Zero by Katie Rutherford

Zero presents a new body of work by Deb Covell in which she explores the sculptural qualities of acrylic paint and investigates its inherent material properties by affording it a central role in her practice. Covell’s new works reference pivotal moments of 20th century abstraction, in particular the non-objective, geometric elements of Suprematism. Works such as Fold 1 and Fold 2 (2013) are akin to Suprematism’s most notable work Black Square (1915) in which Malevich rejected pictorial space.

In Zero Covell’s works omit the traditional support of a canvas or board; instead, she explores the malleable properties of paint in a playful process which starts with a rectangular mass of set paint onto which she creates cuts and creases. She then collapses the object into a solitary heap on the floor or suspends it vertically on the wall.

Covell’s works exist as both paintings and sculpture and thus evade the aesthetic autonomy of each individual medium – the central tenet of Modernism – as theorized by Modernist critic Clement Greenberg in the mid 20th century as her works conflate two mediums and therefore eschew “medium specificity”. As such, Covell creates a new visual space in which painting, which is typically a horizontal plane that projects the illusion of three dimensions, becomes a three dimensional sculptural object that defies pictorial illusion.

North South Divine Paintings

The visual simplicity of Deb Covell’s work belies the intense rigor required in making her pared down refined compositions.

Behind every painting there is a complex creative process, which is characterised by scrutiny and alteration. Throughout this process each step is reconfigured and reexamined with decisions being made subjectively until the paintings take on a resolute strength and insistency of their own.

Covell’s formal vocabulary references high modernism with its cool, poised, elegant language but this is quickly differentiated by her insistence on the inclusion of the autobiographical and an emotive reflex which runs through all of her work.

Material transformation underpins everything she undertakes and she channels selected aspects of her everyday surroundings and experiences through the making process, until they become reconfigured into new forms and guises. By constantly stripping away initial reference points the marks and forms that erase and cover concurrently become new visual elements in their own right. These annulled forms become revalidated by being integrated back into the work in the form of flat painterly fields signifying breathing space or a quiet pause.

In ridding the work of any association or reference there is a gradual move towards complete autonomy and freedom where the work communicates purely on its own terms through its own formal language. The absolute presentness that overrides each piece is coupled with the wish to reveal the cerebral and physical actions that generate art which is reaffirmed by leaving behind residual clues as to how the work has developed.

Through the transformative processes involved the works arrive at a point where they are temporally and materially invested objects that carry the weight and noise of life, yet become still and silent vehicles for contemplation.

Experience, trace and knowledge in the work of Deb Covell by Simon Grennan

The concept of connoisseurship, so much neglected in the 20th century, provides a fulcrum for considering the recent work of Deb Covell in the 21st. Connoisseurship appears to derive its meaning from the selection of one set of activities and orientations over other sets, identified with the expression of social status as both a measure of relative value and as a means to create and present subjectivity.

However, connoisseurship also constitutes a relationship between action and experience, in which case it can be considered as a category of knowledge characterised by the idea of expertise. This is not to set aside the creation and manipulation of social capital that the activity of becoming or being expert entails. Rather, it is to focus on the activity of becoming expert itself, rather than the social and subject corollaries of this activity.

Considered from this point of view, Covell’s recent work creates the conditions under which she reflects upon her processes and the conditions under which the completed works require their audiences to orient towards them.

Covell’s work is materialistic in the best sense of the word: it makes material its topic. For Covell, however, material is not distinct from sensation or sense. Material does not imply objectivity, in the way that materiality does. An insistence that material is meaningful, as opposed to having meaning, underpins this distinction, so that material is indivisible from its sense, unlike materiality, in which meaning is inscribed.

For Covell, material and meaning are shared, in so much as it is the traces of other people’s actions in other times that constitute material’s meaning. These traces are anything from an image or object weighted with memory or family history, to the view of a clear sky across which an airplane has recently traveled.

This approach to material is both physical and cognitive sense, a sense of place and a social sense, because there is no material without meaning and no meaning without the traces of other people, their actions, bodies, minds, movements and societies.

In the studio, Covell creates the conditions in which this sense considers and manipulates material as a way of gaining material expertise. This is not the instrumental expertise of the carpenter, the plasterer or the electrician. Covell does manipulate materials to conform to cultural expectations, as those who build houses do, but these expectations are those of the artist’s studio, in which her approach to material need not be constrained, not even by the instrumental expectation of the creation of art.

In this environment, Covell reflects and acts upon materials with the aim of achieving her own connoisseurship of material. But what is expertise in materials? For her, it is not indexical, taxonomic or instrumental. She is not looking for deep comparative qualities that lend themselves to this or that situation, but for meanings instead. According to this approach, she has manipulated object after object using the same media in an attempt to achieve knowledge of material meaningfulness: a piece of tape, strips of white paper, graphite hieroglyphs extrapolated from scratches on a piece of plastic or a painted canvas obliterated or erased over and over.

In this way, her knowledge of material becomes knowledge of what is meaningful, and the course of her works becomes a history of her development as a connoisseur of material/meaningfulness. The more she knows, the more apparent this is and the less demonstrative each work seems to become. How do we know that an expert is an expert, when we do not have comparable knowledge? We cannot, but Covell’s artworks announce themselves as the focus of a deep engagement through repetition and the accumulation of time, represented through trace. Her activity of gaining knowledge through a connoisseurship of material reveals the character of her subjectivity and our own.

Text by Becky Hunter

In an essay taking archaeology as fine art’s analogue, Tania Kovats identifies touch as the essential means by which a site’s form and meaning is grasped, altered and maintained by its inhabitants. Prehistoric white horses carved into chalky Southern English hillsides let slip stories of ‘repeated mark making, scouring and remarking the landscape through time.’

Deb Covell’s abstract paintings concentrate this process. Attuned to everyday traces, a scratch on a metal bicycle pump, handwritten notes, or grease spots on kitchen splash-backs, she grants the banal and overlooked great visual care. Covell re-inscribes found gesture with pigment, working, editing and reworking in layers. Often remaining, like the land itself, as works in progress, the paintings appear to strike a balance between visceral expression and the cool ‘breathing space’ of formalized zones.

Significantly, Covell remarks that she ‘owes as much to the beautiful tones of Kate Bush as to artists like Ryman or Stella.’ Known for her complex, layered sound, Bush’s compositions work effortlessly across simultaneous tracks as well as through linear time. In this way, the archaeology of each piece is revealed, rather like Covell’s collages that make visible every tier of their construction.

In song, breathing space is natural. Covell’s pauses augment her work, as a musical structure gains meaning from moments of silence.

Quotes taken from Tania Kovats, ‘To live is to leave traces’, 2007, and from a conversation between Deb Covell and Becky Hunter, April 2011.

Ply Series

Deb Covell’s work is rooted in the everyday. Her practice attempts to bridge the gap between the ordinary or familiar with an often idealistic quest for beauty and purity. She explores this relationship formally and playfully through the mediums of drawing, painting and collage.

Covell is sensitive to her own shifting perceptions of the world. These perceptions are not defined by experiencing one moment in time or a specific viewpoint, but become cohesive through a constant stream of experience, observation, awareness and reflection. Understanding and transforming this ephemerality is key to her work. She often uses found/retrieved marks and residual traces which become transformed from initial source material into constructed artworks.

For ‘Dander’, Covell presents collages from the Ply series. These collages are derived from the detritus of larger paintings. As such, they are invested with a complex material history. The formal method of making them, via layering and adjudication, is an additive and subtractive process which relates closely to her painting practice.

In some cases the paintings, from which these collages are derived become redundant bi-products. They have been acts of rehearsal allowing performative actions and expressive gestures to take place, bringing about a heightened visual and visceral sensibility connecting the studio to the world outside. This aesthetic is essential to the selection and recognition processes involved in making the collages.

In the collages of the Ply series, sensual marks have been quietly obliterated leaving thin edges or gaps beneath the final surface, indicating the editing and refinement process that goes into their making. Although small and derived from the surplus debris of paintings, the Ply collages appear resolute and complete in their own right.