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

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Yelena Popova and Michael Beutler at Nottingham Contemporary

16 Jul 2016 - 25 Sep 2016

A review by Andy Parkinson

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Nottingham Contemporary is currently showing two solo exhibitions: Yelena Popova’s After Image, and Michael Beutler’s Pump House. Whilst Popova’s work is nearest to painting and Beutler’s to sculpture, both artists work very much in their medium’s expanded field, resulting in installations rather than single art objects. The total art environment that is Pump House takes up galleries 3 and 4, with the Popova installations showing in galleries 1 and 2.

Popova’s beautiful arabesque images in barely visible washes seem to be either latent, just about to appear, as in the analogue process of developing a photograph, or conversely, about to disappear altogether, as the title of the series from which they are taken - Evaporating Paintings - more suggests. In each of these paintings the weave of the canvas is easier to apprehend than is the abstract design, as if to emphasise material over form, object over image. The object is present whilst the image is immaterial.  

Yelena Popova, Public Gallery, detail, Untitled, from Evaporating Paintings series, 2016, mixed media on linen.

Along the back wall the paintings are displayed side by side, largely in the way one might expect to find them displayed in a Public Gallery, the title for this installation. Paintings on the other three walls, however, are more eccentrically arranged, often tilted, resting on pieces of wood or bits of frames or even on a dissected cast of a Julius Caesar bust.

Other than the series of Evaporating Paintings, it is unusual to find any one painting displayed qua painting, and even when that does occur it looks as if the work in question may simply outlie a group, an informal arrangement that might be organised according to the sweeping arcs that are found within the images, as if the internal lines are invisibly continued onto the gallery wall, other paintings being positioned along their trajectories, tilted or leaning on parts of furniture, or frames that start to look like limbs giving the arrangements at times a whimsical feel, in one group it is almost as if the paintings have become figures, dancing against the blue of the gallery wall.

The paintings become arcs in a larger system, albeit a rather loose collection of works, but then the wall and then the installation as a whole; an invitation perhaps to ‘see’ the work of art not as an object within a gallery but as the gallery itself. And why stop there? We can take our awareness to the system within which the gallery or museum operates. In making these shifts we attend to increasingly higher levels of abstraction, like a child that is fascinated by the hierarchy contained in an address: house number, street, town, county, country, continent, planet, galaxy, universe.

In viewing Popova’s work we come face to face with abstraction, in the multiple meanings of that term. A simple reading of the paintings is that they continue in the tradition of formal abstraction that has its roots in Suprematism and Russian Constructivism. A more complex reading takes us already into the territory explored in Popova’s video based works, a counterpoint to the paintings, where the term ‘abstraction’ has a sense nearer to that used in the previous paragraph. So, for example, in the video This Certifies That, and other works in gallery 1, Popova deals with the economic abstractions of capitalism. In the moving-image piece a computer code generates infinitely variable sequences of images based on the designs of Euro banknotes, reflecting on the social consensus required for the financial system to function, as well as the possibility of it crashing, as in the recent financial crisis. If ‘abstract’ equals ‘non-representational’ Popova may also be criticising the political system, making a case for participative as opposed to representational democracy. I am not suggesting the work is directly political. Popova suggests that in that case you just have posters. Nevertheless I do find both criticism, and even faltering suggestions of an alternative, at a time when the triumph of capitalism suddenly appears no longer a foregone conclusion.   

So we find ourselves with works that are abstract in more than one sense of the word, just as we also have systems, but not in the same sense as the Constructivist-inspired Systems Group.  

There are systems at play in Michael Beutler’s work too, but in yet a different sense. Pump House is the second iteration of an exhibition that started out at Spike Island in Bristol earlier this year. Beutler likes to respond to the space in which he exhibits, and there is a link between these two spaces, in that architects Caruso St John, two years before designing Nottingham Contemporary, transformed the space at Spike Island. Beutler, reflecting on similarities between galleries 1 and 2 at Spike Island and galleries 3 and 4 at Nottingham Contemporary, says: “somehow I have the feeling that the architects took the experience from Spike Island, brought it here and made these galleries as they are now”. In Pump House he rebuilds Spike Island at Nottingham Contemporary, using the same materials, a modular building block system, but adapting to what is different in the new environment. So, there is repetition but there is also change, in an open system, a feedback loop operating between construction and environment.

Michael Beutler, Pump House, detail, Fat Pot Pourri 2005/2016, Right wall: Elefant Und Schwein 2005/2016

Working with a team of local collaborators, Beutler has transformed these two galleries first into a production site and then into this amazing installation, in which the handmade tools invented specifically for the manufacture of the objects within it are left in the space, an exhibition-come-workshop, constructed from recycled and found materials such as crepe paper, cardboard, wire and woven fabric. Beutler’s collaborative approach challenges post-industrial work relations and technology in ways that traditional artist/assistant relations tend not to do. His tools and knowledge of previously constructed works define a framework within which team members improvise.  This co-operative style recalls the experimental workplaces of utopian socialists such as Robert Owen, and the approach to work opposes the technological method that separates thinking from doing, attempting to reconnect them via control mechanisms: the Thinking, Controlling, Doing hierarchy. Instead, thinking and doing are integrated, and technology is on the human level.

Of course, the workplace relations can only be intuited in the installation, workers are no longer present; this is not performance art.

Michael Beutler, Pump House, detail, centre: Pecafil Lantern, 2014

The resultant installation is a delight. We are treated to a walk through the history of Beutler’s work over the last 15 years with seven types of wall, including Sausage Walls (2014/2016), bundles of coloured paper inside colourful netting making the building blocks, which resemble gabion baskets, and Elefant und Schwein, (2010/2016), walls of woven corrugated card in pastel colours, with furniture including Pecatil Lantern(s) (2014), nine tools, some of which are massive and come close to machines (Beutler appears reluctant to use that word because they are not automated, always requiring human labour), small models in a workshop area, and three videos. Matching each piece to the hand-drawn map of the site takes hours, and when every piece has been seen the whole is still impossible to take in, a constant reminder of our blindness to larger systems.

‘Faktura’ is the watchword that might link Beutler to Constructivism, and with it that concern for new and different materials, although in the style of Constructivism-meets-Art-Povera. Is there also something of Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau here? Beutler acknowledges the influence of Donald Judd, Daniel Buren and Simon Starling.  Referring to other work by Beutler, Maria Lind suggests that his is “an unusual liaison with formal abstraction…a minimalist attitude, albeit very homemade”.

Both Popova and Beutler seem to engage with abstraction and systems, re-interpreted, and both have some connection to Constructivism, although very much mutated for the 21st century. In relation to that tradition, one thing that they don’t seem quite to have given up on is the utopian project. Again, it is very much updated, post-modern, with lots of doubt, and thankfully, without the scientism and the misplaced faith in progress, both artists still seem able to point to new possibilities, not only for contemporary abstract art, but also for the larger systems within which we live.

Yelena Popova’s After Image and Michael Beutler’s Pump House are at Nottingham Contemporary until 25 September 2016