I imagine that in the Relatively Profound Dinner-Table Chat Olympics (being hosted all over, currently) there is an argument for the following 3 top players collaring the airtime and the awards; redundancy; waste; indulgence. Depressing perhaps, given that they are playing a similar, limited game. But talk about art might surely invoke discussion XXXVII(b) on the redundancy of painting as easily as debate over jobs lost say… in the theatre. Talk about opportunity leads to talk about waste and talk about everything from MP’S expenses to conceptual art draws us into a vortex of indulgences. Followed by something with cream.

I am happy to report that I

a) never get invited to dinner parties and

b) have always been able to deny the encroachment of virtually any kind of cynicism because of a ludicrous faith in the creativity/sincerity of people – often individually but sometimes as a group, ‘type’, band or mob.

If caught at some dizzying glacial precipice I really would throw myself off in the confidence that songs featuring Jerry Dammers/Elvis Costello/John Lydon/Tom Waits/Howard Devoto/Radiohead really would carry me off somewhere safe and then somewhere special. If about to be battered in a Catalunyan alley I really would confidently explete a surreal but beautiful cloak of words in the manner of that greatest of locals Joan Miro, turning the brute anger of the assailing docker into beery but easy fraternity. These crazy things I believe in.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not I promise you generally fawn before art or artists – how could I/we, since John Lydon magnificently forbade it? (Metal Box etc etc.) On the contrary, I am loaded with judgemental phlegm for the fakers and the impostors; and if I don’t believe you… duck. However I have learnt (and am learning) that it is essential to really attend when art coughs and stands up before me. Especially when that art lacks figurative clues.

Most recently I/we combined a long weekend in Cornwall with an admittedly rather tourist-paced visit to Tate St Ives and the Barbara Hepworth museum. (I recommend both). It would be disingenuous of me, however, to exclude mention of the fact that the stated aim of the visit was actually to come back from the British Surfing Association Championships at Newquay with a physically and emotionally undamaged son – he came 6th, spluttering slightly on regurgitation from monstrous surf, so this principal aim was achieved. And therefore my 2 hours in the Tate were a bonus and a fairly cerebral treat.

I say cerebral because the current exhibition – The Indiscipline of Painting / International abstraction from the 1960’s to now – provides a healthy challenge; (it)

reveals how painting’s modernist histories, languages and positions have continued to provide ongoing dialogues with contemporary practitioners, even as painting’s decline and death has been routinely and erroneously declared.

(Tate guide.)

You the viewer are invited to make the links; it’s pretty necessary to engage with material outside of the paintings – or through them. Accessibility and mere beauty are not paramount. New ‘disciplines’ – referencing/equivalence/the exposition of new meanings – fight their way out of the sack, or stutter and print from the digital age.

In the brief entree to the exhibition, quoted above, the word ‘problematic’ is quite rightly used to describe the state of abstract painting now. We could argue long and hard about when the first abstract paintings emerged – Turner(!), Kandinsky, Kupka, Picabia? – but we can be clear that the probing and stretching continues, decades on. The selections at Tate St Ives, by British painter Daniel Sturgis, effectively span the last fifty years and include works by 49 western artists, including Andy Warhol, Bridget Riley, Frank Stella and Gerhard Richter.

In Gallery 1 the search for new meanings – this kinetic charge to expand upon the known- is immediately and disparately evident. Michael Craig-Martin’s “Mirror Painting,” in which a mirror bisects the work, morphing red lines into black and vice-versa, cutely, sharply (and literally?) asks us ‘Where is the real?’ Imi Knoebel more confrontationally dumps or places stuff, in a clear challenge or rejection of what… artfulness? We might need to pause and reflect on deeper possibilities to get into “Black square on a buffet”. It is speaking a very different language.  We may have to work to learn it.

David Diao references 3 traceable but obscure sources; sources he knows the ‘average viewer’ might never uncover… without help from the curator. Gerhard Richter’s “2 Greys Juxtaposed” seems both an homage and an exercise in classical diptych painting about the possibilities of abstract space and depth without texture. (Does that make it dated?) Martin Barre’s “Spray Paint on Canvas” is exactly that; marks leaving a canvas, leaving us with a trace, a gesture.

These are very different responses to questions about legitimacy – about what is truest now/how that is expressed. If there is a theme of transitionality (or is that just a feeling?), if there is a conflict over avoiding ‘self-expression’ and finding or alluding to something ego-less and necessarily greater then so be it; let the broad church explode with ideas, with divergent truths. We are all abstract artists making choices and if, as the commentary suggests

                 The way paintings are made holds meanings

a central question then, might be this; if abstraction is utterly logical and necessary, how do we make it work now?

Gallery 2 is an extraordinary space. (I heroically limited myself to just a very few minutes transfixed by the epic views of epic surf and Lowryesque
dudes on screaming boards.) There is a Frank Stella here – competing for attention – colourfully and bewilderingly titled “Hyena Stomp”. My distracted notes describe it as a ‘ruptured, kaleidoscopic time-tunnel’ and that, 2 days later, seems fair. Andre Cadere’s “Round bar of Wood” is a painted stave or ornamental stick, an equivalent that has escaped canvas entirely, whilst Blinky Palermo’s “Untitled” consists of a canvas wrapped in green/blue cloth-horizons, moodily. Is there a hierarchy, you might ask, in all this breadth? (Why would there be?) (You judge).

The strength of the show is the scope of the show. There is an academic brief here, sure, but the art chatters so colourfully about individual as well as multi-layered or even universal issues that maybe my earlier dinner party allusion was spookily helpful.  And on the guest list… Tim Head; ask him exactly whom/what he is referencing in “Continuous Electronic Surveillance”. Tell him there’s something strangely attractive about it that you don’t understand.

Likewise perhaps you could slide briefly – apologetically – into Dan Walsh’s personal space to mutter charmingly that you found the colour, the pattern, the aboriginal geometry of “Auditorium” beautiful.  He might stifle a splutter but he might knock back his cocktail re-energised. And perhaps you could disarmingly slap Francis Baudevin on the shoulder whilst asking how on earth we, the average viewer could know that the flat but three dimensional triangles in the pictogram of 2011 protest issues around CO2 emissions?  Does the artist need to… I mean, how obtuse is that?

Except on reflection the triangles look like volcanoes… and the title is… oh… an Icelandic volcano. That volcano. So perhaps it does make a kind of sense?  Ah.

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