John Bunker, Michael Stubbs at Cass Gallery, Sir John Cass School of Art & Architecture, 26 February 2013

John Bunker, Michael Stubbs at Cass Gallery, Sir John Cass School of Art & Architecture, 26 February 2013

Firstly, I’d like to share a re-occurring fantasy I have. It’s the one where abstract art suddenly becomes a vital visual challenger to the dominant hegemony of conceptually driven discourse. Abstract art becomes a piratical swashbuckling freedom fighter swinging through the masts of art history’s eternally sinking ship. It’s a version of abstraction that takes on the dead eyed zombies of the hyper-reality painting-as-cypher brigade. It elegantly duels with the maniacal painting-as-commodity fetish cohorts and those purveyors of an ‘institutional critique’ that has been so fully absorbed by the institutions they set out to critique.

So it is refreshing to get some visual ‘kicks’ from an artist like Michael Stubbs working in the idiom of abstraction who seems determined to talk about things other than the history of abstract painting. Things like the internet, the impact of violent news reports 24/7 or the potential in an unholy alliance between abstraction and popular culture. I say this because abstract art has always had problems justifying its existence and right now the current dominate mode seems to be a kind of formalism-lite; it treats history as something to be referenced to give it meaning: another series of academic boxes to tick. It asks ‘How many historical references can I cram into a painting?’ or ‘How many systemic hoops can we jump through?’ It’s a contrived rhetoric whether you call it ‘double dealing’, ‘bursting the boundaries of one’s own restrictions’, ‘reclaiming’ or ‘turning in tight corners’. At best it’s novelty. At it’s worst, the trivialisation of history. There is nothing so boring as an art form/critique that talks only to and about itself….

That said, Stubbs has forced a heady, almost sickly, sumptuous combination of glossy household paints and varnishes into a kind of dialectical tension with the post painterly abstraction of the likes of Morris Louis. Par for the post-modern course you might think… But crucially he then layers the work (not clear in reproduction – an irony I’ll return to later) adding and subtracting what looks like polyurethane plastic stencils. In a painting like ‘Grenade Head’ this process creates fascinating optical stresses and ambiguities with great use of colour. Seductive games of hiding and revealing buried imagery vie with overt signs from the history of abstraction. This process, in Stubb’s hands, remains lively and open rather than another systemic, deadening ‘strategy’. This active, engaging approach to imagery from sources exterior to abstraction’s history is a welcome visceral and sensuous foil to the dry and fallow ground ploughed over and over again in shows like ‘The Indiscipline of Painting’ from last year.

The result is gratifying in its spatial dexterity while frustrating the hunt for a resolved image. I like this frustration. At its best Stubbs’ work makes one aware of our self-reflexive negotiation with the image saturated world: it’s a reflexivity played out nicely in the smaller scale collages and drawings arranged throughout the exhibition, like subtle echoes of the larger works. This reflexive impulse, the connection it makes between the imagery of paintings and the wider world, has its roots in the very beginnings of modernity. It is something that the impulse to abstraction could still have a powerful connection with. A healthy tension between subjectivity and objectivity remains a central lynchpin to the best in abstract art. In this work painting becomes a liminal realm, a place where inner and outer realities meet in the manipulation of the chosen medium.

Stubbs’ press release talks well about these uncomfortable relationships that we are developing with new media and the internet etc. But what was intriguing about this show was the importance of the actual physical reality of the paintings. They are undeniably present, in the gallery space. The layering process is overt. Ridges of paint protrude from the masked areas of polyurethane. Their glossy surfaces reflect and distort the light from a large window that looks straight out on to Whitechapel High St. They do not glow like so many undead cyphers made to emulate the screen. All this is lost in the slick reproduction of the work that float on my screen as I write!

I want to just throw in a ghostly whisper from history that Stubbs work seems to conjure.

“The climate at the moment is fine for sensational art about issues, but less favourable for abstract art, particularly abstract painting. It seems impossible for a modern fashionable audience to find the idea of an aesthetic type of art exciting- its just too much to ask….”

That was Matthew Collings’ playful musings on the state of British abstract painting in 2001. Michael Stubbs makes me ask- What’s changed in 12 years?

All hands on deck Me Heartys!…… Charge!