David Batchelor, ‘Flatlands’
The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, 4 May – 14 July 2013
Spike Island, Bristol, 23 November 2013 – 19 January 2014
This exhibition is brought to us by Edinburgh’s The Fruitmarket Gallery and Bristol’s Spike Island. Support for a forthcoming international tour comes from the British Council: Galeria Leme, Sao Paolo and Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh have assisted with the attendant publication. The show offers a range of Batchelor’s two-dimensional output, presented in categories: ‘Blob Paintings’, ‘Atomic Drawings’, ‘The October Colouring In Book’, and ‘Diagrammatic and Working Drawings’. Fruitmarket’s Fiona Bradley and Spike’s Helen Legg tee things up with their introductory remark that the exhibitions and publication ‘represent a first considered attempt to analyse Batchelor’s graphic register by reflecting critically on his use of surface, painting, drawing, and colour’.
This endeavour is, of course, coloured by the fact that Batchelor is an artist best known for his sculptural work. With reference to the origin of the project’s title, Bradley approaches this dimension shift in her contribution to the book: ‘Flatlands is named with reference to Edward Abbott’s Flatland (1884), a satirical novella set in a two-dimensional world whose narrator (a square) makes forays into worlds of one and three dimensions to expose the limits of his own understanding’.
The project draws our attention to Batchelor’s graphic register, yes, but we cannot escape our foreknowledge of the artist’s intimate knowledge of the third-dimension, and the exhibition makes the best of this. A novelish, graphical flat land, maybe, but the sculptural is omnipresent here. The Blob Paintings play with the junction of two and three dimensions in a beguiling way, moving as they do from the ‘two’ mainly in the making to the ‘three’ mainly in the presenting. Gloss enamel paint is first poured onto the metal field for the motif to be then erected as a blobby boulder thanks to both the addition of the black, painted plinth and the transfer of the field from table to wall. These blobs begin in the mind as vivid sculptural objects and conclude as paintings of sorts when the brain catches up with the eye and admits the structural impossibility of the teetering mass. A component of this intriguing ambiguity is the surface of the paint as dried. Wrinkles, rivulets, drains, striae – you choose – invoke a sculptor’s hard-working of material: seeming superficial evidence of a mass handled is in fact the chemic0physico upshot of industrial paint treated lightly with gravity and time.
These blobwerks are placed inevitably (by Batchelor, Bradley, Legg, and your tutor) in a stream of not always colourful intellectual flattery (™). Painted Modernism’s preoccupation with the rudiments of pigment-on-ground and the avoidance of referentiality is conjured here. This is a technical line of inquiry, granted, and Batchelor’s colourful works don’t deserve to be purloined by stertorous academicism. But Batchelor has an interesting take on Modernism’s graphical two-dimensionality – and the Flatlands project relays this effectively.
At the same time as many of his two-dimensional outputs meet Modernism’s determination to disappear even semiological contact with the world around us in favour of a pure presence of the visual ingredients of a dish unadulterated by its not having been made into one, Batchelor’s graphical blobs also accentuate something of classical avant-gardism’s interest in not just the now for itself but the now for what it reveals of the imminent immanent future. The artist’s use of colour is central to both.
Batchelor follows many purist-flattists in his use of colour: it benefits from an unmodulatedness conducive to recognition as nothing-in-the-world-but-paintart. That said, there is a careful selection by the artist of colours which are overtly less than organic. Batchelor’s palette is powerfully redolent of the industrial and when this strand is straight from the tin and at its most undiluted, colour signals an almost sinister futurism – one with force enough to belie the benign vividness of the artefacts prima facie. As Batchelor as often mentioned, his colours are ‘urban colours, industrial colours’, he ‘never thought about oil paints or watercolours’. These blobs might be industrial-synthetic clinical matter on the microscope slides of the future; lurid, virulent strains of plastic intensity.
The blobwerks might, then, be visually pure enough to join the tutor’s flyleaf timeline of inexorably reducing and retreating Abstraction, but there is at the same time that referential dimension to Batchelor’s colouring which relates to the modern-world as-it-is and is-to-be more than the Modernist-Abstractionist might allow. The most forceful paradox in Batchelor’s oeuvre for this blogger is this one; the colourful prettiness of industrial emanation – a note from a somewhat sinister future masquerading as salve to grey contemporary aesthetics.
The Flatlands exhibition displays a new series of drawings by Batchelor, using pages of the first issue of the journal October. Now, we know that Batchelor muses on the import of colour alongside practical use of it. With Chromophobia of 2000, Bradley reminds us, he declared colour to be an anarchic and disruptive element, a material which operates at the ‘limit of language’. October might be safely regarded as the paragon of language-orientated arting, so Batchelor chooses a readymade stooge for his language-limiting (or extending?) anarchic overlay. In the publication, Bradley’s acute analysis of this series is highly convincing, enhanced by her taking time to recognise the possibility that Batchelor has set a trap in tempting the beholder to over-think the colourful interruption of October’s black and white intensity – after all, as Bradley notes, and Batchelor knows, ‘over-thinking is kind of what October encourages’.
The Flatlands project offers rich insight into a substantive practice: this brief consideration offers notes on only two aspects of Batchelor’s work: i) the artefacts made of metal and paint that appear first as sculptural presences before declaring as painted phenomena, and, ii) the intensity of colour that goes further than revivifying language-heavy contemporary practices and invokes the seductive and disturbing purity of materiality of advanced-industry that might drain the colour from the cheeks of many a gradated polychromist.