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Slow Motion

'We have reached the epoch of the nanosecond,' wrote James Gleick in Faster (1999). 'An age when instantaneity rules in the network and in our emotional lives: instant coffee, instant intimacy, instant replay, and instant gratification.' That much is obvious. We know that Western civilisation is speeding up, dancing to the accelerating beat of technological progress: Moore's Law, which states that the computational capacity of silicon chips doubles every eighteen months, ensures that our technology becomes continually faster and, as a consequence, that our working days are being sliced into ever slimmer tranches - ninety seconds in the shower, five minutes for lunch (at your desk), ten minutes 'face-time' after an hour's e-mailing. As Milan Kundera has noted: 'Speed is the form of ecstasy the technological revolution has bestowed upon man.' Pleasure has been supplanted by efficiency.
Put it like that, and it's amazing that in these digital days, art - let alone representional art - still exists. But then artists have hardly been immune to the pace of change; since Pop onwards, there has been a consistent strain of art production which foregrounds 'instant intimacy' and which moves to keep pace with advertising and battle on the same arenas, closely reflecting and diagnosing change in the wider society as it does so. Art, like other media, has developed an optimum impact time. So perhaps art's endurance isn't that amazing. But sprinting alongside the post-industrial world isn't the only option. As pursued in a multiplicity of modes within the paintings of Simon Gallery, Jane Harris, Roy Voss and Mandy Ure, a radical alternative possibility presents itself: of making art which travels, by comparison, in slow motion; which nudges persistently rather than hitting like a flatbed truck. These artists' works unfold over time and transport the viewer slowly, in a straight line or in a circle, either leaving one thinking that the journey is its own reward, or not. While not exemplary of a 'movement' by any means - in any case the various approaches displayed here are more dissimilar than similar - this is a range of work which demands a particular pitch of attention, and which rewards that attention.
Painting is a slow medium. It takes time to do - or tends to give the impression of being time-consuming, of being an accretion of decisions and rethinkings - and time to look at. For Simon Callery, looking and making are two sides of the same coin: his making is also a process of looking, and ideally the viewer's looking should also be a process of making. Callery's paintings do not seek to resolve or explain themselves - rather, they function to distract, to delay the process of easy assimilation, and thereby make possible an encounter which, for the viewer, is also an encounter with oneself.
The paintings are scaled to Callery's body. Their vertical divisions are defined by the length of his stride as he walks beside the canvas, by his height, by the span of his arms - and then adjusted throughout the painting process. The visible traces of previous positionings lead one to view the canvas as textual and revisionary, and as one of any number of possible permutations. These lines gain and lose intensity as one looks at them; the next time one looks a different set of lines has taken priority, so that the composition refuses to offer an immediate anchor for the eye. By continuing to modulate, the paintings retard the moment of comprehension or 'capture'.
Whereas Callery's earlier paintings used architectural motifs but were predominantly horizontal, more recent works imply a confrontation with architecture. The experience, though, is not a literal one; viewing them, one is not thinking about buildings but rather feeling as one might feel in front of them. Callery has taken the essential syntax of architecture and radically attenuated it, to the point where it meets the syntax of abstract painting - some of these canvases are virtually weather-beaten facades, and they are held at the precise point where they begin to be suggestive of weight and physical presence. Yet architecture is not the subject of these works, and its associations percolate through the viewer almost subliminally, partly because, as Callery has noted, the use of vertical lines tends to slow the viewer's cognitive process down, and partly because his seductive surfaces are so distracting; as one closes in on the canvas to absorb the surface detail, the overall structural schema slowly enters the body. The works are motivated by this indirect, staggered process of understanding and reception.
Their surfaces are heavily worked, although Callery tends to remove more paint than he applies. At first, one might perceive an all-over array of neutrally-coloured and scumbled paint, scratches, thin directional dashes - over time, though, the marks come to appear episodic. They do not relate directly to the verticals, and sometimes they look like showers of pale sparks. While one might infer a hierarchy from the way that they are painted - that the geometric design supports the painted mark - in practice this is not the case. Rather than appearing individually significant, the paintstrokes are more suggestive of materiality; they lead one back to paint itself. These are paintings in front of which one must move around - their scale demands that you physically move across them to take in the details, but one also tends to move backwards and forwards, switching from close-up examination to a widescreen experience of the whole. It is very difficult to maintain a sense of both the macro- and microscopic aspects of these works, and one is continually returning to check and re-check. The latter experience mirrors Callery's painting process, wherein the artist encounters what he describes as a form of amnesia; in the time taken to step towards the canvas to make an adjustment, he forgets precisely what he was going to do. The paintings are built from Callery's compulsive managing of all these little slips. They are records of the artist at work, revealing their histories of thought and action like exposed layers in an archaeological dig. The viewer, in recreating the painting process through the canvases' penumbra and visible underpainting (and in trying to resolve the paintings' immediate dialectic of structure and surface), mimics and recasts the artist's process. As a result, these paintings make it possible to isolate the cognitive process by extending the time-frame of those negotiations which occur under the aegis of 'seeing' and 'feeling' - and in doing so they expose that process as infinitely complicated and always provisional.
Callery's paintings materialise slowly through a process of becoming; in contrast, Jane Harris's streamlined abstractions seem eager to be received, accepted, understood. This, like many aspects of Harris's work, is deceptive. It is no coincidence that the dominant form in her paintings is the ellipse - this is a visual/verbal play, since her paintings are purposefully elliptical, inspiring a state of productive confusion as one discovers within them, over time, more nuances and more optical tricks.
Take Bloody Mary (2000), the title is a gentle pun on its colour scheme - wherein a blood-red ellipse is surrounded by a shade of blue approximating that used in classical representations of the Virgin's cloak - and on the eponymous alcoholic cocktail, whose intoxicating pleasures are analogous to the effects of the painting. The red ellipse is fringed with mini-ellipses, atoms of the whole. For two diametrically-opposed stretches of its circumference - covering precisely half its length - these ellipses 'bump out', the form apparently spreading over the background; in between these stretches, they indent, as if the background were taking tiny, regular bites from the central ellipse.
This pleasurable spatial play only functions because Harris has established an ambiguity of space through balanced form and, equally important, through tonality. As one stands before the painting, the red-blue relation vibrates, making it difficult to ascertain which shade denotes foreground and which denotes background. But as one moves around before the canvas, this already unstable relationship alters. Directional brushstrokes - small, mechanistic, unitary strokes - on the red and blue areas catch the light at different times, so that one's bodily motion continually upsets the painting's balance. As light rakes over the blue corners, they appear larger and move forward in the colouristic mix; as light hits the red, the same phenomenon occurs.
This stacking of dialectics occurs repeatedly in Harris's work. Skirt (1999), a brown-on black ellipse, is exemplary. It exploits figure-ground ambiguity, since the ellipse is like a necklace of smaller ellipses formed from a single looping paintstroke, and apparently painted wet-on-wet into an existing ground. It plays on illusory space, since in a raking light, the loops of the ellipse appear three-dimensional but flatten themselves as the viewer moves. Its seemingly regular designs are revealed as being ever so slightly unbalanced - one loop in the chain of ellipses is missing, though
this isn't immediately apparent - so that rhythm and order play against unevenness. Skirt's decorousness, meanwhile, is offset by its sombre colour scheme. Both materialistic and duplicitous, it is purely paint, with everything apparent on the surface, if one cares to look - but that looking entails a temporal journey for the eye. One must follow a trail left by a consummate trickster. Such playfulness might even be seen as a subversive, oppositional element within abstract painting. But Harris's multi-dialectical approach has a purpose beyond mere play. It seeks to figure a mode of thinking which goes beyond polarity through holding multiple perceptions in place simultaneously. It is an organic exegesis of complexity which seeks to imply a concerted maintenance of unstable polar opposites. This might entail an element of autobiography on Harris's part: just as her colour relations tend to be drawn from her experiences of colour in the outside world - she will notice, say, the colour of a particular tree against a particular sky, and recall it when she paints - Harris's emphasis on inclusiveness might well be a way of expressing her sense of the multivalence of personality.
Although we find it convenient to analyse issues dialectically, we are not dialectical beings. Harris's paintings, with their simultaneous strata of perplexing 'grey areas', appear resolved but are filled with volatile contradiction. In a final, graceful opposition, they stand as both semi-decorative abstractions and acute psychological portraits. Less pedagogical paintings than playful ones, they are, nevertheless, portals to an instructively multi-polar world.
Any polarities within Roy Voss' paintings are far less overt. His hazy abstractions invite one into a finely-calibrated aesthetic of drift. Everything about them hovers on the verge of resolution; their dappled surfaces - muted shades of blue folding into grey, with occasional hints of crimson and yellow - seem about to identify themselves as heavy winter skies, or skin, or scenes of microscopic life, but the defining touch which would push these paintings into being representative surfaces is missing, and they continue to float easily between signifiers. Similarly, they insinuate a figure-ground relationship without clarifying it. Dark shapes appear to be forming and dissolving in the paintings' fields; one can read recognisable shapes into them, just as one can read shapes in clouds - and with the same feeling of redundancy. After spending some time with them, one accepts that these paintings will continue to slip through the net of identification, that they do not ask to be identified - and yet, caught up in their tantalising nearly-ness, one continues to look and to think about them. Their visuality is a factor, too - looking at these paintings is rather like finding aesthetic pleasure in a bruise; it can quickly shift into repulsion, and back to pleasure again. Thinking about them leads to a succession of dead ends.
Formally they are intriguing: one wonders how they were made, how their smooth, seamless skins contain such activity, yet the paintings leave no clues to their construction. Their titles, such as / can't help myself, mock precisely the kind of philosophical navel-gazing which the paintings encourage and reflect. They are rebuses, and each aspect of them leads one to consider its opposite as equally valid. Some appear utterly still; others seem to swarm with microcosmic activity; yet simply noticing this doesn't lead anywhere. Voss' paintings offer us a journey which is not strictly productive, but which may give us an insight into our own psyches. They generate and play on the fear we sometimes experience when reading a particularly - and perhaps needlessly - complicated piece of writing: that it is not the writer who cannot write clearly, but it is we who are not intelligent enough to understand. These paintings are densely allusive and suggest that, given time, their import will become clear. But the longer we give them, the more certain we become that they won't. At this point, we either become anxious or bored. If there is a resolution to this, it is on the order of the finale of Sartre's play Huis Clos, when one of the characters - all of whom hate each other and who are trapped together, on hard seats, for an eternity - breaks into a manic chuckle and says 'Eh bien, continuons' - carry on. No resolution but an endless cycle. And yet, discussing his work, Voss has suggested that boredom is a productive mental state - or at least a state with as much validity as any other. And it is; essentially it is a space of unmoored contemplation, a hair's breadth away from daydreaming but less tied to concrete subjects. Voss' paintings consciously install this state in the viewer's mind and then leave one to deal with it - and, perhaps, to consider that in a world that expects us to value and use every moment, to multi-task whenever possible, inactivity is a precious commodity - as essential to the mind as sleep is to the body. If, on the other hand, we become anxious, perhaps it is because we are not getting what we think we should be getting from art; Voss' art is difficult, but not difficult in the way we ask art to be. It refuses the aspirations to transcendence of abstract painting, choosing instead to make its materiality a priority - to suggest that, after all, this is just paint. Further, in revealing its true face only after a fight, it refuses to move at the pace at which the rest of the world moves.
The ambitions and capabilities of painting provide the backdrop for Mandy Ure's work, which leads us through several phases of ambiguity to a moment of absolute candour. The first thing that one realises about her work is that it is hugely labour-intensive. Ure's technique involves the application of thousands of small nubs of paint, indented in a manner suggestive of popped bubble-wrap, which coalesce to form schematic imagery - fruit, animals, hands, faces. These forms swim out of Ure's mass of painted blats, always remaining the result of a unitary, mechanistic production - they do not signify in any expressive way and, close up, rapidly disperse into abstractions. Ure appears disinterested in the image and what it can communicate, and in the rhetoric of abstraction. By making images which display the bare minimum of reference needed to carry them, she effects a push-pull action wherein neither aesthetic approach, figuration or abstraction, appears to have primary validity - or indeed much validity at all, either individually or within a dialogue.
Each aspect of the painterly vocabulary appears to be being tested. Ure employs a predominantly monochromatic palette - her recent paintings have mostly favoured off-white shades - but her colours do modulate delicately upon the picture plane; barely discernible shifts occur on their surfaces. And yet it is difficult to understand why the modulations occur where they do. There is a suspicion of randomness; is Ure simply making adjustments to keep the viewer's eye busy and interested, merely simulating meaningful activity? The arrangements of light and dark patches sometimes point towards chiaroscuro, but tend to shadow the wrong places and don't deliver depth. Ure is not in thrall to the stylistics of painting but works to point them out as deceptions and tactics. The image, too, is merely a hook to hang a painting on - a way of giving a painting a natural end point: it ends when all the dots have been applied to create a form which resembles the figurative image she has selected. Ure uses a chance technique to predetermine where the dots are to be applied: after this determination, she applies the dots to make the painting. Thus her whole working method is watertight, operating in accordance with a self-contained methodology which guarantees she will produce art. It is significant that Ure gives her paintings numbers instead of titles - their subjects are unimportant, merely ways of distinguishing one canvas from another, and her choice of images moves vertiginously from high (a portrait of Jesus) to low (cats and ducks) without seeming discontinuous.
These paintings, then, are casually beautiful to show how easy beauty is to manufacture; and casually loaded - take an image, give it a semblance of validity through a painstaking method of construction, et voila; a 'meaningful' icon is created - to show how easy significance is to simulate, and to show how much we all admire hard work; how eager we are to map meaning onto strenuous effort. All the classic ingredients are in place, but exploded so as to be read as conventions. While her paintings have something of the sickly radiance of terminally-ill patients, that radiance should not blind one to their true condition. These paintings are not what they appear to be, but become themselves through temporality, effecting a dance of the seven veils before revealing themselves. For Ure, the question now is not how to make another painting: that part, as she makes abundantly clear, is easy. The question she asks is what painting should do, what its purpose can possibly be. In the relative painterly strategies of Simon Callery, Jane Harris, Roy Voss and Mandy Ure - which incorporate critique, dream, dialectical resolution, and psychological x-ray - this show suggests some answers.

Martin Herbert
February 2000

Publication title: 
Recent Paintings by Simon Callery Jane Harris Mandy Ure Roy Voss