Primarily known for his sculptures that employ found objects and industrial materials, David Batchelor considers urban iterations of colour which are unmodulated, synthetic or illuminated. Curated by Andrea Schlieker, this exhibition at The Fruitmarket Gallery presented a prolific though less familiar aspect of the artist’s work: comprising only two-dimensional work, ‘Flatlands’ was the first in-depth survey of the London-based artist’s drawings, paintings and graphic compositions.
In the downstairs gallery was a group of more than 40 works on paper titled ‘Atomic Drawings’ (1998–ongoing): unsupported volumes of colour occupy plinth-like forms, suggesting a series of unrealized sculptures. Batchelor’s early interest in painting while at art school is evident in these works, which are characterized by an exploration of surface and the formal properties of colour. His use of colour here feels dynamic, exuberant and, at times, anthropomorphic and mischievous. While ostensibly abstract, the ‘Atomic Drawings’ suggest a figurative realm: a luscious lime blob crinkles and glistens upon a sheet of card, a liquid pool of green into which you might dip your expectant hand; spray-painted pigments drip and ooze into one another; graph-paper lines struggle to contain an unfixed bubbling silver mass – one can imagine it multiplying out of control, a mutant frogspawn.
Framing these drawings were a group of preparatory diagrams or proposals for sculptures. Some of Batchelor’s most recognizable sculptures were indicated, including the monochrome industrial dollies that comprise I Love King’s Cross and King’s Cross Loves Me (1997), the coloured plastic sunglasses from the 2008 Folkestone Triennial commission Disco Mecanique (2008) and the lightboxes and fluorescent lamps from Magic Hour (2004–05). They provided context for Batchelor’s best-known sculptural work, which is often in the public realm, and thus elegantly suggested his interest in both the playful world of two dimensions and the more concrete physical realm.
Hung together as a suite, the ‘October Colouring-In Book’ (2012–13) is a new group of works that Batchelor produced specifically for ‘Flatlands’. Published in the spring of 1976, the first issue of the journal boldly stated: ‘October will be plain on aspect’ – a reaction against Artforum, from which October’s founding editors had defected. As Batchelor puts it, he consequently sought revenge by colouring in the entire first issue. Bright shapes mask or reveal words, presenting a dichotomy where colour equates to sensual experience and text suggests intellectualized thought – a humorous inversion of the journal’s aim to extend the avant-garde project of monochromatic abstraction.
Upstairs was a homogenous series of paintings, varying in size but all depicting monolithic Modernist forms perching upon plinths. The largest of this group of ‘Blob Paintings’ (2011–ongoing) comprises two-and-a-half litres of household paint, which has spread and expanded across the surface. Frank Stella said that he wanted to make paint look as good as it did in the can, and Batchelor echoes this ‘idea of trying to keep the paint as good as it is in its unadulterated state’. Rhythmically hung throughout the open-plan space, blobs of candy pink, lemon yellow, slate grey, scarlet red, viridian green and papal purple formed a cohesive group. An orange form recalls a lava sea of pulsing electronic intensity – a Pompeian explosion of heat. Each work is individual, with colours becoming modulated through fine rivulets forming at their edges and thick ripples dancing at their core.
Oscillating between the representational and the abstract, Batchelor’s two-dimensional works suggest three-dimensional forms in space while, inversely, his monochrome sculptures often recall the history of 20th-century abstract painting. Travelling on to Spike Island, the exhibition’s title is borrowed from Edwin Abbott’s Flatland (1884), a satirical novella in which a square ventures out of the two-dimensional world into one and three dimensions. While materially playful and affecting, Batchelor’s graphic works often claim their physicality primarily in the imagination of the viewer. In this sense, colour mercurially seeps beyond its confines, refusing to be contained within a single dimension, but rather, to be experienced and sensed as pure pigment that shifts and moves between potential forms.