John Chilver, ‘Michael Stubbs: Decorative Delirium’, Laurent Delaye Gallery, London, UK, solo exhibition catalogue, 2010
For twenty years Michael Stubbs has been growing up in public. In that time his path has taken in several conceptions of what painting is and might become. The Stubbs of 2010 is a painter of fluidity. Yet it’s a fluidity that is never untroubled or unfettered. The pours and drips that announce this fluidity work to compose clustered veils of translucent colour that are never quite permitted to luxuriate in their own chromatic and dispersive intensities. Instead they are always interrupted and cut short in their lyrical rhythms by the fragmented signs that slice through the paintings. These fragmentary signs are sometimes texts – as when some recent paintings use the word ‘virus.’ More often they are conventionalised graphics of, for example, a grenade or lambchop. These elements that interrupt the fluid qualities of the paintings are central to the excess at work here. The excess is crucial to the feel of the paintings. It lends the work its very particular charge. Its heady sense of decorative delirium. We will need to return to the matter of this delirium in what follows.
The paintings over the last decade or so have indicated an undeniable link to the stained colourfield paintings done by Morris Louis towards the end of the 1950s. Just as Morris’s technique – borrowed from Helen Frankenthaler – of staining into raw cotton duck fabric removed any direct sense of the painter’s touch from the work, so Stubbs’s pours of commercial paint and his development of pours of tinted floor varnish produce ultra-fluid areas that do not testify to the painter’s hand. But even more in his use of transparent veils of colour Stubbs echoes Louis though in a different register. Morris Louis was never exactly a cool painter. Not like the young Frank Stella nor even like his own friend and peer Kenneth Noland who has recently died. Compared to the work of Pollock, to which he was reacting and by means of which he calibrated the ambition and idiom of his painting, Louis seemed to lighten the load upon painting. There was a lyrical purity in Louis’s abstraction that cast aside the existential dramatics of Pollock or de Kooning or even Barnett Newman. Louis’s sweeping poured stains of course placed the paint process centre-stage, but not at all in the Pollock-de Kooning mode: Louis’s process didn’t stand for the psychodrama of the painter. For a moment it seemed that Louis had found a way to simplify and distil abstraction and get rid of its rhetorical freight without making it facile or reducing it to sheer conception or design, as Stella arguably was soon to do. Louis of course died too young in 1962. Something of his idiom remained evident in the longer careers of Noland, Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski, but by almost anyone’s estimate, this art very soon became one of diminishing returns.
This group of painters were perhaps the last to be understood by themselves and their contemporaries within a grand developmental scheme of the kind associated with Clement Greenberg’s criticism. Certainly abstraction has continued unbowed ever since, but for a long, long time after the mid-1960s it seemed to face a Hobson’s choice between minimalism and oblivion. If we understand minimalist painting as an art of the grid and of the monochrome – as in Agnes Martin or Brice Marden or Olivier Mosset – then we thereby define it as an art devoid of energy gradients or what we could call ‘highs and lows’. The whole rhetoric of minimalism was about surpassing the games of highs and lows, where composition would stress some areas while underplaying others, and instead creating fields of robust sameness where every section of a painting was affectively equal to every other. This was the role of the grid: to neutralise energy gradients and banish composition from painting. In this sense a minimalist painting is one in which energy is equalised across every square inch of the canvas.
Arguably the sovereignty of minimalism lasted pretty much intact up to the early 1980s, when it was undone first by the frequently regressive and sentimental ‘new image painting,’ a.k.a. the Transavantguardia, and then second and more interestingly by Neo-Geo, a dubious journalistic monicker for a motley group of Americans including Jeff Koons, Jonathan Lasker, Peter Halley, Ashley Bickerton, Ross Bleckner and others. But even in Halley’s ‘conduit paintings’ or Bleckner’s stripe paintings the respect paid to minimalist norms still loomed large. It remained very difficult to identify convincingly contemporary abstract painters anywhere who were operating outside the minimalist sphere of reference. Looking back, Mary Heilman was a rarity in this regard.
I suspect that the Neo-Geo experience – which was available on tap at Saatchi’s vast Boundary Road space in the late 1980s – was the single decisive influence on a generation of British artists who surfaced around 1990, including Michael Stubbs. In the show that first forged his artistic identity in 1991 at the influential Nicola Jacobs Gallery, Stubbs exhibited an extraordinary group of paintings each made of a stack of canvases with thick paint oozing out between them, their uppermost surfaces unambiguously decorated like a cake, with oil applied through icing funnels. These remarkable works – which should surely by now appear in at least one of our major public collections – deftly pulled off the trick of occupying and simultaneously satirising a milieu without being straightforwardly resolvable as some kind of anti-painting. The ‘cake paintings’ that first announced Stubbs as a new voice wove a dialogue around minimalism, decoration, art commerce, Neo-Geo, and Jasper Johns that was unexpected and exhilarating.
Stubbs moved on quickly. As I see it he moved in a number of steps towards overcoming the grid and the monochrome – in short, overcoming the minimalist legacy. In retrospect, some of those steps, such as the series of poured grids of the mid-90s, sound like deliberately demented thought experiments. But they were necessary moves. Necessary thoughts. As Stubbs had gleaned from the cake paintings, there is a lot to be had in painting from the kind of crude thinking that blossoms into dumb-sounding thought experiments.
On the far side of those experiments, Stubbs has spent the last ten years developing a complex and consistent body of work that revisits the link to Morris Louis for a different time with a different mood. To script his current practice as another dumb thought experiment, it might be along these lines: imagine re-playing the poured colour veils of Louis and accelerating and then exploding them across a field of graphic signs. What would it feel like? What would it mean? And what would it open up? The answer to the last question is a lot. The conjunction of signs and veils corresponds to a combination of processes in the paintings in which coloured veils are poured and signs are marked by the removal of templates. In terms of paint application the veils are made positively and additively, whereas the signs are made negatively and subtractively.
One way to approach these paintings is in terms of layering. Obviously it’s a layering technique, with templates put down and pours applied over them and the templates removed, and the whole cycle repeated until a final decision is reached about the painting. So we are in no doubt about the material layers that we are seeing. But I’m not only talking about material layers here. I’m talking about virtual or, as I’d prefer to say, pictorial layers. Sometimes these coincide with actual physical applications of paint so that the material layer is the same as the pictorial layer. But painting as such has always been about a pictorial layering of the image that is discontinuous with the actual matter of the paint surface.
In Stubbs’s current work, I see a consistent attempt to re-think the pictorial layering of the contemporary image. Odd as it might seem, this has a certain degree of common purpose with the aggressively material layering of the young Julian Schnabel in the early 1980s, as well as with the emphatically de-materialised painterly depth of Stubbs’s close friend and colleague, Glenn Brown. What can be considered common here is the sense of layering pictorial strata ‘on top of’ the monochrome that was inherited from minimalism. For Schnabel this meant sticking antlers, plates and other stuff onto the canvas. For Brown it has come to mean fashioning clumps of illusionistic brushmarks that end up being behind the picture plane. Stubbs’s position is like a hybrid of these two. His layers are somehow simultaneously on top of the monochrome, on top of each other, and behind the picture plane. In this way too the paintings propose a move beyond the settled confines of the post-minimalist terrain, with its familiar materialist affirmation of the monochrome. For Stubbs those values of late modernist materialism have come to lack complexity.
The work the paintings do is very much about winning through to a moment of dynamic complexity. And what is so particular to it is the evidence that everything is risked – nothing seems to be exempted from risk in making these paintings. The process is additive for sure, but not exactly cumulative. Along the way – you feel – every mark, every layer, every colour, every edge is capable of being erased, wiped, overpainted. It’s striking then that the arrival at complexity seems to happen without it having been a destination.
What is this complexity? What does it do? What does it complicate? I’ve described how the paintings combine a dual process of masking and pouring and how that results in constant interruptions of the pours by masked edges. This in turn creates distinct domains or ‘eco-systems’ in the paintings. What do I mean by eco-systems? Imagine driving down a road. There’s the world of the inside of the car, which could be social, but also ergonomic, to do with monitoring and controlling the vehicle, and also gaseous and physiological, to do with breathing and the exchanges of oxygen and nitrogen and carbon inside the car; outside the cocoon of the car there is a domain of air currents, eddies and swirls, of turbulences and currents which constitutes a separate system. The real point about this extended metaphor is that these different ‘eco-systems’ are simultaneously connected and unconnected; they neighbour one another in space and time, they act upon each other, but they are also operationally enclosed and apart. The world inside the car affects but does not touch the world outside. These different ‘eco-systems’ are different in kind. They affect one another without ever really colliding. This is how to understand the complexity in Stubbs’s paintings, as an exorbitant, almost ungraspable complexity where the different ‘eco-systems’ irritate one another and cause each other to stutter without ever properly meeting. This is nothing like the complexity of fractals, where the smaller parts and bigger aggregates remain morphologically alike. This complexity is one of abrupt discontinuities and jolting shifts of gear, where the terms of meaning and feeling can be re-cast at any moment.
Complexity comes at a price. The point here is that logically the ‘eco-systems’ of the distinct painting processes cannot truly encounter one another for the simple reason that the pour, for instance, doesn’t translate into the terms of the masked crop, and vice versa. You could call it insolubility. It goes both ways. The tides of pours can’t dissolve the hard masked edges. But nor can the hard edges conquer the pictorial field decisively for a more comprehensive, quantifiable, graphic regime. This isn’t homeopathy, the ancient medicine of treating same with same. It’s heteropathy. But it’s a pictorial heteropathy in which the viruses and other pathogens are permanently resistant. In terms of painting this complexity of separate eco-systems is a like a high wire act. The risks are immense. Many paintings have to be scrapped along the way. Why make life so complicated? The answer I suppose lies in an attitude to the world and to painting’s condition in that world. The paradise of coloured pours we associate with Morris Louis is not available to Stubbs. For him that would be a false, or at any rate, an obsolete sublime. It would be a world of false stability. If the complexity of Stubbs’s painting has to do not just with differences, but with different dimensionalities disrupting each other’s effects, then it indicates a world of endless instability. Painting’s role in this is both to unpeel the moment of complexity as an instant when an authentic pleasure is condensed, and to remain vigilant for whatever tectonic shifts and aftershocks may follow.
The mention of endless instability leads back to the motif of delirium. Earlier that was introduced in connection with the decorative impulse in the paintings. The paintings propose a decorative excess. It’s excessive in its overload of visual detail, of information, also of styles of information (the complexity of the ‘eco-systems’), and in that there are evidently so many layers of paint. But then every component part of the elaborated performance turns out itself to be excessive. The borrowed graphics are in themselves ornate and excessive. They are never the lean linear forms of purified graphic communication. The individual pours too contain their own excess. All of this is contained in the notion of decorative delirium, the tenor of which has to do partly with the violent rootlessness and mutability associated with the intensified complexity of the work. It has to do also with a baroque attitude to the era of the world wide web, in which digitally encoded images are exchanged as readily as any other coded symbols. The paintings dwell in this networked superabundance. They also testify to its levelling effect by treating pours, masks, colours, icons, emblems and words as equal citizens in the democracy of information bytes. Again it’s worth stressing that the paintings do not propose that these diverse materials are interchangeable, since they remain strictly lodged within their separate and untranslatable ‘eco-systems.’ But they irritate each other. They all lay claim equally to value.
In a spirit of rootless baroque elaboration, the paintings perform their decorative delirium. They are delirious in being endlessly, insistently re-iterative and in their sheer pitch and quantity. The outcome is different to the modernist trope of the decorative as exemplified by a patterned tablecloth or wallpaper, both of which emphasize the literal surface as something laterally extendable. The decorative effect here instead is intimately linked to a proliferation of layers in which any element can either be hidden by a later addition or punctured from below by something underlying it. The affirmation of the decorative is intrinsic to the ambition of these paintings. For the decorative in Stubbs’s work stands for the rootlessness of painting, for the need to concoct it upon a ‘groundless ground,’ to conjure it up out of nothing, yet conjure it as style and as a composition of stylised pictorial phrases. This results in a paradoxical conception of painting as being kind of (but not quite) autonomous and kind of (but not quite) anchored in realities outside those of painting. It can’t be properly autonomous for Stubbs because it is always affected by everything else in the culture, especially technological change. But nor can painting be anchored in other realities, since it can only incorporate stuff (e.g. the graphic signs in these works) that resembles or is easily translatable into the terms of painting.
I’ve tried in these paragraphs to convey how Michael Stubbs’s paintings jeopardise themselves in order to come into being at all. It’s not just a risk-bound practice. It’s also one that proposes to stylise risk as such. The collision of risk and style is heady. And necessary. It marks the particular ambition of these paintings.