Illusory Images of Universal Order by Andrew Lambirth
Howard Scott M-13 Gallery New York
There is a more pronounced architectural mood to these new paintings by Rebecca Salter than anything yet to have appeared in her work. It may well be that previous pictures have aspired to the condition of architecture, 'frozen music' as Schelling put it, but this group has attained a new monumentality without dispensing with the potential for movement so crucial to Salter's aims. Somehow what we see depicted is less arrested movement, than movement in repose. Perhaps it is something to do with the colloquy of positive and negative space: read the structures in Salter's paintings alternately as wall and void - then try to keep your balance.
Last Christmas Salter visited Yemen, and was much struck by the extraordinary mud-brick buildings there. She travelled to the 700-year-old city of Shibam, known as 'the Manhattan of the Desert', where she was astonished and impressed by the seven storey mud buildings. These hive-like structures are built with thick walls to guard against the heat on a foundation of dry stone and wood (no mortar is used), in three or four natural colours. The narrow streets between them are traversed by overhead walkways to enable the women to go visiting without descending to street level or entering a public place.
It is Salter's practice to make small representational watercolours to gather information when she travels, and she also takes photographs. However, although she returned with many images of Shibam, there is no direct correlation between these visual descriptions of a particular place, and the paintings and drawings in this exhibition. It is merely to be noted that the experience of visiting Yemen, and seeing its distinctive architecture, informed Salter's thinking and therefore influenced this new body of work. The process is an indirect one.
Currently the British art scene is obsessed with novelty, rather than with what is really new. The strange and piquant hold sway, bad taste is imperious to the point of dictatorial, and beauty is wildly unfashionable, if not unpardonable. Comprehension is thus narrowed to a pinpoint of self-expression. As a consequence, the level of debate is dire: improperly biased and unbearably formulaic. The merest attention-seeking gimmick is leapt upon with desperate approval by those commentators determined at all costs to be in the swim. The aspirant artist is eagerly lauded as a prophet of disillusion, of cultural disintegration, of irony and counter-irony, and all of these come - whether you like it or not - with attitude. The art itself has become the least important aspect of the game.
Rebecca Salter's work is the opposite of all that. It operates within the great tradition of European painting, whilst also deriving sustenance from the East, and it radiates an optimistically cross-cultural identity. Whatever dark territory of agonizing (or indeed bright utopia) her paintings spring from is not our concern. Their effect is our province, not their cause. And their effect is quietly tremendous, for they seem to enshrine some easily-overlooked poetic truth. Are they blueprints for an ordered existence? Ideal structures for living? Their fascination lies in the dynamic interplay of certainty and uncertainty. In this they make a bold appeal to the imagination and to the heart. Furthermore, by seeming to propose an architecture of the emotions, they also address the rational instinct.
In fact, Salter's work proceeds by way of a series of dialogues. She investigates her subject formally - as a dialogue between light and pictorial structure - while also approaching it metaphysically. To the viewer this can be formulated as a question: is the work based on intrinsic order discovered or extrinsic order imposed? Her structures are delicate, but by no means frail. They possess an internal logic which seems inevitable, which is soundly composed, even tough. As Anthony Burgess once remarked: 'Art is the organization of base matter into an illusory image of universal order.' Art also has a duty to be beautiful or formidable. Salter's work partakes seductively of both.
In this new body of work, the grid of cut squares has departed and the face of each painting remains unbroken canvas. As a result, the eye sinks more into the depths of the picture, no longer restrained on the surface. There are a few larger divisions of the picture area, lightly drawn or painted, but posing little interruption to our increased spatial awareness. Salter still has a vestigial predilection for dividing her paintings into quarters, but her primary impulse is towards simplification. The absurdity of labels inconveniences her: she is no minimalist, but a painter unwilling to be safely categorized.
Salter is an incremental painter who works in reverse. Thus she applies the strongest colour or texture first to the canvas. In Untitled R41, for instance, which has something of the appearance of slanting spring rain against new foliage, the base colour was yellow, now beautifully modulated to a whole range of pale greens and greys. The colour change is achieved by washing anything up to 40 layers of heavily diluted pigment across the original surface. Elsewhere the underpainting is dark maroon. Salter favours earth colours - the deep rust of iron oxide, for example. In this new group of paintings, the colours are denser, and the dribbles and runs of white and grey overdrawing are more evident. Some panels are more heavily textured to contrast with an abutting partner in a diptych, and to distinguish between them in visual weight. Two paintings have central horizontal bands like a tissue bandage on the midriff. Pale or dark, these near-squares and combinations of near-squares (Salter uses a ratio of 1:1.055 to counteract the deadness of the perfect square), occupy the wall with authority.
There are one or two other technical developments to be noted. In this new work Salter has used no pencil overdrawing - all the directional lines are incised. This lends itself on occasion to the accruing of a fine diagonal mesh held in equilibrium, but more usually the lines are swept vigorously one way or the other. Paint is removed in this process of striation, but is just as often rebuilt in thin new layers. The other development is a return to a vertical format, last implemented in 1987. Untitled R43, which interestingly extends to virtually the height and proportions of the artist herself, thus heralds the beginning of a series. It remains to be seen what exquisite variations Salter can wring from this change of emphasis.
Looking at Rebecca Salter's paintings, the viewer might be forgiven for wondering where they end; it's as if the action of the canvas could happily continue beyond the seemingly arbitrary boundaries of the picture plane. Are the edges mere punctuation points in a larger pattern? Yet it will become apparent from further looking that each Salter image is entirely self-contained and complete in itself. Flux in stasis. There is a calmness in this work, an enviable tranquillity, which suggests that both perfection and imperfection have been studied. Rebecca Salter's painting, like all good art, is dependent on a process of ordering that is also a process of civilizing, which, despite our pretensions and self-deceptions, is as much needed today as ever.