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Deb Covell | Present, at Here and Now |  OBJECT / A Gallery, Manchester

20 February - 2 April 2016

A review by Andy Parkinson

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

It probably should come as no surprise that ultimate gestures tend to become conventions. For Ad Reinhardt, back in the 1960s, the black monochrome was “the most extreme, ultimate, climactic reaction to, and negation of the … tradition of abstract art.”(1) Yet his negation, itself following a precedent set almost 50 years earlier by Malevich, has by now become a well-established tradition within abstract painting, and one that continues to prove alluring for some contemporary artists, and their audiences.

Deb Covell, Present, 2016, Gesso and Acrylic Paint, 140 x 140 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Here and Now at OBJECT / A, is a one-work show, featuring Present (2016), by Deb Covell, a painted black square, without a support, Gesso and acrylic on nothing, suspended by wire (or fishing line), a site-specific artwork just under Ad Reinhardt’s ideal size of 5’ by 5’. That it is suspended rather than wall mounted invites a three-dimensional viewing, as if the painting might also be considered as sculpture. However, in the compact space of OBJECT / A gallery, in the Friends’ Meeting House, Manchester, it takes a little effort to get round the back of the work. Gladly, I am prompted to do so by gallery director Katie Rutherford. Once I get there I find that from this side it is perhaps easier to discern how the work was constructed than it was when viewed from the front. The artist has systematically laid down layer upon layer of paint in strips or bands of black or white, horizontally, vertically, and then diagonally. The finished work contains the process that made it, a narrative that is embedded, embodied, within the piece. From here I feel as if I am looking from the past into the future, whereas from the front it is as if I am looking back in time, seeing traces of the object’s history as it led to this point, previous stages having now been absorbed into the present state. There are no colours to see other than black, the white in the under painting having been completely incorporated or painted over. I have no way of knowing the extent to which it contributes to the perceptibility of the layering. I discover from reading the gallery notes that a sheet of polythene to which the first layer of paint adhered was removed towards the end of the process, leaving this heavy skin of paint that I now see. No longer liquid, no longer support-dependant, it has become this solid object, yet still thin enough to read as two-dimensional. It is more a painting than it is a sculpture, but strangely, more a sculpture than it is a relief.

I wonder what it weighs, and thinking that it might be quite brittle, how many pieces it would break into if it were to fall. I surprise myself that the question “how long did it take to make?” has already escaped my lips. (Did I really say that out loud?) Perhaps better questions are “how do you transport it?” “How do you store it, if indeed it has a life beyond this installation?” “Does the fact that it is site-specific mean that it gets destroyed and is never seen in another space in the future, or has the work become its own site?”

I cannot resist comparing it to Ad Reinhardt’s black monochromes where semi-transparent layers of colour combine to make the resulting ‘black’. In contrast, Covell’s has no colour and, with no support, there is no grain of the canvas either. Like Reinhardt’s, Covell’s black monochrome is square: no landscape, no figure.

Viewing it is a strange experience. I already know beforehand that I will be unsure how to assign meaning, because there are multiple interpretations of the monochrome in circulation, and they are contradictory: it signals the death of painting, or its beginning, it is painting as a concrete materiality, or spiritual icon, or maybe a paradoxical merging, or dialectical mediation of such opposites. However, it is less my interpretation of its meaning that concerns me as much as my interpretation of what’s actually there in front of me. For example, is that a reflection of the artificial lighting that I am seeing towards the top left edge of the painting when viewed from the front or is it an area of near transparency? I try hard to work it out and I have to keep on trying or just give up because I cannot tell. And should the painting seem this optical? I am expecting to be impressed by its solid materiality, and I am, but suspended here in space it has a weightless, dematerialised quality. Or at least is does at certain moments. So, I vacillate in my interpretation of what I am seeing before I ever get to thinking about its possible meanings.

Deb Covell, Present, 2016, Gesso and Acrylic Paint, 140 x 140 cm. photo copyright Cathal Carey, by courtesy of OBJECT / A

Paint usually covers other surfaces, but here paint is the surface. Rather than a cover, it is a sheet. I might have said it is a screen upon which to project our own meanings, if a black surface could fulfil such a role. Instead, black absorbs light. It confounds my attempt to project onto it.

So I keep trying just to be present before the work in the here and now, but my here and now seems to contain so much ‘there and then’. Thoughts and feelings, come flooding in, which may well be what happens whenever we look at art, but when the thing presented is this stark, the experience appears to be heightened or emphasised.

If the invitation is to stop thinking and come to our senses, and that turns out to be easier said than done, the painting presents us with ample opportunity to practise. This mode of viewing, becomes a habit, both continued and renewed every time we attempt to repeat it, much as the black monochrome in Deb Covell’s iteration both perpetuates and updates a tradition that is no less radical in its re-enactment.


(1) Ad Reinhardt, Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, edited by Barbara Rose (The Viking Press, New York, 1975), p. 85.

Deb Covell, Here and Now, was shown at OBJECT / A gallery, Manchester from 20 February to 2 April 2016.