Critique | ‘In and of Itself – Abstraction in the Age of Images’

Royal Hibernian Academy; 18 November 2022 – 29 January 2023

Helen G Blake, Elysian Fields, 2022, oil on linen, 40 x 50cm; image courtesy of the artist and the RHA. Helen G Blake, Elysian Fields, 2022, oil on linen, 40 x 50cm; image courtesy of the artist and the RHA.

What can one say about an exhibition of abstract art? When faced with the seemingly inscrutable gestures and processes revealed in works positioned at an apparent remove from naïve representation, it’s a more than fair question, asked not only by the casual viewer, but the professional critic too. The challenge it poses is whether the asking constitutes an end or a beginning to our engagement with the abstract work presented. 

A useful route out of the impasse is provided by Rosalind Krauss in her 1979 essay, ‘Grids’, which attributes to the grid an announcement of modern art’s “will to silence.”1 More precisely, she begins her discussion by describing the use of grids in modernist paintings, telling us that “the barrier it has lowered between the arts of vision and those of language has been almost totally successful in walling the visual arts into a realm of exclusive visuality and defending them against the intrusion of speech.”2 Baldly stated in today’s tech terms, modern art’s resistance to explication is not a bug: it’s a feature.

Approaching this show with Krauss in mind, we might say that the best thing to do, then, is to just look, and look closely. Upon entering the gallery, we first encounter the most atypical works of the whole bunch, a trio of wooden sculptures by Michael Warren, in which a delicate tension is maintained between formal austerity and the warm seductiveness of the materials: elm, oak, Spanish walnut. To the right we see a trio of large, shaped paintings by Richard Gorman. Two ovals and a large semi-circular work, composed of multiple canvasses, build upon a well-established vocabulary of colourful geometric counterpoint, done with a playfulness made even more explicit by the title of this grouping: the dead cat bounce.

Directly opposite is another trio of works, this time by Charles Tyrell; large canvasses, the paint scraped and heavily worked over, forcing the dominant grey-white muted tones to be offset by traces and hints of under-layers in black, green, red and indigo. They also mark the appearance of a particular form that re-emerges frequently in the show – the very form that, not coincidently, Krauss was most concerned with in her essay. Tyrell’s grids here have a strong three-dimensional quality. The lines feel almost etched out of the textured foreground and the grids have a torqued undulating quality that appear quite sculptural, especially when considered alongside Ellen Duffy’s delightful, free-standing, tubular pieces made from wire grid and coloured cord, as well as Corban Walker’s characteristically precise arrangements, particularly Untitled (Stack K) (2010) and Untitled (2×3 Cut Stack @ 116 Lafayette) (2022).

Throughout ‘In and of Itself’, grids are one of those things that, once seen, can’t be unseen. They appear everywhere – here submerged, there to the forefront, at times fragmentary, and other times continuous. In a pair of large canvases by John Noel Smith, a contrast between geometric forms and loose, messy paint-runs initially directs our attention, but these gestures are unified by the underlying grid formations that appear and disappear like traces of a fifteenth-century drawing machine. Both Taffina Flood, and in particular, Tinka Bechert, utilise a multiplicity of forms and strategies in strong colours, dominated by wide brush swerves and turns on the canvas, but here and there the grid cuts through, as colours and shapes vie for dominance. 

Striking a different note, Helen Blake, Ronnie Hughes, and Samuel Walsh each present works characterised by a greater focus on discipline and control. All three seem to combine strategies variously associated with artists like Agnes Martin, Bridget Riley, Sol Lewitt and Brice Marden. In each of their works, grid formations dominate the entirety of the visual field, running from edge to edge in all directions. The grid is a remarkable form in that it is simultaneously emblematic of a certain finitude – a set of defined limits and controls of space – but also suggestive of a system that can, in theory, extend and continue to infinity. This feature is at the heart of its valence for modern art since, according to Krauss, the grid can be utilised in the artwork to underpin either a centripetal logic that controls and maps all that falls with terrain of the artwork, or it can facilitate a centrifugal logic in which “the work is presented as a mere fragment, a tiny piece arbitrarily cropped from an infinitely larger fabric.”3 

Thus, Krauss is suggesting that the grid has the power to either cut off the artwork from the world around it, or to articulate a certain continuity between the work and the world. This is, I think, a valuable prism through which to view the works on show here, not only because of the grid’s prevalence, but also the manner in which the show is framed by the curator, RHA Director Patrick T. Murphy. The press release tells us that the works are wholly not representational; that they are each “self-referential; dealing with shape, colour, geometry, materiality, scale and weight” and more intriguingly, “the selection was made in the rigorous pursuit of abstraction and not the abstracted.” Self-referentiality is of course a classic statement of modern art since at least Abstract Expressionism, but a simple distinction between abstraction and ‘the abstracted’ is a little harder to unpack. 

To my mind, one of the more interesting aspects, if not indeed a strength, of the show is just how hard it is to keep representation completely submerged. Grids can direct us both inwards and outwards; likewise, few works in this show seem wholly cut off from the world in which they take shape. The generally bright palette, with traces of neon and aerosol spray; the vigorous and varied movements of the paints; the use of all kinds of sculptural materials: these features animate a set of works begotten less by abstraction and more, to my mind, by the amalgamation of impressions flooding in from street and screen. Perhaps abstraction no longer stands in heroic opposition to the swamp and inundation of imagery that is the everyday. Perhaps it’s simply that our everyday experience, with its banks of screens and algorithmic intensities, has itself grown more abstract.

Aengus Woods is a philosopher and critic based in Meath.

1 Rosalind Krauss, ‘Grids’, October, Vol. 9 (Summer, 1979) p 50.

2 ibid, p 50.

3 ibid, p 60.