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Andrew Bick | Gate/Grid/Tree (Notes/On/Concrete)

Gallery von Bartha, Basel

Review by Paul Carey-Kent, April 2018

Any number of ghosts haunt Andrew Bick’s substantial show at Gallery von Bartha, a handsome and unusual space converted from a former car showroom in Basel. The British artist has a long-standing affinity with the Swiss, whose Concrete art traditions – Max Bill, Richard Paul Lohse, Camille Graeser etc. – chime with his interests, and he had a major show in Zurich’s Haus Konstruktiv last year. What you see at von Bartha is nine paintings, one of them set against Bick’s own design of wallpaper, and the self-standing sculptural construction of a triangle-heavy grid, an aluminium design for a gate which can be opened to varying angles (though it is welded into one for display). In a gallery setting, Gate / grid, 2018, invites comparison with the bichos of Lygia Clark, so bringing Brazil’s Neo-Concrete movement into the mix, too.

Andrew Bick, installation view at von Bartha, 14 April - 26 May 2018, photo by Andreas Zimmermann, courtesy von Bartha

Those works, like all Bick’s recent production, are a self-ghosting of sorts, for they derive – as he describes it – from “a grid containing all of the linear decisions within an original painting of mine, which I then turned into a digital grid consisting of black lines”. That use of a source from 2007-08 has led to paintings which consist of “triangles, rectangles, rhomboids, trapezoids, and a certain amount of gesture, brought together in a process of adjustment… some elements will get covered up, some will get moved, some will get revisited or reiterated”. That methodology is at its most explicit here in those paintings, such as Variant t-s (dirty compendium detail) #2 (2011-18), the dates of which indicate a repeated process of reworking and scraping back – in that case to an emptier end point than many of the more quickly completed paintings.

Most of the paintings are complicated, and what’s aesthetically impressive in those end results is just how many different materials and means build up and yet are integrated into harmonious wholes: draw­ing and paint­ing; oil and watercolour; trans­parency and opacity, through the use of wax in particular; line and plane; colour and non-colour; gestural and measured; intensely present and apparently faded; glossy and matt; flat and laser-cut sections which reinforce the drawings. OVGDS 135% (2010-17) even has paint on the back, so placed that the colours applied filter through to the front in the right light.

Andrew Bick, installation view at von Bartha, 14 April - 26 May 2018, photo by Andreas Zimmermann, courtesy von Bartha

That ‘maximalist’ type of end result is apparent in four of the nine works. The others variously stop at a simpler point, drain out most of the colour, or allow the translucence of wax to take centre stage. In all cases, though, one senses that the underlying driver is a wryly humorous scepticism about the various painterly strategies available, as summarised by JJ Charlesworth (in Memory Club, 2003) as maintaining an awareness of – yet avoiding – “fashionably disdainful cynicism” about the claims of modernism on one hand, and a “naïve return to sincerity” on the other.

Behind that self-ghosting, again as in previous Bick shows, lie the echoes of other artists and of Bick’s ongoing dialogues with them. Clearly the original Russian Constructivists are in play, as are their Swiss followers, but Bick has also been a particular champion of the British Systems artists such as Gillian Wise, Jeffrey Steele and  David Saunders: his relevant curations include Construction & its Shadow in Leeds (2011). Bick characterises his approach as to draw attention to the Systems artists’ work and celebrate it, yet also to take “a different and perhaps disruptive relationship to it” in his own practice: a critical conversation rather than a stylistic imitation.

OGVDS - GW #10, 2018, photo by Andreas Zimmermann, courtesy von Bartha

That screen-like structure, and also the wallpaper,  started life as the plans for a commission Bick  has worked on with MAKE architects and Derwent London since 2009, which would have been near Tottenham Court Road but has now been cancelled. That, of course, is mere contingency, but it does add to the ghostly sense that nothing here is as was originally intended to be. Both screen and wallpaper allow the viewer to trace the principles behind Bick’s paintings into forms which feed into architectural in a manner parallel to earlier constructivisms.

Bick has referenced two specific voices from the past in this show: Robert Lax and Paul Klee. His engagement with them is long-running and deep. Bick collaborated with Lax for one of a series of joint artist-poet productions for Alec Finlay’s press Morning Star in 1991, and corresponded with him regularly from then until Lax’s death in 2000. Here concrete painting meets concrete poetry:  Lax was an outsider figure who developed a luminously minimal style in which many poems contains very few words, but repeated and formatted in vertical arrangements to build cadences. Bick specifically mentions the light — the shade, which begins by interweaving the words ‘bright’, ‘white’, ‘dark’ and ‘black’, before progressing to ‘high’ and ‘low’, ‘dim’ and ‘bright’ and introducing some colour terms. The echo in Bick isn’t the starkness, but the determination to squeeze the most from a given content.

Andrew Bick, installation view at von Bartha, 14 April - 26 May 2018, photo by Andreas Zimmermann, courtesy von Bartha

Bick has frequently used Klee’s pedagogical writings as a resource for his own teaching. Gate/grid/tree #1 (2015-18) combines Bick’s originating grid, as filtered through his design for a gate, with an elegant drawing from The nature of nature. There Klee explains how the architecture of a tree can be set out by using nine equidistant lines for the trunk base, seven for its tapering, five and three lines for diminishing sizes of branch, and one line for the endpoint twigs. Ironically, the only painting in the show in landscape format’ is derived from two of Klee’s vertical tree forms, laid on their side.

The intersectional complexity reaches its acme in OGVDS – GW #10 (2018).  OGV is ‘Original Ghost Variety’, referring to the whole cycle of post-2008 works; 'DS' comes from ‘Double Spider’, signalling a Helmut Federle drawing that, says Bick: “combines geometry with a vague vase shape and the lines fanning out from intersections form a spider-like web”; ‘GW’ is for Gillian Wise, specifically the isometric grid on her pages of the Whitechapel Systems catalogue of 1972.  Bick concedes that such references become “wilful and obscure”, but sees them as celebrations of those artists. That might be a problem were decoding necessary, but I don’t think it is. Bick’s paintings can equally well be read as uninfected abstractions with convoluted indexical titles; be assumed to incorporate a rich range of cultural references – an aura of tribute, perhaps – without the specifics being hunted down; or compared meticulously with the source ideas and shapes in a game which would identify the origin and assess the distance Bick has moved from it. There’s a nice joke in how Bick always starts a painting from the same place, yet ends up somewhere else; whereas much current production cycles through variations made to be different but yet which are essentially the same. Bick seems to find his self-imposed framework a liberating way of getting at his interests in transformation without the distraction of inventing origins, just as poets can find their subconscious helpfully liberated by the need to pay attention to a rhyme scheme.   

Andrew Bick, installation view at von Bartha, 14 April - 26 May 2018, photo by Andreas Zimmermann, courtesy von Bartha

Coincidentally, a retrospective of Georg Baselitz, in celebration of his 80th birthday, was on show at the Foundation Beyeler just as Bick opened. The German has spent much of this century on a series of ‘remixes’, which one might summarise as revisiting his themes in a sketchier, thinner, more fluid manner. Bick’s diffusions of prior content contrast with that, tending to accumulate weight and content.

If all that that makes the show sound complicated, it has a straightforward visual allure and finely tuned precision of making, which can be appreciated as an updating of Constructivist traditions, independently of the detail of those back stories.  But is Bick enacting a broader agenda through the persistent re-use of forms? That move could be interpreted as a statement – albeit at a conceptual remove – there’s enough stuff in the world, so much that it causes problems, so he’s not going to add to it. More substantially, I think, the work can be given a metaphysical construction.

Andrew Bick, installation view at von Bartha, 14 April - 26 May 2018, photo by Andreas Zimmermann, courtesy von Bartha

It’s easy to assume that you get at the essence of something by purifying it down to a core. The persistent revisiting of a formal template sounds like a platonic move, revolving round an ideal form. But if Bick is getting at an essence it’s by circling round it. His project is more akin to a post-modern deconstruction: far from being an ideal to strive for or protect, Bick’s is a fairly arbitrary choice of originating point; the use made of the origin embraces uncertainty, hesitation and revision; the point of arrival – if that’s what it is to declare a work finished – has no sense of epiphany.

There’s the potential here for a melancholy undertow – origins are corrupted: we cannot return to Eden. Bick’s variations, however, are playfully aware of their own uncertainty and doubt. Rather than failing to reach an ideal, they accept the messy contingency of the world for what it is.  Indeed, you might go on to say, look where the differently committed pursuit of some ideals has got us…

OGVDS 135%, 2010-17. photo by Andreas Zimmermann, courtesy von Bartha