Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin
10 June – 2 September 2017
by MATTHEW RUDMAN
Contemporary Fine Arts (CFA) in Berlin is host this summer to 13 new works by Julian Lethbridge, whose jostling, kinetic yet rigidly composed abstract paintings are on solo show in the painter’s first exhibition in Germany. Lethbridge, who was born in Sri Lanka in 1947, was brought up mainly in England and now lives in New York. His work, which can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art and Tate Britain, among others, has long shown an affinity for the illusionistic end of the abstract spectrum, and these energetic new works are a fitting introduction to Lethbridge’s cerebral practice.
Julian Lethbridge. First Choice, 2016-17. Oil, pigment stick, on linen, 244 x 203 cm (96 x 80 in). Courtesy the artist and Contemporary Fine Arts. Photograph: Matthias Kolb.
With their bold colours, apparently random gestures and sheer scale, Lethbridge’s paintings inevitably invite comparisons to the work of abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, but these likenesses fray on closer inspection. These works are not a product of chance gestures; they swarm with repeating narrow brush strokes, no two of which are the same. Neither do they place painterly gesture-making on a pedestal: these looping, meandering marks echo one another, as if undergoing some process of procedural generation under their own momentum.
The paintings are a product of painstaking processes, a layering of brushstrokes over a background pigment with varying degrees of gestural density. Lethbridge’s careful management of colour and movement creates the perception of depth and voluptuousness at a distance, the illusory impasto falling away only on closer viewings. To create such an effect requires careful planning – each of Lethbridge’s canvases are scored with thin linear marks, as if made with a knife, cutting through the paint in geometric patterns. These marks lend the works shape and composition, guiding swirls of sunspot-like reds and browns into an arcing formation, or coalescing different layers of pigment around sets of perfect circles, like neon coffee stains.
Julian Lethbridge. Battery 1, 2016-17. Oil, pigment stick, in medium, on linen, 58.5 x 40.5 cm (23 x 16 in). Courtesy the artist and Contemporary Fine Arts. Photograph: Matthias Kolb.
Lethbridge’s gestures often stop abruptly at each delineating mark, or otherwise travel in the direction of these contours: subtle guide-lines have been used to shape these busy compositions, before being etched back into the wet pigment. Curved etchings channel washes of black and grey into seething wave-like formations; whirls of paint leap step by step up a horizontal lattice. These boundaries are doing heavy lifting, imparting a sense of organic energy, even personality, to each canvas’s collective tangle of strokes.
Julian Lethbridge. Argos, 2016. Oil, pigment stick, on linen, 203 x 244 cm (80 x 96 in). Courtesy the artist and Contemporary Fine Arts. Photograph: Matthias Kolb.
The works on show are in a variety of sizes, almost all a vertical profile, ranging from 50cm studies to canvases more than two metres tall. Lethbridge uses these studies to experiment with different techniques, such as more vibrant colour palettes – red on lavender, emerald on magenta – and circular mark-making. The heightened colour contrast and smaller scales make these works less successful at creating these illusions of depth that are so arresting in works such as Argos (2016), where muted blacks and creams are punctuated by incisions drawing the eye downwards in a V-shaped waterfall, or Lacquer Workshop (2014), whose chaotic primary colour blend of reds, yellows, blacks and whites creates a roiling chaos imprisoned behind vertical ridges.
Julian Lethbridge. Lacquer Workshop, 2014. Oil, pigment stick, on linen, 183 x 152.5 cm (72 x 60 in). Courtesy the artist and Contemporary Fine Arts. Photograph: Matthias Kolb.
Lethbridge’s formal abstract style can come across as somewhat esoteric or forbidding, however this exhibition at CFA proves it doesn’t have to be. These are paintings of virtuosity, of meticulous work and dedication, a captivating and absorbing demonstration of a painter exploring his unique approach to the fullest.