A Public Skin
Joan Nelson, Bassam Al‑Sabah, Alex Olson, Alteronce Gumby & Rashaad Newsome
1 September – 1 October 2022
Andy Warhol’s infamous 1966 claim that anyone seeking traces of authorship in his work need only look at the surface of his paintings, sculptures and films – “there I am. There’s nothing behind it” – is only really infamous if you think of surfaces as superficial, or of superficiality as something not worth thinking about. Superficiality is only skin deep anyway: any painting is two surfaces touching, like hands in prayer, a hidden support and a visible outer skin. Applying the latter to the former is a matter of masking or concealment, with all the suggestive potential that brings to mind. It’s in the gap between the two that the approaches of the artists on show here come to life. The aim is not to disentangle them but to see one in terms of the other, to hold the private support and the public surface in productive tension. Painting, here, is the guiding metaphor, despite the range of media on show: its interplay of skins is the territory we’re in.
In the practices of the artists on display, the public skin of the artwork’s surface slips easily into metaphors of the public self, one understood through shifting accounts of a contingent subject. Bassam Al-Sabah’s I AM ERROR acts as a kind of skeleton key for the exhibition as a whole. A protagonist tumbles and turns through sequences of unstable digital landscapes, each one seeming to generate parallel transformations in the figure’s physical form. Where the single player narrative structure of the video draws associations with a video game avatar (and Al-Sabah’s collage of aesthetics is its own kind of alternative history of the medium), its perpetual dissolution and reformation performs that friction of the skin and the subject, pulling them apart only to witness their slow coagulation. Sculptural objects expand the video’s imaginative territory into our own space, breaching the limits of the fictional and implicating our own bodies into its exploration of selves in flux. Al-Sabah’s assertion of the fluid surface as nevertheless capable of containing the shape of a self, carries forward into the other works in the exhibition.
In Rashaad Newsome’s collages, the complexities of surface and material become sites of exploration, the means of unpacking the artist’s address to fictive constructions of race in contemporary America. If race’s surface is a projection – something imposed from outside, a form of reading – then Newsome’s cyborg bodies can stand for an evasion of that kind of containment in language. Neither one thing nor the other, signalling abstraction while figuring bodies, they imagine surfaces – actual skin, actual bodies – as sites of appropriation. Pattern and decoration, for Newsome, becomes a means of scrambling the signals. These images refuse to be read through: instead, they scatter attention across their surfaces, and by doing so remind us that surface is itself a mesh of disordered desires and projections.
In painting, what takes place between the conjoined surfaces of skin and support becomes an opportunity to probe at its languages and find possibility there. In Alex Olson’s paintings, marks of the brush rub up against the weave of the canvas in such a way as to retain the agency of both elements. As in Newsome’s collages, at stake here is the nature of our ‘reading’, as our engagement is relentlessly short-circuited by formal decisions that undermine what we thought we saw. Paint dragged in different directions within the same colour zone, revealed in the turn of light; lumps of paint (what the artist calls, beautifully, ‘glops’) that suggest a lack of finish, yet are carefully toned in relation to the painting. Surface effects, in other words, remain just that, and in doing so render their outer skins active, sites that won’t resolve.
Similar oscillations unfold in Joan Nelson’s paintings. Landscapes are seen from a strangely disembodied point of view, like sites in a remembering mind. Nelson’s paintings reiterate landscape’s relationship to memory, both in the history of representation – allusions to landscape imagery of the past haunt her works – and in our own recollections of the sites we have occupied. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that her landscapes feel at once knowable (tactile, olfactory) and distant. Scratches of a brush’s bristles, etched patterns on a rocky outcrop, forms emerging from beneath other forms: all of these make attention itself a subject, so that, as in Olson’s paintings, a kind of self-reflexivity emerges. The effects of surface get recast as a means of enlivening, making critical, our acts of looking.
Alteronce Gumby’s works synthesise these complex reflections. Embedding glass and gemstones into his paintings generates an aesthetic of, at once, celestial scale and fragmentation: they are both of, and not of, the world, impossibly distant and painfully close at once. Gumby has discussed the origin of his use of glass in seeing a pile of shattered shards at a bus stop; this encounter of the ravishingly beautiful in the site of destruction feels generative for thinking about his work. Skins of densely packed, glistening materials anticipate an embodied viewership, whose movement in the space activates their shimmering surfaces. Gumby’s works are in dialogue with a history of abstraction as a transcendent force, in which colour and its relationships set off metaphysical yearning, while finding space within that tradition for his own critical attention. His paintings call to traditions of the decorative in painting, opening up ideas of what takes place when we pay attention to works of art, turning the artwork back to us, and revealing thoughts of our own relationship to surfaces that enclose and encircle the worlds we ourselves pass through.
- Ben Street, August 2022