Rhythm defines Giorgio Griffa’s work. Throughout the Camden Arts Centre’s gallery spaces, from his earliest, late 1960s work to his more recent output, his bright, repeated gestures mark the raw canvases in sequences and patterns. The rhythmic quality is emphasised by the folds of his unstretched canvases, starkly visible, which segment the surfaces of the paintings into something like a score.
Griffa began practicing in Italy during the height of Arte Povera, a fact evident in his work’s dedication to the simple truth of the material. Although working in the painterly as opposed to the sculptural tradition, his simple abstract canvases are whole unto themselves, forthright in their own internal logic and in their own materiality. They are even presented plainly, attached simply to the walls with nails. In places, loose threads hang down. In one painting, dirt smeared at the edges of the canvas has even been left undisguised. Often, the thinned acrylic paint Griffa uses has splattered, punctuating the rhythmic marks with unexpected trills.
Through their stark simplicity, they revel in their creation, conveying a process where the paints and canvases are active participants, on a level with Griffa himself. Even in their messy, unfinished state, they tell of a creation centred on control, stillness, and understanding. Indeed since 1969, Griffa has worked on unprimed, unstretched canvases laid horizontally on the floor. Though this method recalls the chaotic dripping of Pollock, his process has never been about action or performance. Rather, it returns to the slow, controlled gesture.
Conveyed by this slow simplicity, however, is deeply nuanced thought. Through Griffa’s dedication to materiality, he accesses an understanding of time, creation and truth. Griffa hints at this with his repeated motif of the arabesque, a symbol which for him conveys both linear time and circular time, ever going backwards even as it moves forwards.
It is in the second gallery of Camden Arts Centre where this thread is truly developed. Here, the walls are filled with works stemming from one central subject: the golden ratio. In one canvas, he draws out the decimals of the irrational number, filling the canvases with its unending digits. Never increasing even as it takes up more and more space on the picture plane, it speaks to the reality of knowledge. It is known, but it can never be completed. Like Griffa’s stark canvases, it holds truth, reflects the world around us, but it will never be finished.
This is Griffa’s first solo show in the UK and Camden Arts Centre have done a masterful job introducing London to the five decades of his practice. ‘A Continuous Becoming’ is full of joy and life, ever leaning to the future, ever asking what comes next. Standing in the galleries, I could not believe that with work of such depth, a show like this hadn’t yet been staged. Let’s hope it is not the last.