Surface Values, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge – a review by Jools Heyes, Art & Design Magazine, Vol 7 No 3/4 March/April 1992

Nicholas Rule, When Good and Evil had Roots, 1991 274×152.4cm

There’s a sweet revenge at work – painting, dismissed as the old lady of the art-world, is turning round and swinging her umbrella. It is now an act of some bravery to put together a show purely about this most basic element of human creativity. Surface Values… is a show examining painting, which brings together six emerging artists who choose to engage with contemporary culture by making marks on canvas.

Very little ‘meaning’ is yielded by the two contributions from Richard Ducker placed at the gallery entrance. These matt, textured surfaces resemble large, thin slabs of tinted concrete defaced with black marks. Working by association they act as pointers, signs of internal/external universes or of vague personal memories. They derive some of their inspiration from magazine pictures of planets, surveillance photographs and laboratory slides. The title of one work Gelston Point, the name of a London tower block… makes the reference to graffiti clear; the sprayed marks are straight and uncompromising evoking a feeling of controlled violence. Detail on the other hand, is wriggly and germ-like, recalling the basic building blocks of nature. One of Ducker’s aims is to express ‘order in entropy’ and through these crusty surfaces and simple marks he seems to hook back into some cavernous corner of the psyche. [No illustrations currently available.]

The theme of value through heritage and descendency is explored in Nicholas Rule’s paintings. When Good And Evil Have Roots traces a multiplying and dividing game of finely drawn lines on the flat plane. There are no clues as to its meaning outside of the title, except that the trails of thin purple paint that look like dried of watery blood give a literal interpretation to Rule’s concern with root structures and progeny. Go and Go unfolds from an ostensible concern with horse breeding. The emotional resonance of the drip (read Pollock) in these paintings combines with a chill minimalism. The essential visual element is the language of equestrian lineage which lurches across the canvas with a quasi-gothic absurdity. ‘Text as image’ also evokes art-world issues: semiotic theories combined with references to sale rooms, where art gambling is equally competitive, stakes equally high, and falls equally clumsy at the fence.

Amikam Toren Armchair Painting, Untitled, 1990, 51x61cm

Language is similarly a focus in Amikam Toren’s works, which take as their starting point amateur paintings found in junkshops and on market stalls. With the precise wound of the scalpel he deconstructs their safe signals, by cutting out from their surfaces unexpected slogans. He calls the series Armchair Paintingsbut leaves them individually ‘Untitled’, merely scarred by his imposition of absence on the surface.  The curators have sited the works mischievously around the walls in such a way that they also deconstruct the sequence of the exhibition. They pop up like question marks between other artists’ works… (reminding us that all exhibitions are framed by gallery architecture and ethos). The first thing that the visitor will pass on entering the exhibition is a discreetly placed (and possibly easily missed) Toren: a recycled landscape, old, small and decorative, but freshly defaced with the words ‘salvation diet please’. Later we find, sliced out of the surface of the sentimental rendering of a period house, the phrase ‘animal people will turn round and bite you’. Through his lacerations the artist presents us with a variety of possible readings and values concerning attitudes of observation.

Trevor Clarke, Untitled, from 4 painting set, 103x145cm

Trevor Clarke, Untitled, from 4 painting set, 103x145cm

The paintings of Trevor Clark represent a very different approach to surface value. The acceptable face of gallery art? Canvases bathed in fields of colour, strong blues and pinks with black or white rectangular centres. Minimalist abstractions with constructivist roots, they emit the meditational quality of a Rothko or a Newman, and impose the light but solid presence of Donald Judd’s sculptural installations. Because of their oppositional colours, they float and deceive the eye as it adjusts to the dramatic juxtapositions. The works are meticulously rendered in mathematical proportion of one part to three, the colour relations precisely calculated, the proposition is one of working through simplicity towards transcendence through the illusion of structure on the flat plane.

The most complex contribution to the show comes from Glen Brown who has nine works represented in three very different styles. The appropriation of Frank Aurbach and Ben Nicholson involves trompe l’oeil double-take and humorously apocalyptic titles: the Auerbach’s become Atom Age Vampire and Creeping Flesh. Painted from photographs, and concentrating on the surface of the photograph rather than the original paintings, Brown produces the illusion of texture but the actuality of absolute flatness. This overturns original notions of painterly mimesis and creates a play on the surface of a copy of a copy of an abstraction. His ‘Chimpanzee Paintings’ may be more authentic but they challenge notions of validity. Resembling children’s playschool scribbles in primary colours,  they have the addition of horrific titles such as Genital disfigurement and Lacerated arms, fingers broken. They are, interestingly as far as the question of ‘value’ is concerned, the only framed works in the show. [No illustrations currently available.]

Joanna Moss, Mornington Crescent – Rule 17 Applies, 17x13cm

Joanna Moss uses computer screens and finance as the basis for her paintings. Mornington Crescent – Rule 17 Applies directly comments on our society’s dependence on the world of abstracted figures and the money markets. It also stands as an example of the way that art is informed by culture and then feeds back into it – a treatise on the power of dominant ideologies. They are good paintings too – get close and enjoy the traces of lemon, succulent creams and blues of Schadenfreude. And don’t be too quick to dismiss the apparent banality of the source imagery. Read the words and think about them. Is it ‘Schadenfreude’ (joy at another’s misfortune) be it personal, corporate, national or global that feeds the dark soul of  our heartless global economics?

Joanna Moss Schadenfreude, 1991, 17x13cm

Through the production of our artists we can at least keep an eye on our own evolution – and possibly find new ways of dealing it. This is what vital shows like Surface Values are all about. They show that the value of the contemporary painted surface is, by the law of paradox, not in its physical shallowness but in its conceptual depth.