London

Noel Forster

House Gallery

The Grid and The Process have preoccupied artists for a number of years now and have accounted for both good and bad works—mostly bad. Conversationally, they once sounded good—as did talk of The Edge and Tonal Spread (mix The Grid with Tonal Spread and you come up with Tonal Waffles), and elevated talk of The Process, art which “displayed the history of its making” justified almost anything laboriously executed, and probably still continues to do so. Truth to process, like truth to materials, became not only a vague edict but a moral imperative for some artists during the ’70s. It must be said, though, that a number of artists who were fired by the idea of grids and processes would probably be just as dull and uninspired whatever they did, whatever ideas they followed. Good art doesn’t need to depend on good theories; de Kooning pointed out that Cubism wasn’t such a smart idea, though it did result in some good work. It all depends on usage.

Given these prejudices it may seem like I’m displaying perversity to say that Noel Forster’s paintings, which are built from grid-like cross-hatchings using a repetitive and self-limiting marking process, are neither mechanical nor overtly labored in appearance. Their approach to the dichotomy between rational, behavioral concatenation of procedure, image and content on the one hand and intuited sensibility on the other feels—as James Faure Walker has pointed out—“organic” rather than predetermined. Simply, they don’t look like a fascistic imposition of ideas and dictums on form; as Forster has written: “However all-embracing the rules, I hope they have never interfered with a natural dialogue which allows paint to find its own edges and activity to set its own pace.”

The painted surface, which might cross stretched or unstretched canvas, or canvas and silk and paper (as in Fast and Slow Marks) is drawn in uneven, freehand lines which accumulate to form cross-hatched, slightly eccentric circles or ovoid shapes. This eccentricity and the deviations from parallelism in the warp and weft of the hatching is a result of the replacement of draughtsman’s aids—T-Squares, compasses and so on—with the torque of the wrist, an unerring eye and a steady hand. It is as though Forster follows Picasso’s idea that, in trying to draw a perfect circle, freehanded, “ . . . You will not make it perfectly round; and in the discrepancy between perfect roundness and your closest approximation to it, you will find your personal expression.” Forster, however, takes it further, presents himself with material, procedural complications which make it less rather than more likely that he will be able to achieve symmetry.

He doesn’t just tinker around with marginal deviations from regularity; layers bunch up to form dense, closed patches of scrambled color and broken areas where the lines run out to reveal barely grazed openings—rifts and fissures—where he has underpainted, perhaps almost randomly, masking fluid onto the canvas in areas about the size of the palm of one’s hand. The complementary “closed” patches are often overpainted with white blobs and streaks, highlights, so that the hatched form seems to rise and fall as though it were breathing, alive. It is like the steady but natural expansions and contractions of a mollusk as it takes in and expels water through its bivalve.

In Forster’s unstretched paintings, such as Off The Wall At Les Sables-d’Olonne, the painted circles with their herringbone frayed edges, where the brushmarks lightly break the profile, are cutout and stitched back onto the linen, so that one sees holes going through to the wall. Where the forms are painted on silk, the material cockles under the stress of the varying densities of paint, to be either pressed flat or allowed to float so that we find penumbras of shadow around the disc, an effect similar to the vibrating edge between complementary colors.

Adrian Searle