Tuesday, September 30, 2014

An Abstract Idea


World News by Tom Cullberg
If you didn’t know any better you might think that Tom Cullberg and I are locked in a staring competition. Neither of us has spoken for awhile, as we stand facing each other in his Woodstock studio in Cape Town. It’s not that we have run out of things to say; it’s the converse – we have said all that we can, What we would like to say hovers on the periphery and, as we grasp for it, it escapes, like a slippery fish.
We are locked in this state because of a series of his new paintings, due to show at the Brundyn Gallery in November, hanging on the wall adjacent to us. In fact, it is one particular painting, World News (2014), that has generated this very pregnant pause.

It is a frustrating and satisfying situation – it would be kind of awful (disappointing for Cullberg) if we could actually pinpoint exactly the conditions it evokes. World News is an abstract work characterised by a series of strong horizontal lines that are broken up by a few faint, drippy vertical ones. The lines are wavy, uneven and in places smudged, coalesce into each other and fade as if worn by time, the elements. I don’t know the title (it comes later via e-mail) and in some ways it is not significant.

Abstract art is decidedly the mode de jour. Woodstock is brimming with it; Zander Blom has filled the Stevenson Gallery with his next lot of painterly experiments in primary colours and Kerry Chaloner’s got some equally chunky paintings on show at her exhibition Black dog White Bread at Blank Projects, a gallery that has provided a pivotal platform for experiments in form from a string of artists – Kyle Morland, Jared Ginsberg, Jan Henri Booyens, Nico Krijno, Rodan Kane Hart and Turia Magadlela (who works with prison sheets).
Zander Blom's formal experiments
Joburg galleries have also been doing a roaring trade in abstraction, formalism; Serge Alain Nitegeka doesn’t work with paint but his recent Into the BLACK exhibition at the Stevenson in Joburg is rooted in a painterly preoccupation with the colour black inspired by “Malevich’s ‘generative’ black and Rothko’s ‘pulsating’ black, to Reinhardt’s ‘degrees’ of Black.” Marcus Neustetter’s tentative pencil drawings, rendering a mapping of space (and time) have blossomed into his strongest solo exhibition to date, Defining Lines at the Art on Paper gallery. Uncharacteristically, this new show is defined by huge scale works in ink and gauche that are compositionally pleasing – his focus has always been on process not form or the end product per se.
A recent trip to London confirmed that this abstraction craze isn’t confined to South Africa; almost every commercial gallery in Mayfair was flogging abstract work, the Saatchi Gallery had an exhibit titled Abstract America Today, and the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich is the subject of an exhibition at the Tate Modern. The work at the centre of that retrospective is his famous abstract work Black Square, which he made in 1913.

It seems flippant to suggest that abstraction is back in fashion or that black is the new black, but art isn’t impervious to trends. And as with any trend or revival or appropriation of an art movement it is bound to cultivate naysayers – it’s been seen before and thus lacks the kind of integrity that marked the movement the first time around.

That the term “formalist zombies”, coined by American critic and figurative painter (so he is not biased!) Walter Robinson, has found some traction among the art intelligentsia confirms the level of weariness that has grown around this popular abstraction turn in contemporary art. Robinson’s distaste for a kind of vacuous abstraction (hence the word zombie) he observes in the US art market has to do with its link to art flipping – like house flipping but with art that accrues value quickly and is shaped in response to the market. It also has to do with a faux sense of originality – people painting with novel implements or mediums as a way of simulating inventiveness.

A few of the works at Abstract America Today at the Saatchi bear this trend out; Trudi Benson, for example, attempts to replicate the “fill” function that MS Paint produces. Chaloner makes stabs at inventiveness by stretching a piece of chamois leather over a frame and through her use of detergents and other cleaning chemicals mixed in with the paint she uses, creating this kind of pastel haze.
Chaloner's Black Dog
It is easy to marvel at this kind of newness in the painting realm; postmodern theory lulled us into disbelieving that anything new is possible. So even small flashes of it excite, though a videowork featuring Chaloner in a protective suit rolling around in the dirt while reciting the rhetoric attached to domestic cleaning products implies that her adoption of this novel medium isn’t superficially conceived.  The titles of some of her works, Nowhere and Now Somewhere hint at a floundering journey to arrive somewhere meaningful or to compensate for this by embracing being “lost” in this veritable wilderness of painting – or the art world where the “new” remains prized despite the fact that the theory disproves this as a possibility.

As a mid-career artist, Cullberg is more self-assured and hasn’t just jumped on this abstract art bandwagon now; he has been leaning towards abstraction since the noughties, embracing it fully in a solo exhibition in 2010, Peripheries. This confidence is evident in his new abstract works; the surfaces are not overworked. In Yellow Clouds, the lines are barely there, alluding to this pervasive ambiguity. In contrast Chaloner and Blom are fixated with impasto, piling the paint on to such an extent that their paintings are almost 3D objects. Their paintings demand attention, though in some, such as in Nowhere, Chaloner holds back, allows the painting to be visually unresolved, attempts to be released from the limits of composition which hold Blom ransom, though an aesthetic remains in play.

Abstraction isn’t just the preserve of the twenty-or thirty-something artists – Cullberg is among a handful of mid-career artists such as Neustetter, Stephen Hobbs, and Christian Nerf who have all turned to this high-modernist language, though for different reasons. For Hobbs and Nerf, who have with varying degrees identified with conceptualism, abstraction has been the end result of a preoccupation with materiality. This is probably why the “zombie” sobriquet appears so fitting for abstraction as it superficially appears to be anti-conceptualism. Hobbs didn’t set out to reject conceptualism, he came to it via printmaking – having to actually make objects that could be sold. The hyper fetishisation of art objects that art fairs has cultivated is undoubtedly one of the drivers. The overworked surfaces that define so many abstract works advance this idea in quite a straightforward way, announcing them as things that are just things.
For Neustetter abstraction was  the end result of activities that were process or experientially driven – the line, the mark, was only there to facilitate him being fully present in the moment. Now he is invested in the mark – it is the starting point, he has zoned in on “the line” investigating the space inside it, which has come to operate as a metaphor for imagined borders.

Cullberg is on a different journey to the others. He is now preoccupied with trying to find a way to reconcile his figurative works with abstraction by embedding figurative motifs in striped landscapes and creating relationships between the works. It is not so much that he wants to have his cake and eat it; he just enjoys the juxtaposition and the way one work, or motif can activate the other, providing an anchor or setting the symbol free.

I find abstraction appealing because I struggle to place it; just as painters, artists are forever chasing a visual expression that evokes something non-visual writers quite enjoy, capturing those conditions that escape words. It is kind of boring to look at a work that announces everything about itself in a single glance. This may be why abstraction has found such traction here, beyond it providing a sort of universal syntax that can seemingly catapult a local artist into the international sphere with ease. It has ultimately provided a tool that more succinctly summons ambiguity than any of those games with visual markers of identity that our artists have been playing with since the mid-’90s in an effort to transcend and challenge racial and gender stereotyping.

As Nandipha Mntambo and Nicholas Hlobo’s more recent exhibitions have shown; the body and embodiment can still be evoked through abstraction – using hair as a medium and evoking the amorphous innards. Abstraction also navigates our visual culture away from dry documentary photography, which seems to have reached a solipsistic cul de sac with photographers now turning the lens on themselves – Pieter Hugo and Mikhael Subotzky come to mind. Of course, there is now a place for formalist photography – French-Ivorian-Senegalese photographer Mame-Diarra Niang’s photographic show that opened last week at the Stevenson is nodding in this direction with images where she mobilises motifs in the urban landscape and architecture as forms rather than loaded symbols.
This may present a retreat from the political; the politics of the land, the self, architecture. However, abstraction opens up the space in which to acknowledge that these politics cannot be sufficiently|described via a visual medium. The world is too complex and in South Africa the right for an artist to attempt to claim “a cause” is so weighted – think of Brett Murray – as it is for a viewer too.

This may be why Cullberg has gravitated towards abstraction; this Swedish born painter would struggle to enter into these discources without his identity coming into play. There are nods to it in his figurative works – a house that recalls one he remembers visiting as a child in Sweden. These motifs are decontexualised, however, summoning nostalgia and loss without giving into sentiment and allowing the viewer to freely identify with it. Or perhaps abstraction provides a satisfying counter to the visual bombardment that social media and the internet has inflicted on us: it causes us to pause (and think or not think) because we can’t consume it instantaneously or at all.

World News leaves me in an awkward place because I can’t put my finger on it and to my relief, nor can Cullberg. It is not that he doesn’t know what he is doing. However, with his abstract (and to some degree his figurative) works he sets out to arrive at the self-same place we are circling in our conversation – that ambiguous space that presents enough visual stimulus to sustain your gaze and subsequent thoughts but never delivers on specifics. As David Goldblatt once told me: “photography is about specifics”. Abstraction delivers us from them without fully denying them.

To complicate things, World News is not necessarily an independent work; the smaller figurative and abstract works with figurative motifs embedded in them that are placed around it, are tangentially connected to it, or could be, just as easily as they could not. It sounds confusing because it is and isn’t; the smaller works are sometimes preparations for the abstract ones, they get him into the psychic zone leading to something less concrete. This process is supposed to play out again in front of the viewer, who is encouraged to create links between the figurative works – of a house, knife, watch, a couple on a motorcycle – eventually arriving at the abstract work where they can play with these motifs and weave their own narrative web within the lines, between the lines. Or not.  The abstract works consequently announce a form of transcendence, release even, but also ensnare you because you can’t command control over them.
Cullberg’s process begins with images he finds in popular culture. He is never sure why he selects them; he follows his intuition. Like the drip effect in the abstract works, he likes to choose moments where he surrenders control – it is the only way he can authentically arrive at a truly abstract place that is withheld from him too – this is vital.

Reflecting on his writing process during a recent conversation with the German author Felicitas Hoppe at the Goethe-Institut in Joburg, Ivan Vladislavic observed he didn’t want “to be entirely in charge of the process. It is the only way I can arrive at a strange place”.
Inevitably, however, authors and painters are compelled at some point, if they are doing something right, to offer some kind of explanation about these seemingly foreign realms that we call artistic expression – if only an obscure artist statement. And in fact the more abstract the work, the more attention people pay to these texts and the more questions these works will provoke. It is a paradoxical bind. And one that has been quite self-consciously expressed in the artist statements for Blom and Chaloner’s shows.
“Fuck off with your ‘context’ and your tired art jargon. Leave me alone,” writes Blom in response to pressure to explain his art, when there are seemingly none, or at least it appears to be compositionally and intuitively driven. He needs to be free of ideas to be free.

Chaloner also delivers a hyper self-conscious non-conceptualist statement; where her art making appears to be shaped by her fluctuating moods and responses to the environment and arbitrary and banal choices that, upon reflection, seem self-indulgent and slightly pathetic – admitting awkwardness has become fashionable.
“I try not to buckle under the weight of Abstract Painting, here, in 2014. I try not to buckle under Surface and Depth and Concepts and Relevance.”
It is not just the artists who are coming to terms with articulating abstraction or choosing to not articulate it, but critics and writers, who will have to reconfigure how they talk to and about abstraction. As it is so subjectively driven and so tied up with an artist’s whims and intuition, it demands even closer engagement with their process and their non-thoughts, plunging into that silence that exists between you, them and the painting.

Cullberg’s solo opens at Brundyn + in November. Neustetter's exhibition is on at Art On Paper