Craig Staff / Painting of the Week

Painting of the Week: 63

Photo Ghosts and the Labyrinth Drips on the Void

Lydia Dona, Photo Ghosts and the Labyrinth Drips on the Void, 1996, oil, acrylic, and sign paint on canvas, 213.4 x 162.6 cm.

As a fledgling artist studying at an art school in London during the 1990s, the group critique was a standard, and often interrogative mode of tuition. During one of these sessions I recall one of the tutors who was in attendance explaining that the fundamental difference between modernism and postmodernism in the visual arts is that modernism should be seen as fundamentally vertical in orientation whereas postmodernism should be understood within a set of terms that are horizontal.

Although I remain to this day unsure of the provenance of this idea, it is one that maintains a certain usefulness in terms of trying to establish the salient points of difference between the two historical periods.  For if modernism, (or at least one account of modernism) was hierarchical, continually striving upwards towards a more purified, transcendent and ultimately autonomous realm, away from the messiness and the vicissitudes of everyday life, then the freedom postmodernism afforded meant that the artist was able to range over and draw upon any number of contextual sources and historical moments, all of which had the same intrinsic value. No doubt this is why postmodernism frequently sought recourse to what could only be described as a form of pastiche, itself a mixture of one part ironic quotation added to one part cultural borrowing.  Given this understanding, and given the fact that postmodernism as a critical term still had some currency during the 1990s, it would appear to make sense to bring such an interpretive toolkit to Photo Ghosts and the Labyrinth Drips on the Void, a painting made by Lydia Dona in 1996.

Certainly the painting utilises a range of approaches to mark-making and the generation of form, ranging from intense linear gesticulations to areas that are more vaporous and indeterminate. These two approaches are then played off against both flatter areas of blue and what appears to be, towards the bottom left hand corner of the painting, an incipient armature that nestles between the flatter areas of colour and the painterly marks that appear to have been directly flung onto the painting’s surface, à la Jackson Pollock. Indeed, Dona’s painting in one sense could be seen as conforming to, if not demonstrative of the aforementioned definition of postmodernism. As well as a series of Pollockesque drips, ostensibly one could also discern direct quotations from, inter alia, Piet Mondrian, Yves Klein and even James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

However, and having said that, I think that this aspect of the painting is perhaps what is least interesting about it; certainly what gives it a certain resonance is the way it functions as some form of visual ecosystem. By generating novel forms through strategic juxtapositions, Photo Ghosts and the Labyrinth Drips on the Void more broadly presented a riposte to the leveled out, pastiche-strewn rhetoric of postmodernism. And in so doing, provided a glimpse of what the landscape of post-postmodernism might look like, not only for abstract painting, but for art generally. CS

After Modernist PaintingCraig Staff is an artist and currently Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Northampton. His new book, After Modernist Painting

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