The legacy of modern pictorial abstraction is a complicated one. Having been the bête noire of progressive arts practice for much of the period following post-Minimalism, (epitomising as it did certain rather dubious claims to autonomy and historical necessity), pictorial abstraction has, in the last decade or so, undergone a number of revisions. For example, the first steps in the abandonment of mimesis, far from developing simply from the analysis of painting’s own conditions, are now understood to correlate in complex ways with contemporary techniques of the decorative arts, with nineteenth century scientific research into optics and the conditions of vision, with art-historical revisions of the origins of art (abstract-geometric rather than mimetic), and with spiritualist and occult philosophies that present abstract forms as the most fitting expression of internal and universal truths. One finds different levels of abstraction in a variety of fin de siècle practices, such as handbooks for applied drawing and the construction of ornamental motifs, or Friedrich Froebel’s set of Spielgaben, instructional building blocks, coloured shapes and lines that were supposed to lead the child from the material to the abstract. In this show, these correlations appear to be what, very broadly, hold Fernandes’ interest. Her principal source is the quite singular painting by Paul Signac, with the longwinded and perhaps derisory title, Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythm with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890 (1890).
This painting combines figuration with non-objective pattern as it shows the critic and dealer Félix Fénéon in three-quarter profile against a swirling, spiralling decorative background, constructed from densely massed pointillist tâches. On an untitled LED video wall at the back of the TBGS gallery, Fernandes has isolated this background and has set it spinning. And here we encounter some problems. First clockwise, then anticlockwise, the whole pattern advances and recedes, producing a rather aimless and crude movement reminiscent of hokey powerpoint animations. This crudeness is increased when, as its furthest point of recession, the black background to Fernandes’ spinning rectangle can be seen, suggesting a lack of attention to the compositional problem of how to reconcile this shape with its support (the LED screen).
This lack of compositional awareness is my main concern. It is evident, too, in the placement of the five floor sculptures lying in front of the LED screen. These are made of cast iron, and consist of two lines, a shallow curve, a number 1 without its base, and a shape reminiscent of a half-size Gothic arch. These shapes are placed side by side in succession from beneath the screen toward the window onto the street. We are told that they are ‘inspired by primary art school manuals from the turn of the twentieth century’ (TBGS press). That may be so, but their placement in the gallery here demonstrates little about how these shapes functioned or how they were supposed to be used constructively and pedagogically. It seems that being ‘inspired by’ in this case indicates a diminution of value. The use of cast iron is supposed to ‘speak of an era when the focus on education and demands of labour were closely related’ (and are they not now?). Yet, Froebel’s Spielgaben, for instance, were designed to educate (working-class) children above and beyond the demands of industrial labour, and to help them learn intellectually through construction and organisation.
My point is that, judging by the composition of her works, Fernandes seems to engage with her sources only half-heartedly. For early practitioners of pictorial abstraction, the abstract forms of applied arts and childhood pedagogy were of interest precisely because they indicated that there could be a grammar of forms, that there could be a lexicon and a syntax to non-objective painting. This suggested that abstraction, as it abandoned mimesis, might also avoid the ‘dead end’ (Klee) of pure patterning or doodling, the aimless placement of one form next to another. Fernandes is not quite doodling, but neither is she re-engaging the problem of how one might construct a grammar of plastic forms, without which abstraction risks solipsism.
And this returns us to the question of legacy. How is it that pictorial, but also sculptural and filmic, abstraction can compel artistic conviction at present? To answer this question requires an investigation of abstraction’s origins, certainly, and I am encouraged by Fernandes’ interest in these latter. But it seems that she only wishes to points things out, without working through the debt, as when she exposes the pillars in the gallery to indicate the industrial history of the space. What does Fernandes want to do with this more or less interesting historical fact?
This is particularly significant when that legacy is the anarchist pastoralism of Signac. In Signac’s painting, Fénéon looks upon a lily held between the thumb and forefingers of his outstretched right hand. This gesture, which can be found in other of Signac’s works but which Fernandes elides, appears to signify aesthetic contemplation, which, in Signac’s pastoral utopia, would be available to all. As dated as such sympathies might be for contemporary artists, Fernandes sifts through them as through a box of signifiers that can be rearranged at will but, ultimately, without very much consequence.