Four abstract artists in painterly conversation

• From wrestling metal to pouring paint, from modernism to microscopy – an engrossing talk on abstraction with DJ Simpson, Daniel Sturgis, Mark Francis and Ian Davenport.

Daniel Sturgis, Oscillate Mildly, 2011, acrylic on canvas

I was enthused recently by a talk at the Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London, staged to mark end of their abstract painting show, Means Without Ends. This collated a nicely-matched quartet artists – Ian Davenport, Mark Francis, DJ Simpson and Daniel Sturgis (images throughout) – all of whom veer towards strong, hard-edged colour, and have narrative or performative concerns underlying what at first appears strictly non-representative work.

All four artists took part in the conversation, which was moderated by the academic Richard Dyer, and attracted a full house. I generally find art talks dull, which doesn’t mean not interesting, but I think they are of more fascination to the “trade”, ie practising artists and curators. This however was pleasingly engrossing, and Dyer did a good job of keeping things going and raising pithy points, as did the audience once questions were opened to the floor.

DJ Simpson and Ian Davenport have performative practices – their work being based on physicality rather than traditional painting – and perhaps not coincidentally they were also the more direct and animated speakers, concentrating grippingly on the practical aspects of their craft. Mark Francis and Dan Sturgis, who wield brushes conventionally, took a more verbose and cerebral approach, using metaphor and theory to quietly ponder how their semi-representitive abstracts respectively engage with – to be reductionist about it – grids and microscopy, and the place of design in modernism. The points that stayed with me were as follows…

DJ Simpson, Isovist, 2011, powder coated aluminium

• DJ Simpson spoke compellingly about wrestling with large pieces of metal before binding them up with high-tech tape ready for powder coating. (“You sound as if you work in a frenzy,” commented one audience member amusingly.) Like his earlier work routing serpentine channels out of Formica-veneered boards, this is a reverse-reveal process, and as with Formica it restricts him to an “off-the-shelf” palette. He waxed lyrical about the technicians he works with at the powder coating factories, and what brilliant colourists they are, although they wouldn’t think of themselves as such. Other than that he prefers not to use assistants, and seemed conflicted as to whether this was because it was too much hassle, too uncontrollable, too unsettling having someone else in the studio, or because he couldn’t afford them. A mix of all four, I suspect: once artists can afford serious help, they learn to deal with the first three reservations, and it can free them up to expand their practices much further, though not necessarily to good effect (insert your least favourite rent-a-sculptor here).

Ian Davenport, Puddle Painting (Yellow, Lime Green, Study), 2010, acrylic paint on aluminium mounted on aluminium panel

• Ian Davenport admitted to an early fascination with Jackson Pollock, and said he sometimes bases his colours on other artists’ palettes. He agreed his work was definitely performative, explaining that he hones his series by practice, until in a zen-like way he can achieve the perfect drip, the ideal arc. Due to the expense of paint there is a lot of forward planning, often on computer, but for him the making, not the conceptualising is the fun part. Even as a schoolchild he would push media beyond accepted norms, mixing glue with his powder paints because he liked the texture.

Mark Francis, Duality, 2011, acrylic on canvas

• Mark Francis reckoned the biggest step change in his work recently has come about by moving to a studio with natural light, which he had never worked under before. He found he was using different colours than in his previous strip-lit environments, and also making more informal pieces by working at a large scale on the floor. He used to have to be in exactly the right mood before starting a painting, then complete it in one fell swoop. Now for the first time he can paint every day, and work on about five pieces concurrently, whereas before it was strictly one at a time.

Daniel Sturgis, The Social Question, 2011/12, acrylic on canvas

• Daniel Sturgis, in contrast, said he’d get confused if he worked on more than one piece at once. While his oeuvre clearly comments on modernism, and the use of pattern within it, a less expected revelation was that he’s inspired by Baroque architecture, with its mix of decoration and simplicity. The unusual crimson of his socks precisely matched his bright yet subtle paintings, and reinforced that, like the other three, colour is a major theme for him. The least well-known of the quartet, Sturgis is currently head of BA painting at Camberwell. I’ve followed his work for many years and it’s good to see he’s stuck to his chosen path rigorously, developing but not diversifying from his chosen themes.

The Indiscipline of Painting book

He recently curated a show of abstract painting for Tate St Ives and Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, entitled The Indiscipline of Painting: International abstraction from the 1960s. While starting with a brief to choose from the Tate and Warwick collections, he ended up branching out and calling in work from all manner of private and foreign collections, creating a personal and compelling visual essay on colour and geometry within painting. It’s the best kind of optical, rather than theoretical curation: making really good use of untypical works that fitted his visual thesis, while also developing a coherent analytical journey. The accompanying book is superbly designed and edited, full of stunning images, and introduced me to lots of work I was unfamiliar with. The show continues at Warwick till 10 March – I’m hoping to go see and it.

Means Without Ends, installation view, Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, l to r, Ian Davenport, Mark Francis

The audience raised interesting concerns too, the main discussion points being:

The use of the artists’ hand versus employing assistants or computers, specifically referencing Damien Hirst and Renaissance studios. Bridget Riley cropped up a lot too: she uses all her assistants “like a computer” apparently, working things out basically then getting the assistants to do all the maths, draw up and paint the works; and of course long before Ian Davenport she was using palettes from art history.

How we judge the future worth of current artists, again with much reference to Damien Hirst, who came in for a fairly good kicking. There seemed to be much elision between monetary and cultural value, surely Hirst’s point; but he’s so far beyond the bell curve it’s really not a representative example. The moderator mentioned Vermeer, whose works could be picked up “for 40 quid” a century or so ago; and I always think of Edwin Longsden Long, who had queues round the block for his dreadful biblical epics in Victorian times, while all that remains of his reputation now is a room at Bournemouth’s bonkers Russell-Cotes Museum. But sadly it’ll be around 200 years before the jury returns on Hirst…

A fear of Romanticism and conveying emotion in painting still persists, probably thanks to Clement Greenberg, contended the moderator. Aptly, when he raised this point, there was a massive uncomfortable silence from all four artists – enough to force an embarrassed laugh from the audience – so the subject was never really interrogated.

Finally, in an extra-curricular point, I’ve now seen 10 male abstract painters in two group shows in five days (the other one was at Cul-de-Sac).  Maybe more men do abstract painting than women, or maybe they’re simply more clubbable and visible. I really don’t think the former point is true – and I have learnt recently of at least a couple of galleries who are attempting to bear women artists more in mind (an art version of putting more females on the board, perhaps). There are plenty of women in high art administration positions, so the imbalance is strange. But at least Bridget Riley proved to be the leitmotif of this particular show.

Means Without Ends, installation view, Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, from l to r, Daniel Sturgis, Ian Davenport, DJ Simpson

• Means Without Ends
Artists: Ian Davenport, Mark Francis, DJ Simpson, Daniel Sturgis. Times: 20 Jan-18 Feb 2012. Address: Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, 6 Heddon Street, London W1B 4BT. Web: www.houldsworth.co.uk

• The Indiscipline of Painting: International abstraction from the 1960s
Address: Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, The University of Warwick, Gibbet Hill Road, Coventry, CV4 7AL. Times: Until Sat 10 Mar 2012 Mon-Sat 12-9pm. Web: www.warwickartscentre.co.uk

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