cape reviews

Assume Nothing – The painting of Ian Grose

Ian Grose at STEVENSON in Cape Town

By Chad Rossouw
22 July - 23 August. 0 Comment(s)
Study for a History Painting

Ian Grose
Study for a History Painting, 2014. Oil on Linen 93.5 x 117.5cm.

In Ian Grose’s ‘Dissimulation’ series of paintings, he renders folded and patterned cloth. From a distance it looks like drapery, each fold revealed not exclusively through shadow but through the distortion of pattern. Closer up, it dissolves into formlessness. But the dissolution is exquisite. In Dissimulation Series 9 for instance, a rather 60s colour combination of muted lilacs and mustards is given life through shimmery scumbles and select application of opacity. Dissimulation Series 7 feels rapid, yet the paint, in its peachy hues and desaturated purply blues, is lustrous and sensual. These paintings show both the pleasure of an painted surface, and of an artist in perfect control of his medium.

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Assumption (Rubens 3)

Ian Grose
Assumption (Rubens 3)
Oil on Paper
63 x 50cm

After repeating this action several times, though, moving closer, examining the surface, moving on, I felt like I’d hit a brick wall. Grose’s 'Some Assumptions', for all its painterliness, is one of the most reticent shows I’ve encountered. It manages to be prosaic and mysterious at the same time, both Granny’s table cloth and a veil, simultaneously decorative and profound. This combination doesn’t result in a sense of the Freudian ‘uncanny’, as unexpected mixes often do. Merely, certain elements of his paintings give, and certain elements hold back.

Grose seems quite conscious of this reticence, in his titling. For if ‘Dissimualtion’ has its primary etymology in simulation – an imitation of a real world process – it might seem to mean the opposite, or a breaking down of the copy. However, the dictionary definition of dissimulation is that one conceals one’s thoughts, or hides part of the truth. A cloth itself could be a magician’s curtain, hiding some sleight of hand – not a bad metaphor for Grose’s deft handling of paint. Yet I feel that something else is going on, something more philosophical, something more investigative. What that thing is, though: is hidden in understatement; in painting as in language; in a kind of rhetoric. It’s a cold rhetoric, as opposed to the hotness of hyperbole or pathos, in that it requires the viewer to fill in the gaps, and to be an active participant in the building of meaning. 

Perhaps what adds to this sense of participation is Grose’s enjoyment of word play. His title 'Some Assumptions' acts as a triple pun. Firstly, an assumption is a presupposition, in which context the exhibition title acts as a declaration of humility, another rhetorical technique. It also implies a shared understanding of painting, as one makes assumptions on the supposition that one and one’s audience are on mutual ground. This is underlined by Grose riffing and referencing other painters, in particular the religious paintings of Titian, Rubens, and others in a series of paintings titled ‘Assumption.’ These provide the second pun: an assumption is the Christian term for God directly taking a corporeal living body into heaven, most famously as the Assumption of the Virgin. It is a sign of God’s special favour. In this series of altar piece-shaped works, Grose mimics the Renaissance colours of his references, but abstracts them with a smeary, Gerhard Richterian action.

Dissimulation Series 7

Ian Grose
Dissimulation Series 7
Oil on Linen
86.5 x 77cm

Grose’s ‘borrowings’ from other painters, though, can shed some more light on what kind of assumptions we’re making. In another series, entitled ‘Studio Window’, Grose takes on Monet’s habit of repeating a subject, in particular his Haystacks series. Grose’s paintings repeat the same view of his studio window, at various seasons and times of day, the shape of which slyly repeats the form of the altarpiece paintings. Similar to Monet, Grose’s paintwork has a fuzzy luminosity and curious coloration. What is more, the subject matter is quotidian, although in Grose’s case with a revealing twist; studio window seems to imply someone sitting around thinking about being an artist and what that means rather than wandering the fields and contemplating nature and light. This, I feel, might be the crux of Grose’s show. While certainly Grose displays an interest in recording the fleeting nature of light, or perhaps how one converts sensory impressions into pictures, or reality into images, or the outside world into two-dimensions, he seems particularly concerned with trying to understand what it means to be an painter. It’s painting that’s about self-reflexive painting, and instead of making some heavy-handed intellectual statement, it shifts the language of these paintings out of a postcardsy neo-Impressionism into something that feels a little more contemporary.

Finally the third pun in the title is when the word assumption means taking control of something. Grose appears to be a painter who is experimental, uncertain and insecure, but who is conversely masterful at the act of painting. It is this carefulness and control he has with his medium that lends weight to his experimentation, validity to his uncertainness and charm to his insecurity.