Smart, tarty and urban, the new abstraction is naughty but nice, says Waldemar Januszczak
Some critics will be writing about Gilbert & George this week. But I’m not going to make that mistake. The tedious twosome have had too many shows in recent years, and are written about too often. The retrospective that has just opened at Tate Modern is their second Tate retrospective. Most artists are lucky to get one. The truth about Gilbert & George is that they have played the celebrity-artist card adroitly and managed to make themselves prominent. But they will never be important. Surely Tate Modern, which is supposed to be a progressive institution, can think of something new to do, instead of reheating these tired old potatoes?
I am also not going to write about the Victoria and Albert Museum’s obscene wheeze of collecting up Kylie Minogue’s discarded dresses and calling this a show. The only possible explanation for this hideous act of museum betrayal is that it will bring visitors to the V&A who might not otherwise have come. Why don’t they go the whole hog and drape some naked Page 3 girls across their scruffy Donatello sculptures and shove a few more into the Great Bed of Ware? I guarantee that, too, will bring in more visitors.
Is there anywhere left in modern Britain that doesn’t cater for the tastes of the average Heat reader? Actually, there is. Sick of slebs, desperately craving a proper art experience, fed up to the hilt with the cynical, exploitative antics of the main London art institutions, I fled to Coventry, to the Mead Gallery, nestling in the University of Warwick, where five women artists have been gathered together in a timely investigation of the current renaissance of abstract painting.
It’s a hot topic. The victory of the abstract painter Tomma Abts at the last Turner prize was a rare instance of this award doing what it should be doing: putting its finger on the national pulse. Away from the cynical Kylie fests and the endless complaints of Gilbert & George, a clutch of pioneering contemporary artists have been rediscovering the joys of abstraction. It’s perhaps the most interesting thing happening right now in British art.
In common with most observers of these matters, I had foolishly imagined abstract painting was dead in the water. In the 1960s, it had been an important antidote to the Smashie and Nicey glibness of pop art. But it had gone on to spend the next two decades taking over our art schools, where it grew ever more pious and dull, and faded into irrelevance. One of the reasons Brit Art emerged as forcefully as it did, inside those same art schools, was that it offered young artists an instant release from the life-shortening dogma of British abstraction.
What, then, has persuaded the lively gang of painters gathered for us in Coventry – Ruth Root, Angela de la Cruz, Joanne Greenbaum, Marta Marce, Katy Moran – to investigate again the pleasures of undescriptive colour? A cynic might understand the abstraction craze as a market-driven phenomenon. Nothing looks quite as right on an expensive loft wall as a colourful expanse of minimal nonrepresentativeness. If you consult the auction prices now being fetched by Damien Hirst’s mass-produced dot paintings, you could legitimately wonder why anyone bothers painting anything else. Hirst’s dots are the perfect City-bonus fodder.
But I am not a cynic, and I did enjoy most of what I saw in Coventry, particularly the work of Ruth Root, who works with enamel paints on shaped sheets of aluminium. Enamel paints have no depth to them. They tend to come in brash, attention-seeking colours that belong on a bonnet at the Earls Court Motor Show, and they dry to a hard metallic finish that reveals little evidence of the artist’s hand. So, they’re urban, lurid, glossy and intrinsically superficial. But… they have something.
Root seems to make geometric collages out of overlapping areas of these hard enamel colours, mostly rectangles, but with a few curves thrown in. From the distance, you might think she has painted loud enamels on some giant playing cards, cut them into bits, then jumbled up the pieces. You need to get close to see for sure that the separate patches sit side by side on a single sheet of aluminium, and that the sense of a cut-up collage is illusionary.
None of which would matter a jot if it weren’t for this something that enamel colours have. It’s a fabulous combination of purity and hardness. There’s such noisy drama to an unmixed expanse of enamel red, which is why it is the colour of choice on the lips of a Russian prostitute. And why it screams off the wall here in every picture in which it pops up. Root uses many other colours. Some are ambitiously subtle: 1950s browns, mannequin pinks, squatters’ mauves. But all of them arrive, in the end, at an exciting directness.
So, this is smart, tarty, urban abstraction, with none of that dreary sense of colorific homework that dragged down the previous generation’s output. The new abstraction is lively, confident, striking, enticing. It has some of Brit Art’s cockiness about it, but none of the autobiographical sludge. Some might consider it the pictorial equivalent of alcopops: abstraction lite. But it’s fuelled by its times. And this gives it energy.
How pleasing to be reminded, throughout this show, of the heady joys of colour by these unjaundiced eyes. Angela de la Cruz has sculptural ambitions, too, and paints huge expanses of canvas, which she leaves lying around the gallery looking fashionably neglected. The results can appear too accidental to mean much. But in her best work, she unleashes another fierce expanse of red, painted onto a crumpled canvas that sticks out from the wall like a crushed car bonnet. So there’s real drama here. Implied action. And a submerged story line.
Abstraction always triggers colour memories. It can’t help it. All those clichéd ripostes about there being no such thing as total abstraction are obviously true. Your eyes can hardly be expected to forget all they have already seen and to come to every colour afresh, as if it were the first kiss. Marta Marce acknowledges this with a series of works featuring jumbles of multicoloured diagonal lines that she calls Mikado, after, I presume, that irritating children’s game involving the delicate picking-up of coloured sticks. It’s not a particularly inventive association, and I can see it growing very annoying very quickly. But Mikado 12, the most striking of Marce’s pictures, has been painted on a soft brown linen that seems to intensify the colours of the crisscrossing bars and animate them, so they take on some of the dynamics of tracers in the sky. Elsewhere, the evidence suggests that Marce’s taste for wishy-washy effects is built-in. But in the case of Mikado 12, the powerful magic of association has saved her.
At first sight, Katy Moran appears to be the show’s most old-fashioned exhibitor, and its least abstract. She works with thick dollops of dark paint that seem to belong to the Géricault era of 200 years ago. The resulting pictures look as if they must be showing you stormy landscapes, snorting horses and angry seas. Actually, they don’t. Moran finds her images on the internet, then disguises their origins by turning them upside down. By killing off the old forms, she gives birth to these new ones.
So, that’s modern abstraction for you. It’s so much naughtier than the old abstraction.