PRINT October 1996


Mono 2000

EVER SINCE RODCHENKO PAINTED Pure Colors: Red, Yellow, and Blue, 1921, artists have been reinventing the monochrome with cyclical predictability. While the form’s radical bloom (at least in its original sense) may have faded, the fact that a triumvirate of British twenty-somethings—Ian Davenport, Jason Martin, and Zebedee Jones—are taking the Modern classic out for another spin suggests that the form has something to say to the current generation. With solo shows in close succession, these painters could even be said to constitute a mini-movement.

A latter-day process artist, Davenport made his entrance in the seminal 1988 show “Freeze” with a series of paintings realized by pouring paint directly onto canvas. Three years later his “made-in-a-minute” Modernist abstractions earned him a Turner Prize nomination. In his current show at Waddington Galleries, Davenport shows monochromes as well as paintings whose uniform fields are differentiated by arched ribbons in a second shade. The mood of the new paintings is somber, their surfaces sculptural; beneath slick exteriors, however, lies a ’90s obsession with simple making and a post–avant-garde willingness to reinhabit old forms.

Coy, and about as close to cuddly as a uniformly painted panel gets, Jason Martin’s pastel monochromes shimmer like ice cream in a fancy glass. Beginning his career with one-stroke paintings made by dragging, in a circular motion, a wide brush loaded with black paint across the canvas (the surfaces resembled those of old vinyl records), Martin expanded his repertoire for his June show at the Lisson Gallery, exhibiting paintings on Plexiglas and aluminum as well as linen. With colors more pop than high art, works like Madonna, 1995—a two-panel painting with shiny metal sides that looks a bit like a Jean Paul Gaultier bustier—upped the ante on the cool bravado of his one-strike monochromes, effectively remaking Robert Ryman for the mall generation.

Jones’ work (up next month at Karsten Shubert) is toughest to pin down. Less obviously process-driven than those of the others, his slablike paintings swap Pop’s instant impact for raw affect. Over the past three years, Jones’ palette has shifted from moody blue-grays (his paintings suggested punkier, figureless Frank Auerbachs) to paler, more decorous blues. While the pleasure in all of Jones’ works is in their fraught surfaces (battered-wood imprints recall those found on Brutalist buildings), his most recent monochromes—favoring a subtler palette of creamy yellows and pale grays—have abandoned adolescent angst, offering in its place a cool take on the sophistication of painters like Ryman.

If historically the brainy negations and vanguard mission associated with the monochrome have made the form a bit daunting, in the ’90s the one-color painting has become an empty vessel to be filled. Whether in the form of self-conscious commentary, choreographed sensuality, or the one-shot hit—’90s-style ennui may have found its perfect vehicle.

Martin Maloney contributes frequently to Artforum.