in Features | 06 JUN 98
Featured in
Issue 41

Be There or Be Square

Peter Davies

in Features | 06 JUN 98

Now that hard-edge abstraction and what was once called Op Art have been firmly absorbed into the vocabularies of graphic and lifestyle design, what's left for painting? It somehow seems pointless to attempt to reach a kind of Platonic ideal of pure form and colour using ground up stone and animal hair when those nice people at Adobe make things so much easier and offer results with a far greater degree of precision. But one of the things that still fascinates in the work of an older generation of abstract painters, Bridget Riley in particular, is the notion of labour, of making things by hand despite the enormous effort required. Some artists tried to skive off by using masking tape, but this resulted in unpleasantly raised edges of paint reminiscent of a dried up Kraft cheese slice. Much of this work now languishes in hotel lobbies and airport departure lounges in the less fashionable parts of the world. If you want to reduce labour, you might as well just go with the flow and accept that techno flyers are all that's left.

Josef Albers for one was not necessarily concerned with achieving a seamless finish. This is particularly evident in his small colour sketches and a certain physical turbulence is still present in his more complex finished paintings. The eye and the mind do the rest of the work, bringing together the elements of a painting that the artist implicitly acknowledged could never go beyond its tangible, flawed state. Peter Davies' paintings have a similar feel to them: as you get closer to their surfaces, they begin to disintegrate into increasingly visible marks of human activity. Little squares marked out in pencil show through a single, semi-transparent layer of paint on the primed canvas. The paint overlaps the pencil marks and the shapes become less carefully filled in as your eye moves - like the artist's hand - from left to right across the picture. In a work such as Small Touching Squares Painting (1997), the initial impression is of a bizarrely detailed contour map or a computer generated model of fluid dynamics, but as you move in, the illusion of volume, of a three-dimensional surface, breaks down and the awareness creeps in that perhaps the undulations of the surface are errors - shifts and variations that have occurred during the mind-numbingly tedious task of drawing and filling in the little squares. It is as if, once the illusion of precision and seamlessness are discarded, all that extra energy is displaced into the painting activity itself.

Overlapping Grey Squares Painting (1998) again features accumulated squares, this time stacked on top of each other into distinct groups that are separated from each other by black space. The squares here have undergone a similar kind of distortion: their edges are concave or convex and some of the them are elongated long past the point of being square. Like Small Touching Squares Painting there is a sense of motion and three-dimensionality that references other visual areas that we may be familiar with. The concertina-like movement of the stacks, with their overlapping light and dark shapes and disjointed perspectives, tugs against the squash and stretch effect of the bouncy individual squares, an indicator of two dimensional movement that has been the mainstay of the animation industry since Disney defined it.

Perhaps it is still possible for painting to deal with such issues - the perception and illusion of space and movement on a static two-dimensional surface - but the reference points have changed. The universality longed for by the Modernist non-figurative painters has evaporated and the overt play with the referentiality of abstract work by artists such as Peter Halley now seems heavy-handed. We deal with two-dimensional representations of three (and four, if you include time) dimensional information everyday: on computer and television screens and the printed page. The mechanisms used are familiar conventions and it is inevitable that they should come to inflect the way we perceive the painted image.