Without an Edge There is no Middle, at Pluspace
Pluspace, in the Meter Rooms, just on the edge of Coventry city centre, is host to a wonderful exhibition celebrating the continuing exploration of the possibilities inherent in abstract painting. Without an Edge There is no Middle brings together a diverse set of contemporary abstract painters that “look beyond the comfort of the safe harbour of the middle, and push towards the unknown edges”. Curated by Matthew Macaulay, it captures, if just for a moment, that determined if sometimes gradual, pushing out towards the edge of what painting can be and do. No longer a “progression” as it might once have seemed, and inevitably including repetition or recommencement, there is also a faltering “progress” of sorts, a wending of different ways towards one end.
The artists exhibited are Katrina Blannin, Julian Brown, Gordon Dalton, Andrew Graves, Terry Greene, Mark Kennard, Hannah Knox, Mali Morris, Joanna Phelps, Dan Roach, David Ryan, Andrew Seto, and David Webb.
Again, I find that the paintings of Mali Morris quite literally take my breath away. I don’t know that I have ever seen colour so luminous, or space, self evidently the result of painterly gesture or manipulation, so mysterious. The central ‘figure’ in Blue Flame, a near perfectly formed blue circle supporting a further inchoate circle that resembles a flame, hovers above a gestural violet ground, itself resting upon a ground of the same colour as the blue flame, clearly seen at the top left edge but also shining through the darker gestural brushstrokes. However, this figure in the middle is made of the same stuff as the edge, created as it is by the removal of the upper layers of paint, an inverted keyhole through which a lower layer of blue ground is reveled, yet reading as if it were a positive shape above the ground.
I think it is this play of figure and ground, both literal and optical, combined with the quality of colour/light, that I find so appealing in paintings by Morris, and I can hardly help saying “that’s beautiful” when I look at them.
Almost, includes a gestural white helix over a multicolored ground, possible wet on wet, creating not just a sweeping rhythm but also depth through and beyond the gesture, with sentinel-like coloured discs that appear impossibly to be both tied to the surface by an imaginary or obscured grid and also free floating in space, almost airborne but held back also by the edges of the support. Yet, as with Blue Flame, those positive circular shapes hovering “above” are clearly excavations of lower layers of colour.
I don’t think it is just my playing with the title of the exhibition that leads me to pay attention to the edges of many of the paintings here, sometimes as if the action gets pushed outwards, as in Andrew Graves audacious painting Tomorrow. a stained canvas of magenta stapled over a blue canvas, covering it almost entirely, the colour contrast taking place right at the edge, creating tension between the framed image and the parameters of the object. I am tempted to liken it to colour field painting on a small scale, if that were possible.
Mark Kennard‘s Untitled, is more or less a monochrome ground, again with the action taking place towards the edges as the bars of the stretcher seem to bleed through to the surface, creating a frame, within which barely perceptible events take place. In his Nine Lines on Black, narrow, differently coloured lines, all of similar length, interrupt a black ground, each line having at least one end touching an edge, and non of them crossing each other. The subtlest of interventions resulting in spatial shifts, clearly two dimensional yet also suggesting box-like objects on a floor.
But it isn’t the edge I pay attention to in the Andrew Seto paintings. More pictorial, they seem to be paintings of something, as if structures formed of triangles situated in a sparse landscape or interior were actually constructed of sumptuous oil paint. They have this sculptural look to them, even though in the two paintings here, Ahead and Pom Pom, there is no horizon line, (in contrast to Seto’s Device, currently on show at the Lion and Lamb Gallery), so situating them in a space becomes more difficult, and alternative interpretations might assert themselves. Ahead looks totemic, recalling African masks as painted by Picasso, whilst the thickness of the paint has something Auerbachian about it , but richer in colour and without the external referent. Around the central figure, the warm area that I am reading as ‘background’ pushes forward creating depth through the latticework structure only to lead the eye back to the surface again. Pom Pom, is a flatter image, without the impasto, in rich grey and blue, also exploiting triangular forms with much more of an alternation between figure and ground. Seto seems to have discovered a fascinating modular structure that is capable of multiple combination, extension and variation.
Terry Greene‘s They’re not scared of you, is an attractive painting with simple bar shapes of blue on ochre against a variegated green and blue ground, It’s simple yet has the appearance of having been hard to come by, there are signs of struggle. I reflect on Greene’s process, thinking that the first thing that goes down on the canvas is necessarily a “mistake”, the painting appearing to have progressed via a series of “corrections” not knowing what the end will look like until it arrives. The starting point is an act of faith, like Abraham “who went out without knowing where he was going” (Heb 11:8). It occurs to me that abstraction could be classified according to the amount of planning that takes place before work commences. Terry Greene would be at one end of the scale, with say, Katrina Blannin at the opposite end.
David Ryan‘s paintings might include improvised events within a planned structure, possibly comprising a systematic study. The two paintings here Set c and Set 5 (d), both read to me like paintings within a painting, different versions of abstraction in conversation with each other, both of them including a monochrome and a more gestural piece, signs almost, of differing approaches, held together within a frame, forming a kind of “gallery” where they jostle for attention, achieving a continuous push-pull effect.
I am enjoying seeing two David Webb paintings, a very recent one Untitled (Windmill) close to the older, Smoking Room (Blue) the former is more abstract the latter more obviously on the edge of figuration. I love its humour and simplicity. The Dan Roach paintings also nod towards figuration in that the beautiful hexagonal forms he employs could be cells of a honeycomb, yet they inhabit only this abstract space, combining in transparent overlapping layers to form an entirely abstract arrangement, virtually impossible to tell which layers are above and which below when I allow my attention to take in more than two cells. There is something entirely congruent about the scale of these paintings in relation to the cells: architecture in miniature, challenging, along with other artists here, the notion that abstraction must necessarily be big.
The hexagonal or hexad form also features strongly in Katrina Blannin‘s work but if Roach’s hexagons are organic in character Blannins are geometric, rather than allowing overlapping of forms, she explores the ‘natural’ propensity of geometric hexagons, and triangles to tessellate.
Double Hexad – Black Pink, one of an ongoing series, does however have layering of a different kind, each geometric form being achieved by applying paint in glazes, layer upon layer until the colour and tone make visual sense, each shape being visible as part but without distracting from the perception of the whole. I am fascinated by the way the texture and weave of the linen shows through, creating a two-tone effect, the pinks appearing to glisten, and where areas are very closely matched in hue or value they are demarcated by a narrow drawn line. The space appears to bend. It has depth to it, but shifting gently, undulating almost as my perception of the image changes. One of the qualities of a two dimensional image is ‘simultaneity’, more than one event can be seen at once, yet these tessellating forms seem to contradict that characteristic, multiple readings being possible, but sequentially not simultaneously. And that’s surely what creates the experience of fascination for the viewer: seeing the image, for example with blacks as positive shapes, giving way to seeing it with blacks as negative spaces and then trying to get the former view back again and finding it difficult to do so, is enchanting. It’s also possible that a new reading will suddenly present itself, causing surprise for the viewer, as no doubt it did also for the artist during the empirical process of making the painting. Blannin says it this way:
Whatever the intention, the finished work is never entirely as envisaged. the power of surprise is important: its Gestalt, or ability to be more than the sum of its parts.
The 22 paintings in this exhibition all have an edginess about them that makes them appealing, and all worth spending some time with, all approaching the task of painting and of abstract painting in particular, in different and interesting ways.
Without an Edge There is no Middle continues until 8 September, Friday, Saturday 11am – 5pm (closed Saturday 24 August) or appointments can be made by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org