Feature - 04 Mar 2000
There is something peculiar about these paintings. Cautious little rectangles of canvas with their chalky colours and lifeless forms, at first they seem to have been painted by someone who has never actually seen any art, but has read about it avidly in a second-hand text book whose illustrations have all been removed. It is as if descriptions of Kandinkys, El Lissitzkys, Moholy-Nagys, and van Doesburgs have merged into a single vision and then been optimistically and obsessively regurgitated in oil paint. If Tomma Abts had spent her life painting in an attic in some grey city of the former Eastern Bloc it would be understandable, touching in its perfect misconception; it would be too good to be true. She lives and works in London and has, I imagine, seen quite a lot of art. Her paintings aren't instantly attractive, in fact they're easy to ignore and they appear hopelessly out of step with everything that is contemporary in art. They are confusing: neither kitsch nor overly reverential to the medium, they exist in a world of their own.
Certainly Abts' work has retro elements: it is occasionally evocative of the forced cheerfulness of institutional design, or the patterned moquette fabric found covering the seats of London's antiquated Routemaster buses. The paintings look as if they have only recently been exposed to the world after being locked for years in the basement of a provincial museum. That Abts' work feels like a discovery is undoubtedly part of its fascination. But there is more, something discomforting, even a little sinister. Many of the paintings are dark and introspective; despite their variety of colour and post-war styling, they have a deathly quality. It's the opposite of alchemy: you feel that the paintings should glow like jewels, but instead they are the drained faces of corpses made-up by an over-enthusiastic mortician.
The static whiplash forms, the spots, spiky plateaux and arabesques hover limply over the surface of the paintings, reminiscent of those slightly nauseating optical illusions in children's puzzle books; but unlike the visual flux of an optical illusion, Abts' forms are leaden. This awkwardness is beguiling - it suggests that something is amiss. Her paintings are literally inside-out, produced by a method of masking and re-masking fiery-hued backgrounds with thin layers of paint, building up a membrane which suffocates any hint of life in the exposed shapes. There is a sense of two dimensional claustrophobia and a perverse heaviness in these miniature canvasses (all are 48 by 38 centimetres) which produce an effect so condensed that they seem to be on the verge of implosion, like black holes which could gently pull in the surrounding universe.
It is inertia that is their characteristic: a silent and sulky presence, given now and then to a muted whimper of exuberance. Abts' preference is often for colours that might convey painterly integrity: dark greens, purples, burnt orange, chocolate brown. It is a palette with the flavour of post-war Britain, but employed with a childlike daintiness that gives the work an off-kilter elegance coupled with a particular seal of Northern sobriety. The paintings' titles - Jübbe, Meender, Stilf, Tehe, Theiel, Zyja - could be locations somewhere between the stations marked on the dial of an old wireless set, or the mist-shrouded worlds of Wagnerian opera. They reinforce the feeling that the work originated in a far-off place, somewhere on the edge of the map which has little contact with the outside world; lost in their own time zone, they have little desire to be rediscovered.
Despite this, the paintings are somehow heroic; as romantic as they are inexpressive, wistful and so much not-of-the-moment. But there is no painterly righteousness here and no sense that they are a call to tradition. Their concerns with texture and surface are evocative rather than purely abstract because the imagery that they employ is part of a collective graphic consciousness: conjuring up the future of painting as it used to be thought of in the recent past. Their Modernity seems somehow synthetic, an anaemic version of the avant-garde, but still persuasive enough to dispel any thought that the paintings are merely a cute attempt at 'bad painting'.
The bizarre and calculated dysfunctionality of Abts' work is highly satisfying: the paintings have a sense of ampleness and containment, a tart celebration of all that is not lush or sexy or gorgeous - and that is precisely why they are so arresting. Abts creates her own brand of vivid mediocrity, playful and sluggish at the same time, executed with an almost crazed conviction. Subdued and quietly beautiful, her painting is dedicatedly anachronistic but never over-burdened. It is content, in its small ambition, to mesmerise you with a delicate and highly individual presence.
First published in Issue 51