Andrew Graham-Dixon, ‘Michael Stubbs; Critics View’, Artline International (Art Issues), Winter 1991/92

‘Changes in art have been taking place at such lightning speed that compared with even three years ago the current scene is virtually unrecognizable… Works intended to shock or startle scarcely stir up a query… Attitudes, styles, modes, casts of character replace one another without a struggle. All the art movements of this century, and some earlier ones, have become equally up to date. It is as if art history had decided to turn over and go to sleep’.

That was Harold Rosenberg in 1966, in the Anxious Object. If his remarks seem remarkably appropriate to the ‘current scene’ in 1991 that may be because the circumstances of art now reflect those of the later 1960’s with such odd symmetry. When Rosenberg was writing, Abstract Expressionism had just been succeeded by Pop and Minimal Art. The anxious object had been displaced by objects which seemed to speak of anything but anxiety. In our fin-de-siecle return of that particular aesthetic shift, the artists involved are different but the pattern is the same. After the angst, the cool; after Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Minimalism and Neo-Pop. The modern cool, being a cooled down version of a previous cool, is doubly refrigerated: super cool you might say. Anxiety may never have been less fashionable.

Michael Stubbs’ paintings look super-cool and do not give the impression of tremendous struggle. The momentous shift in his art to date could be described as the product of gastronomic rather than aesthetic decision: he has stopped making pictures that look like wedding cakes and switched to making paintings that look like Bakewell tarts.

Stubbs’ earlier paintings look like cakes but also, in their deadpan way, seem to allude to the painterly abstraction of artists like Robert Ryman or Jasper Johns. They are sweet sugary things, but have an aftertaste of High Art. A commentary of sorts may be inferred. They seem to suggest that this is what we have come to – that these days we can’t take too much intensity, that something as awkward and unpalatable as serious abstract painting has to be sugar-coated for modern consumption.

Stubbs more recent paintings look like Bakewell tarts but they too carry their freight of pictorial reference: one looks like an edible Bridget Riley, another rather like a Frank Aurbach. They are generally less tasteful, less enticing than his earlier work. Stubbs has become more of a painter, maybe, and less of a patissier. It is hard to be a painter these days because so much of the language feels worn, used up. Perhaps a style, now, is something that can only be approached on tiptoe. It seems to me that that is what Michael Stubbs is doing at the moment, and that is why he is unusual. These paintings are sensual and they are beautifully handled. In the end, they are not super-cool at all, although there is something guarded about their wittiness. They are nervous, self-questioning pictures. They are anxious objects.

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