Wednesday, 22 January 2014

David Batchelor reveals his true colours at Spike Island

'David Batchelor..., David Batchelor....where have I heard that name before?' I racked my brain as I walked the docklands of Bristol, one particularly grey and rainy Wednesday afternoon. I was heading toward Spike Island because I'd read that morning that one, David Batchelor had an exhibition of his paintings and drawings there.  I was determined to find out who he was and why I'd heard of him someplace before that I couldn't quite recall...

Seeing a row of colourful, abstract paintings on the gallery wall upon arriving I soon figured it out. Colour! It meant that this was that David Batchelor, author of 'Chromophobia' a book examining the West's prejudice/fear of colour as a secondary or decorative element. It's a great read and now I had the opportunity to see some of his work made as an artist, I was intrigued to see just how colourful (and what would he do with it) Batchelor's work would be.

David Batchelor, 'Atomic Drawings' (1998-2013) various media

I have actually seen some of Batchelor's art work before, but in my ignorance hadn't made a note of the name in order for it to stick in my memory. He is better known for his sculptural works (using colourful plastic components) than 2D, making this exhibition something of an insight to even those who are familiar with his work. In 'Flatlands' the majority of work shown is in the form of paintings, sketches and preparatory experiments on paper/surfaces but there are also a few sculptural pieces (pictured below) which act as a way of connecting the themes of colour and abstraction in the paper works to the 3D ones. A row of such pages are presented as you first arrive in the exhibition, the 'Atomic Drawings' (pictured above and below) depict a series of playful, abstracted forms (that look slightly architectural) in glowing neon's and 'artificial' colours; made in inks, spray paints, gaffer tape, pen and household paints on various found surfaces. Deliberately, I've not shown any of the more colourful ones here because maybe, I'm exhibiting my own form of 'chromophobia' often preferring in my own work to use a more limited colour palette bordering on complete monochrome. I simply didn't like the more colourful pieces, thinking they were garish or there was an unlikeable easiness to them. What did interest me in these works wasn't so much the colour anyway, but the forms, surfaces and affects created with different materials. I wonder if Batchelor felt the same? 

Batchelor writes in 'Chromophobia' how throughout Western history of art, 'that drawing is the masculine side of art, colour the feminine side'. Taking the gender debate in that statement to one-side, surely it is very difficult to have or perceive colour without drawing or colour without form and that the two need each other? There are artists that have tried to present colour as a separate thing such as, Barnett Newman, James Turrell, Rothko and many more but whilst their works in some ways succeed in immersing you in colour so that it becomes an almost bodily experience, I think you still cannot detach colour completely from form. The Turrell light works are defined by the form of the space/the room they occupy as well as the occupant, Newman's paintings are limited to the edges of the canvas (no matter how big they can be) and in Rothko's paintings you can still see the trace of hand, the brushstroke and the bleeding of paint which also begin to create form. It's potentially a very loaded statement to make but I do not think that form and colour can exist independently of each other. You cannot have a colourless form? Even a black and white drawing can only be a drawing because there is a contrast between the black of the ink and the white of the paper. I digress completely, but I think in the case of Batchelor's work, neither colour nor form are his primary concern but a fusing of how the two come together. If anything it is more about how the abstract coloured blob of paint or mark can become representational, as the title of the exhibition contextualises. 'Flatlands' is taken from the novella by Edwin A Abbott, 'Flatland'  which is a tale of a square that lives in two dimensions and 'explores the realms of one and three dimensions in order to consider how hard it is to conceive dimensions outside of one's own experiences.' That book frames the work in this exhibition around questioning what makes two dimensional and three dimensional different

David Batchelor, 'Atomic Drawings' (1998-2013) various media
David Batchelor, 'Disco Mecsnique' (2008) plastic sunglasses

Moving on from the drawings, I went to investigate the sculptural works on display (only to end up, ultimately, linking the sculptural works back to the original drawings I'd seen)! I mentioned how the 'Atomic Drawings' were almost architectural, certainly the green blob in the top image looks almost sculptural being given its own plinth/scaffolding to rest on. This concept of creating pedestals or plinths for colour as well as the layering, fragmenting and repetition present in other drawings has been replicated in the 'Concretos' sculptures (pictured below). Here, broken coloured shards of glass are staggered and protruding from their contrasting, monochrome-grey concrete base. Their weighty-ness and sharpness makes them feel more masculine or edgy than the drawings but are also a little obvious and leave less to the imagination than the drawings. For reasons that are maybe down to personal preference, I think that the illusion of depth/three-dimensions and potentiality present in the drawings is more interesting than the physical realisation in sculpture*.

In, 'Disco Mecanique' (pictured above) a chance encounter with cheap plastic sunglasses for sale in Sao Paulo, proved to be the ideal building material Batchelor was looking for. The artist states, 'I was looking for cheap, brightly coloured plastic objects that I might be able to use somehow.' After playing with building structures out of sunglasses, Batchelor found 30 could be joined together to make spheres. Once again, the work is very colourful and I understand the connection one could make between glasses, eyes, spheres/orbs of glasses that look like eyes, and eyes being sensitive to colour etc. But I still think there is as much to be revealed in the structuring and way in which these components have been grouped, the way they move and sway as well as what the colour or sunglasses communicate. Perhaps ironically all those ideas come together to make a very optical piece of work that is in more ways than one about looking.

David Batchelor, 'Concretos' (2013) concrete and glass

David Batchelor, 'Twelve Greys' (2013) gloss and matt paint on aluminium

Some of the initial sketches also led to creating the larger series of work, 'Twelve Greys' and, honestly titled, 'Blob paintings'. Here I think we find Batchelor's treatment and use of colour at its best whereby gloss paint is directly poured onto either an aluminium or matt surface and left to spread/dry. Like liquid colour the paint creates its own form and each dries with its own unique wrinkly surface essentially also forming its own sculpture. The abstract is then made into the representational by giving the 'blob' a base/plinth on which to rest on. It does nicely link together his concerns of colour, sculpture and drawing. 

What is the most successful and rewarding element to this exhibition is the synchronicity between Batchelor the writer and Batchelor the artist. They both inform each other and so it would be pointless to attempt and try and critique the two separately. The art puts into practice and tests the ideas and theory in the writing and the writing acts as a way of processing and rationalising some of the more spontaneous-looking and random art works. Whilst I sometimes think his choice of colours is a bit bold and a bit kitsch for my taste, there is harmoniousness between his practice and theory that is also investigative and playful. It was still raining when I left, maybe not as much as before as I could have sworn things were no longer looking quite as grey.   

David Batchelor, 'Blob Paintings' (2011-2013) gloss and matt paint on aluminium

David Batchelor's 'Flatlands' is on at Spike Island until the 26th January 
* Why is this? What is more appealing about the imagined sculpture as to the physically, realised one? One has potential to change and is malleable; the other is more concrete, fixed or absolute? But some sculptures do change, thinking of Arte Povera and/or are kinetic, they move. Is it the same as saying do you prefer the painting of an apple or the actual apple? This could be the beginning of something a lot more complicated...

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