Love the Work

Slate, The Bridewell, until 24th July, free (by appointment)

A series of black and white panels with abstract shapes to create one large work, most shapes seem to be based on triangles
Henry Woolway

Shows are back! Real, physical things you can see in real buildings! Ah, so much of this felt so normal, and normal isn’t something I’ll take for granted for a long time. Social distancing at this show was fine – paintings are spaced well apart, and it’ll be by appointment anyway so I’ll hazard that there’s unlikely to be too many other people around anyway.

Slate is a showcase of work by two artists, Max Gottlieb and Henry Woolway, and all the exhibited work has been made during lockdown. The artists work together in film outside of the studio, and seem to share a similar mentality towards their art. This might be described as a feeling for that precise place in the work where elements come together. Both make paintings which on the surface present much simpler than the sum of their parts, but which hit the right balances between too much and not enough, natural and artificial.

Woolway’s large works are based on monochrome spaces, either expansive or sequenced. The ones I find most satisfying are those he’s made out of combining separate squares together into a seemingly random yet well-balanced sequence. It reminds me in a way of a set of imaginary abstract photographic negatives, perhaps of the early 20th century, where the pieces say more together than the single image. Then there’s versions which are almost entirely black, with a few patches where the light of the canvas forces itself through, atmospheric but not gloomy. The material feels important – even in the blackness you never really lose a sense that these are on canvas, physical even in their abstraction.

Pinks and purple with circles, bright spots on bottom part which look like lights.
Max Gottlieb

Gottlieb’s paintings are the colourful ones (I really enjoy the hang of this show by the way, which allows the works to complement each other whilst also giving space to enjoy each artist on their own). He uses a combination of organised geometric forms and more natural, spontaneous brush strokes, with these two elements perfectly united. I really enjoy his palette of a lot of bright colours, garish enough to make everything feel constructed. But I say ‘constructed’ because they don’t go the whole way into neon artificiality. There’s still something relatable, that belongs if not to the ‘natural world’, then a world of natural, everyday experience. This sense applies to the way shapes are used too. I read some of the geometric forms of circles and rectangles of being suspended in space, rather than stuck flat and fast. Like they’re floating in water, or hovering in the air, or suspended by gravity. They feel transient, like they could decide to clear off at any moment. That these collections of orderly shapes might, somewhere, have a life of their own.

Top half is plain white, bottom half has black spread out like a random pattern
Henry Woolway

Going on the opening night I get to speak to both Gottlieb and Woolway separately. What’s interesting about our conversations is that both talk more about the practical process of making work than the outcomes. Their paintings are seemingly less focused on a specifically intended outcome than on working for the drive to work, and seeing what emerges. You can feel this in their work, this sense of attention – and, crucially, balance. It’s one of the skills all artists need, to be confident in your sense of knowing when something is right. And it’s the thing which shines through in this exhibition. Because there’s just a sense that the best things here work. It’s that intangible thing that you feel when parts come together and although the connection on my part isn’t necessarily emotional, it’s incredibly pleasing. Satisfying. And there’s a sense that the smallest change could send this balance off-kilter. I feel this in Woolway’s canvases in particular – that though there’s a great deal of chance in the way some of the shapes have been created, their order and combination gets the best out of them. That just one out of place would change the feel of the entire piece to create something…maybe not bad, but certainly different.

Both artists have been fortunate enough to be able to spend much of this lockdown time working on art – and there’s a lot of it! In a way these might be experiments, the results of an extended time of prolific enthusiasm in which each has riffed with their ideas, played with forms, and seen this pay off. But nothing feels rushed or half-baked, no ‘that’ll do’. The feeling is for art not just as a result but as an action, and the sense that through having the time to repeat the actions, each work has come into being exactly the way it was meant to be. Maybe, too, I’m more appreciative of the physicality of both the action and the work because it’s what’s been missing for so many months, this ability to experience the tangibility of an outside world unfiltered by screens. As a way of introducing myself to seeing painting in the real world again, the abstractions of Slate were a satisfying place to start.

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