Text by Susanna Hill
Abrasive Action is the latest in a series of exhibitions in Manchester to focus on the labour involved in creating artwork. The ‘abrasive action’ of the title is a reference to the destructive techniques used by artist Tony Charles to redefine the objects appropriated in his works. The three pieces in this exhibition also present a broader discussion on the three-dimensional sculpture, and the two-dimensional surface.
The dominant work in the exhibition is Still Life on Shelf Unpainted, an installation made from gas bottles that runs across two walls. These bottles have had their surface stripped off, and are fixed upside down along a narrow steel shelf. The result is a line of objects that formally appear as something between stop motion poplar trees and relay batons. The exhibition references the still lives of Giorgio Morandi, whose almost monochromatic paintings place the emphasis on the relationship between objects, and in Charles’s piece this relationship is extended to a whole community of objects, much larger than any selection painted by Morandi. However, like Morandi’s work, no two shapes are alike in this set. The ‘abrasion’ in this case runs vertically down the shapes, which reflect light in continually different ways; at any one time each of your eyes will see the form differently, thus creating a fuzzy, disorienting vision upon close inspection.
One of the works from Charles’s Unpaintings Series sits on the wall opposite in the exhibition, a concept that is reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing. Charles has taken a small work on an aluminium base, and stripped away the paint to leave an abstract composition of colour and mechanical abrasion marks. As with the gas bottles, this removal of formal content allows the viewer to face the ‘space’ of the object or picture plane; a scene that we presume was a three-dimensional representation is here taken down to its two-dimensional state, and then made into a subtle relief by Charles’s abrasions.
The exception in the exhibition is Abrasive, in which the destruction is captured through a drawing of a damaged object rather than by physically mutilating an existing piece. In this work the discussion of three-dimensional into the two-dimensions is most obvious. This work is utterly two-dimensional, in that even the paper is remarkably flat and pure, but shaping is evident in the damage of the object depicted.
In all of these works there are several elements of commonality. Firstly every piece is about the vertical; the colour is striped from the gas bottles in vertical lines, the mechanical abrasions in the Unpainting run vertical, and the composition of Abrasive is also vertical. In addition to this a kind of machine aesthetic is felt throughout, sometimes in the literal marks of tools on objects, but all three works present the palette of heavy metallic grey, in steel aluminium or graphite. Perhaps because of this the whole exhibition feels initially austere, but Charles’s works present a series of abstract relationships and unusual surfaces that are freely engaging.
Susanna Hill is a writer and PhD candidate at the University of Manchester, considering the collecting of Outsider Art in the UK. She is also working part time for the Halle Orchestra Concert Society.