Tuesday, 23 February 2016

You could be lifted...

Pardon my directness, but what is it with Spike Island and ‘flat painting’? In 2013 we had David Batchelor’s ‘Flatlands’ and now in 2016 we have Michael Simpson’s, no frills, ‘Flat Surface Painting’. Maybe three years is enough of a gap to reintroduce notions of ‘flatness’ to those who may have missed it the first time around?
Now as before, the viewer is invited to see these supposed flat paintings up-close and from afar, thanks to the cavernous spaciousness of Spike’s gallery, and gradually come to the realisation that in many ways there is no such thing as a truly flat painting only a matter of the perspective from which we view it. From a distance Michael Simpson’s paintings do appear very flat indeed and they are direct in their iconography like an advertisement or billboard poster; we recognise a ladder, a steel beam, a chair, stairs, a sheet, but when viewed up closer they become much more painterly, and the surface and layering of paint becomes more visible. These layers are still applied very flatly and evenly, but none the less it is almost joyful to detect traces of brush marks or scraped trowel-like marks that prove these paintings were created by a human hand and not a machine. The human element to these paintings is important because they are so huge, so precise and so cold when viewed from afar that they seem almost uncomprehendingly not human. The reality of seeing them up-close reveals that not to be the case and it warms these paintings up so that we begin to consider the person, the painter who created these images.
In an article from The Independant Karen Wright writes, “Michael Simpson hates the word artist almost as much as he hates the word art. He is not ashamed to call himself "merely" a painter.” Which seems on one hand an incredibly empowering stance on rejecting the labelling and conceptualisation of the terms, ‘art’ and ‘artist’ and the purity and commitment to being a painter, almost 'painting for paintings sake'. Simpson proceeds to say, “It’s hard enough to paint without loading it up with too much meaning.” A statement that will undoubtedly be identifiable to many. At the same time however all of this comes with a touch of hypocrisy, to hate the term art yet be in the privileged position to have a solo exhibition at Spike Island; which gets me thinking that the art world is possibly the only industry in which you can still succeed by renouncing it all together; though in reality possibly not the case for so many looking to climb onto the first rungs of the ladder. Simpson, studied at the Royal College of Art in 1940, sharing a room with Hockney; growing up in a Jewish family but pursued atheism in search of, ‘other intellectual pursuits’. This rejection of religion has played an important part in his work; studies of the medieval philosopher Giordano Bruno led to the creating of the ‘bench series’ at Spike. Elsewhere confession box-like spaces, complete with curtains and chair or windows further allude to religious practices. The ladders and ascension like levitation of the steel bar (or bench) are also symbolically religious, but here being used as more formal constructs first and meaningful ones second; their flatness having something in common with frescos and illusionary qualities combining both the formal techniques of painting and the suspended belief and notion of the miraculous found in religion. A staircase becomes a formal black zigzag line across the canvas first, and a metaphor for ascension or decent later.
Although one may accept these are flat paintings they have illusionary and perspective qualities that could suggest otherwise; the life size ladders; tilted brick-like forms and a steel beam which are depicted from an angle and not face-on creating an illusion of depth and the sculptural; draped sheets rendered with 3-Dimensional accuracy. Its suspension in the picture plane another illusion of the heavy made weightless. If I have learnt one thing from this exhibition it is that when less appears to be happening, the more is actually happening. The ladders are for me the best paintings in the show and have a believably mundane point of reference to them that ticks the formal qualities, minimalism and symbolism box with great ease. The other works are epic and show tremendous technical skill but feel a little cold and require more suspended belief than what I have as they sit more uncomfortably between the minimal and the surreal without really being either. Curiously for a show that features so many flat paintings, they are actually all quite uplifting.
‘Flat Surface Painting’ can be seen at Spike Island until March 27th 2016

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The City & The City

“The catalogue of forms is endless: until every shape has found its city, new cities will continue to born. When the forms exhaust their variety and come apart, the end of cities begins.”*
‘Objects-Models-Proposals’ is the title of the latest exhibition of Graham Seaton’s work with accompanying collaborations by Rex Henry at The Old Brick Workshop gallery space in Wellington Somerset. Looking around at the series of blocky concrete cast forms and inventive wall-mounted glass, metal and wooden installed photography, the un-definability and flexibility as to what are the objects, the models and potential proposals, seems in my mind at least, exactly what this exhibition is out to achieve. Hence begins an investigation into the relationships between photography and sculpture, urban forms, spaces, architecture, the model, the city and the mass produced object.
 Seaton’s concrete casts sit almost at home alongside the equally urban paint-weathered exposed brickwork of the Old Brick Workshop. These sculptures, with their dusky reds, yellows, greys and muted colours appear a cross between totemic-like relics, decommissioned computer servers and a 1950s Soviet government housing planning application. Emotionally they are reserved and instead draw your attention to their glorious form, their weight and shadows/space in which they inhabit (they beckon to be investigated from all angles). Cast from assorted fragments of packaging moulds and casings these ‘throw-away’ items of consumerist packaging are given a new, second-life as art objects or sculptures. The stacked floppy discs alongside some of them becoming architecturally utilitarian their original purpose now something of a retro throwback to the 80s. The resulting forms really do look utilitarian, as though their purpose has yet to be defined. It is in this element of ‘potentiality’ that Seaton seems to contextualise his work allowing the viewer to interpret and assign meaning, purpose or value to the work, “the what can be, rather than the, what is”. Sitting somewhere between sculpture, object and model it is more interesting trying to determine where these forms fit rather than be given a fixed definition.
The link with architecture and ‘the city’ becomes more obvious when these forms are scaled-down and placed alongside multiple others in large groups (pictured opposite).The resulting grid of forms becomes a miniature but vast citadel of skyscrapers and towers divided by rows of interlinking pathways that mimic roads.  Again, the beauty is in the possibilities of the various configurations and layouts one could create echoing some of the ‘real-life’ systems of urban development in towns and cities. This is all of course in the viewer’s imagination. We aren’t at any point told, “this is a city” or “a model” but subliminally we imprint that interpretation on it because of our brought experiences of making/understanding models and perhaps of maps and mapping. Referenced in this layout is also the circuit board repeated in the presence of floppy discs mentioned earlier. This introduction of high and low technology, man-made versus digital and the recycled and the obsolete are interesting because they make us re-evaluate the ‘purpose’ of things which have seemingly lost their usefulness i.e. the floppy discs that no longer work, become sculptural components. I speculate whether this extends to a bigger social comment on how we might take these practices one step further and reassign purpose and use of many abandoned, decaying and disused buildings and urban spaces within so many of our cities?
The newer work in this exhibition uses photographs of urban spaces and fragments of the city printed onto sliding glass sheets or inset into wooden/metal self-invented frames or wall-hanging installations. Like the pieces before they defy simple categorisation and become sculptural in that the viewer is encouraged to view these images from different angles or through different layers of materials resulting in a variable experience of textures, colours, shapes and layers. The contrast between the ‘fixed’ view-point of the camera in photography verses the multiple viewpoints of sculpture being an interesting juxtaposition making us rethink about the relationship between form and the space in which it inhabits; the seen and the unseen; the camera lens and lens of the glass through which the image is again viewed. This creates a sort-of duplicity that is cleverly repeated throughout the show from the collaborative relationship between Seaton and Henry to the duplicity in the layering of images; differentiation from the ‘real’, the fabricated and the imagined. Though relatively void of human presence; the viewer instead inserts themselves into these fragmented environments that are less static than the concrete ones, becoming like glimpses through a window or passing moment caught as a passenger on a train or bus journey. Small amounts of highlighted colour draw attention to architectural forms and shapes within these images which on the whole are, for me, a lot more direct at making the link between the abstract and the real city rather than the ‘imagined’ one in the concrete works.

Dotted between are sheets of urban materials, spirit levels and metals propped against walls that bring the exhibition back into the context of the Old Brick Workshop Gallery itself. Feeling somewhat uncertain whether they are intentionally or ironically out of place and at times add a bit too much clutter to the overall feel of the show in my opinion. At their best they do act as a reminder of the assembly of the exhibition and how the process of creating and installing an exhibition has parallels to the constructive potentiality of the work and ideas being exhibited within it.
ObjectsModelsProposals is on at The Old Brick Workshop in Wellington until February 25th. Open Thursday to Saturday from 10am until 4pm.
 **Find out for yourself at an Artists Talk by Graham Seaton between, 10.30-12.30pm Saturday 13th Feb -tickets available on door £5**
*from Italo  Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’