Craig Burnett on Playground Structure at Blain|Southern

By Philomena Epps

Blain|Southern’s Director of Exhibitions Craig Burnett talks to Philomena Epps about the ideas behind the summer group exhibition: Playground Structure.

The nexus of Playground Structure - Blain|Southern’s group show of abstract painting opening on 1 August - was inspired by the 2008 Jeff Wall photograph of the same name. Talking about Wall’s colour photograph, Craig Burnett commented, “As soon as I saw Playground Structure I thought it had something to do with abstract art. It’s a mundane picture of a suburban park, but it has great ambiguity. It could be a public artwork or it could be a children's play thing”. Burnett (who has been at the gallery since February 2016 after previous positions at Sprueth Magers and White Cube) has long been interested in ideas of play in art, and humour as a form of comic mode in opposition to a tragic or literal mode in abstraction. The title tied into both ideas - of play, and of abstraction. There was also a sense of continuation from a show Burnett organised for the opening of White Cube’s Bermondsey site in 2011: Structure & Absence. But, it was predominantly Wall’s interplay of “the mundane with the metaphysical ambitions of early abstraction that became the fulcrum of this show”.

Playground Structure, 2017, installation view. Courtesy the artists and Blain|Southern.
Playground Structure, 2017, installation view. Courtesy the artists and Blain|Southern. Photo: Peter Mallet.

Another key idea embedded in the show is Rosalind Krauss’ influential description of the modernist grid. In her 1979 essay, Grids, Krauss lauded the grid as “the absolute break from the past, declaring the autonomy of art, [the] absence of discourse, absence of narrative, [and creating] a supreme metaphysical form”. However, Burnett’s selection of artists all re-imagine the grid in a comic, carnivalesque mode, either de-constructing it, playing with it, colourising it, or even subverting the form in a feminist way. The grid becomes a climbing frame. 

The shape of the exhibition, and the decisions behind specific artists included, also stemmed from an important early set of conversations with Daniel Sturgis. Sturgis was later involved in the installation process. This form of collaboration is important to Burnett’s mode of working; “I’m a huge advocate of conversation and how ideas form and crystallise through that process”. For Burnett, Sturgis - who teaches at Camberwell School of Art alongside his practice - “is a great thinker about abstraction”. “The first thing I did was email Dan and ask to talk, ‘I need your brain, I want your work.’” Sturgis’ witty paintings, such as Just Enough or Care for Yourself, both 2017, set up a fantastic battle between the forces of rigid order and an impulse towards slapstick comedy. Similarly, in the work of Dan Walsh, he creates hard-edged structures that veer on the edge of strange, due to their juxtaposing, painterly desire for colour and rounded forms. Jeremy Moon’s work was also a significant part of the initial conversation about the exhibition. Previously a lawyer, Moon died in 1973, after a short-lived ten-year painting career. The giant canvases - often in lurid colours - are goofy, post-modernist abstractions. Moon’s work was exhibited last year at Hoxton’s PEER, where Burnett is a trustee.

Craig Burnett photographed at Blain|Southern for Artworks London, 2017.
Craig Burnett photographed at Blain|Southern for Artworks London, 2017. Photo: Trisha Ward.

List of artists included in Playground Structure at Blain|Southern, London 2017.
List of artists included in Playground Structure at Blain|Southern, London 2017. Photo: Trisha Ward.

Pink Synergie, 2011, is no different. Burnett notes that Heilmann’s work was “a nice crystallisation of the ideas behind the show. She takes a grid-like structure and makes it pink, replacing high seriousness with joy”. Heilmann’s interest in narrative, often her paintings are imbued with personal memories or cultural references, creates a parallel with the work of Joan Snyder. The ‘stroke’ painting is from her first breakthrough series as an artist in 1969, where she began building up spray paint on top of a faint pencil grid. Much later works from 2015 and 2016 create the sense of a hopscotch board, the primary colours creating an interesting dialogue with the playground in Wall’s photograph.

In alignment with Heilmann and Snyder, Amy Feldman is another female artist engaged with moving the grid away from its reputation as a pseudo-masculine form. Feldman conjures bodily forms through a loose, physical, and improvisatory mode. A work like Public Lick, 2016, for example looks positively intestinal. Burnett explains that, for Feldman, there is a real performative element going on, and the constant risk of failure; “she has to get it right the first time, if it messes up somehow, she gets rid of the painting”. The canvases are large, in order to test the limits of her body. In a conversation recently in Berlin, Burnett compared Feldman’s work to a 1958 Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem called ‘Constantly Risking Absurdity’; “the poet is comparing being a poet to being a tightrope walker, constantly at risk, putting himself out there.”

Work placement is considered during the installation of Playground Structure at Blain|Southern, London 2017.
Artwork placement is considered during the installation of Playground Structure at Blain|Southern, London 2017. Photo: Trisha Ward.

Art handlers prepare to hang a painting in Playground Structure at Blain|Southern, London 2017.
Art handlers prepare to hang a painting during the installation of Playground Structure at Blain|Southern, London 2017. Photo: Trisha Ward.

Rachel Howard approaches the grid through the mode of disorder and decay; overworking a faint grid painted in oils with turpentine, slowly diluting and scraping it away into a state of decline. In a large canvas titled Symptoms and Side Effects, 2016, she uses the lace pattern of some net curtains to create a flowered grid structure. The meshes of red and yellow oils appear “decadent, saturated and soaked in relation to the supreme rational structure that is the grid. She dissolves it away.” There is a particularly nice dialogue between Howard’s paintings and the early works from Ed Moses. During the 1970s Moses created ‘wedge’ paintings based on the patterns of Navajo blankets, using acrylic, coloured pencil, masking tape and tissue. To Burnett, Moses’ “impish” take was a “riposte to grand claims about American abstraction”. Like all the artists exhibited, an initial structure is necessary in order for the subversion, the improvisation, to take place. Burnett agrees, “its to bring you up into the structure of the game”.

In response to a question about the rise of commercial galleries organising institutional style shows, Burnett responded that these programmes “are never a commercial-driven idea. It’s to make the gallery artists excited about the programme, and to introduce them to different contexts”. He continued, “'if we were an institution, I could include lots of different artists, but I wanted it to be a fairly small group. I wanted to have artists who are slightly less known in the UK, like Snyder or Walsh. As a gallery of our scale, it doesn't make too much sense to try and take on the institutions. We all have different roles to play. You want a show that has a certain idiosyncrasy. The scale of the show makes a big difference in a commercial gallery. You want something that has a certain jolt, a certain intensity, a certain coherence.” And, crucially, “the idea for a show about comic abstraction had been burning in the back of my head for a while”.

Playground Structure by Jeff Wall is the inspiration for the exhibition of the same name at Blain|Southern, London 2017.
Playground Structure by Jeff Wall is the inspiration for the exhibition of the same name at Blain|Southern, London 2017. Photo: Trisha Ward.

The notion of a small group of artists in dialogue with each other, and exhibited in dialogue with the medium of the photograph, makes the show particularly organic and genuine. “The whole idea of conversation is embedded in this show, of discourse,” says Burnett. “If we think about play as a back and forth, or to and fro movement between two things, between artworks, between viewer and artwork, between the form of the artwork and the interpretation of the artwork by the viewer.” This discourse will be realised on 6 September with a panel discussion between Daniel Sturgis, Dan Walsh, Joan Snyder, Rachel Howard, and Amy Feldman at the gallery. The event is titled ‘Wasted in Play’ after the line in William Blake’s ‘Nursery Song’ from the ‘Songs of Experience’; “your spring and your day are wasted in play”. “It’s a loose interpretation of the line, but I loved this idea of being intoxicated in play,” furthers Burnett. Play becomes a utopian space. A testing ground of ideas, a form of expression, a form of doing. And, in a neat circle, that notion returns us back to the image of the playground. “Play is an activity without a determined outcome, a to and fro movement without any reason to end”.

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Playground Structure is on view at Blain|Southern, London from Tue 1 August – Sat 16 September 2017. 

Read more about the exhibition: http://www.blainsouthern.com/e...

Philomena Epps is a writer based in London. She is also the founding editor and publisher of Orlando magazine.

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