23rd March - 15th April 2006

Opening: 23rd March 2006

Seventies Abstract Painting:
Part II

John McLean

Fred Pollock

Paul Tonkin

Seventies Abstract Painting: Part II

This show continues Poussin Gallery’s review of abstract painting by artists who painted or exhibited in South London’s Stockwell Depot. That the Depot was both studio and exhibition space was first and foremost a practicality; art always needs to be shown and, if moving against fashion, artists may find it necessary to take matters into their own hands. For these artists, dedicated to colour painting amidst the expanded field of the seventies, when the dominant aesthetic focused on the dry, the brittle and the tasteful, the dual function would certainly have been attractive. But looking at the paintings, and those of other artists connected with Stockwell, this merging of studio and exhibition space, of the areas of exchange between painter and painting and painting and viewer, has a particular resonance. The works’ impact is born out of a fascination and deep engagement with the possibilities of the medium, with the weighing of one mark and the next, and the two against the whole, an engagement centred in the studio. Painting here is not a jumping off point for mystical speculation, or a discourse hyper-sensitive to its own inevitable failure, but an attempt to meaningfully structure visual experience. These paintings ask for a response concentrated on the visual and because of this resist the attempts made here to reduce them to brief, linear descriptions.

Fred Pollock’s paintings in Poussin all make use of lines or stripes running along the canvas’s longest edge, emphasising a vertical or horizontal alignment. This is an inheritance from the paintings of artists such as Kenneth Noland, where the stripe carried neat, forceful colour, attended equally to each square inch of the canvas, and denied attempts to read depth in the work, so preserving the surface’s integrity. Noland's works were cleansed of facture, and appear, with an almost aggressive presence, to have arrived fully formed. In contrast, Pollock’s paintings incorporate the studio, evidence of the painting process, as part of the final work. The stripes were not carefully designed and then transposed up onto the canvas but were one element of the painting, amongst others, arrived at through the trial and error of successive applications of paint. The willingness to allow this evidence to play a part opens up the spatial potential in a painting.

In Chalice a wide, unevenly-loaded brush has been carried, with generous sweeps of an arm, up and down the canvas. The off-white paint, though thick in places, breaks to allow the colour behind to show through. Its slow burning purples envelope the pale strokes in a heady atmosphere. In the similar, satisfyingly straight-forwardly titled, Painting 2 1976, this same atmosphere is again encountered, here pierced with an insistent red dot. In both works the painting creates a space, not one defined by lines shooting to the horizon or infinity but by shifting colours, penetrated by light, and one which vibrates in front of and behind the surface. Within this the broad white marks hang; although they must have been made with fast, loose gestures, the weight of their relationship with the ground slows them luxuriously down. This rich slowness is far away from Painting 1 1974. Here the strongly horizontal format takes advantage of a natural inclination to read it as panorama. The bright green and pink lines quickly stretch across the canvas’s width, not travelling from one side to another, but, with the uncertainty that is a vital component of painting, pushing to both sides at once. The sharpness of these lines act as foil to the subtleties of the whole; the differentiating of two framing areas or the modulating, by earlier paint layers, of the final thinly applied bands of blue.

Paul Tonkin’s tall narrow painting As and When began with thin, loose washes of pale colour that seeped into and stained the canvas. These acted as visual prompts for the painting’s subsequent progression, allowing development from its own internal sources, whilst still reiterating themes, motifs or colour choices previously explored. Even if no longer visible, it is possible to imagine these marks’ fluidity, as in a Helen Frankenthaler, and then, perhaps, their connection to the shifting masses of colour that followed and formed the final work. These masses slide past and butt up against each other, contain a potential energy and imply a direction, broadly either up or down the canvas. They suggest movement with a physicality that contrasts with Frankenthaler’s ethereal washes or with colour-field painting - that all three painters were at some stage drawn to - where the substance of paint is sacrificed to purity of colour. Physicality, in part a sense of the medium’s weight, here is not achieved through the glop of impasto and sheer accumulation of paint, but with a directness at times reminiscent of unmixed pigment.

The larger structures of As and When are invigorated with a shift in scale, from macro to micro; the carefully hooked mark that the top half pivots around, the baby pink that races up one side, and the piercing blue dot, hanging in the corner. The movement inward, implied by these focal points, creates a sense of depth; this can be more clearly seen in Cotton Tail, where the precise lines crossing the bottom left-hand corner throw the coarser marks backward. In As and When the effect is more muted, with the push and pull of the forms suggesting a narrow compacted space. Tightness is not a constant in Tonkin’s paintings, which range spatially between As and When and the explosion of marks found in Something. Here the initial washes are visible behind heavier marks and suggest a void reaching out beyond the picture’s surface. In the front layer there is a delight in the variety of paint; it is poured and allowed to run wet into wet, dryly scraped over the canvas or applied with loose, flowing movements.

In achieving an immediacy of effect, and clear, fresh colour, John McLean adopts a pared down approach to painting, with his resources centred on the marshalling of planes of colour over the canvas’s surface. In doing so he focuses on the area that each colour spreads across, its size and form, the consistency of the application, and the quality of each areas’ edge. The structuring of the Matissean colour in Certo lays out some of these concerns. The flanks of Certo are defined by two bands, pink on the right, aquamarine on the left. Their inner edges slope almost parallel to each other and just off vertical, both deviating slightly at the canvas’s top and bottom edges, turning as if to anchor each expanse of colour, to prevent a tumbling off the surface or a floating away. They frame two sets of marks; three bands fuzzing their way across the picture, and between these a succession of upright pole-like areas of colour. The latter are the picture’s main event. Each is made of a single colour, mainly applied with strokes of watery paint; because of the way this adheres to the canvas’ teeth many of the poles are left pricked with specks of white. Though most are separate from their neighbours they lean towards each other, threatening to touch. The play of the colours together, the almost-touching and the indeterminacy of the edges creates movement through the painting, less a settled rhythm than a lively restlessness. The poles resolve themselves into a range of colour possibilities; as one looks, then looks again new relationships suggest themselves. The change is not so much a morphing from one to the next, as in, say, the flux of an action painting, but with each one clarified, separate from what has gone before.

In Certo, the stress is on the centre of the canvas; this a common feature of McLean’s painting at the time, with some works employing a large motif controlled by areas of colour in each corner. As with all three artists a common tendency is not necessarily an overriding one, as the structure of Knowheid shows. This painting, in particular, shows the influence of the work of the Canadian painter Jack Bush, in the simplicity of the slabs of colour laid against each other. Here they are arranged either side of a sloping spine, and McLean’s interest in edges is apparent. Some colours are hard up against each other, though this is softened in places where one has been allowed to gently bleed into another, whilst others float freely. The edge of the canvas itself is used here, sometimes suggesting stability, in the sky blue near the bottom, or implying, with the flesh tone near the top, movement beyond its borders.

Sam Cornish 2006

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