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had constituted the sole image-making resource of Beattie’s work. Yet in the extension of gesture into figuration which occurred in his work around 1990, there is inevitably a point of disjunction that haunts abstraction, one that was perhaps agonised over most famously by Philip Guston. Guston has left vivid testament of his sense of being marooned between figuration and abstraction: ‘I would one day tack up in the house a bunch of pure drawings, feel good about them... And that night go out to the studio to the drawings of objects – books, shoes, buildings, hands... The next day, or day after, back to doing the pure constructions and attacking the other. And so it went, this tug of war...’ In some ways Beattie does not have Guston’s predicament, because stand where he stands when he is painting and the painted surface is not significantly representational. It is as though he is crawling over the representation so close-to it is entirely a field of painterly effects. Here one finds oneself in the company of the ‘other’ Beattie, the one who had long been widely admired for his handling of the abstract dynamics of painting. At this distance we are insistently reminded of his lineage as a painter coming from the tradition of painterly abstraction. In Beattie’s Yorkshire-inspired terminology this is where he – and we – can experience the ‘corridor of uncertainty’, Geoffrey Boycott’s cricketing expression for a particularly good length ball bowled on the off side. Here, in Beattie’s meaning of the term, the illusionistic becomes ‘diffused’ and ‘camouflaged’ since at this distance his paintings are overwhelmingly surface and surface effects. Beattie’s choice of terminology for the process he is engaged in echoes that of Guston. For Guston the ‘corridor of uncertainty’ is ‘the narrow passage from a diagramming to that other state – a corporeality’, and adds, ‘In this sense, to paint is a possessing rather than a picturing’, Beattie too insists that the meaning of the imagery be inseparable from an heightened process of making. He talks of ‘building the experience’, of being immersed in a process that gives substance and meaning to images that would otherwise lie ‘dormant’ on the canvas. At the distance at which he works the scope of the painting extends well beyond the artist’s field of vision and at that distance he describes the painterly structures he is producing as ‘fibrous’, ‘muscular’, ‘incised’, ‘speedy’ and ‘distinct from questions of metaphor, the symbolic, illusion 100

and allusion’. Within what we might call the working arena of the production of the painting we find ourselves primarily involved with the vigorous sense of assurance with which Beattie deploys the plastic possibilities of paint: the absence of paint, the skin of paint as it passes from the thickest of impastos to the most transparent of varnish stains. Despite the sense of command, we are ready to acknowledge that one of the pleasures of his handling of the paint is the astringency of his response to paint’s materiality: the balance he strikes between a kind of northern asceticism and a voluptuous revelry; his deliberate, blunt way with a restricted range of sombre earth colours. Nevertheless, when we retreat to a position more compatible with the public sphere of viewing, from where it is possible to take in the painting its entirety along with its gallery/ museum hang, we are required to acknowledge that the effect of the appearance of figurative motifs in his work has been to reassign the place of the painterly mark within its overall schema (this is to acknowledge the sense of hierarchy that the heterogeneous nature of his painting language induces), since the painterly mark is forced into a more diversified relation with language, or at least signification. For Beattie the pivotal act in this reassignment of the painterly mark is the autographic hand prints and dragged hand prints that appear in paintings like Give and Take (1996). The appearance from time to time of these hand-prints in his paintings – a kind of archaic signature – is the re-enactment of the genesis of identifiable acts of signification out of gesture. The architectural pictographs take the move towards pictorial signification one step further. As a consequence, there is in Beattie’s paintings a profound sense of an artist plunging – perhaps reluctantly – into language. Or perhaps, it would be more appropriate to imagine that the pictographs have tumbled into his paintings as though he lost the struggle to keep them out.Yet he does make an assiduous attempt to keep out autobiography, and the anecdotal detail that Clement Greenberg epitomised as the ‘fragmentary silhouette of a teacup’. Rather, Beattie attempts to hold his pictographs in the archaic moment when representation coalesces out of gesture. They are the trial components of a language of building at the birth of the possibility of signification, and it is in keeping with the physicality and materiality of his work

Basil Beattie LARGE WORKS 1986 2009  

Bail Beattie Large Paintings and Installations

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