Critic’s Choice: Painting Highlights from Frieze Art Fair 2012
By Simon Bayliss
Another cacophony of visual noise was delivered this year. This I had anticipated, but I had not anticipated the feeling of being overwhelmed by the superabundance of jazzy alpha-art wrangling for eye-ball attention.
The problem is, there’s often no logical context through which to aid one’s appreciation for what one sees. Frieze is visually messy. But I’m glad to have had difficulty with my choices this year because it provoked me after a long day of lapping the marquee with only three contemporary choices to cross Regent’s Park over to Frieze Masters; a new venture exhibiting art from the ancient world to the year 2000. A more subdued and sophisticated, but also rather eccentric partner to Frieze London. In this year’s choices from both venues I’ve backed underdogs and outsiders who, for me, floated undigested amongst the deluge of a technicolour yawn.
Cutting through the over-stimulating uncurated chaos of the fair, Kevin Cosgrove’s detailed paintings of uninhabited mechanics’ workshops were a beacon of healthy unextraordinariness. As a solo exhibition at this flashy event, it felt like a brave choice for Irish gallery Mother’s Tankstation. In a similar vein to contemporary social-realist paintings by George Shaw, Cosgrove illuminates scenes from gritty working-class environments. But unlike Shaw, whose work ethic has the roaming romantic painterly spirit of Casper David Friedrich or Edward Hopper, the steadfast attitude of Cosgrove’s paintings feel more connected to the dispassionately domestic probing of some of the School of London Painters. Although carefully composed they seem to arise from a compulsive drive to simply paint an engaging visual environment in a functional way. Benches with power-tools, industrial vacuum cleaners, cans and drums of oil, hubcaps, looping wires and tubing, buckets and detritus are painted in profusion, as they were last placed by their operatives.
The scenes are bathed or flooded with a crisp cool Northern-European light, providing an air of clarity and pragmatic realism. Cosgrove is from, what he describes as, a working-class family in Navan, Ireland, and his paintings reveal his philosophy on working life and his own relationship to skilled labour. His pictures are intensively and carefully crafted; practical with no signs of anxious overwork or pretention. Others have described ‘smelling the engine oil’ when viewing his pictures, but for me the scenes appear reinvented (some are recreated from the memory of a previous painting), enriched environments as opposed to corresponding representations of the original. I followed the contours of a bench vice, acknowledging the incongruous affability of its soft plasticity. I have always found mechanics workshops intimidating, because of my lack of knowledge about cars (in the same way many untrained people find art institutions threatening). But with a tender empathic touch Cosgrove welcomes us to indulge in these macho milieus.
Of course the clamps of a bench vice are hard, metallic and cold, but Cosgrove’s painterly touch is too tender to render it so severe. For me this is a revelation as opposed to a reproach. The paint is seductive, the colours are vivid, and all objects are described as if with a veneer of Plasticine. Cosgrove’s paintings partly deliver the temperament of their settings – the sober realism, the close cluttered working environment, the unwavering labour paralleled by his own admirable exertions, all except the deterrent ambiance of the mechanic’s workshop. But this I suspect (from observing the way he interprets place though paint) is just my own misconception.
Peter Peri’s work shown at Almine Rech, is more canny. I recently mentioned my fascination with his output to a friend who described it as ‘chi chi’ – as in ostentatiously stylish. For me however his paintings simultaneously evoke the very opposite qualities. During a conversation with the gallery director I revealed finding them bordering on totally naff. Baffled by this term I explained my colloquialism: naff adj. Chiefly British Slang meaning uncool, tacky, unstylish, worthless, lame or unpalatable, unbearably and embarrassingly nerdy. The paintings have the character of regurgitated modernism, but a retro low-budget sci-fi equivalent; the kind of pictures one might imagine Captain Rimmer from Red Dwarf would buy from a kitsch provincial gallery at the edge of a galaxy to hang in his office. For me, when imagined in this perfectly ludicrous context they become deeply mysterious, metaphysical; pseudo-spiritual relics out of sync in our world.
Peri’s grandfather was a well-known Constructivist turned Social-Realist, whose presence has undoubtedly fostered the artist’s interest in the roots of early Modernism. On the topic of initial 20th century investigations into abstraction Peri suggests, “There’s something psychologically painful about looking at all that effort towards human advancement that was lumbered onto abstraction from where we are today”. His own work also causes moments of psychological discomfort however, but not because they pertain to utopian supremacy, but because they deliver a corresponding simulation, which is perhaps even more brilliantly unsettling. I was almost cringing at Full Face II with its wide cerulean blue stripe running vertically down what looks like a block of silvered insulation foam that had been tossed around a builder’s yard too many times. Its surface is pock-marked and battered, perhaps from a persistent bout of compositional trial and error, or perhaps its scars are contrived; given the ‘antique look’. It’s difficult to tell whether the history of the paintings surface tells the story of a hard-winning artist or a frivolous pretender. But does it matter? Similarly scabby, Scabby Queen features what could be a planetary orb floating in a Suprematist framework set against black void. His designs appear effortless and economical and the production borders on facetious. The orbs which feature extensively in Peri’s work for example, are stencilled by spraying through a masking tape roll. Despite this, as art-objects the paintings exude quasi-religious authority, as if hermetic knowledge is locked within their surfaces and arrangements. Thus, I revere these enigmatic paintings, which paradoxically simultaneously embody the characteristics of naff film props.
Also irreverent at first glance, yet exhaustively worked are the paintings of Berlin-based painter Ellen Gronemeyer shown at Kimmerich, New York. But the evidently intense relationship the artist has with her paintings offsets any suspicions of irony or calculated distance suggested by the apparent doodling of her childlike motifs. Ratatouille, as the title suggests, is a rich and colourful stew, not of al dente Mediterranean vegetables however, but an overcooked crock of thick amalgamating paint encrusted within which balloon-like boggle-eyed faces appear to have slowly bubbled to the surface. The caricatures melt into one another – some seem to be attempting to interact – but all peer intently in individual directions.
I do not wish to question the artist’s sanity, but Gronemeyer’s paintings immediately reminded me of the atmosphere of work from the Prinzhorn Collection, made by patients from psychiatric hospitals. This is partly due to her emphasis on a multitude of searching eyes, but it is also the uninhibited and uncompromising slowness of her peculiar pictures; the psychic build-up of these seemingly subconscious and bizarre outbursts. For me there is overwhelming sense of integrity in these playful, deep-dish renderings. When viewed in the high art context of Frieze, they appear irreverently unclever and staunchly obtuse, but despite this I would bet that they contain more psychological mettle than half of the fair’s work put together.
The paintings are woven from small obsessive brush-marks, reminiscent of the caked edges of a painter’s pallet; where colours build-up by random application layer upon layer. Gronemeyer’s colours don’t conform to our conditioned aesthetic sense; they appear openly muddled, as do her shapes and motifs. The awkwardness of her ideas seems to emerge through the alchemy of painting itself. For me her output gives the impression of a painter once persistently scorned by her art teachers; an ugly duckling so obsessed with painting that through a persistent and rebellious belief in her dubious practice the work has become brilliantly sophisticated and fascinating to behold.
Margareta de Heer (1600/03-1658/65): A red cabbage, a snail, a butterfly, a dragonfly, a bee, and a wood louse, in a landscape. Oil on panel.
39.2 x 28.5 cm | 15.4 x 11.2 inches
Courtesy Koetser Gallery LTD , Switzerland
In the calmer grey-walled and carpeted atmosphere of Frieze Masters, where artwork was more spaced and a little less disorderly, I honed in on a painting from Koetser Gallery, Switzerland, by 17th century Dutch painter Margaretha de Heer; not because it was made under the unusual label of female master, but because the picture is so curious and penetrating. The red cabbage in A red cabbage, a snail, a butterfly, a dragonfly, a bee and a wood louse, in a landscape, sprouts alone and dignified from the dusty soil of a mysterious mountain-scape. Insects gorge on its flesh. Bulbous, veiny, and severely exposed, this phallic vegetable, with fallen leaves chewed off to expose its heart, is undoubtedly erotic. A snail slides up its shaft, whilst a Red Admiral butterfly with erect antenna probes its head. A dragonfly cruises in from above to join the invertebrate orgy.
The picture’s composition is animated by the carefully positioned, meticulously studied components of a variety of nibbling fauna. The creatures appear super-imposed giving the painting a contemporary air of hyper-reality. The absurd fate of this solitary cabbage is accentuated by the surrounding wilderness, and I am reminded of Waiting for Godot in which Beckett’s characters distract themselves bickering over a carrot, whilst awaiting salvation on top of a similarly barren plateau.
ESTRAGON (The Red Admiral):
Funny, the more you eat the worse it gets.
VLADIMIR (The Snail):
With me it’s just the opposite.
In other words?
I get used to the muck as I go along. credit
The transparency of layered paint gives the cabbage an almost tangible sense of firmness and sheen, whilst its finely tuned vascular system, constructed from tiny patient brush marks, pulsates with internal sap. Despite the vegetable’s virility, the feeling of accelerated despair emanates from this Memento Mori. Male Dutch artists of this era typically painted extravagant bouquets of wilting flowers or fine-looking skulls to remind us of our mortality. But it has taken the nerve and foresight of a female artist to so eloquently paint the transition from youthful gusto to the inevitable impotence of old-age and decay, with a humble half-eaten cabbage; undoubtedly a far more impressive and grotesque symbol of potency.
The legend of Robert Overby on the other hand, bears the romantic archetypal traits of the misunderstood male artist; hard-winning and aggressively productive, ahead of his time yet struggling for salvation within his life. If it wasn’t for the friendly gallerist, who lured me in to the booth of New York based Andrew Kreps Gallery I would have walked past Overby’s large rather ugly limp wall hanging. Although a first glance suggests a vast dirty-ochre colour-field painting, on closer inspection, this rubbery retro rectangle is not designed to evoke an enveloping aesthetic experience. Dated 4 August 1971 Overby’s ‘painting’ is actually a latex layer peeled off the façade of a derelict building in Los Angeles. Although by appearance the stripes and great passage of uninterrupted colour with subtle variations in texture evoke the aesthetic sensibilities of American minimalist painting, Colored room wall, third floor (from the Barclay House Series) has a different agenda. The cast records the surface, or fingerprint, of the building, and maps an air vent, as well as out pipes, repaired patches, and grooves marking the edges of cladding. Like a satisfyingly large patina of dried snot, when picked, often contains nostril hairs and sooty urban grime, Overby’s piece retains the remnants of plaster, rotted wood, stains and flakes of paint. The work is therefore representational, as opposed to abstract; a plastic impression of his subject.
Overby is an obvious precursor to Rachel Whiteread (whether she was aware of him is another question), but although this post-minimal masterpiece is firstly a form of process art, niggling complexities in the work’s surface pull it back from clean conceptualism; its painterliness is pervasive. The latex preserves some of the energetic brush-marks from the process of its application. The artist also added pigment highlighting small details in the composition. This dressing-up of the work can be seen as a compromise, evidence of Overby’s desire for his work to fit in with his art world peers; conceptual artists of a different mentality such as Sol Le Witt, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin and Robert Smithson, who Overby described as ‘basically abstract painters’. Thus, the work’s liminality, teetering somewhere in between the artist’s intentions to describe a different reality and the art world’s expectations to fit theirs, has delayed its acknowledgment and the placing of its context until recently. Today Colored room wall… appears unsightly yet aesthetically conversant, archaeological yet poetic, one thing then another, conceptual yet decorative, intrepid but limp, and these quirks and contradictions make it fascinatingly contemporary.
Unfastened from their usually privileged contexts and muddled together in the art world equivalent of a jumble sale, much of the work at Frieze Art Fair appears impenetrable beyond a gaudy veneer. I have chosen paintings which seemed curiously unaligned to the usually manicured algorithms of established gallery art. A commonality is that these works are layered with meaning, and not every layer makes sense. There are paradoxes and ironies, triumphs and failures, and intentional or not these aspects plumb depths, and thus the work hums to a different, more enlightening tune.
 Rimanelli, David, The Two Lives of Robert Overby
Simon Bayliss is an emerging artist and critic based in Southwest England. He holds an MFA from Burren College of Art/ NUI Galway, Ireland, and BA (Hons) in Fine Art from Falmouth College of Art. As well as regularly exhibiting and contributing to The Painting Imperative, Bayliss has written for Nom de Strip – arts journal, and works for KARST – artist-led exhibition space in Plymouth.