Abstract painting – what’s the point?

One of the above is abstract art…the others are just abstract.

I have been to three abstract shows recently. And for a while there I really had nothing to say about them except to wonder about how those who choose to paint purely abstract work arrive at that position. Is it a bit like vegetarianism? An abstinence?

A long long time ago I was a huge fan of Abstract Expressionism. I even read Clement Greenberg. For a while I was lost in ‘formal’ considerations. Subject matter seemed so…subjective. I was unable to use an easel to paint on (I still am), and got through quite a quantity of paint and unstretched canvas. I painted with brooms and ropes and bike tyres. I spent hours staring at Barnett Newman paintings trying to read the colour depth and accepting the need to banish the human image after 1918 and 1945. But then I woke up and realised that when I dispensed with subject matter, then content had been lost as well.  At least in my version of this idiom.

First up was Mary Ramsden at the Pilar Corrias gallery (still on for a couple more days). I liked these paintings – they were considered, there was variation in surface, the edges and corners were used as part of the object and they had a quiet presence that would have made them easy to enjoy in a domestic context. They seemed to me to be direct descendants of modernist abstraction, and as such they were totally located in a parochial idiom. A young artist has voluntarily set up camp in an art heritage zone.

Mike Meiré at Bartha Contemporary in Margaret St offered us a slightly different take – using patterns of newspaper columns to generate abstract grid paintings – apparently painting over certain pages with blocks of colour. This reminded me of a student contemporary who did this with a UB40 form – which had slightly more surprising shapes. These monolithic slabs of paint obscured meaning – i.e. of words – and seemed to pick up their very form from a haphazard template (the columns).

Thirdly there was Guillermo Kuitica at Hauser & Wirth Savile Row. I have to say that I think the north space is too big. The paintings, which were not large, seemed lost in its cavernous wilderness. They appeared to take a kind of synthetic cubist pattern and add unrelated linear cartographic elements. The south gallery showed fragments of maps redrawn in graphite. These did have a certain delicate appeal, and some of the accidental smudges and fingerprints were a distant echo of the Abstract Expressionists. But again I felt that a template (maps) was offering the only direction for a kind of obsessive mark making.

The trouble is that if you have a remotely good eye for stuff, the elements that these paintings are drawing to your attention are already familiar. If you just like ‘looking at stuff’ then there are many more interesting things to look at in the world than these paintings – they have taken too much out…

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