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Text from ‘Colin Crumplin    Paintings 1990-97’  









Sue Hubbard

Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.   Lautreamont


Chaos theory suggests that the flutter of a butterfly's wing can cause a tornado. Colin Crumplin's paintings also rely on chance. Yet while the initial impetus may be generated by an event as random as the butterfly's fluttering wing, his subsequent workings involve choice, selection and editorial intervention. Chance and choice are, therefore, yoked together to create the inherent tension within his work.

The Surrealists often set, in startling juxtaposition, banal and unrelated objects, not so much to create unreal and dream-like scenarios, but to heighten the compelling reality of the external world.   As the poet Breton wrote, their aim was "to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality" - arguably what, some fifty odd years later, Baudrillard would call a 'hyperreality'. While Dadaists such as Arp were more interested in chance - tearing up a drawing and letting the fallen pieces dictate a composition - the Surrealists drew heavily on Freud's theories about dreams and the subconscious in their pursuit of spontaneous creation. Automatism was used to penetrate the controlling rational super-ego and explore the primitive, spontaneous id. Looking at his early frottages - rubbings first taken from worn floor boards - Paul Eluard was surprised by the sudden intensification of his "visionary capacities and by the hallucinatory succession of contradictory images superimposed, one upon the other".

Colin Crumplin does not take rubbings of the floor - though one can imagine him being just as excited as Eluard by the suggested possibilities of his random marks - and discounts an over surrealist reading of his work, saying that he is not really interested in revealing his subconscious or anything specifically autobiographical. Yet working flat on the floor and spreading acrylic paint onto lengths of unstretched cotton duck, there are ways in which his concerns do overlap with the surrealist enterprise, just as much as they take a passing nod in the direction of Pollock and the influence on his work of the seemingly intuitive marks and traces found in the sand paintings of indigenous American Indians. Whilst for Crumplin chance is the philosophical underpinning behind evolution and life's seemingly random pattern, he rejects the use of chance as some sort of mystical yardstick, pointing to the way-in which, for example, John Cage relied on the I Ching . It might be argued that the juxtaposition of the abutted images in his diptychs rather reflects the eclecticism of a post-modern culture where objects are merely signs, none with a greater value or weight than any other.

After covering half the canvas with acrylic paint by hand, he then flips over the uncovered portion to form a blind mono-print (the equivalent of a child's butterfly ink blot). The resulting marks are then 'read', (think of patterns left by frost on window panes, or tea leaves at the bottom of a cup) and the image suggested used as the starting point for a new painting in oils. These embryonic 'beginnings' are photographed and carried around in a small notebook like precious intimate objects until they 'speak' to him. A second canvas often the same size is then stretched and an image suggested by the first projected onto it. This may have been found in a picture library, a magazine or simply by a chance thumbing through a random book, or be a photograph taken by himself. Unlike its expressionistic and playful d oppelganger , the second 'hyperreal' painting is executed in meticulous detail in oil -the paint of artifice and illusion -rather than quick drying acrylic. The two halves set up a dialectical tension as if between the left and right sides of the brain. A series of oppositions is established; a dialogue between the cognitive and the intuitive, the primitive id and the civilising super-ego, the fluid and the constructed, the child and adult. It is as if each half needs the other, as in any good relationship, to become more than simply itself.

The tension between the two halves, each of which is interdependent and bound to the other like a pair of Siamese twins, also poses questions about intention, about which is the 'truer' or 'real' image. Do we automatically assume that the second, 'finished' painting is somehow more 'real', or that the first carries some deeper, expressive truth which is then veiled by the stylised artifice of the second image? Copying formed the basis for most traditional art education but by the sixties had given way to a greater emphasis being placed on individualistic expression. Again these works challenge notions of where value resides. The finding of that initial image within the blur of the mono-print involves a suspension of the critical analytic self. Its reading is akin to an act of daydreaming, to the child finding dragons and castles in the changing shapes of clouds or faces in tongues of fire.

For most of his career this dialogue between parts has been the basis for Crumplin's work. In the '80s he used plaster to fix gestures made by the sweep of the hand or a foot, which he called first events. These would then, without any particular selection process, be used as catalysts to make companion objects, employing methods that were generally much slower such as casting. Paintings were created by dropped, smeared or smudged marks which were then copied. In the Coincidence drawings Crumplin has said that he followed "a strictly systematic process which determines how copies are displaced or reoriented in relation to the blot's original position. The blot and copy sequence continues until by chance, an overlap of a predetermined kind occurs."   The parameters of these self-reflexive paintings, were, in a sense, semantic. This was art about art - art literally mirroring back its own shadowed presence.

Whilst the newer paintings continue in full awareness of this debate there is a broader resonance, an opening up and a move away from the previously more contained aesthetic.   Crumplin's basic palette is simple: ultramarine, spectrum yellow, spectrum red and black. Sometimes these are all tipped a bucket and not stirred but simply poured, so that each colour finds its own relationship with the other, without being mixed or muddied, on the canvas. In Orchid 1996 (page 19) white was added. The result is a rich Pollock-like 'first painting' where the colours are clear and bright, spreading into a sunset-coloured fan that is then transliterated into a sexually inviting orchid that is part botanically accurate image from a coffee table gardening book and part Georgia O'Keeffe. As with the painting Eyebrow 1995 (page 18), an intimate portrait of his wife the painter Maria Lalic, Crumplin claims the closely observed detail is in part due to years of peering close up at subjects because of his short sight.

These latest paintings also begin to question the much rehearsed adage that painting is dead, that it has become so bereft of possibility that it can do nothing other than represent itself. Whilst all the works are certainly 'self generated', a painting such as Bridge 1997 (page 13) raises a number of wider issues rather than simply continuing the debate on art for art's sake. The 'first' 'blind' painting, in black and white, has the quality of a cheaply printed map or city plan. The 'second' is, in fact, based on a grainy postcard showing bomb damage to a bridge in Cologne in 1945. It is the same bridge that it is now necessary to cross to get to from the main town to the site of the Cologne art fair. Implicit in the work are questions concerning art's 'bridging' or unifying role, its power and strength to restore, to close cultural gaps. These echo the references embedded in the earlier painting, Flood 1996 (page 23), the lower image of which is taken from the Time Life book of Floods and depicts that great destructive threat to artistic treasures, the '60s flood in Florence.

In two paintings done this year an interesting change is occurring whereby the distinction between the two halves of the diptych is becoming blurred. An image of an X-ray taken by Crumplin's chiropractor to detect a trapped nerve forms the bottom half of a small work and follows up in a direct physical relationship to the rib-like structure created in the first canvas. The two halves stand, not so much as separate and related parts, but as an intended whole. The second, constructed image seems looser, less self-conscious, more akin to the first, dreamingly expressionistic like some shimmering milky way. This communion or coming together is most apparent in Shingles 1997 (page 25), a stunningly resolved and beautiful painting that is a literal depiction of the horrendous rash caused by shingles, but which, at the same time, is an image resonant with metaphor. We might be looking at a Turner sunset or the flayed back of Christ. One immediately thinks of Bacon's obsession with the diseased mouth. Here, after the long and experimental process of exploring dichotomy, cacophony and difference is a painting which celebrates synthesis, a coming together. It is as if the long dissension between reason and intuition has become resolved, harmonised into a holistic totality.

Sue Hubbard. London, March 1997

From:   Colin Crumplin Paintings 1990-1997

            John Hansard Gallery, Southampton.

            ISBN 085432 627 8