‘Works on paper’ has a curious, slightly old-fashioned ring about it. Not very Jeff Koons. And hardly Barbara Kruger or Cindy Sherman, although technically theirs is just that: work on paper. The phrase seems to belong elsewhere, to a different kind of practice and to a very different type of studio. Its home is in a world of sketches and studies, an ethos of provisional work and slow experiments with the traditional materials, forms and colours of art.
In a sense, both Roberts and Innes are quite traditional artists; each makes work form the conventional materials and media of painting. Unlike many painter, though, the various surfaces and pigments they employ are not simply the means of their art but also its subject. AT least, each takes certain elements of painting’s traditional physical substance – the stretcher, the support or the properties of paint – as a point of departure for a series of more or less systematic but also informal abstract experiments. While there is much to distinguish these artists’ work from one another’s they both own much to that last great moment of painting in the early 60s – the moment of the apotheosis of high modernism and its simultaneous attenuation and dissolution into the themes of process and structure.
There is a level of self-alienation in the work of Innes and Roberts which is also inherited from that moment. Their painting is not the ‘unqualified act’ which Harold Rosen berg championed in the 40s and 50s. Quite the opposite. This work is constantly qualified by restraints and regulations, by self-imposed denials and procedural limitations, by a kind of systematised doubt about the vaunted expressive authenticity of art or of its practitioners. There is an implicit acknowledgement in this type of work that the existence of apparently arbitrary limits and constraints is not so much a hindrance to experimentation and expression but a precondition of it.
Showing these artists’ work together brings out certain areas of likeness which might otherwise be missed for the more obvious differences between each takes the standard paint manufacturer’s colours as a kind of given. Roberts uses only a range of five earth colours which are mixed with either black or white to produce a strict set or variations. These colours are the approximate equivalents of the natural materials (flax, linen, etc)from which his three-dimensional works are made. Innes’ larger work is also typically held within the same range of flat and muted earth colours. In his series of drawings Innes starts with a much wider chromatic range but in each of these two-colour works most of the intensity is literally wiped away. What remains is a trace of the original hue marking the edges of the worked surface. The single strongest colour throughout the whole exhibition is a flat yellow ochre. It’s almost garish.
It isn’t surprising that experiments I colour – or ‘samples’ as Roberts calls them – should be the subject of work on paper. Colour is the most volatile and unpredictable aspect of art. It is a kind of unconscious; always threatening the Apollonian forces of structure and measure. During the 18th century the sensory excesses of colour had to be subject to the higher law of line. Colour was a kind of nature; something to be dominated through the exercise of reason. There is an element of that here too – although system and process owe more to rationalism than to rationality. The threat of colour is acknowledged in the works of these two artists, but the moment it is invoked it is also contained or diluted. Colour is allowed to play a role but its limits are strictly set down in advance. Yet it still tends to slip through the net, to spin out into association and expression, and to remind us in the process of the fundamental arbitrariness of classification.
These works are tested by their limits as much as their procedural limits are tested in the works. There is always a fine line between a system which generates possibility and one which forecloses on change. Pissarro once said that if he had been true to himself he would have painted the same scene throughout his life – the implication being that only under such conditions is it possible really to tune one’s vision . In Roberts’ and Innes’ work there is genuine subtlety where there might easily be bland repetition. The mood of these works is reflective and restrained. They are the result of inquiry, not a platform for assertion. At a time when imagery and immediacy and impact are just about everything (in art as elsewhere), then works such as these are a timely reminder of the materiality of art and the autonomy of its means and effects. This kind of critical self-consciousness – that paintings are never merely pictures – is a not a negation of realism in art but a key condition of a modern realist practice. The recognition of the physical properties and limitations of art is not perhaps a sufficient condition for realism, but it is certainly a necessary one. The rest is academic.