Addressing Frank Stella’s painterly aluminium constructions of the late 1970s, Douglas Crimp wrote that, ‘the irony of Stella’s recent enterprise is that he is only able to point at painting from the distance of a peculiar hybrid object, an object which may well represent a painting but certainly cannot legitimately be a painting.’
Crimp’s response – as with Stella’s work – points provocatively to the very problem of defining painting. The works to which Crimp referred turned away from the flat two-dimensional surface of modernist painting, taking the form instead of exuberant relief assemblages of cut and brightly coloured metal shapes. These hybrid objects, for Stella at least, did continue to operate as painting, albeit in a ‘maximalist’ sense. Yet, the question of whether these works should be called painting or sculpture, or something else entirely, has been extensively debated. In many ways this was a semantic problem that highlighted the insufficiency of language in describing new modes of practice. If Stella’s work cannot be painting, this is only according to a certain set of conventions. Despite the apparent singularity of the term, painting has always encompassed a dizzying array of subjects, materials, and techniques, and this has only been amplified within the expanded field of contemporary practice. Indeed, Rosalind Krauss had already noted this in 1979 when she suggested that ‘categories like painting and sculpture have been kneaded and stretched and twisted in an extraordinary demonstration of elasticity, a display of the way a cultural term can be extended to include just about anything.’
Helen Calder’s practice actively draws on this history, continuing to tease out the problem of painting’s identity, and explore the potential of its contemporary condition. Her work emphatically declares itself as painting but does so through a dissembling of the medium to its constitutive parts: pigment, surface, support, site. Surfaces and supports have often been cleaved apart, with paint and armature reconfigured to suggest new relationships. Paint skins that have been metaphorically peeled from the canvas are variously draped, hung, piled, and pooled, while structures such as unprimed wood, hooks, racks, and ropes provide alternate systems of support.
These works embrace the agency of paint itself, and seem to revel in both its liquid viscosity and its tactile plasticity.
The above is an excerpt from the text, Surfaces that Matter by Barbara Garrie, June 2023.