One tends to see what’s in an Old Master before seeing it as a picture, (whereas) one sees a Modernist painting as a picture first…the Modernist way of seeing is, of course, the best way of seeing any kind of picture, Modernist or Old Master.

No one could argue that a painting is not an object first, a physical enactment of materials laid bare on a flat plane. Modernism brought with it this awareness for both painters and viewers. Clement Greenberg fought for painting as an act of purity and autonomy but many of today’s painters see these rigid paradigms as too removed from the intricacy of the world around us. Just as it is possible to see the abstract qualities of surface and line in Bassano or Raphael, isn’t it just as valid to search for meaning or narrative within abstraction? The painters in this exhibition wrestle with the dichotomy between surface and subject. They find common ground in the acknowledgement of modernism, whilst considering the ways to deconstruct, taint or expose its apparent simplicity.

James Lumsden and Andrew Mackenzie are both preoccupied with the monochrome surface. For Lumsden the flat surface takes on a photographic theatricality, suffused with illusionist depth and light. But wait: look closer and the perfect surface is disrupted; the layers of paint can be tracked in tiny, repetitious brushstrokes and edges or borders of canvas are stripped bare or left unpainted. Lumsden hereby draws us closer to the materiality of the surface, making his paintings more abstract than ever. But does this materialism simply draw us to their process of making, or is he picking apart modernism’s seamless vision, exposing it as a failed utopia?

Like Lumsden Mackenzie draws in the viewer with seductive surfaces but his process is subtractive, laying on paint only to take it away again. There is a tragic romance in his erasure, reminding us how much gets lost in the passage of time. His ghostly surfaces seem worn as if by nature, like walls gradually stained by the weather. This connection with nature is dually emphasised by his trees. Their intense colour contrasts starkly with the heavy ground to create depth, yet Mackenzie is also referencing botanical drawings and 18th and 19th century landscape painting as well as the many historical associations with trees, revealing further interplays between forms and meanings.

Where these artists use the painted surface as atmospheric field for Michael Craik, Sharon Quigley and Jo Milne the surface is a site for decoration and pattern, emphasising the flat autonomy of the painted object. Craik uses architectural geometric pattern as a framework on which to build up layers of paint into the subtlest form of relief. Painting onto aluminium further enforces the objectivity of the work, their slimness bringing them close to sculpture. His generic patterns are coolly detached from the specifics of place, seeming instead to recall the anonymity of the urban experience. Recent developments see Craik using Arabic patterns as inspiration, moving from the modern urban ideal to the primitive roots of abstraction.

As complex as the minutiae of ordinary life can be, a range of structures hold it together and these complex and varied patterns provide a starting point for both Sharon Quigley and Jo Milne. Quigley’s sources are richly varied, including kimono designs, arabesque and nineteenth century engravings and cellular structures. The sources are united in a personal vocabulary involving richly worked surfaces built up with wax and resin. This personal language could be likened to what philosopher and curator Nicolas Bourriaud has recently defined as the ‘altermodern’ – an attempt to gather together multiple sources into a personal and unified language, the preoccupation of many contemporary artists.

If Quigley starts broad and narrows down, Jo Milne’s practice could be seen in reverse; her paintings start with specific areas of language or coded symbols and expose a playful or complex spirit beneath. For example DNA structures, jacquard loom cards, pianolo rolls and Braille are exploited as starting points but broken apart into complex and layered patterns. In Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy systems of language come into question too, where a word can lose its meaning with the simple removal of one letter, bringing the tower of communication tumbling down. Like Auster, Milne references elements of language as technological constructions or ‘cyphers’, but they are grounded in the rich and human surface of paint, a near symbol for the human body.

The artists here explore the variable ways in which tautological paintings can be relevant and accessible to the contemporary viewer and find themselves scattered across the spectrum between process and meaning. But it seems they would all share art historian Meyer Schapiro’s stance:

‘…there is no ‘pure art’; all fantasy, and formal construction, even the random scribbling of the hand, are shaped by experiences and concerns…’

Rosie Lesso is an artist and writer in Scotland © 2009

  • Clement Greenberg, Modernist Painting, The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, ed. John O’ Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993)
  • Nicholas Bourriaud: Ideal Syllabus, Frieze Magazine, Issue 115, May 2008
  • Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy, (Faber & Faber, USA, 1987)
  • Meyer Schapiro, Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, ed. Francis Frascina (Routledge, New York, 2000)