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Wendy Anderson: Odds and Evens

9 March – 1 April 2017, Eagle Gallery, London

Review by Laurence Noga

Stuart Davis’s Visa, painted in 1951, was based on a matchbook cover advertising spark plugs. The irony of that message, and its comment on America’s control of big business, was a deliberate strategy. Davis used the brand name ‘Champion’ combined with the phrase ‘amazing continuity’ to give the viewer a way in to a visual transformation, recognizing the chaos of everyday life in the urban sprawl.

Wendy Anderson’s solo exhibition ‘Odds and Evens’, at the Eagle Gallery, feels current and inspiring. Her work tunes in to Davis’s visual strategies, picking up on the chaos of the city, and her extensive global travel extends her authentic sense of process. The paintings push a heightened contrast, magnifying painterly strategies through the retrieval of information, and the constant building and dissembling of the surface facture.

Anderson’s research into the history of colour (such as Romanesque) leads her to use earth-based pigments such as cinnabar and umbers. That palpable sense of history and memory is further developed by the fact that she makes her own paint, from the dry pigment to the paint itself. You notice her recipe (linseed oil, beeswax, and Damar varnish) in the speed of the gestures, and realise how much this technically adds to the individually constructed sections. Anderson, like Richard Diebenkorn, seems to be influenced by Matisse in the way she uses collage to unlock compositional problems.  

Diebenkorn experimented with cigar boxes as supports, intuitively echoing the graphic structure of the lids in his larger works. With Anderson, the collage elements project slightly, adding a visual punch. The tickets and ephemera from her journeys feel buried beneath the more visible transparent or opaque uses of colour, creating a dialogue between inner state and physical action.

Balloon Block, 2015-16, mixed media on canvas, 150 x 175 cm

I immediately liked the way Anderson’s larger paintings, such as Balloon Block (2015-16), deploy a scaffolded construction. The surface is built with collage elements that trigger curiosity about the sculptural composition. The loose hexagon/pentagon relationships, read through multiple viewpoints, place our thoughts within the infrastructure, like an early Braque or Picasso. We are not sure what is inside these structures, and this re-captures our attention and gives the work rhythm. The surface feels animated, like a Calder mobile, and the smaller, deflated balloon shapes pop out of the space, altering the pitch of the colour.

San Francisco, 2016, mixed media on canvas, 60 x 46 cm

In San Francisco (2016) the grid structure of the painting announces 30,000 victims. This number might represent crimes of identity theft, or perhaps victims of earthquakes. We imagine Anderson pondering, on one of her many flights, whether an earthquake could cause California to sink below the sea. The simple rendering of the structure, reminiscent of the Universal Studios rotating globe, and painted in a muted warm grey, reminds us of Francis Picabia’s interest in mechanical forms. Yet Anderson’s preoccupations with painting and assembling make these intensely human works.

It’s interesting how Anderson interposes certain colours typical of Philip Guston’s work into the surfaces and divisions within her compositional choices. Cadmium red pigment is mixed with titanium white to give those pinkish fresco grounds and surface implications. In Balancing Act (2016) the form balances on a half-seen balloon; the oddly composed angular geometry feels mechanistic and playful. The technique reminds us of synthetic cubism’s impact in the staging of a work, creating a performative element, and the control of the proportions develops a very active presence in the picture.   

That presence reminds me of the way in which the artist Victor Willing sets up his picture space. For example, in Aha, so there you are (1980). Willing’s brush-marks, both in the space and within the structures, develop a sense of what Gaston Bachelard describes as: “image… created through co-operation between real and unreal, with the help of the functions of the real and unreal”. You notice how Anderson combines these approaches, using them in parallel, slowing down our understanding of the works’ construction.

American Flights, 2014, oil and collage on canvas, 77 x 64 cm

In paintings like Flight 21F or American Flights, both made in 2014, that element of construction becomes much more frontal than in Willing’s work. The balancing of the sculptural shapes, and the impact of each set of numbers, is combined through close tone and close value adjustment. These shifts slide our perception towards an artist such as Prunella Clough, with her subtle pictorial dialect. The structural syntax of her composition between form and colour (spray, stencil collage, rubbing, drawing) is interwoven with phenomenological concerns.

At first glance, Anderson’s approach balances the surface/colour nuances with a constant process of layering and re-working. But a second look involves us more directly at her use of memory, her endless journeys across continents, a synthesis of airport lounges’ advertising and closely observed details. Perhaps ironically, American business trumpets its domination on the humble throw-away matchbox.  Anderson builds on that irony in her hectic life and through her paintings’ spatial dynamics. Her work, made over months and years of travel, cleverly juxtaposes an earthy yet aerial quality of colour with a powerful tectonic framework, personal and absorbing.

Hotel Almaty, 2014, oil and collage on canvas, 51 x 51 cm

Balancing Act, 2016, mixed media on canvas, 175 x 150cm

Flight 21F, 2014, oil and collage on canvas, 77 x 51 cm