‘Promise of Palm Trees’, the latest exhibition at Breese Little, borrows its title from discussions surrounding Sigmar Polke’s recent retrospective at the Tate Modern. Co-curated by one of the featured painters, Benjamin Cohen, the exhibition title acts as an analogy to current practices in painting - palm trees, the icon of a destination which cannot be easily reached and the readable image which is frequently obscured or chased into abstraction. Palm trees are familiar motifs: in Christianity they symbolise the triumph of the spirit over the flesh, in modern iconography they stand for a dream-like tropical paradise or the kitsch bold print on a shirt or holiday brochure. Their bold outlines, however, like the legacy of painting, are distinctive and easily recognisable.
Layering and obscuring is a recurrent theme throughout the show as the various painting techniques oscillate between rough, sloppy gestures to pristine spray-paint effects: the image appears and then disappears in turpentine swashes or dripping overcoats. Almost all of the paintings are wall mounted minus Jack Brindley’s ‘Swansong’ series (2014); two of which are pinned loosely to mounted MDF and the third presented in an ill-fitting frame leant against a right-angle structure on the floor. The framing of the work on the floor is amateurish - too big for the screen-printed image and painted sloppily - it is propped on top of an art-handler’s blanket. By leaving these visible traces of production and display, Brindley collapses the boundaries of studio and exhibition.
The titles of Benjamin Cohen’s two works, ‘Charles Doggy Style Charles’ (2014) and ‘Yeti’ (2015), are ambiguous. In ‘Charles Doggy Style Charles’, the image, which might be faintly traced from a distance, has been covered or obscured with white oil paint leaving only visible the corners of the Perspex sheet underneath. Cohen has said of his work that the image emerges through an ongoing interaction with various visual material sourced mainly online and including adverts and art historical references, then remixed on Photoshop, painted, re-worked, Photoshopped again, painted again. The image is sent back and forth in continuous dialogue and adjustment through filters of hand, eye, computer and screen. In Cohen’s second work, ‘Yeti’, a familiar, ape-like blurred outline is overlayed with a large luminous pink house with a cross through the centre. Reminiscent of the childhood game of drawing a house with a cross while not removing pen from paper, it resembles a crosshair on a gun or an ‘X’ marking the spot.
In another work ‘Bum’ (2014) by Charlie Billingham, a large, impasto red bum has been appropriated and cropped from a James Gillray cartoon. The bottom sprays grotesquely into the rest of the picture plane, exploding out of the breached trousers in an abject spluttering mess. This contrasts with Fiona Curran’s work, ‘Something Has Been Decided’ (2013) - a worn frayed rug, coloured-in and spliced through the centre
with bright embroidered triangles. The rug is re-worked or ‘upcycled’, with a felt-tip pen, restoring the rug with incongruent materials which create a layering of temporalities. Similarly, Aimee Parrott’s ‘Overlap’ (2014) works with the idea of layering but the process is reversed to create an illusion of flatness where in fact one layer of canvas hangs over the other.
Benjamin Brett’s ‘Inside/Outside’ (2013) an oil painting on linen with a purplish brown wash is punctuated with three holes, recalling the face of a Disney-like tree. Twiggy structures in the corners cross over the patchy canvas and small marks, reminiscent of printing with bubble wrap, faintly line the edges of the work. The image is both familiar and untraceable. Likewise, Damien Flood’s cosmological paintings recall Paul Nash’s desolate First World War landscapes, which occupy a place between fact and fiction. Flood is interested in research trips of the nineteenth-century, which explored new territories and oceans. In this work, ‘Picture’ (2013), geometric shapes sit on top of the exposed weave of the canvas. The work feels explorative, searching for form with earthy toned geometric shapes layered on top of a rubbed, dripping, disintegrating background.
Breese Little’s exhibition has brought together artists interacting with the legacy of painting, trying to negotiate a space for themselves which neither mimics nor rejects this legacy. The works commence from the studio but utilise experiment and process to make connective leaps between the digital and the material. In the process images are re-worked and destroyed, only to be re-painted again in intuitive gestures, making process visible. The readable image may be abstracted but it is far from lost.