42 Carlton Place has become known for its regular contributions to Glasgow International, its frequently historical-leaning painting shows implicitly questioning what it means to be ‘contemporary’ art. ‘Fieldwork’, the space’s GI 2020 presentation, has been rendered inaccessible due to recent events, but remains up and running remotely. Jamie Limond responds.
Anonymous, a study of farm buildings, 1840, oil on canvas laid on board, 28 x 29cm; Prunella Clough, Slagheap, 1958, oil and grit on board, 27 x 30.3cm; Louise Hopkins, Chandelier, 2018, acrylic and oil on photo collage on board, 30 x 40cm.
A huge amount of the art we know we know through description like this, captioned alongside higher or lower resolution jpegs online, better or worse reproductions in print. We do a lot of talking about works we’ve never actually seen, are quite happy to reference things we’ve never encountered. Seeing ‘Fieldwork’, 42 Carlton Place’s intended contribution to Glasgow International 2020, ‘remotely’ (via online documentation, the way most people are going to see it) says a lot about how we interact with paintings generally: as images, as physical objects, as a series of technical details. As things from a remote past, sometimes. Via descriptions more or less approximate.
Description delimits. Raises questions of where a picture’s ‘identity’ begins and ends. Details grabbed from the standard ‘list of works’ raise questions about paintings’ informational capacity generally: just how much they can ‘contain’, or how much we can ‘attach’ to them. What can they ‘say’; what can definitively be said about them. What can we say about this painting and not that. Along with reproductions, such details tell us everything we might want to know about pictures- except what they’re actually like. Or how one might relate to another. Or what that might mean, beyond the superficial or circumstantial.
Curated by painter and writer Merlin James, the works selected for ‘Fieldwork’ – which span over more than a century and survey a wide range of approach – all in some way articulate these notions, even in reduced form. Details which identify, stand in or ‘speak for’ the work are reflected in recurring signatures, monograms, dedications and inscriptions dotted throughout; just as a notion of ‘speaking’ and substitution emerges from the pictures generally. Each picture presents a specific ‘articulation’ of, or approximation towards some element of our experience of the world, and just one articulation of or ‘approximation’ towards the scope of the art-form. Each is ‘representative’, more or less. The fact that ‘Fieldwork’ is pretty much inaccessible to the vast majority of people who might want to see it only multiplies the ironies and melancholies of the works ‘on show’. It skews, but doesn’t totally distort, the themes of the presentation and inevitably brings certain things to the fore.
There’s a state of suspension, in-between-ness, shared by a Bonnard pencil drawing of a berthed ocean liner (Paquebot a Quai, c.1935), a 1967 Kitaj oil ‘drawing’ of an explicitly stranded ship (For Edward Dahlberg, which, fittingly, hasn’t made it to the gallery space as yet due to Covid restrictions), and a semi-abstract Victoria Morton painting from 2008 titled Windows. There’s something indelibly boat-like about the jaunty shapes in the Morton, like painted bands on funnels and masts, rusty portholes, puffs of smoke and choppy waves. But it’s just as grounded as the other ‘vessels’, caught between states, the positives and negatives of the ‘windows’ refusing to settle. Tellingly it shares many qualities in handling and morphology with an anonymous oil-sketch of some farm buildings from 1840, the jagged blue shape in the Morton a near jigsaw-fit with that picture’s ‘sky’. Both have a certain provisionality (which derails the documentary ‘realism’ of the farm buildings and turns them into ruins). Equally, there’s a tug between the picture’s opacity and the very idea of ‘windows’. The marks spill onto the frame, further defying any illusionism, any easy ‘entry’; just as there’s a semantic slip in the Kitaj between the cancelled, partly-illegible inscription/dedication above, and the bluntly functional depiction of the boat, lodged on the rocks (which look like bits of crumpled paper) below; an image arrested, stuck, like a letter that never arrived/was never sent. Such works articulate the fluidity with which static pictures made-by-mark can cohere or collapse, can sense-make or defy, at will and by degree; but also the degree to which marks and shapes can break free as visual agents with metaphoric and/or expressive potential of their own. How parts can disentangle themselves from the whole, only to re-align our entire picture of the whole– but equally how, for all its plurality, certain forms and meanings get picked up by painting’s ongoing morphology and theme-ology along the way. Not so much windows on the world as windows open for conversation with it. And each other.
Clive Hodgson’s Untitled (also from 2008) is window-like to an extent. Consisting of the artist’s signature and the date written in reverse among apparently offhand, automatic marks and spirals, it’s a little like someone tracing their name in grime or condensation, or a painted-out shop front, no longer open for business. It picks up some of the reflective blankness of the central window in Jean Hélion’s Marché, rue des Quatre Chemins (1963). The title tells us this is a marketplace and we see a man buying what might be flowers from a stall. But it also looks a lot like Hélion’s paintings of gatherings outside street-corner cafes, or his roadside construction sites. With the awnings and almost-chair forms/safety-barriers it’s an easy mistake (or rather, Hélion encourages this visual slippage). But even then there are ambiguities. It’s hard to say whether two figures apparently exchanging an object through the ‘window’ are partly just a coincidence of reflection/transparency, whether it’s a window or an opening, whether business is setting-up or winding-down, whether the stall is being stocked or emptied (in truth it’s the picture-surface which is being ‘filled’). It depicts exchange and community, but it could equally be looting, or packing-up before business sinks; an image of opening and closing, give and take; just as the sketchy, gestural picture is perched between ‘being and nothingness’, is a venture which depends on our ‘custom’.
Considering these two pictures also raises questions of articulation vs decoration. The most fully ‘articulated’ figure in the Hélion is the man carrying the bunch of flowers (if they are flowers). He’s possibly bought them for decoration, as something with the sole intention of brightening a room. Or they could be gifts of consolation, or a spur of the moment expression of love, or an apology. Things presented when words fail; just as the Hodgson questions the presentment of pictures, the capacity for marks to mean or to not-mean, or to simply be; just as he posits the painting as a thing with multiple functions and uses, multiple registers and addresses (and a life beyond the ‘display-by’ date, an identity beyond his own).
Many of the works in the show measure decorative and/or formalizing elements against emotive pitch. It’s there in the unlikely pictorial sympathies drawn between Serge Charchoune’s small, untitled, semi-abstract of 1936, and Louise Hopkins’ Chandelier (2018). The Charchoune embodies rhythmic gesture and mark, while the Hopkins is an adapted photo collage, with a schematic tree painted-on to pick up the ‘roses’ printed across a commercial fabric. Both test serial repetition against figuration and mood, temperature. Both are wintery, the Charchoune entirely able to function as a picture of trees by a near-frozen (or thawing) river, or an expression of abstract energy-exchange; the Hopkins almost a mechanized (but also intimate) re-imagining of the allegorical ‘passage-of-seasons’ picture (the tree can look both bare and full at the same time), measuring the coldness of pattern and stasis against the ‘energy’ of the singularized image. Each picture both accepts and transcends ‘decoration’. Similarly, many works operate within the tension between painting as depiction and as activity, between construction and cancellation, between picture as portal and surface; most ‘tensely’, agitatedly, in Chris (Sam) Fisher’s itchy Ginger Tomcat (2020), poised to jump through a clawed cat-scratcher/basket/flap to oblivion.
It’s a tension we also find in an untitled Richard Walker from c.1998. We’re confronted by a figure starkly framed within what looks like a domestic interior. Decorative patterned curtains (like Hopkins’) hang at the sides: formalizing drapes that mark the passage from world to picture a time-old convention. The secondary border, perhaps the boundary between rooms or the recess of a framed mirror, suggests the colour and transparency of tape, as if the whole thing might be a depiction of a preparatory sketch taped-flat to a board (recalling the work of Sylvia Plimack Mangold, the image embracing the terms of its manufacture, its own combination of observation and synthesis). It’s lit artificially (as all paintings are, really), the light-bulb reflection-world where inside and outside exist and multiply within the same space. Picture space. Scale is ambiguous. It could be polaroid-sized, or room-sized; the dark box in the bottom right corner could be a stereo-speaker (again suggesting mediated communication, the picture as another kind of ‘speaker-box’) or maybe an amplifier (another artificial augmenter-intensifier), or equally a small container or square fragrance bottle on a mantel/dresser, depending on where we, the ‘viewer’, are standing; the figure either on the other side of a window or right behind us. At a remove, either way.
Our gaze is met in a similar way and by a similarly posed figure in Louis Michel Eilshemius’s generically-titled A Country Scene (c. 1917). There’s a distantly-related, indeterminate quality of presence, frustrated reciprocation; her expression hard to read, holding or withholding (presenting?) something in the folds of her skirts or apron. She seems to have become suddenly conscious of herself, as if aware of her entrapment in the folksy image, or her own difference from her more schematic companions (family?). Behind her is a stall, perhaps selling flowers or berries (samples?), but which today looks like a sheltered map, as in a conservation area. In any case, the structure is a microcosm of cabin, environment and picture: to which she belongs and stands apart-from, just as the picture belongs to and transcends the limitations of its genre and its place in time. Just as, at a certain point, the picture stops being an indication towards some ‘experience’ and starts to become one in itself. In this, A Country Scene could be held up quite happily as a ‘standard’ (in all senses) for ‘Fieldwork’ itself: measuring the generic and generalized against the strikingly singular and singularized, finding a certain radicalism in ‘convention’, which is not an articulation of conservatism but of continuity. The adaptation of convention and custom with which painting articulates and offers itself as a continually present prospect, a going concern.
Carlton Place’s webpage is not showy, not an aesthetic object, nor is it meant to be. It’s a functional record, really. That these works should be on our doorstep shouldn’t be taken for granted. Nor should the space’s ongoing programme; which, in its own low-key way, continues to shape and extend ideas about painting (God knows it’s shaped these ones). Going to rooms to look at artworks is a form of fieldwork, after all. An essential one. And to be clear, this is not a show designed or redesigned in any way as a comment on the current situation. What it does demonstrate, eloquently, compellingly, is the sheer applicability and availability of complex and subtle art. Its availability at any given time. If the strained idyll of Eilshemius’s country scene reminds us of ‘distancing’ parents and children in play-parks, or Hélion’s café-market of our longing for social escape or anonymity in the crowd, or Walker’s framed interior of domestic pressures, the instability of the familiar, that’s because they are about these things in ways at once specific and expansive anyway. These meanings were there before ‘lockdown’ and they’ll be there after, along with any number of others, more or less applicable.
The sadness is that we can’t join this ‘gathering’ of pictures. And of course, there’s a danger in web presentation that the conversation between works – which should be experienced in the round and organically, across rooms – becomes prescriptive, demonstrative. That their idiosyncrasies get flattened into coherence (notice it’s ‘Fieldwork’, inverted commas, no pseudo-science here). Ever since I put your picture in a frame, the GI 2012 show to which ‘Fieldwork’ is a partial reprise, stressed the individual nature of pictures within the collective activity of painting. Here, at the other end of the telescope, the focus is more on the cross-generational connectivity and continuity of the practice, our perspective pushed by recent events to an even further remove from the individual work than was ever intended. Perhaps what we miss most in reconciling these pictures’ individual and individuated qualities with their complex tangle of interrelation is the immediacy and range of their surface and substance. How they commune materially. How Prunella Clough can use actual grit to suggest windy dispersal across her Slagheap (1958), while the striated, near-monochrome oils of Adrian Morris’s New Foundations Through a Circular Port (1974), can suggest pocked flesh; but how each is in its own way about stasis and transformation, collectivity and isolation, human frailty/strength; and that they each find this within the seemingly restrictive terms of ‘landscape painting’. So a lot’s lost. But it’s clear, even from a distance, that these are potent works of art. They make certain propositions about our experience of the world, and about their own capacity, painting’s capacity, to do so. They each do this very well on their own, but they do it even better together.
All images courtesy of 42 Carlton Place
Article banner image: Prunella Clough, Slagheap (1958)
Due to Covid-19 restrictions 42 Carlton Place is not currently open to the public. ‘Fieldwork’ was intended to coincide with Glasgow International 2020, and originally scheduled to run from April 23rd to May 24th. Documentation and details are available to view on the gallery’s website.