1a Princeton Street, London WC1R 4AX


new work by
15th September - 1st October 2011

Private View Wednesday 14th September 6-9pm

Thur-Fri 10-6 Sat 11-2

or by appointment




Matthew Collings



I'm an image hunter. The ones I choose, daily news images from the Internet, remind me of paintings I want to make. They have abstract qualities, space, gesture. The photos for the series of burqua paintings I have been working on were chosen for their painterly qualities. It's usually a domestic setting. I felt the veiled women were enigmatic, crying out to be taken seriously, attention seeking even. I liked the spatial flow of the cloth, the weight of the image and also its lightness, which I wanted to convey, the expression of freedom through repression. The veil has a painterly quality. The painted surface reveals and conceals, a skin and also a painted skin.



Coherent, achieved paintings that reward looking and re-looking, how often does this happen? The more frequent contemporary formula is a semblance of energy or well-known sign for it, in support of pat, neat, clichéd social meaning, often involving a crassly imposed graphic lay out. With these new paintings by Howard Dyke, which could easily be applauded by the new bosses of art for affirming current orthodox ideas of meaning, that doesn’t seem to be the deal exactly: his lay-outs and his rich painterly space zing off each other and are mutually dependent, genuinely mutually energising. A two-hundred year build-up of ideas about aesthetics results in a sort of divided up space in Cubism or Abstract Expressionism, say, where we don’t tell ourselves that hideous deformed monsters are being pictured, or cosmic explosions anticipating cheesy special effects in Star Trek. Instead, life or existence is expressed, with certain visual ideas serving as metaphors for how reality was experienced in those times. This mindset, in which art is given maximum dignity, instead of being thought of as something repulsively derisory and empty, and serving only money or fashion (it might serve both but they aren't assumed to be its only priorities, and in fact its real priority is completely arbitrary to them) is the context for Howard's witty paintings.




Conventionally we expect art to say something. If it's representation our first thought is likely to be that the statement is about the represented object, or maybe "life," which is approached via this object, which will be some kind of metaphor. If it's abstract we might expect life, or whatever, to be expressed by structures that don’t build into an image of a thing in the world with which we're familiar, as such, but feel are right in any case. (Maybe they relate to something profoundly important in human life like light, and from that metaphorical accuracy they are able to express wider or deeper meaning.) Like opponents facing each other across a ping pong table, we see that there are abstract structures on the one hand, in Howard's paintings, and on the other imagery or fragments of imagery that are more or less recognisable (requiring greater or lesser hints from his titles). But if this play-off of this vs that is happening at all it isn't the reason the paintings are good. His burqua imagery (which might change to the President of China getting some exercise, a heroic portrait of Ghaddafi or a playful representation of Tripoli, looking something like a map or aerial photo) is joined with abstract structures without one element necessarily "saying" anything about the other. Something happens nevertheless, which is that you can't settle into a routine response to either, because each is defined by the other visually, if not philosophically or linguistically. The lively energy of the space in which a symbolic burqua silhouette appears to be buzzing and pulsing cannot be mentally abstracted from the headline meaning or meanings of a burqua.



Everyone knows wearing a face veil has become political. For example, currently in Belgium, Italy and France there are government bans recently set up on veil wearing in certain places, including public transport and state schools. In Britain there hasn't been a ban so far but recently there was a row over Jack Straw's request that any burqua wearing female Muslim constituent who might wish to meet with him in his office should first remove her veil.


These are facts of life, but this isn’t the place to say more about them, because in Howard's paintings the burqua doesn’t offer itself as a nuanced discourse on what's going on in society. And yet the paintings are highly nuanced and subtle, they are surprisingly visually rich, surprising in a general art context of the present in which painting usually follows a much more predictable and clichéd path as far as significance is concerned. In his case we're looking at paintings that have been resolved as paintings to a very high level in a certain painterly tradition. The resolution is greater than is actually necessary for a game of mere meaning to work. (The game he isn’t playing might be a brittle, easily resolvable non-sequitur: the sight of burquas for non-Muslims can have a sort of alienated familiarity about it that strongly suggests the strangeness of modernity, plus abstract painting is always a bit inexplicable.) Far from that, we feel we're seeing the results of honed, tough, experienced critical judgement as to what makes a work of art worth looking at.


Imagine a dialogue starting up (it could be in an art school seminar or on Facebook) about various artworks, from history and the present, which have in common that they can all be said to have something about them that looks good. Someone says perhaps looking good has always been important in the history of art. That might lead to a significant conclusion: in the practical making of a kind of art where how things look is important, consideration actually has to be paid in a tuned-up, concentrated, ongoing and ever present way to how things in the work are looking, and changes have to be made in order to get it to look better rather than worse. This process is evident and it can be a kind of content, maybe a very important kind. Another thought arises. What if there are general principles regarding art's ability to look good, even laws? For example, it looks bad when there is no sense of symmetry, unity, order, pattern, rhythm, organisation, limits, economy, structure and so on. And no space, or consistent sense of space, would be another one.

The speed of Howard's space creation, which is exhilarating, just as the actual structures he creates seem admirably clinched and satisfying, might have a symbolism all of its own. What would it be? This speed is familiar from a certain painterly strand of modernism, now very old: the look of any painting by Jackson Pollock, for example, from the 1940s. Repetition is in everything human but in current art the particularly striking form it tends to take is postmodern repetition of things (shapes, layouts, colour combinations, etc) from modernism. Modernism can be seen as an essentialist repetition of things that modernism considers worth keeping from the pre-modern art, that which modernists felt could still be believed in. When postmodernism repeats modernism it does so from postmodernism's anti-essentialist position (nothing can be believed in, everything is relative, mutable and unreliable). Howard's swishing marks and flung paint say something about essence and emptiness - what is emptiness for? Can old modernism be relevant to new modern experience, and in what way, by slowing experience down or affirming its empty speediness?

But the members of the dialogue group might all then ask if those insights they came up with a paragraph ago, are important for all art of all times, or only a trivial aspect of all art, or only important in trivial art, and do ideas of trivial and important come from changes in society, or is society grateful for art's expression -- relying on internal art laws, such as symmetry, etc, based on centuries of tradition -- of society's changing notions of reality? If they come from society, where the state of looking good is obviously not or shouldn't be the most important consideration, that is, compared to society actually being good, then there might not be an issue at all about how good or bad art looks, because it's only relative. One of the members might say, 'Let the ones who are troubled by this kind of doubt about art looking good do their own thing. Let us others continue to investigate the rules and principles we've noticed.' Another of them is that if you just obey laws without bringing in an element of surprise then things in art won’t look good, they will look dead. The rest of the participants pipe up, 'Is surprise then another law, or is it a necessary exception to obedience? Or is surprise actually individual expressiveness, or emotion, or something? And can a whole system of art looking good be based on surprise, is that what great art is about?' No, is the response from the group leader, about emotion, but yes to surprise as a law.


Howard poses an overloaded image of "strange" modernity, standing for different kinds of repression (they are repressed by their culture, our culture represses their culture) against something else: splashy abstracts redolent of the upper echelon worlds of the museum and the art market. 'Posed' suggests he doesn’t mean it. It's not that he does, but sincerity is not relevant to the structural thing he is doing. Rather than posed against each other, the readable elements and the abstract ones are actually visually integrated or amalgamated. Figurative symbol is composed as loosely as scrawled abstraction. And in fact they don’t really separate out visually (it's only when they're translated linguistically that they do that). And the end result isn’t loose at all but tight. An independent painterly structure that expresses nothing but itself is amalgamated with another structure, an instantly readable symbol, but the symbol has the same painterliness and is part of the same structure as the abstraction.


If the burquas are instant and their associations include immediate but also distant impressions -- repression (west against east and east against itself), the War on Terror, new societal divisions, freedom as a lie of consumerism, identity politics, daily news that offers only lies, various religious fundamentalisms -- and if all this crowding of ideas follows a gradual and still ongoing splintering of racist obviousness after the typical projections of the 1970s (there goes another Saudi shoplifter in Harrods) -- then what are the associations of the other element, painterly spontaneous abstraction?



The images that attract me are the ones that seem to have the whole of painting's history in them. What I mean by that is they are iconic in some way, not because they are famous images but because they are everyday pictures that have no intention or knowledge of how latently charged they are. It’s a purely intuitive gut feeling when I find an image that I like, as it immediately reminds me of a painting I want to make and It has all the attributes for me to work with. I want to create something new and optimistic from it with expression and wit. I want there to be a tension between subject matter and material gesture.

I work quite loosely then change the pace with the collaged elements. These migrate around the studio from painting to painting, changing destination until they sit comfortably in their new surroundings. The scars from previous works are taken with them and finally inserted into a new scene. I use oil paint with coloured reflective tape, with which I will draw the framework of the figures. Pieces of graphic design fall in to the mix, the cover of the Yellow Pages, for example, or CDs, fine art colour charts, Pantone colour samples, house-paint colour swatches. These are elements that provide detail, they might make crude formal facial features, or the tape might describe the folds in fabric, the colour chart might be the breathing mesh of a veil. Not anything can come in to the painting though, it has to add a twist, be formal, light and humorous but never ironic. It is always a visual necessity.


When I see an image I like and want to use I don't look much into its source, it gives me a gut feeling and I immediately transcribe it into a painting in my mind. I'll take many down to the studio to work from and some make it while others don't. I don't question why I want to use it too heavily so as not to talk myself out of it. I saw the Burqua clad women in the images I used as being made into outcasts. They were punks with a dress code that wasn't understood. People were scared of them and looked away, they couldn't look them in the eye. It made me want to represent them as an abstract expressive artistic movement. I feel I could go on painting them forever, like Gary Hume's doors. But the series has come to an end now. I also saw the figures in these images as the solitary figure in the studio looking for expression but unable to break out of the historical conventions to which the figure is tied. That's why the figures are portrayed as light and free but I guess still constrained within the framework of the stretcher and canvas. One of the paintings is called United burqua front. It's painted on translucent, lightweight polyester, a material that I feel fits with the subject matter.


'United Front'



He values wit in painting but he doesn’t think what he does is ironic. I think he means he doesn’t feel disengaged or as if what he is doing is only to relativise different languages. I think he is a witty painter whose painterly energy makes sense because he whips up intellectual or philosophical possibilities with the same lively casualness that he flings painterly drips or cuts out holes in the canvas, or collages CDs onto them. The same wit that runs through a kind of artistic expression whose impact on art-orthodoxy was first felt in the late 1970s and early 80s, mid-period Malcolm Morley, new arrival Albert Oehlen, posthumous Philip Guston, for example (all with their varying emotional registers). What was once fresh has became congested into law, and current positions in the art-world would indeed generally support what Howard does, but to resort to them would be misleading. He is a breath of fresh air rather than a good student. The new laws, which arise from the recent hegemony of socially dutiful conceptualism, which enthralls a new vast popular audience just as much as art insiders, go something like this: painting has been totally deconstructed and nothing can be believed in. Society has certain meanings that have a sort

'Woman wearing burqua, in the loung, with dragonfly lights'

of cliché form, understandable both on a popular and academic level.If you put both these ingredients together, empty visual play and societal jokes, then significance worthy of applause will ensue. A political statement will happen, and the standard painter's classic psychological state of residual lonely romanticism will be redeemed.



These laws are philistine in that they don’t care if paintings are good or not, only if they mean something, or are relevant to some kind of shared urgent sense of contemporaneity, which of course has nothing to do with the history of forms. I see Howard's attitude to current positions as pretty healthy. He treats them only like his other materials, something to go in the mix that can always be taken out again. His priority is not obedience but honour. He honours history (at least his own sense of it). Attaching CDs to a canvas for their shine and circularity, or turning a painting around to reveal the stretcher bars for their rectangles, is a little bit culturally kaleidoscopic and deconstructive (respectively) but a lot more simply painterly, in line with the shimmer and glow of Delacroix, which honours Rubens. (Delacroix said, enviously, "Damn him! How various he is!") Or the redoing of the pulsing luminosity of sixteenth-century Venetian painting (which comes a lot from artists internalizing patterned mosaic art whose traditions went back a thousand years) through new graphic means by Bridget Riley -- as if the flat, ironic and popular swinging sixties were honouring the sheer awesome unknowable paganism of the Flaying of Marsyas.



A contemporary academic will say that value judgements in art are important but they have to be constantly renegotiated, because things change and you have to be ever alert. But if such judgements have to be constantly renegotiated then they're not about value in a way that could have much use for art at a serious level. At this level it might be argued that anything unfamiliar and substantial that you might come across in an art gallery will demand a renegotiating of values, and maybe even anything new at all in art of whatever level of achievement
slightly "demands" this. But this is the opposite sense to current academic "constant renegotiation." The academic meaning is that you imbibe a new doctrine every now and then and obediently apply the new rules uniformly to every situation that comes up. As opposed to that (which seems to have nothing to do with art), a more artistically useful sense of "renegotiation" is that you get used to reflecting on why any art, whether it's from history or the present, from your own familiar territory or somewhere else, is ever impressive at all. And you reflect on the recurring things that seem to go into this impressiveness, and keep drawing your own conclusions regardless of whatever new academic fad comes and goes.


`Hu Jintau Playing Table Tennis'


I work with impersonal mass media imagery in which I see abstract motifs that i like. I was particularly interested in a picture I found of Hu Jintau playing table tennis. I loved the action. Plus the red bat, in which I thought I saw the communist flag. So the painting became an allover abstract image revolving around this stationary red circle in the middle that seemed to lay rule over the fast chaotic imagery around it.



Expressionism, Neo-Expressionism, deconstructed painting, ironic painting, conceptual painting, what are they? The terms describe a history of moves, all of them dealing with a dual mode. Anger, speed and energy make up one of them, and emptiness, lightness and nothingness make up the other, but in practice, that is, as you're looking, they seem interchangeable. Passion is materiality, the manipulation of the medium, and musicality, the harmonious balance of unpredictable differences.

The reflective tape that Howard uses, with its bold flat colour, ensures a sort of visual continuity of straight lines between the mechanical grid of the collaged colour charts and primitive arm-thrashing brush strokes. This sounds pedantic, like a teacher ordering the class to obey the laws of painting. But it's really just to spell out what a painterly decision is. Lines of bright tape are deployed in one painting like a UK traffic sign, and in another the same kind of tape makes a jazzy abstract rhythm with little colour swatches, which resemble blips or asterisks, or simplified explosions. A visual language for describing or suggesting the folds of burquas is made up from drips, pours and spatters. Overlaid collage elements slow down the reading. They're in a different register and it might not be too fanciful to think of this change of registers, which can be clearly seen to be happening, as paralleling or providing a metaphor for all the bewildering shades of meaning that burquas have now, from contradictory and fuzzy to directly urgent.

The paintings tend to organise themselves into massive, graphic blocks, which simultaneously might symbolise something but also set up delicious visual flickering: one block treated in a certain way, buzzing and humming in relation to other blocks treated differently. Blocks or areas that have their own richness but also scintillate in relation to adjacent areas: this theme runs through the history of art, wherever painting is painterly, and is apparent for example, in Raphael, as much as it is in deKooning or Braque.


Things might have got into Howard's paintings initially in a state of frenzy, but decisions will also have been made that cause you to see those things' structural importance. A colour choice (a contour describing a fold in a woman's burqua, or maybe the veiled head of another woman entering the frame) will be about deliberately upsetting the colour register that has been maintained up to the moment of the new choice. Not in order to celebrate desperado-ism, but the opposite, musically asserting the main register. The dark verticals in an intricate mechanically printed colour chart grid (a visual metaphor for the niquab or face veil) are echoed on a giant scale by a lurching pour of dark paint (visual metaphors for the jilbab or l o o s e b o d y - c o v e r i n g, p l u s the hijab, the h e a d - c o v e r i n g ) . A collaged section of canvas cut out from an area of drips and stuck on a different painting visually echoes a mechanically printed design on a bit of cheap fabric that is also collaged onto that painting, so both make up a figurative illusion that stands for the planes of General Ghaddafi's self designed military headgear (think of the fragmented decorated planes in Picasso's Absinthe Glass). The crude spontaneity of the dripped lines seems to be calmed down because of its visual repetition or echo by the fabric pattern, and likewise the mechanical fabric pattern livens up because of the adjacent drips.



Howard looks for rhythm, pacing out the histrionics, but on the other hand not allowing strategic elements to dominate. If there are laws then one that can never be broken is the law of surprise. It must be seen to be operating. He cannot just obey a formula, even if the formula is one of abandonment.

The blobs and spatters, the darkness with its strewn milky ways of overlaid brightness, at once tonal and chromatic (red thrown over purple, for instance). Broad frantic right-hand gestural bar-like lines, enjoyably angular and wobbly at the same time: and the strategically placed blob of circular red intensity, whose purely pictorial effect Howard describes as, "To lay rule over the fast chaotic imagery around it." The president of China plays ping-pong with someone ordinary in a camp in Hong Kong in 2007 for a photo opportunity. One of the resulting syndicated images becomes the basis for an abstract structure that has been pressurized in a certain way so that a figurative meaning results, which is antithetical to the allover abstract rhythmic meaning that the generic abstract style suggests. Instead of pulsing rhythmic energy that constantly changes, we're offered a sort of small power zone (red blob), and another larger zone (everything else) that is subject to the initial red zone. At least, we're offered it, but the offer is only part of another offer: the other one is the stabilizing and maintaining of a certain ideal painting structure that doesn't care about politics, and which is indeed all-over, rhythmic and pulsing, and celebrates only itself. Or its celebration of life, or the moment, or the times, or the era, is done via an abstract painting that has an immediately delicious effect. All its parts click-clack back and forth and in and out, like Cubism and Jackson Pollock.


Cubism and Jackson Pollock -- why mention them when they're over, or relegated, and a whole load of other excitements now define our global cultural moment? Howard is a painter on a totally new scene. Whatever was established before has been joined by realities unimaginable the first time round. New markets, new ideas, homegrown and imported, and new exports out to the new market hot zones: India, China and the Middle East. These are in the news all the time, because they are where the power is going. It flows out there, comes back, and flows out again, rhythmically pulsing. Will China really be the new red-hot zone? Will Howard's paintings appear in the auctions that Sotheby's and Christie's have been staging in the Middle East for years, where Neo Pop paintings of the Arabic word "LOVE" spelled out in Swarofski fake diamonds sell for a million dollars, and are hyped as "spiritual"? Chinese paintings of grinning men: will his burqua abstracts be wheeled across the auction stage along with them? Let's hope so, because that would be a measure of his success. But let's not lose sight of the fact that the true success of his paintings has got little to do with mad fads and goes much deeper. If he never sold anything again his success is still real.



Howard is a painterly painter in an identifiable tradition, which itself is part of a greater one. Obvious signs of the modern made unobvious by painterly treatment, in his work, tell us that that this tradition, initially European-centric, then Euro-American, is now rocked by new elements but there is still no real sense in which it is over or dead. Two hundred years of aesthetics and a head-scratching, chin-stroking musing over quality in art, supposedly gives way to something global and new, and it's good riddance to mystifications. But is it really a transition or are we just fixated temporarily on a set of teases on a rhetorical theme of change? Howard's burqua paintings remind us of art's new globalism. But the painterly treatment that provides his iconic symbols with their substance, so they are elevated from slogans or sayings to something a bit more visually rich and worth having, tells us that aesthetic meaning is not a lie to shore up power positions. There is an argument that what visual cultures beyond or prior to the European-American tradition had in mind cannot be known. And since we now have post imperial priorities it is only right that an attitude of polite respect should characterise any encounter with these unknowns, rather than an arrogant imposition of a totally irrelevant value system of aesthetics. But how irrelevant is it, when the teases themselves never depart from it, and in fact constantly reinstate it in order to have a focus for the tease? Isn't it more likely that the old aesthetic set up is being questioned or renegotiated but not in anything like the wholesale or degree zero way that western academic questioners often seem to imagine? As one notable spokesperson of former times once declared: "We can’t put the genie back in the box." What the aging Clement Greenberg meant by this comment, was that society having changed, art hasn't in fact reverted to a position before the advent of modernism. Postmodernism is only another layer of self-consciousness, not a ridding of self-consciousness itself (modernism's cause). Art's new globalism only means that new groups have elected to go along with ideas established initially faraway, and if Howard's veiled women have something to say it is that rather than a lot of unknowns to which special respect must be paid it's more a situation now of everyone knowing what everyone else knows and getting on with it from there.


'Huevos Rancheros'



Private View Invite


Saatchi Gallery acquisition

Shortlisted for The Threadneddle prize




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