As the practices of splattering, leaning, propping and depositing persist in contemporary painting, ‘A Grammar of the Accidental’ was a timely exhibition. Its premise was that contingent mark-making can also be a deliberate process, albeit one that embraces a degree of risk and lack of control. The curator’s statement echoed ideas raised in Roland Barthes’ essay ‘The Death of Author’ (1967) by suggesting that an artist’s intention is the catalyst for a more-or-less autonomous work – a view that renders an authoritarian or heroic artist figure impossible. Curator Corinne Charpentier illustrated this new lexicon with works by Americans Jason Gubbiotti, Alex Hubbard and Erik Lindman, Swiss artist Edit Oderbolz and Argentinean-born Los Angeles-based artist Analia Saban, whose works each occupied a discrete gallery in the Kunsthalle.
Saban showed three works on canvas: Decant (from Floor) #1 and #2, both of which leant against a wall, and Decant (from Ceiling) #4 (all 2012), which was hung abutting the ceiling. Each sported smooth bulges where white concrete or acrylic had been poured down the unprimed surface to pool between it and a sheet of film, making the canvas effectively one side of a mould or a receptacle. With the film removed, the results are radiant, gravid forms whose surfaces seduce even while the process of their manufacture is evident. Next door, Oderbolz’s installation of four untitled works from 2012 invited ambulatory viewing: a simple figure made from steel reinforcements for concrete suspended from the ceiling beckoned the viewer in; then a series of white cloth panels draped in front of one wall’s windows softened the incoming light, while horizontal cuts near the bottom of every piece made the fabric drape like a line of skirted women. A further work comprised a turnstile made from steel reinforcements in an uncharacteristic mossy green on which empty sleeves were hanging, reaching for the centre.
The final gallery on the lower floor contained seven works by Lindman, the youngest of the group, each combining astonishingly complex layers of salvaged material, delicate splashes, scratches and sandwiched layers of opaque materials. If here Barthes’ suggestion that the unity of an art work is in its reading rather than its conception rang true, an earlier text might be even more prescient. When Maurice Blanchot wrote The Death of the Last Writer in 1955, he could not have foreseen our information-flooded age, yet he already identified the author as a figure that ‘imposes silence on this speaking’ – the speaking being the insistent, vain noise of the void around us. That speaking has since become a cacophony: we need authors and artists to tickle, torment and subdue it more than ever, and Lindman demonstrates this in works such as Hand B (2011). This palimpsest of scored masonite laminate screwed brutally onto a cotton stretcher, which unexpectedly enabled bewitching shadows to grace the canvas and the wall around it, orchestrated a moment of stillness.
Upstairs, two video works by Hubbard transferred the activities of painting into moving images. Projected onto the wall as large canvases would hang, The Border, The Ship (2011) and Bottom of the Top (2012) occupied the digital realm with heavily edited films featuring painterly movements of preparation, arrangement of subject, masking and revealing, flourishes of dramatic colour and a moment of completion and walking away. The final works, by locally-based painter Gubbiotti, were relatively small, bright powdery-coloured acrylic paintings on wood panels and canvas that relied heavily on masking to make shapes that could describe molecular structures or networks, but that were ultimately infuriatingly superficial, little more than decorative arrangements of colour.
These works made it clear that the artistic author is evidently not dead, but rather a figure that the contemporary art system clings to with determination. ‘A Grammar of the Accidental’ proved that valuing uncontrolled gestures is not just a fetishization of ungoverned patina or age, but the sophisticated differentiation of noise, as it would be termed in Photoshop, or the corralling of Blanchot’s primordial voices. In case that sounds as if artists can now have their cake and eat it, too, this exhibition also illustrated that this approach requires significant skill. Four of the artists included are developing its vocabulary; unfortunately, the exception proves that less considered painting only creates more noise.