Flux From Flummox: New Patterns of Presence in Contemporary British Painting | Catalogue Essay for CICA, Vancouver

“The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche

If there’s one place on Earth that’s seen its fair share of change of late, then it’s the United Kingdom. A country whose upper lip is notoriously stiffened by an idiosyncratic taciturnity dictated by a blind, historical devotion to courtesy, class and custom. At times both silly and suffocating, such laconic equanimity does not naturally embrace tides of change. In fact, it rather manoeuvres itself to avoid any such developmental maelstrom. If that curiously British mantra of ‘everything in its place’ signifies anything, it’s the linear insistence on remaining steadfastly in your own box. To even attempt to invite change would … well … it simply isn’t the British way, old boy! Until now.

Let’s take a deep breath and go back to June 2016. A referendum had just been held in the UK asking one very simple question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” The result – a very narrow victory for those wishing to leave the EU – ushered in a tsunami of change, accompanied by years of political wrangling and social division. Animosity that continues to permeate the British consciousness to this very day. Some six and a half years and five Conservative Prime Ministers later, the UK is still adjusting to the seismic shifts this referendum has unearthed. Changes that instead of improvement have offered distraction and discombobulation.

J. G. Ballard once wrote “In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom.” (Running Wild [1988]) So what’s the only liberty in a completely mad world? What is out there that we can trust or believe in? Governments, systems, people, things? Perhaps in a world bereft of structure, where tectonic upheaval forces different ways of seeing and being, the only thing we can hold on to is the language, experience, and phenomenology of change itself. Perhaps the only thing to do in a mad world is let the dynamo of change unravel before our eyes. Let those flies have their feast, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud’s final words (as he embarked upon the ultimate change). Let transformation eclipse yet illuminate all that we know and thought we knew and in so doing untie those Gordion knots of contemporary experience and loosen those bow ties of inflexible tradition that feed the itch of our fear and fury and the sheer folly of it all.

It is this grasp of change - the understanding and articulation of it as idea, emotion, and gesture - that is so gloriously embodied in the work of the ten artists included in New British Abstraction. Ten artists, all of whom are women, working and living in the UK, that signify such transformation as a shared flux of figure and ground; one that declares a radical transfiguration of flesh and panorama and their inexorable synergy, now ululated in mysterious tongues, along the way singing odes to colour, nature, and the architecture of desire. What emerges from this group of young abstract artists is a commonality of metamorphosis that, whilst variegated in their individual descriptions, proffer a new theatre in which ancient tales of painting and practice can be sung anew. The saying goes that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. These artists have all managed to do that, exacting fresh material and mechanical change to the alphabet of age-old abstraction, all in response to these fidgety, fluid times we currently live in.


“Everything flows.”
— Heraclitus

Many of the artists in this exhibition have found a way to meld figure with ground through contests of subsumption and resistance. Such nexus offers neither arrival nor departure but, rather, an Amazonian delta of space, time, protagonist, and action. All these ordinarily demarcated compositional duties, narratological dimensions and intellectual tributaries serve to synergise their compositions, insuring the constant ebb and flow of Image into Index; figure into ground; story into surface.

Flora Yukhnovich’s enterprise unpicks the building blocks (and concomitant phallocentric thrust) of eighteenth-century Rococo painting into muscular lozenges of candied colour. A re-tessellation of shape, form and meaning then unfolds, redirecting both the visual and erotic beat of the French movement she so closely scrutinises. In If All the World Were Jell-O (2019), the scene depicted does indeed seem to be propelled by a gentle fluctuation that makes her composition hum. Even though her brushwork is dynamic and generous, Yukhnovich still manages to evoke a cluster of figures – poses all purloined from several Rococo masterpieces – that bleed into the background in gorgeous, fleshy swathes of pink and blue. Again, that background is painted just as ‘literally’ as the figures it pushes forward so that the artist privileges neither figure nor ground but the delicious flux in which they find themselves.

Similarly, Louise Giovanelli explores the crackle between the moment represented and the material used to capture and project it. She describes the slipperiness of both the ‘thing’ and the space in which it is registered in delightfully ambiguous, often haunting paintings where paint seems to linger longer, slowly scanning for territory and life. Giovanelli’s Orbiter (2021) is conducted by a luminous palette, mouthing a sexy, sinewy form dappled with aureate effulgence. What that represents is not as important as the hushed conversation Giovanelli mediates between figure and ground. The adagio of that tension no less profound than the forte of Yukhnovich’s work: a flux so quiet that it bedevils you.

One more example of this fusion of yet dispute between hegemonies of figure and ground can be found in the work of Michaela Yearwood-Dan. Her sumptuous paintings confront their viewer as pure abstractions, hinting to abbreviations of face or body, only for those hints to become red herrings. Looking at a painting by Yearwood-Dan is like undertaking a quest that you know, from the beginning, you will never finish, yet you feel compelled to still take the journey. Whispers of the figure continue in the curvilinear architecture of Yearwood-Dan’s New Patterns (2023), with her peaks and troughs of saturated colour embellished with fragments of ceramic that bring yet another layer of material consciousness to this stream of being that breathes like a figure yet dances on the eye like a fugue of pure imagination.


“All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.”
Chuck Close

Several of these artists take Nature as a starting point for their work. Such inspiration is not new, of course. However, it is not just the geography or geology of space or ‘scape that galvanizes, but the very act of exploring it in paint. The brush now a spade, digging the fertile soil of abstraction in the hopes of excavating new meanings from old matter.

This focus on process may be seen as the point of departure of Pam Evelyn’s work. In A Stretch of Land (2021) the artist allows her composition to unroll like an ancient scroll, giving impetus not to any specific image but rather to how she has arrived at such painterly disclosure. ‘What’ is subsumed into ‘how’ very quickly in Evelyn’s paintings. By freeing herself from any requirement to represent, Evelyn’s concentration is directed on the texture of her craft and materials. The result in this monumental painting is a glorious surface that maps out its own journey without ever announcing the destination, nor needing to. What matters here is the matter of the artist’s raw and audacious dig into the earth of abstract painting; a process that negates narrative and abates agenda but which records songs – of then and now – sung for the sheer joy of the sounds they produce.

Sarah Cunningham is another painter who grapples with paint like a wrestler, as much for sport as to win a fight. She stretches, pulls, even bullies pigment across her canvases. Yet her visceral, animated execution produces brushstrokes both febrile and feathery; bucolic and choleric that, when loaded with her electric colours, fashion an efflorescence of paint, simultaneously calm yet spirited, that denies any phenomenology of form but which privileges the sheer brio of her touch. I Heard That The Sky Is Still Blue (2020) powerfully displays Cunningham’s arresting and beautiful mark-making; one that offers a fleeting impression of quietly gazing through a woodland out to a sail ship floating on the ocean but which, very quickly, dissolves into amoebic, inchoate passages of colour. Moments of possibility bubble to the surface only to evaporate across her canvas in wisps and wedges of paint.

It is in the work of Alia Ahmad where we find reference to a specific landscape in that much of her work is concerned with the deserts of her homeland, Saudi Arabia. Her lens zooms in on certain aspects of that harsh yet magical terrain: its aching vastness; the rare flowers that grow there; the impenetrable darkness of the desert’s cold night as well as the blazing light of its sweltering days. Such an exploration sees the artist meander between binaries of place and space; light and dark; life and death. In Sukoon – A Calm (2022) we see this conversation take place; one transcribed by the struggle between being and becoming. A nocturnal landscape, problematized yet energised by the animation of its own drippy surface, gently pulsates as a night scene yet amplifies the mystery of its own making. “Sukoon” literally means stillness or silence in Arabic; it is also the small circle above a consonant that changes its sound when pronounced. So it is that Ahmad’s landscape is physical, ontological, and lexical. Her dig one into the sand of both desert and diction, which, of course, empowers her own chariot of abstraction as it flies through those inky skies of identity.


“Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.”
— Jackson Pollock

Underpinning nearly every painting in this exhibition is a yearning for registration. To be seen. To be felt. To be understood. Even when that longing is loosely unfurled, there is a strong sense of desire – mechanical, material, and methodical – in all these works. Yukhnovich’s work throbs with the erotic titillation of the Rococo, even as her brush interrogates the dynamic of such sexual desire. Similarly, Yearwood-Dan and Giovanelli both create surfaces suffused with suggestion: the former evoking a fecundity of form; the latter a kind of memory of a moment that longs to be remembered. If these new patterns, processes, and paradigms of abstraction reflect anything it is that the flux of change; the wobble of ground and the simultaneity of the figure plays out on that vast psychosexual terrain of desire and identity.

The plurality of Rachel Jones’ multi-laminated practice is propelled by a singular enterprise: the rendition (and its innate struggle) of self. Jones’ abstraction operates cartographically, charting emotion as colour; driving the essence of her being with a line at once agitated yet mellifluous. Likewise, her work chimes visually with musical scores in her repeated use of similar motifs, each mark sounding out the beat of her personality, loves and fears. We see such a journey mapped out in brick roads of hatching, meandering at times haphazardly, at other times with more directional conviction, in Jones’ say cheeeeese (2022). Each diagonal hatched line sounding one note; the broken circles that bubble on the surface betraying another. The painting’s title is ironic given that the request to ‘say cheese’ is to stay still and have your photograph taken. There is nothing static about Jones’ energetic surface; always moving; always searching. What we end up with here is a confluence of opposites where landscape becomes portrait; stillness becomes motion and the fixity of being ever antagonised by the fluidity of becoming.

Francesca Mollett’s work, like Evelyn and Cunningham’s, privileges process over subject. Her arduous practice being governed by a mantra-like devotion to adding then subtracting paint then repeating that act of execution and expunction numerous times to arrive at forms, as flat as they are plastic, as urgent as they are pacific, that vibrate with the phantasy and fragility of memory. Yet Mollett still dives deep into numerous sources – literary and philosophical – that whilst not shaping her surfaces do guide her eye and hand so that her abstraction becomes a kind of condensation of self; one that absorbs such influences but does not orbit around them Five-fingered light (2021) is a monumental painting that proposes such an effervescence of being. This thrilling composition sees whispers of the human form float in and through larger trapezoids, all sharing the same fleshy palette of pinks, purples, and reds. Just as Yukhnovich’s protagonists melt into the stages they act upon so, too, does Mollett’s adventures in (and of) selfhood invite her viewer into spaces of communication and communion that only desire can light up.

The spectacular paintings of Jadé Fadojutimi can also be seen as a quest for self-knowledge and one which, likewise, employs the architecture of the past to build new blueprints of being. Fadojutimi’s Can someone please explain this impractical manifestation of fear? (2019) employs familiar building blocks of abstract painting – grids and layers; happenstance and discovery – and she does so to evince a morphology of presence that bounces from macro to micro, from land to sea, from botany to biology, all the while remaining resolutely abstract in her refusal to give away the secrets of her subject. These secrets become what Fadojutimi calls ‘environments’: complex arrangements of paint, often interrupted yet also invigorated by the artist’s use of pastels and found fabric collage, that signify the shock of displacement but also her desire for truth.

That desire for truth is the sun around which the work of Li Hei Di orbits. Her practice is one that openly speaks the language of desire, clearly voiced in a body of breathtaking work that is as raw as it is considered; as visceral as it is deliberate. Liquid meadow in the lust of dawn (2022) looks like a NASA photograph of galaxies, executed in gold and red (the colours of the flag of her homeland, China) but grilled by passages of lurid, alien green. It is only upon close inspection that Li’s ephemeral surface begins to reveal itself as a petri-dish of desire. Once you see the smiley faces you cannot unsee them. Splashes of colour drip bountifully across the canvas, oozing their own seduction, running across a ground of images purloined from numerous sources that all relate to the artist’s identity as a Chinese person living in Europe as well as her own sexual identity. Thus, surface becomes a kind of skin with marks a sort of sweat that both obfuscates yet reveals; genders and engenders a personal history and the heat of many moments found, now gone, but not forgotten.


“Things do not change; we change.”
— Henry David Thoreau

This group of artists does not constitute a new school or movement of art. Nor do they try or want to. However, seen together, they offer a saturnalia of the new and the many ways they can – and do – voice abstraction. So it is that this exhibition is a feast offering new patterns of production and presence that in many ways continue the innovation and development of the vernacular of abstract art in Britain, telegraphed from St. Ives to London; contoured in open fields of pure colour; incarcerated as mutating screams in corners of harrowing silence. Such pressure and excavation of such planes of desire continues to inform this group of abstract painters, their exciting work, and their determination to continue searching. Work that dredges the dirt and harvests the archaeology of abstraction; that presses the flesh of body and being, both scarred over time. Work that distinguishes between space and place; between protagonist and potentiality. Work that sees the flummox of the now feed the flux of their presentation; one which suggests or connotes but never reveals with all this intonation embroiled in a fizz of line, plane, mark, gesture, recession, ground, and kaleidoscopes of colour that thrills the eye and feeds the heart. Chaos never looked so sexy.