Giving Painting a Push
In a visual culture saturated with digital images, painting continues to provide a valuable more ambiguous charged space. It’s a space where representation of the world shifts across time and place, able to become in its materiality a bodily experience with a film of memory before the eyes.
With such a strong history, it’s hard to get surprised by painting anymore. You’ll find comparatively little new painting on display in our public galleries this year. Yet here are two Wellington based painters currently showing with their dealers, who have been working strongly in recent years to give painting a push.
Daniel Unverricht (Dominion, Suite Gallery 8 - 24 November 2017) paints street corners and empty backlots in the dead of night. These are the leftovers. The spaces left to us when all is still and gone for the day. When commerce has stopped pinging. When no-one’s around – eerily, not even a car or a piece of litter. We’re at the rat’s tail end of town.
Instead, I imagine myself, a teenager roaming the streets exercising fledgling freedom. Anxious and in between things. Finding in the stillness, the darkness shot through by naked street and security lights some existential calm.
A bent give way sign, a road cone out of place on the corner - things have happened here and will again, but it will be a prank or a brawl. It will be trouble. Out here between things we’re on the sidewalk edge of despondency – between the pedestrian and gutter. Yet warmth - a rosy hope – shimmers: the colour in walls are softly, brilliantly lit up by the off-canvas lights – blues, greens, pinks, and yellows. These also underlay the blackness. Colour is held within a cloak of shadows, with the many tones of black that oil paint can muster.
The focus are the worn pavements and gaps in the teeth between buildings that stud the strips of the provisional parts of our provincial towns. Hastings is from where Unverricht originally hails and is – as Megan Dunn relates in this profile in the Summer 2017 issue of Art News - felt throughout these works.
These spaces feel like they’re waiting, neglected, left over from another time; a lit payphone box hangs in there for the occasional desperate call. Yet such scenes actually dominate the edges of all our cities and towns: waiting for some economic revitalisation that seems unlikely to come. Their vacancy is electrified in this painting. Unverricht often paints quite small – he encourages you to come in close and contemplate. The artist could be said to provide space to consider the waste, domestic unrest, homelessness and general social damage left over from how we live. The shadows suggest this disturbance as much as they do a movie-fuelled suburban teenage nostalgia; an unpeopled Edward Hopper-like noir.
This all said, what is even more evident in this latest exhibition is how realism has morphed in service of abstraction. Half close your eyes and these are fields of planes of shapes and colour, scenes altered to meet the painter’s own scheme. Shadows provide the most important edges.
In ‘Construct’ our view is straight-on to a lit white fence, the foreground road and background a seductive marbling of grey concrete, cut by lines that take us into and across the picture. While the composition is sophisticated, the fence is wonky and damaged. It speaks to our sentimentalism for the distressed. A gate has a large flame red ragged piece of fabric trapped in its top, leading to a triangular peek of a red canopy in the unseen lot behind. Your eye is drawn to the conversation between geometry and worn remnants, the red fabric waving like a flag warning of danger. Here, as in other works small items provide puncta, a form of punctuation: a road cone, an extractor fan, a security alarm. Road edges and painted lines lead us into the pictures, fading in and out of the shadows.
Large painting ‘Interzone’ takes the formalism in composition to an impressive extreme, the work dominated by the bright yellow doors of a workshop, centre-middle of the frame, allowing the eye to enjoy how they play musically with the rectangles and triangles formed by shadows, windows and walls. They play off the audacious pink puddle-splattered carparks in the large, dark and empty foreground. One night impressionism met geometric abstraction in a car workshop forecourt.
Like Unverricht, Hamish Coleman (Shot Silk, Bartley and Company, 1 November - 2 December 2017) takes his work from film and photographic stills and shifts it into a new abstracted space that conveys a sense of time and memory in between things.
But comparison might wither there. Coleman is also a canvas stretcher, and his works in this his first solo exhibition are like skins, sensual and affected as much by the light from outside of them, as from within. Body parts and banal objects alike become figures of light - abstract gestures suggesting touch.
When dealer Alison Bartley turns off the lights in the gallery to allow just natural light to hit them they come alive, with their phosphorescent-like metallic gleam. The silver shimmer of cinema is experienced as a physical pleasure – the works are based on stills from films, but are far estranged from their source. Not only do colour and texture change as you pass by them, but so does what is represented itself. Form proves illusive and ethereal.
Rather than make things apparent, Coleman mistily submerges representation so that it becomes a quiet intimate whisper between moist lips. Time is changed reality becomes ghostly and dreamlike, images reverberate like a drum. There is an intimacy. It’s as if sometimes the impressions of bodies have been made into the canvas.
There are a wide range of approaches here, some more successful than others, suggesting an artist still experimenting with effect. In ‘Burnout’ we are left with nothing but a rich textural changing vertical grain of strokes, with a disc cut out of the canvas centre holding these atmospherics. It looks like a vinyl record cover, and feels like a visualisation of an acoustic drone composition. In ‘Alibi’ form has become a muscular spectral knot of strokes, a blurred fist gesture.
Other paintings provide more discernible scenes (reminiscent of Gerhard Richter) but they remain cropped in close. They are freed by brushstroke and the glow of light from any particular source to offer soft and tender open gestures through the body’s action. It may not be discernible at once - dependant on your position and closeness to the canvas - but the tondo ‘Cross Threaded’ is a close cropped image of a thumb and the back of the hand hit by light. The hand a stilled, illuminated instrument for care.
I leave the last words to Adrienne Millwood who as part of the exhibition provides a text in response to the work. Here is an extract.
“Closing and opening my hand.
This slows down when I pay attention.
Between is the time of becoming.
The painting sits as a trace between the time of
Making and the time of viewing.
It hovers as an echo.
Of what was and now is.
Between remembering and forgetting I am
Reminded of what could be missing.”