Fade Away surveys a broad range of painting in London at the end of 2010, seeking a common theme in painterliness, or the forthright demonstration of materials and application, while allowing differences between ‘representation and abstraction’. The title implies that such differences are of diminishing importance. While this may accurately reflect the dearth of current criticism addressing the division, it is an unfortunate note on which to consider the many differences to ‘painterliness’ spelled out by the 39, small-scale works (averaging around 50 cm square) hung in close formation. Indeed, differences to material and application within abstraction or representation and across the two here would seem to generate as many versions of painterliness, as are supposedly shared. By this route, too much fades away.
In other words, painterliness does not entirely hold together differences between the selections, because painterliness itself becomes equally diverse. At best, it prompts questions concerning the definition of painting. Indeed, the terms representation and abstraction quickly beg qualification, and this starts with Barry Schwabsky’s introduction for the show, where he prefers the distinction between images and abstraction. This allows for a great deal more than painting as material, while at the same time narrowing the type of representation, but it hardly clarifies the distinction with abstraction. The review of the show by Charles Danby on the Aesthetica blog at one point simply glosses the difference as figurative and abstract pictures, and this is perhaps a more commonly held distinction, although ‘figurative’ here understood, not simply denoting a figure or person, nor metaphorical extension (as in ‘figuratively speaking’), but actually of the literal or concrete object pictured. Where the figurative is now the literal may seem a little confusing, but at least allows us to see that abstraction concerns classes of object (including properties and relations - or predicates, depending upon one’s metaphysical inclinations) and classes of picture using them. Abstraction in pictures may be carried to a very high level, to even a full or final level of self-reference. This is what is generally understood as full abstraction in painting. And abstraction understood on these terms, therefore remains representation, since it still stands for or refers to objects or ideas.
Abstraction understood on these terms, also allows us to see it as a matter of degree. Even to picture a typical terrier or toddler with scrupulous volume, proportion and perspective is to embark upon an insidious path of abstraction, to exchange incident for ideal, in modest degree, to test technique, accordingly. Equally, to fictionalize or fantasize on places or creatures presents an acute pictorial exercise in seeing how practices for materials and technique allow hypothetical or abstracted content; convince us by the sheer power and reach of pictures. Thus, fiction too involves a level of abstraction.
But the full abstractionist is intent upon fundamentals of two-dimensionality, on what signals two-dimensions in three-dimensional materials, in what separates a picture from a mere scheme of two-dimensional relations, or a pattern, or conversely, from notation. Full abstraction aims for the pattern or notation for a picture, or the picture of a pattern or notation. The course of full abstraction throughout the 20th century converges upon minimal requirements of symmetry, by stripe, grid or monochrome, tested against novel support, pigment and application, scale or site. And at each turn, the absolutist is thwarted by the relativity of materials to geometry, the sheer plurality of means. Abstraction largely loses its critical advocates with this dissipation of Minimalism in the 70s. Its steady expansion of motif or pattern, its concessions to overlapping stripes, or to depth, for example, soon accommodate more figurative motifs, inevitably, repeating pictures. But pattern also grows more elaborate or complex in its arrangements for elements, in its repertory of materials and technique. Strictly, this amounts to Maximalism. So that, by the 21st century, abstraction in painting easily accommodates figuration in suitably complex pattern, or in suitably abstract object, but even here differences do not quite fade away.
Some of this range is present in the selection for Fade Away. Complexity to composition is foremost in the work of Phillip Allen, Andrew Graves, Mali Morris and Syed Shaan, for example. Extended abstraction of object is displayed in the work of Sarah Dwyer, Hannah Knox, Scott O’Rourke, and Jo Wilmot, for example. In other works, figuration allows metaphor through a degree of abstraction or stylization, and distinctive treatment of material and technique, as in work by Lindsay Bull, Zack Thorne, Andy Wicks and Gavin Toye, for example. In yet other works, fiction tests coherence of picture, in examples by Tim Bailey or Benjamin Senior. The results produce a kind of crisis of style, and another route to abstraction.
Where all works converge is not so much around issues of material or technique, as in the routes of pictorial meaning available beyond the confines of realism and accepted genres, along more free-ranging and obscure paths. Painting’s strength is surely in its sensitivity and versatility in finding and making these. The curator’s selection is notable also in omitting other prominent strands to figuration, such as media-sourced genres, pastiche and caricature (the work of Kaye Donachie is the exception) subtly directing attention away from stock figures and situations to richer, more ambiguous reference, to less certain or celebrated realms.
Finally, the show’s title is perhaps best taken as a directive to critical orthodoxy and its preoccupation with greater institutional agency and technological novelty, to the incurious and complacent. The show demonstrates that even when denied critical attention or greater opportunity, pictures need painting and those blind to the challenge or enslaved to the word are already in gentle retreat.