New York

Robyn Denny

Elkon Gallery

One traditional way of creating a distinguished looking art through sobriety has been to deal with closely related and restrained colors in very simple and clear formats and to make a series of paintings as investigations of a narrowly limited theme: This is a commonplace of modern painting. But that this itself is no guarantee of good painting has equally been proven. It does, however, often seem to guarantee at least some kind of modest honesty of effect, as if we recognize this as a respectable concern even though we can’t always feel happy about the range of results achieved. And I found myself almost bringing this sort of intentionalist fallacy to the seven paintings by Robyn Denny at the Elkon Gallery. Almost, for I believe there are here important drawbacks even with regard to Denny’s intentions, though they do occupy a place in the tradition I have described.

For a long time Denny has epitomized an aspect of “The Englishness of English Art” which, for want of a better title, might be called “academic abstraction.” Not that this is peculiar to England. It blossoms wherever Bauhaus-type painting has had a strong influence. But in England it found fertile soil in the native predispositions for clarity and restraint and where an idea of art as problem-solving is still strong. I would be the last to suggest that significant art cannot be made in this tradition, but the danger of course is when clarity is interpreted as neatness, when restraint produces the merely handsome, and when coping with painting problems simply produces solutions to problems via painting, which is not the same thing as viable painting. These are, I believe, valid criticisms of Denny’s stance as an artist. Somehow those qualities which are too frequently elevated as virtues can be just ways of avoiding larger issues, or, more precisely, of cutting the larger issues down to size. It may seem unfair to be critical of Denny’s intentions in this way since it is surely not a bad thing for a painter to recognize the limits of the field with which he can adequately cope; but it is the results that matter, and for Denny, though not for all adopting similar stands, the narrowness of intent cramps the work unduly. The seven paintings, all 64 by 72 inches, are precisely worked to achieve surfaces from which all traces of brushmarks are expunged. The color range is somewhat brighter than usual for Denny, but is still composed with the same close-toned tastefulness: of mauves, yellow ochres, ceruleans, chromium oxide greens, indigo red-oranges, and so on. His motif has changed too: where previously it was a sort of doorway theme on vertical canvases the present paintings give the impression that Denny’s focus has panned up to show only the architrave, which occupies just less than a quarter of the picture surface. Apart from this motif, the rest of the surface is of a single color, any contrasts of hue being restricted to the strips and bands and angles which separate the two zones. It is in this area that Denny works his intellectual problem-solving of compositional permutations, matching his narrow shapes axially, mirroring colors, asking us to observe how one thing relates to another. The effect, however, is that the paintings are containers for the play of incident, and the high keying of the surrounding upper surface does not disguise this fact. The paintings appear graceful enough but don’t hold together properly, precisely because the whole lacks a dynamic; it is rather an area within which an investigation can take place. Not that the investigation lacks interest. On the contrary, we are too much impelled to “read” rather than to perceive. Moreover, I feel one should question whether the use of solid color blocks with cutting edges is necessarily the most appropriate way of achieving the kinds of color interaction Denny is after. One can understand the insistence on precision here (though whoever stretched the canvases didn’t), but this tightness, linked as it is with so patently emblematic a motif, tends to a constrictive and cramped effect, regardless of all the open spaces.

John Elderfield