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Black Squares | Saturation Point | Sunday Salon 6

21 April 2019

A review by Clare French

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

The Reductive Non-Objective Project (RNOP) exhibition ‘Black Squares’, curated by Billy Gruner, took place on 21 April 2019 as part of the Saturation Point Sunday Salon series. Gruner presented an international show of reductive work, which was hung for a day, facilitating in-depth conversations among an invited group of guests.  

RNOP was founded by Gruner in 2016 as a result of conversations held at the Biennale Internationale d'Art Non Objectif in Grenoble, France.  An awareness of groups of non-objective artists, and pockets of interest in non-objective art making, was matched with a concern that these groups were relatively little-known, and operated in isolation from each other.   In response, RNOP has collaborated with non-objective groups around the world to produce an astonishing 17 exhibitions of reductive, non-objective work in the last two years, as satellite events of the Grenoble biennale.  The RNOP shows have surveyed the current state of play in contemporary reductive art and writing, to improve visibility and, crucially, to create ongoing connections between participants.

Jasper van Graaf © Billy Gruner

L to R: Sarah Keighery, Phil Illingworth, Myroslav Vayda, Serhiy Popov, Richard van der Aa  © Clare French

Black Squares at Saturation Point is RNOP’s last European show.  Two more shows, in Melbourne and Sydney, will take place over the (northern) summer, and RNOP will come to a close with the Grenoble biennale in November this year.

The participating artists in Black Squares were Jasper van der Graaf (NL), Thomas Michael Stephens (US), Brigitte Parusel (UK), John Adair (AU/UK), Jeffrey Cortland-Jones (US), Clare French (UK), Deb Covell (UK), Dima Gred (RU), Patrick Morrissey and Hanz Hancock (UK), Billy Gruner (AU), Karen Foss (UK), Ulla Pederson (DK), Shawn Stipling (UK), Theresa Poulton (UK), Sarah Keighery (AU), Phil Illingworth (UK), Myroslav Vayda (UA), Serhiy Popov (UA) and Richard van der Aa (FR).  

The eagle-eyed will note the inclusion of my name, so a reminder that this review is an ‘inside’ and personal one.  

RNOP is committed to the consideration of reductive, non-objective work in a contemporary art context, as contemporary practice.   Art historical references are inevitable in any art production which, like any inheritance, brings richness and frustration in varying measure for all artists.   However, there may be a tendency among those outside its practice to view reductive, non-objective work which bears a direct debt to Modernism as purely historical or backward looking.   Gruner approaches this issue by using ‘modern’ and ‘avant-garde’ as adjectives pointing to innovation; both within the reductive, non-objective field, and in holding up the ‘New Modern’ (Gruner’s umbrella term for his ongoing project) as innovation.

L to R: Jasper van Graaf, Thomas Michael Stephens © Patrick Morrissey

All art work is inherently contemporary, in that it is able to respond to the ineluctable presence of art history which hovers around it, only from the temporal location in which it is made.  Of course, much more complex (and equally deconstructable) evaluations can be applied to a work or practice’s position on the spectrum from derivative to innovative.  But given the level to which Modernist, reductive and non-objective practice continues to actively engage artists (in the broadest sense) and writers, whether taking positive or negative positions, it must be assumed that it remains relevant, speaking in an apposite way to our ‘now’, or least having left unfinished business.  In fact, ’New Modern’ work, questioning at some level, as it must, the role/nature of art itself and issues of certainty, truth, utopias, the image and narratives, seems uncomfortably prescient again in the contemporary moment.

Top L to R: John Adair, Jeffrey Cortland-Jones, Clare French, Deb Covell, Dima Gred, Patrick Morrisey & Hanz Hancock. © Clare French

As one of his many non-objective adventures with RNOP, Gruner has been working with Kiev Non Objective (KNO) at the location of Malevich’s studio and teaching quarters.  In acknowledgement of this, with the excitement of the Malevich project at the forefront of his mind, Gruner’s theme for the Sunday Salon was ‘Black Squares’.   A nice homage to the godfather of Western Modernism, certainly.  But I wonder, too, whether Gruner threw down the gauntlet of the ‘zero of painting’ with a knowing twinkle in his eye: the Black Square is so iconic that either one never paints again, or keeps painting forever, the pressure of everything having been kindly absorbed by the void.  The work here is evidence of the latter  ̶  a group show of work, that with apparently nowhere to go, goes everywhere in terms of form, materials, surface, texture, scale, process and even format and colour.  Black always feels rich to me, and ’Black Squares’ joyfully attests to the power of reduction in opening up possibilities.  Joy may seem a peculiar notion here, but humour and light-spiritedness felt abundantly evident to me in the work in Black Squares.  Perhaps the conceptual ‘everything’ of The Black Square actually leaves artists freer to approach the iconic in a spirit of fun, experimentation and fond irreverence.  And Gruner did give us ‘Squares’, thereby dismissing the zero as he handed it over.

Billy Gruner © Clare French

Keighery’s squid ink and Popov’s fridge dust paintings spring immediately to mind.  This sense of playfulness was mirrored in a curatorial process that produced a beautiful looking show, while remaining collaborative, experimental and fun.  Adair’s black square exists only inside his white box, requiring one to look into its black circle.  Certainly, the decision to hang it high, though partly aesthetic, was also done with a little chuckle at teasing the audience; forcing them to take Adair’s square on trust.  

Composition is one of van der Aa’s many tools for subverting notions of purity and perfection.  The black shape in his painting brings associations of some vaguely functional, everyday object  ̶  a little table or chest perhaps, the back of a truck, or (upside down) an envelope of sorts.  The two black ‘bits’ at the bottom of the painting could even be two squat little feet.  One of my responses to this ambiguous, elusive possibility of mundane functionality within the clarity of van der Aa’s beautiful, beautifully made, ’perfectly minimal’ painting, is to giggle.

L to R: Dima Gred, Patrick Morrissey and Hanz Hancock © Clare French

Of course, this is not to imply that the show or any of the works lack seriousness, complexity or rigour. Popov, for example, deals with complex hierarchies of materials and temporality.  But it may be useful to consider how the weight of our particular history can lend itself to operating simultaneously in other, lighter and perhaps less expected ways.

The artists here have responded to the theme with great variety, no-one having produced a completely square black work. Indeed, many of the works engage with the notion of the black square by being actively neither.

Shawn Stipling  © Billy Gruner

Stipling’s dense resin painting counters any idea of iconic untouchability by looking so sticky that everyone who helped hang it checked whether it was still wet before touching it.  What became known on the day as his ‘punk painting’ was all black, though so shiny and reflective it was also all blacks. And being made from found supports, wasn’t quite square.  Neither was Keighery’s small black almost-square squid ink painting, which still smelt of fish, bringing a whole new sensory landscape to her work that one assumes Malevich hadn’t considered.  

Covell refers most directly to Malevich’s Black Square, but using materials and processes that are completely hers, and contemporary.  Her paintings’ position towards a bottom corner of the wall also subverts the famous 1915 curation of The Black Square in its high position as an icon.  Morrissey and Hancock’s diptych expands (or undermines, or both?) a literal interpretation of the brief by using the addition of lines and white to break up the surface and space of their two perfect black squares.

As above, the visible elements of Adair’s piece are a black circle and a white cube.  Stephens, Parusel, Morrissey and Hancock, Pederson, Vayda and van der Aa also incorporate white as an integral element of their black works, using it as a visual and  symbolic mirror highlighting the black.  

Karen Foss (detail) © Clare French

Although Cortland-Jones’ painting contains no visible black, it remains unequivocally present in the making of his greys.   Poulton extends her black, white and grey palette to include blue.  My own black gesso surface shifts in the light between, brown, silver and black, while Foss’s ‘black’ square actually comprises layers of rich dark blue and reds.  Gruner’s unpainted wooden edges reflect on the white walls to give his black square a warm golden halo. And the small scale of Phil Illingworth’s delicate black square against the background of its larger wooden surface reads as two squares.  

Theresa Poulton © Patrick Morrissey

Gred and van der Graaf present works of black marks on white paper.  Neither the paper nor their constructed black marks are square, nor even, in van der Graaf’s case, straight lines.  Pederson paints white outlines of roughly triangular shapes onto her black surface.  Nothing in Parusel’s complex drawn and folded works is square, and they include pencil.  Cortland-Jones’ rectangular painting is composed of smaller rectangles, while Stephens' square consists of four smaller squares, but is hung as a diamond.  Popov and I made rectangular paintings and my painted black squares are made of lines.  Vayda has chosen a two-part, black and white cylindrical form, and Poulton’s rectangular painting comprises a detailed composition of varying form, shape and line.  

L to R: Brigitte Parusel, John Adair, Jeffrey Cortland-Jones © Clare French

Black Squares met RNOP’s two primary aims.  It was an aesthetically and conceptually cohesive show, leaving little doubt as to its theme.  That it simultaneously celebrated such a rich multiplicity of materials, marks and methods reflects the possibilities of reductive, non-objective work in general. And its role in facilitating new and developing conversations and connections among those present, and further afield was enjoyed and appreciated by all.  



Biennale of Contemporary Non Objective Art:

KNO: 962%3A1556703098&sk=timeline