by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Altered States of Paint

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This year, those of us who can’t remember anything about the 1960s because, not having been born, we weren’t really there, have had to put up with baby boomers re­min­is­cing about 1968, painted as twelve months of sit-ins, student uprisings, civil rights triumphs and general groov­i­ness.

The ideas that lie behind Altered States of Paint are drawn from the darker side of the coun­ter­cul­ture, and the show is more ‘69 than ‘68, skipping free love and re­volu­tion­ary politics in favour of Woodstock warnings against taking the brown acid, the occultist ex­per­i­ment­a­tion of Kenneth Anger and Bobby Beau­soleil, Brian Jones floating dead in his swimming pool, and the violent full-stop to the decade provided by Charles Manson and the Hells Angels at Altamont. The show’s title is borrowed from Ken Russell’s 1980 film Altered States, in which hero Dr. Jessup loses mind and body both, on fly agaric in his isolation tank, and curator Graham Domke quotes Aldous Huxley in his in­tro­duct­ory text: ‘The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out.’

Heavy stuff. And yet the show opens with Rabiya Choudry’s decidedly jolly wall painting. This huge slab of black, pink and gl­it­ter­ing gold com­p­letely covers the entrance to the gallery, and is full of cartoon faces with bulging eyes, halfway between SpongeBob Square­Pants and Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat, peeping out from behind bold graphic motifs. It’s an in­dic­a­tion that, for all those in­tim­a­tions of psy­che­del­ic doom and gloom, Domke has conjured up a complex creature of an ex­hib­i­tion, happy to undermine his stated premise, to clash artists rather than match them, and, ul­ti­m­ately, to confuse his audience rather than guiding them.

Inside the gallery proper, the first room holds a sort of capsule show-within-a-show, with work by all but one of the ex­hib­it­ing artists. Till Gerhard’s Healter might reference the Manson Family’s un­for­tu­n­ate obsession with the Beatles, but it’s a light, airy piece of work, with three women dancing around a fair­ground helter skelter, obscured by spray-painted blasts of colour. Andreas Dobler’s Up In Smoke has an im­pen­et­r­able, alien air, with rail tracks burnt to ash and two concrete struc­tures with smoking bowls set in a fiery void. Then comes a sudden shift. Angela de la Cruz alters the state of painting by turning her canvases into sculp­tur­al forms, breaking down the stretcher of Super Clutter XXL and bolting it back together, turning a cool, collected work in high-gloss pink and brown into a frozen act of violence. Neil Clements makes sculp­tur­al paintings too, the surface of Dee a re­strained min­im­al­ist essay in grey and black, countered by a canvas that borrows its shape from the Gibson Flying V guitar. What is going on here? These are artists with very different aims, some in­ter­n­a­tion­ally es­t­ab­l­ished, some, like Clements and Choudry, emerging onto the Scottish scene. Jutter Koether’s small painting, which layers liquid glass and pushed-in thum­b­tacks over a roughly-sketched “A”, provides an answer, or a clue - all the works in the room are, or contain, the tri­an­gu­lar shape of that letter. It’s a neat trick - rather than forcing a con­nec­tion between the artists he has brought together, Domke allows a simple, formal cor­res­pond­ence to hint that, for all their di­f­fer­ences, these painters share something, even if, at this point, it is no more than a su­per­fi­ci­al sim­il­ar­ity.


In the main gallery space, the con­nec­tions implied by that A-shape become clearer: these painters are all explorers. Andreas Dobler explores worlds of his own devising. Tur­f­stones offers a post-apo­c­a­lypt­ic scene, with half-buried Brutalist relics fording a lava stream. Med­it­at­ing the wreck sees a woman, cross-legged, con­tem­plat­ing a crashed space ship. Stretch it is full of a strange elastic mould, infecting an artist’s studio. Til Gerhard’s ex­plor­a­tions drift through real time and interior space, borrowing cultural artefacts from the past - the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks LP, scenes from the The Wicker Man - and dips them in private hal­lu­cin­at­ory visions.

Jutta Koether provides a companion piece to her work in the first gallery, this time a letter K, spelling out her debt to Kenneth Anger. A series of small works, again peppered with tacks, suggest the com­p­le­tion of arcane rituals, and the repeated use of re­flect­ive materials offers a distorted view of the viewer, and skewed glimpses of the ex­hib­i­tion itself. Her large scale work, Touch and Resist 5 is a huge, hastily-rendered mono­chrome, seven metres across, that borrows com­pos­i­tion­ally from Titian and Reubens, but, thanks to its clumsy, hurried brushtrokes, is firmly placed within the Koether canon.

Once more, Koether provides the glue that binds the show together. The explicit en­gage­ment with art history of Touch and Resist 5 points to Clements. ‘85, another canvas cut into the shape of a guitar, this time the sort favoured by heavy metal soloists, again operates at the junction between painting and sculpture with. Clements goes further with (Full Stop), a pair of paintings that merge two tra­di­tions. Both might be seen as close-up copies of Malevich’s Black Square, but after hanging his stark canvases, Clements holds a can of spraypaint up and empties it onto the centre of each work, following the in­struc­tions of arch-con­cep­tu­al­ist Lawrence Weiner.

Like Clements, de la Cruz makes work that explores its own making, but hers is a still more self-contained, self-re­f­er­en­ti­al practice. Clutter VI (with white blanket) is de­con­structs and re­con­structs another painting, only to obscure it almost com­p­letely beneath another canvas. Ready To Wear is a small, square work, and this time the canvas is peeled back and ruched, revealing the frame and the wall behind. Best of all, the all-black canvas of Stuck has been un­ce­r­e­mo­n­i­ously jammed into an en­trance­way, firmly closing the doors of per­cep­tion that this exhibit promised to open.

The inclusion of Clements and de la Cruz is in­triguing. Their work is the best here, but, for all that they fit in with a loose theme of painterly ex­plor­a­tion, neither are easy bed­fel­lows for the more explicit mining of the dark side of the 1960s dream found in the work of their peers here. They do, though, complete the ex­hib­i­tion. Without their cool, collected essays on the pos­s­ib­il­it­ies of painting, Altered States of paint might well have been too over­bear­ing, too trippy, and, like the those rose-tinted memories of ‘68, too simple a show.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 5th September , 2008.