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that they should hint at a language of shelter and dwelling which is thoroughly secular in outlook. Beattie takes uneasily to heart Edward Tufte’s assertion that painting like any other communication device ‘is entirely a progress of methods for enhancing density, complexity, dimensionality’. Therefore, for Beattie, the emergence of the complexities of notation in his work is a kind of unwished-for ‘fall’. Complexities proliferate within the process of painting because painting employs – to express this by way of analogy – the techniques of ‘small multiples, parallel sequences, details and panorama, a polyphony of layering and separation, data compression into content-focused dimensions and avoidance of redundancy’ which Tufte ascribes to systems of dance notation. Just as dance notation requires extraordinary acts of interpretation to determine the essential nature of dance, so in Beattie’s estimation does the viewer in capturing the imaginative engagement over time that leads to a painting’s production. His 2002 exhibition at Sadler’s Wells was important for the opportunity it gave him to reassess the significance of the vertical subdivisions or ‘zones’ that had been a distinctive feature of a number of earlier paintings, for instance Tell Me (1992). The vertical hang of three very large paintings which the Sadler’s Wells space permitted (in which all three paintings could be viewed from all three levels) brought to mind the zones into which early renaissance altarpieces were often divided. He began to think of the painting as being constructed to the rules of a private game, where the left-hand side of the canvas could be the past and the right-hand side the future, and where an underground scene could be placed above the sky. In this game there was always the pursuit of reasons for making choices. His aim was to release himself from what he saw as the overly ‘analytical’ cast of recent painting. He saw the differences, juxtapositions, competing structures and references – ‘zones’ – that were becoming an increasingly prominent aspect of his paintings as indicating disjunctions in time, resulting in paintings that were not only spatial conglomerations but temporal ones as well. These zones, then, were not to be seen as formal divisions of the painting, not a motivation arising from what Beattie thinks of as ‘design’, but rather a ‘poetic’ way of thinking the painting ‘beyond its simple appearance’. Beattie’s adoption of the bounded volumes and archetypal

components of built space as a means to re-evaluate the traditions of painterly abstraction gives his work a very special place in contemporary British art. The quality of signing without falling into the recognisable genres of figuration marks him out as one of the most significant of bridges between the generations of contemporary British painters. The evocation of the semiotic, distant and thunderous, produces the sense of pleasurable dislocation when looking at his paintings, rending them impossible to appreciate through the terms of painterly abstraction alone. This development has placed him in provocative relationship both to the painters of his generation who, like him, have a strong allegiance to the tradition of painterly abstraction, and to painters of younger generations whose allegiances to the vocabulary of abstraction are more dispassionately rooted in a semiotics of style. We can now see that Beattie’s 1991 Eagle Gallery exhibition of drawings was the announcement of the moment when, for him at least, the agency of Abstract Expressionism finally gave out. However, his response to the gradual, inexorable reframing of painterly abstraction that gathered pace throughout the eighties was almost entirely unique among his generation. Although within the tradition itself the writing had been on the wall a long time (who, for instance, could not sense that something was afoot in the exuberant fireworks of Gary Wragg’s exhibition at the Acme Gallery in 1976?), Artscribe with James Faure Walker at the helm continued a spirited defence of an unreconstructed post-Abstract Expressionist painterly abstraction well into the eighties. So what had overtaken abstract painting? Well, its historicisation is a familiar enough tale; a process inextricably bound up with the rise of semiotics that gave artists the intellectual tools to convert its visual vocabulary – and much else – into a set of stylistic signs. During the eighties the normalisation of the notion that ‘there is no object which is not illuminated by linguistic and semiotic theory’ also induced a tremendous change in artists’ attitude to figuration in painting. So it is scarcely surprising that parallel to the processing of Abstract Expressionism into a semiotic notation there was a great blossoming of figuration inspired by the insights arising out of semiotics. To be sure, the impression Beattie’s paintings give is that the adoption by a younger generation of British painters – almost en masse 101

Basil Beattie LARGE WORKS 1986 2009  

Bail Beattie Large Paintings and Installations

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