The curatorial and editorial project for systems, non-objective and reductive artists working in the UK

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Isabel Albrecht  |  Drawing in Paint

Patrick Heide Contemporary Art, Church Street, London, 27 Sept - 10 Nov 2018

Review by Eric Butcher

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

I’ve been listening to ‘Drumming’ by Steve Reich a lot recently while working in my studio. This seminal work of minimalist music was first performed in 1971 at MOMA in New York and even now seems curiously at home with the visual arts. As earworms go it’s not a bad one and perhaps it’s unsurprising that its mesmeric phasing and hypnotic rhythm filters through my head as I settle down to spend some quality time with the work of Isabel Albrecht at Patrick Heide Contemporary Art. Although separated by an appreciable tranche of history, their work springs from the same place, the same creative and aesthetic tendencies, the same tradition of thought.

Untitled (6), Oil on wood, 55.5 x 70 cm, 2007. Photo: Marcus Leith.

Reich’s entire piece consists of only one basic rhythmic pattern, but one which undergoes various changes of pitch, timbre and phasing throughout the piece. Like ‘Drumming’, Albrecht’s paintings consist of only one mark; a thin, straight line varying little in length, width or density, repeated in serried ranks either horizontally or vertically across the surface of the support. Entirely uniform within each painting and varying little across her entire oeuvre, lines alternate or graduate in colour according to simple mathematical rules and within a tightly restricted palette.

Untitled (37), Oil on wood, 40 x 50 cm, 2007. Photo: Marcus Leith.

Bang, bang, bang go Steve Reich’s drums in my head as my eye moves from one painting to the next and back again. Hung in pairs or horizontal sequences in this show, the delineation between one painting and another seems, not arbitrary, but almost beside the point. Sequences modulate effortlessly between paintings, aided by the uniformity of her marks; like a unit of measurement, a binary code or the beat of a drum. It looks as though the entire exhibition has been painted using only one brush.

Untitled (1563, 1558, 1562), Oil on wood, 25 x 25 cm each, 2006. Photo: Marcus Leith.

And yet, given such economy of means, such a bold, one might almost say ‘courageously’ restrictive practice, an engaging range of visual textures emerges. Each painting develops according to the rules Albrecht has imposed for its manufacture. And the rules develop and evolve from one painting to the next, hence although no two paintings have been generated by the same rules, Albrecht’s work can rightly be construed as a continuum proceeding through a series of small incremental changes. As a body of work, it’s extraordinarily coherent and consistent, and as rigorous as a Kenneth or Mary Martin.

Installation view of Isabel Albrecht. Photo: Marcus Leith.

But for all this mechanistic approach there is something else, something which works against it, tempering, even contradicting. Each mark is drawn freehand with all the concomitant inaccuracies and variations in ‘touch’ which that implies. I say ‘drawn’, even though the paintings are made using paint applied with a brush, ‘painting’ doesn’t seem to quite cut it as a description, rather these marks are drawn using paint. Minuscule inconsistencies in the length, thickness and indeed straightness of each line creates a surface that is as variegated as it is uniform. Lines stutter and falter where they don’t quite meet or align perfectly and the white of the support can be seen between the marks, creating faultlines like seams in a rock face.

Untitled (1565), Oil on wood, 25 x 25 cm, 2006. Photo: Marcus Leith.

Inevitably the eye is drawn to the serrated edges of these ‘seams’. Ironically, the least successful works are those which are rendered most accurately and which consequently give less away. It is as though the human eye searches for fallibility after its own likeness, seeking out the imperfect within the uniform. Like waves lapping on a sea shore, rhythmic but inexact, it’s their very inexactness which fascinates. Nobody listens to a metronome for pleasure. It is certainly the case that the most successful works are those in which the tension between the mechanised system of production and the vagaries of application are at their most evident.

And speaking of tensions, there is a second which animates some of the best works, between the flatness of the picture plane and an illusion of pictorial depth. This is particularly evident in the Progression series (unfortunately not represented in this show, but also some of the Untitled works, which are), where a single colour modulates gradually and uniformly from dark to light and back again, over and over again, creating the illusion of rows and rows of cylindrical forms, in some works disconcertingly resembling piles of coins, works which shade into the realms of a migraine-inducing Op Art.

Untitled (1567), Oil on wood, 25 x 25 cm, 2007. Photo: Marcus Leith.

Albrecht died, tragically, at the age of 45. I find myself wondering if and how this knowledge affects my response to her work. Of course, much, if not most, of the work we encounter is by dead artists, but rarely by those who are almost our exact contemporaries. The works I’m most drawn to are the smaller-scale pieces from the Blaue Serie and Grau Serie, just 25 x 25 cm. Their scale is more human, more intimate, and hung in series the eye jumps naturally from one to another, comparing, contrasting, measuring differences and similarities in the visual effects of the systems used to determine them. Their modest scale also imbues them with poignancy and intensity due to the intimacy which they appear to invite. Here, the hand of the artist is most clearly evident. The larger works are no less impressive, but that one-to-one communion with the artist becomes, instead, a shared experience.

Isabel Albrecht at Patrick Heide Contemporary Art

Installation view of Isabel Albrecht. Photo: Marcus Leith.