“Open Attitudes”

“Open Attitudes” was the title chosen to present a sample of new painting and sculpture by young artists at Oxford’s Museum of Modern Art. It is fashionable to talk of a resurgence of vitality and vigor in painting (sculpture, apparently, looks after itself), and of this new painting—especially that produced by an identifiable group of mostly young artists (aged around 30)—as being “alert,” “undogmatic,” “open” and “receptive.” Other adjectives have dubbed this trend “fertile,” “plenary” and “unashamedly eclectic.” The new painting is often more concerned with content than with formal niceties, a raw equivalent to the confusion of experience rather than a closed seminary of vaguely metaphysical, holistic forms. Makeshift, provisional structuring, ostentatiously half-formed imagery, mindless energy even, appear to be the order of the day.

However, although much new work valiantly attempts to shift painting away from easily won simple-minded resolutions, it all too often fails in its derring-dos and looks instead just plain sloppy—indiscriminate and confused rather than open, indolent rather than assured, slack rather than relaxed, not casual but unfelt. A lot of the paintings looked as though their arrival on the gallery walls was somewhat premature. That the selector found the awkwardnesses a strength—“frankly acknowledged . . . left to stand”—I find astonishing, and it certainly doesn’t absolve the ineptitude of some works.

In Jeff Dellow’s paintings bits of image rise up through semiopaque, atmospheric fogs of paint, and it’s hard to tell where nuance ends and inadequate covering over of edited parts begins. The brushwork is stretched as far as it will go. Everything feels approximated rather than measured or judged. The paintings seem to be saying, “I don’t give a damn,” but they lack bite or any punchy confidence which might carry the improvisation through. It’s cut-rate gesturalism, miserably allied to a theatrical stage-set illustration.

Clyde Hopkins’ paintings are emphatically handled, even where forms are conceived as a complex of angry, writhing scribbles. His Greenwich A and B centers a distant, watery vista within a framing device—a freehand notation which might read either as a raised curtain or overhanging trees in the foreground. Each of Hopkins’ paintings here knowingly invites landscape readings. More often than not the quasi-expressionist brushwork is bludgeoned into the great outdoors, to be grounded in lumpish images which might carry mythical, if not cryptically autobiographical, overtones. Where one might have hoped to find irony, or a cool detachment, in the marriage of raunchy painterliness and somnolent color to associative, abstracted landscape imagery, one finds instead a trite interest in trolls.

With titles like Hey Presto and Apparition one might have expected something magical from David Wiseman’s paintings. Instead they are merely tricky. Forked-lightning zips, coils, loops and streamers in shifting hues twist, flutter and fall like ribbons and silk handkerchiefs from a conjurer’s cuffs. The speed with which the eye navigates these entanglements, and becomes lost or confused by them, is accentuated by the frenetic filling-in between the carefully taped, twisting strips: the paint is scraped out between the tape to modulate blue to red to yellow and so on. But, like a conjuring trick, one’s interest flags after the performance has been repeated—not once but several times.

Graham Crowley’s paintings are cluttered with trophies disinterred from the dim regions of 20th-century art history. They are densely packed and densely painted in an acrylic-gel parody of fat oil paint reminiscent of varnished ice cream. His “Phlogiston” series (Phlogiston, commentators on Crowley’s work eagerly remind us, was once believed to be an elemental substance contained in all combustible matter, which escaped on burning) is crammed with vaguely biomorphic rock-forms illuminated by an uneven but undoubtedly Mediterranean light. Linear spirals and vermiforms wind through the paintings, lassoing the rocks, or squiggling against the surface.

Where Crowley isn’t taking his cues from English Abstraction circa 1934 (Moore, Edward Wadsworth, Tristam Hillier) he harks back to Cubism, to hand-painted imitation wood-grain and French titles: Faux Pas and Nature Morte. The paintings succeed, up to a point, on humor alone. At least Crowley creates a vivid painted world, even if it is cheekily historicist.

Where others in this show open up their paintings to allow everything in, often at the expense of formal clarity, Michael Bennett’s paintings seem to cry out for earnest, formal description. Bennett makes a concerted effort to create a lucid, functional reciprocation between the what and the how. Rather than appropriating an identifiable or ambiguously loaded imagery to challenge manners of pictorial organization, Bennett binds the imagery—of water, light and movement—to the paint within a well-organized schema.

He has said that these paintings do not constitute a series, yet their color is so close, their brushwork so similarly directed, their elements so similarly disposed throughout, that what differences there are would read as a tedious catalogue of observational minutiae; suffice it to say that one becomes aware of an almost indefinable shift in the light, a sensation of subtle change in wind direction, perhaps, or of fluctuating humidity, as one stares into the painted ripples, eddies and currents. All this might seem surprising, given the apparent relaxation and fluidity of the brushstrokes which fill the canvases with broken swatches of impressionistic light. But these paintings are so locked into their own efficiency that it’s hard to see how his attention to natural phenomena might provide leverage, the possibility of change, flexibility in the face of such a regularly drawn model.

Lee Grandjean’s sculptures are chunky and compressed, with a slightly old-fashioned, whimsical air about them. He carves scuttling, crablike forms and arboreal hand grenades. Kenneth Turnell, looking primitive if not old-fashioned, displayed a massive carving called First Woman, 12 feet of heavily pregnant marsupial/penguin. Both artists use their craftsman’s appreciation of wood to lay a sophisticated veneer over nostalgia for primitive art.

Much of the work in “Open Attitudes” stands as dubious advocation of the current mode. And where the possible audience for this work has to be won over—as in Alister Warman’s catalogue essay—by appeals to sentiment lingering on the seedy romance of studios in abandoned meat-pie factories, the constant threat of demolition gangs coming to bulldoze it all away, the poverty of young artists, and so on, rather than through a thorough explication, or even a sense of committed enthusiasm toward the work, one begins to get suspicious.

Adrian Searle