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In 1950 an exhibition titled Black or White was held at Kootz Gallery, New York . lt included avant-garde American and European artists who were little-known at the time, but who would soon become eminent in the field of both abstract and figurative expressionism-Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb and Jean Du buffet. As an explanation for the restricted theme of the show, Motherwell wrote in the preface for the exhibition catalogue: '[t]here is so much to be seen in a work of art, so much to say if one is concrete and accurate, that it is a relief to deal on occasion with a simple relation. Yet not even it, no more than any other relation in art, is so simple .'1 Limiting the palette to a dramatic extent allowed these artists to pare down the complexities of painting to explore new areas. As Thomas B. Hess stated, 'the decision to use only black and white brings [for the artist] an exhilarating sense of the tabula rasa to a traditionally overcomplicated craft'.2
In Nick Ashby's recent series of works titled Red and White Paintings, he has similarly reduced his usually full palette to two colours (with the exception of a few glimpses of pale blue and tiny flashes of colour from previous layers). This limitation of colour has enabled a more concentrated working (and reworking) of the composition. The emphasis on linear structures and restricted palette results in a visually coherent group of paintings that exhibit a refined vocabulary of abstract marks and gestures.
The idea of the tabula rasa or 'clean state' is contrary to Ashby's vigorous painterly style. lt is not so much a 'clean' or 'empty' support that forms the ground in Ashby's paintings but one that has been inscribed to a point of manifold layering. In contrast to a spare and direct gesture on a blank ground, Ashby saturates the canvas with brushstrokes. Once the surface is loaded with marks, Ash by then refines the schemata by selective overpainting and intense reworking. Far from being chaotic or undisciplined, the layering of marks has a certain precision.
Traces of prior gestures are often retained but, as in Exit 2000 with its tight grid of crosses, the works also display a determined action to obliterate previous layers and forms. The repetitive layering of marks and gestures eliminates the distinction between image and ground; all action occurs in equal space and is neither negative or positive. The red and white lines and shapes enact a reciprocating action, they define one another whilst appearing unified within the composition. The uncircumscribed forms resist anchoring and instead shift and realign themselves with a dynamic rhythm that is not restricted by the picture plane. Direction is unequivocally asserted; rather than being static, the linear mark induces movement as the eye follows its trajectory.
The development of Ashby's painterly style has been eclectic, however he has shown a consistent tendency to work in both abstract and figurative modes simultaneously. Previous works show the figure as a distinct profiled shape, inscribed over a combination of colourful figurative and abstract forms. Influenced by the interlocking of figure and ground in the paintings of lan Fairweather, these earlier figurative works have evolved into a group of abstract paintings where the surface defines a continuous painterly matrix in which motifs are embedded and the integrity of the line is retained.
Although not figurative in an obvious way, the red and white paintings are informed by the artist's continued use of repeated figurative motifs. There are moments when the linear contours seem familiar, as though they are reverting to the figural source from which they were initially apprehended and developed. Like a trace or imprint, forms familiar to the artist's hand (and eye) appear and reappear, and the figure is dissolved into a refined abstraction Ashby also imports elements from pre-existing compositions, reinterpreting the marks into a recyclable vocabulary that is painted over and over. For Ashby, the process of painting is paramount, and the works with their multi-layered compositions exist as records of the process of becoming.
1. Terenzio, S. (ed) The Collected writings of Robert Motherwell, Califomia University Press, Califomia, 1999, p. 50.
2. Thomas B. Hess, De Kooning: drawings, New York Graphic Society, New York, 1972, p. 33.