Floating world

Over the last few years the work on paper (both those made here on the east coast and during residencies in America) as well as the ‘floating world’ paintings have begun not only to revolve around the aqueous realm but also grow into a wider meditation on natural forces. If they are reflections on landscape and memory, both many layered and recurring across time (and within which questions about how we might locate ourselves in the world have remained more or less constant), they are also fleeting commentaries – made through images uncertainly balanced between emergence & disappearance - on an increasingly unstable present.

It is as if the cumulative experience of travelling over many years to deserts, mountains and coastlines have been drawn together to form a locus around a time and space that is less culturally inflected (inscribed) and much more wildly elemental in its references to physical erasure, submersion and loss. The sense of discovery that still comes from exploring, walking or just ‘being’ in a place has also given rise to a feeling of reverie.

In particular the passage of days (marked out here with fugitive impressions on paper) spent by the tidal waters at Landermere in the interzonal territory of creeks and marshes on the East Anglian coast has developed into an extended reflection on dissolution and the return to wilderness (as witnessed also in the remote mountain tracts and extreme climates of Tibet and Mustang with their wind scoured walls and surfaces), a world that at one level appears cyclical and peaceful but at another is also fragile and endlessly mutating, where our tenuous hold on the material and historical record is constantly threatened and seemingly on the verge of destruction.

What has become more visible and urgent as a theme is connected, at least in part, to what the landscape writer Robert Macfarlane described in 2015 as ‘solastalgia’, a term he uses to encompass recent art that is, ‘unsurprisingly, obsessed with loss and disappearance’.    ‘Solastalgia speaks of a modern uncanny, in which a familiar place is rendered unrecognisable by climate change or corporate action: the home becomes suddenly unhomely around its inhabitants’. We dwell in the knowledge – no less so in the Anthropocene – that everything returns to dust.

Luke Elwes February 2017

Note: Robert Macfarlane: ‘Generation Anthropocene: How humans have altered the planet for ever’, Guardian April 2016. And Amitav Ghosh deals with similar issues in ‘The Great Derangement’ (Berlin September 2016)

Bordering Constable Country


Accompanying text for the exhibiton 'Luke Elwes: Floating World' at The National Trust Flatford Mill, 2 July to 30 August 2016

Following the footpath down the hill from Constable’s studio in East Bergholt and along the Stour valley to Dedham you cross not just the boundary between Suffolk and Essex but also the border between past and present.

On a spring day the view across the water meadows, the sky above and the willows on the riverbank, are much as Constable would have known and experienced them as he walked, or as he later revisited them in paint. Little about this tranquil scene, here on his home ground (and now underfoot as I walk) has changed in two hundred years - deliberately so as it’s been more or less held in timeless suspension since being entrusted to the future as ‘Constable Country’.

The place where he made his images is now made in his image. One walks it as though in a dream, a pastoral idyll through which seemingly we can return to ourselves, to a shared past ‘gathered into a homeland’.  Yet while he haunts this territory, there is also a sense in which his time and space and our own remain fundamentally unbridgeable - we can visit but cannot fully inhabit this other country. In our anxious present there is something uncanny about the desire to render this place immutable.

For we know - as we return to the car park and the A12  - that life flows on, contingent and unstable. The future is not knowable country. Close by, across the border and further east out on the Essex marshes where I work, everything changes. It becomes instead an untended wilderness of dissolving paths and silted up streams where creeks and channels endlessly mutate in the tidal salt waters. Beyond the fragmentary system of sea walls and dykes one encounters an un-tethered world, prone to flooding and now bearing silent witness to the cumulative effects on this fragile ecosystem of climate change. 

In a recent essay Robert Macfarlane uses the term ‘solastalgia’ to encompass recent art that is, ‘unsurprisingly, obsessed with loss and disappearance’. ‘Solastalgia speaks of a modern uncanny, in which a familiar place is rendered unrecognisable by climate change or corporate action: the home becomes suddenly unhomely around its inhabitants’. (1)

And yet, regardless of the visible gap between them, what both territories offer is common ground for contemplation, one that connects us across time to a deep and enduring sense of place.  When interviewed in 2014 about Constable’s painting Frank Auerbach said this: ‘it is not so much about the more well-known qualities – the clouds and the freshness and the light. It is more that I can’t think of another painter who has invested quite so much in every single image…Everything has been worked for and made personal so you sometimes feel that Constable’s own body is somehow inside the landscapes there’. (2)  

This act of close observation, of ‘burrowing down’ (in paint), was essential to Constable’s being, just as for me it has become a way of marking my own transient presence in the flow of phenomena, of paying quiet attention to the shifting patterns on the water, the fall of light on a given day, and the incidental life that passes across one’s visual field. Beneath all this, there is also the delicate registering of material erasures, the disappearances and the brief resurgences, the momentary recollection of this place’s silent (sinking) past.

Caught between land and sea, this interzonal territory remains precarious, its existence granted with no future guarantee. Perhaps the only response (as one who paints) is to ‘gather in’ the present and recognise that if our current homeland is one of flux and uncertainty it is nevertheless still – in the earth beneath our feet, the ‘weather’ and the sky above - an essential realm of connectedness and embodied experience. ‘Everything’, as the writer Andrew Lambirth once said of this work,’ is submerged or reduced to dust eventually by the elements, but in the meantime we may enjoy the trace of their being’.

 Luke Elwes Landermere 2016

 (1) Robert Macfarlane: ‘Generation Anthropocene: How humans have altered the planet for ever’ (Guardian 1April 2016) (2) Frank Auerbach talks about Constable, The Observer 21.09.14

Work on Paper by 12 London artists (2015)


Working on paper

This exhibition is about the activity of mark making and the myriad thoughts and imaginings that surface on paper through this elemental act.  Sometimes it is simply a beginning, a way of moving forward into as yet unknown territory - a ‘voyage’ as Andrzej Jackowski describes it.  At other times it is a way of working things out, playing with nascent possibilities; the paper becomes a container of private thoughts, a testing ground, a dream site, a mind map. Often it is a volatile and uncertain space, in which intangible ideas are questioned and probed by hand and where the interior realm - what Tony Bevan calls ‘an internal landscape’ - starts to assume some imperfect external form.

If making work on paper, either as a direct impression or by reversing it in print, is intimately linked to the practice of painting for these artists (indeed for Merlin James it functions as a sub-media of painting), it is also an exercise in its own right: a method of revealing, revising or returning by stages to the visual possibilities set in train by those first markings and incisions, as well as by the many which preceded it. The outcome of this process may appear conclusive while also forming the seeds from which future projects can grow. It is both a site of arrival and a site of departure - one in which the act of making is intrinsic to its meaning and where, as Timothy Hyman says, ‘if you’re lucky, everything falls into place’.

All this, and more, is contained in a ‘work on paper’, which as well as allowing the viewer more direct and immediate access to an artist’s concerns,  ‘by using the images to gain the conscious experience of seeing as though through the artist’s own eyes’ (John Berger), also reminds us how the piece of paper awaiting our impression will always be there (even in an age mediated by the screen), inviting us, as it has done from earliest childhood, to make that vital mark.

Twelve London artists

Among the twelve artists brought together for this show there are long standing professional and personal links. All of them went to art school in London and most continue to exhibit and work in the city where they began their careers. Lino Mannocci curated a touring show in 2007 entitled ‘Gli Amici Pittori Di Londra’ in Italy that included many of these artists (along with Ken Kiff, R.B. Kitaj, Sandra Fisher and John Davies), and this collaboration continued in 2010 with the exhibition ‘Another Country’ at the Estorick Collection in London.

Although their concerns and approach remain separate and distinct, what is evident in all the work is a shared concern with, and a continual return to, the observed world, as well as an ongoing dialogue with the visual language of the past. If the world ‘is in flux’, both for Timothy Hyman out on the street and for Glenys Johnson in the studio, it is precisely what she describes as those ‘layers searching for a story’ which Alex Lowery identifies as needing ‘translation’ through ‘bringing the artist’s materials imaginatively to bear on it’.

Together they stand in a tradition, engaging in an ongoing dialogue as well as a tacit collaboration with it through shared techniques and mediums. The simplicity of the acid bite is for Merlin James another way of exploring the complex play of historical genres on the form and function of the painted image. In his woodcuts Arturo Di Stefano uses the simple device of reversal not as a setback (or a reversal in time) but as a ‘throwing into relief’ that brings a living image into present time; while Lino Mannocci explores a range of monotype techniques to superimpose one kind of history on another, pressing a range of classical motifs that serve as private symbolic markers onto rubbed vellum surfaces already freighted with their own past lives and secret meanings.

Beneath this haptic process lies the paper, its ‘ground whiteness’, as Glenys Johnson describes it, generating both desire and apprehension. For some of the artists here the surface luminosity is integral to the work: in the veiled washes of Christopher Le Brun’s richly saturated colour fields and the untouched areas of paper that re-emerge from the patinated surfaces of Luke Elwes’ water stained images. Charlotte Verity’s sepia and grey tinted washes, in which ‘petals hold light like snow’, glow with a brightness that similarly suffuses Thomas Newbolt’s transient figures in his watercolour studies, while Arturo Di Stefano’s darkly inked woodcut interiors are punctuated with passages of pulsing yellow light.

For others, something is revealed and remembered as, in Jackowski’s words, the space is ‘carved out of darkness’, or pulled from the unconscious; or else is constructed from dark materials (within Bevan’s dense web of charcoal), just as in Mannocci’s palimpsests the material history of the surface forms the substrate from which new images arise. Through these acts of retrieval a liminal or inner space is delineated. It might be located in private interiors - Jackowski’s rooms, Bevan’s studio, Di Stefano’s atelier – or on the borders of interior and exterior worlds, where Verity’s petal and leaf shapes hover. Elsewhere, it is external places that are symbolically encoded or transmuted into metaphors. Hyman’s ‘London’ and Lowery’s ‘West Bay’ are territories both familiar and strange, while the elemental spaces of Le Brun’s desert and Elwes’ river indicate a noumenal realm hidden within the temporal flow of phenomena.

The work on paper is a site of memory and action. It is a direct transcription, bearing the signature - the touch, the pressure - of the hand that made it, and while necessarily contingent and unpredictable, it aims essentially at ‘the transfer of one person’s experience to another’. In this sense it is not what Merlin James describes as ‘post medium’: images are not generated in an untouchable and depthless space - digitally encoded and filtered through a screen - but remain resolutely in the realm of matter and touch, compounded of the earthy and magical.

Luke Elwes  London 2015


Sam Francis (2001)

Sam Francis (catalogue text, published as A Floating World, Broadbent Gallery London 2001)

In his studio,as in his life, ‘everything floats’.  Sam Francis’ world seemed to be always on the move.  Barely had he set up home, studio, family, in one country than he was off again, setting a new course - for California, France, Switzerland or Japan.  A restless energy that was of the air rather than the earth.  Likewise in his mind, which ranged freely and widely, floating over the ordered terrain of European abstraction, the vibrant expanse and saturated light of the American West, and the empty space of Zen Buddhism, without ever seeming to come to ground anywhere for long enough to be trapped by deeper, and so inevitably slower (and perhaps darker) exploration.

This was the pilot grounded in a wartime crash who, while lying on his back for over a year staring skywards, determined to reach altitude once more in his imagination.  For a time his luminous colours, especially his blues, would hover on the point of dissolution in white space.  For some observers this lightness of touch was suspect.  David Sylvester for example, commenting on his first show in London at Gimpel Fils in 1957 (from which one of the watercolours in this show comes), likened the evanescent nature of his surfaces to Rothko but without the content, ambiguous but substantive, of the latter’s work:  ‘Sam Francis gets Rothko’s subtle paleness but not his concreteness, and this may explain why he is so much more highly esteemed in England than in America’.

Yet it wasn’t always an easy ride.  At moments in his life, if not literally, he would crash again. Brought down by debilitating illness in Tokyo in 1961, he would nevertheless use his physical immobility to launch his thinking on a new trajectory, reworking his ethereal blues into biomorphic symbols; blue balls that began as a way of identifying physical pain but which soon floated free of their origins, released into a space that seems to be both stellar and microscopic.  It happened again during his final illness in the 1990s when, frustrated by the inability to use his right arm, he rose up in one final burst of manic energy to produce 152 small paintings with his left arm.  While these last may lack the clarity of his earlier work, they nevertheless reinforce an aspect of what continues to make him important: as an  example to artists no longer working in the optimistic sunlight of the 1960s, but in the shadows of a more conceptual and ironic climate, of an indomitable spirit.  His unrestrained joy in the act of painting and mark making is a necessary reminder of the need, and of a painter’s corresponding capacity, to celebrate life.

Even as he came increasingly to command and communicate empty space - pushing his paint right to the edge, as he did in the late 60s (and of which there is a good example here, a gouache from circa 1966) - he never lost hold of that sense of excitement and possibility.  This was not space as nothing, the ‘emptying out’ that it became for Newman and Rothko.  For at any moment its white expanse might be traversed, leaving a chromatic jetstream in its wake, or else  gently punctuated with the lightest dot or squiggle, as when motes in the eye dance across a clear sky.

It was a quality which many artists, starting in this country with Patrick Heron who, like David Sylvester, saw and wrote about his work for the first time in 1957, came to recognize and appreciate. Another contemporary champion was fellow Californian painter Richard Diebenkorn, with whom Francis briefly shared a studio, and who like him continues to be less known in this country than he should be. Which makes it all the more timely that this survey, the first in London since his death in 1994, should introduce a range of work from periods in his life which are likely to surprise a new and younger audience.

If, as some writers have suggested, the paintings lack gravitas, it is in one sense at least because they defy gravity; devoid of existential angst, they float free, present in the moment and as fragile as a daydream.  To see him in one of the photographs of the studio, surrounded by his exuberant outpourings, is to be reminded of Walt Disney’s Fantasia, in which the Sorcerer’s Apprentice mischievously animates the space around him with a riot of flicked and splashed colour before order and sense once more return. An artist who so palpably enjoyed himself can only make you smile.

Luke Elwes June 2001

The Painter's studio (2004)

Imagine that, instead of looking at a painting you are a painter. Morning light fills the studio, a space of paint covered floorboards measuring six by six metres, a silent container of possibilities. Some days there is nothing there, because nothing is seen.  Postcards,drawings, maps, and books lie all around in dormant heaps.  A few are bleached, torn, paint spattered, suggestive still  of momentary meaning.  They are the scattered references of a strange and familiar journey. You stand in this space, looking and waiting.  Not for something new, but rather for what is newly seen.  Somewhere in that drift of paper, with its fragments of thought and grains of suggestion, is the starting point for a painting.  The thing seen out of the corner of the eye that may be briefly held and made known. What absorbs you entirely  is the curious process by which the visible first becomes visible, before the thing seen has been given a name. It’s a silent game, this waiting for the moment when a painting comes to a painter.  Tom Stoppard  articulates this feeling in a passage from “The Coast of Utopia” :  A poem can’t be written by an act of will. When the rest of us are trying our hardest to be present a real poet goes absent.  Every work of art is the breath of a single idea breathed by God into the inner life of the artist.

What is this space,the studio, but the mind at work?  A place in which to search but not escape, a purgatory at worst, a threshold at best.  Maybe today it will be possible to look up and out through its walls, make of the space a vehicle for navigating the stars.  Or maybe not, as in the long work of dreamless sleep.  Either way, the painting will be have to be worked, sometimes rapidly, at other times with great patience, but usually to the point of exhaustion.  In its unresolved condition it will have to be left to rest, to return to darkness. In a new light and on another day you will return, and hope to be taken by surprise, like a witness to authorless action.  Gradually the studio secretes those simple means for  transformation, whereby a painting may start to breath on its own. You look quickly, without judgment, sensing the uncertainty that begins to stain your way of looking and which will then impel you to act once more.  And in acting, the odds begin to shorten, the surface loosing its vitality as it is stripped back and remade, the paint travelling down deeper and narrower passages, closing down possibilities as it goes. You may be lost once more, searching in a dark wood for the path you once knew.  This has to be accepted  because the studio is also, in Anish kapoor’s phrase,  ‘a laboratory of failure’.  The tools allow for experiment but not for its undoing.  However intractable and unyielding the material may seem, the chance always remains of finding a way through. To get lost in a painting and never know for sure what it is about is how William de Kooning described it.

If we  keep looking at paintings, it is not least because the handling of paint itself is always unique - it is after all done by hand.  Painters continue to show us how we don’t look, or at least not enough.  When they are good, they reveal the very thing we have forgotten to see.  About the Spanish painter Miguel Barcelo, John Berger  was moved to write that the process of painting is highly tactile. Yet what he is hoping to touch is not normally tangible.  This is the only real mystery. And later on, about not looking he says, what any true painting touches is an absence - an absence of which, without the painting, we might be unaware. Curious indeed, but an essential part of what makes being a painter worthwhile.

Luke Elwes (from a talk given at Art First Contemporary, London, September 2004)

Julie Mehretu (2013)

Over the last decade, Julie Mehretu has become an art world star, her work shown at The Whitney and Guggenheim (New York and Berlin), purchased by MOMA (and prominently displayed near Barnet Newman’s obelisk) and fought over by collectors, one of whom even took her New York dealer to court after being denied ‘first refusal’ on a new picture. Now White Cube in Bermondsey, in conjunction with Marion Goodman Gallery in New York, is showing a quartet of monumental new works (Mogamma: A Painting in Four Parts), fresh from last year’s dOCUMENTA 13, alongside some pieces made earlier on this year.

Her work is being increasingly cited in the narrative of 21st Century painting – particularly by American curators and museums – as representing a sensibility and practice that’s both postmodern and post-abstract (even while it continues to reference the language of modern abstraction). With their multiple viewpoints and multiple visual languages, her paintings represent the protean complexity as well as the dematerialised nature of our speeded up urban world, its digital trace increasingly obscuring the physical architecture that still lies beneath it. Mogamma is everywhere and nowhere, a polyglot postcolonial multiplex, simultaneously interconnected and decentred. The manner of its making is also multiple: dependent on the skills of the illustrator and architectural draughtsman, the printmaker charged with colour schemes and the sander and polisher hired to produce the final ‘super-cool technical surface’. Alongside this technical fabrication (and the rapid rate of production it engenders), Mehretu filters her evolving images through the computer screen, a seemingly continuous process of correcting, adding and erasing her carefully layered creations that make the image’s final state all but impossible to locate.

Mogamma overlays a place (a government building in Tahrir square) with an idea (a communal arena containing diverse beliefs) and ties them to a moment of violent disruption. Through this multiple lens Mehretu references – both compositionally and metaphorically – the past, present and future. The architecture functions as both historic space and compositional grid; the haptic markings, random ink rubbings and ghostly erasures, replicate the strategies of high abstraction as well as symbolically disturbing the once classically ordered city square (the locus of authority and control); and floating above it all, like a plethora of web maps, her bold smooth lines and free floating shapes serve both to energize and disrupt any single reading of her ‘vertiginous panoramas’, suggesting the instantaneous connectivity, the dizzying complexity and disorientating noise, of our digital world. This is no longer a space or place but a stream of disembodied moments, an indelible trace on the future.

She amply displays that condition identified by David Sweet in which the abundance of graphic detail generated ‘in an era of high definition (one made possible by the technical & digital means at her disposal)… appears to be an increasingly important, even essential part of a contemporary pictorial strategy’. But while she evidently abjures the reductive impulse that runs through the lineage of a certain kind of abstraction, she retains through her layering, her ‘emergent algorithms’, both the formal device and generative potential of the grid and the gestural markings that came to typify other recognisable strands of abstract painting.

Her layered and dematerialised surfaces appear to connect to the physical world but seek only to reference rather than embody the material world and, in their intricate tracery, have no interest in engaging with ‘the thickness of existence’ that Mark Stone identifies as essentially lacking in our screen-dominated lives. There is little visual reward for those like Stone who are ‘drawn again and again, to thickness, to volume, to interior spaces’: no accretion of paint or material resistance, no unexpected tension or granular disturbance, nothing in fact to give the eye traction as it glides restlessly over the polished surface. Even the frenzied drawing is smoothed out, rendering it less a nervous bodily impulse as an encoded reference to human action. The layering diminishes rather than enhances any spatial dynamic, while the interference of one with another appears simultaneously arbitrary and too carefully controlled. The scattered lines, bold and colour-coded, suggest points of entry but start and finish nowhere, like so many dead ends. There is no narrative, only a profusion of details and cursory fragments that frustrate the viewer’s impulse to seek coherence or wholeness. Mogamma is a depthless virtual space that’s visually unsatisfactory when regarded through the traditional prism of abstract language.

But in another sense this is to deny the alluring power (as well as the unavoidable sense of recognition that Sam Cornish identifies) of its luminous white surface, one born out of ‘the glow of the screen and the infinite-shallow space’. The Mogamma quartet – ‘liminal squared’ in the gallery’s terminology – is a domain that does not respond to clear narrative reading or continuous time. Through what Brian Dillon identifies as her ‘increasingly atomised & aerated surfaces, the seeds of an as yet unfulfilled future’(1), Mehretu proposes that we realign our habitual terms of reference, reformulate our visual response, to recognise (or imagine) the as yet unfamiliar contours and nascent language of our accelerating urban world, with all its distracted energy, temporal slippages and nebulous structures. The material fabric beneath it has not disappeared from view; it recurs and repeats in increasingly attenuated form, but its relation to the virtual, to the ‘infinite-shallow’, remains undetermined. Her space (or non-space) is deliberately problematic: inherently un-resolvable and visually unstable. Whether or not we choose (depending on our chosen terms of reference) to regard this as extending, subverting or simply playing with notions of abstraction, it represents the future – or, perhaps more accurately, the present version of the future.

1. Brian Dillon, ‘An Archaeology of the Air’ in Julie Mehretu: Grey Area, Deutsche Guggenheim exhibition catalogue, New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2009.

Other quotes are from the artist

Julie Mehretu: Liminal Squared, White Cube Bermondsey, 1 May – 7 July 2013.

Tess Jaray (2012)

Tess Jaray: Mapping the Unseeable

It is the surface of Tess Jaray’s work that first invites attention, with its flat, unmodulated, intense colours carefully designed to ‘glimmer and shimmer but not glitter’. But where the surface was once punctuated, rhythmically patterned, now it is punctured, opening up through its shadowed tracery a delicate spatial distance between two colour fields, the one occluding, or revealing, the other. The surface appears to hover over some unquantifiable depth.

Each picture is finely balanced, carefully wrought and self-sufficient. They aspire to formal purity (and seem to edge closer to this Platonic ideal through her recent use of screen printing and computer aided design) while acknowledging the impossibility of perfection. After all, a perfect square, a perfect design, has no vitality; it denies the trace of human experience. Approached as formal problems, they proceed intuitively, their personal geometry and chromatic energy serving to distil rather than dissipate their emotional charge.

The recent work in her show at The Piper Gallery falls neatly into three parts, each separated (despite their superficial similarity) by marked differences in scale, temperature and feeling. The first and largest group is made up of small squares, busily hung and clustered together much as they were when they left her studio walls. Individually hot and intense, they read collectively as a vibrant riff on Malevich’s Red Square, with each new iteration visibly disturbed and animated by the impact of the last. Some are stronger than others however: those with two or three colours work best, while those with four or more lose their tautness.

The second is a quartet of mid-size pieces (‘After Damascus’ in green, purple, yellow and red), which each deploy two colours of roughly equal intensity, with an oriental flavour which is distinctive to her work. Some recede, others advance; some carry you inward through windows or grills, while others rise out of their flat landscape to suggest patinated objects, mosaic forms or architectural plans. This sensual oscillation between line and curve, form and opening, gives way in the last part to a triptych of three large squares, the vertical tension in each being emphasised by their unequal division into two separate parts. The hues are quieter, cooler, the effect more austere and poignant.  While there is a passing nod to Newman’s zips and Matisse’s openings, the language is substantially her own; stripped of the radiant intensity of the smaller works, their expanses of milky light and opaque shadow conjure a space where brilliant day gives way to the silent hours of dawn and dusk, before finally retreating into darkness, into that physical and metaphorical realm ‘in the middle of the night’.

Note: the short quotes are her own, from “Painting: Mysteries & Confessions’ (Lenz Books 2010). 

Cecily Brown (2011)

A Wrong Turn? : Cecily Brown at Gagosian

Who is to say, when a painter adopts the language of abstraction, its well-worn mannerisms, that what they produce is not abstract?  Who has the authority to judge, to define the parameters that separate true from false practice?  What divides the dedicated purist from those who dabble at the margins (particularly when dabbling could be read as the playful subversion of high modernism)?

Perhaps all one can ask is that there is a program of sorts, one that marks a continuity of purpose or a linear progression in a painter’s work; but this becomes problematic when you witness an artist jumping the tracks, as Bomberg, Guston and many others have done. What looks like a determined path later on is often an uncertain journey at the time.  It is the same problem posed by Cecily Brown’s new paintings, by the notionally figurative painter trespassing on abstract territory. Celebrated early on for the way she carried the gestural mark making of Abstract Expressionism into the territory of female sexuality, a decade on she appears to have lost her way.

Here and there she replays her familiar psychosexual dramas, the turbulent brushwork fusing naked flesh with fecund nature. ‘Lost Satyr’ for example reads like the frenzied aftermath of  ‘Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe’, while the large triptych (‘Have you not known, have you not heard’, 2011) exudes lusty energy, despite the scattered body parts being washed away in a torrent of scarlet and chocolate brown paint.  But elsewhere the new work looks flaccid, with marks lost in an abstract welter that conceals a lack of decision, as though simply by loosely arranging gestural brush strokes they will magically resolve themselves into postmodern images. ‘Grave Suave Singing Silk’ (2011) consists of indeterminate patches of grey, black and purple, and without any graphic clarity gives the eye nothing to alight on.  If the suggestive passages of flesh are removed, what are we left to look at?  The paint needs either to describe something or else assume a life of its own.  As it is, they amount to abstraction as the absence of figuration, a lazy solution delivered to deadening effect.

If there is any sense of progress, it is in two smaller works, which are stronger for being more slowly realised.  ‘The Fox and Geese’, 2008-11, is both more cryptic and staccato in its rhythm of dots and dashes, in its frenzied tracks of predator and prey. ‘The Tribulations of the Tablecloth’, 2006-11, is also less clotted, more nuanced.  All vestige of figuration has gone, leaving areas of paintwork to collect and dissolve on a pale field. It is I think the only image that lives up to her wish to balance formal complexity with visual chaos.

This may, if one is generous, represent a transitional moment in her work.  But mostly it’s a mess, an abstract turn that reads as a wrong turn.  How much better to have resolved the issue before showing the work.  As it is, her wish to ‘avoid using the terms figuration and abstraction because I’ve always tried to have it both ways’ has led her up a blind ally.  If she was serious about developing a distinctly corporeal abstract language of her own, she should have waited. One is left with the impression that she (or her gallery) is in too much of a rush to give it serious thought. What a shame.

Cecily Brown showed at Gagosian Gallery, Davies Street, London, June 8 – July 29, 2011

Cy Twombly (2004)

Twombly and Gagosian (Galleries Magazine, June 2004)

Behind a cool smoked glass screen down an anonymous side street in Kings Cross lies one of the newest and largest galleries in London.  Although its setting may resemble W24th street in Manhattan, in truth there is something about the awesome scale and uniformed security which is a million miles away from the chaos of building work and traffic noise that surrounds it.  Here taste and money bear down on you, demanding a willing compliance with it’s big gun status.

On four giant walls hang ten large paintings by the oracular master Cy twombly, each encased in a wooden frame washed in gun metal grey that seems only to reinforce the creeping sense of unease at daring to disturb the sepulchral stillness of this giant mausoleum.  It  makes a stark contrast to the airy classicism and generous green vistas of the Serpentine gallery, where a survey of the last half century of Twombly’s work recently ended.  The ludic quality of his work on paper is quite absent in these new paintings, all completed this year, all the same size and all resolutely untitled.  The variety and speed of his mark making has here been reduced to a more singular and stately pace.  The colours too are spare and uniform, a combination of  dark sepia, duck egg blue and flat white.  The vibrant tints of his most recent works on paper  are absent, the feint traces of rose and lemon in one of the new paintings all but obliterated.  There are a few Twombly signature marks - the hand smears impressed on knots of paint,the apparently careless dribbles left to run their course - but not many.  The range is decidedly narrow.  Almost entirely gone is the scriptural dimension, the sharply incised letters and teasing incantations.  The large brown marks  hang mutely in space, as though from the hand of a giant calligrapher, but without the suggestive power of this erstwhile cryptographer.  You don’t search as you once might  have for occluded meaning, the urge to decipher diminished by the physical unravelling of the code as the paint work slumps and dissolves. He’s like a Zen master who in the pursuit of nothing chooses to write in the pouring rain.  And the vertical drips slow these pictures down where once a diagonal thrust could energise the clusters of pigment in their peculiar groupings on empty grounds.  Now everything floats evenly in aqueous space, with unfolding shapes that suggest root- like tendrils or seaweed, or even mud bloated worms in tidal shallows.  The underbelly of Monet’s waterlilies, whose scale and serenity they possibly seek to echo.  And there are other echoes too.  The flat house paint  and grand gestural structures of Franz Kline are somewhere in here, a reminder of Twombly’s famous lineage, while something in the sober tones and attenuated forms returns the onlooker to the simple rough hewn totems of his north African drawings of fifty years ago.  Occasionally you sense  an affinity  with the  loose  meanderings of de Kooning’s last paintings.  However there is something wise in these late works, a kind of mystical emptiness that eschews the sublime. We are still rooted in phenomenal matter.

But if they  remain essentially true to his child like impulses, they are nevertheless at odds with their value as icons, and it is this other level of meaning which predominates. While the eye registers filaments of house paint on hardboard the head knows that it is a desirable objects for the few that they are here paraded.  While Cy Twombly’s own inimitable signature is pencilled high up on one of his panels, Larry Gagosian’s large name hovers with predatory elegance on the face of the building and the market place.

Luke Elwes 2004