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Bernard Frize

Frith Street Gallery, London

Frieze, Issue 26, Jan-Feb 1996

This exhibition comprises a new series of paintings supplemented with three examples from other bodies of work and an early painting from Frize's very first series. One of the new pieces, 46% Vrai - 53% Faux (1986-95), is a one-stroke painting: Frize strapped together seven three-centimetre brushes, each loaded with a different coloured paint, and slowly dragged them around the canvas. The painting's logic seems to be to cover as much of the surface as possible, but only by travelling vertically and horizontally, and without overlap. This dumb idea is made interesting through two features: firstly, the canvas has been primed with a thick layer of resin and hence, disconcertingly, has a smooth plastic surface. Secondly, the motion of the brush has been carefully considered: the pencil construction lines that the gesture follows are still visible, and the changes in direction are made by pivoting the implement around one of its ends. This produces curious effects at the centre of the swing and makes it impossible not to imagine the process happening in real time - we picture the brush right there before us, with its excruciating snail's pace and ever-paler rainbow trail.

The other works in the series expand this technique. After imaginatively living through the creation of this painting, with all of its 'I could do that' connotations, we are faced with Aran (1992), in which we realise that we most definitely could not do that. Here, the process is taken further by the fact that the whole surface is filled with continuous brush strokes which, because of Frize's proficiency, appear like psychedelic islands among perceptual ripples: Op art meets spaced-out techno graphics. Following the strokes on this one is like trying to follow speeding Scalectrix cars - the kind with the special over-taking manoeuvres - round a track. It's not actually an impossible task, but close to it. Following Aran is a cohesive set of five works in which the initial, one-stroke premise is carried out again. The show culminates with the colossal Spitz (1991), a tour de force in which everything is taken too far and the multi-coloured paints run into each other, mysteriously dripping towards the centre of the canvas. Like a star that has grown too large and collapsed under its own gravity, this painting goes beyond the limitations of technique and so breaks down, tested to destruction - would we be happy with anything less?

Frize's idea of the one-stroke painting, coupled with the setting out of the painting's method before lifting the brush, strongly suggests a conceptual framework for the series. And yet, one thing that we can be certain of is that these are definitely not Conceptual paintings. Frize allows the materials sufficient reign that not only do they run away from him, but all the associations do too - give them an inch and they'll take a mile. But why do these paintings prove so difficult to forget? Is it because the sweetly naughty associations wriggle free, exactly mirroring the material's insistence on dribbling off and blending in whatever manner takes its fancy?

One of the features of what has been termed Classic Conceptual Art (early Art & Language, Joseph Kosuth...) is that it always has an inescapable relationship with language, often through the simple positioning of text against an image as a way of positing pseudo-philosophical 'insights'. In other words, by reducing the importance of the image in visual arts and relying upon a linguistic proposition, the artist will soon find that they have encroached on a way of producing meaning that is the domain of another profession. That is: Conceptual work constructs its meaning in the viewer's mind as a logical linguistic argument - even if that linguistic form is not actually a recognisable spoken language. Essentially, the viewer pieces together the work's elements to construct a formal argument, or at least a proposition. Once 'solved', the physical work can be forgotten about until such time as it may be used to quote from. Further attention will not bring to light further insights. Philosophy has its own historical terminology and structured thought systems which you can easily find yourself tangled up in if you insist on straying. However, the fact that Kosuth's work does not cut it as a philosophy is not to say that it does not cut it as art: limits must be explored, it's just that once found, they ought to be respected.

This is not a negative judgement against Conceptual art, the point is just that Frize's paintings simply do not function in this manner. Confusion arises not because they should operate in this way but because the form they take suggests that they will operate in this way. We are primed for a certain kind of work and don't get it. Frize doesn't do the things we think that he ought to: he does not pare down the variables in his method to the extent that a rigorous investigation of paint would demand, like, say, a chemist at Windsor & Newton, or a reductivist British painter might. In this sense, Frize fails badly. But that's our problem, not his.

In fact, Frize ignores the linguistic structures that we expect from Conceptualism - small wonder, then, that Friedrich Meschede entitles his catalogue essay to Frize's Kunstverein Arnsberg show 'Painting Without Language'. Frize produces images that are essentially irresolvable, somehow incomprehensible. This is because he deliberately leaves in his paintings an element that does not work, as he himself has stated. In a sense, when the paint dribbles happily out of control, so does the textual logic: like the letters that tumble into a pile at the bottom of a virus-infected computer screen. Perhaps this is what makes Frize's 'conceptually sloppy' artwork - the fact that we feel guilty and nonplussed for enjoying it. They may not be Conceptual, but Frize's dumb paintings ain't so dumb.

 
text copyright david barrett
images copyright the artists

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