, Untitled, 2014, remakes a staged documentary from the 30s by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson using naked female dancers whose wrestling power-play uncovers the potency of the Balinese original. In Protestation!, 2014, Shana Lutker restages a fistfight among Surrealists at a Ballet Russes performance of Romeo and Juliet in Paris in 1926 using steel figures, a lead box, a felt skirt and a pinioned row of paper notes. Significantly Breton attacked Miro and Ernst for selling out by designing the set and costumes. The buoyant passion of the piece creates a compelling contemporary stage for the off-stage art fights that shadow every biennial.

Photo: Jacolby Satterwhite, “Transit,” Video Still from Reifying Desire 6, 2014. HD digital video, color, 3-D animation, Courtesy OHWOW Gallery, Los Angeles and and Mallorca Landings Gallery, Spain

Provisional Painting at Modern Art and Corvi-Mora
Art Monthly, June 2011

Raoul De KeyserTwo years ago, in an issue of Art in America, critic Raphael Rubenstein highlighted a tendency in contemporary painting towards provisionality, which he described as work that looks ‘casual, dashed-off, tentative, unfinished or self-cancelling’. These acts of negation and irresolution were not, he argued, a destruction of painting, but a ‘willingness to suspend closure, to leave painting open’. He traced the celebration of ‘failed’ works back to, among others, Richard Tuttle, Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘cardboards’ of the 1970s, Sigmar Polke and Martin Kippenberger. An aesthetic trajectory that invokes Tuttle at one end and Kippenberger at the other seems to ignore the very different formal imperatives that drive their distinct practices. While it is invigorating to explore new lineages beyond the worn categories, surely individual intentionality determines how irresolution is achieved and indeed read. While Tuttle is informed by a discreet and svelte poetics, Kippenberger blasts out corpulent operatics. The confusion that their alignment invokes in the article continues to be problematic in the current show, ‘Provisional Painting’, curated by Rubenstein at Modern Art.
            In the quietly diffident Tuttle corner we have Tuttle himself, with a work from 1970, Raoul de Keyser, Sergei Jensen, Angiola Gatti and at times, depending on who he happens to be channelling, Richard Aldrich. In the more bombastic dissident Kippenberger camp, there is his former assistant Michael Krebber, Julian Schnabel, Albert Oehlen, Peter Soriano, Cheryl Donegan and Jacqueline Humphries. The former group suggests artists who perform thinking, while in the latter are the artists who perform painting. The latter has a shallower, faster resonance like the difference between the beta brain waves when we’re awake and those when we are meditating – theta waves. The striking element that does unite all the artists is a suspicion of strong colour.
            While works by Jensen in general seem to belong to the provisional rubric, here, oddly, the monochromatic blue black image is too dense and ‘finished’ to qualify or help create a convincing argument and relational context. His Untitled, 2010, is almost lacquer-thick and profoundly deliberate. Tuttle is represented by a masterly understatement: a paper octagon of faint lavender pasted directly on to the wall. 1st Paper Octagonal, 1970, glows with a sly eccentric certainty despite its tentative materiality. The biro cross-hatching of Angiola Gatti is an energetic textured cityscape full of small blue, black and pink densities and destinies. It is a concentrated and intensely gestural work, miles away from the work of Krebber and Schnabel. Provisionality cannot contain these diverse approaches.
            But categorising artists into movements is a highly provisional and unstable practice in itself. In Bob Nickas’s book Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting, also 2009, the author introduces two other categories in which to consider ‘provisional’ practices: ‘Found/eccentric Abstraction’ and ‘The Act of Painting’. He places the virtuoso but erratic Aldrich under the first rubric of ‘abstraction as an assisted readymade’, which could clearly be used in Rubenstein’s show to embrace Oehlen’s Rich, 2011, with his use of digitally printed adverts collaged on to the canvas, a squiggle of graffito and a smear of beautifully passionate paint. Schnabel’s Lampshade, 2007, too, would sit nicely under this rubric. A water-stained lampshade inspired a large painting on (Caucasian) skin-toned polyester on which two letter Ds are stencilled (would this be a double D bra cup size?) and another D floats uncoupled. The painting almost smells of skin, soap, sweat and nylons.
Or would this painting fit better in Nickas’s category, ‘The Act of Painting’, where he situates both Krebber and Humphries, because their works question their own provenance, purpose and status? The one with nothing on it, 2004, by Krebber, has a flick of pinkish paint mostly hidden by the double-page spread of a German daily stuck to the canvas. Working away from an identifiable style, Krebber cites Marcel Broodthaers as an influence but lacks his wit and perhaps, his warmth. His super self-consciousness is heralded in an earlier painting called Contempt of one’s own work as planning for career, 2001. Half abandoned, half obliterated, it seems theory-led and dead. As does Donegan’s Crack 16 (Lilies), 2010, which looks like it was produced while she was doing something else: the leftover gold-sprayed stencil edges on a purple gingham ground resemble a messed-up kitchen table during a craft hobbying afternoon.
            De Keyser’s Up/Down (1), 1998-2009, on the other hand, shows a small pale yellow shape on a dark monochrome ground and has an air of apology that theory can’t rescue him from. De Keyser’s substantial insubstantiality is almost always enlivening: there is a witty, cynical perseverance that may risk collapsing the whole seriousness of the endeavour of painting and yet the work bestows a sense of accompaniment – it adds to the progress of painting while questioning if there can be such a thing. But if that wit and self-consciousness turns savage, or in the case of Soriano, imitative and banal, it can suggest that there is as much point to painting as there is to putting fluorescent orange eye shadow on a corpse.
            It is fascinating in this context to follow up Aldrich’s solo show at Corvi-Mora. In a self-confessed effort not to be confined to his ‘own bad taste’, he presents a magpie’s picking of glittering trophies under the title ‘Museo’, as if selecting his own retrospective. In 16 canvases, there are at least five representational techniques, from found abstraction, with objects like a dollar bill or a coil of string adhered to the canvas (or indeed samples of brushstrokes from his earlier paintings), to minimal colour-field paintings and small lyrically dense, colour-driven abstractions. In one, more sculptural work, Untitled 1 (Two Masonite Sticks Pulled Off), 2006, he records the marks left when he removed two masonite sticks that had been glued to the canvas leaving intermittent brown diagonals on the felt. In the next painting, Untitled 2 (Two Masonite Sticks Put On), 2006, the masonite sticks are ‘replaced’, at the same angle, to create a clever little minimalist diptych. The proliferation of styles begins to feel like talking to a polyglot who keeps switching between languages mid-sentence but is more fluent in some than others. If I were to take a guess, I’d say his mother tongue was a layered, gestural abstraction, full of bright contrasts, as in Untitled, 2010, a small cobalt painting where several layers of paint and wax erase and blot out something else, like time passing over memory, leaving only occasional scratches of intense recall. Or Untitled (2 of 3), 2010, a son of de Kooning painting – exquisite blobs of dense, lumpy green, dirty custard and a flare of violent red which all seem to delight in the suppression of emotion. His legacy sampling is witty, random, even bored, and then fiercely articulate. I’m left with the thought that he doesn’t like the sound of his own voice – yet – because in it he hears everyone else who was ever come before him.

Photo: "Up/Down (1)," 1998/2009, Raoul De Keyser



Ellen Gallagher,
'Salt Eaters'
at Hauser & Wirth,
London, 2006
Circa Magazine

It's significant that Ellen Gallagher's latest show is called 'Salt Eaters' as ideas around consumption are central to her work. I first came across her painting in 1995 at the Whitney Biennale and was fascinated by its peculiar material and cultural texture - she collaged sheets of blue-lined school writing paper onto canvas and ran series of disembodied popping eyes and hotdog lips over this surface, like features looking for a face, a whole body, to belong to. These isolated elements of minstrel caricature were astonishingly low-key and intense at the same time, a reiteration of blackness that marked how black faces had been read, reproduced and consumed as entertainment by white culture. After the punchy film and video work that Black-British artists had been producing in the 80s and 90s, this was a piercingly subtle way of tackling the interstices of representation that referenced a minimalist fine art tradition, rather than a maximalist documentary one. Like Agnes Martin, it was stealthily quiet. It didn't seem to care if you heard - it knew it was speaking a language audible to every black person who viewed it. It took me longer to tune in. I wasn't used to minimalism 'saying anything' beyond an aesthetic inquiry.

            Later came Gallagher's interventions on newspaper adverts for hair-products and wigs in African-American postwar magazines. Here she built fantastical modernist structures in yellow (blonde?) plasticine onto the model's heads which screamed against discreet assimilation - 'Hello! We're here!' Like Constructivist headdresses, African masks, sci-fi helmets, Bauhaus bonnets, these intricate, loud ensembles sidestepped, elegantly and assuredly, from minimalist satire to futuristic figuration. This melding of materials (paper, pencil, oil, plasticine, gold leaf, newsprint) and historical and aesthetic languages continue to distinguish her practice.  

            Technical proficiency and an icy wit inform Gallagher's investigation of how the architecture of race was built. Critic Thyrza Nichols Goodeve calls her method of constructing new cosmologies rather than didactically critiquing existing social and aesthetic systems, 'generative art', similar in strategy to Matthew Barney's. Three plasticine pieces in 'Salt-Eaters' produce anti-ads from snippets of products claiming to cure bunions, drunkenness, headaches etc. jumbling their message to a poignant absurdity: 'salt-free and time-tested, worn by stars, don't send no money, may cause fatal infection, genuine cultured, immediate delivery...' Made of two-tone, light-drinking grey, the panels of sliced and pressed plasticine exude aspiration, reek of lack and dissatisfaction. Like the wig charts, they intervene in the semiotics of consumption, looking at how we're moulded like play-putty, then and now.

            Collaged strips of magazine ads and plasticine appliqué also feature in a large painting, 'Bird in Hand', 2006. Here, a black figure, dressed as a pirate, with a peg-leg, stands under dreadlocks composed of paint and amoeba-like cut-outs, amid tributaries of collaged magazine ads shaped like seaweed tendrils that proliferate like tongues of broken but beautiful speech. Again, the yellowing writing paper is the base on which Gallagher invents her truth, her version of the story of Cape Verde slaves who gathered salt and gained knowledge of sea-faring to become sailors and captains. It has the untamed energy of a spreading myth, yet is meticulously controlled. There is something slightly demonic about the figure's face, outlined in 3D layers, with one blue photographed eye stuck on like a comment on miscegenation. (Gallagher's father was from Cape Verde and her Irish mother from Rhode Island and she once said that 'there is a tendency to erase my Irish family, so that it doesn't contaminate people's narrow definition of blackness' (1))

            There is also a collusion of formal tactics in 'Dirty O's' where 3D 'wigs' engulf watercolour portraits of the face itself, in oval layers of newsprint and plasticine. The scaffolding of the face, the attempts to construct an identity the self can pass behind, are comic, determined and richly allusive: while ridiculing the conformation to whiteness, Gallagher also celebrates these portraits as necessary strategies of survival and glamour. She dismantles white history and representation and puts it together again, her tendrils reaching deftly through art history from postwar fashion and popular culture to the history of slavery. So when she makes more abstract and conceptual moves as in 'Brava', a short filmic loop of an island that never draws closer, and the painting 's'Odium' - the clues are there as indelible, slyly readable signifiers from her own intellectually dexterous universe.

(1) Quoted in Claire Doherty's catalogue essay for the Ikon Gallery, 1998

Fred Sandback at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, 2005
Art Monthly

As with food, there is fast art and slow art. Slow art whispers rather than howls and draws you gently into its own time and space dimensions. Fred Sandback's sculptures stop time and expand space beyond the confines of the gallery using nothing but lengths of acrylic yarn. While Sandback, who died aged 60 in 2003, left drawings with installation instructions, he also wanted his transient, straight-edged forms to respond to the architectural particularities of any given space. With its ceilings of varying heights and a room that grows at one end to accommodate a long window onto the street, Kettle's Yard grants unexpected variations within the pieces, especially with 'Untitled' (Variation of Four Exhibition Rooms/Four Horizontal Lines) 1969/1997. Here four red strings traverse the gallery, about one metre apart, the first at waist height creating a force-field only a toddler would breach. The next string zips along the floor like a drawn line, happy to meet with a solid surface. The third is at shoulder height, the fourth at knee height, causing the eye to follow a wave up and down through the air. They vibrate like a musical arrangement. Each string, neatly inserted into the gallery wall, appears at once to disappear inside its surface and be born from it, aspiring towards infinity.  

            Sandback preferred acrylic to wool because of its longer fibres and its 'ping'. He liked its tendency to fray, teasing out the edges into the air around. In 'Untitled' (Sculptural Study, Two-part Rectangular Wall Construction), 2001, 2005, two rectangles of different widths, set five centimetres apart, fit snugly to the wall. The slight fuzziness of the black yarn resembles a dusty charcoal line. The bare wall appears thicker within the string's parameters. You start to see things prompted by the frames - the ghosts of Malevich and Ryman. Then nothing. The Chinese call it a 'hsiang ', an image that float before us when we think, a substanceless image, what Lao Tzu refers to as 'an empty vessel/ that yet may be drawn from/without ever needing to be filled.'

            In 'Untitled' (Seven-part Vertical Construction), 1990, a group of double-stranded sets of yarn plumb from ceiling to floor, like elongated figures, reduced to a white shadow, a black line, a golden metal wire. A skinny column of light fattens between the strands. As Giacometti once explained, 'the more I take away, the fatter it becomes. But why, I don't know yet...So I've got to take away...And that's where I really get lost. As if the material itself had become an illusion.

            Nowhere is the paradoxical tension between containment and expansion, reality and illusion, stronger and more delightful than in 'Untitled' (Triangle), 1996, a light brown obtuse-angled triangle which hovers at the corner of the room, one corner at head height, the lower two attached about thirty centimetres off the ground. It's a large slice of cake rising off a plate. It has open arms to embrace you. Its tone belongs to the parquet yet it makes the floor fall away as it tilts its nothingness into the room. It's disorientating but in a strangely optimistic way. It's Buddha-bliss not annihilating vacuum. Figure and ground collapse into and through each other, relocating you as you watch. Perception and its laws can't be relied upon. Every plane becomes unstable, changing and there is a moment of Zen liberation in realising that we are too. We become as weightless as the invisible sculptural form.

            While some of Sandback's work opens out space, others suck it in. It both disrupts gallery space and adds to it. 'Untitled', 1976, in black elastic cord, is a cheeky, upbeat intervention that stretches an oblong up a corner and along the floor. Its playfulness with minimal matter and minimalist tropes suggests Tom Friedman's practice. This piece creates a volume with the density of glass against the wall and then extends along the floor as flat as a drawing. This movement from fullness to flatness is entrancingly simple and satisfying. It asks questions of the soul, how we make meaning from meaningless, form from the immaterial. Reality dissolves at what Sandback called, 'the point at which all ideas fall apart...The inherent mysticism resides in ...the realisation that the simplest and most comfortable of our perceptions are shadows.'

            Small reliefs complement the string works. Here the lines, rather than being the only matter in the piece, are grooves in the painted wood. Another kind of absence bestows a concrete, grounded effect. This is work of soft heft, lasting burn.

Carrie Moyer and Diana Puntar at Samson Projects, Boston, 2006
Modern Painters

With six bold - as - brass abstract paintings by Carrie Moyer and four large floor sculptures by Diana Puntar, who favours lurid pink carved foam on geometric mirrored pedestals, the works in this show seem to scream for attention at different pitches. But engage with each artist separately and the dissonance between them starts to perform highly articulate connections. Both Puntar and Moyer use layered colour and a clash of forms and materials to tease out and expand upon modernist art and design references. Puntar's triangulated mirrored 'grounds' suggest a dialogue with hard-edged Deco and the fractured self-images of 70s feminist art practice, while the painted abstract forms, which threaten like sudden growths you don't want to deal with or negotiate, read like the druggie offspring of Eva Hesse. Titles like Lucky Stiff (2006) and The Devil That You Know (2006) are preposterously hard-boiled and funny. Their blasé bubblegum beauty atop the rigid laminated plywood plinths begins to cling unexpectedly.

            Moyer's paintings also offer the sumptuous and the sinister. The hard lines that radiate out from several of the canvases echo Puntar's pieces, and quote Russian Constructivists and Bauhaus idealists like Josef Albers. Images suggesting keyholes and transmission towers may critique the increasing use of surveillance and the propagandist tyranny of broadcasting , but Moyer also enjoys trying to resolve how to represent the vibrant and pleasurable legacy of form through each painting. The transparent layers of spoilt yellow and dirty red acrylic , and clusters of glitter caught in the varnish, play off image-making techniques to create new formal tensions. The foregrounded forms rely on the deliberately dated dull umber or unmarked canvas of the ground, to signify their contemporaneity, suggesting how much we rely on the sediments of culture and history to define and understand the present. While a spiral of red paint set over a density of black thumbprints could act to comment on paranoid security identification measures, Moyer clearly delights in the deliciously playful collision of texture, colour and signs. It doesn't seem farfetched to determine the Twin Towers smouldering in the vertically charged Faktura #3 (2005) and a blackened flag in Faktura #4 (2005) and their infiltrating consequences. Moyer's ability to shatter line and command wholeness at the same time, to evoke a political consciousness while maintaining outstanding beauty in her work makes her an exceptional artist. Despite the engulfing strobe of information control and the blob-headed mass of pale figures that seem to be experiencing democracy fade-out in While You Were Sleeping (2005) these are nonetheless upbeat paintings about the persistent resistance required by critical thinkers living in the US today. Like Puntar, Moyer is working out how to think about painting, the body, society and history all at the same time. Their work burns with ideas and against their amnesia. This is not just another faddish sampling of high modernism, but a rich interrogation of its ideals, making it cough up new and difficult truths.

Lee Lozano at Hauser & Wirth, London, 2007
Art Review

The first thing that distinguishes Lee Lozano's work is its force, whether felt in the intense shading and chaotic lines of her scatological and sexual drawings, or in the elegant precision of her abstract paintings. She burst onto the New York art scene in 1960, showed with artists like Dan Flavin, Donald Judd and Robert Morris, only to burn out her fuse (or smother its spark) ten years later in her Drop Out Piece, 1969-70 in which she abandoned the art world, moved to Dallas and bizarrely stopped talking to women. Critics have seen this critique of capitalism and patriarchy as both pathological and utopian, but it effectively made Lozano vanish until a retrospective show in 1998, a year before her death.

            Throughout her brief career, the artist's communication with men was problematised repeatedly in cartoonish cock drawings - imagine an expressionist hybrid of Richard Prince and Sue Williams, drawings in which, for example, a man's ear becomes a penis, with the text 'Man Cocking His Ear', (Untitled , 1963), or a lipsticked mouth is stuffed with an ass, a cock coming out of the asshole, accompanied by the phrase 'menage-a-trois', (Untitled , 1963). They're visceral, crude, disturbing narratives of the phallus as the tool that drives men's minds and bodies. At the same time, Lozano was making large dark paintings of bore drills, bolts, hammers and screws, as if visualising the steeliness needed to penetrate the male-dominated field of minimalism.  

            While solo exhibitions in Basel and Eindhoven showed both strands of her work, Hauser & Wirth concentrates on later paintings and small graphite studies for the work on canvas. It's unfortunate since it seems that Lozano could only talk in this language (minimalism) because she screamed in another (figuration). Nevertheless, her set of four large paintings, No title, 1969, is stunning. Four sections of a circular band hang in a square, so that the spectator's eye completes the absent sphere. The fury of her drawings reaches what Adorno called the successful sublimation of rage - an eloquence of form that holds nothingness at its centre. The mild hues of grey and cream capture temperatures of light, both day and night, and planetary eclipse. The 3" housepainters' brushes she preferred to use leave smooth, wide strokes that accentuate the change in texture between the shaded band and the ground. For Lozano, the perfect body hung in space, free from human protrusions. 'If we were more intelligent we would be shaped like spheres.... We could change from solid to liquid to gaseous states of matter or become nothing but a charge or a force...' (From her notebooks). The illusive density of space is pierced by a hole in the top canvas, like a spyhole to another universe. Its circle of light and shadow both produces and playfully punctures the question of the w/hole Lozano was trying to pose. This geometrical knowing seems like a beginning, or maybe for Lozano was a fitting end.

Catalogue Essays

‘My Silence for a Space’, for ‘Flights of Fancy’ at the Tatton Biennial, 2012

‘Contemplation in Stationary Cars’, on Sophy Rickett for ARTSWAY at Venice, 2011

‘Those Deep Approaches’, Sarah Pucill for THE LUX, 2011,

‘An Earth-tide in the Spine’, Flora Parrott at RYEDALE FOLD MUSEUM, 2011

‘Cutting The Skin of the Moment’, Louisa Fairclough for DANIELLE ARNAUD GALLERY, 2011

‘Gathering Life’, Hannah Maybank for ARTSWAY, 2009

‘Behind the Light’, Elizabeth Magill at WILKINSON GALLERY, 2008

'Radiant Vitality', the work of Thomas Flechtner, for 'Bloom', LARS MULLER Publications, 2007

'Private Emergencies', on Salla Tykka for CHAPTER ARTS, Cardiff, 2006

'Gnaw at the Barrier', on Ann Course and Emma Woffenden for ANGEL ROW GALLERY and FIRST SITE GALLERY, 2004

'Who Can Fail', for No Respect Group Show, PROJECT ARTS CENTRE, Dublin, 2004

'Field of Marks', on David Harker, CLERKENWELL GREEN ASSOCIATION, 2004

'Flown and Sealed: The Work of Orla Barry' for TEMPLE BAR GALLERY, Dublin, 2002

'Intimate Handling: The Work of Dirk Braeckman' for A PRIOR JOURNAL, Brussels, 2002

'The Gate of Chalk: The Work of Pierre Imhof' for the BROADBENT GALLERY, 2002

The Florence Trust Summer Show, 2002 & 2003

'Digging for Sand in Sand', on Orla Barry for the ART PHOTOGRAPHERS' GALLERY, HELSINKI, 2000

'Dragged', on Sarah Pucill and Phil Sayers for THE REAL GALLERY, NYC, 1998

Jane and Louise Wilson for the CHISENHALE GALLERY, 1995

'The Transgressive Subject' in QUEER ROMANCE, ROUTLEDGE, 1995




Co-curator with Jost Münster of 'Limber: Spatial Painting Practices' at the Herbert Read Gallery, Canterbury, September, 2013

Curatorial Adviser - Open Frequency, AXIS ARTS, 2006

Curator - 'STAY', Escalator Visual Arts/COMMISSIONS EAST at the Great Eastern Hotel, London 2004-2005  

Curator - Summer Shows, FLORENCE TRUST GALLERY, London, 2002 & 2003


'By means of a line an act of transmission has taken place.'

Henri Michaux