Angela de la Cruz: After, Camden Arts Centre, London
A Spanish artist just couldn't liven up her canvases – until she accidentally snapped one in half
By way of response to the Paris Salon of 1846, Charles Baudelaire, the bad-mouthed bad boy of French art criticism, penned a broadside called "Pourquoi la sculpture est ennuyeuse": roughly, "Why sculpture is boring".
Were Baudelaire alive today, he might have turned his guns on painting instead. Something about the mood of our times has made the flat surface a source of irredeemable dullness to artists, or at least to the kind of artist who, like Angela de la Cruz, provides her viewers with a bibliography featuring Jacques Derrida.
Which is to say that what we're talking about here is not painting but "painting", De la Cruz being quite decidedly a "painter". Kazimir Malevich may have scandalised the world with monochrome abstraction back in 1913, but his black and red squares did at least toe the line in being two-dimensional. It was left to the Italo-Argentine artist Lucio Fontana to find even this apparently modest requirement too repressive by half.
Having fathered a movement called Spatialism in the late 1940s, Fontana set about his own pictures with gusto and a razor. In the Concetto Spaziale series, canvases are slashed with the all too literal intent of breaking the picture plane, thus freeing Fontana from those cruel bonds which had shackled such lesser men as Leonardo and Manet. From then on, it was open season on flatness. De la Cruz, 44, Spanish born, Goldsmiths trained and the subject of a show at the Camden Arts Centre in London, is the latest inheritor of Fontana's tattered mantle.
I suppose it is reasonable enough to see the canvas as a duplicitous thing, at once the vector for a two-dimensional image and, in its own slimline right, a three-dimensional object. If you are an artist and typologically minded, this ambiguity might make you fret over whether the thing you work on as you stand at your easel is really a painting or a sculpture. Artists such as Frank Auerbach have long played around with the flatness of the painted surface by heaping it with great gloops of impasto; Fontana, as we have seen, took a knife to his. So, rather than merely breaking the picture plane in some half-hearted, semi-metaphorical way, why not go the whole hog and break the picture itself?
This is the logic that seems to have struck De la Cruz, apparently as the result of having accidentally snapped the wooden stretcher of a canvas on which she was working in the mid-1990s. Ever since, she has subjected her work to a barrage of insult. A large, creamy canvas called Homeless has had its top and bottom struts broken in two and been pushed into a corner, book-wise. Standing between its open wings is actually rather nice, like being embraced by an elderly angel.
In the opposite corner, a much smaller canvas, Ashamed, has apparently crashed into the oncoming wall so as to fold in on itself. The work's title suggests that we are meant to see it as possessed of feeling – embarrassment, perhaps, at its own foolishness. Nothing, Malevich-black, has been chucked on the gallery floor like a discarded oilskin; the canvas in Self suffers the sore indignity of being crammed into a cheap wooden armchair, from which to ponder its un-crammed double, hung on the facing wall.
At its best, De la Cruz's work has the knockabout tragedy of Samuel Beckett's tramps. Disaster has befallen them; their bruises are funny to see. I suspect, though, that what we're meant to take away from Ashamed and the rest is a sense of their maker's genuine frustration as an artist, a decade-and-a- half of annoyance at the stubborn flatness of painting. More, De la Cruz asks us to believe that the medium has hit a kind of tragicomic dead end, crumpling against the wall of art history like one of her own battered canvases. I'd say that her work is proof that this is not so.
Towards the end of the show, the whole "painting" game starts to feel a little tired, a one-trick pony lagging in the final furlong. By contrast, plain old painting seems to be doing pretty well these days. Maybe De la Cruz should consider taking it up.
Camden Arts Centre, London NW3 (020-7472 5500) to 30 May
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