At the First Clash, Alex Dewart, Marion Piper and Lindall Pearce at Surface Gallery
At first sight the works of Alex Dewart, Lindall Pearce and Marion Piper, currently featured in the exhibition At the First Clash at Surface Gallery, Nottingham, are highly dissimilar, a clash of styles and approaches whose relationship to one another is symmetrical rather than complementary. However, a Twitter comment by Gill Gregory suggests she finds as much confluence or convergence as collision. Perhaps as soon as disparate practices are brought together in a shared space the similarities and interconnections become apparent, even when it’s difference that we’re celebrating. In the excellent essay by Maggie Gray, which accompanies the exhibition, she proposes that these three artists find commonality in “their awareness and manipulation of surfaces”. I wonder if what unites them is the clash of opposites (and possible reconciliation) that occurs in each of their works.
In Dewart’s paintings, highly coloured flat patterns clash with illusionistic grey monochrome figures. The figures are context-less, appearing to have weight and volume yet they float in space against high colour backgrounds that clamour for attention. Elements of the pattern sometimes occupy positions in front of or on the same plane as the grey figures. In Pelle (Skin), a leaf motif breaks free from the ground and touches the left shoulder of an armoured figure. Visually there are cues to suggest that the figure is seated on a horse, even though there is no horse shown. Where the horse’s mane might be the pattern appears to push spatially forward of the figure, almost describing the horse’s neck.
I find myself searching for meanings that a context might provide, and in lieu of evidence I do what we all do in such situations, I make stuff up. So I consider the grey figures to be statues and I speculatively suggest to myself that, for example, Verdi sul Verde may show a statue of Giuseppe Verdi (really!) against a green floral ground, “Verdi on the green”, a way of being “green on green” that isn’t abstract in the sense of “non-representational”, but quite abstract in the sense of “levels of abstraction” i.e. as opposed to direct sensory experience. In other words, I am required to interpret, linguistically or conceptually if you will, in order to make sense of what I am looking at.
The kind of interpretation required when viewing paintings by Marion Piper is nearer to the pre-linguistic, or perceptual. The experience of ‘clash’ is between differing styles (e.g. painterly or gestural vs. geometric), as well as of competing interpretations of geometric gestalts. Rather than consciously thinking through potential meanings I just keep seeing the arrangement differently, sometimes seeing depth for example, and other times seeing flat shapes. It’s as if the interpreting takes place in the eye/brain, rather than in the mind.
I first saw paintings by Piper at the Crossing Lines exhibition, earlier this year at &Model Gallery, where I noted that in her Free Man series she appeared to be combining an organic, free-flowing, process with geometry. There’s some of that going on here at the Surface Gallery exhibition in her Or To series, where fluid grey markings (not quite poured, more like staining) clash with measured geometric shapes, but the clash is suppressed perhaps, in that it exists beneath multiple layers, only traces showing through. It’s almost as if the geometry has succeeded in bringing order to the more chaotic, near gestural activity beneath the surface. Or is it that those liquid gestures actually construct the hard edged structures, the outlines being “filled in” with paint whilst in this fluid condition? It’s difficult to tell. The process is evident but not enough to reliably reconstitute it step by step. I can guess at it, but I have little confidence that my guessing matches any of the events that actually took place on the canvas.
In Or To 9, illusionistic space is posited along the bottom edge, take the zig zagging triangles away and the alternate bars or stripes of light and dark grey no longer look three dimensional. The triangles lead us to see the stripes as mountain and valley folds, a concertina formation, with a light source from the left. At least two readings compete with each other in an unresolvable conflict. Though contradictory, we believe both interpretations are equally true, not simultaneously but sequentially, first it’s this and then it’s that and next it’s this again, perhaps reminiscent of wave-particle duality in quantum physics. Whatever reading we come to first, we have to concede that “the opposite is also true”.
In the works here by Lindall Pearce the clash is between artwork and arbitrary object, everyday objects being combined to produce highly attractive assemblages. They draw from the tradition of the “ready-made”, but in the end they are not ready-mades, there’s too much craft for that. It could even be that the tradition is turned back on itself by the reintroduction of facture. Nevertheless, the banal object never become so much an artwork that it loses its thingness, nor does the art ever lapse back into banal utilitarian function.
In Chroma Chameleon, adjustable shaving mirrors (I think) are arranged on a black and white striped, painted table top, the mirror glasses having been replaced or painted over, with coloured circles. Even though they do retain some of their reflectiveness they no longer function specifically as mirrors. They create an interesting array of angles, planes and colours and subvert the original purposes of both table and mirrors. Come to think of it, I am now doubting whether “assemblage” is the best label for this and other works by Pearce in this show. In an assemblage don’t pre-existing, unrelated objects get placed together? Yet it looks to me as if Pearce works on her objects and then also makes something else out of them, which possibly brings them closer to “constructions”. (In pondering this distinction I am following a conversation between Peter Lowe and Katrina Blannin recently reported by Blannin in a review at Abstract Critical.)
Looking at the works of these three artists, I think I discover resonance in their appreciation of clashes of opposites, whether two dimensional pattern vs. three dimensional figuration in Dewart, opposing gestalts in Piper or readymade vs. construction in Pearce. Furthermore, they seem unwilling to resolve the contradictions by favouring one position over another. Instead, they hold both sides of the argument in tension, and only then does some form of reconciliation take place. Could it be that the title of the exhibition would be better rendered with a comma after the word “First” so that it would read “At the First, Clash” (to begin with a clash and only then reconciliation)? Tongue firmly in cheek, if I wanted to give this a theological slant, following Karl Barth, I might insist that the divine “no” always precedes the divine “yes”, or if I wanted to sound more political I might echo that other Karl as well as that old band The Clash: “There’s got to be a Clash, there’s no alternative”.
At the First Clash is on at Surface Gallery until 12 July 2014