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Boxed In: Loosening Up The Modernist Grid
Fisun Güner , September 3rd, 2017 15:07

Blain | Southern's current group exhibition, Playground Structure, explores a more playful approach to that icon of modern art: the grid

Installation View, Playground Structure, 2017, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern, Photo Peter Mallet

“Drawing is taking a line for a walk,” wrote Paul Klee, an artist who embraced spontaneity and playfulness, while also being one of the most studiedly theoretical artists of the 20th century.

But what about the lines of a grid? Is there not something a little mean-spirited, something rather repressed about the modernist grid? When discipline threatens to overrule intuition is there room to play, to imaginatively roam, to improvise? Didn’t even Mondrian loosen up and get playful when he left Europe for New York and painted the pulsing rhythms of the city? It’s hard to imagine, but Mondrian loved to dance, and those Boogie-Woogie paintings swing, even though they still respect the integrity of the grid.

And grids can touch on the sublime. Agnes Martin, an artist who was obsessive in the repetition of her mark-making, created large canvases with hundreds of tiny squares which you can often only make out by looking very closely. She was an artist meticulously measured and controlled, yet her coloured surfaces shimmer.

Blain Southern’s Playground Structure takes its title from a Jeff Wall photograph of 2008 which features a child’s climbing frame, a structure of grids within grids that, in another context, could be a modernist sculpture. And the artists in this exhibition have each taken the idea of the grid and played around with it, broken it up, dissolved its lines, made it play optical tricks. Most of the works are by living artists, spanning the last five decades, from a recent past in which abstract painting was far more in vogue, to a present where artists delight in conversing with abstract painting’s history.

The oldest works are from the early 70s, by the American West Coast painter Ed Moses, whose gorgeous, delicate dabs of colour undermine the austerity of his grids and create an illusion of shallow depth, and by the late British artist Jeremy Moon, whose resolutely flat and unmodulated grids have a hard-edged simplicity. Those two opposing approaches to the grid inform this exhibition. .

Installation View, Playground Structure, 2017, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern, Photo Peter Mallet

Dan Sturgis’s red and white chequered squares create an Op art illusion using two subtly different shades of red to pick out differential shapes and disorientate the gaze. He does the same in monochrome, but it’s the seductive colours that first engage you in this exhibition: Joan Snyder’s painterly multi-coloured panel of squares with their bleeding edges; Rachel Howard’s floral red and yellow canvas, the biggest in the exhibition, that resembles the kind of velvety embossed wallpaper you used to see a lot of in the 1970s, though the painting, Symptoms and Side Effects, was painted last year; Ed Moses’ criss-crossing masking-tape strips, paint-splattered in pastel hues, and resembling a new spool of rope-thread; and Dan Walsh’s stacked, neatly delineated lozenges whose patterns carry a certain nostalgia for 1970s book cover designs.

Finally, there’s Mary Heilmann, who recently had a solo show at the Whitechapel Gallery, with an off-kilter cross painted in sugary pink against a pale backdrop in Pink Synergie, 2011. In a 1979 essay called 'Grids', the influential American critic Rosalind Krauss argued that artists in the early 20th century used the grid to signal an absolute break from the past, towards a purity of form. Today, artists are returning to the grid to signal a playful response to that era of austere forms. Heilmann’s cross is a perfect example: a playful response to Malevich’s forbidding black cross.

Rather than bold colour, modular forms or a concern for symmetry, Rachel Howard’s fascination with texture brings us to the two most intriguing paintings of the exhibition. Broken Grid Theory, 2017, presents a grid that cannot hold. Its fragile black marks break, curl away and dissolve, making the break-away threads of the grid in the centre of the canvas resemble cracks in the paint, or fissures in the dead earth. Meanwhile, Howard’s If it Feels Like This, 2016, has the grid breaking into stippled marks as if the canvas has been frenetically punctured with a sharp implement. That illusion holds even if you peer very closely.

Featuring just nine artists, this is an intriguing and seductive exhibition exploring the possibilities of the modernist grid with fresh vigour. If you want to know where abstract painting is currently at, you shouldn’t miss it.

Playground Structure is at Blain | Southern until 16 September, 2017