Letter from London
Unlike Ireland, where there seems to be a sympathy towards both the painterly and the abstract, Britain has long maintained a figurative tradition and held abstraction at arm’s length. Perhaps because of this, there has never truly been a school of abstraction, and as a result the country has produced a fair share of idiosyncratic abstractionists.
Tate Britain | March 24 - August 27, 2007
touring to the Norwich Castle Museum and Abbot Hall Art Gallery
Given her highly private nature and cult status, it comes as a surprise to discover the number of museum shows (Whitechapel, 1960; Serpentine, 1976) and various important exhibitions (Pittsburgh International, 1950; Sao Paolo Bienal, 1951; British Painting, 1974) in which Prunella Clough (1919-99) has been included throughout her career. Known as an artist’s artist, this display, filling two large rooms of Tate Britain, is less a retrospective and more a quiet acceptance of Clough as an important, if ghostly, presence in British Art. Her career path brings to mind Myron Stout, another quiet master who did not exhibit much (and whose personal wealth allowed the luxury of turning down exhibitions).
Unlike Stout, whose work seems to follow a classic Modernist trajectory of reduction, Clough’s work evolved in a slightly different light. Her paintings were always responsive to the world around her; closer to Thomas Nozkowski, Raoul de Keyser, and Howard Hodgkin in approach, her abstraction was derived from, or inspired by, life. The 56 works in this show do no argue for a coherent approach to painting; rather they display a range of solutions invented to “describe” her experience of the world.
The early pieces, of which there are probably too many, mostly from the ‘50s, are still-lifes or scenes from the dockyards painted around the East Anglian coast where she first lived. These possess the mute, brown-and-grey aesthetic of early Cubism, and utilize the shallow space and schematic visual structure of that movement. But it is her mature work that truly stands out. There are no consistent color schemes (though the tone, and aura, is one of muted browns and greys), nor any repetitive schemas or forms. The only constant is a feel for pattern, a sense of texture and a schematic approach to drawing. Cave (1990) has three similar silhouettes, all shaped like a schematic pair of joined lemons, that appear to be the same object growing in scale, while in Spin-Off (1992) two cloud-like forms, repeated over and over, create a field upon which two other bright shapes are painted. Historians have suggested the fact that charts and maps she drew in the Second World War for the Office of War Information may have contributed to the schematic nature of her compositions. There is most certainly a codified visual language here, but one that is undecipherable. Where her code ends, our invention of meaning begins.
There is a calm and steady sense to each image, punctuated with little surprises. As in Jasper Johns’s work, on feels that each image is the result of a highly considered process of picture-making, but unlike de Keyser, chance and serendipity do not seem to play a part in her invention. Yet despite this meditative calm, one senses that Barlow struggles with each painting to invent a language to suit her “picture.” Thus there is an awkward quality to how each pictorial element fits together; it is as if, like life, the logical and rational sit uneasily with nature itself. All, however, this show has not succeeded in displaying Clough’s strengths. Rather it is a much-needed exposition on an interesting painter, but we still await a more in-depth exhibition.
One Canada Square | April 2 - June 1, 2007
Phyllida Barlow is the poor man’s Martin Puryear. This is not to denigrate her work, but Barlow’s approach to craft has a cheery slapdash attitude that is markedly different from her American counterpart. If anything her aesthetic recalls the casualness of Mary Heilman, but, in formal terms, the work appears to be closer to that of Jessica Stockholder, although Barlow transforms her material into sculptural form whereas Stockholder’s allusions spring from the painterly and hint at the two-dimensional. Barlow frequently covers her work with thick, drippy, Twombly-like layers of paint—never a tasteful white, but cartoon-bright coloured enamel. Barlow habitually uses scrap material to transmogrify into art, and, frequently, older works are scavenged for parts to give birth to new pieces or recombined into fresh creations.
Her lexicon of forms alludes to the organic, the architectural and Pop. Bright colors are often combined with bulbous shapes created out of the most bedraggled material. Think Henry Moore, without the figurative, on the cheap! Their effect is a Laurel and hardy interpretation of Motherwell’s Elegies: organic forms thrusting up against the architectural, all in a near-cartoonish language. Barlow’s sculptures have tended to be modified for, or inspired by, each venue: the high ceilings of the BALTIC Center for Contemporary Art in Newcastle provided an opportunity to create a very tall anthropomorphic object while here in the lobby of One Canada Square, a corporate office building, she has used a lurid pink and yellow colour scheme as a response to the floor-to-wall pinkie-brown marble hall. The tall ceilings here again allow an opportunity for vertical construction. Hence, banners, flags, weather vanes, hoardings, and billboards provide inspiration for her current structures. They cling to the sides and push against the walls. A long series of scabby old floorboards lean against the wall, buffered by folded pieces of red cloth and with earth-red paint that has been sanded off in patches, like a forlorn, earthy John McCracken or a distressed Clyfford Still, echoing the marble’s patination. Despite their abstract qualities, like Clough, there are distinct hints of the world around us.
Of her work, Barlow has said that:
“I am absolutely fascinated by the ruin as being something that goes in more than one direction: it recedes into complete annihilation, but also feeds back into something that is ready to be rediscovered or remade as a way to stop its final denigration.”
It is definitely building site aesthetics as art. And at 63, she is certainly the doyenne of handmade sculpture in this country; her art, her example and her work as a lecturer have left their mark on several generations of artists.
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.