It is virtually impossible, through 21st century eyes, to look at Robert Fludd’s extraordinary four-century-old image of a black square, printed at an oblique angle and bounded on all four edges by the text, ‘et sic in infinitum’ (‘and so on, to infinity’), without thinking of Malevich, modernism, or the 20th century tradition of minimalist monochrome painting. Forming a page in Fludd’s 1617 study of cosmology, Utriusque Cosmi, the image is the occult philosopher, mathematician, physician, astronomer and astrologer’s visualisation of the boundless darkness preceding the creation of the universe. Whilst it is hard not to read it as perhaps the earliest foundational text of minimalism, its relevance to Rebecca Lowe’s exhibition Inhabiting Stone is actually its profound differences from the aesthetic and philosophical values of minimalism – differences that, despite appearances, are echoed in Lowe’s work.
Far from the abstraction that we, as modern or modernist-influenced viewers, might attribute to Fludd’s black square, it is in fact an illustration. In parallel fashion, a superficial response to Lowe’s paintings, drawings and sculpture in Inhabiting Stone would immediately place their apparently blank and minimally differentiated surfaces in the context of the flatness and self-referentiality celebrated by the modernist critics Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, or the virtually monochrome paintings of Robert Ryman or Agnes Martin, for example. A defining feature of such abstract works, though, is their determined non-representation, their refusal of what Greenberg called ‘the pollution of content’. In contrast, Lowe’s apparently abstract paintings, ‘Celadon’, ‘Shift’ and the ‘White Jar’ series, are actually, contrary to appearance, closely observed representational works, derived from intensive study of the iridescent surfaces of oyster or clam shells and porcelain vessels respectively.
Lowe’s drawing series, ‘Surface Drawings’, is also directly observational, referring to geological features in the local landscape of Otley Chevin – tidal laminae and glacial rocks. They remind us that drawing is both a verb and a noun – the activity of drawing is one of movement over time, and a drawing, the static object that results, is the trace, the mark, the visible record of that movement. Given the subject matter of Lowe’s drawings here, there is therefore a clear relationship between their means of production and the role of movement in the flow of water that shaped the rock, and the now-static striations in the surface of the rock that are the trace of that fluid motion.
Whilst there are obvious connections and similarities between the drawings and the paintings in this exhibition, they differ significantly in the treatment and implications of their edges. Like Fludd’s black square, with its text declaring its extension on every side ‘to infinity’, the edges of Lowe’s gesso panels form an arbitrary cut-off point of their painted surface that could continue onwards indefinitely, or loop back on itself like the circularity of the porcelain jars or the interior surface of the shells that the paintings represent. Contrastingly, in the series of ‘Surface Drawings’, the edges of the graphite and chalk drawn forms are defined, rendering them as object-like as the small sculptures they are shown alongside.
What Lowe’s paintings, drawings and sculptural objects all share is a sense of movement stilled, of fluidity brought to stasis, mirroring the geological formation by flowing water of the rocks referred to earlier that inspired the ‘Surface Drawings’. The fluidity of thin washes of paint and soft brush strokes leave their trace of movement over time in the paintings on gesso. Careful and precise rubbing and smudging by the movement of the artist’s fingers are what define the confined surface of the drawn forms. The fluidity of cement and concrete are central to the moulding and shaping processes solidified in the sculptures.
Lowe’s invocation of Gaston Bachelard’s influential book, The Poetics of Space, in her exhibition’s title suggests the importance not only of the space defined by her images or displaced by her sculptural objects, but also, importantly, the architectural space within which they function. Set against very dark bluish-grey walls, these delicate works impose a stillness on the busy movement of the space of human circulation they occupy, and they achieve a presence and monumentality that belies their diminutive scale. Their intimacy and gentleness invites the close looking and contemplation that the sensitive observation, intense labour and delicacy of their making deserves. Lowe’s work, with its slow-burn visual content, demonstrates a compelling focus that contains and controls everything that happens in her making process. The sense of movement and metamorphosis is symbolic and intense, happening in front of us; the materials, despite their stillness, retain a sense of their flowing, molten state.
Inhabiting Stone, Vernon Street Gallery, Leeds Arts University, 12 January – 15 February 2018.
Derek Horton © 2018