Have we demonised the spiritual? Have we shackled it as a potentiality, chained it to the made stereotypes of organised religion and networked fundamentalism? Have we binaried it, made it white conservative and black fundamentalist – have we burnt it through the magnifying lens of the double-unwanted Other, the too-old-too-alien contemporary Frankensteinian bastard? Is the spiritual the driver of arcane and/or vilified practices? Or, is it now just that goofy intimation of the metaphysical that you can’t take to art parties? ‘This is Pappy Wassily; he’s really deaf, but he’s big into capturing the inner essence of things…aren’t you Pops?…I’m saying you’re BIG INTO CAPTURING THE ESSENCE OF THINGS!’ We’re all too down with the superstructure of artland and its insistent gaze upon the material conditions of lived relations (chiefly our own, but also of those of identified others [whose photos come through the post with the subscription]) to be thinking towards the spiritual – and that would be like looking out of the window at school when teacher was conversing with Chomsky.

But the spiritual still has one or two advocates, and they are sneaking in to the contemporary art press on occasion to drop hints. Take Christopher Bedford in this month’s frieze. Talking to abstract painters Tomma Abts, Tauba Auerbach, Matt Connors, Charline von Heyl and Bernd Ribbeck, Bedford has a brave go at it. Excusing the artists at first by stating that none of them ‘seems interested in spirituality as a social idea or abstraction as a historical category’, Bedford pushes on all the same. Abts bats a flirty one back by saying that she doesn’t ‘feel comfortable with the word “spirituality” in connection with [her] work’ because it ‘evokes a notion of spiritual kitsch, and makes [her] think of work that takes itself too seriously in its tackling of grand themes.’ Abts and Ribbeck are particularly clear that their versions of abstract painting, a convenient if imprecise term here, are about the material of painting, the ‘concrete experiment that is anchored in the material I’m handling’ as Abts puts it. Ribbeck is in the same workshop ostensibly, for ‘materiality is very important [to him]’. But Ribbeck’s materiality leaks, and he doesn’t mind too much. He puts his brush right on it when he observes the fact that ‘that things are transcended is a mechanism of art – there is a material, then it’s moved into another space or combined with other materials and afterwards it’s not what it was.’

And this has to be one of the most interesting paradoxes of art which attends to the plastic as a generative modus operandi. For artists like Abts and the others, to set out to create a painted thing which Bedford notes nicely as an ‘image which they have never seen before’, is a beguiling programme of secular, spiritual transubstantiation, let’s say, at least for now; it is a programme which has not much to do with the technicist reductivism of classical modernist plasticists; the push and pullers, the purists, the elitists, the siloists, the protectors, the formalist defenders, the vacuum-packers, and much more to do with the spiritual project of seeing some thing  as some thing else – by virtue of the intervention of the imagination. These abstracts are touchstones for the spiritual, transformative underpinnings of art when replete with imagination – which is not a given.

Abts gets this right – ‘There is something else going on, because the painting is developed over time – while working on it I am always open to what I might do with it next, nothing is fixed.’ And this is the spiritual statement of import of our times. Through some thing moves another thing to become yet another thing, driven by the imagination as catalyst. And when that catalyst is at work, the conservative and the fundamentalist are smoked out, tested and sent home from the party. And not to our home. With a little imagination all material can be redescribed, revised and transformed, and no other programme needs to emerge from the conservative or fundamentalist camps to serve as harbour for our insuppressible spiritual proclivities.

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