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Making Matters at Platform A Gallery; a review by Andy Parkinson

Making Matters, at Platform A Gallery Middlesbrough, explores the relationship between the construction of an artwork and its physical presence, featuring work by Andrew BickKatrina BlanninClem CrosbyDavid RyanFrancesca Simon and Kate Terry.

Andrew Bick, OGVDS [alu] #3-5, 2012-2014, marker pen, oil paint and wax on aluminium, 76x64cm, Image by courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery, London

Clem Crosby’s Penmanship is desirable, more gestural that geometric, facture seems more important than faktura. But again, the opposite may also be true, in that self-expression seems to have been subjugated to process. There is something systematic about the work, although not in the sense of mathematics, just as there is something gestural about it - but it is not de Kooning-esque. My understanding of Crosby’s method is that, working wet on wet and barely lifting the brush, he has one go at it, and if it fails he wipes it off and starts again.

Facture (the handwriting of the artist) and faktura (materiality) seem also to be an unavoidable distinction, although both are present in the works on show here, resulting in a discussion between them rather than a strict privileging of one over the other.

I also wish to distinguish between fact and fiction; this relates to the object/image distinction, fact and object taking sides against fiction and image. I wonder if other distinctions might cluster around this one, so that on the side of fact and object we might also find rationality, whilst the irrational could be allied with fiction and image. At Making Matters fact, object, and rationality are, perhaps, emphasised. But only at first sight, because as I continue to view I notice that a dialogue with these opposite terms becomes unavoidable.

Katrina Blannin’s Three-Piece Suite, an elegant object, a triptych in black, grey and pink, is indeed a highly rational presentation of geometric and mathematical fact. Nevertheless, as I engage with the work, its rational certainty gives way to the shifting ambiguity of my own perceptual processes. Is it a line I am seeing now, of which I was so sure only a moment ago, or has it become an edge of another triangle that previously wasn't there for me? Since quantum physics, rationality seems less rational than it used to be, is no longer a matter of certainty, and even approaches the mystical, yet is always entirely material. Now my earlier distinctions seem to have dissolved into a ‘both/and’.

Paying attention to Blannin’s tonally varied surface, materiality, factual ‘object-ness’ and ‘made-ness’ is what I am most aware of, without the work ever becoming matter-of-fact or banal. The watchword for Minimalism may have been ‘unmodulated’, yet in Blannin’s painting we get subtle modulation achieved by careful layering of paint on linen, the weave continuing to show through. Faktura, materiality as such, rather than facture, the handwriting of the artist, is highlighted, yet isn't this also Blannin’s ‘signature style’?

If Kate Terry’s three-dimensional works are constructed rather than sculpted, maybe it is a particular kind of making that matters; I am thinking, perhaps, of a distinction between craft and construction, with the latter being uppermost, even whilst there is plenty of craft in evidence here.

There are also other distinctions to be made; for example, ‘making paintings’ as opposed to ‘painting pictures’ (the other artists represented here being painters). Making matters a lot more than, say, representation. The works in this exhibition, whether two- or three-dimensional, are autonomous constructions; abstractions, in that they address process over content, rather than in the sense of ‘abstracting from’ observational descriptions.

Installation shot. Foreground: Kate Terry, Series IX no.3, 2014, powder coated steel, painted wood, plywood, 190 x 50 x 50cm. Image by courtesy of Platform A Gallery and the artists.

Katrina Blannin, Three-Piece Suite: Pink/Black (Double Hexad: Contracted Root and Expanded +123/321 Tonal Rotation, 2014. acrylic on linen, triptych: 50 x 50, 50 x 60, 50 x 70, Image by courtesy of the artist

Clem Crosby, Penmanship is desirable, 2014, oil on Formica on aluminium, 76 x 64cm. Image by courtesy of the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London.

David Ryan, Set 6 (e), 2014, oil on linen, 45 x 55 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist.

I think he uses the same structure as a starting point for all the paintings, although as I view these I am doubting whether that is the case, as the two paintings look so different, and my attempts to retrace the starting point are unsuccessful. My belief is that the GW in the title refers to Gillian Wise, a member of the British Constructivist Group, which exhibited frequently in the UK in the sixties, and the Systems Group, founded by Malcolm Hughes and Jeffrey Steele in 1970. I believe that Bick’s grid structure is based on a series of works by Wise; the quotation clearly indicating an association with that tradition, and supplying a context in which the work should be viewed. His practice is systematic, in that he uses and re-uses the same grid, but without necessarily deriving his forms from mathematical formulae, which would be closer to the method that Blannin employs.

Left, Francesca Simon, In Construction, 2014, acrylic on linen on wood, diptych, each panel 122 x 93 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Beardsmore Gallery, London. Right, Andrew Bick, OGVDS-GW #5, 2014, acrylic, marker pen, pencil, watercolour, oil paint and wax on linen on wood, 76 x 64 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery, London

Francesca Simon’s process is similar to Bick’s in repeatedly using the same starting point and developing a series of variations upon it. Also, her diptych In Construction, situated in a corner here at Platform A, in which each panel is at right angles to the other, is surely a ‘system’, according to Bertalanffy’s general definition: “a set of elements standing in inter-relations”[1], but not a mathematical system. In fact, Simon’s work may be the nearest here to that type of abstraction called “abstracting from…” - the ‘constructedness’ of the real world breaking through.  Or is it just that I know that Simon’s paintings, about to be shown at Beardsmore Gallery, were directly inspired by the excavations and construction of London’s Crossrail project?

Systems are not composed, but constructed, as is geometry. Making matters, and even when, in this exhibition, gesture takes the place of geometry, I think it is a systematic, or at least a procedural, approach that these artists share, although the specific details of their systems or procedures vary considerably. I have attempted to use a set of distinctions to understand the work, but I seem to have found that even whilst employing them they break down, reminding me that whatever abstract or reductive art might be in the 21st century, it can no longer be dogmatic.

For the Russian Constructivists, making mattered because it provided a revolutionary vision of art appropriate for the new order. Later, an international Constructivism, having dropped the Utopian mission, found that making mattered because it provided an opportunity to make an art according to laws of its own, “without reference to exterior nature or its transformation” [2]. For me, making matters because it opens my eyes to the constructedness of the world around me, and to my own agency in constructing that world, even though that agency may turn out to be an illusion.

Making Matters continues at Platform A Gallery until 20 November 2014.

[1] Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General System Theory, Revised Edition 1969, p55.

[2] Max Bill quoted by Brandon Taylor in After Constructivism, 2014, p88.

David Ryan’s improvisatory paintings share with Crosby’s a more gestural approach than, say, the geometry of Terry, Blannin and Simon. Bick’s work might be seen as bridging geometry and gesture, including as he does gestural elements within a repeated and controlled schema, or sometimes making up his now-familiar grid structure from haptic mark-making, which seems to have been the case in the black and white painting shown here, less so in the highly coloured OGVDS-GW #5.