Galerie Von Bartha Garage, Basel, Switzerland, September 5 – October 18, 2009
In our current art-fair-crazy moment, it is quite difficult to imagine a situation of antagonistic ideologies such as that posed by the Jewish Museum’s Action/Abstraction exhibition. Two opposing ideas of abstraction slugging it out in bars seems far removed from a world where Damian Hirst has just made a huge profit from selling his work directly through Sotheby’s at the moment when the world’s stock markets are in meltdown. Even the poles of figurative and abstract seem out of order now. Can we say that abstraction and figuration are mere subgenres within the genre of painting? Are we all now reduced to genre artists?
Andrew Bick is a painter whose work I have looked at for a number of years now. His latest exhibition at the newly relaunched Von Bartha Garage is quite possibly his finest. A former car garage refitted for a contemporary art gallery—though still providing gas as a functioning petrol station—is a space so large as to allow for two simultaneous one-person shows. By London and Basel standards, this new light-filled space, with a factory roof akin to DIA Beacon’s, is a relatively large one.
Bick has for the past two decades been creating “paintings” with wax and, occasionally, Perspex, a transparent plastic. I say “paintings” because the result is a two-dimensional, wall-mounted object, and his visual language is an engagement with the grammar of painting. However, his earlier pieces were large blocks covered on all sides with wax and thus quite physical, which have over time morphed into the occasional free-standing “thing” that suggest a stool or a table. Despite the diverse nature of his work—paintings with wax, Perspex “paintings,” the occasional “furniture” pieces and works on paper—Bick’s concerns have very much to do with how one can continue making abstraction today.
In the past his tendency has been to clash elements of the abstract language: grid, gesture and geometry; thick and painterly vs. ordered and smooth; physical painting (wax) to the nearly immaterial (Perspex). The latter strategy creates a tension akin to Richter’s dual act of making abstractions and painting from photographs; thus the separate Perspex and wax paintings become analogues for each other.
On the whole, their nature as paintings has won out—at least for the moment. Over the past decade, although his work has maintained a certain physicality, it has come to privilege the frontal plane, thus veering away from a discussion of the painted object and towards actually becoming a painting. His constructed wood panels now have a bevelled edge, thus making the sides less present and emphasizing the painted surface.
In this context, the use of wax becomes an interesting gesture. For Bick it is not as a material for transmutation in the way of Wolfgang Laib, but closer in spirit to Jasper Johns. For the latter, in his early work, it was as much a signifier for gestural paint as a device to distance himself from the direct intensity of the Abstract Expressionist touch. In all I believe that Bick’s project is most related to Jonathan Lasker’s attempt to step back from a more “direct” form of abstract expression, but also to continue within that tradition.
Despite my arguing for a program in his abstraction, Bick’s work remains remarkably un–ironic or mannered. One thing has been a constant through the bulk of his oeuvre: the nature of light and touch. Though quick to cool and freeze gestures, wax also traps light in a completely different way from oil or acrylic. The soft light, particularly in areas where Bick has not added paint or just used white, recalls the soft, grey light that one becomes used to in England. This is aided by the planar quality of his geometric elements—primarily triangles—in this show. Gesture appears faintly in the form of graphite scrawls in the “background” of a few, a luminous effect that Bick has allowed to come to the fore. This, I suspect, is Bick’s method—conscious or unconscious—of subverting his own strategy. Likewise his use of linen on a few of the panels, a signifier for “fine” painting, traps light with its texture and colour—where left bare—and provides the work with a softer “feel.” No doubt his next exhibition will choose to emphasize different aspects of his thinking, such is the restless nature of his creative process, but the conditions may not as ideal for such luminosity.
In stark contrast is the small group of paintings by Charlotte Beaudry in the front space of the gallery. Although occupying less space than Bick, Beaudry nonetheless carries a strong though different charge with her simply painted figurations. They have a cool and light touch evocative of certain type of Belgian painting that’s currently in vogue, and her gray and green palette allows a quiet energy to prevail. Unlike Bick, Beaudry displays a range of approaches, from little still–lives to a grand painting of knives in the manner of Lisa Milroy, and a superb pair of paintings of sheets. A painting of her friend’s daughter dancing has a Lolita-like free-spirit feel to it. The result is a gathering of work that seems less ponderous than the stately one in the back, but just as serious. Together the two artists don’t seem in argument; rather, they both seem to be serious about painting.
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.