Paintings and works on paper at Jill George Gallery, London
In her new work Rebecca Salter has slipped 'the quiet anchor of the grid' freeing her work for a sea-change. The one inch squares have disappeared, as has the covert reference to landscape, but the exceptional poise remains. Salter has created a species of non-referential art to convey purely visual experience. Yet these paintings, drawings and prints are by no means mechanical or inhuman. They are not implacably geometric or minimal. They have by association an underlying organic identity, tinged with metaphysics, which makes them very attractive to a culture surfeited with narrative and representational images.
In much the same way that the reading public now clamours for intimate revelations in biography, the more salacious the better, in art there is a hunger which did not exist sixty years ago to know how things are done. How is this made? How did you achieve that effect? Perhaps this is a by-blow of the technological mind which must ultimately be impoverishing. Salter prefers to be reticent about her trade secrets, not so much because she is concerned that they will be copied or appropriated, but because she feels that details about methods and techniques can detract from an appreciation of the work of art itself. This means, rather than the end, will command attention, for the process can be factually explained whereas the impact of the painting is disquietingly resistant of explication.
There is however, an area of legitimate enquiry into an artist's technical procedures - when it has a direct bearing upon the meaning of the work. This comes increasingly to be the case with Salter's work; the imagery pictures are built of near squares and rectangles of canvas, cut from a larger finished painting and reassembled with special differences of alignment. The painting is very much a constructed image, with its segmental network clearly visible to the scanning eye. This is evidently an important element of the picture's nature, but it should not distract from its larger qualities.
Salter's method of painting relies on building up an image in layers, a notion that is physically taken further in the recent paintings by imposing a change of level between the panels in a diptych or triptych. A step up, or down, between the panels augments their separateness, laying stress on the differences in the depth which emerge from the painted imagery. The picture surface is inflected with arc-like striations made before the paint dries. Later this ridged ground is drawn across the other way with a very hard pencil. These opposing patterns, or forces, are reconciled on the picture plane, for although Salter aims to depict movement, there must always metaphorically be a still centre, or the work would fly apart.
Salter mixes her own paint and takes great care in producing unusual hues, what she calls 'off colours', which are intentionally slightly dull or faded. (She jokes about them being the sort that Dulux would remainder). They are as difficult to describe as poetry is to translate. Her mineral pigments sometimes suggest the organic; plum or damson tints, wine dark, or deep sea green. Delicate staining or a tracery of lines like the weeping of rain on glass. There is more impasto in the new work, occasional exiguously craggy passages to catch the light or the wash of another layer of colour. The shimmer of light breaks over the surfaces, picking up the echoes of blue or green or red underpainting . In some of the panels half-hidden rectangles glow through the layers like an ancient burn or legion or bruise.
Considerable thought goes into the proportions of the canvas and its divisions into diptych and triptych. The balance of power between two halves can be entirely changed by a colour; out of two equally-sized panels, the green one actually looks larger. Salter goes in for noticeable off-centring to keep her compositions lively. Chance still operates, though in a reduced role, in the conjunctions achieved when sticking down the canvas sections (a process known as marouflage) onto a newly-stretched canvas support. By cutting the original canvas and re-ordering it, Salter deliberately de-stabilises the composition and finds new meaning and richer resonance. (The poet C.P. Cavafy was once described as existing at a slight angle to the world. It is this kind of fruitful tension to which Salter aspires). By disturbing the flow, by disrupting the surface patterns, a deeper rhythm is allowed to emerge.
A deeper rhythm meaning what? Perhaps these vertiginous depths connote the pattern of eternity. Am I imagining things when I am reminded of Gustave Dore's engravings of the hurtling skies in Milton's Paradise Lost? Perhaps these are the worlds through which Lucifer, the light-bringer , fell when expelled from Heaven. Perhaps these were the endless walls he saw as he plummeted downwards. Salter has perfected an approach which seems to map the external view, but which also suggests an interior perspective. With her subtle dislocations she challenges our assumptions. The intention surely is to tip us off balance with her cultivated displacements and off-key colour. Her art is a form of philosophical enquiry which throws us reinvigorated back upon our own resources.
Four exquisite drawings, ravishing in colour and texture, bear witness to the new freedom Salter has discovered. Here she veritably attacks the surface of the paper, though in a rigorously controlled way, making a series of regular perforations and other affective marks. All these works, themselves the product of concentrated effort over extended periods of time, repay lengthy perusal. In addition, Salter has produced her first artist's book for this exhibition, comprising 30 small woodcut prints and no text. The book is more emphatically time-based than the paintings. It opens out in different ways to form larger pictures from its constituent parts, like the flowering of a sequence of images. Elegant and meditative, the variations available by turning each leaf and recombining the woodcuts seem endless. The book is a microcosm of the whole of Salter's work.
The work itself has become more detached, more self-contained. It is not so much about nature, as the forces behind it. Although one is occasionally reminded of the patterning of tree bark or a moth's wing, the references have become more abstract, more elemental. Thus instead of referring to a particular rock formation, the connection now is with geology in general. Is it possible to discern the movement and play of oceans? There seem to remain traces of a path, but utterly fragmented or rendered into a new rhythm. What previously resembled a vortex now has more the character of an ellipse. Elliptical in form, and elliptical in meaning, yet with a beauty which compels attention.