EXHIBITION: Susan Bonvin
Susan Bonvin’s paintings and related visual pieces have always been distinguished by the rigour of her enquiry. It would be acceptable to term her work abstract, in the sense that it is clearly non-figurative, but I have a problem with the term since it suggests derivation from representation – as with Mondrian’s paintings inspired by an apple tree or De Kooning’s colourful messes evolved from the nude. Such derivation is absent from Bonvin’s material events and their concerns. We appear to be dealing with works taken up with primary visual issues: verticals favoured over horizontals, and a suspicion of secondary colours (that might suggest some reference to appearances). Her paintings are concrete – visual facts, sufficient in themselves. The energy of the gesture has no place here, as it has in the expressive abstracts of De Kooning – which again imply some narrative in reaction to the subject. The language of colour and form which she employs owes more to late Mondrian than to that artist’s early journey away from figuration, and indeed it is clear that she accepts that this language has extended, via American hard edge painting, into the minimalism that informs the output of Alan Charlton or Yuko Shiraishi.
This sort of work is profoundly unpersuasive – for it sees persuasion as retrograde, the viewer seduced by illusion into sympathy with subjects, ideals, morals and belief-systems. It is largely in reaction to this notion of art as propaganda that the early modernists of the 20th century aimed for an art about which, in Ortega y Gasset’s terms, “one could neither laugh nor cry” (On the Dehumanisation of Art, 1925). What matters is the structure of the painting, the deliberately “cool” fact of its absolute balance, the issues of shape and form resolved as clearly as musical issues might be resolved in a piece by Webern.
Yet all too often, this equilibrium can only be achieved if a rigid fidelity to elemental units - right angles and primary colours - holds sway. This is what Bonvin feels the need to question. In 1986 she created a blue square of vertical stripes that became increasingly lighter. The blue was experienced as a gradient. She has experimented with working in subdued secondary colours – greys and browns, and recently she created a configuration of three ridged squares in which the ridges get softer and softer in each square. One may experience the gradients here as sections of the outer hubs of wheels looked at straight-on. In other recent work she punctures the birch ply ground with rows of increasingly small dots which seem to fade almost to nothingness. It is as if a mist hung over part of the picture. Such innovations admit irony into the reading of these otherwise pristine resolutions of visual issues. The gradients suggest that the work may be curving away from us. As soon as we can use the term “suggest” we are beginning to speak a language at variance with the modernist language of “dehumanized” form.
The curve is a notoriously difficult element to include in any work which concerns structural resolution. Its line is difficult to pin down. Sinuosity suggests sensuousness. A circle cannot be calculated in its own curved terms, we have to break it down into a series of short straight lines. A curve can never be an absolute in the way that a straight line can be. This is perhaps why the curve now joins the gradient as a concern in Bonvin’s work. She does more than pin it down, she identifies it by puncturing it. The curve therefore becomes delineated by a series of holes. This in itself constitutes a gesture reminiscent of Lucio Fontana’s slash-marks that lacerate his canvases. This emphatic act of puncturing the ground returns us to expression, however precisely it is done (even though it takes no more than the squeeze of a trigger, a bullet gets fired).
Bonvin’s current work is the culmination of a theme that began in 2004 inspired by graphs showing the sine curve. Attracted by the sense of indisputable logic and order which mathematical diagrams seem to carry, she aims to achieve a similar visual balance where forces are stilled and resolved. However, certain innovations upset the standard clichés of stability: several of the works are horizontal rather than vertical and the colours are not simply primary but, in the artist’s words, “convey distinctive characters…so contributing to the accuracy and finality of the statement.” In addition, the sine curve, which traces the trajectory of a moving circle, has a multitude of applications – from anatomy to aeronautics - so it comes to the work replete with referential significance. When placed on a grid, the curve can be broken up into series of overlapping rectangles, linked by chains of ‘points’ that record the measurements. Sometimes these rectangles serve to contain the punctures; sometimes, though, the curve is allowed to float free, and one senses an emotional resolution is here being allowed to take over from any purely formal solution of a problem.
Howell, September, 2005
Susan Bonvin was born in 1948 in
Group exhibitions include Fermynwoods Contemporary Art, Brigstock (2002) Point Line Plane, Francis Graham-Dixon Gallery, London (1998) Swiss Artists in the UK, Swiss Embassy, London (2000) touring from the October Gallery and Economist Gallery, London (1998). Her work is held in Collections in England and abroad, including Galerie Hoffmann, Germany, Arts Council England and New Hall Women’s Art Collection, Cambridge.
The Room is at
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