Are there any art forms so encumbered by the history of their own medium as painting? How does the contemporary painter approach the canvas surface without falling into pastiche or deference to a history of virtuosic gestures? Every medium has its revolutions, and the 20th Century gave rise to painting’s greatest moments of revolt, perhaps none more derailing than Malevich’s radical act of erasure in his 1915 Black Square on a White Field. Turning the medium in on itself, this pivotal work gave rise to a post-lapsarian painter, forever bound to Painting with a capital P.
Thirty-six years later, at Black Mountain College, Robert Rauschenberg presented his White Paintings. Despite their apparent silence, John Cage saw Rauschenberg’s paintings as anything but mute. He called them ‘airports for shadows and dust’, and for him, like his subsequent 4’33” (1952), the white paintings acted like mirrors on the world, or like nets for catching fragments of ambient light and shadow and by extension all other traces of transient information.
Cage’s words have provided both a title and guiding voice for this selection of works. Airports for shadows and dust brings together an inter-generational group of artists whose explorations of abstraction evolve a painterly vernacular that oscillates between a structural examination of the canvas’ limits and a more poetic understanding of its surface as indexical reflection of the world. Here the line – the most elemental of marks – is a dominant motif, from the tentative handmade stroke to the carefully inscribed striations of typography. Cycling between the monochrome and the expressionist gesture, from surfaces of self-reflexivity to porous sounding-boards for the incidental or the psychological, the works in airports for shadows and dust present inscribed surfaces of accumulation, where fragments coalesce into a wayward alphabet of gestures.
Malevich’s tabula rasa looms large in the work of Martin Barré. His iconic spray-painted canvases made between 1963 and 1967 effortlessly express the intrinsic tension between figure and ground that permeates his work. Matt black lines traverse the canvas in a manner that suggests they somehow captured only a fragment of the painterly gesture. The use of spray paint has a distancing effect, introducing a pregnant space between the hand of the artist and the painting’s surface. While Barre’s lines assume a determined nonchalance, David Ostrowski’s tentative marks seemingly blush with embarrassment. The traces that settle on his spare works feel snatched from the studio environment – literally so in the case of past works in which shapes were formed on the canvas surface by dust settling over time. Ostrowski’s works included here, like those by Dan Rees, echo Barre’s radical gesture and establish a dialogue with art historical precedents while questioning painting’s continued value as a means of expression.
Imi Knoebel’s draws on the modernist principles of the Bauhaus in his geometric works, which, while resolutely monochromatic, betray a softness in their painted surfaces through the layering of brush marks. His works often incorporate architectural space, in a number of works folding out into three-dimensional environments. His seminal Interior Projections (1968-1970) series, which comprised projections of white light in darkened spaces, might also allow us in turn to think of his canvases as screens, receptive to the movement of light and shadow. Florian Pumhösl is also a scholar of Modernism and its legacies, referencing in particular the rich history of typographic design as it developed alongside the early avant-garde. The work on glass included in this selection is characteristic of Pumhösl’s delicate combination of calligraphic fragments and motifs with the monochrome surface.
Gestural marks and motifs coalesce in Christian Rosa’s work in a manner analogous to hieroglyphic writing, shifting between image and alphabet. Recognisable forms appear only to dissolve with closer scrutiny. Elizabeth Neel’s canvases appear to narrate the process of their making, where layering and masking details their construction in a manner that reflects on both the structural conditions of canvas surface and as a reflection of a more internalised, psychological space. Nick Mauss’ paintings on ceramic and paper, as well as his sculptural works formed out of folded surfaces, often appear to be holding their images only temporarily. Like Neel’s paintings, Mauss’ works speak at once of physical and psychological experience. As he has described, ‘I’m interested in the mind frame produced by the work – and potentially folding that frame.”