Abstraction: 1960 – 1977
SMAC Gallery, Stellenbosch
26.06.14 – 23.08.14
At Trevor Coleman’s splendidly-hung review exhibition of his 60s and 70s abstract paintings at SMAC Art Gallery in Stellenbosch, a mere handful of fourteen canvases fill the first, very long, very large exhibition space with the clamour of their insistent presence. The impact of these paintings relies less upon grandeur of scale than their hypnotic power of command, and the teeming rush of sensations they trigger off in our eyeballs and headspace. Coleman’s art has a special charge. During his twenties he spent several years in the London of the swinging sixties. A dose of ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds’ and exposure to the pulsing psychedelic design that pervaded all the media, underlie the painter’s juddering stripes, mutinous cubes and delinquent rectangles. There is a sense of breakthrough, of opening doors and dissolving boundaries that typifies this venturesome period and its trail-blazing art stars.
Daring innovation combines with strict formal rigour. No composition could be more cohesive than Coleman’s Untitled work of 1971 which is perfectly symmetrical – dividing into four quarters of which each is the mirror image of all the others. Modular repetition, parallelism, rhyming angles and lines are fundamental structural principles, but what makes the painting so breath-taking is its unbridled volatility, its triumphant revolt against the static and fixed. The canvas is, by its nature, flat, yet as the eye climbs up the jagged red verticals, so it registers that they are composed of alternating dark and light red triangles. These create an appearance of light and shade. The eye reads this as relief, so that the painting springs into three dimensions and asserts a potent sculptural identity. Its stripped-down, faceted forms equate the modernist with the tribal, thereby recalling Brancusi’s Endless Column which, like the ascendant red totems in the Untitled work, present exquisitely lean, crystalline shapes with similar fretsaw silhouettes and zigzagging rhythms. The dart-shaped, red triangles not only point both left and right; and run up and down; but, as each is composed of two sides, one of which recedes while the other projects, there is also movement into and out of depth. The piece appears to travel every which way and monopolizes all three dimensions.
The red triangles are counterpointed by kite-shaped blue and white diapers that fill the void spaces with a further discharge of energy. They bleep as they play hide and seek, darting momentarily in front of the red verticals, and then beating a retreat as they retire behind them. What, at one second seems in front, suddenly darts behind; what is flat, snaps into relief, only to collapse into a single plane at the next blink of an eyelid. The deliberate tension between the whole and its parts is accentuated by un-neighbourly colour. The paintings are federations of chromatic republics that insist on their independence and reject union.
The style Coleman deploys is termed Hard-Edge geometric abstraction. It developed during the fifties, and was widely imitated during the sixties. Its most famous exponents were Ellsworth Kelly and Kenneth Noland, both of whom were associated with the late modernist endeavour to reduce painting to its essential essence. Their works were solely concerned with the shape of the canvas, and the nature of the pigment deposited upon it, and, today, over sixty years later, they have lost the novelty they once possessed, and appear somewhat tired, un-ambitious and inert. The two artists certainly realized their goal, and produced painting pure as pure can be, but – and it is a big but – they only achieved this by relentlessly sacrificing any deeper implications or meaning. Coleman surpasses both these Americans in the range of his imagination and the fertility of his invention. Like Cecily Sash, he transcends their limitations by improvising a kind of cross-over idiom in which Hard-Edge is blended with Op Art. This synthesis creates extraordinarily eventful paintings crammed with chromatic incidents, spatial occurrences and kinetic happenings. The déjà-vu of Hard-Edge yields to adventure, to an art of metamorphosis and flux where nothing is what it seems, and the only constants are fascination and surprise. Colour and shape continually mutate as we gaze at them, just as they do in the work of Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely. These two leading Op-artists orchestrate similar effects of retinal fibrillation to those seen in Coleman’s Systemic Diamond (1966), where the parallel bars of green and red activate each other and vibrate, blurring the boundaries between the two hues which appear to move in opposite directions, and to be located at different distances from the viewer’s eye. The resultant dazzle energizes the entire canvas, giving it a muscle and kick rarely found in Noland and Kelly.
Furthermore tribal inspirations overcome their paucity of content and lack of resonance. Coleman’s grandly iconic and monumental design, his flair for taut tectonic composition and heraldic simplicity of shape define his many Totem paintings. These allude to the profiles of classical African sculptural artefacts, and emote a similar aura of majestic solemnity, spirituality and mystery. Overtones of traditional African headrests, Ndebele decorative motifs, Zulu beadwork and the geometric patterns adorning calabashes and beer pots give the work a hieratic formality, introducing overtones of ceremony, sacrifice, rite and ritual that carry metaphysical implications, and hint at some hidden order beneath the surface of phenomena.
One’s only carp is that, although at first glance, the paintings look as fresh as if they had just issued from the studio, closer scrutiny reveals that the surfaces have sometimes faded, discoloured or suffered damage. The aesthetic aims at a pristine crispness and precision which is compromised by these tell-tale signs of spoilage and time.