Tony Charles’ ‘unpaintings’ are palimpsests, multi-layered records bearing traces of their earlier aspects. They form amalgams of gesture and erasure, painting and sculpture. In his exhibition essay, curator Paul Carey-Kent encourages the viewer to question the ontology of the works. If not paintings, what are they? Paintings as sculpture? Paintings as collective memories?
The wall-hung works are aluminium panels of standard sizes: some are larger than the viewer but not quite monumental, while newer works are of a more domestic scale. Using the limited colour palette of gloss paint from commercial signage, Charles paints freely, as if making a piece to send out into the world. He then attempts to erase these marks within a self-imposed time limit using grinders of different sizes. These initial paintings are not seen as mistakes to be deleted however, but as ‘could-have-been’ works in themselves. In this way they resemble, and differ from, a work by an artist Charles’ admires: Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Erased De Kooning Drawing’ (1953). Jasper Johns has described this technique as ‘additive subtraction’, in that the act of erasure adds emphasis to what is erased.
One of the most powerful larger works, and one that is most erased, is ‘Unpainting (Informally Dressed)’ (2013), 244 x 122cm. Its left hand edge is clear of any marks, while two thin blue lines run the length of the work, separated by an area so intensely worked by the grinder that only small patches of colour – black and orange – remain. Carey-Kent compares these recurring vertical lines in Charles’ works to the ‘zips’ of Barnett Newman’s paintings. Seeing the zip as a trope for the human figure seems relevant here, as the application of glossy resin creates reflections of the viewer in the marks of the unpainting. The resulting effect is one that inspires new beginnings in the reading of the work.
The newest works, ‘Fettled Series 1-14’ and ‘Dog Removal’ (2017) (all works 30 x 20cm) are hung in a five-by-three grid. These thinner unpaintings resemble A4 pages laid out, as if for a publication, and encourage their reading as a written text. Each work holds an image of slightly distorted rectangles resembling 1950’s television screens. The placement of these rectangles is irregular, giving the illusion of tumbling movement across the panels of the grid. The darker ‘Dog Removal’, forms the central anchor point to the installation.
While neither Charles nor Carey-Kent tie the unpaintings to specific geographical landscapes, they do have subtle links to the post-industrial area in which they were made, nodding to the interwoven narratives of change over time. Their layers of painting, grinding off and application of resin cannot be separated one from the other in a palimpsestic or unravelling interpretation – this is no Tray Game of memory recall. The gestures of creation and destruction are better understood as interrelated encryptions requiring an imaginative palimpsestuous reading: ‘…an inventive process of creating relations where there may, or should, be none’. ¹
Unpainted, Platform A Gallery, 10 March 2017 – 21 April 2017.
Annie O’Donnell is an artist based on Teesside.
Image: Tony Charles, ‘Fettled Series and Dog Removal’ (2017). Photo courtesy of Platform A Gallery.
- Sarah Dillon, “Reinscribing De Quincey’s palimpsest: the significance of the palimpsest in contemporary literary and cultural studies,” Textual Practice 19:3 (2005): 243-263.