John Armstrong

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Joe Fleming: Extra Parts

Joe Fleming’s paintings play painterly gesture against hard-edged geometric form. The exhibition title, Extra Parts, wryly acknowledges that the artist doesn’t attempt to gracefully blend his lyrical and constructivist approaches.

Beyond a reference to this jarring bit of compositional intrigue, Extra Parts nicely sums up Fleming’s way of making his paintings: he works in successive layers of applied, scraped-off and covered-over paint — a potentially endless and interchangeable process of revision. When using canvas supports, Fleming first establishes a gestural ground of wet-into-wet painterly strokes, often in achromatic greys. When working on white, Formica-covered panel supports, he initially uses a grinder to create an expressive overall grid of white-through-black grooves into the laminate surface. In both cases, Fleming then covers these expressive matrices using a range of painterly techniques, which we might view as a response to or a denial of his first and subsequent marks.

Fleming works in acrylic paint, which, unlike oils, has a tendency to level out and lose some of the immediacy of its crisp impasto. He has a number of solutions to this problem. On the expressive end, he may use a piping bag — a tool more commonly used by pastry chefs — to create fat, looping ropes of paint. Fleming also may apply a thick blob of paint, like a cow patty. And any of these interventions may be scraped off, leaving a trace of their presence.

Fleming’s impasto passages are in part covered over with hard-edged or biomorphic forms that are sprayed on. The spray paint is able to entirely mask the underlying impasto recasting it as monochromatic texture. Here, Fleming uses a spray paint in aerosol cans available in a wide (near Pantone) range of designer colours developed for high-end graffiti work.  Although he does on occasion use the spray paint directly, it is more often contained in hard-edged rectangles that playfully suggest splayed-open, three-dimensional boxes in off-kilter perspective. The boxes and other sprayed shapes paradoxically establish perspectival recession while flattening the painting’s painterly bravura. The painting’s materiality is still very much present, but oddly truncated.

It is this movement between outright physical brio and careful, even awkward trimming that defines Extra Parts: lavish materiality, blithe overpainting, and parsimonious scraping. But how do all these variously edited parts come together? Colour certainly plays a role here: cheery pastels are woven throughout the steely greys and taupes of the paintings’ grounds. Some of Fleming’s paintings establish a clearly hierarchical relationship between figure (a role played by the centrally positioned boxes) and ground; others, are field paintings overstuffed with incident jostling for attention. This seems to suggest that Fleming doesn’t have a fixed notion of how to finish or resolve his paintings: we are presented with parts repeatedly asserted and denied.

In the mid nineteenth century, French poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire — who thought deeply about the painting of his time — speculated on the poetic possibilities for contingency and fragmentation in the introduction to his posthumously published collection of experimental prose, Le Spleen de Paris. He set out a most prescient artistic methodology for responding to the nature of urban experience, or modernity, as follows.

We can cut wherever we like, me my dreams, you the manuscript, the reader his reading; because I would not hinder the reluctant dedication of someone to an interminable thread of superfluous intrigue. Take out a vertebra, and the remaining two pieces of the tortuous fantasy easily come back together. Cut it up into many fragments, and you will see that each can easily exist apart.1

Extra parts indeed.

 (1Translation by JA)