White Cube (50 Connaught Road, Central, Hong Kong) May 14 – August 30, 2014
Simon Lee Gallery (304, 3/F The Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, Hong Kong) May 14–July 1, 2014
“Abstract” means nothing. Tendentious but empty, it echoes meaning like an old oil drum—placebo to the panacea of “Untitled”. Which is why so many artists of wildly differing abilities have adopted it to express their inner id or idiot, to create their “own language” to “express” themselves…
At its most honorable, if not always honorably, “abstract” has achieved an idiosyncratic spiritualism (Barnett Newman, 1905-70 and Rothko, 1903-70) and a revolutionary understanding of the nature of painting, surface and scale (Jackson Pollock, 1912-56). Often, though, the spiritualism was counterfeit and the painting was at best self-referential and self-indulgent, like the artists who practiced it. De Kooning (1904-1997) started out as pioneer of the infinite brush stroke and ended up painting unintentional pastiches of his earlier work.
It was conceptualism that rescued the situation by teaching artists to treat abstraction itself as medium and media, and thus as connected with the world. Perhaps the first example was Robert Rauschenberg’s (1925-2008) brilliantly critical “Erased de Kooning Drawing” (1953). Ever since, erasure has remained a key characteristic of abstraction because covering a surface is itself inherent to the act and process of painting. Most famously, Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) has used the “medium” of erasure to explore Germany’s uniquely scarred history of fascism, war, socialism and capitalism. Richter’s abstract practice began by slightly smudging images by wiping the wet surface of realistic paintings, the images derived from historical, often family, photographs (“Uncle Rudi” (1965) in his military uniform); eventually, this led to his “pure” abstract works created by dragging wet paint over photographs, burying them under multiple skins of paint and directly equating memory and social and political history with unreliable processes of memorializing, forgetting and “re-membering”.
In China, a country that also labors under its historical scars but which, unlike Germany, has engaged in State-sponsored amnesia instead of confronting them, Richter’s practice is particularly pertinent. On one hand, abstraction has been embraced in China as a cousin of traditional ink painting and philosophical practices such as Daoism. Leading (and very diverse) examples include Zhu Jinshi (b. 1954), Zheng Chongbin (b.1961) and Su Xiaobai (b.1965). However, abstract practitioners have not so readily explored the dis-connections between reality and memory, the exception being Ding Yi (b.1962), whose signature “x” and “+” crosses may be seen within a defiant/tragic system of recollection and obliteration.
Two recent solo shows in Hong Kong by Western artists explore different aspects of the relationship between memory and experience through the medium of abstract painting. Mark Bradford (b. 1961, Los Angeles) and Toby Ziegler (b. 1972, London) each explore the act of stripping away memory and its resultant scars. Mark Bradford has refined his practice of almost archeological excavation of layers of collaged paper (billboard posters, newsprint and digitally printed color sheets) to the extent that the resulting surfaces seem like neurological webs of resilient and fragile strands. For the show at White Cube, Bradford has used architectural plans of public housing in Hong Kong as the basis for building up the palimpsest layers. Although with a clear nod to Modernism’s love of the city and its predilection for grid-like order, exemplified by Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie-Woogie” (1942), Bradford’s Hong Kong is a more hybrid beast of corrupt and vibrant flesh, its citizens unseen but symbiotic parasites of the host. The erasures, exemplified by works such as “Grids are not flat” (2014) and “Plan View” (2014) are drawings as graph and graphic but also in the sense of extractions, whereby meaning is recovered from an excess of information, both data and experience, hidden and visible. Presenting such antinomies within White Cube’s elegant Hong Kong space is inevitably somehow perverse, but that is and must be part of the exhibition’s texture. It is not weaker for it.
Ziegler begins by creating a recognizable representational image that he then partially effaces with a rag or, when the paint is dry, an electric grinder, until even some areas of the aluminum background are revealed. His starting point is Gainsborough’s landscapes. The English artist (1727-1788) often constructed dummy landscapes out of various objects as models. His fellow artist Joshua Reynolds noted of him, “He even framed a kind of model lanskips [sic], on his table; composed of broken stones, dried herbs, and pieces of looking glass, which he magnified and improved into rocks, trees and water.”* This bears some resemblance to the Chinese construction of idealized landscapes, but perhaps more interesting is the way in which Ziegler is using Gainsborough’s constructed imagery as a type of Chernikhov—fundamental architectural forms used to construct models—within the painting’s own architecture, taking English master as his piece of “looking glass”. Ziegler pursues the point by constructing two abstract geometric sculptures from aluminum panels—one “whole”, one crushed—their appearance recalling chemical diagrams and space exploration debris, the clunky and broken models of virtual-world perfection. The metal shudders between a base for two-dimensional depiction and a three-dimensional form, an abstraction in real space.
Painting, however that is defined, has become hubristic and anachronistic—perhaps inevitably: perhaps it always was so. It remains relevant, however, not in spite of, but because of its very uncertainty, and regardless of whether we call it “abstract” or “realist”. Every mark on a surface is already a type of erasure, much as every act affects our memory of where we came from, of where we live and of who we are. Every erasure, every peeling back of an old poster or grinding away of an oil landscape, in its act of destruction, also becomes a revelation. Every abstract act is real.
It was coincidence that these two shows are on simultaneously. It is a pity only that they are not in neighboring rooms—you need to walk from one to the other, quickly, in order to keep the competing impressions together.
*Joshua Reynolds, “Discourse XIV”, The Works of Joshua Reynolds, Vol.II, quoted by Paveen Adams in her essay, “Making Light Shine” for Toby Ziegler – anticlimax, ex.cat., Simon Lee Gallery: Hong Kong, 14 May – 1 July 2014.