Surface tension: a modernist show?
It is not inappropriate to begin with the observation that the work is precisely and suggestively hung. On entering the gallery there is a sense of a collective concept – in this case attention to materials; a sensitivity to context and space – yet at the same time, four different minds at work. There is in the hang, a subtle assertion that artworks exist in relationships - to each other, to the space and to the potential audience. Even in this relatively small gallery there is enough room and light to pay close attention to each work yet allow peripheral glimpses of its possible relation to the others, enhancing and enriching the viewing experience.
At first sight the minimal and abstract nature of the artworks could easily suggest a regressive debt to 20thC Modernism. It could be argued that the work and the way it is presented, simply repeats modernist preoccupations: each artist concentrates on a single reductive concern; each emphasises a single process and way of working: there’s a hint of ‘truth to materials’ and a modernist preoccupation with simple, monochrome abstract shape and grids. The titles re-enforce Modernist associations: Red Painting; Untitled, concrete and iron; Order/Disruption, No 4 – echo the modernist practice of eschewing narrative, and by simply numbering work, demanding that it be experienced as an object in itself.
Doran’s concrete wall sculptures evoke of course, the aesthetic notion of ‘concrete’ and the mid 20thC concern with what were then, new sculptural forms, using brutal and raw non-fine art construction materials. Ricci’s obsessive repetitive drawings recall the delicate modernist grids of Agnes Martin and in their use of cheap everyday materials the concerns of Arte Povera. Hackney’s squares and grids give no visual clue: they appear unrelentingly abstract until - like Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie – one of the titles’ narrative qualities: New York, New York narrows down the viewing options. McCausland’s abstract shapes appear quintessentially modernist. They recall the greenbergian necessity for flatness; the exploration of colour and essentially painterly qualities.
To describe these works as being indebted to Modernism is not to presume any negative criticism or a necessary disparagement of those artists and their artworks. It would be too easy to refer to such work – however beautifully executed and successful in its own terms - as ‘old fashioned’ ‘unoriginal’ or ‘derivative‘. These are terms often unthinkingly used by lazy critics to negate what they don’t like: to say something is ‘old fashioned’ says nothing about the contemporary significance of an artwork. Felix Gonzales-Torres – an important post-modern performance artist – was willing to recognise his debt to Modernism when he said:
I think more than anything else I’m just an extension of certain practices, minimalism or conceptualism, … I don’t like this idea of having to undermine your ancestors, of ridiculing them … and I think that this attitude that you have to murder your father in order to start something is bullshit. We are part of this culture … so whatever I do is already something that has entered my brain from some other source and is then synthesised into something new. I do not have an anxiety about originality, I really don’t.
And, as subsequent critical events have shown, American abstract modernism never was non referential. When we look at an Agnes Martin, a Rothko, a Louis Morris today they are redolent with meaning and firmly attached to a technical, political and aesthetic moment in history. Modernist art and art criticism in the 20thCentury has been characterised by its adherence to the historical argument for media specificity. Greenbergian tenets of modernist painting demanded that each art form maintain its distinctness. They rejected any association with literature or language; privileged purity of form against narrative; boundary categorisation against diffusion, scientific clarity against complexity. Above all Greenberg opined that experiencing painting is a purely visual experience. Post-Modernism emerged as a rejection of these tenets: it turned modernism on its head and embraced the diffuse, the plural, the linguistic and the irrational in its multi-sensorial events. Surface Tensions may look like modernist art but cannot - in a contemporary context- be appreciated through purely modernist criticism; nor, because of its formal preoccupations can it be easily understood as post-modern. A neo-modern criticism seems most appropriate in this context. Such an approach absorbs the validity of modernist tenets but expands the range of how artworks can be understood to include other relationships: to history, social context, technical advancements, psychological associations and parallax viewing positions.
Thus artworks – such as Doran’s concrete sculptures, or Ricci’s ink and paper drawings can be appreciated as inheriting ‘modernist’ aesthetics, but both can also be understood by eference to what has gone before in technique, in arthistory and in everyday life. McCausland’s use of the different qualities of paint has an almost forensic attention to the significance of its own matter, constructed in a very modernist mode of scientific attention, but the recognition of its context - painted on walls - has rendered it unpredictable to viewing and subject to transient shadows. These artworks have the Modernist values of being specific to their medium: rigorous and analytic, but they are deconstructive in their recognition of their place in an ambient world and the effects of the world on them.
Rosalind Krauss suggested the notion of recursivity to describe this particular critical relation to art. Approaching Hackney’s painting for instance, in a traditional modernist mindset would be to respond immanently to its matter: paint and canvas. A recursive approach would require looking [literally] beyond the surface: to the latent layering of technical, historical and conventional relationships and of their emergence in the process of making. The encounter with a work of art then - as a neo-modernist event - is not just a visual encounter, it requires knowledge: some prior work on the part of the viewer. Hence, we find, that Hackney’s Canary Solo, 2010, which refers to Malevich’s Black Square is coming from a different time and place. It is actually made from the pulverised vinyl recording of a singing canary. A hint of the technical and historical process is seen at the edges of the square suggesting that there is more than meets the eye in this artwork. Neo-modernist practice in art and criticism relates artworks to the world within which the artwork was produced and acknowledges its dependence on other practices: in Hackney’s case – there are references to aural concerns and echoes of the less specific notions of environmentalism and loss. In Doran’s literally, concrete art, there is more than just the visual pleasure of pattern and mass: on closer looking it can be seen that time and the effects of damp eat the solid modernist matter away. Ricci’s modest work implies a tenacity and fierce concentration at odds with the fragility and simplicity of the work. McCausland’s paintings are subject to the vagaries of light, surface and audience perspective. In contrast to modernist canvases’ demand for immanent response, the works in Surface Tensions require to be known, understood and engaged with at different levels. They speak of the philosophy of the weak overcoming the strong; of the power of precision, delicacy, slowness and the unsaid. The Modernist project is still unfinished; there is still some argument in defense of its tenets. These artists clearly owe a debt to 20th Modernism, but they are clearly 21st century artists.
The tenets of modernist art were most clearly set out by Greenberg, C. ( 1961) ‘Modernist painting’ in Art & Literature, 4 Spring 1965, pp.193-201. Reprinted in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (eds.) (1992) Art in Theory: 1900-1990, An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Blackwell: Oxford & Cambridge USA.
Gonzalez-Torres, F. and Storr, R. (1995) ‘Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Étre un espion’ (an interview) in: Art Press, January, cited in Elger, D. (1997) Felix Gonzalez-Torres. I Text. II Catalogue Raissoné. Cantz Verlag. pp.78-79.
This debate began with Lessing, G. (1766) Laocoon; An Essay Upon the Limits of Poetry and Painting. trans. E. Frothingham. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York.
Greenberg. Towards a Newer Laocoon. Partisan review 1940 in which Greenberg continues the defence of categorical purity.
Krauss, R.  Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition. T&H . Krauss, ibid. p.8
© Pen Dalton 2011