Reading between the lines

Reinventing the grid

In 1972 John Elderfield wrote in Artforum, “…if grids has their heyday in minimalism and in the 1960s, clearly they are not worked out yet.”1 Twenty-two years later it seems that the significance of this paradoxical and enduring emblem is still being explored, the latest example being the exhibition Reinventing the Grid.

The grid is literarly and metaphorically infinite, potentially occupying both material and spiritual realms. With its occupying both material and spiritual realms. With its associative and descriptive properties, the grid may appear at once illusory and logical, utilitarian and beautiful. This duality of functions may disorientate the viewer who is confronted by objects that might allude simultaneously to the cool rationality of science (the quasi-scientific fields of measuring and mapping) and to the utopian ideals of high modernism (geometric abstraction as the model of a social ideal). The grids veiled complexity (or deceptive simplicity) resists quick conclusions – after all, your abstraction may be mu figuration.

By definition a grid cannot be reinvented, it is simply a network of lines. Vessel-like, however, the neutrality of those intersecting lines is transformative. The work selected for this show refuted a singular, coherent reading and what emerges is the grid’s resistances to be neatly catalogued, with contradictory interpretations arising as every intersection.

Decentralised the grid is anti-narrative. There is no beginning here and no end, the support merely operating as a container, or snap-shot, of a moment in space. Playing with this authority of infinity, Angela Brennan’s work Untitled 1994 utilises smudged, fragile, pastel colours that intimate rather than state the presence of the grid that floats disempowered in a finite expanse. Conversely, Louise Paramor’s sculpture Shazam, Slamlom, 1994 emphasises incalculable possible readings by positioning self-reflecting mirrors at repeating right angles. Reflections change continually with light and movement and the repetitive act is, paradoxically, never the same.

Using the gird as a device through which to travel, Hilarie Mais’ sculpture Grid Doors III, 1988, explores the possibilities of a self-revelation that initated, rather than concludes, an investigation. This melancholy blue structure is divivded in half, and the space between the halves hovers like an anxious lack. The grid appears controlled, by what happened in the space between the lines? Who controls that space?

Every line, everything we see, has associated properties and in a gallery context banal objects transcend their original function to resonate ambiguously in a nebulous displaced space. Debra Ostrow’s Untiled 1994, a sparse contruction of black metallic shelving, juggles absurdist constructions of meaning (place on the shlf what you will) with a Zen sensibility (the empty shelf). Similarly marrying the metaphysical to the banal, Dale Hickey presents us with a painting of an austere cruciform, rendered from what seem to be bath tiles – a post-pop, trompe l’oeil. I think of Morandi observing that nothing is more abstract, more unreal, that what we actually see.

Rosalie Gascoigne’s beautiful Piece to Walk Around, 1981, with its dried saffron thistle sticks placed in a geometric pattern on the floor, reminds me of Mondrian writing in 1949 “Impressed by the vastness of nature, I was trying to express its expansion, rest and unity.”2 Delicately exploring abstract harmonies and natural design in a meditative space, this is a place I would like to return to. Rodney Spooner also references what lies outside the gallery wall in his Civilised Obsession of 1994. Three fragile architectural structures, made from match sticks, support concrete geometric shapes. The grid is a flimsy support and crumbles beneath the weight of its history without out intervention, without our renewal.

The properties of light, optics and formalism (the materiality of the object itself) are investigated without the boundaries of high modernist minimalism in the paintings of Robert Jacks, Untitled #1 and Untitled #2 of 1972, Robert Hunter’s Untitled (#2), 1992. The third Robert, Robert Owen, with his title Rotation Series (Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring) 1968, directs the viewer’s reading of his drawings away from a pure formalism and towards the figurative, associative properties that are inherent in abstraction. Delicately alluding to climates and seasons, his images evoke rather than describe. For example, in the drawing ‘Summer’ a few sparse lines glitter in a minimal field, like a line of sunlight on water. Also blurring the boundaries between abstraction and figuration, Martin King’s etching 20C.1, 1994, with its raw black crosses covering the yellow surface of an uneven spindly grid, reminds me of aerial representation of war graves, or the obsessive receptions of a child.

The title of Ian Burn’s painting Yellow/Blue Equivalence (second premiss), 1965, begs a number of questions. What is ever equivalent to what? What is the “second premiss”? What is a “premiss”? The decoding of the painting through the riddle of the title becomes difficult and the words become an extension of the elusive nature of the image. Composed of cadmium yellow, and ultramarine stripes that hover over a lemon yellow ground, the painting vibrates ambiguously in this conundrum between visual and linguistic codes.

John Young removed himself from the actually process of making Light and the density of Light #2, Autumn 1990, by assigning the task to David Thomas. Influences by the chance operations of John Cage, Young questions the modernist pre-occupations with aura – if the author is not present, then who directs the reading? Can a work of art have authority and authenticity if it is not, in conventional terms, original? Debra Dawes, with her painting Gingham, 1994, replicated a piece of mass produced cloth and seems to ask a similar question: what is the value of the original in an age of mechanical reproduction? This work also questions how the intensions and gender of the artist alter the reading of a design that, in a different context, would be relegated to the domain of the decorative.

The grid is an enduring emblem of 20th century art, where distinctions between abstraction, figuration and representation are blurred. In Reinventing the Grid, curator Rachel Kent acknowledged the important shift of the grid from its iconic (singular) status to one of multiplicity. This exhibition displays an eclectic diversity of objects, intensions and possible readings with the only common denominator being that the grid, as a structuring device, has initiated certain explorations. A rationalism of belief or discovery (what is more ordering, more reduced, that a line?) is implied, whilst at the same moment logic is transcended through the use of images. After all, the visual can never, ultimately, be ordered or described; words are words and images are images, and one can never occupy the same position as the other. The beauty of the grid is that for all its reduction, it cannot be reduced. The infinity for its structures mirrors the possibilities of vision.

  1. Elderfield, John, “Grids” in Artforum, X, May 1972, p.52.
  2. Mondrian, Piet, The New Art – The New Life: Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, Thames and Hudson, London, 1987, p.339.