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Phoenix Art Space, Brighton. 11 Jan - 2 Feb 2020

Part 1: Richard Bell, Katrina Blannin, John Carter, Catherine Ferguson, Della Gooden, Richard Graville, Morrissey & Hancock, Tess Jaray, Jo McGonigal, Lars Wolter and Jessie Yates


A review by Geoff Hands

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

It’s chaos out there. If you are heading east from the railway station or the city centre you have to deftly negotiate the human throng of the iPhone generation of distracted texters, Google mappers and Spotify listeners commanding narrow lanes that will eventually lead to the Phoenix Art Space. Eager gallery-goers and psycho-geographers beware too, for en-route to the gallery you may trip on uneven pavements and become confused as you navigate a way of crossing the maze of roads and temporary pathways that otherwise create a fascinating collage of concrete, stone and tarmac surfaces. Use the eyes in the back of your head as you navigate this terrain and inadvertently trespass on leaf-covered cycle-lanes. But it’s worth the hassle.

But even as Brighton city centre is regenerated, the Phoenix is a haven, with a degree of peace and tranquillity, as it hosts H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G_X2. We were here two years ago (courtesy of AbCrit) for the inaugural H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G exhibition. This time there are five curators (Patrick O’Donnell, Stig Evans, Philip Cole and Ian Boutell are joined by Della Gooden) and they have assembled a 2-part mini-survey of current reductive, colour-conscious (when employed), object-oriented, minimalist, what-you-see-is-what-you-get, bespoke painting. Defining ‘hardpainting’ is a fascinating challenge, but looking and experiencing must initially supersede theoretical advocacy - and I suspect that the curators have defined their terms more critically through the ongoing curatorial journey now undertaken.

Richard Graville,  Blushing Phantom and Red Banded (both 2019)

Understandably, there is an emphasis on the viewer as active participant to make whatever sense or reasoning they can. But any burgeoning definition will not exclusively intend to suggest an orderly visual terrain in every instance, as some works quickly engage the eye and disrupt the gaze more than others. For example, Richard Graville’s painterly Blushing Phantom and Morrissey & Hancock’s flat, hard-edged TPIAR possess dynamic Vorticist qualities; while John Carter and Catherine Ferguson offer a more restful, contemplative experience for the viewer that mixes up the range of visual encounters on display.

Morrissey & Hancock , TPIAR (2019)

In some instances there are works that could qualify as ‘Slow Art’, to coin a phrase from the late Arden Reed. For while many of the 24 works on display appear to strive for visual simplicity and understatement, the requirement to settle in for concentrated looking will allow the works to stage various scenarios of narrative-free, abstract experiences. Or is a scenario a narrative of sorts?

Tess Jaray, One Hundred Years [Green] and One Hundred Years [Purple] (both 2017)

All too often the natural tendency to find referential, external meaning or metaphor can all too easily kick in, whatever one is observing. Take, for example, the first encounter of the show  ̶  a pair of Tess Jaray canvases that immediately command the viewer’s attention. This is partly due to the size and placement of the work, but One Hundred Years (Green) and One Hundred Years (Purple) also possess a minimalist audacity; energised in each instance by a central rhythmic zip, or meeting edge, of alternating curves and straight, although angled, lines. This fissure is suggestive of the cut edge from a pair of saw-toothed pinking shears, or a totemic form reduced to its linear essence, and is indicative of a mechanical or architectural feature.

Lars Wolter, Cut-Off [Altrosa], Cut-Off [Enzianblau] and Cut-Off [Goldgelb] (all 2019)

Next, stepping further into the main gallery space, three gloriously reflective and colourful pieces by Lars Wolter attract the eye and dominate one of the larger walls. A pronounced sense of tactility is sensed in Cut-Off (Altrosa), (Enzianblus) and (Goldgelb), which hang like engineered products on a showroom wall. If touching, indeed stroking, a brand-new car bonnet feels out of bounds, then controlling the desire to touch the glass-smooth glossy and matt surfaces of these works is almost a challenge too far. These are skilfully made works that emphasise their craft and precision as 3D visual objects, but which are to be looked at and ingested rather than manhandled, and which serve functional purposes. Coated in polyurethane paint, MDF has never looked so interesting.

Jessie Yates, Untitled 1 (2018)

Even at this early stage of a first visit, the message was becoming clear that the hardpainting theme does not constitute a narrow range of styles, materials or appearances. For example, two contrasting, non-matching combinations of the selection each involve Jessie Yates’ textile/fabric uses of paint on canvas, augmented with stitch as an integral linear ingredient. Untitled 1, a collaged patchwork of variegated parts, hangs alongside Katrina Blannin’s geometrical four-piece Sequence #2/4 (P); while in an adjoining space Morrissey & Hancock’s systems-inspired Rotational Drawing and Untitled are hung adjacent to Yates’ miniature and piecemeal Canvas Studies. This clever, or fortuitous, curatorial ruse emphasises a sense of individual journeys being undertaken without recourse to a strict programme or manifesto. Hardpainting is not a school of painting or a ‘movement’: maybe it’s an attitude.

Jessie Yates, Canvas Studies (2018-19)

By my third or fourth visit to see the show, as I took breaks from my studio upstairs, an unexpected sense of connection between Morrissey & Hancock’s geometric, maze-like Rotational Drawing and Yates’ organically structured and curvy-edged Canvas Studies installation brought out the underlying geometric randomness and systematic essence of the 30+ canvas collages.

Katrina Blannin, Sequence #2/4 (P) (2019)

My first exposure to Katrina Blannin’s paintings were from seeing her impressive solo show, Annodam, at Jessica Carlisle in 2016, where she actively acknowledged and employed (via Piero della Francesca) a carefully formulated mathematical intelligence towards a streamlined abstract outcome. The inherent geometry and visual impact of colour as shape (and vice versa) as a systemic component of the design aspect of painting is explored by Blannin in these four distinct panels that motivate physically active looking from left to right, and in and out of a shallow visual space. Yet here, in Sequence #2/4 (P), the content partly derives from the throwaway cardboard discs from pizza packaging, rather than art historical material. Even without knowing this (see Della Gooden’s essay in the catalogue) the ergonomic discs, not too big, not too small for specific uses, possess a degree of visual comfort and functional association. Because of the after-images from Blannin’s work, due to the colour/tone combination, the flat shadowy forms in your eye track around the gallery as you blink, ready to refocus on another exhibit.

Catherine Ferguson, Cieco, L’arresto del Tempo and Fango (all 2019)

A commanding and exquisite group of three paintings by Catherine Ferguson: Cieco, L’arresto del Tempo and Fango were probably enough without H&P on the same wall (which would, in this context, have been better placed with works by Richard Bell and John Carter). Ferguson’s works were possibly the most indicative of a Slow Art suitability; they appeared to be stripped-down or reductive manifestations from more complex compositions. These are immaculately painted compositions that present great dexterity in paint handling and even contain a hint of painterliness that I had not expected see in this show.

Richard Bell, Equivalences [2-part painting] (2019)

A more deliberate or obvious pairing (with Carter’s Chapitau Three Identical Shapes making a cohesive triangulation on the opposite wall) is made between Tectonic Plates (For A.H.) and Richard Bell’s Equivalences (2-part painting). Possibly a diptych, due to the title, Bell’s pair of canvases could hang alone and appear complete. The initial impression is of a highly controlled rendering of a multi-coloured and schematic sub-division of the rectangle, but on closer inspection Equivalences appears to only allow one coat of paint per shape, which means that in places (e.g. the white on red and green on black in the left-hand canvas) the single layer does not totally cover the underpainting opaquely, as might be expected. As if to subtly emphasise an understated painterly approach, the canvas edges are not overpainted by the colour shapes, which leave a millimetre-wide, almost imperceptible edge.

Della Gooden, As (2019) and John Carter, Techtonic Plates [For A.H.] (2019)

John Carter’s two pieces, although wall mounted, suggest a modernist/minimalist preoccupation with sculptural concerns or referencing the built environment. Giving Chapiteau its own generous wall space was an inspired decision by the curatorial team, emphasising the importance of the observer’s full attention here. Looking back at Tectonic Plates reveals yet another relationship, in addition to the triplicate arrangement with Della Gooden’s For, Against and As, creating a visual conversation across the gallery space. This suggests an invisible but active structure to the choreographed arrangements; a successful site-specificity that was achieved after several days devoted to building the installation.

Three interventions from Della Gooden add to the variety of approaches and intentions selected for H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G_X2. Two of the works, For and Against, might easily be missed on an initial tour of the exhibition, as these assemblages resemble doorbell chime covers and are placed on a pillar rather than a wall. ‘As’ physically intervenes in the space, although its placement on one of the larger walls enables a more conventional expectation. A hand-drawn graphite line is ejected out of the bottom left-hand corner of the blue rectangle, which appears as a plane of semi-transparent colour that has temporarily found a space to occupy. Perhaps this is a portal of some sort; an ethereal feel prevails, with the addition of a misty emanation of blue pigment to the right, although a square of wall or a thick wall tile is placed where it might or might not belong, and brings one back to the solidity of the built environment. This tableau is applied to a larger white gesso background, which suggests an empty street shrine I saw in Napoli some years ago. I cannot explain this last point as anything more than a peculiarly personal point of departure; or the sense of the blue as a reminder of a Gothic or Renaissance painter’s lapis lazuli for Mary’s cloak (even though it’s Prussian blue). There is something uncanny about this assemblage emanating from the gallery wall, for the artwork has a short life, as it will be painted out before Part 2 is installed.

Jo McGonigal, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2019)

If there is one curatorial surprise, or challenge to the audience in this show, Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang by Jo McGonigal might be it. Perhaps this is the main Slow Art contender, as a narrative appears more likely in this painting-cum-sculpture. Is this yet another tableau of sorts (most pertinent to a form of Slow Art, whereby a painting can be represented by real people dressed up as ‘fictive others’ and posing as constituents from a ‘real painting’) to link with the imaginative essence of Della Gooden’s As? Or is it a model of a theatrical, but virtual, stage set? Still searching for a context, a sense of the surreal bringing-together of unrelated components to create an alternative fiction, this work is anything but blandly minimal. Held aloft by two striding, leg-like forms, a box-like, steel-girder sort of construction makes a stage-set for various items including a balloon and a ball of putty. The suspended tangle of cord and its dim shadow or reflection has a connection of some kind with the neon light that floats as a light gesture, or a whimsical cloud, to the left of the box. I am lost for finding meaning and understanding, but feel suitably challenged in an attempt to make sense of this absurd scenario.

Splitting the show into two parts is unfortunate to some extent, although curatorially useful for showing a wide range of works and avoiding over-congestion. As is typical of the white-cube aesthetic, the context of the ‘art space’ as a neutral but active component in displaying the works, with full attention paid to the wall spaces between them, brings some coherence to a selection of artists who might not otherwise show together. Each work is indicatively related to all the others, as an aura of focused attention and control in the making and construction process permeates all the artworks included here. This in turn invites inspection of each and every component part of the presence of each work.

Of course, it might be that the exhibition title sets up the attentive and open-minded viewer to approach the show in a particular state of mind, for we can start the viewing with a proposition: that there is a varied field of abstraction that can be categorised under the umbrella term of ‘hardpainting’. Here there is still enough of a mix to ensure a level of diversity within a specific aspect of abstraction, wherein the practice confirms an adamant attitude towards a certain quality of making and presentation. Nothing is superficial, slapdash or ‘expressive’; but an emphasis on visuality is paramount. This reminds me of a point made by Gillian Ayres (whose work, I suspect, could not be in this show as it is so instinctive and improvisatory), that in addition to any notion of painting as a visual phenomenon, it “is a physical and material project”.

Co-curator Ian Boutell summed this up succinctly when he stated in an interview for the Phoenix website that “There are lots of ways of reading the show but for me the underlying theme is that it is about premeditation, careful forethought and high production value finishes.”

Hence an atmosphere of calm has been achieved in this carefully curated environment, in stark contrast to the developments outside the building. Bring on part 2.

Originally posted on:

The artists

Richard Bell

Katrina Blannin

John Carter

Catherine Ferguson

Della Gooden

Richard Graville

Morrissey & Hancock

Tess Jaray

Jo McGonigal

Lars Wolter

Jessie Yates

Slow Art:

Gillian Ayres: The quotation is from the introduction by Andrew Marr in the ART/BOOKS (2017) monograph.

H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G_X2 (Part 2) will present works by: Rana Begum, Ian Boutell, Philip Cole, Biggs & Collings, Deb Covell, Stig Evans, Jane Harris, Mali Morris, Jost Münster, Patrick O’Donnell, Carol Robertson and Daniel Sturgis.