Dave Beech, 2000
Looking at art, and especially thinking about it, is like being in a crowd of strangers who all wear masks of your closest family, or of your own mirrored face. Time and again you turn on your heels to recognise a welcome face only to be shocked into the realization that you are not at home. It is often preferable to permit ourselves the delusion that we are genuinely in familiar company instead of facing the nightmarish truth of being lost in the land of others. Art generally puts up little or no resistance to those self-protective and violating attentions that presume its familiarity, and so the vanity goes unnoticed. Most of the time, therefore, our experience of looking at art demonstrates no trace of the anxiety, and we persist in believing that art flatters us by speaking, as they say, in our language.
Consider the case of a young artist who applies herself to a set of nuanced difficulties that she can’t shake off and yet can’t fully resolve. What if, after several years of betting and trying, she produces works that resemble a recognisable school of artistic thought? Now, the most likely response to this work, I guess, is that it would be understood in terms of her relationship to antecedent works that may or may not have had any significant part to play in her working process. Perhaps, we want to say that she should have availed herself of an historical knowledge that would have saved her from ‘reinventing the wheel’? Perhaps, also, we could safely say that her knowledge is not essential to our interpretation of her works, and that our knowledge of the antecedent school of thinking is no less valid for her neglect or disinterest. Such arguments could well be true without it having the least bearing on what I want to say about them. My concern is only secondarily about whether the reference to antecedent art would, in such a case, be valid, productive or interesting. I am more suspicious about the ways in which we force unfamiliar works to wear the masks of old friends in order to keep our dignity.
From the outside and in retrospect, the development in the work of Maider Lopez can be plotted as a coming to terms or of joining forces with a postminimalist tradition of merging, rather than separating, the disciplines of painting and sculpture. Indeed, such a connection is usually welcome, given the esteem accorded that tradition nowadays. I don’t want to underplay what undoubtedly could be a very fruitful exchange, and one which Maider Lopez herself might be keen to see unfurled. However, there is some credit in putting postminimalism to one side for a second, particularly since Maider Lopez found her own way, and had her own reasons for smoothing out the old opposition between painting and sculpture. Primarily, though, the reason that I want to think of Maider Lopez’s work against instead of within the tradition of postminimalist practice is that it opens up the possibility of our not – or not yet – knowing how to attend to her works. So, in one sense, the mismatch between them is enlightening. But in another, the forced ‘misconstrual’ of her work as not postminimalist holds the slim promise that we might see something of her face behind the more familiar mask of postminimalist practice.
It is a matter of record, now, that minimalism was established with, among one or two other things, the drawing together of painting and sculpture. This is the historical significance of Donald Judd’s category of ‘Specific Objects’, which he outlines in his essay of 1965. He describes specific objects as ‘neither painting nor sculpture’. The halfway house between the two central disciplines of academic art history – and modernist decorum – is the home of art’s formalized self-erasure that incorporates simple, straightforward, clear materials as art’s last chance to fend off the everyday. Starting with conceptualism, the history of postminimalism has seen multiple attempts to stretch minimalism’s straightforwardness to include the everyday. Soon enough, of course, the halfway house between painting and sculpture got lost in the anarchic dispersal of the expanded field of non-art practices. But non-painting and the non-sculpture retained something of their earlier incarnation as the sign of modernism’s collapse. This is why the postminimalist lookalike contest in young art of the 80s and 90s managed to garner such praise from academically well-placed critics. Mostly, and quite naturally given the presence of postminimalists in art education, younger artists took on the mantel of postminimalism with a certain amount of historical know-how and more than an ounce of cynicism (or was it fear?), so that the variety of what neither painting nor sculpture might be seemed to begin to show itself, if somewhat belatedly. Maider Lopez might prove to be best judged in terms of the most recent wave of postminimalism, crashing against what’s left of postminimalism on the shore. If so, it not without the caveat that her work has sympathies not shared by the postminimalist consensus.
When a painting burns its colours into the wall around it, literally spreading onto its support, then we are naturally reminded of the postminimalist challenge to the division between painting and sculpture. The loss of the painting’s edge is the first hurdle in painting’s race to join sculpture in the round, and their dance through the gallery space is more of a threat to art’s cherished hierarchies than is usually understood. Nevertheless, Maider Lopez has other things on her mind. Exactly what is hard to say with precision, but it is brought to a head in her later works in which sheets of brightly coloured paper are pasted directly onto the wall in large patches that are as unstable in their edges as they are scarred by other colours that force their way through gaps and slits between the sheets. Yes, there is something sexual about the interplay of colours and the sense of this skin on the wall being punctured or wounded, revealing other skins below. But this is just the beginning. Maider Lopez makes works that not only resemble postminimalist artworks, they have a substantial investment in postminimalism’s radical ontology (they belong to the tradition of ‘neither painting nor sculpture’), and yet they trade in the formal gesture of postminimalism’s threat for a lyrical vivacity that goes against the whole sweep of postminimalism’s sober critique. It might be worth thinking about the possibility that Maider Lopez is a double-agent, working within the institution of postminimalism in order to bring it to its knees.
To imagine Maider Lopez as working out of postminimalism instead of working her way into it is not to single her out as unique, but it puts her in strange company. She has no relationship, as far as I know, with the English Conceptual artists Art & Language (hereafter, A&L), and yet what they have to say about their own work can shed light onto the core of Lopez’s art. I should point out right away, though, that I imagine there to be a certain amount of reluctance on the part of A&L’s ideas to serve Lopez’s art, and this reluctance may be matched by the work that I am attempting to discuss. If light can be shed, therefore, it is not because there is agreement between one set of concerns and another. I am, to be blunt, about to take some liberties.
In the text to the Illustrated Handbook of their exhibition at the Fundacio Antoni Tapies in 1999, A&L make the point again and again that their paintings emphasise the literal qualities of the visible objects. They ‘say’ the same thing with their work. Glass sheets are placed in front of some of the paintings in order to bring the surroundings and the viewer into the visual field of the works. In others, paint is squashed and pushed from behind the painting onto the rear of the glass to obscure the painting, and in one or two, posters with printed texts are stuck over the paintings with obvious results. A group of works from 1993 and 1994 involved stashing the paintings inside boxes, thus concealing them, hiding them, imprisoning them and otherwise removing them from view. “Painting is continued and it is blocked. Painting is continued as it is blocked. Painting is blocked as it is continued”, as David Batchelor puts it.
A&L have used as many different phrases to describe and explain what they do to paintings and their virtual spaces, as they have used different strategies and methods to violate them (if violate is not too strong a word). One version, which has no more claim on their works than any other version, suggests this: the act “seals off” the pictorial or virtual image. If all that this meant was literally covering up the painting or the picture then it would be of no consequence. But something more decisive is happening. What is done to the painting is done to it in terms of its pictoriality. Painting is blocked, in these works, only insofar as the picture is – in the parlance of psychics – called over from the other side. The picture becomes, as a result, not so much a painting as an object. And this point is brought home by the fact that they often have to be seen obliquely: craning your neck to avoid the reflections, sticking your nose up to the glass to see behind it, imagining what more there is beyond the visible edges.
It would not be satisfactory to redescribe A&L’s project in terms of the fashionable and old-fashioned challenge to the distinction between painting and scultpture. There is, lurking within these ideas and practices, a deep ill-will towards something greater than high-modernist decorum. It is a vital aspect of A&L’s ‘paintings’ that they fall into Donald Judd’s category of ‘neither painting nor sculpture’; what is characteristic of them, though, is that they are neither painting nor sculpture because they prevent the viewer from seeing them (either seeing them as visual art or seeing them at all). This is not the same goal as Judd’s ‘specific objects’. It is not merely that the terms (or categories or traditions) of painting and sculpture have become problematic; art itself, or at least what we do when we look at art or how we look at art, has become irretrievably problematic. They are not reminding us that art is guilty of this or that, but taking issue with the ways in which cultural division makes its presence felt in the forms of delight taken in art and the corresponding qualities of art objects.
I am trying to give some indication of how deep the commitment to the transformation of a painting into an object (that is neither painting nor sculpture) might go – and does go, in the case of A&L. My task is made all the more difficult by the fact that the first part of this formula (the halfway house between painting and sculpture) has become a commonplace. Despite the ease with which young artists make objects (neither painting nor sculpture) these days, however, A&L pursue the project of transforming paintings into objects because it contains a shocking cultural and political threat. They explain the matter like this:
“In early Conceptual Art the suppression of the entranced beholder was never simply an avant-garde necessity. It was only within those forms of Postminimalist practice … that a Duchampian art-in-the-service-of-the-mind could plausibly be set up in opposition to a Greenbergian opticality. In Conceptual Art deserving of the name what was at stake was not the mere possibility of installing Art as Idea as a new anti-visual form of ready-made. The more substantial project was to dislodge the empiricistic gentleman – the symbolic guardian of the contemplative account of knowledge – from his position as arbiter of value in culture as a whole. He and his supposedly disinterested vision had to be disqualified so that a critical and social activity could be installed in their place. And what was needed if this was to be done was not the new hermeticism of Art as Idea, but a shareable practice of art as ideas; not pictures made of words, but an incursion of unruly readings into the immaculate surfaces of art. The task was to prevent the supposed iconic face of the work of art from any longer masking its causal and indexical character; in other words, to prevent the authorized account of what art looks like from standing in for an account of its place in the world that makes it.”.
This is why the founding gesture of A&L was to pose problems for the cultural distinction between viewer and reader, or artist and talker/ writer, not merely to question the division between painting and sculpture, or to challenge the modernist investment in such a division. In other words, there is a way of thinking that the radical gesture of minimalism’s merging and erasure of painting and sculpture is just not radical enough.
I am certainly not trying to make a case for Maider Lopez to be taken under the wing of Conceptualism’s hardliners. What seems to be relevant, though, is how A&L might clear some space beyond the postminimalist consensus which allows us to think of deviations from its customary exercises as something more than errors or historical misconstruals. It is trivial to promote all errors and misconstruals as productive of new attitudes in art. What I’m looking for is a non-trivial understanding of Maider Lopez’s strangely lyrical postminimalism that neither destroys the lyricism through its analytical superiority over postminimalism proper, nor cushions the blows of postminimalist critique through sentimental generosity to the humane spirit of her lyricism. This is important, I think, because it is easy to allow the lyricism to be trivialized if the weight of postminimalism is being used both to support the work and undermine what I’m calling the work’s lyricism. A good example of what I’m thinking of can be found in a set of works by Maider Lopez that have more than a passing resemblance to the A&L works discussed above. She has made a number of works that turn their backs on the viewer and face the wall.
Using wall sized sheets of board Maider Lopez has constructed false walls that stand against, though not quite on, the walls of the gallery. Of course, it is possible in such circumstances to enter the gallery thinking that nothing is present at all because the works hide themselves quite well when they masquerade as walls. However, when you peer at them anamorphically, so to speak, there is a perceptible gap between the actual wall and the false one, and, in that gap, an unmistakable surprise. It is filled with a colour the source of which you can’t initially detect. You cannot see a painted surface and there are no electric lights, but the space is nonetheless – and magically – lit up with bright colour. Even when you realize that the colour is being reflected onto the wall from the painted surface of the board facing it, the magic doesn’t end, and, more importantly, you do not therefore imagine that you are looking at a painting turned against the wall. In fact, it might never appear to you as if the colour you see between the object and the wall has anything to do with painting. If the board was faced the other way, however, there would be little doubt that you were looking at a painting. So far, then, apart from the little mystery built in to Maider Lopez’s work, there might seem to be a significant overlap between these works and A&L’s ‘blocked paintings’. They both entail a literal turning away from the viewer, and in doing so the painting becomes, amongst other things, an object.
Maider Lopez does not so much turn her painting against the wall as transform the wall into the painting’s partner by dramatising their relationship. She does not, therefore, transform the painting into something more like a wall but transforms the wall into something more like a painting. Postminimalist art famously incorporates the space of the gallery into the experience of the artwork; it breaks down the distinction between the figural space of the artwork and the literal space of the gallery. But it does this in the direction of the literal space of the gallery: the work becomes literal too. Maider Lopez reverses the movement, incorporating the gallery into the figural space of the work. This is, partly, what I mean by her lyricism. What I also mean by this is that the exchanges between painting (or object) and wall (or painting) in Maider Lopez’s work, effects a primacy of the figural (rather than the literal), that triggers all kinds of lyrical interpretations. Her surrogate walls do not re-emphasise the presence of the actual walls in the space but carry them away into the fictional space of painting. And the walls become windows or gateways, immaterial curtains through which we can glimpse something else beyond.
This is why, after I hazarded the interpretation that layered sheets of coloured paper pasted on the wall might be sexy, I warned – or promised – that this is just the beginning. One skin gives way to another as if to offer us a glimpse, through one of these peepholes, not merely the wall behind it, but the strange world behind the wall. Or, if the surge is coming from the other side, if instead of the top layer breaking up to reveal subcutaneous truths those very undercurrents are pushing their way through the surface, then there is a mysterious force on its way that the wall can’t check. The wall has been enchanted and isn’t going to put up any resistance to the ethereal interchange that it hosts. It is impossible to say what is on the other side of the wall, but it gives off such a marvellous glow that it is hard to think of it as anything other than benign. Perhaps it is Nirvana itself, or, in a more secular way of thinking, Utopia. That doesn’t mean we are going to head straight for the exit. The same glow would, I suppose, emanate from the futuristic headlights of an oncoming vehicle, or the fiery glow of hell. So, beware, beyond that wall is another world and you might not belong there.
 David Batchelor, “Once Were Painters”, Art & Language in Practice, Volume 2, Critical Symposium, Fundacio Antoni Tapies, 1999, p.181
 Art & Language, “Number 72”, Art & Language in Practice, Volume, Illustrated Handbook, p274
 Art & Language, “Number 15”, Art & Language in Practice, Volume, Illustrated Handbook, p.82-3