David Ryan



David Ryan
Photograph 2005


David Ryan
Whitechapel 2006






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That painting as a discipline can provide a ground for contemporary art practice is almost indisputable: no longer defining a privileged position or a necessary lineage of avant-garde achievement, but on the other hand remaining unique in its potential for developing form. How a painting might develop such approaches to form is an intriguing question in itself. Because ‘form’ or ‘formal’ within the context of painting has strong associations with its specific traditions; and the current reaction against the formal has been to embrace, with a vengeance, the imagery or milieu of popular culture with all its attendant narrative or anecdotal overtones. If formal qualities are foregrounded at all, then it is to act out some form of cathartic relationship to the past, and to frame an engagement with memory, loss, or lack in some way. In the context of the present exhibition, form is positioned as both vividly present together with forging a potential free play with connotation and attendant construction of meaning. This works in a variety of ways. While it may construe a commentary on modernist syntax, generally, it avoids irony. If painting is being addressed specifically here, then it acts as a multifaceted model informing practices both within and without its borders. Together with this, the notion of painting as a potential site for the ‘transferral’ into other media, and the focus on form or the formal, does, of course, inaugurate a very concrete relationship with its past.
Many different types of formalism have persisted within modernism – we might think of the Russian Formalist positions and their emphasis on opacity and materiality, the English formalism of Roger Fry and Clive Bell et al, of ‘significant form’, through to Clement Greenberg’s more familiar approach. With hindsight, oddly enough, Greenberg the ‘arch modernist’ has surprisingly more in common with the19th century music critic Eduard Hanslick (like Greenberg, a brilliant essayist) who argued a case for ‘absolute music’. This position expected music to be rigourously self-referential in its forms – rather than the literary ‘debasements’ of a Liszt or Wagner. Lamenting the arrival of Liszt’s symphonic poems, Hanslick suggested that they “Denied to music more completely than ever before its independent sphere, and dosed the listener with a sort of vision-promoting medicine.”1 This could be Greenberg, over 100 years later, ruing the intrusion of the non-visual within ‘avant-gardist practice’! Yet, this sphere of self-reflexive operations in terms of the medium and the idea of a resulting opacity in relation to narrative (not necessarily a refusal per se but certainly not an acquiescence to becoming an ‘easy vehicle’ for established codes of ‘communication’) continues to establish a touchstone for aspects of thinking ‘within’ form. Of course, this in turn becomes its own narrative: but can we really have form as a ‘mute’ intervention into the realm of signs and symbols? It’s a nice idea – but recent practice has shown the difficulty of unscrambling intertwined lexicons of form – from the levelled and almost undifferentiated field of TV, advertising, pop culture and its writing and, of course, contemporary art. It has been almost common practice to work with this blurring and to develop – in Hal Foster’s terms – a strategy of the ‘incongruent’2 . Contemporary painting is full of this tendency towards the ‘incongruent’: temporally displaced images on the cusp of being something other than they are, pricking a mnemonic strata buried deep; or at its worst like a mould awaiting completion by a (sometimes all too obvious) denouement. Yet ‘non-representational‘ form itself cannot be wheeled out as an alternative or antidote to all this – it too shares the same cultural structures and social perspectives. T.W. Adorno, famously, suggested that form was in fact content having long lost its memory. A memory, that is, of its reason for being – its direct relation to the social. Perhaps this is why recent non-representational painting has looked to its historical allegiances with architecture. In this arena, architecture must invest its energies into formal issues – and yet clearly has to examine how they impact upon the social environment itself. It would be wrong of course to consider architecture devoid of its own narrative devices (with explicit use of these in, for example, Rem Koolhaas’ practice to name but one) or that its own procedures don’t result in a sometimes colossal dysfunction (David Adjaye’s ‘Ideas Store’ in Whitechapel unintentionally spelling out a bizarre misfit between formal building and its local social flow). Nevertheless, architecture still provides a possible fusion between utopianism and pragmatism which can motivate non-representation. In a straightforward sense, the gallery as architecture has transformed itself into a multiple of uses: ritualistic sign, container, and blank surface. It calls to be destabilised by what is presented within and upon it. The gallery becomes receptive to the kind of space familiar to painting itself: a virtual, sometimes utopian commentary on the literal. Such propositions suggest the particularity of practices entwined in a potential annotation on form and accentuating its configuration within varying spatial and temporal practices. The question is how these are particularised through the specific attempt of dialogue or openness, whereby each work is porous in some way. This is where the present work parts company with those traditions of formalism mentioned earlier. It is also set apart from the various modes of institutional critique with which we have been familiar over the last two or three decades - these are concerned with the representational registers consciously unfolded and unpacked by examining particular structures and spaces. It is here, in the process of ‘revealing’ the workings of a specific institution, that the artwork became an ever more transparent layer - a frame which allows us to see a particular space. What has often been left out of the equation in the name of critique is the sense of excess, perhaps even pleasure, and another mode of intervention - not just in the social, but also the plastic sense.
On a more general level, this project - albeit in an oblique way - also suggests various responses to what Henri Lefebvre called “the double determinants” of space. These are referred to as components of an engagement with space, but also treated as material: “Because they arise between the (material) body/subject and the (material) mirror object.”3 Suggesting here, a constant negotiation between the corporeal and grounded body and its perceptions and relations to the spatial events which impact upon it. This is seen as dynamic and complex; absorbing the dense layering of perceptual and representational data. It is irreducible, therefore, to the ‘essence’ of an ontological position or the endless ‘play of the signifier’. Lefebvre elucidates this double play as follows:


Consciousness of oneself and of the other, of the body and of the abstract realm of otherness and becoming-other (alienation)...time, the immediate (directly experienced, hence blind and unconscious) link between repetition and differentiation. Lastly, space with its double determinants: imaginary/real, produced/producing, immediate/mediated (milieu/transition) connection/separation, and so on.”


I refer to these ideas from Lefebvre in order to underline some of the possibilities of thinking around spatiality without the intervention of images; what is raised here are various questions around the nature of the abstract, and the kinds of experience it potentially unfolds. How do we approach this kind of encounter? On one level we can point to it as a kind of differential, an interruption to the flow of the everyday, but also one that potentially illuminates it. If it provides a ‘mirror-image’ then it is one of distortion, allowing a sense of self-alienation that in turn permits reflection. And yet, such a reflection is never divorced from the ‘representational tissue’ which forms and informs both concrete space and the potential for working within and upon that space. Here, again, we arrive at a ‘space’ of abstraction, which approaches both ideas and materials in-process and therefore distinguished from the kinds of conceptual strategies which have dominated and continue to dominate the field of contemporary art practice.
David Ryan
1 Eduard Hanslick. (1854/1885) Vom Musikalisch-Schönen. Translated in 1891 by Gustav Cohen as: The Beautiful in Music. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1957.
2 Hal Foster, Design and Crime and Other Diatribes, Verso, London/New York 2002.
3 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Blackwell, Oxford 1991.