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FROM SKETCH TO SURFACE: Peter Halley – Paintings from the 1980s.

Modern Art, Old Street, London

28 February  - 18 March 2017

Review by Piers Veness

When you first enter Modern Art you are greeted with work that seems very un-Halley: small drawings done in marker on graph paper and framed behind glass, and framed kodaliths (a dense black photographic print) with single words floating in their centre. The second gallery space, containing four medium-sized paintings, returns us to the familiar shapes, colours and textures of Peter Halley – the hard-lined geometry of Glowing and Burnt-Out Cells with Conduit (1982), for example, with its characteristic Roll-a-Tex surface.  The bigger pieces have been hung in the large gallery space behind where, in a superb voltage of colour and line, the colours are so bright that they bounce off the polished concrete floor of the gallery.  The neo-geos of Three Sectors (1986) vibrate out into the space, and its crisp, hard edges look as though they were finished yesterday.

All of the work on show was done in the same decade, the 1980s; and since much of it comes from private collections, it hasn’t been shown together since it was created some 30 years ago (seeing them reunited in the gallery apparently amazed Halley).  So there is chronological continuity to them, but more than that there is a continuity in working methods: the colours and the treatment of surface is the same, as well as the visual language - a kind of cross-section of Halley’s working methods from the 1980s.  And it really is a cracking show.

Peter Halley, Paintings from the 1980s, exhibition view, Modern Art. Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

Peter Halley, Paintings from the 1980s, exhibition view, Modern Art. Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

In essays from the 1990s, Halley explains his ideas: “at the beginning of the 80s, I began to reexamine the nature of geometry in art and its symbolic role in culture.  For the most part, geometry had always been considered as something classical, as something timeless, as something divorced from the social landscape, as something ahistorical... I felt the need to challenge these assumptions based on my own growing intuitive perceptions of the city as functional machine.”  (1)

Yet of all of the work on show, it was the drawings that held me most spellbound. They are the backstage world of the sleek, sharp paintings.  Some of them are just 6 or 7cm square, and drawn freehand without a ruler; but despite this, they are clear lineal studies for the much larger paintings.  It is here in the drawings that the significance of the word ‘cell’ – so frequently used in the titles of the paintings – is truly made clear.  Halley has often spoken of the theoretical influence of Foucault’s work Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), but in these small sketches the cells and the sense of confinement are visually explicit.

Apartment House, Prison (1981) is a modest, almost childlike drawing of an apartment block next to an almost identical building which has bars in its windows: the prison block.  Lacking perspective and executed without too much concern for precision, this is not the flashy, spotless work we are used to seeing by Halley: this is something much more revealing.  Being a copious study-maker myself, I instantly relate to these sketches and the train of thought that they spark.  Sketches can be hugely important for focusing one's ideas and being able to experiment before committing to the final piece, and there is a simple, direct beauty in a humble sketch: it is without pretence, a mere seed which may or may not sprout into a final piece.  But I also know that sketches can be feistily independent, and their energy and directness does not always translate well into large paintings.  And this is where I really enjoyed the show: discovering the connection between the sketches and the final pieces, and seeing what was developed and what was discarded.

Peter Halley, Apartment House, Prison, 1981, ink on graph paper, paper size: 43.2 x 55.9 cm, 17 x 22 ins. Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

An example of this relationship is between the sketch Study for Prison with Underground Tunnel (1983) and the painting Two Cells with Conduit and Underground Chamber (1983). The former is more spatial and playful than the painting, with a cartoonish cheek.  The prison cell – and this is what I love about the immediacy of drawings – is instantly recognizable, and the reference to architectural space is more marked.  In contrast, the painting is much more abstract, its blocks of colour, razor sharp lines, and Roll-a-Tex textures come to the fore, and any representation is now discarded.  What the painting has lost in humour, it has gained in colour and surface.

Peter Halley, Two Cells with Conduit and Underground Chamber, 1983, acrylic, fluorescent acrylic, Roll-a-Tex on canvas, 178 x 203 cm, 70 1/8 x 79 7/8 ins. Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

The same can be said of Two Cells With Circulating Conduit (1987).  Two square slabs of colour float on a yellow background, connected to one another by ‘conduits’ which are exactingly sharp-edged.  As a painting, it is wholly abstract, non-representational.   But if you look at this piece after having studied the drawings, something is added to the painting, an extra layer of understanding is breathed into it, in the same way as seeing a photo of someone as a child gives you another perspective on the adult.  The slabs of colour take on a more spatial relation when one relates them to the studies, and the sense of ‘cells’ becomes more evident.

Peter Halley, Two Cells With Circulating Conduit, 1987, acrylic, fluorescent acrylic, Roll-a-Tex on canvas, 196 x 351 cm, 77 1/8 x 138 1/4 ins. Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

As a painter, I know first-hand how indispensable sketches are.  In Peter Halley – Paintings from the 1980s, the handful of simple drawings gave me an enormous insight into Halley’s process of working on preliminary sketches before jumping to the canvas.  I massively enjoyed the opportunity of seeing all of those amazing paintings in such a well-thought selection, but the true pleasure for me was their connection with the drawings.  While the paintings almost become objects that are simply themselves, the drawings do better at representing the ‘geometric space’(2) that so fascinates Halley.

(1) Peter Halley, Recent Essays 1990 – 1996, p. 19

(2) Peter Halley, Recent Essays 1990 – 1996, p. 20

Peter Halley – Paintings from the 1980s is on until 18 March

© Piers Veness, 2017