‘Small is Beautiful: Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow & Blue’
Flowers Gallery, London
3 December 2013 – 4 January 2014
Sinead Rice’s work is second on the left as you enter the largest of three rooms on the ground floor of Flowers Gallery, which make up the exhibition ‘Small is Beautiful: Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue’. All works in the exhibition – mostly paintings, but a few freestanding sculptures and one violent diorama – were dictated to be no larger than 22 by 17cm.
On reaching Rice’s Buddhist-inflected Red and White Untitled, painted in oil-on-board and transgressively sized at almost 23 by 18 cm, the viewer who has begun in the conventional way would already have passed the mounted neon triangle, but not yet encountered the purposefully crude USSR vs US Cold War cartoon or the pan- historical fusion of Malevich and William Morris.
‘Small is Beautiful’, now in its 31st annual incarnation, is a pointed saturation of the gallery space on Kingsland Road in East London, and offers a largely sales-oriented framework featuring 170 works in total. It was installed during the Christmas season to entice the comfortable but not entirely financially replete art aficionados of the city – the kind of merchant class for whom the gallery’s Shoreditch location is a palatable marketplace, not just a detour on the route to the west end. Flowers also has a gallery space there, on Cork Street, to ensure they don’t exclude the tastes of the entrepreneurs and dauphins.
It’s an annual exhibition as well as a Christmas sale, so it’s perhaps forgivable that there is no legible narrative thread other than the size restrictions on the works. The initiated, who would stiffen at the violation of the white cube’s tenet against crowded walls, might be deterred from visiting. So too might those barefoot ascetics who bristle at the marriage of art and commerce made too obvious and vulgar. For those of the middle way, the blitz of means and materials on display here may still overwhelm the perceptual metabolism; you simple have to accept that to properly digest everything on view is impossible.
The show’s subtitle isn’t much adhered to, as red, yellow, and blue factor prominently in some pieces and barely at all in others – only that these colours are the foundations of the spectrum. Rice does choose to engage with red, setting it beside a void of white in one of her ‘monochromatic’ works. In spite of the self-evident simplicity, the viewer can take a range of approaches to the execution of a monochrome (though the painting is two colours, I employ the word as shorthand), resulting in a range of outcomes.
Rice prefers the hazy application of brushed pigment, repeated carefully but loosely until the surface wears a compromised uniformity, something that seems threadbare, but of indiscernible age. Her white is an eggshell, with blues and beiges visible through the thick fog of it. Her red is pale and struggling, with hints of a now-diminished saturation, darkening at the edges. As with so many works of this sort – two zones of colour cut starkly down the middle – that centre-line speaks volumes. It’s wavering rigidity has no reinforcement of a physical delineation; it is only the cessation of the red and beginning of the white, or vice versa, yet the schism has that mysterious force within the picture plane that make these kinds of work recur so often, at different occasions in art-making, and with different motivations ostensibly attached.
Rice identifies the roots of her work in “the concept of impermanence derived from Zen Buddhist philosophy”. For work that calls on the humanistic motif of repetition and regularity – that might be shared by the ritual sweeping of a floor – this seems perfectly plausible, even if its relevance is unclear. And the way in which the painted surface could be hardening into clarity or vanishing gradually speaks to exactly that notion: the transience of the physical under the implacability of time. Rice’s work in general, which includes both painting and ceramics, is gestural in that it retains the evidence of simple actions calmly and consciously taken over and over again.
In a field of more garrulous candidates for a lingering glance, which evoke and instrumentalise Pop, Op, globby impasto and the lurid half-narratives of crypto-erotic figure painting, Rice’s work is self- assuredly reserved. It is immaterial in that it refutes its own capacity to remain. Surrounded by a panoply of minutely scaled competitors for a sliver of the viewer’s attention, Rice’s musing on the certainty of uncertainty is a wry feint, and a pressing emptiness.
Curt Riegelnegg is a critic living in London. He is Gallery Manager at Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art.