Altered States of Paint

Dundee Contemporary Arts, UK

Till Gerhard, Solar System (2006)

Till Gerhard, Solar System (2006)

If there is an emblematic work in ‘Altered States of Paint’, curated by Graham Domke around the theme that ‘certain paintings can promote a visionary experience in the viewer’, it is Till Gerhard’s Healter (2007). The title and content of this impressionistic painting of three women holding hands beside a candy-striped helter-skelter suggests that the disorientation ushered in by the psychedelic era could also be a healing force. Perhaps the promise of that moment explains why cultural commentators and artists alike are still picking over a period that ended more than 30 years ago.

This exhibition, which includes the work of the Jutta Koether, Andreas Dobler, Angela de la Cruz, Neil Clements and Rabiya Choudhry, is loaded with talismanic clues to influences, secret codes and ways of seeing. The doorway surrounding the entrance to the exhibition is covered in Choudry’s large-scale wall painting, Rhabdomancy (2008), composed in livid magenta, gold and black. The title of the exhibition is spelt out in unusual letter forms and half-recognizable shapes of faces, trees and paintbrushes. Just above the floor, in tiny writing, Choudry has inscribed a message to an unknown person: ‘I have something really important to tell you … there is something you should know … something I have been meaning to tell you for ages.’ This intriguing statement seems indicative of the attempts made by the artists in the show to use painting as a means to pull hidden aspects of existence to the surface.

The first room is dominated by the letter ‘A’. Each of the four works here describes the initial, beginning with the shape of Gerhard’s helter-skelter and continuing with the letter inscribed on the surface of Koether’s Anger (2006), a small red canvas studded with thumb tacks and liquid glass. ‘A’ might stand for Kenneth Anger, the renegade filmmaker obsessed with the ‘magick’ symbolism of Aleister Crowley, who introduced his films at DCA in August. Equally, it seems, ‘A’ could be for the link forged between abstraction and Conceptual art in the work of Ad Reinhardt. Dobler’s dystopian painting Up in Smoke (2007) is signed ‘AD’, both a signature and an acknowledgement of Reinhardt and endgame theories of painting. The smoking, A-shaped architecture depicted in the painting is echoed by the upright triangular forms of De la Cruz’ folded up and savagely bound painting Super Clutter XXL (Pink and Brown) (2006) and Clements’ black and grey Dee (2008), shaped like the body of a customized guitar.

Reinhardt abhorred what he described, in his essay ‘The Next Revolution in Art’ (1964), as ‘song and dance art’, and this exhibition throbs to the imagined sound of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. Clements’ work combines the understated quality of Reinhardt with more performative aspects, as for instance in two dark Minimalist paintings included in this show, Dee and ’85 (2008), made on irregular, guitar-shaped canvases, while his pair of all-black Full Stop paintings (2008), located in the smallest and farthest room of the gallery, have had their spray paint punctuation marks applied in situ, so a frozen rivulet of shiny paint flows off the edge of the canvas, resulting in a tiny dark puddle beneath each. Clements’ ‘song and dance art’ is made in a tense and disciplined way, reactivating a history of abstract painting.

The past is also a trap, a reading encouraged by the figuring of painting as a threshold or a screen throughout the exhibition, as in De la Cruz’ Stuck (2004), a shiny curtain of black oil and acrylic on canvas shoehorned into a doorway at the rear of the gallery. The sticky and reflective qualities of Koether’s canvases using scratched Mylar, liquid glass and shiny silver tacks are put to best effect in Cinetract (2008), a dark surface studded with stars reminiscent of the hypnotic projections of Anger and the late Bruce Conner. The references to seminal films such as The Wicker Man (1973) and the sleeve of the Rolling Stones album Hot Rocks (1971) in Gerhard’s work also provide a sense of the chaotic, tangential and often contradictory impulses of the counter-culture. The challenge facing these artists is to get beyond nostalgia in order to address the significance of the ongoing psychedelic revival. The hope and idealism of the 1960s may have died, but some people are still attempting a resurrection.

Issue 117

First published in Issue 117

September 2008

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