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Kate Shepherd and Allyson Strafella at Bartha Contemporary

4 October to 20 November 2016

A review by John Stephens

Although modern art was initially slow to respond to technology, its history went on to become inextricably linked with it, starting before the First World War with the Futurists’ first manifesto (1909) and their fascination with the machine.  During the past two decades or so artists have been engaging with digital aspects of technology in various manifestations.  And it is an engagement with technology that appears to have been the rationale for linking these two artists, Kate Shepherd and Allyson Strafella, in this two-person show. Apparently using CAD-based drawing, Shepherd creates angular linear motifs that lie over meticulously brushed, lacquered surfaces, while Strafella uses what appears to be a printing process that has a ‘digital’ quality reminiscent of the dot matrix printer.

Shepherd’s drawn motifs appear both to lie flat on the lacquered surface, and to assume a three-dimensional structure, thereby creating a tussle between surface and spatial illusion.  It's a phenomenon emphasised by the nature of the drawn elements that appear to hover above the painted surface, sometimes alluding to box-like structures, but also containing linear elements that lie flat within their own plane.  Her painted panels are often split horizontally; a device that at first appears illogical, but whose purpose then becomes apparent - serving as a division between subtly differing tones of the same colour, creating an additional spatial issue with which to contend.

In this way the lacquered surfaces (which in more than one piece are made up of separate abutted panels that interrupt the surface by creating horizontal lines) also mark the boundary between the subtle shifts of colour against which the linear elements are set.

Second Future painting, a long painting in portrait format, starts at the top with a deep indigo, moving down to slightly lighter-hued panels in the bottom third. This asserts the surface, above which the drawn linear motif of a simple architectural structure seems to float against a kind of horizon.

Kate Shepherd Second Future Painting, 2012, oil and enamel on wood panel  (installation shot)

The linear element in Light Blue Stones, the only piece in which the drawing has an organic quality, traces out what appears to be a spatial gradient, like a landscape of fields seen from an aerial position, almost reminiscent of a Paul Klee 'imagined landscape'.  At the same time it maintains an ambivalent attitude because the lines are equally reminiscent of fissures in a surface viewed from close up.  It’s an ambivalence emphasized by the single colour of the ground where, again, the lacquered surface plays a quietly subtle but significant role in its relationship with the line. Line and surface are closer in tone and so relate to one another more closely pictorially, creating a kind of atmospheric effect in this landscape guise, or as a patina’d surface with fissures, in another.

Kate Shepherd Lightest Blue Stones 2011, oil and enamel on wood panel

The assertive red of the lacquered surface in Big Red seems to compete on more even terms with the drawn element, which functions spatially by virtue of its being drawn in 'projection'. It appears to represent two sides, but with a single panel sitting somewhere indeterminately within it, thereby creating a disconcerting sensation with its refusal to escape entirely from the flat red lacquering.

Kate Shepherd Big Red, 2012 , oil and enamel on wood panel

But it's Catalogue Painting, something of an anomaly in this show, which reveals some of Shepherd’s working method.  Namely, her process of working in layers, a method that she uses in order to get the ground colour right.  It would appear that, in its making, and while the darker layer of blue lacquer was drying, she randomly scattered beans over the surface, which, upon their removal once the paint was dry, revealed the lighter blue of the previous layer, at the same time creating a cosmic look.  The effect is of a stellar infinity, brought back to the present only by the contradicting diagonal drawn lines on the surface; the two elements have no relationship with each other, other than as a seemingly formal correctional device.

Kate Shepherd Catalog Painting, 2012, oil and enamel on wood panel

Purple African, perhaps the most complicated of Shepherd’s compositions, in terms of the drawing, is possibly also the most readily understandable in terms of its allusion to CAD technology.  It has an immediate sculptural quality and is, in fact, based on the observation of a piece of African sculpture, which once deduced, becomes more apparently literal.

Kate Shepherd Purple African, 2012, oil and enamel on wood panel, 116.8 x 66 cm

In Allyson Strafella’s work the allusion to digital technology comes through images that are reminiscent of dot matrix printing.  On close inspection there appear to be repeated ‘digital’ elements that make up the dot-matrix appearance of the images. The work consists of simple parabolic motifs of dense colour on thin, dyed Japanese abaca paper.  Again, as with Shepherd, Strafella’s work creates a paradox.  Here the paradox is between the robustness of the image and the seeming flimsiness of the abaca paper; it’s hanging; unframed and pinned to the wall, allowing it to assume the natural curvature of its materiality.

A little research explained the digital appearance of Strafella’s work: she uses an adapted typewriter with an extra-wide carriage with custom-made characters on the hammers. This permits working with the paper sizes that she uses. She repeatedly types characters in a particular colour, over and over each other within a particular field, which intensifies the colour but also distresses the paper slightly.  Because of the way the images are made, the edges of the motifs are quite ragged; this allows them to interact in an interesting way with the ground colour as well as giving them a visceral quality, despite the mechanistic way in which they were made.  

As with a few of the images, Strafella’s motifs seem to intrude into the picture plane from the edges, particularly so with Azimuth and Magnetism.  There’s a seeming reference to something beyond the framing edge of the picture, with only a clue to its size, given by the curvature that is visible.  In Azimuth there appear to be two pink shapes, one moving in from left and the other from the right, leaving a red space in between; a space that is created by the typing method.  But then, within the curve on the right, intrudes a second, and by virtue of its curvature, apparently smaller shape, with the same colour as the space created in the middle, raising questions about the image and ground.  

Allyson Strafella Azimuth, 2013, Typed custom-marks on pigmented abaca paper


Allyson Strafella Magnetism, 2013, Typed custom-marks on pigmented abaca paper

Magnetism uses a similar ploy. The orange hue of the paper that is left by the typing of red creates an intruding orange shape extending from the top of the image, with a red ground between it and the single band of orange at the bottom.  Within the orange appears the suggestion of a smaller circular motif in the same red, appearing from the top within the orange shape.  With very simple reductive means, Strafella again creates an intriguing spatial ambiguity.

However, she does not always rely on creating this ambiguity through leaving large areas of the paper ‘unprinted’.  In Orbit the pale green paper is revealed only sparingly through the typing of a terre verte ground that buts against the viridian of a curve established in the bottom left corner, with two small segments of unprinted paper at each end of the curve.  The title Orbit is perhaps somewhat literal in suggesting the obvious allusion to some large stellar body, but it also emphasizes the wittiness of the spatial ambiguities that she is able to create with minimal means.

Allyson Strafella Orbit, 2015, Typed marks on pigmented abaca paper

Therefore, it becomes apparent that not only is there a link between these two artists, which arises out of their respective allusions to technology, and also from the ways in which they each play with the idea of pictorial space and its potential for ambiguity. And, as ever with Bartha Contemporary, this exhibition has been thoughtfully curated and carefully hung in this small gallery, and although the two artists are significantly different from each other in the way they approach their practice, they are nevertheless complementary, both in the quality of their work and in the picture-making concerns that they hold in common.

The exhibition officially closed on 20 November, but will remain in the gallery until the end of the year. Viewing is still possible by appointment and is well worth while.

Bartha Contemporary Ltd.

25 Margaret Street

London W1W 8RX

Images by courtesy of Bartha Contemporary