Art reviews: David Batchelor | Garry Fabian Miller

Flatlands, by David Batchelor. Picture: Ruth Clark
Flatlands, by David Batchelor. Picture: Ruth Clark
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MANY years ago the American abstract expressionist painter, Robert Motherwell told me an amusing anecdote about Mondrian. When the Dutch painter first arrived in New York in 1940, Motherwell and another young painter, William Baziotes, were delegated to show him around.

David Batchelor: Flatlands

Fruitmarket, Edinburgh

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Garry Fabian Miller: The Middle Place

Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh

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At one point they were sitting in a sidewalk cafe by Central Park. Politely they had put Mondrian on the inside facing out, but then he asked if he could change places with Motherwell. Motherwell said, Of course, but why? So I don’t have to look at the trees, said Mondrian. You will never find green in Mondrian’s mature painting. The trees in Central Park disturbed his sense of the city’s energy. He saw it as something purely urban and celebrated it in the New York Boogie Woogie series. His last paintings, they are pictures of the urban dance of streets and lights and traffic. Mondrian loved dancing and Motherwell also described how he and Baziotes sat out while he danced with their wives in turn.

It was David Batchelor’s paintings at the Fruitmarket that reminded me of this conversation. Batchelor is in the tradition of Mondrian and he too thinks of himself as an urban painter. But trained in the 1970s, he belonged to a generation brought up to distrust painting as too easy and vitiated by sentimentality, exactly Mondrian’s complaint about green as a colour. Colour too was out for the 70s generation. Without it, there wasn’t much. Batchelor had to find his way back to painting and indeed to colour without falling into the trap of sentimentality. Traditional paints were too close to the kind of painting he wanted to get away from. “I wanted the work to be more about the city,” he said, about the colours you see on cars and on the streets. That was Mondrian’s point, too, of course.

A lot of artists abandoned painting altogether, but some have followed the route that Batchelor has taken since then, turning their back on traditional painting and going to almost any length to show that was what they were doing. Most of them have stopped at that, however, and so their painting doesn’t get much further than declaring: “Look at me. Aren’t I modern? I am not using fuddy-duddy old oil paint. I am using bright, modern industrial paint!” Or they use model makers’ Humbrol paints, or whatever as though the only point was not to use traditional media and there was no need to look further. David Batchelor has done much more than that, however. He uses industrial paint, certainly, but has found a way to make vivid and lively art where the point is what it looks like and how it works visually, not what kind of a substance it is. In fact he has reconnected with the radical tradition in painting that goes back to Mondrian and indeed to Malevich, but manages not to be remotely sentimental, even when he uses green, a colour he actually rather likes.

Batchelor is best known as a sculptor, but his show at the Fruitmarket is called Flatlands and is all two-dimensional drawings and paintings. The most recent work in the show is a copy of the magazine October from 1976. As obfuscating labels have replaced art works, as language has replaced art, this was one of the journals which began the rot, introducing into English the hermetic art language of French Structuralism. Having had the magazine (which happens to be issue no.1) since it was published, Batchelor has eventually found the visual language to challenge its sterility. It is a sterility he observes which was perfectly colourless. Colour was simply not part of what it had to say about art. In fact he found the word used just once, so he has put that right and decorated its pages with abstractions in lively colour reminiscent of Paul Klee, reclaiming the conversation for art and for the imagination.

In his Atomic Drawings he explores shape and colour with the same freedom. Klee comes to mind again, but in his paintings he also looks back to Delaunay, however, who had a profound influence on Klee, and so to the beginning of the tradition of pure colour painting. Delaunay wanted colour alone to provide form in painting. Nothing gives a sense of colour as a tangible substance, as form in fact, to compare with the sensation when you open a new tin of paint. “It’s a truly lovely moment,” says Batchelor. “It’s liquid, highly reflective and gorgeous; but it is difficult to keep the paint as good as it was in the can.” I think Delaunay would have shared his delight, but as Batchelor observes “The more you mess with it, the more you lose.” So he set out to capture that magical sensation of colour as a substance in his Blob Paintings. Mostly big they have a simple format, just the eponymous blob on a white background with a black rectangle. In them the paint itself has a physical presence that is almost sculptural.

Compositionally, the Blob Paintings have grown out of Batchelor’s Atomic Drawings, but it is paint that gives them their unique quality. He pours lit onto pure white card – canvas is still out – to make a puddle. He then manipulates the card till the puddle forms a satisfactory shape. The puddle dries glossy, but with geometrical patterns across its surface. So he keeps the purity of the paint and keeps the sense of it as a substance too. He has got it out of the tin without messing it about. Then he puts a contrasting matt black rectangle underneath. This may read as a plinth and so the work becomes sculpture, or it can be a horizon, so it becomes a painting. Either way, though it sounds so simple, the works are delightful. It is not often that contemporary painting is simply a pleasure to be with like this.

At the Ingleby Gallery, Gary Fabian Miller has made a similar journey from the flatlands of the 1970s, but by way of photography. His current show revisits his beginnings at the end of that decade in a set of 40 photographs, half of a set of 80, that he made over a year and a half from a fixed viewpoint on the Bristol Channel looking north over the water towards Wales. Not only was the viewpoint fixed, the horizon was established at exactly the halfway point of a square image, dividing it geometrically. The camera settings were fixed too, so both the artist and the camera were neutral, or almost so. In fact the artist chose the moments. Nevertheless, it is really only the light and the weather that change within the rigidly anti-sentimental geometry of the image. The results are beautiful and very varied; the sun sets, or the view is closed by cloud; Port Talbot in Wales appears dimly in the far distance; or a sandbar, visible at the lowest tide, makes a sharp drawn line in the water; it is still or it is windy and the sea is calm or troubled grey. The pictures are a fascinating compromise between landscape and abstraction.

Like Batchelor’s drawings, too, but by a quite different route, they led Miller back to colour and purely abstract imagery. This is seen in a small group of recent photographs made without a camera, but simply by manipulating light, colour and photographic paper in the dark room. If I began with Motherwell, these latest images of rectangles edged with glowing colour floating against a dark ground take us back to Rothko and so through Miller’s own early landscape photographs to the great tradition of landscape painting. And like Batchelor’s work, so different in other respects, it is purged of all sentimentality.

Best in Show

“A perverse displacement intended to mystify” is a typical phrase from the journal October. It could apply to the journal itself, in 1976 herald of the pernicious invasion of visual art by French literary structuralism. David Batchelor kept his copy and has now decorated it with abstract shapes and colours letting characteristic passages and words give its flavour, reclaiming art from perverse displacement.

• David Batchelor until 14 July; Garry Fabian Miller until 13 July