I suppose one is tempted to speak about Ian Grose’s work in pure abstractions for the work is so nebulous and elusive, being one thing at one distance and transmuting into something wholly different up close. His latest exhibition ‘Refrain’, currently at Stevenson on Juta Street in Braamfontein is a solemn, single minded meditation on the philosophy of painting, materiality and materialism. In interrogating the surface of the painting in material terms he begins to speak directly to the idea of materialism, which relies on the hypothesis that nothing exists except that which is in the physical realm. In turn this creates isolation between the real surface that’s in front of you and the represented surface. That isolation is palpable in the images as much as in the manner in which the exhibition is curated.
Take, for instance, the fabric paintings: here marks are made onto fabric in order to realise the painting which are contrasted with the fabric being represented.Picture of flowers 1, Dissimulation 12, Dissimulation 13 – images which have been cropped tightly – have an unsettling metaphysical quality. There is almost an immaterial presence to them; of being embodied by a form not quite accessible on the surface, thus creating an intersection between the image, life and transcendence. They suggest a presence of life inside the image or a possibility of transcendence through art. This feeling contrasted with the careful play of light and shadows which create what seems like wrinkles.
This isolation finds relief in the paintings’ own internal dialogue. At first, the two images seem opposed to one another and as one looks closer, they become two different ways of seeing the same thing. This results in one being able to oscillate between the one image and the other, between real and imagined or real and the representation. The central concern in all of the works seems to be the questions: how does one begin to deal with the surface of this world behind which there is nothing? If materialism has replaced religion, how does one deal with that surface of the painting, of art, and respect it in the same way one respects what one associates with matters of the spiritual? In interrogating the paintings one is led to ask: “Do surfaces transcend what they are?” In the realm of imagination one is able to smell the flowers on the linen and press against the body alluded to in, for instance, Dim Cloth. It is this gravitas that allows fabrics, especially, to bridge the gap into the world of something that is not here, not necessarily metaphysical, but maybe something to do with memory or longing.
Another recurring motif in the work is that of broken busts and statues. For example, Pentimento 1-4. In this series of paintings one finds further multiple representations; painting representing sculpture, representing a historical subject and representing power. This extends further to how a material as banal as stone is moulded into an instrument of political power and the representation of that political power in space. These are detailed and visually complex images. In a way they speak of how society has ascribed meaning to meaningless things. Of how we’ve constructed differences and ‘otherness’ where there was none. These recurring motifs in the exhibition are part of the project of representation in that one image echoes throughout the show. This speaks directly to how ‘Refrain’ is informed by repetition or the repetition of refusal.
What is more, because there is no focal point to navigate towards in the image, one feels a sense of vertigo, of pointlessness and of being snubbed by the unyielding refrain from within the image itself, keeping one at distance. In the fabric works one finds the real fabric and its representation in a single surface. Between the space of real and representation one is able to formulate meanings. Questions of materialism arise at this point because the philosophy of materialism relies on the hypothesis that conscious states are identical with the material world. In Grose, this creates isolation between the real surface that’s in front of you and the represented surface and the image in one’s own mind and imagination. This is the remove and isolation that one experiences with this body of work.
Originally appeared in Artthrob*