Steven Foy: Action at a distance

Michael White

Painting is made from inside out. I think of paintings as possessed by a structure – but a structure born of colour feeling… (Jules Olitski)

We live in a world administered by abstraction. This century has been the era of abstraction not only in the visual arts but in all areas of our existence. The fantasy (or nightmare) of these times is that we could be reduced to a sequence of noughts and ones, holes in a punch card, a pattern of on/off switches. Given this situation it is shocking that not more attention is paid to abstraction. In the visual arts a complacent attitude prevails which think it knows what abstraction is. It takes a well established body of criticism and uses it to pile together a range of practice as diverse as any of the figurative forms which preceded it. Yet, what if there was not abstraction but abstractions? To imagine a plurality of abstractions is to contest the reductivism which saw modernism constantly repeat the endgame of making the last painting. Olitski’s comment, quoted above, should bring us up sharp. While normally considered one of the best representatives of formalist theory the post Abstract Expressionist era, Olitski places a question mark over the process of elimination which dominated its vocabulary. ‘It’s not that, it’s not that, it’s not that,’ wrote Rosenberg in The American Action Painters. To define painting was to systematically exclude all impurities until threatened by the blank canvas. Painting ‘from the inside out’ suggests, however, that rather than what remains, the empty space of the canvas is, from the beginning, already charged (or ‘possessed’ as Olitski puts it). It is not a process of turning inward but a move outward, beyond the confines of the medium.

These issues seem extremely relevant to the paintings of Steven Foy. The irresistibility of abstraction has seen its survival through the postmodern period, for example in Neo-Geo, but there is no pastiching to be found here. Many of Foy’s practices echo those of the Abstract Expressionists, such as working the painting horizontally on the floor as well as on the wall, but if anything he reminds us of the heterogeneity of those artists rather than their value as models. In his work can be found constant games with figure/ground positions but pure opticality seems to be a long way from what these painting are trying to produce. Above all their concern is with a sense of space. Once again this should not be confused with the modernist rhetoric of a non-illusionistic, purely painterly space. It is the sense of space which precedes any divisions between figuration and abstraction, a deformable, mobile space in which events always seem about to occur.


There is an old classroom trick which involves the folding of a sheet of paper. No matter how large a sheet is selected it can never be folded in half more than eight times. Our natural feeling for scale and spatial awareness finds it hard to come to terms with the cold logic of the arithmetic. In our heads we imagine folding a sheet the size of a football field without understanding that it is thickness rather than surface area which is the problem. Mentally we are able to complicate things endlessly and carryon folding and folding again. Foy’s paintings show the process in reverse, as it were, the unfolding of a space. While nearly all of his paintings go through stage where the canvas is divided up, the grid produced here is not a flat plane allowing for coordinated, even activity. Instead the lines weave in and out of a bulging, flexible terrain. This initial over and underlaying structure is present to the end where it is often impossible to determine if shape sits on top of or behind its containing ground. Hush 1998 feins to reveal its underlying structure through a grilled letterbox floating just below the centre. At the same moment this cut away stands out, waiting like parcel for unwrapping.

Hush, 1998. 81 x 98cms. Acrylic on cotton duck

Given such spatial concerns, it is little wonder that architectural images are readily conjured in these works. Seen from close to, the paintings actually look ‘built,’ assembled from layers of pigment applied constructively in horizontal and vertical strokes. The paint can be subtracted as well as added but again the scrapings follow a determined pattern. Blocks, bricks, partial views through door frames or windows, staircases and gates, all could be suggested. Painting ‘from the inside out’ becomes the search for a prospect, light glancing through a crack, a draft under the eaves. For the architecture brought to mind by these paintings is not the Manhattan skyline nor the crumbling industrial fabric (which is lending itself so well to the display 0 contemporary art) but the peculiarity of domestic space. Despite attempts to turn them into ‘machines for living in,’ houses still provide us with the most intriguing combination of refuge from the rest of the world and repository of our most deep seated anxieties. Something is being revealed to us. A door is opened. Who dares go in to this airless room? We cannot see what awaits us around the corner.

It is revealing that among Foy’s favourite paintings can be found Magritte’s The Human Condition (1929), where a canvas set up in a room appears to exactly depict the landscape as seen through the window behind it. If we take the painting away, however, will we see the same scene or will we have a blank space? Or does the painting conceal something unpleasant. Such projections are reformulated in Foy’s paintings where the more we search for the view through or beyond, the more seems to be concealed from us. The window we think we 100 out of turns out to be yet another surface and our gaze is woven from one into the other and back again.

The effect of colour in producing the sensations just described cannot be underestimated. The palette is not redolent of landscape, although rich greenish blacks, like the bottom of a pond, are frequently to be found. Synthetic colours, such as orange or purple figure prominently but are mixed in such a way that they do not flaunt their artificiality. To return to the theme of the domestic interior, the atmosphere is like that of looking behind a radiator to see the colour of a room in past years. As with a childhood memory, a range of smells, tastes and sounds accompany these colours even if their identity is hard to decide. A good example of this is Blue Silence (1998-99). The steely blue-green has a liquid quality as if it might slide of the canvas. In it’s midst float blocks of similarly watery greens. The haziness of the image gives off a chill rather than heat, like a bleak sky seen through condensation on a freezing window pane. But are we looking up and out or is it down and in?

Blue Silence, 1998.9. 152 x 213cms. Acrylic on cotton duck

Yellow sounds

In more forgiving times, when commentators were encouraged to think broadly across the arts, vocabulary concerning colour, tone, harmony, discord, rhythm passed effortlessly from one realm to another. Poetry could be painted and architecture described as ‘frozen music.’ Such slippage is hard to avoid when discussing Foy’s paintings. There are constant occurrences where sequence is established. Measured patterns and beats are laid out which make bridges not only to building forms, as already outlined, but musical tempos. Sometimes scales rise or the same note is hit harder. As can be seen very clearly in Silent Intervals (1998-99) what never features, however, is exact repetition; this is an acoustic, pre-digital, sequencing. To pursue the analogies further like the intercolumniation of a classical building or running a stick along some railings, the empty spaces between or the ringing echo secretly seduce our senses. These ‘keys’ hover, shift and distort.

From the 1960s onwards seriality has been used by artists as dissimilar as Warhol and Judd to comment upon the mass production and consumption of object within contemporary culture. Foy relates to neither the former’s kitsch nor the latter’s anticompositional rationalism. What he shares, however, is a feeling for the multiple rather than the unique. Looking from the inside out again, it could be said that these paintings do not show a single motif adapted and repeated in a variety of ways. There is no ‘variation on a theme’ so much as an already fractured set of elements which are brought to temporary resolution.

With this in mind, approaching again the question of the interrelationship of the arts (and the senses), these paintings are quite distinct from the romantic dream of a synaestheisic orgy of colour and sound. Nor are they theatrical hybrids in Fried’s sense. If they are architectural or musical it is not in a literal way. They are not aiming for irreducibility, the modernist concern with the lowest common denominator. The shapes which emerge in these paintings produce a more flexible geometry which builds itself as it goes along in a provisional, improvising manner. What binds them with architecture and music is a bodily sense of choreography which is similarly unpredictable rather than regulative.

Some of the most recent of Foy’s paintings have taken silence as a theme. Strangely enough these are also some of the largest of his paintings to date. With the change of scale has come a move into a more horizontal format. It would have been logical to assume that the greater expanse of these canvases would have allowed him to make more noise. Far from it, he has exploited all of the potential of the size to produce both emptiness and a quite notable feeling of compression, taken to its extreme perhaps in Crushing Silence (1998-99). Here all the resources of colour, interval, deformation have been lt towards restraining something. The appearance of this work as both claustrophobic and vacant is certainly unsettling. Like the massively tangible inexplicable space which looms over the body in the bath in David’s Death of Marat, a scream has been smothered.

Michael White 1999

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