In his 1987 essay ‘Notes on Abstraction’, the ‘neo-geo’ painter Peter Halley offers up a vision of the near future. In this coming age, ‘the social is […] transferred onto the electro-magnetic digital grids of the computer,’ the ‘chip becomes the universal gateway through which everything must pass.’ and ‘computers even gain a hand in rebuilding specific reality according to their own digital rules.’ If these words reflect the 1980s’ broader techno-paranoia (perhaps best exemplified by William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, 1984, and James Cameron’s film The Terminator, 1984) then they are also strikingly prescient. Thirty years on, when everything from hook-ups to high-frequency trades are enabled by complex algorithms, we appear to be living in the tomorrow that Halley described.
The exhibition ‘Peter Halley: Paintings from the 1980s’ at Stuart Shave/Modern Art focuses on eight canvases and six works on paper, made in the decade in which the painter established his instantly recognizable, and fiercely circumscribed, formal vocabulary. One key element of this is ‘cells’ – monochrome squares that, as Halley wrote in an earlier essay, ‘Notes on the Paintings’ (1982), are ‘a reminder of the apartment house, the hospital bed, the school desk – the isolated endpoints of industrial structure’. Another is the ‘underground conduits’ connecting one cell to another, schematic lengths of pipework that slosh with what he mysteriously termed ‘vital fluids’. Halley’s acrylic palette ranges from flat, unremitting blacks to the DayGlo yellows he described as ‘signifier[s] of low-budget mysticism’, while the cells and conduits are given occasional texture by the use of Roll-A-Tex, a paint additive familiar to anybody who has stared up at the faux-stucco-work on the ceiling of a postwar suburban condo. Shoddy spirituality and shoddier design solutions: this is an art that, for all its chromatic and compositional nous, foregrounds the impoverishment of the interior spaces we occupy, be those our heads or our homes.
In paintings such as Glowing and Burnt-Out Cells with Conduit (1982) and Two Cells with Circulating Conduit (1987), the history of geometric abstraction, from Kazimir Malevich to Barnett Newman, is replayed – not as tragedy or as farce but, rather, as parody. With apostate glee, Halley’s rectilinear forms insist on their resemblance to the figurative stuff of engineering diagrams, corporate flow charts and the blueprints of prisons and clinics. (Michel Foucault, we should note, was a signal influence on the painter’s thinking.) As ‘Notes on the Paintings’ has it, these canvases are ‘a critique of idealist modernism’, in which the ‘misty space of Rothko’, having provided a woefully inadequate answer to capitalism’s predations, ‘is walled up’.
Geometry, for Halley, is the visual argot of the boss class, which it uses both to address its own ranks and to discipline its subordinates. Looking at Black Cells with Conduit (1986), in which a ‘n’-shaped line links two inky squares, some crucial information seems to have been redacted. If we only knew precisely what these forms represented, we might avoid yet another attempt to swindle or exploit us. Horror, in Halley’s work, comes robed in the most boring of disguises. The titular residential-cum-correctional architecture of his line drawing Apartment House, Prison (1981) is plotted on graph paper. It might just as easily have been plotted on an Excel spreadsheet.
Here in 2017, the resemblance of Halley’s 1980s paintings to computer circuitry is inescapable and it’s hard not to imagine, say, Two Cells with Conduit and Underground Chamber (1983) hanging above the sofa in the Palo Alto beach house of a tech wunderkind. What ‘vital fluids’ might course through this painting’s pipework? Rereading ‘Notes on Abstraction’, the answer is surely data – harvested and hoarded for some unknown future use.
Main image: Peter Halley, Two Cells With Circulating Conduit (detail), 1987, acrylic, fluorescent acrylic and Roll-a-Tex on canvas, 2 x 3.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London