High on Hope is a group show that was conceived as a memorial exhibition for the late Gerard Hemsworth (1945-2021). It includes eight artists who were taught by him on the MA Fine Art programme at Goldsmiths in the 1980s and 1990s, in addition to work by Hemsworth himself. Gentle glimpses of Hemsworth’s philosophy and pedagogy begin to make themselves known through the work of these eight artists, who curator Rebecca Scott sees as sharing an engagement with a type of ‘post-conceptual figurative or representational painting’.
Throughout the show, certain motifs and visual dynamics are echoed by individual works, including modes of visual interpretations and punctuation, along with the use of space and subtext. In this way, High on Hope can be read almost like a mixtape – using the combination of multiple artists to tell a unique story in subtle and intricate ways. The tempos, rhythms, and narratives that unfold are described by curator Rebecca Scott as ‘trickles of thought’ that suggest potential readings and questioning of those readings, without overbearing or muting the independence of each work.
The gallery space is divided into three zones. The diagonal central wall is cleverly placed to physically suggest a direction of travel without feeling overly prescriptive. Following this curatorial passage shows that the works exist in open dialogue with each other, backwards and forwards.
Jessica Voorsanger’s bold and eccentric embroidered wall hangings open proceedings. One may consider it ironic that this painting exhibition begins with the only non-painting artist represented. But we are visually reminded of Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Red Painting’ series (1953-4) and the growing concern of painting in the post-medium condition, or the expanded field of painting, seen in the work of other contemporary artists such as Angela de la Cruz and Katharina Grosse. Hemsworth, who was known to describe painting as ‘thin sculpture’, trained at St Martin’s School of Art in the late 1960s under the influence of post-modern sculptors including Antony Caro, and his pedagogy was built on continuous critique and questioning. Here, we see embroidery as paint and paint as embroidery, with a compositional movement and stitched-together arrangement that is echoed by Rebecca Scott and Michael Stubbs elsewhere in the exhibition. Voorsanger’s compositions are playful in their questioning of reading – the retro 3D glasses stitched into ‘Fabric Construction 3D Glasses’ (2021-2) signify a reconfiguration of viewing. We are reminded of the effect of 3D glasses: when what is understood to be two-dimensional appears to come off the surface and our perception and reading of the image is transformed. Here, boundaries and definition of materials are being challenged and expanded in a similar fashion.
The two canvasses by Gerard Hemsworth in this part of the exhibition both contain a sense of space and subtext, in different ways. ‘Plant and Façade 2’ (2020) deploys simplified shapes and blocks of colour to express a very human environment of what looks to be a houseplant in front of modernist architecture. The scene depicted is devoid of activity, yet pulsing with a sense of drama and suspense. Perhaps we are waiting for something to happen. ‘Hidden Agenda’ (2008) uses similar simplified shapes, this time with the addition of cartoon characters, who’s ambiguous activity is blocked by an oval shape at the foreground of the picture. There are things happening under the surface, or beyond the frame of the canvas that we cannot see, and the paintings continually frustrate any simplified reading.
As we enter the second zone of the exhibition, we are met by the oxymoronic comic strip work of Suzy Willey. Willey uses disruptive visual methods such as mirror-image, inside-out, and upside-down to dislodge and subvert simple reading of the pieces, and the heavy impasto contradicts any potential Lichtensteinian reading. There are echoes here too of previous works in the exhibition. The feeling of pause, partial emptiness, and the absence of both people and content in clearly human environments, especially in ‘Lockdown’ (2021), is visually reminiscent of Hemsworth’s use of space and subtext in his ‘Plant and Facade’ paintings. But Willey’s works are loaded with paint and assertive in expression. Willey’s use of upside-down text also recalls the upside-down dog of Voorsanger’s ‘Fabric Construction Dog & Happy Eater’, and in both works this reconfiguring of reading, or approaching the reading from a different angle, invites more scrutiny and criticality, questioning the concepts of looking and understanding images in post-conceptual figurative painting.
The next part of the show is punctuated by the joyful rallying cries of Bob and Roberta Smith which serve as reminders of the power of art and art teaching, before considering the space between things in the work of the late artist and teacher Roy Holt (1942-2007). Holt’s ‘Invisible Effects’ (2005) punctuates the work of Hemsworth both in a physical and a conceptual way; the feathers themselves perhaps symbolic not only of freedom and wisdom, but of the space between life and death, birth and regrowth, hope and melancholy. Holt’s set of three paintings, ‘3D GKN’ (1989) also speaks of punctuation and the space between, whilst echoing the motif of 3D glasses found earlier in Voorsanger’s work. Here we see depictions of cinemagoers, all wearing cardboard 3D glasses and staring deep into an unknown screen, their perceptions altered. The paintings speak of the process of picture making; Warholian partitions, intricately painted representations of screw heads at the four corners of each painting, and echoes from the middle bar of the canvas stretcher interrupting and punctuating from behind seen through the horizontal marks evident across the center of the pictures. These subtle clues about the process of picture making remind us that we are looking at an image which has been painted, not printed. That we are people looking at an interpretation of people who are watching something else, through something else. It is through these painterly devices that viewers are asked to question the manipulative acts in the process and delivery of looking at, and experiencing, figurative pictures and picture-making, and to re-consider the spaces between perceiving, making, and receiving.
Standing in front of Rebecca Scott’s paintings you cannot help but feel deeply involved in the world of paint in all its brilliant luminosity and expressive gestures. We are confronted by a multitude of information that feels at once confusing, yet unifying. Motifs such as the swan seen in ‘The Crossing’ (2021) are painted over other figurative imagery, confusticating the layer underneath, rather than eradicating it. In ‘Trends’ (2020) there is a collection of people in various ambiguous yet palpable positions, with an overpainting of loose painterly gesture that subverts any simplified reading. This painting is a collection of snippets and gestures, that feels like a unified collection of unmatched parts. From the overpainting and overlapping seen in both paintings, you get the impression that every mark made on the canvas remains visible on the surface at once, and that the process of layering seen here is one of accumulation and overlapping – a sense of visual noise and maximalism.
The use of layering in Scott’s paintings invite a reading which is almost the opposite to that offered by the adjacent works by Michael Stubbs, which seem more selective about which parts of the painting process we are allowed to see, like a game of hide and seek. On first inspection Stubbs’ paintings appear perfectly flat, which is partly suggested by the use of digital print alongside paint and the use of matt household paint. However, the paintings and their layers remain elusive and deceptive. The edges of the canvas tell a different story, their exposed drips and globs confessing a history of loaded paint, suggesting that all is not as it seems.
Paint as pure material weaves in and out of this third zone of the exhibition, and if there is a wild element to it from Scott and Stubbs, it is very much tamed in Mark Fairnington’s ‘Bernard’ and ‘Bernard on Tuesday 12th of April 2016’. These two paintings of the same horse, although intricately and precisely executed, speak of the process of painting through the complete stripping of any background or context for the animal in question. Leaving the subject to operate in a vacuum, like a scientific specimen or taxidermy. Trapped in time and devoid of space, the paint sits on top of the canvas offering only partial views of something outside itself, and always reflecting back onto itself as a new artefact made from paint, as much as a painted interpretation of an existing animal.
The hiding and revealing in the work of Stubbs and Fairnington, and the impression that sometimes what we are not shown is more powerful than what we are, is reminiscent of the ambiguous subtext created by Hemsworth in ‘Hidden Agenda’ (2008) and ‘I Told You Not To’ (2009), both of which are playfully suggestive and rich in stories that can never be fully understood.
Mark Wallinger’s huge canvasses ‘id painting 2’ (2015) and ‘id Painting 7’ (2015), are double the size of the artist’s height and were made using the artist’s outstretched limbs, rather than paint brushes, leaving an inky black, almost-symmetrical impression reminiscent of Rorschach tests. Here, we witness an open sense of movement, time, and space that could be seen as the antithesis to the sense of locked time and space in Fairnington’s work. Wallinger’s painted marks are like footprints in the snow – time and activity have taken precedent and the paint keeps the artist’s activity during the production of the work always happening in the minds of the people viewing it, with no beginning or end.
The three paintings by Michael Stubbs in this show all utilise snippets of a digital print of Black Jack Weatherproof Paint, disturbed and interrupted by layers of paper, and globs of dripped paint protruding from different angles. At 61 x 51cm, ‘Black Jack Weather’ (2021)’ is the smaller of the three works here by Stubbs, and is dwarfed by the enormous canvasses by Wallinger nearby. Reading this painting, a process made more intimate by its enormous neighbours, we see a spray of rich tungsten orange from the right side of the canvas, seemingly permeating through the layers of the surface, creating an illusion of depth whilst maintaining the physical sense of flatness seen in his other works. As the chosen end piece for the exhibition, this painting has the effect of looping back around to the start, from one deceptively flat surface to another, from Stubbs to Voorsanger with a multiplicity of paint, surface, texture, and a notion of stitching together.
It is not all about the pictures on display here, but also the spaces between the pictures. The pauses and gaps, the movement backwards and forwards, and the apparent edges within each picture on display. The subtext of Hemsworth’s quiet environments, the absence of people in Willey’s comic strips, the stripping of context in Fairnington’s depictions, the punctuation of Bob and Roberta Smith and Holt, the symbolic gestures of Voorsanger, and the deceiving flatness of layers in Scott, Wallinger and Stubbs’ work all contribute towards a certain reading between the lines, and a continued questioning of the known, and the unknown. Perhaps this is why Douglas Crimp’s famous essay ‘The End of Painting’ continues to be quoted, as it is quoted once again by Julien Delagrange in an accompanying essay in the exhibition catalogue. Here, once again, the ‘end’ of painting is, as it always has been, a paradox.
High on Hope is a celebration of stories and philosophies that create endless possibilities for painting, and for teaching painting. Ends are always new beginnings. Like any good mixtape, there are big hitters, slow burners, multifarious energies, and trickles of thought that flow and punctuate throughout.
High on Hope continues until 24th September 2022 at Cross Lane Projects, Kendal. Open Wednesday to Saturday 12-5pm, free admission.
Neil Greenhalgh is an artist and writer based in Greater Manchester.