by John Chilver
published in the catalogue for the exhibition Superstratum, Koraalberg Gallery, Antwerp, 17 October - 20 December 2008, ISBN 978-9-07987-400-2, p3-5
1. A Brief History of Painting Narrated as Shifts in Strata
Layering is the link. It is what is common to the works in Superstratum. In a certain sense painting has been, is now and will be at all times concerned with processes of layering. In European painting from before the sixteenth to after the eighteenth century it was a matter of building up layers of translucent colour to create particular effects of depth. A painter’s apprentice during the Renaissance would typically have learned to apply an undercoat of green as a substratum for the chromatic incarnation of flesh. Layering then was about the substratum remaining liminally visible, yet visible enough to do its chromatic-spatial work. But the areas of flesh in a Renaissance picture would have been locked into a pre-planned design that had to be mapped out before any colours could be applied. In other words, layering of paint then had nothing to do with the structural genesis of a painting because that was the preserve of drawing, conceived then as distinct from painting.
Art & Language have used the word ‘snow’  to describe the Modernist painting practices of layering arrays of dots onto tonal fields. They see ‘snowing’ in Pissaro as much as in Pollock. The affective consequences of layering were of course an obsessive concern within Pollock’s problematic. And the talismanic works in his oeuvre are surely those paintings that collectively stake out a range of possibilities for how layers might be articulated without clogging or dulling the rhythms and velocities of the painted marks: Alchemy; Lucifer; One: Number 31, 1950; Number 32, 1950; Out of the Web; The Deep; all of these think through surprisingly distinct approaches to the layering of surface and image. ‘Snow’ already sounds like a superstratum of sorts: a layer on top of something else. In this respect Pollock does indeed anticipate the question of the superstratum that will be elaborated in what follows. ‘Snow’ in Modernist painting is simultaneously material and pictorial - which is to say virtual - effect, and it finds its force in that duality. In other words, this mode of layering proposes to bind together the object-quality of the painting – its condition as material surface – and its function as a pictorial device that composes a virtuality.
Throughout all the disparate works in Superstratum layering generates the appearance. The polemical momentum of the exhibition indicates that those Modernist experiences of layering are no longer compelling. That they can no longer encompass or accommodate the desires that impel contemporary painting. Layering in Superstratum is not concerned with the Modernist painting project of a reciprocal redemption of object and image. For the materiality that would draw attention to the condition of the painting as object is increasingly spectral if not entirely absent in these works; and where it is found it works to undo these terms of address.
In 1980 Julian Schnabel justified some morsel of the hype that attended his public persona when he painted Catholic Painting. The force of this, his best picture is expended almost entirely in composing a spatial event that is seen to project frontally, to lie on top of the picture plane. It is a painting aggressively and absolutely pre-occupied with the illusionistic fabrication of a superstratum. Is it then a precursor of the concerns of the present exhibition? Yes and no…
Within Modernist painting there lurked the seed of an ingrained hysteria about the identification of the physical support with the picture plane. Mondrian had shrewdly kept a lid on it. Hans Hofmann in his chromatic planar paintings held it in check too. But already in a work as early as Max Ernst’s At the First Clear Word (Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dűsseldorf), 1923 , there’s a statement of a possibility that will recur as a site of catastrophe, even a return of the repressed. The problem can be put quite simply: if the physical support is to be pictorialised in the moment of its identification with the picture plane – as in the monochrome where this identification is asserted chromatically - then why not imagine something in front of it? Why, in other words, shouldn’t the picture plane become the substratum for a further superstratum that will somehow occlude it by positing an event that projects forward from it? Looking from our situation today it’s perhaps hard to grasp why such a pictorial scenario should be construed as troubling. But think of it through the pictorial values manifested in the canonical works of Newman, Hofmann or Still. Despite the considerable differences, there is a discernible community of chosen constraints. In their oeuvres there’s a tacit consensus about spatial substance in painting: it’s that spatial substance is to be elaborated only by differences of colour, tone and mark, in concert with an emphatically lateral expansion of the painting as an aggregation of marked areas across the width and bigness of the canvas. Alongside these affirmations went a clutch of prohibitions: “No” to all the graphic signs for spatial depth, like the so-called orthogonal or inclined diagonal line that signified perspective, or the junctions of segmented lines as signs for one form overlapping another. Now you may think this version of American abstraction of the ‘50s sounds too much like Greenberg’s version. Perhaps so. But let’s get to the nub of the tale. What matters here is the claim that in Still, Newman and Hofmann the spatial grandeur of painting came to depend on a lateral proliferation of marked spaces. Pictorial grandeur here required physical bigness, hence their inability to make small paintings. The practice of generating pictorial space by lateral expansion had the strong implication that the primordial tension between the physicality of the painting and its pictorial or virtual apparition could be outflanked. Painters could behave as if it were resolvable, if not actually resolved. If space is elaborated solely by lateral expansion, then – in the terms of the present exhibition – the painting proposes itself only as stratum – without any ‘sub’ or ‘super’.
The dividing lines – the terms of a profound divergence about pictorial space - should now be more clearly apparent. As already implied, spatial complexity is, I claim, a central desideratum of painting – even and especially in ostensibly ‘simple’ configurations like Malevich’s Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman. If so, then we have two distinct solutions for generating that complexity within the horizon of a broad trans-Modernist inheritance. On the one hand, as per Newman’s Uriel, spatial complexity is offered by vertically divided colour zones that inflect the lateral continuation of the painting as stratum. On the other hand, as with Schnabel’s Catholic Painting and Ernst’s At the First Clear Word, there’s an insistence on something projecting in front of the picture plane, rendering the spatial development as a movement not parallel to the canvas, as in Newman’s lateral wanderings, but perpendicular to the picture plane to establish a projective superstratum.
2. Flatness, but not as (we think) we know it, Jim
I listened once to Benjamin Buchloh voicing utter distain for the idea that flatness is a concept needed for the understanding of modern painting. But while Greenberg’s flatness is generally understood and typically denigrated as an insistence on the physicality of the painting’s surface as a positive value to be rhetorically intensified in modern painting, what remains unexamined is Myron Stout’s radically different notion of flatness. Stout was an anomalous figure and sceptical fellow-traveller in American abstraction. An artist who courted obscurity due to an obsessive perfectionism that permitted him to finish barely a handful of paintings in the three decades up to his death in 1987, he was also an original writer of aphoristic notebooks. In one entry Stout sketched an idea of pictorial flatness as an inherently fictionalising apparatus that necessarily displaces itself from our habitual modes of everyday visual attention in which binocularity guarantees that we never see anything ‘in the flat:’ “I believe that flatness (as of the canvas, for instance) is something we never see, but only know.”  On this basis, flatness is not at all what would reconcile the virtual pictorial domain to the physicality of the painting as a real surface in the space of the lifeworld. Rather Stout implies that pictorial flatness is an apparatus that re-invents the viewing subject within a construction of the visual that is not translatable into the modes of seeing by which we navigate the everyday. What Stout fails to mention is that for his approach to make sense historically, it is surely necessary to add that this non-translatability of pictorial flatness is something we – as consumers of flat-screened imagery - have somehow forgotten or grown blind to. It follows from this that the task of de-familiarisation that could return us to an encounter with the immanence and non-equivalence of the domain of pictorial flatness is one that falls to painting. To that extent, it is possible to disagree with Buchloh here without becoming Greenbergian.
No doubt much of the work in this exhibition can be understood via Stout’s implied idea of a re-appraisal of pictorial flatness. But what about the comparison with the superstrata in Schnabel’s Catholic Painting? Schnabel operates in a way that’s more or less faithful to what I’ve described as the Modernist practice of identifying the picture plane with the surface of the canvas/support. Notwithstanding his violation of the purity of the picture plane, he presupposes its condition as stratum. You could say he accepts the consensus that I identified with Newman, Hofmann and Still in order to transgress its norms. In assembling the artworks that make up Superstratum, Perry Roberts and Michael Stubbs have intuited that this transgressive impulse remains beholden to the very Modernist precepts it wishes to defile. And more importantly, it no longer answers to the mimetic needs of the moment. Regarding the latter, Stubbs has talked in terms of the visuality of the computer screen with its illusionistic stacking and overlaying of windows that requires no materiality, save that of light. It is significant that here the possibility of a Newman-type identification of the canvas surface as pictorial stratum – an Urgrund beyond and behind which nothing is conceivable – is decisively cancelled: both because of the primordially illusionistic nature of the digital-pictorial as such, and because overlaying of windows-type layers is in principle unlimited, presenting layering as infinite accumulation and un-layering as infinite regress. It is in this sense that John Rajchman’s proposal of a ‘groundless ground’ has some plausibility.  For on the screen, as we shift between programmes and folders or browse the net, we find no equivalent to the Ur-ground. If we adopt the screen then as the emblem of the contemporary optic, we presumably regard contemporary painting as somehow marking a return to a quasi-classical conception of its task as one of illusionistic affect. As Carroll Dunham recently noted,  the conversation about the physicality of the painting as an object - and with it what above I have called the project of a reciprocal redemption of object and image - seems to have ended. Elsewhere I have argued that this newly hatched consensus contains crucial blind spots.  But let it suffice to note here that the range of work in Superstratum acknowledges intelligently that the alleged cancellation of materiality in contemporary painting is not quite a done deal. The intelligence lies in suggesting that materiality can persist as a key affective dimension of painting only if its terms are re-written. DJ Simpson’s subtractive line-cutting operation on his panels, Cedric Christie’s cars, Adrian Schiess’s assemblages, Danny Rolph’s perspex constructions, Arturo Herrera’s papercuts, Imi Knoebel’s collages and Joyce Kim’s collage-assisted scaffolds all count as moves in a conversation with Modernist materiality. Perry Roberts’s recent paintings, like Michael Stubbs’s and Clare Woods’s work towards a diminished materiality, resulting in something more akin to the continuous surface associated with the varnished skin of an Old Master painting than to the opaque porosity of a Hofmann or Still. With Stubbs and Roberts this surface serves a spatial encounter that is neither that of the Modernist stratum nor the classical substratum.
If we are to think about the possibilities of such painting via the suggestion that I have ventriloquised as Stout’s, then how could the re-thinking of pictorial flatness intersect with the modes of visuality associated with screen addiction? Whatever happens in this intersection, it can’t be that painting merely re-stages the characteristics of the screen through paint. Indeed, one consequence of the trans-Modernist inheritance of contemporary painting described by this exhibition is that painting cannot behave as if entirely mimetic or transitive. What the polemic of the exhibition points to above all is a resounding loss of the stratum in contemporary painting, closely interwoven with a decisive re-invoking of illusionistic space. The rhetoric of the stratum that I have tied to Modernism above – whereby the physical surface of the work is identified with the picture plane – is no longer iterable: n other words, no longer sayable, repeatable, visualisable. Painted marks are seen now as behind or in front of the picture plane, never just on it or at it. Sub or super, never just stratum. The challenge now is to render painted marks such they are somehow simultaneously substratum and superstratum, although it ought to be impossible. Isn’t this exactly why DJ Simpson’s lines are cut into his panels? And isn’t this why Perry Roberts’s coloured overlays are made up of the negative strips displaced by masking tape? It’s not only the devil that’s in the practical detail of the making. Painting can continue to be done precisely so long as it can bring these kinds of logical impasse to blossom. Doing that is not a matter of cerebral calculation or intentions that the mind forms as words: it is rather an identification with the arena of making as a crucible of immanent thinking. The superstratum is visualised through practice.
 Charles Harrison ‘On the Surface of Painting’ in Harrison’s Essays on Art and Language, Cambridge, Mass. & London: The MIT Press, 2001 (original publication: Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), p.175.
 This relatively neglected work sets itself apart from Ernst’s other paintings by its scale. The difference is explained by its original context: it was painted as a mural for Paul Eluard’s house in Eaubonne.
 Myron Stout, quoted in Michael Auping (ed.) Abstraction, Geometry, Painting: Selected Geometric Abstract Painting in America Since 1945, New York: Harry N Abrams & Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1989, p.132.
 John Rajchman ‘Grounds’ in Rajchman’s Constructions, Cambridge, Mass. & London: The MIT Press, 1998, p.77-89. However, I suspect that Rajchman’s moves in this text can be applied much more easily to architecture than to painting.
 Carroll Dunham interviewed by Matthew Ritchie, in Dan Cameron (ed.) Carroll Dunham Paintings, New York: The New Museum & Hatje Cantz, 2003.
 In my text ‘On Disappearance and Display’, in The Worst & The Best: Yearbook 2007-2008, National Academy of Fine Arts, Oslo, 2008, p21-23.
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