To say the least: Considering form, colour, surface and process in Deb Covell's work.
An essay by Laura Gray. May 2016.
Form, colour, surface and process are the four main principles of Deb Covell's practice. To understand how they function in her work is to open a world of references and possibilities that are initially concealed by simplicity of form. The visual purity of Covell's paintings centre the artist and the viewer on the act of creation and the moment of encounter. Yet at the same time, these paintings connect the artist and the viewer with one hundred years of radical painting and sculpture. Looking at Covell's work from an art-historical point of view is to engage with the legacy of the most important and exhilarating art of the twentieth century. Through her black and white paintings Deb Covell probes the expressive possibilities of simple, monochrome shapes, asking her audience to bring only an open mind and open eyes.
Form and colour
For a century it has been impossible to paint a black square without conjuring up Kazimir Malevich's talismanic Black Square. Painted in Russia in 1915, Black Square continues to needle those who like their paintings to be of recognisable things. Form, colour and surface. Malevich was the first to realise that these categories could be independent of anything but themselves; an idea that came to have huge influence on the trajectory of art, particularly in the minimalism that came to the fore in the 1960s. For Malevich the square was the perfect form. It was a form beyond the physical world. It was pure abstraction. In his suprematist paintings he explored weightless and pure form, ideas taken up by key figures such as Richard Serra. With his balanced slabs of steel, Serra is in direct dialogue with Malevich's ground-breaking floating shapes.
Deb Covell's commitment to non-objectivity through her use of black squares and rectangles makes her paintings free, as Malevich put it, “from the dead weight of the real world”. Yet while Covell rejects imitation in favour of the purity of geometry, as an artist she is fully engaged with the real world in which her work will be seen, in which the very density of the layered paint will confront the viewer. The painting in the presence of the viewer, the viewer in the presence of the painting; this is not a by-product of the exercise of making work, it is its apotheosis. Malevich's shapes usually floated against a white ground, but in Covell's work the white ground is drawn into the painting, becoming the back of the work, which is exposed by pleating, folding and draping. Instead of the form floating against a white background, the work floats against the 'ground' of the gallery. This meeting between artwork and audience in the gallery space can be both physically and intellectually challenging.
Covell's invocation of Malevich's most recognisable form draws attention to the legacy of his work, a legacy that has resonated and reverberated through American art in particular. In 1974 the American public was exposed to Malevich's suprematist works on a large scale in an exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York. The sculptor Donald Judd wrote an essay for the catalogue, likening the artist to unblended scotch, “single and free”. This important exhibition, as well as MoMA's strong holdings of his work, resulted in Malevich's influence being strongly felt in the work of artists such as Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Dan Flavin. These artists and their contemporaries came to prominence in the 1960s.
They set about making work that was engaged in ideas around reduction, abstraction, seriality and repetition; strategies that have surfaced in Covell's paintings.
Deb Covell's interests converge with those of the American Minimalists in a number of ways. First, with regard to the environment in which the object is encountered and the importance of the viewer in the ‘activation’ of the artwork. This encounter is one of the key concerns of Minimalism because of the use of non-art materials for which those artists were notorious. Second, Covell harnesses the formal austerity of Minimalism. Her works are abstract, geometric and without decorative detail. Finally, Covell draws upon the movement’s preoccupation with space and movement around the object, as well the use of repeated forms across a body of work, as seen in her 2016 Present series.
Covell's current adherence to black and white means that she presents paintings of 'charged neutrality' that challenge the viewer to fully engage with what they are seeing. As Michael Craig-Martin explains: “Minimalism seeks the meaning of art in the immediate and personal experience of the viewer in the presence of a specific work. There is no reference to another previous experience (no representation), no implication of a higher level of experience (no metaphysics), no promise of a deeper intellectual experience (no metaphor). Instead Minimalism presents the viewer with objects of charged neutrality.”
There are, however, limits to Covell's engagement with Minimalism. She is not involved in the renunciation of the personal workmanship that is so important to this type of art. Instead, the element of chance is brought into play in her draped works. This brings a distinctly human element to these stark hanging pieces. Further, the hand-making process is an essential part of creating the paintings. Covell builds up layers of paint onto stretched polythene sheets, creating a thick palimpsest of acrylic. Once dry, the paint is carefully peeled from the polythene. There is no canvas to support the work. The paint supports itself; flexile and pliant, it can be manipulated into different forms or suspended in the air, coming to an end in pleats and ripples on the gallery floor.
Surface and Chance
A striking feature of Covell's works is the way in which she disrupts the perfection of the shape. Her works Fold 1, Fold 2, Back Flip, White Curve and Double Edge, with their folds and turned corners, simultaneously show part of the front and the back of the work to the viewer. Covell is subverting Minimalism's attempted separation of human creation from the artwork by turning the corners and edges of her paintings up, under and over. Marking her role in making the work, just as you turn the page of a book to keep your place.
The sculptor Eva Hesse also drew on and subverted the Minimalist processes. Hesse brought an organic, unpredictable element to repeated forms. Her works such as Addendum (1967) and Repetition Nineteen III (1968) make use of repeated, serial forms such as vessels and ropes, but the vessels are crumpled and the hanging ropes are unruly. The systematic deployment of the object in multiple is subverted by the element of chance that governs the appearance of the final work.
In Covell's work there are rules governing colour, material, shape and process, but there is also a freedom of appearance for the individual pieces. She interprets the tropes of Minimalism – squares, economy of colour, repetition – and embraces the human element (folds, hanging, draping, tension and release). A system is present, but not rigid, resulting in work that is personal and expressive while adhering to certain formal criteria. Covell loosens the principles of seriality and repetition and allows the expression of the human element. In doing so, the unease caused by Minimalism’s “reductive, potentially dehumanised and industrial matter-of-fact character of minimalist objects” is offset. (A. Potts, The Sculptural Imagination: Figurative, Modernist, Minimalist, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000, p.190)
Repetition and Remembering
Covell is interested in repetition; both in working with a set process for making her work, and in employing a fixed formal criteria that governs its appearance. This commitment to repeating and remaking is comparable with recalling a memory. Each time we recall a memory we remake it. Remembering is a constructive and adaptive process, and makes an apt metaphor for Covell's working method with its careful layering process. This ordered process is followed by impulsivity and freedom as the work is reshaped and remodelled into its final form. Covell is dedicated to exploring the object rather than the subject, constantly reproducing and representing the tabula rasa, making something new and different each time she commits herself to work with the same materials, colours, forms and processes.
Covell's earlier works are evocative of the white reliefs that Ben Nicholson made in the 1930s. Both artists investigate the potential of white, although now, in place of Nicholson's built-up wood, we have Covell's built-up layers of paint. Each artist has created works of visual purity in a cluttered and imperfect world, an idea developed further by Covell in her large suspended pristine white banners of paint. We wait with interest to see where Deb Covell's pursuit of form, colour, surface and process will take her work next. For the time being, with her pure and crisp forms she reminds us that economy of expression does not equate to absence of meaning.
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.
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.