Paintings, drawings and prints at the Jill George Gallery, London
A few years ago Rebecca Salter sent a painting to Liverpool to win a place in the exhibition and perhaps a prize in the John Moores Liverpool competition. It was unwrapped, looked at by the jury, rejected and re-wrapped. Someone wrote 'Blank Canvas' on the package.
Salter's paintings are not blank canvases. They are densely worked over many hours, layer over layer, usually starting with pronounced colours and explicit forms - a large circle or ring, a rectangle almost filling her usually just off-square formats, or two or more rectangles filling them - to end with surfaces that, through their striations or, on occasion, pencilled rhythmic markings, usually also through tinting with Japanese black ink, gently brushed on to catch on the painting more or less depending on its smoothness or furrows, are quite the opposite of blank. They are, one could say, replete. The word, the way we use it, hints at grossness, and that is precisely what Salter's paintings are against. If it were possible to unravel her process, and start again with those major forms and colours, we would understand that she starts with an image that for many another painter would be enough, a complete painting. She then adds and adds, and takes off and adds, replenishing each canvas in pursuit of ...what?
Plenitude, but also emptiness. Resonance and silence. We have to look and listen. This is not short-attention-span art. I have spent perhaps two hours with the paintings, drawings and prints that make up this exhibition, all done since her last show. This is probably more than enough for a good introduction to them, but intimacy requires more time and more concentration. These would yield entry into their visual and spiritual recesses, benign, dreamless spaces remote from the world of Soho or for that matter the world of the studio, even her necessarily clean and controlled studio which has to be a workshop. The kind of world reached through meditation? Others will know better than I, but I do know the cleansing this kind of art can bring, and bring most fully when it becomes a component in, companion of, daily life.
Art of this kind? Putting art in pigeon-holes means hiding it away, not looking at it. Salter is one kind of minimalist, the most minimal sort in that she is not interested in monumental forms nor rhythmic installations, nor even geometry except as something to approach and evade. The most maximal sort in that every mark, colour, tone, break in the surface, every variation in dimension, counts. The fewer marks the better, she says, yet she knows that one mark on a plain canvas would read like an ultimatum. Polemics is the last thing she wants. She wants near-silence - 'painting in whispers' is her fine phrase for it. I suspect that one mark on a canvas would have to be the opposite of that, not unlike the colour forms with which she starts her work and which survive, almost subliminally, to give each work its colour note, sometimes, when countered by another colour, its colour chord. In veiling, almost burying that form she is also enriching it, and I believe she would feel driven to enrich that one mark she speaks of. She is, in that sense, achieving a resolution she still thinks of as at some distance, and thus she has more to do while also effecting fullness with each work.
Of course I asked her why she works in this way. She thinks it is natural to her, innate. She told me how working with ceramics and then spending years in Japan, learning the language, studying cultural traditions, living with the people, coming to understand, sympathise with and in part share the Japanese mind-set with its reliance on perfection, face, but also its cherishing of the organic imperfections natural to hand thrown and glazed pottery, gardens and the best calligraphy, she came via printmaking and then painting and her personal discovery of materials and processes, to the quietly multivalent art that is hers alone. She speaks of the veils as filters, and one can think of them as filtering off agitations and pains. Perhaps they also filter off, for herself first of all, the art world's hubbub, greater than ever during the twenty years of her professional life.
I prefer the word 'veil', because veils reveal as they cover. Salter's paintings are rich, hiding or removing nothing. In an exhibition we can note differences, in densities, in the glow of colour and vestigial form, in the way she assembles her paintings by cutting up canvases and, as she mounts them, accepting irregularities that make for imperfections and add to the iridescence that is our first impression. In using this constructive process she yields control, just as, when she starts a painting and adds her layers of paint and raking of the surface, she cannot quite know how the colours and tones will mature or how her gentle scratching and scribbling will interact with her washes. There is nothing mechanical nor finitely predetermined here, but rather a process of improvisation on a theme established in the first work of each series.