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New abstract painting and sculptural form

By Mike Brennan

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Dianna Molzan
Dianna Molzan

The 21st century's pronounced concern with painting has veered rapidly from a resurgence in academic figuration to a marked love-affair with abstraction. Voguish flavours include reworked early modernism, op art and (most recently) a tentative revival of the colour field.

As an adjunct to these interests, however, a further form of enquiry seems to be stealthily gathering pace: an intriguing contemporary trend in which the physical nature of the painting as entity becomes an avenue for artistic endeavour.

Modifying the priority traditionally placed on pictorial surface alone, these works, while generally adhering to painting's conventional components - canvas or linen, wooden stretchers, paint - interpret the medium as a three-dimensional object, a sculptural form that includes its support and wall-bound presence. Subject to such investigation, the nature of 'the painting' slips into uncertain territory, its assumed identity questioned or even blurred almost beyond recognition.

Reconfiguring the four-cornered canvas (as opposed to the experimentation with shaped frames that is a widespread feature of post-war art), these hybrids of painting, bricolage and sculpture chime well with contemporary photography's similar endeavours to move beyond two dimensions and self-reflexively investigate the nature of its own facture.

And just as abstraction - or the appearance of abstraction - lends itself particularly well to such photographic investigation, it also serves as a favoured basis for this marked rise in sculpturally deconstructive painting.

Such interests are clearly not without precedent.

Lucio Fontana, whose slashed canvases introduced abrupt reality into the metaphysical realms of the painted image, is an obvious precursor (it's worth noting that interest in his concetto spaziale has increased enormously in recent years, making Fontana's works some of the most hotly pursued at auction).

Kurt Schwitters
Kurt Schwitters

Kurt Schwitters, whose Merzbilder rank among the best-known early attempts to move the canvas beyond two dimensions, is another salient point of reference.

And among contemporary names, Angela de la Cruz's timely inclusion in the 2010 Turner Prize takes stock of an artist who has been sculpturally collapsing canvases for the last 30 years.

For many of the artists featured here, such lineage is fully embraced and a source of knowing allusion.

Antithetical impulses are also in evidence, however: an anxiety of influence via which the deconstruction of the painting represents an act of catharsis and challenge as much as one of enquiry.

Bas van den Hurk, for example, responds to a perceived crisis in painting by attempting to empty it of meaning.

But perhaps most importantly, this new wave of painting-that-isn't revivifies the medium as an experience quite unlike the contemplation of standard two-dimensional imagery.

It's easier than ever to access art online - which we can view, download and print.

These works defiantly deny such ease of access, demanding first-hand inspection to fully appreciate their presence.


Dianna Molzan

Dianna Molzan - new tendencies in painting

Emerging US artist Dianna Molzan's approach to the sculptural potential of the painting employs similar gambits to established painter Richard Aldrich, (below), while also introducing innovations of her own.

Exposing stretchers, draping fabrics from frames or slicing into canvas, she also builds works into three-dimensional forms that emulate the clean geometries of minimalist sculpture.

By employing, like most of the artists featured here, a wall-mounted, four-cornered platform as a basis for each piece, Molzan establishes a continuity with painterly tradition only to simultaneously confound expectation.

Dianna Molzan

This is not to say that Molzan attempts to reject the past; instead, she consciously adopts the visual vocabulary of movements and styles including abstract expressionism, minimalism and spatialism. It's just that, in these curiously hybrid works, the history of modern sculpture is as likely to be referenced as that of painting.



Jacob Kassay

Jacob Kassay

We admit we were initially dubious about including Jacob Kassay's work here. Not because we don't love it (and having tipped this young New York artist (b. 1983) for future stardom early in 2009, we're happy to see that he's well on his way to achieving it).

Nevertheless, while silvering the surface of a canvas seems a smart conceptual and aesthetic move, does it really follow the line of investigation pursued by other artists featured here?

The answer is that, since these new sculptural tendencies are at least partly predicated on an examination of the painting as object, Kassay's work fits the bill very nicely indeed.


Jacob Kassay - sculptural painting

His signature silver-plating process literally transforms a painted surface into something it wasn't before: a precious metal plaque or mirror that fragmentarily reflects space around it as well as partially revealing the underpainting below its glistening surface.

Electro-chemically - almost alchemically - the painting becomes an object of quantifiable value, quite apart from its relative worth as artistic commodity.

What's more, this new status radically complicates straightforward categorisation of the work itself; an ontological interrogation that unites all the artworks featured in this article.

Underlining this constant potential for metamorphosis, Kassay frequently installs works arranged on plinths (above, left), as well as hung on walls.

Thus emphasising their interchangeability, assumptions as to sculptural or painterly identity are essentially determined by nothing more than location.

new abstract tendencies; Jacob Kassay

In recent works, however, Kassay's hybridizing strategies far more closely resemble those of his peers.

A deliberate fringe of raw canvas surrounding a lightly cushioned surface (left) makes the artist's framework of traditional materials absolutely clear.

There's no mistaking the (more or less) conventional stretchered platform - but beyond this point, categorisation becomes far less certain.


Richard Aldrich

Richard Aldrich

Through constant investigation into the possibilities of painting, Richard Aldrich's accumulated body of work resembles an extensive archive of art-historical influence, a chameleon reserve of appropriation and experimentation.

Although the signature style of this New York artist (b. 1975) is ostensibly a complete lack of one, his work is subtly marked by keynote idiosyncrasies, such as an air of cool, almost detached analysis.

In recent years, Aldrich's interest in the myriad nature of painterly form has begun to include the canvas and stretcher itself.

By revealing the wooden framework beneath cut-away sections of cloth, the nature of the painting as an essentially three-dimensional object is brought to the fore, its inner structure incorporated within the picture plane as sculptural relief and decorative motif.

Richard Aldrich, sculptural painting

Further strategies take a revised view of collage: fragments of mirror embedded directly into the canvas surface, photographic slides mounted above light-filled incisions, or the swathe of cloth in Bed, (left), emphasise the physical and material properties of these objects as much as their illustrative potential.

They are not simply used pictorially, but become an extension of the canvas itself, literally inserted into its fabric or stapled to the canvas just as it, too, is stapled to the stretcher.



Florian Schmidt

Florian Schmidt - new abstract tendencies

Berlin-based artist Florian Schmidt (b. 1980) dissolves distinctions between sculpture and painting by allowing both to co-exist in an all-embracing practice.

A long-held fascination with modernism, particularly the geometric abstraction of constructivism, clearly informs works which explore three-dimensionality and sculptural process within a framed, traditionally two-dimensional space.

Florian Schmidt

Exposing the framework that lies beneath canvas, or layering materials in a patchwork of addition, Schmidt uses basic sculptural techniques to investigate what a painting can be - both above and below the canvas surface.



Anselm Reyle

Anselm Reyle

In Reyle's earliest use of what has become his signature foil film, the material was attached directly to the canvas and paired with simple strokes or splashes of paint.

With the foil crumpled into bundles or even wrapped around the canvas itself, Reyle's distinctive disruption of surface forged a surprising alliance between sculpture, painting, and influences as diverse as Christo, Schwitters or Jeff Koons.


In recent works, the foil has taken centre stage, used in isolation and protected within plexiglass boxes. And in an ongoing series of reliefs (below), Reyle's debt to pioneering artists such as Louise Nevelson becomes particularly apparent: cast from assemblages of bric-a-brac, then coated in metallic paint, these wall-mounted plaques draw the finest of lines between sculpture and painting.

Although Reyle's practice has become extremely familiar, his interest in blurring distinctions between two and three-dimensional form now appears fundamental to a revival in such concerns; a trend which, through the work of younger artists, has become a study of the interface between painting and sculpture rather than a mere resurrection of historical antecedents.

Anselm Reyle

Sebastian Dacey

Sebastian Dacey

This young, Berlin-based artist's acclaimed abstract painting is in a state of continual development marked by bold experimentation.

Recently, Dacey has begun to produce distinctive, sculptural-painterly hybrids that reinforce the quirkily playful aspects of his practice.

Sebastian Dacey - new abstract painting

With these works, Dacey's decorative impulses are channeled into fanciful arrangements of fringed, painted panels. Although unconventional in appearance, they are nevertheless intended to be viewed as an organic extension of his more orthodox works on canvas.



Building abstractions, continued >

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