BY Mark Godfrey in Reviews | 07 JUN 00
Featured in
Issue 53

John Chilver

Asprey Jacques, London, UK

BY Mark Godfrey in Reviews | 07 JUN 00

In condemning the work of Minimalists like Donald Judd as a 'feat of ideation', Clement Greenberg seemed blind to the visual nuances he had emphasised defending Barnett Newman (Judd's mentor) from the charge of intellectualism. Judd's own account of Newman's work may precisely describe the surface of a painting, but his list-like precision might explain why Newman feared that the artist waged a 'struggle against the catalogue'. If cleverness has been a trap for intelligent artists, the critic might also be trapped into perpetuating a practice that confirms the need for Newman's struggle. Perhaps, though, some work can challenge the critic not to encourage these fears.

John Chilver's paintings force such a challenge. Displaying a fascinated investigation into the language of painting, his works demand sustained attention, and must be described in parts. With barely a trace of brushwork, the unprimed surface of Flight (all works 2000) was painted with fluorescent yellow signage paint. Like a Newman ground, the monochrome is rigorously plain. Towards the bottom of the canvas, a line of green paint has been applied in brushy swathes and then all but covered by three uneven bars of white silicone-based paint piped out of a bag fitted with a circular nozzle. The dents and dips in the paint - indices of the smallest movements of the artist's squeezing hands - demand to be read via the history of gestural Expressionism. They are juxtaposed, however, with the thick black lines above them that function quite differently - not as ironic descriptions of any action or implied 'mood', but as parts of the painting's narrative. Piped out of a square nozzle, the bends of these lines are predetermined, since they delimit a twisting white shape already painted over the yellow ground, that reads, once outlined, as a column of smoke. This has emerged from a 'fire' to the right of the painting, made by splaying out a poured mass of red paint with a sponge. Just above, an accumulation of spaghetti-thin lines of black, grey and white, describe a bird in flight. It hovers over the fire while its constitutive twists of paint rise literally above the surface of the support. To its left, a reindeer hurdles through another white mass that might be foliage. Unlike the bird, the deer is resolutely two dimensional. Made with the use of a stencil, its silhouetted shape is rendered in an even ochre paint.

As this description accumulates, Newman's concern about the catalogue becomes relevant: this list makes the painting appear as if it were a mere collection of divergent application methods, of juxtaposed types of representation. Lacking from such a formal description, however, is the painting's sense of humour. It's everywhere - in the childlike sausage shapes of the smoke column and in the flagrant ugliness of the fluorescent yellow, a ludicrous backdrop for a country scene. The reindeer, although outlined so simply it looks as if it has jumped off a motorway sign, has a heraldic elegance, while the bird, although wonderfully intricate, is scrawny and sharp. These oddities are seductive, and complicate the painting's intelligence with charm.

A moment of danger is pictured in Flight, but only hinted at in Winter Story, a painting which relates to Wilhelm Busch's story Ice Peter (1864). Ignoring his parents' advice, Peter goes skating but slips through the ice. Found encased in icicles, he is carried home, but when his parents thaw him out his body melts. Winter Story explores the moment Peter is about to step onto the ice, the imminent danger suggested symbolically by the thwacking dollop of grey paint that looms over the path he is about to take. This kind of symbolic structure is collapsed in The District. Here, paint does not stand for impending destruction: it decimates its subject. Amidst some very menacing crows, a robin perches on a bare branch (a line of piped bathroom sealant). The red strands of paint constructing its breast have slumped under their own weight, so the bird appears to crumble down the surface of the canvas. These various formulations of danger - narrative, symbolic, actual - allow Chilver to sidestep the idealism other urban imaginations might indulge while representing the rural. The idea of impending trouble seems more importantly a metaphor for Chilver's approach to painting. It's a medium beset by danger zones, prone to being misunderstood by readings that build meaning too quickly, that take narrative suggestion for content, or sign for referent. It sets out on thin ice. Chilver makes it glide.

Mark Godfrey is a curator and art historian based in London, UK. He recently co-edited The Soul of a Nation Reader (2021) with Allie Biswas, and co-curated ‘Laura Owens and Vincent van Gogh’ at the Fondation Vincent van Gogh in Arles, France.