The group exhibition Playground Structure takes its title from a photograph by Jeff Wall that depicts a climbing frame in a suburban park - and I took that line wholesale from Blain/Southern's press release about the show and because I owned up to that it's not so much plagiarism as an acknowledgement of respect and therefore is utterly appropriate for many of the works on display, following, as they do, a long lineage of esteemed progenitors.
The grid in art has been around for a fair while now (ask Mondriaan) and it seems that, after a fashion, there's very few new things one can do with it. Many try. Few succeed. Said press release points us to Rosalind Krauss's supposedly influential (I doubt my mum's even heard of it) 1979 essay 'Grids' in which she argued that twentieth century artists had used the form of the grid to signal an absolute break from the past.
That certainly may've been true once but now the use of the grid has become so firmly established as a method and almost hackneyed as a technique does it still ring true? I'm also less sure what Krauss was getting at when she claimed the grid as an 'emblem of modernity' that occupied a 'schizophrenic' position that could either be materialist or spiritual.
Blain/Southern, inspired by Wall's photo, see a third way that's neither in hock to the demands of capitalism nor seduced by the woo of new agers. The curators of the show ponder the grid 'carnivalised' and converted into a climbing frame for the mind, somewhere the viewer's imagination could play as freely as a child on a real climbing frame?
Jeff Wall - Playground Structure (2008)
It's a fairly noble aim but it's never going to be as much fun as being a child on a real climbing frame, is it? Let's face it. Being a child and going to the park is fun. Being an adult and going to an art gallery is, at best (and with a few honourable exceptions), 'improving'.
Amy Feldman and Dan Walsh fail, spectacularly, to recreate the thrill of the slide, swings, and seesaws of the playgrounds of our youth, Daniel Sturgis seems to have opted for turning the iconic Croatian football jersey into a sub-Bridget Riley op art piece, and Jeremy Moon's 'kinaesthetic dynamism', despite receiving huge plaudits at the time, relies on a very standard trick of the eye for its very brief, and somewhat limited, appeal.
Amy Feldman - Public Lick (2016)
Dan Walsh - Track (2017)
Daniel Sturgis - Just Enough (2017)
Jeremy Moon - Ice Palace (1970)
Dan Walsh - Circus (2016)
Ed Moses - Untitled (1973)
None of these works are terrible but none of them particularly inspire. They're so-so. A minor distraction. Something you'll have forgotten about within about ten minutes of departing the gallery. The most interesting thing about Ed Moses is that he shares his name with the double Olympic gold medal winning 400 metre hurdler. That may seem a reductive way to speak about these people and the art they've no doubt lovingly created but, hey, their work is all about reduction anyway. So they started it.
Amongst the filler there are some undoubted gems. County Durham's Rachel Howard is a new name on me and three works of hers on show are, along with the Wall photo, the very best things here. Symptoms and Side Effects has an almost Rothko like quality in that you want to stand really close to it and immerse yourself in both its impenetrability and its beauty.
The reds and yellows, from a distance, start to look like a much loved, familiar, but worn carpet. If there's something feminine about this example of Howard's take on abstract expressionism you'll reconsider when confronted with her Broken Grid Theory and If it feels like this. Greyed out memories of grids give way to a stark, brutal, yet strangely alluring pair of paintings. It seems unsurprising, after viewing these, that Howard has devoted entire series of works to the themes of sin and suicide.
Rachel Howard - Symptoms and Side Effects (2016)
Rachel Howard - Broken Grid Theory (2017)
Joan Snyder - Untitled (1969)
Joan Snyder is another female artist who seems to understand that the way of breaking out of the cage of the grid is to dissolve it and embrace its potential fluidity. Her daubs are more sensual than Howard (and far more so than Walsh and Strurgis) and seem to invite us in, ask us to discover, for ourselves, their mysteries.
Snyder identified as a feminist artist from an early age and it's been said, on no lesser source than Wikipedia, that "she uses shapes and marks that evoke female anatomy such as vaginal openings, nipples and breasts". I'm not sure even Picasso would be able to interpret any of her works in this show that way but certainly from the Untitled work in 1969 through to 2015's New Squares and last year's XOX she has looked to, and mostly succeeded in, continually diversifying her output. It shows a questing mind that was never going to remain hampered by the formal demands of the grid for very long.
Joan Snyder - XOX (2016)
Joan Snyder - New Squares (2015)
Mary Heilmann - Pink Synergie (2011)
I've written about Mary Heilmann (following her Whitechapel retrospective) back in July last year. I'd very much enjoyed that show (as you can read for yourself) so was looking forward to seeing more of her work at Blain/Southern. Alas, there was just the one piece, the small wall mounted Pink Synergie. It's pleasant enough but if I'd not visited the Whitechapel last year to get a better appreciation of her work I'd have not been impressed. It shows how artists and exhibitions need context and it shows how art, like music and relationships, can be reappraised and altered over time as our perceptions, desires, and feelings shift with knowledge and age.
With that in mind it's possible that had I visited this exhibition on a different day and in a different mood I may have come away either frothing at the mouth at its frivolity or raving at its radical outlook. But on Friday, when I was out trawling the galleries of Mayfair, I felt calm and collected and thus my assessment is surely affected by my mood. It was a good, not a great, exhibition but, if nothing else, it brought the artist Rachel Howard to my attention. I'll look out for her work in the future.
Rachel Howard - If it feels like this (2016)
Jeremy Moon - No 1/70 (1970)
Daniel Sturgis - Just Enough (Albers) (2016)