London

Keith Coventry, Deontological Picture A + II, 2011, pigmented rainwater on jute, wood, gesso, glass, plastic, 741⁄4 x 533⁄8". From the series “Deontological Pictures,” 2011–.

Keith Coventry, Deontological Picture A + II, 2011, pigmented rainwater on jute, wood, gesso, glass, plastic, 741⁄4 x 533⁄8". From the series “Deontological Pictures,” 2011–.

Keith Coventry

PEER

Keith Coventry, Deontological Picture A + II, 2011, pigmented rainwater on jute, wood, gesso, glass, plastic, 741⁄4 x 533⁄8". From the series “Deontological Pictures,” 2011–.

With “Deontological Pictures,” his ongoing series of monochrome framed canvases begun in 2011, Keith Coventry queries the continued viability both of abstraction and of painting as such. At first glance, this show comprised a series of imposing pictures that recall the brooding painterly fields of Mark Rothko’s late work; upon closer inspection, they were revealed to be made not from paint and linen canvas, from the resolutely ordinary detritus of everyday life. The ten works on view in Peer’s two rooms are actually rectangular, framed sheets of brown jute sacking, each roughly two yards high and just over one yard wide. The brown fabric has been stained with darkened blooms of rainwater, collected by the artist from the roof of his studio and mixed with black pigment. The inky clouds saturate the surface of the porous sacking in variegated patterns and different densities.

The titling of the individual works apes the mechanics of 1960s Minimalism: Starting with Deontological Picture A, 2011, the show concludes with Deontological Picture A + IX, 2011. And each work was produced according to the same set of rules: The combination of pigment and rainwater was spread over the floor-bound jute several times with a broom and then left to dry. Yet the uniformity of the process belies the differences in surface effects across the series, for as the mixture dries it settles into irregular, shadowy patches that have been generated by each sweep. The reference to deontology—the philosophical system whereby one’s actions are judged according to a prescribed set of rules or obligations—suggests that Coventry has decided to test himself against abstraction as a formal mode, probing its limits and possibilities in the process. Figuration here hovers in the background, as does the historical legacy of the monochrome as a tried-and-true avant-garde strategy for attempting to reach the ground zero of representation.

But rather than pursue abstraction as an endgame, Coventry seeks to bring abstraction and figuration into fruitful, playful tension. Indeed, the problem of finding a formal visual language adequate to the task of figuring the world has long been a defining interest for Coventry. For instance, his “Estate Paintings” series of 1992–2007 features abstract geometric forms that are in fact based on the layout of housing estates, even as they recall the utopian geometric abstraction of, say, Rodchenko or El Lissitzky. (Nods and winks to the historical avant-garde are a mainstay of Coventry’s otherwise diverse practice.) The “Deontological Pictures”pitch the natural world of stains and mess, accidents and difference against the abstract formal strictures of modernist serial repetition. If this show called to mind Yves Klein’s 1957 exhibition of eleven identical blue monochrome paintings, it is only as the converse of Coventry’s stained and dirty sacking; here the monochrome is resolutely drained of its utopian aspirations and offered instead as a postindustrial remnant. Yet these large framed objects engage in other historical dialogues, too, evoking the messier side of modernist abstraction exemplified in the rough relief work of Lee Bontecou and Alberto Burri from the 1960s. For Coventry, abstraction and the everyday world are two sides of the same coin: One does not preclude the other, and it is by drawing abstraction into a complex dialogue with reality that Coventry shows us how it continues to matter in critically invigorated ways.

Jo Applin