The very idea that the plastic arts could provide a surface for human expression stands on the belief that an artist’s physical actions include elements both conscious and unconscious, and therefore expressive. On a paper or canvas, or in any matter able to preserve a human trace, the psychic interior of a person could be made visible through marks animated by thought and spirit and communicated through the artist’s hand.
Even before the swell of artistic innovation powered by this notion had run its course, postmodern artists had already begun to aggressively destabilize this concept. By foregrounding processes that used chance marks, algorithms, appropriation, reproduction, grids, mechanical means, and hired labor—among a thousand other pointed demonstrations—artists in the latter half of the 20th century showed the notion of the artist’s hand as the most vulnerable conceptual foundation of modernism’s brave myth. Much of the variety in contemporary art came about as a result, as the distancing of the artist through process evolved beyond a backward-facing tool for breaking modernism into a wider range of ways to make a piece of art—and a wider definition of what, and how, that art can mean. Yet, nearly fifty years after Sol Lewitt’s first wall drawings, and in the current diffused moment in art’s simultaneous histories, one of the few patterns firm enough for recognition has been the reemergence of the artist’s hand, with its underlying assumptions about the trace of subjectivity safeguarded.
By way of Philip Guston, whose smart and sober blend of graphic imagery and expressive marks have preserved him as modernism’s unlikely contemporary hero, we arrive at Paw, the current summer exhibition at Arcade Fine Arts in London. Borrowing the title from Guston’s 1968 painting, in which a clunky left hand pushes a black line across the dull pink canvas, Paw brings together ten artists, each with work relating to the motif of the hand.
Images of hands abound. While joined through imagery, the artists’ approaches vary, and not all comment on the problematic hands of the artist. More touch on the expressive power of the hand as sign, exploiting its ability to speak for the body it represents. Pat O’Connor’s Black No. 35 (2012) is a miniature portrait of a reaching handshake between men in black tie, lit by flashbulb; her Black No. 23 (year) features a more feminine hand, long fingers extended above a lacy sleeve. Savant (2015) is playful, a looser gouache of a hand finger-walking along the stage of its rough frame. Mathew Cerletty’s Blue Glove (2013) shows a drab hand in latex glove, painted in a quick, unskilled watercolor, and beside it Paul Houseley’s Stone Paw (2015) grips firmly in heavy oil. John Finneran’s Figure Holding Moon (2012) channels the pastel papercuts of a Matisse by way of Tyson Reeder. In a weird pairing, Maria Zahle’s Six and One (2010) shows a silhouette trace of a figure with a third, blacked-in hand. This work hangs behind Paul Housley’s Homage to the Poet’s Elbow (2013), a simple bronze black arm extended upward, seemingly casting its shadow into Zahle’s third hand.
Taking the theme further, Caroline Achaintre’s Two Nails (2014) and Le Mains (2014) are black ceramics shaped by the artist’s handprints, pushed deep into the clay; her Small Mann (2015) is more graphic, showing two hands bending fingers and thumbs to create a human figure in the negative space between, yet its form retains the importance of its making by touch. In The Domain of Painting (2009), Luca Bertolo reaches back to an exhibition by Francesc Torres at the International Center for Photography in New York City, sketching Torres’ Dark Is the Room Where We Sleep (2007) in oil on an advertisement page from Artforum magazine. The sketch riffs on Philip Guston’s original Paw (1968), showing the same hand upturned, holding in its palm a piece of chalk for consideration.Across the small gallery, Jerimiah Day’s Anni di Piombo (2008) is a single projected slide, apparently a film still, showing two hands working as tools of display, holding an American flag on which is painted a native horse and rider. Beside, a diptych of photographs from Philippe Van Snick, Empan (0–9) (1977–2004), show the hand as an organizing tool, flexing a wire to order painted shapes of color; while above the exhibition, the rhythmic lines of Anna Barham’s Penetrating Squid, Chapter 3, Seemingly Fleshed Inside (2015) play quietly from speakers, repeating phrases of grasping, holding on to pieces.
No theory of the hand dominates in Paw, and for many works, the hand appears as an object of intimate fascination, expressive in its image and immediately sympathetic. However, when the artist’s hand appears, its contribution is to support the work’s actuality, asserting the history of a piece and the humanity of its production. Throughout the exhibition, this recurrent mirroring of tool and mark, with hands creating hands, expresses that production as tactile, touchy, and fine.
Paw is on view at Arcade Fine Arts through August 1, 2015.