Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Considering 'considering...'

Stephen Bambury: Considering Wittgenstein
12 November – 20 December 2008

That sneery expression “Stupid as a Painter” that Duchamp and his pals used to laugh about, is it still creating an excessive over-reaction from some painters? Well from the above exhibition title it appears so. After all, how does Bambury do his ‘considering’? Does he write philosophical treatises tying Wittgenstein’s ideas in with his studio practice? Perhaps he works with a copy of Philosophical Investigations in one hand and a paint roller in the other? Why the pompous vague title that he has made no effort to justify?

Now if we were to take this artist on in his own game, we could point out that the American philosopher Donald Davidson once wrote this:

How many facts or propositions are conveyed by a photograph? None, an infinity, or one great unstatable fact? Bad question. A picture is not worth a thousand words, or any other number. Words are the wrong currency to exchange for a picture. (1.)

So paintings are the wrong currency to exchange for words. One Bambury title in this show does in fact quote a clause from Wittgenstein about ‘conditional denotation of the properties of material’, but even if it were the ‘right’ currency, it is out of context and incomplete. Yet despite all this, if we disregard the title, Bambury’s paintings themselves are in this particular exhibition, a treat.

It’s a large show, found on both Jensen’s top and ground floors, one that is refreshingly varied and sensitively hung. There is a wall sculpture (gold leafed house), some digital prints, a set of 10 screenprints, a C-type photograph, some sensual paintings on aluminium featuring Bambury’s well known cross motifs, a selection of diptychs with connected L-shaped motifs, and other cross works exploring reflecting, tilted quadrilaterals placed over subtly raised corner squares.

Judging from this selection, Bambury seems lately to have been exploring more unusual chromatic combinations within his cross format. More interestingly, he also has been making paint from rusted iron filings (maybe a development from the Six Degrees of Separation show and also his Lumley tower oxidised copper panel mural) – something akin to Pauline Rhodes’ work of the eighties, but more about manual application of filings as ‘pigment’ than processes of oxidized staining used for activating space.

These rusted cross works have delicately modulated, rivulet–strewn surfaces, mottled winding trickles compressed within a densely patterned, auburn-sienna plus sign. They have an industrial feel, rich in associations with weather and agrarian architecture, and without the ceramic-like glazes of some earlier works from the late eighties.

Other works emphasize pitted, pock marks, flat cratered holes formed by burst bubbles and stretching, shifting planes of drying paint. Some have coloured trapezoid shapes that exert strange pressures on the square aluminium support edges; a few feature highly reflective glossy, quadrilateral forms; others still utilise subtly intertwined, butted in unison, spindly crosses.

This is the best show Bambury has had for some time. The two floors are quite different in mood – with more intimacy upstairs. Nicely hung and well worth a visit.

(1.) From Davidson's What Metaphors Mean, found in 'On Metaphor' ed. Sheldon Sacks, Chicago U.P.,1979, p.45


John Hurrell said...

Here is a comment from Nat Cheshire:

I note that Wittgenstein has amongst his oeuvre a single book that appears to pertain directly to the practice of painting; his 'Remarks on Colour'. I note also that the paintings of Stephen Bambury’s latest show which you review on eyeCONTACT are focused on colours that hold taut relationships with the primaries they may be described as being. The screenprinting too – a medium for the delivery of pure colour largely independent of Bambury’s usual contingent, surface – is devoted to black, white, red, yellow and blue, and the series of paintings downstairs at Jensen Gallery is bookended by two extraordinary paintings of white on - or in, or below – white.

This work – and this colour – represents a significant departure for a painter whose work over the last decade or so has centered on a more compound palette loaded with the histories of Fra Angelico, Siena and Tibet. Here that atavism is less evident in the colour, and what little I recall of Remarks on Colour – Wittgenstein’s reasoning on the possibility of a transparent white, his focus on the potential and complexity of the primaries and his argument for the classification of white and black as colours – suggests that this text is what you ought have allowed yourself to be led to when you instead found the word ‘pompous’ to describe the show’s title.

I am glad you enjoyed the show as I did, but am gladder still that Bambury considered Wittgenstein.

Good luck with your valuable blog John, and the 2am writing.

John Hurrell said...

Terrific to get your comments, Nat.
The vagueness is what makes the show's title 'pompous' I think - aside from the issue of whether painting (or art in general) can lead to philosophical speculation.

After all Wittgenstein had several stages in his thinking, so which one is the artist referring to and in what way?

Let's say your speculations are on the button. Does that make the work better as an experience? Or does it just make the artist look better? Or are the two inseparable?

How can you be so confident you know the details of what the artist was 'considering'? There is not a tight argument set out (with propositions etc) because painting cannot do such things.