Abstract art galleries

Three exhibitions of painters more or less of my generation trying to bypass modernist abstraction, or at least using something of its visual language to make their art. While for me, none of the exhibitions completely exceeds this starting point, not hitting on something that seems completely new or totally convincing, each of them contained something special.

There was a lot of wobbly and a little faded motive, struck with voluptuousness. Often, this attraction turns into a kind of personality, the feeling that a painting or sculpture, or the image it contains, has a cartoon character. We see some of it in contemporary abstraction, a variety of fantasy to which many contemporary art seems to cling as a retreat from the icy high-end production values of Jeff, Damien or Gerhard. In general, it can be easy to draw attention to the difficulty of focusing attention in a more abstract way, and can be gracefully attractive, with an obvious appeal that seems manipulative, as if you were trying to see the seller’s close smile. Munster makes it work, by keeping it at a distance, by working in a rather abstract way.

Abstract paintings were small, generally oriented like portraits, and in accordance with personality, this worked best when the image was in harmony with the portrait format, when the heterogeneous assembly of lines and shapes, formed a unique structure in the rectangle. Kind of like he was facing forward, looking at you. The paints had pleasantly resistant surfaces, built from several layers of paints. This hardness was such that some of the abstract paintings stacked at the back of the art gallery seemed about as good as the best hanging on the walls. It was also to their advantage when the pattern was integrated into the surface, as it gave its line greater physicality. In too many of them, there was a feeling of formalism without enthusiasm, a feeling of careful experimentation in too many directions, without resolution, or without drawing conclusions about the direction to follow.

The most convincing thing about the exhibition was the large suspended structure, made from pieces of bamboo wrapped in fragments of canvas from abandoned paintings. When I spoke with the gallery owner, I understood that this was a new development in M√ľnster. For a previous exhibition, he had made a similar construction, which seems to hang on the photos like a rather flat grid, against the wall. The current work has looked much more successful, giving free rein to his cartoon line and allowing an energy and tension that did not match the exposed paintings. I understood that the original intention was to hang it in the gallery window, but it had been moved to the centre of the gallery so that it could be seen from both sides.

The exhibition of the painter Dominic Beattie at the Fold Gallery evokes modernist purity, it apparently pays no attention to the work of art except for a few historical references to art. Although pretty on the trend, I thought it was probably a misdirection to go to this exhibition. But his exhibition was the one I liked the most during my day in the art galleries, they are undoubtedly attractive things, and it was good to see such a complete focus on visual invention.

In fact, what holds back the work, what prevents Beattie’s talent and inventiveness from becoming truly exciting, is an excess of purity, or at least a tasteful decision making. Mainly Beattie depends too much on the inflected verticals of cubist construction. I would like to see him break the verticals, and allow his work to spread more freely through the exhibitions. Some of the constructions suggested this (the most intriguing by sneakily transforming their forms upside down so that they became subtly involved in the space around them), but they never really took the step. Breaking the verticals would probably imply a break with its very small scale; especially in the case of striped constructions, there was no reason why they would stop where they did, why they could not continue at 2, 3 or even 10 times their current height? The risk was worth taking. A larger size could also give the opportunity to contrast his admirable clarity, the skill inducing the smile with which he plays and pushes his structures with something a little harder, bigger, more shocking and finally wider. Some constructions referred to figuration, resembling a schematic right human figure or a head in a portrait.

Although it was the one who was the longest on my radar. I didn’t particularly like Browne’s paintings in the past. They seemed too vague, like the beginnings of his paintings that did not have the means or desire to cross the threshold completely and really stand up. I’m not sure the exhibition has completely won me over. But it kept me longer than I thought, and the most interesting thing was that some of the abstract paintings for sale stayed in my head for the rest of the day. One could say that Beattie and Munster are too closely concerned with formal issues, for me, Browne is not concerned enough. Yet, I think there is something about paintings, a concern for particular experiences, light effects or emotional states, a distinct sensitivity visible even through sloppy handling, colour combinations and hues. Browne is interested in The Stealthy, Fragile Sensation and the consistency with which she worries is, favour.

Or could I say that she lets them blend into each other, letting the two shine more or less dimly, the rectangles that build the wall surfaces of a painting by John Hoyland or Hans Hofmann become blocks roughly stacked one on top of the other, it is the abstract paintings that I find the most difficult to understand. In this fusion of the language of abstraction with figuration, Browne resembles Basil Beattie, whose exhibition in Hales I saw later that day. Hales’ press release quoted Beattie describing herself as a kind of symbolist, which also seemed appropriate for Browne. Beattie’s abstract paintings are clearly more confident, more accomplished than Browne’s, which should be expected from the work of an abstract painter with five decades of experience, rather than five years.

But Beattie’s work seemed to me to be a dead end, a development of a fixed repertoire of motifs which, despite their clear representative content, feel far removed from the lived experience. Rather than go down a dead end, I hope Browne hasn’t really started yet. With a little more precision, a little more certainty, a little less confidence in linear and figurative forms of space creation, the weak but real sense of fidelity that Browne’s best paintings possess could become something worthy of attention.

This sense of abstract personality in abstract painting goes back to Malevich, it may be seen among the minor and idiosyncratic modernists of the mid-century like Auguste Herbin or Peter Kinley, and I am sure many other painters.