Saturday, 28 July 2018

David Pugh: Breaking The Surface

Out in leafy Lancashire, Todmorden’s ‘Studio 2’ gallery continues its welcome run of exhibitions of artwork made by individuals sticking with obdurate, solid stuff intended to hang on a wall or sit on the floor, i.e. paintings, drawings and sculptures.

Not that previous shows haven’t toyed with historical references, the mental gymnastics of ‘art’ theory, or self-reflexive chin-rubbing. All, however, have, to varying degrees, seemed to have an investment in material solidity and old-school concerns with aesthetic principles.

David Pugh’s recent exhibition of paintings, ‘Breaking The Surface’, appeared to organically continue on from these concerns but proposed a very different perspective on the function of a paintings surface; Pugh’s works play with surface as a point of display and as a ghostly restaging of nonrepresentational paintings muted keening for meaningfulness.

The exhibition related text noted that ‘...through this body of work (Pugh) explores the process of pushing paint to perform in ways that bring the surface of the canvas alive.’

However, although all three-dimensional objects occupy the same kind of space - a universal three-dimensionality central to all forms of ‘objectness’ - flatness can either be absolutely aligned with surface, appear to hover in front of its grounding vertical plane or even seem to retreat slightly to a point just behind the touchable material supporting it. Pugh’s works may obsess over surface qualities visual impact but they exhibit a technician’s curiousity with this potential misalignment between surface apprehended and surface as concrete fact.

With ‘Closed 1’ and ‘Closed 2’ two domestic scale square canvases seemed to have decided to operate as a diptych. Both showed a vegetable chaos of marks of varying black-greys punctuated by small areas of white canvas ground. ‘Closed 1’ carried the disruptive overlay of a large blue circle of acrylic, ‘Closed 2’ a black vertical band. The juxtaposition of the two canvases strengthened the works, the space between them acting as a further simple negative space which complicated the spatial relationships of bold simple forms and twitchy surface marks.

Something like a convoluted snaking intestine of broad brushmarks sat within the flat surface of the larger ‘Happy.’ Like ‘Closed 1’, a large raised area of light blue acrylic sat on the surface of the wandering, deceptively flat, gothic spaghetti of grey-black brushmarks. 

The other larger painting ‘Black Flower’ had a similar but slightly more angular swoop of brush traces but, bringing to mind the perforations bordering old strips of photographic film, horizontal lines of regularly distanced black circles travelled across the top and bottom of the painting. 

A triptych of smaller square canvases, ‘Inwoods 1’, ‘2’ and ‘3,’ all bordered by thick blankly black frames, were washed by singular dominant colours - red, muted blue and a grassy green - which visually suppressed the complex of sliding brushstrokes busying their entire surface. Isolated raised circles of colour dotted each one bringing to mind another cinema reference, the flash of an editors cue-dots.

Pugh is old enough to have experienced at least a couple of the noisy announcements of the death of painting, its stumbling resurrection and the theoretical back-peddling to begin again the inevitable reassessment of its viability as a contemporary practice.

The acrylic paint covering these works tended to colonize and fill the full area of the canvas but as a flat immaterial suggestion of something more physically substantial. Pugh’s paintings act as a record of dogmatic process as a kind of embodied sarcasm; self-doubting painting events - executed presumably at speed to maintain a tonal uniformity - which have become seduced by their own material playfulness. These are objects assigned the job of performing the role of being paintings which have fallen in love with their own performance.

All the works had a dour attractiveness about them and although they seemed to radiate a degree of resignation - a resignation that non-representational painting has declined into a genre of refined decoration - this was mixed with a strangely positive acknowledgement that the aspirations of yesteryear will always haunt potentially cynical ‘decor’ with the ghost of meaningfulness. 

Sunday, 11 February 2018

John Stezaker

The most confident and playful exhibition on display in Manchester (UK) at the moment is the relatively simple twenty or so collages by John Stezaker at the Whitworth.

Often the collages are grouped according to formal or spatial consistencies in the end results. In one grouping anatomical studies are spliced, juxtaposed and cojoined into hybrid creatures of the front and back of torsos. More frequently his raw materials are an archival accumulation of studio portraits of B-movie actors, old postcards and promotional film stills, the outdatedness of the source material immediately giving an otherworldliness to the pieces adding to their pictorial strangeness.

So profile shots and full on portraits (both male and female) are cut and jigsawed into almost feasibly coherent wholes deformed by spatial inconsistencies. Rectangular areas of nature or geological illustrations cover areas of faces but horizon lines or the sinuous line of a tree follows the features of the face. These act as a window into an alternative reality but seem to echo the dynamics of the portraits formal construction and the relations between figures.

Stezaker’s considered cuts and excisions are not merely second-hand techniques and devices lifted from early Cubist collages and Surrealists games, although these influences are clearly present. They allow images to telescope into layered depths and for shadows to be sandwiched into static forms.

The drag and flow of suggested cinematic narratives are held static for a forensic looping by the viewers eye literally through and into the image’s component parts. And although a simple collages construction takes very little time this stands in stark opposition to the time needed to conceptually digest the static implications of these spatial games.

The pieces actually work as physical statements of a stubborn refusal of the badgering directive and authoritarian flow of meaning in contemporary visual media, the didactic nature of that which claims to be a democratisation of communicative potentials.