8th November - 1st December 2012

Opening: 8th November 2012

Douglas Abercrombie; new paintings:
Peter Hide; new sculptures

Douglas Abercrombie

Peter Hide

Douglas Abercrombie; new paintings: Peter Hide; new sculptures

Density of Relation.

It is Cézanne’s feeling that determined the form of his pictorial structure. It is his pictorial structure that gives off his feeling. If all his pictorial structures were to disappear from the world, so would a certain feeling.

Robert Motherwell, Beyond the Aesthetic, 1946

In this exhibition are paintings by Douglas Abercrombie and sculptures by Peter Hide, all made during the last two years. Linked by scale, success, abstraction and the use of the cubic or the rectilinear, both sets of work also belong within traditions of abstract art that are, at the very least, well established. The areas of colour Abercrombie arrays across his pictures are involved with those of, amongst others, Nicolas de Staël or Hans Hofmann; the sculptures Hide shows here, one of which is loosely based on classical Hindu sculpture, extend the sculptural languages established by Picasso, González, Smith and Caro.

Beyond what could be described as their lateness, the work of both artists embodies a distinct relation to time. Abercrombie’s pictures imply something like a coming into being or show us a present that is open and luxurious, transient and fragile; Hide’s sculptures establish a withdrawal that is both stubborn and refined, suggesting a standing-against, an involvement in long duration. This formulation may be a little ‘tricksy’, reaching for ‘meaning’ in a way which does a disservice to their abstraction, putting far too tight a limit on the resonances that their work has; but perhaps it is in part this relation to time which ensures their work is much more than just a skillful working within already existing visual languages. Though their means are almost exclusively formal, form is not employed for its own sake, and what is compelling about the work is the depth and clarity with which their structures can express feeling.

The paintings by Abercrombie are all basically rectilinear. They all imply a grid but are not restricted by this, or at least the restrictions do not become oppressive. Partly this can be explained by his feel for colour and his ability to make it work spatially. Rather than flattening space, his grids seem to exist in space, permeated by it.

His colour choices are often surprising. He has a predilection for the artificial hues that, as it were, come naturally to the acrylic paint he has used for most of his career. But this artificiality does not preclude a sensual richness and can generate naturalistic effects with seeming ease. We can see a real delight in the way he uses colour to create shifts in scale, and in how his structures move effortlessly from light to dark and back again. Though at times they contain glimpses of large vistas or infinite horizons, there is an intimacy which is a feature even of his larger works. It is a quality which perhaps explains why I have been reminded of his painting whilst looking at Italian Primitive panels in the National and or at Pieter de Hooch’s two small paintings in the Wallace Collection. Intimacy sits strangely in the work of a painter strongly influenced by the self-aggrandising statements of Abstract Expressionism and it is likely that an understanding of Abercrombie’s originality - the particular feeling his structures contain - would need to consider this seeming contradiction.

As important as his use of colour, and really inseparable from it, is the way Abercrombie handles paint. The range and spontaneity of his touch - free but never unrestrainedly gestural - means that for him a grid, or any format, is not something unthinkingly repeated and imposed on each painting, after which the real work can begin. Instead it is as if a format exists prior to each painting as a set of potential elements or, better, a flexible set of coordinates, which can give and stretch in all manner of ways whilst retaining their basic identity. What matters is how the whole is knitted together; how each bar, expanse, dash or dot of colour comes together and creates a particular set of relations.

That Abercrombie is able to push format painting past its limitations partly explains why pictures that may have felt familiar more than four decades ago can seem so fresh, so newly created. The excitement of looking at them is in part one of seeing the different ways he can move past format: how a structural column becomes a void; or how one panel moves beyond its confines and threatens to erase the rest of the painting.  Throughout his career, certainly since he moved away from ‘hard-edge’ in the early seventies, this formal ability has often been accompanied by an evocation of  time - slowly passing, caught in a flash or in abeyance - which a restricted formalism struggles to describe. Colour smoulders or glimmers in his paintings; it can emerge from the edge of a brushstroke as light passes through a crack in an opening door. At times there is a sense of revelation, as if his structures were on the edge of shedding off inchoateness. Perhaps the attraction of his painting is how he is able to contain these intimations (overblown when written down) in structures that remain crafted, expedient and matter-of-fact.

In notes to the sculptures in this exhibition Hide writes they ‘are based on the idea of containment’. I think we could extend this to say that this containment, and the boundaries it involves, exists between contraction and expansion; and that this opposition goes hand in hand with the sculptures’ defensive stance. In a narrow and restrictedly ‘Art’ sense it could be said it is ‘Sculpture’ that is being defended, involving a desire to return to sculpture some of the formal values which Hide, and others of his generation, thought had been lost in the spatially open constructions of the sixties, from which their work had sprung, and to which it still returns, in both a spirit of continuation and contestation. In a broader and more interesting sense, containment and defense become part of the sculptures’ deeper content, the particular feeling which their formal relations establish in the world.

Sculpture as an entwining of defense and containment has long been a theme in Hide’s art. At first in was related to a minimalist division of space, limited and materialist; then in sculptures like Advance, 1975, it began to take on wider, and perhaps too quickly reached, symbolic connotations. It receives its longest running exposition in the series of upright sculptures which form the backbone of his work, first hinted at in some of his structural literalist sculpture of the late sixties, before beginning to fully emerge in sculptures such as Zenith, 1975. Hide suggests his 1975 sculpture Pomeroy, in orientation like a cube with two of its opposing sides removed, is one of the first to explore the particular expression of containment found in the works in the current exhibition; that is, without the symbolic connotations of uprightness. Hide sees Pomeroy as rooted in an ‘intense experience of landscape when I lay on my stomach and looked over the edge of a precipice into the cube-like space of a contained little valley, here and there dotted with trees, a landscape in a box, or perhaps forms threatening to burst out of a box’

What is telling about Hide’s description is the way that the body – physical more than upright - is integrated with the normally opposed scales of landscape and with still-life. The density of this integration and the way it works in a sense in spite of the elements of which it comprises is central to Hide’s sculptures. More important than the simple existence of resemblance is the feel of the relations of which the sculptures comprise; or rather what matters is the extent to which any resemblances they may have are filtered - forced might be more accurate - through  the sculptures’ formal relations. There is a sense of the elements existing as solid masses; here we can see why Hide considers himself a carver as much as a constructor. Though at root still an art of arrangement, crucial to Hide’s sculpture is that structure is forced through material, felt within each individual element, not just in the relations between them. It is in this forcing and melding together that the temporal aspect of Hide’s work originates; it is what gives his work its feeling of endurance and of defensiveness, its astringency and its ill-at-ease elegance.

Sam Cornish

September 2012