Sharon Drew describes her art as process-based and one of the pleasures of observing it over time is experiencing the restless dynamic of her practice. Drew explores a particular approach – for example, a version of
colour-field or stain painting – then warps that into a new project, involving a more instrumental relationship with the brush, followed swiftly by another change, involving, say, gestural elements. Between such approaches may be works of transition, where manipulations of two ostensible visual vocabularies coincide – like runners at a relay race handover. In this physical moment, risking collision at speed, pleasurable, unsettling aesthetic jolts are repeatedly delivered.
The relay metaphor suggests more than stylistic simultaneity in Drew’s progressions. It conveys, too, the urgency in her process-shifting. Some painters focus on long-term explorations of a broadly similar approach – Howard Hodgkin or Agnes Martin spring to mind, and Drew’s art can partly inhabit, respectively, their sensualism or minimalist affinities. However, Drew is wary of boxing herself in stylistically (patterns of style being bound with process), and this fuels the constructive instability of her creative landscape.
If the task – conscious or intuitive – is to engage with and shift process, and thereby visual vocabulary, there is, too, a solid continuity of expression in Drew’s work. Joy and exuberance are there – in light, in colour and in movement; so too are expressions of intellectual inquiry, of questioning these marks, materials and makings; there are also veilings, concealments and, one suspects, melancholies in occlusions and shadow. There is an expressionism at work, intentional and aleatory, through many shifts in technical process, along with the aspiration to the detachment of a process-oriented approach, itself, arguably, a form of conceptualism. The concept, in other words – subject matter or content – is in part the form, and this derives, in circular fashion, from the successive acts of reflexive, dialectical making over time.
One shift, from racks of repeated oblong/torpedo shapes to a series of sea-inspired gestural paintings – horizontal tiers of looping brushstrokes in complex, parallel colour arrangements – illustrates the complex relationship between idea, process and expression. The torpedo shapes embody rigour and restraint, achieving expression through the totality of the composition, the pleasure of comprehending the relationship of figure to ground, and figural echoes of water, sunlight. In a similar way, the severest Minimalism – Carl André’s magnesium squares or Donald Judd’s polished geometries – does not evade the creation of beauty; Drew does not necessarily reject the pleasures of a decorative surface.
Recent paintings feature the three processes mentioned above – colour-field stain paintings, repeat-shapes on ground and looping, gestural works relating to the sea – along with a number of intermediate pieces where two styles are present simultaneously. Seen title-less, my instinct is to view Drew’s work as unproblematically abstract. However, some titles refer to figurative elements, for example Sea Change 1 (2012) or Sunburst (2012) so the territory is more subtle, perhaps a strategy to avoid being labelled a process artist, Abstract Expressionist, or even Post-Impressionist – or a playfulness around aspects of figuration.
Undercurrent 2 is one of Drew’s most sumptuous pieces and a foray into decorative territory. Drew is frequently an uncompromising colourist, loading her palette with harsh shades, variations of hospital pinks or kitchen emulsion blues – a signal of the intellectual rigour underpinning her creativity. But this piece offers myriad softnesses and subtleties within a vertically split colour background, ranging from blackcurrant mousse to chocolate, with swathes of guacamole and tangerine that recall Hodgkin. Serried torpedo shapes, flat single-sweep brushings, rise diagonally in phalanx across the canvas. These baldly arranged statements of process and material illuminate Drew as a formalist, twitching Minimalism’s brutish nerve, but playing at the cusp of a painterly exuberance.
One perhaps chance effect of this particular composition, with its screen of oblongs and brilliant colour contrasts, is a degree of optical disturbance. The torpedoes/sausages ‘move’ as you look at them. It’s not Op, but optical effects arise from the close placings of complementary colour, as with the unstable outlines of some Fauve paintings.
Dualities are part of Drew’s stock-in-trade, and Undercurrent 2 vertically split background, over which the shapes stream like regimented fish initiates a complex dialectical encounter – figure-ground, and ground internally split. There’s a sense of time too; the shapes are quickly done and, up close, there are gorgeous spots, whorls and dribblings that animate the composition. This vivacious work is powerfully felt, for all the detachment of process..
Undercurrent 1(2012) refuses the lures of obvious beauty, opting for the palette-flattening of a nondescript pink, just like a carpenter’s traditional undercoat. The torpedoes or oblongs are altered – febrile, with under- and overpainting, crowded compositionally and fraying at the edges: this is a new syntactical arrangement, a modified process, achieving a more questioning effect. Where Undercurrent 2
has a self-confidence and even a certain glamour, its companion painting is restless and introspective. It’s a powerful, edgy piece that would repay long looking.
If optical flux is part of the appeal and strength of both Undercurrents, with their constant relationship of repeated elements to ground, the fluid-stain triptych Outburst (2010) bases its entire effect on instability – from process to product. These large-scale flowers, galactic or menstrual outbursts move and fascinate with their planned and chance encounters with paint – liquids that spread, puddle, flow and bleed crimson, aubergine and wine over an innocuous ground of post-war pale-blue. Two panels are deftly underlit with what appears an almost fluorescent lime, a subtle addition that underlines Drew’s technical skill in handling. The title augments the piece – being sufficiently vague and allusive to permit one’s reading – abstract, figural, and Hubble or microscope-slide scale – to stay in flux. There is clear reference to the feminist dialectic in art here – in the process, image and conceptualisation. My sense is that Drew pursues an engagement with all pinks, and that this, in a non-programmatic way, is an engagement with discourse around metaphors of femininity and womanhood.
The Outburst triptych predates both Undercurrents, and if it were to seem like the work of a different artist from the two Undercurrent paintings, the trick is revealed in two pieces that could be called transitional (although this would be to suggest, unfairly, that they are somehow merely ‘on the way’ to somewhere else, rather than having their own integrity). In Surge (2011), the flow, staining and expanding colour of Outburst begins to congeal and acquire, in place of delicious cobweb veils of translucency, a core of opacity – like a foetus developing bones. These bones become visible, red paint mixed with white, in Verve (2011), and one can see that they are the broad brushstrokes that, in Undercurrent 1 and Undercurrent 2 , become central.
The split ground of Undercurrent 2 makes a forthright appearance as a dominant organisational device inConceal 1 (2012) this dark, compressed piece sees the first signs of the looping gesturation of the two Sea Change paintings. The broad brush-stroke emblems have sardined together and started to loop, one into another. And they are now subsidiary, it can seem, to an overpainting of what might have been ground – a squeegee wipe of brutal commercial pink that recalls Gerhard Richter’s monochromatic overpainted photographs, rather than his colour abstracts.
Again, in Drew’s work it is the intellectual and emotional restlessness, and rigour of exploration, that captivate mind and heart, the power and persistence of dialogue between pictorial elements. Glade (2012) employs the same strategy, this time with a banner of cadmium orange sweeping like gauze over a barrage of diagonally placed brushstrokes. As with Conceal, Glade moves the careful placings of the brushstrokes seen in Undercurrent 2 towards gestural freedom – these strokes have the animation of a crowd at a rock concert, and could be imagined as small, closely spaced figures – or the vivacious loops and diagonals of italic script.
In Sea Change 1 and Sea Change 2 this process becomes the star or dominant device. Sea Change 1 is water, perhaps – or perhaps not – in crimsons, navy blues, cyans, browns and whitened minglings in-between. But there is no attempt at real depth, or volume which keeps this piece, in spite of the title, at the edge of depiction. Or perhaps the title is simply saying that this might be the sea, but it is changed and that our looking must therefore remain alert and nuanced.
Sea Change 1’s almost precise horizontal swirls are subjected to a degree of violence in Sea Change 2, whereby the swirls, as in the shift between the two Undercurrent paintings, become disordered, with spots and random swirls on a larger scale that suggest a nod to Pollock. The palette shifts too – whiter, more sun-cooked.
The aesthetic dynamism of Drew’s acrylics is based on constant shifting and ambiguity, for artist and viewer. Looking at her work is to enter its heartfelt and rigorous dialectic of style and process, as well as one’s own internal interpretive dialogue. What makes these paintings satisfying and mature is thus a controlled core of instability.
All art grows out of tradition. The challenge for any practitioner, whether working in an ancient discipline such as lyric verse, or a relatively recent one, such as abstraction, is to give the work vitality and integrity either by breaking (apparently) with that tradition, or through more subtle engagements and encounters that expand what the tradition is, and is capable of. Drew’s abstracts at the furthest edges of depiction take the latter course, and, in the process, arrest the eye, engage the mind and delight the heart.
© Nigel Pollitt June 2012. Poet, writer and teacher, Former Visual Arts Editor of City Limits Magazine