David Batchelor, Green (ali) 04.04.11, 2011, gloss paint on composite aluminum board, 23 3/4 x 20 3/8".

David Batchelor, Green (ali) 04.04.11, 2011, gloss paint on composite aluminum board, 23 3/4 x 20 3/8".

David Batchelor

David Batchelor, Green (ali) 04.04.11, 2011, gloss paint on composite aluminum board, 23 3/4 x 20 3/8".

Although David Batchelor’s three-dimensional objects and photographs have often reflected on the condition of painting, this was the first time that he has exhibited works that are, in fact, paintings. Yet as flat things on the wall, the new pieces in this show (which was called “2D3D: David Batchelor”) talk back to the idea of sculpture in a way that is both incisive and comic. They also prompt some basic questions about the relationship between abstraction and figuration—these works operate in both registers—and invite us to think why that relationship (or at any rate its messier gray areas) still matters.

In all the paintings, a large egg-shape or slightly irregular oval sits on top of a black rectangle that sits at the bottom of a thin metal panel. We can see these forms as two shapes or as a depiction of a colored blob on a plinth—a kind of faintly ridiculous fictional sculpture—or even as a schematic human head on shoulders. As such, it is not just the way one shape skims another that is precarious but also the question of whether—and if so how—they signify. They become prototypes for some imaginary abstract sculpture and schema for figures (abstract or representational) yet to be decided.

The basic procedure of making the paintings has been the same in each case, despite variations in the outcome. The ovals are made of mostly fluorescent or otherwise very brightly colored gloss paint that has been poured onto composite aluminum board and left to dry, often over many months. As it dries, the pooled paint leaves textures that are oddly tessellated or corrugated in intricate zigzags. The automatism of the process leaves an oddly ridged and rucked but still glossy landscape. The subsequent addition of a matte-black rectangle seems to make a figure but does nothing to diminish the almost absurd simplicity of two shapes meeting.

Although the format of the paintings derives from drawings that Batchelor has been making over the past few years—two whole walls of which were exhibited at the Paço Imperial in Rio de Janeiro last year—the upping of the scale and the change of materials transform them. Batchelor is not the only artist to be interested in the effects of fluorescent color (John McCracken’s lacquered planks come immediately to mind). It is the kind of color we know well: contemporary, seductive, urban, artificial, toxic (and of course Batchelor has, in his own writing, been the most articulate commentator on such effects). But the new work takes the cartoonlike slickness of gloss—which seems fast and immediate—and allows another kind of temporality to emerge from it: the slow gestation by which it comes into being.

Most striking is the fact that Batchelor’s new work invokes the schematic oval heads one finds in late Malevich, who produced remarkable figurative paintings at the end of the 1920s and early ’30s. They followed a pretty dramatic moment of crisis for abstraction and have usually been interpreted as marking its forced betrayal under Stalinism. However, these works present a complex precedent for a kind of painting that is both abstract and figurative at the same time, and Malevich famously signed them with a miniature black square. If Malevich’s late works left a rebus for history to puzzle over, then Batchelor’s paintings seem to take up the challenge of thinking what the consequences would be had they offered an entirely viable prospect: a (square) eye of the needle through which art might need to pass at some later point. This is certainly a provocation, challenging our sense of what is relevant in the present and what is not.

Briony Fer