The problem with abstract art is that it’s difficult for critics to build up a long running relationship with it. Once an artist has settled on their style and the audience has assimilated what it is they’re supposed to know about it, the question is then how you maintain that relationship over years and decades? It’s not just a problem for abstract painters of course, figurative artists have to deal with it as well, but after a while critics feel as though they have said their piece, know everything that there is to know about an artist’s work, and it’s time to move on.
Take Michael Johnson for example – he’s been doing the same thing for close to 20 years. When was the last time you saw anyone write anything about his work that wasn’t a paid-for catalogue essay or a Craftsman House vanity publishing deal? You could pick just about any living artist with a career longer than a decade and they all have the same problem – people stop talking about them. They might sell, but that’s usually more a testament to the fact that people like an artist’s brand name style, and it would be a very foolish painter who went about changing their styles willy nilly.
Conceptually too, abstract art tends to be seen as hitting a mark and then staying there. Conceptual abstractionists like ADS Donaldson may have all the theory in the world to underwrite their practice but, to be blunt, so what? We know what an ADS Donaldson painting looks like and you can only say the same thing in so many ways. Non-conceptual abstract painters whose work is either partly or wholly derived from expressionist traditions – say they look at the ‘landscape’ or whatever – get locked into a certain approach to making a canvas and get trapped. Although figurative artists do precisely the same thing, they at least can vary the subject matter of their work – the shock inclusion of clowns, puppies, horses or small children smiling done in a ‘cartoon style’ can do wonders for the faltering figurative painter’s career. But for abstract painters, they have their thing and they stick to it – which brings us right back to the start. We have been looking at certain abstract artists work for years and we like it – but it all looks the damn same!
So let us prepare you for a shock – the Ildiko Kovacs show at Martin Browne Fine Art is different. Not too different, but different enough to give ‘I’ve seen this before’ nay-saying critics like Anne Loxley a kick up the arse.
Kovacs paints in a very fluid style using curving ribbon-like lines over finely worked surfaces. Sometimes they are purely abstract, other times they are partly figurative – which is to say that the definition of what is “abstract” is so porous that you can enter a Kovacs into the Wynne Prize (landscape painting) or the Sulman Prize (whatever) and no one bats an eyelid. It’s all good! Her work has stayed the course over the last ten years and has earned her a lot of respect, but there hasn’t been much change. Fatigue must have been setting in as she’s switched from oils to acrylics (and combinations of both ) and, as they say, a change is as good as a holiday .
We were really blown away by one picture called Playground which, in design and motif, looks a lot like her previous work but seems as though it was done after a load of scotch straight out of the bottle. On a similar tip is a painting called Dubbin which had, for some reason, the strange qualities of drop sheets or perhaps a poorly painted panel van. The drips are brilliant. Changing course completely is a little painting called Dallas, which contains the eggy rounded features of her earlier work, but stripped of lines and just sitting there like an early Rothko, while another called TT is all lines and no shapes. This is an exhibition where the artist has taken a huge amount of risks – and they’ve paid off. People know Kovacs’s style – but this is a major step forward into something new.
Perhaps the key to maintaining the relationship with the work is to simply hang in there – eventually something will change. It sounds like a law of physics, but it’s true.