Alexis Harding

Andrew Mummery Gallery, 9th October - 8th November 2003

At the centre of Alexis Harding’s show are two pedestrian control railings, the kind of steel fences that represent the casual authority of bored urban planners, happy to direct the plodding citizen away from the statistical dangers of urban joy riders. The same joy riders that, I guess, drove straight into these two barriers, twisting them into violent curves and waves, and which now lie intertwined in the gallery, rescued from the municipal depot in Deptford. The transformation of ordinary matter from something mute into something loaded with significance preoccupies Harding’s work, and this Railing Sculpture No. 1, (all works 2003), marks a distinct moment in its evolution. Around it, Harding’s signature form of process ‘painting’ – gloss grids poured flat into wet oil, producing an anarchic chemistry of wrinkles, tears, slippages and seepages – suggest that he has become increasingly sensitive in addressing genres of art-making as a set of limits that can only be discovered by presenting them as extremes. Whereas Harding’s painted grids used to hold securely to their supports, they now barely hang on, their gloopy viscous oil-gloss mix sliding and dripping from beneath wrinkled skins, onto the concrete floor.

How something like plain old ‘paint’ becomes ‘painting’ or how some damaged railings become what we might think of as ‘sculpture’, are worth maintaining as open questions, especially during the current runaway infatuation with figurative painting, and the carefree return to art-as-pop-commodity that masks (or reveals) a resigned conservatism amongst young artists, for whom picture-making and sculpture are just the means to a career - Prêt-a-porter meets cash-and-carry, down the aisles of Frieze Art Fair. Harding’s attention to the materiality of paint could just be so very 90s, part of that brief development of ‘matterist’ painting that went from Goldsmiths College to Cork Street without drawing breath, and which, from Ian Davenport to Jason Martin is now left to its own devices. But if those painters held on to a certain end-of-painting anxiety that pushed them to reaffirm the concrete values of paint as material and as aesthetic form, Harding’s work has the temerity to jeopardise the idea of both, not to rescue or reaffirm painting, but simply to put it in touch with the real world in which it exists.

The trick of Harding’s new works is to present prosaic stuff in a moment of transformation, allowing one cohering structure to vanish whilst another emerges. Apart from No.1, Harding has started on a series of what might be called drawings; Postage Drawing 1, is simply the odd perforated lattice that exists between postage stamps in sheet form. The stamps removed, the lattice has been gently twisted and pinned onto a support, so that it forms a loose volume: old functions and new forms held in the balance. Similarly Harding’s new paintings more than ever goad the almost complete collapse of painterly convention. The pure grids now not only wrinkle, slide and tear, but the skins they form are now grabbed and pushed about by hand; Painting (B) red oil / orange gloss, has had its skin gathered together, like a comedy tablecloth-pulling trick gone awry. Physical versus visual form, process-as-intention versus process-as-chemistry, finished object versus ongoing performance, ‘art’ versus ‘ordinary’ object, all poised in dynamic tension; the interest lies in Harding’s capacity to value these oppositions equally, or not see them as oppositions at all. Synthesising these boundaries so that they are kept continually open says a lot more about the place of art in lived reality than a thousand canvases that ‘represent’; and art that enacts transformation and openness might be increasingly valuable in a society ever more cautious of change. Like the abstract painting in the Ad Reinhardt cartoon once asked, ‘What do YOU represent?’


First published in Contemporary, February 2004 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated