Sam Windett @ The Approach

Contemporary and Old Art Reviews

Sam Windett @ The Approach

Postby CAP » Wed May 07, 2014 7:18 am

I submitted this review to Abstract Critical on the 25th of April. Doesn't look like it's going to be published. Since the show ends next Tuesday, I’m publishing it here just to see if it can’t prompt a few more visitors…

Sam Windett – This Panel is That Painting at The Approach
11th April-13th May 2014

A surprising development finds the artist exchanging his familiar mix of organic and mechanical motifs, mostly on a dark ground, for diaphanous fields of broken strokes in shifting direction, articulated either by discreet shapes at the edge of the painting or careful orchestration of layers to the short, ragged strokes. Colour remains typically restrained, but the paintings now surge with an unexpected ease and confidence. Part and parcel of the change has been the adoption of a larger scale (most works are around 190 X 120cm) that gives brushwork room to breathe, gives composition greater scope.

The work is still about a deep reserve or detachment, a dry delineation of ambiguity or ambivalence, a cautious distance to object or objective. Colour, as noted, is still mostly pallid while drawing which has often been clumsy or heavy-handed where more concrete and central motifs obtain, is relieved of that burden. The work, while never imposing has always shrunk with reluctance, fidgeted with its inheritance, dithered with its deliberation, pined for some quiet niche. In truth, it is not a temperament I suspect I shall ever really warm to, but all this is refined and resolved where the work adopts a bold new layering of flickering fields, a new blurring or skipping to touch, where oil paint is now augmented with marble dust, sand and charcoal to heighten grit and tighten grip. Windett finally goes for it.

In short, the artist hits his stride, finds life beyond the tidy Surrealist conundrums over the biomorphic, geometric and mechanical in tableau, all rehearsed with a somewhat lumbering hand. Martin Herbert’s catalogue essay to the artist’s 2011 show at The Approach cited Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth and even Eileen Agar (!) as distant, respectable precedents, to which I might add Giorgio Morandi, possibly 40’s Graham Sutherland, Late Braque or Early Heron, to broaden the frame slightly. But this is still pretty timid for today’s Po-Mo Street, amounts to not much more than Modernism for nerds. And Martin, who is a bit of a Herbert, thrills at the prospect, as few others will, that the work is
‘in part a chamber for compounded transhistorical echoes, sees painting as a stage for an experience that is passage-like and haptic, that credits a viewer with a sophisticated and knowing eye for painting while sustaining a tenuous magic.’
(previous link) Well, there is tradition and then there is just train spotting.

In any case, the new work excels. Touch achieves greater expanse or passage; we depart the cosy insights of mid-twentieth century painting for less obvious, more nuanced prospects. The key move has been forsaking a figure/ground format for a more dispersed arrangement, dropping volume and tone or shading for a simpler, more orthogonal arrangement. That leaves just line really, outline filled or maintained with other widths and lengths of line, attuned to densities and accentuated by a largely monochromatic palette. Integration and differentiation of parts is now the name of the game and turn on proportion, position and a distinct symmetry. It is, assuredly, a more abstract formulation but not one promptly or consistently achieved. Smaller works to the show such as Bull (2014) and Wet Mountain (2014) maintain the earlier format, while a larger work such as X-ray (black) (2014) churns with wings or leaves, around a central axis or stake, blurs figure and ground certainly but cannot quite replace it. So what exactly are we dealing with here? The gallery press release witters on about an ‘imagined sight line down a colonnaded path or corridor with a central light’ no doubt echoing the artist’s wistful reveries at some remove, but what does an ‘imagined sight line’ mean? Are the columns and corridor also imagined? Is the light actual? Is it actually central? At best, the small, mostly red and dull disc or circle to the top of larger works seems markedly peripheral to me. Even if some such conception initially inspired the artist, there is not much left of it in the finished painting. Certainly, it is no longer foremost.

“What we have here, is a failure to communicate”, as I think Clement Greenberg famously once drawled or drooled, unless I’m mistaking him for another chain gang bully. So let‘s try a different tack. Three of the larger works are titled X-ray, not something we normally associate with architectural views, in fact typically associated with scrutiny of the body (although they have other uses, obviously). Let’s suppose X-ray (black), X-ray (pink) and X-ray (white) - all 2014 – advance a more corporeal interpretation. The outlines hardly suggest a figure intuitively of course; parts are scarcely organic, much less anatomic, at most maintain a certain amount of lateral symmetry. Yet the pictures are vertical in format, or ‘portrait orientation’ as we now say in digital jargon, suggesting less a landscape than a person. Strict divisions all arise at the edge of the picture plane or frame, reinforcing a central unity, its surging fill alive not to the circumstances of light so much as line, the bare bones to construction here revealed by a charged flash of insight.

The works thus take a figure to the limit; ground it by the slightest of margins. And figure here proposes a person on new, extremely abstract terms. The figure digests preceding layers, acquires a density of depth to parts, a personality in process, but never quite swallows the whole of the picture plane, resolves into a single level field. Great delicacy or nuance is often lavished on these slender buffer zones at the edge of the picture. Notably, it is the areas to the top half of the picture that allow sharpest, most elaborate differences. Under a portrait orientation, this zones head and arms and is accorded special treatment. They are somewhere above gut feeling, open to refinement, slight negotiation, if only a matter of lines. In X-ray (pink) the distinctive disc and short vertical shaft or aperture at the top of the picture are supplemented by a curious arc running from above the disc, across the shaft and down, perhaps as much of a cranium as need be conceded or no more than a previous conception. Interestingly, Arrowheads with Strip Lights (2014) offers a more lateral and implicitly dangerous accommodation to the body, stays further assimilation. The arrows pinpoint a deeper, more vulnerable zone. A bodily interpretation is thus at least as valid as supposedly looking up to some light source down a crowded colonnade, bereft of perspective, volume and shading, indeed rationale. Instead we dimly locate an input at the head, acknowledge an eye or idea as remote and ultimately irrelevant to deeper more sustained workings. The work at this level is about a blind conviction that takes hold once one is in touch, in the flow and at full stretch.

Whether this development will prove decisive for the artist obviously remains to be seen. It may be he needed to push the work further into abstraction in order to swing back on some new arc to figuration. It may be that new options in colour and drawing now encourage some consolidation in abstraction. Whatever the outcome, This Panel is That Painting has been a welcome departure, ticks boxes for abstraction I hardly knew existed. Whatever prompted the artist into this bleak and frankly unpromising territory, he hits upon something elegant and artless, uncompromising and yet understated, tacit and tentative. Whether this is the ‘magic’ Herbert found earlier is hard to say, but given so much routine abstraction around at the moment, it is a useful reminder of the rewards for experiment with the most basic of means.
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