When rock critic Lester Bangs praised Alice Cooper for receiving a cake, full in the face, live onstage, and smearing it gleefully all over himself, ‘sneaking the odd little fingerlicking taste’, he was drawing a line between two kinds of performers: those, like Cooper, willing to engage with the audience on their terms and those who aren’t. In effect, the cake-throwing was a kind of tribute: an acknowledgement of the bacchanalian theatrics of the enterprise of art, a gift cued in to the spirit of the form. A painter, similarly attuned to the tone of the venture, might pay homage to painting’s eminently physical medium in a comparable way. Alexis Harding’s works – which ooze and drip paint off their bottom edges, like cream off Alice Cooper’s chin – form a collective proposal: that painting’s grappling with unruly matter is, at heart, an act of almost comedic abandon.
In Harding’s Hood II (2012), a rectangle of MDF has been coated in Guston-pink oil paint. A skein of pink household gloss, poured from the top edge, has slid down, bifurcating on a bump into two labial folds, one of which continues to drip into small pink puddles on the floor. Harding treats a painting as a verb, allowing its matter to continue its gravitational drag towards the earth. The act of pouring (its art-historical nods and winks notwithstanding) disempowers the controlled painterly act, affirming the sculptural quiddity of paint itself. In Fill Line (2012) two streams of poured gloss slip down the painted surface, sloughing off their rucked skins at the bottom and dribbling on a cupboard underneath. While the painting’s aesthetic (a Newman zip in melted chewing gum) is part of a deepening relationship with the history of monochromatic painting, its continual mutations point to the deferred resolution of any painting, from any period: a painting never ends, because matter never does.
Harding’s works are both factual declarations of the stuff of paint and performances of revelation and disguise. Where the poured works resemble thin veils or the gathering swags of curtains, Crack Tip (Unraveller) (2011) looks like a busted Venetian blind: its rainbow striations, gouged into the oil-black surface, collapsing into zigzags. The paintings allude to the iconography of concealment, but it’s within their surface tensions – matt/gloss, painted/poured, wet/dry – that their expressive breadth is realised. In Crack Tip (Puppet Painting) (2011), scraped lines strip the surface back to its MDF base, but resemble a quivering shower curtain as much as a frank pronouncement of the facts of the case. The scraped black paint runs in rivulets down a small panel of rainbow stripes: the residue globs and clods at the bottom of the painting. We get it: painting’s marshalling of matter is doomed to end in comic bathos; the Renaissance-blue skies fade to grey. And yet, the surfaces themselves – rippling, scratched or slumped, and perennially reacting to the world around them – make Harding’s project an endorsement of paint’s intrinsic voice: and yet, it moves.
- Published in Art Review magazine, September 2012