My predictive keyboard hasn’t been well, it’s in the habit of writing in the negative and won’t offer me a positive word. Would becomes wouldn’t, is replaced by isn’t – language presents its challenges and this technology exhibits the interchangeable decision making between media and intention that can produce meltdown and is also the site for building meaning.
We’ve looked everywhere, no we haven’t, not that we haven’t, not that we have… And on it goes getting more wound in complex turns of phrase which for some reason are necessary to get one moving. Like honing a tool for getting closer to the fruit on a tall branch, the shopping debate becomes entangled in the process of extracting an action. How many double negatives does it takes to find a shirt? Quite a few to have the precise image in mind.
The exhibition, Lowry, Painter Of Modern Life (Tate Britain) shows what happens when subject and media aren’t critically interlaced. The paintings develop a convincing device for expressing figures pouring across an environment, they get going quite early, then turn into a puppet theatre.
What is absent are the critical questions that language asks of the artist’s intentions. Walking through the show the absence is most evident in the way that the figures devolve from the landscape. The factories quickly become laboured technical drawings that don’t return the crowds of figures to an adequate field. It begs the question what would be adequate? And what, with his pot on the boil, happened to the figure-ground relationship as a syntax for convincing existential situations?
The day before I’d seen a site specific installation by Robert Irwin, whose work along with that of Donald Judd and some San Francisco Bay painters of the fifties in nearby galleries holds a key to this issue but mainly by implying the figure of the viewer into the ground or field of the work.
Irwin’s signature tinted fluorescent tubes spread colour in surprising ways across walls and into space. In this case gloss paint reflects window light via large floor and ceiling panels in colour sections of alternating squares and rectangles. The hard edged perimeter lines and column interruptions produce an effective contrast to the deep space that the surface gives way to. People among these elements float in space but find location via the network of horizontal and vertical lines that are like a technical drawing hazed in with colour changes.
Looking at Irwin’s work together with a set of plywood boxes from the early seventies by Judd in a nearby gallery one might think that you couldn’t get anything further removed from LS Lowry’s social landscapes.
While the shooting of Kent State University students was one among many events racking the US, Judd was making boxes outwardly identical with subtle internal changes of diagonal planes passing through them to create a quiet seriality in an otherwise blank factory precise series.
They’re wall mounted and you look into them as you would a puppet show, the active timber grain provides nuance to the surface; diagonal internal planes cut through the interior, the divisions different in each unit.
One’s expectations of theatre are not so much quashed as replaced with a slowly dawning animation across the otherwise identical five boxes. The perception of series turning into seriality surrounds the viewer eventually with a more absorbing drama than most content would provide.
One of the most tormenting aspects of factory work in my limited experience is the sense of wasting time in repetitive and fragmented work routines. The challenge of finding some meaningful progression of time is at the core of most work. Lowry is looking on at this spatio-temporal wasteland; Judd and Irwin are making sense within its conditioned confines.