The Raft

Nylon4th Feb- 6th March 2000

History isn’t what it used to be.  As  Francis Fukuyama infamously argued in his 1989 article ‘The End of History’, it isn’t that events no longer happen, just that with the final triumph of liberal democracy over its totalitarian opponents, history, understood as the chronology of progressive social change, had come to its final realisation.  The trouble is that although it was simple enough to declare ‘the end’, it became clear that living in an epoch that was by its own admission ‘post-historical’ was a confusing and disorienting prospect.

This realisation wasn’t lost on contemporary art of the period, which with the ascendancy of both critical and ‘cynical’ post-modernist practice had come to a kind of conclusion in its undermining of the utopian ideals of modernist orthodoxy.  In its own way, and at around the same time, artistic practice faced ‘the end’ of the terms which had defined its own particular historical context for the best part of a century.  But in much the same way that the defeat of the eastern block served only to highlight the west’s own lost of direction, so post-modernist art at the turn of the nineties accomplished the defeat of an over-arching modernism, only to find that in its triumph it had made itself redundant.  Caught between the post-structuralist dismantling of the subject, and the simulationist disintegration of the art-object, it seemed for a while, particularly for painting and sculpture, that there really was nowhere (or when) to go,  and much of the following decade was spent on finding viable terms by which the residual forms of art-making might continue. Like the shipwrecked survivors of some great vessel, the artists of the last few years have been gathering  the fragments of dead art to build a makeshift vehicles that, even if they don’t take them very far, will at least take them someplace else. This metaphor of artistic survival is, as it were, the central plank of ‘The Raft’; Klega, the exhibition’s curator, has brought together a range of painting and sculpture that reworks the possibilities of some defunct style or epoch in order to, literally, ‘see if it floats’.

Sybille Berger’s Without Title, 1997 seems at first to have the hardest time staying above water; the four ultra-flat bands of intense oranges and purples which occupy the canvas might be the uninflected return of Joseph Albers or colour-field painting, and might barely transcend the countless colour exercises of  bygone art-schools; and yet, as with many such recuperations, the immediate intensity of the colour’s presence tends to silence questions of repetition or nostalgia.  And Berger is certainly no slouch with colour, the four horizontals bringing into play the clichés of colour-field without succumbing to them - push-pull, the hint of the under-painted hue inflecting the resonance of the one it supports, the abstraction of the horizontal hinting at the illusionism of a perspectival horizon – they’re all here.  And yet, although pleasurable, it’s a pleasure that we recognise from somewhere else, or some other time.  Stripped of its epochal grandeur as the pinnacle of modernist achievement, colour-field painting survives happily on such reduced terms, and there will always be plenty of rooms in which to hang it.

By contrast, David Burrows and DJ Simpson’s collaborative four-panel plywood work, Because I Like it, I Also Want to Stop (1999/2000) takes on painting, or more particularly the cipher of abstract expressionism, with playful iconoclasm.  Over-stylised paint splats (carefully painted, mind) have featured in Burrows’ previous work, and Simpson has been making a name for himself with his runaway power-router gesturalism of furrows and channels, which as John Tozer suggested in AM 224, ‘propose that one recognise them as lesions made by the artist on the image of painting itself.’ Out of the four panels, two seem to bear the combined trace of the collaborators, so that where Simpson’s signature router gouges out a track in the painted plywood, Burrows’ careful application of materials fills them in, sometimes with coloured filler, elsewhere with gloopy resin. Conversely, where one expects to follow the unmediated index of the router’s passage, one runs in to an area where the plywood has been carefully cut back, to form the comic-book stylised profile of an oozing dribble of paint.  Which is all very well, but this tongue-in-cheek Oedipal rebellion against the ‘authentic’ gesture of the Modernist father seems locked into the exactly the same over-prioritisation of gesture-as-authentic-index on which Abstract expressionism eventually foundered.  On one hand, Burrows satirises the artifice of the paint drip to nay-say its claims to authenticity, whilst Simpson demonstrates that pretty much anything other than paint can function indexically; the trouble is that both fail to appreciate the as an index of artistic agency, the (painterly) gesture was always and already entirely senseless. But as the title of the piece suggests, the pleasure of expressing is of more significance than what is expressed.

Away from these churning waters, Les Joynes’ Tony,(2000) hangs indifferently from the ceiling.  An amorphous mass of solidified plastic foam, gently turning on a steel cable, it emanates an abject, but somehow jovial formlessness which is calculated to insult every formalist sensibility available; as a kind of ground-zero of sculptural irresponsibility, Tony jettisons every claim of serious, historical sculpture from its no doubt happily amnesiac brain. Close by the Financial Times Paintings of David Mollins exhibit cack-handed renderings of rictus-grinning executives from corporate PR shots. Shoddy paintings of shoddy subjects, the workaday brushwork seems content to produce adequately banal renderings. However, here and there the conventional treatment seems to slip, producing a curious turd-like silhouette on the head of one CEO, or a strangely incongruous woolly hat atop an otherwise anonymous oriental office worker.  These are tenuous signs in an otherwise mundane landscape, but it’s perhaps the feebleness of these incongruous interventions that accentuates the dismal nature of the original images and their slavish renderings.

Above the mantelpiece, Klega’s contribution Antlers (Once Upon a Time In The West) (2000), turns an anonymous audio loop into a means for drawing.  Passing through a personal cassette player fixed to the wall, the tape loops its way around an arrangement of small rollers which, dot-to-dot style, outline a set of trophy antlers, whilst the mournful and distant harmonica refrain from Once Upon a Time can be heard from the player.  In his makeshift and improvised investigation of means, Klega’s piece perhaps best embodies his search for artworks that, whilst making no great claims for either their historical provenance or their programmatic destination, still somehow manage to salvage some workable material in the here and now.  As a philosophical and historical metaphor for the possibilities of art, the raft may be all that we’re left with.  But if a raft offers, if only tenously, the hopeful possibility of onward journey and renewed progress, it’s perhaps not the one floating here, decked as it is with work that knows that although they can never return, still yearn for the golden coasts of the past.



Published in Art Monthly no.234, March 2000 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated