Incorrigible, Sentimental

Curated by Merlin James

08 July - 06 August 2005

'Painting's sense of its own history is essential to its development. In this exhibition I've put works by some contemporary painters with those of an earlier figure' -
Serge Charchoune (1889-1975)

Serge Charchoune was a Franco-Russian artist who moved at times in Dada, Cubist and Purist circles. I find him one of the most unique and currently relevant painters of the twentieth century. Like many artists of his time he spoke of parallels between music and visual art, and alluded to matters mystical. But the characterfulness and specificity of his works save them from theosophical platitudes and pretensions, as much as from dull formalism. At once abstract and figurative, he never lets us forget the synthetic means by which he creates visual meaning and mood. Thus he achieves a wonderfully unselfdeceived affirmation. He said, knowingly, Je suis incorrigible, je suis sentimental..

The other painters in this show all have affinities with him, in particulars and/or in principles. I think they are all about a disabused reaffirmation - both of painting and of that which can be painted. Like Charchoune they are willing, even compelled, to risk being misunderstood - mistaken for kinds of painters that in fact they are not (just as Charchoune was never really the Dadaist, Cubist, Purist or Tachiste he might appear).

The blatancy of recent abstractions by Clive Hodgson (UK) is perhaps a function of the sheer urge to make painting 'difficult' again, in a time when almost anything seems assimilable into the open field of contemporary art. It is hard to imagine any painting creating the sort of unease today that Hélion's or Guston's style shifts did. Yet Hodgson's refusal of any 'touch', his ultra-thin application straight onto white primer, and his use of ornamentalism, are all truly and excitingly disconcerting. What emerges is the ability of colour, form, structure, illusion and expressive mark to assert themselves even in the absence of any 'simpatico' handling. The pictures come alive; and the mysterious terms in which a painting succeeds or fails (or both simultaneously) are themselves partly the object of the work's investigations. Remarkable, too, is that such empirical pictorial experiments are not lacking in wit, humanity even poignancy.

Conversely, Robert Bordo (USA). is a lot to do with touch, sensibility, a tradition of belle peinture (Watteau's fêtes, Corot's groves, Constable's skies, Whistler's mists). A cluster of generic landscape scenes - a sunset, a bay, a mountain, a horizon with some wisps of foreground foliage - frequently make up Bordo's paintings. Clouds, the drifts of continents on a globe or the mountains and seas of a moon also surface in his lyrical repertoire. What grounds his ethereal poetry, though, is the physicality of texture and application (in which at its most literal a child’s footprint can be physically impressed in the mud of the paint). Like all the painters here, Bordo qualifies, as well as indulges, reverie. His project could be characterised as bringing humility and humanity to artistry (that of, say, Ryman) and to intellectuality (that of, say, Johns).

The objects in the emblematic diptychs of Sam Fisher (UK) are, in several senses, painted from memory. The impression is that they are things he knows, once knew, or of which he knows the 'type'. Yet they are also things that emphatically exist only in art - in the painting we see. Fisher's practice, in addition, is to remake the image on a smaller canvas, again from memory (of the first version), then finally to hang the two versions in proximity (though never adjacently) as one piece. For all the evident issues of artifice and reality, particular and generic, we are a world away from the references to sign, logo, mediation and spectacularisation in so much recent art.

Amanda Thesiger (UK) also deals with objects and grounds. Her biomorphic forms with evident landscape associations could easily slip into pleasing, vaguely mysterious ambiguity. Instead they seem all about pictorial specificity - the different character of each individual form, each grouping of forms, and the different spaces they imply. Nor do we search for a 'subject'’ that might explain the particular mood. Personal as they are, the works do not ask to be read as expressions transmitted from the artist to the viewer via some abstract Esperanto. Rather the feeling is that their creator simply shares our interest in the variousness of existence and potential existence.

Sylvia Plimack Mangold (USA) was first known for quite conceptual investigations into representation (involving, say, depicting a twelve inch ruler in 1:1 scale). Problematic boundaries of the act of imaging were signalled by the trompe-l'oeil of masking tape that repeatedly the bordered the work. Her subsequent move into apparently more 'straight' painting (often depicting trees) aroused much discussion. Yet just as the essence of the earlier pictures may have lain in an aesthetic surplus not accounted for in the work's theoretical pretext, so now the paintings, however 'natural' they may seem, never lose the grain of philosophical enquiry.

For further information or visual material, please contact Darragh Hogan.