Paul Morrison, ‘Michael Stubbs at Duncan Cargill Gallery’, London, UK, Contemporary Visual Arts, Issue 19, 1998

This exhibition confirms Michael Stubbs’s position as an artist of subtlety and relaxed sophistication. The seven recent paintings on show were all made by pouring household paint or yacht varnish, in loosely geometric configurations, onto a horizontal MDF support. Individual applications were allowed to dry thoroughly before the next was added. Consequently the successive viscose layers remain visible, forming a painterly low relief. This stepped effect is incredibly seductive, particularly as the tangential stress on the paint (as it flows) causes the edge of each spill to dry with a beautifully pronounced lip.

The handmade materiality of the work is simultaneously comic and lyrical. The density of the paint means that the drips and pours are unusually bulbous, resulting in a clever burlesque take on gestural painting. Psychotic and Dizzy, both 1997, are especially effective because of the cultivated use of the varnish. The viewer is presented with diaphanous overlays that simultaneously veil and re-define each other. These glace confections relate obliquely to Stubbs’s earlier stacked ‘cake’ paintings in which oil paint was extruded through specialist decorative nozzles onto canvas. He has found a convincing pictorial equivalent for the literal ‘icing’ found in previous work.

Thankfully, the mesmeric interplay of highlight, partial shadow, opacity and reflective translucency is never allowed to dominate the work. Although Stubbs is obsessed by his methodology, he cannot accurately be described as a process painter because the associative power of the colour relationships and eroded imagery is both diverse and compelling. Each piece functions like a screen that can only be glimpsed in one’s peripheral vision. Iconography appears and implodes before it can properly be deciphered. From melting grids and serial units to schematic renditions of Space Invaders and walls, the knowing allusions include both modernist painting and the fragmented material of contemporary urban life.

The work has a late-nineties artistic dynamic, prevalent in the work of several young London-based artists, that I would describe as ‘Poptimism’. Eidetic incidents that recall aspects of Op art are tempered by the graphic immediacy and cultural refraction present in Pop art. This is an expansive and optimistic approach to the vivid surface/content dialectic, and it promises to be extremely forceful. The habitual nature of the work is reinforced by the use of non-art materials. Commercial eggshell and gloss are favoured over traditional oil or acrylic paints. Board is preferred to stretched canvas. Multiple ’abstract’ and figurative references are seen through the filter of DIY décor. Funky and serious, the surfaces are suffused with high/low art differential. The paintings operate as perceptual palimpsests in which the artist overwrites modernist tropes with a playful irreverence. Stubbs’s urbane graffiti manages successfully to transform the conventional into the experimental.

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