Reading the Surface
David Zwirner, London
19 June - 3 August 2013
Review by Henry Little
‘Reading the Surface’, curated by Associate Director Rodolphe von Hofmannsthal, features the work of Nina Beier, Ryan Gander, Bob Law, George Henry Longly, John McCracken and Maaike Schoorel. Simultaneously on display at David Zwirner is the first major commercial exhibition of Donald Judd’s work in London for nearly fifteen years. While proposed as distinct presentations, the key tenets of Judd’s oeuvre resonate deeply within ‘Reading the Surface’.
Ostensibly about the ‘dialectics of surface’, this exhibition makes a connection between historical, and now deceased, figures such as the British minimalist Bob Law, the American John McCracken and a selection of mid-career artists whose practices approach a similar set of concerns with what we might, very broadly, term a post-modern (alter-modern’) sense of reappraisal. In parallel with the Judd exhibition, the inclusion of canonical figures strongly associated with a Minimalist aesthetic foregrounds a particular set of ideas regarding the concept of surface. In brief, the aims of Minimalism, and Modernism more generally - the primacy of the materials, the removal of narrative and representation, the emphasis on the object for and in itself - are overtly and eloquently expressed. Bob Law’s ‘Mister Paranoia V 21.8.71’ (1971) is a good example. On bare, unprimed canvas Law drew the irregular and occasionally shaky outline of a rectangle using a laundry marker pen. The thick black ink has seeped deep into the weave of the linen, with an oily penumbra either side of the line. In the bottom right the day’s date is given in shorthand. With a simple gesture Law’s work makes a concise point: the ‘painting’ is there in front of us, the transcript of an encounter between the artist and the object. The act of framing the centre of the linen, and adding nothing else, moves the ‘content’ of the piece away from the surface itself and onto our expectation of what should (or shouldn’t) be there. This empty space becomes a vessel, or rather a plane, upon which we are tempted to pour our own preconceptions of painting, its form and its purpose.
The highly polished metallic surface of John McCracken’s ‘Be’ (2004) reflects everything around it luminously. This acute, three dimensional ‘sliver’, made from a polyester resin, fibreglass and ply, has a self-consciously perfect finish. In contrast to Law’s piece, which invites the viewer ‘in’, this work literally repulses the viewer. Visually it behaves as a spatial blip, or interference: our view of the gallery and the exhibition is momentarily refracted and disrupted. Both this and Law’s work represent earlier generations of Minimalism, which postulated the physical surface of an object, and the interplay of light and colour, as the subject.
Ryan Gander, a conceptual artist whose objects are vessels within a wide ranging and complex narrative regarding the nature of art, has a critical approach which playfully reappraises art historical heritage. ‘Corkboard G - (Which Was Darker)’ (2006) seems to poke fun at the earnest ideology of the Minimalists. Arranged in a four by four grid, corkboard tiles of the sort used for office amenities form a sculptural wall mounted panel. Each of the cork tiles appears to have been irregularly sun bleached (either naturally, or rather approximated to give this effect), so that the colour of the surface is totally uneven. Gander disrupts fundamental Minimalist structures such as the grid, with a combination of process led abstraction, asymmetry and chance. Gone, or vandalised, is the perfect, unimpeachable surface and the rigorous material control of the artist. The title, similarly, appears to mock the transcendental and philosophising aims of high Minimalism. A literal description of the surface - which was darker - renders it somehow mundane.
‘Shelving for Unlocked Matter and Open Problems’ (2010) by Nina Beier is a delicately balanced assemblage of hacksawed kitsch, shelf ornaments, knick knacks and ‘pleasing’ mass-produced ceramics. Each of these objects has been cut to several uniform heights to support long rectangular glass shelves. The knick knacks - all more or less conforming to domestic versions of the bland ornament, which adorn a space without adding to it, causing little aesthetic disruption or conceptual challenges - become supports within a larger whole. Similarly, their exterior surfaces, pleasant as they are, contrast with the material reality of their revealed interiors. This gesture appears to paraphrase the arguments of Modernism - the deceptive surface ornament has been cut to reveal the material truth of the object. The glass shelving appears likewise to riff on two things: the display shelf such knick knacks might call home in your average house, and the unblemished surface and regularly shaped unit of the Minimalist work.
Maaike Schoorel’s paintings take the notion of representation and surface full circle. Both have suggestive figurative titles, ‘Lovers painting’ (2013) and ‘Self Portrait as Alice’ (2012), and allude to art historical genres. Yet the surfaces are not straightforwardly representational. Suggestions of compositions are sketched with the lightest of touches. A sparse palette on creamy pastel grounds gives the merest hints of a composition. The effect is to empty out the figurative image it alludes too, turning it into a series of abstract, painterly traces on the canvas surface.
George Henry Longly’s ‘Labor’ (2013), the most formally intriguing work of the exhibition, addresses the thorny notion of labour (perhaps given the American spelling in deference to the host gallery) in relation to minimalist and/or conceptual art. Returning to Law’s canvas which has only a few lines, we can trace an important narrative arc concerning the development of artistic practice between the two pieces in regard to the site of artistic ‘labour’. Longly’s is a fascinating piece: a mid-sized slab of marble has been laser cut with the artist’s initials in a small font at the centre and the larger letters of the word ‘labor’ spill from top to bottom in a jovial fashion. Further holes have been cut in the marble to house multiples of two found consumer objects: whipped cream chargers and Yves Saint Laurent Touche Éclat. The latter is an almost mythologised female beauty product, adored for its ability to conceal surface blemishes on the skin: a humorous take on the notion of artistic ‘lying’. Here we find Longly combining an intrinsically minimalist form (the marble slab) with the implied gloss of feminine beauty products and a campy temperament, in contrast to the butch machismo of Minimalism proper.
If the show attests to one thing it is the increasing and ongoing establishment recognition of mid-career artists George Henry Longly and Nina Beier (Gander, I think, has already ‘arrived’). Longly’s work can also be seen at the David Roberts Art Foundation as part of ‘Abstract Cabinet’, a show which attempts to anoint a closely tied generation of abstract, formalist and conceptual practitioners, as well as another group show at Laura Bartlett Gallery. If there is a criticism to be levelled against this otherwise conceptually rigorous exhibition, it is the proximity of its content to an exhibition curated by Longly at Bischoff Weiss in 2011 titled ‘Glaze’. That show also featured a seminal minimalist (Carl Andre), as well as Gander and Longly’s own work, and addressed the concept of surface through the notion of ‘glazing’. Likewise, ‘Folk Devil’, the next exhibition curated by Rodolphe von Hofmannsthal and which just opened at one of Zwirner’s New York spaces, includes others from among the same group of artists, such as Eddie Peake and Nicholas Deshayes (also participating in the DRAF exhibition), currently enjoying a growing hegemony in the public and commercial spaces of London. We are clearly witnessing the apotheosis of this loosely defined but recognisable group.