The Indiscipline of Enjoyment
This weekend The Indiscipline of Painting exhibition moved from Tate St Ives to Mead Gallery, a mere 120 mile round trip for me, so, after all the anticipation, I finally got to see it (well, not finally because I will be visiting many times between now and when it closes in March).
At the opening party a crowd of us had gathered before the doors were swung back at 6.30 on the dot and in we poured, seeing first the unmistakable Frank Stella painting Hyena Stomp and the gigantic Keith Coventry England 1938 (1994 -2011), as if to make the point that the show would feature international abstraction from the sixties to now.
I turned left, seeing the show ‘backwards way round’ gazing with dropped jaw at the brilliant Brillian Xanthinus Arborexcans by John Armleder, Primalon Ballroom by Mary Heilman, and finding my breath taken by Peter Davies’ Small Touching Squares Painting, reminiscent in its effect of a huge Seurat: the grandest scale made up of tiny dots, or in Davies’ case tiny squares, creating a massive ripple, a gesturless gesture.
Thinking of dots, the painting that I may have looked at longest, and over which I had a conversation with a small band of Italian students, was #16 – 1968 (Dot Painting) by Peter Young.
Unlike Seurat’s dots these do not combine to create an image, nor are they of differing colours that mix optically. Instead they are the same dark (black, I think) colour arranged so they are more or less of equal distance from each other, on a ground of white over pinks greens yellows and blues. Whilst the colours are perceived as shifting after-images, my eye cannot but trace circular patterns in the dots, moving and bending and not quite forming. I become aware in viewing it that I am actively participating in its construction, which I experience as playful enjoyment especially when for a few moments I turn off the dialogue (both external and internal) and simply look. Once the dialogue returns I have moved from thinking about what kind of painting it is to what kind of world this is that I actively construct even whilst appearing to passively observe.
Opticality seems an important sub plot in this show, and its’ not just the Peter Young or the stunning Cantus Firmus by Bridget Riley that I have in mind, there is also the early Sean Scully painting East Coast Light 2, the pulsating Auditorium by Dan Walsh, Depth of Field by Richard Kirwan, as well as the strangely photographic Flirt by Jane Harris and Untitled (fold) by Tauba Auerbach. Above all there is No Other Home by Daniel Sturgis who selected the paintings in this show.
The carefully painted chequer patterns have an optical charge all of their own and the fact that the two central layers one stacked upon the other are misaligned creates further visual excitation. The shallow space fluctuates and bends, partly as a result of the pattern and partly as a result of the colour. Even the space between viewer and painting seems animated as if the action truly resides in that optical place. Multiple experiences of visuality seem stacked in much the same way as the coloured or patterned bands in the painting are stacked one upon the other. The effect for me is slightly trance inducing leading to that enjoyable feeling of engaged relaxation. You could almost say that these are experiences that have no other home than in that odd discipline called painting, and specifically abstraction.
One painting here has no other home than Mead gallery, painted directly onto the wall by Francis Baudevin The Only Truth samples the cover for Paul Haig’s 12″ single of the same title.
“The title of the show The Indiscipline of Painting is a contradiction” said a woman standing next to me as we looked at the Baudevin “because these paintings are very disciplined aren’t they?” I agreed and I asked her if she was used to looking at paintings. She was not, having been invited along by a friend. She was clearly enjoying it, itself an indisciplined kind of discipline.