Keeping It Real: Subversive Abstraction, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London

This is the real thing – putrid cheese and all

Dieter Roth's Grosse Landschaft (Big Landscape) seems strangely familiar, a golden sun setting on a brown field, some German take, perhaps, on Gustave Moreau.

Then it strikes you that Roth's sunset is familiar not from art history but from the deli counter, it being made of cheese. The work is now 40 years old, so it is difficult to say what kind of cheese has been used – a nice, round gelber Käse, maybe? – although its rotting has been coincidentally painterly. And why not? Raphael worked in egg yolk, after all, and most painters use linseed oil.



To make things sicklier, Roth has pressed his cheese on to roofing felt – yuck – and squashed the lot behind a clear plastic membrane, giving his landscape the puckered air of a particularly unhygienic supermarket. (Roth also liked to be known as Dieter Rot.) Its fascination with food fits Grosse Landschaft into a strain in modern German art which remembered postwar hunger; Roth's use of felt steers us towards Joseph Beuys, who likewise had a yen for saturated fats. It is thus the representation not of one but of many things, a history painting with a number of histories. And Grosse Landschaft is also a picture of nothing at all, a putrid cheese squashed against clear plastic, which is presumably why Roth's work is in a show at the Whitechapel called Subversive Abstraction.



What is abstraction? And, more narrowly, how long is a piece of string? To the English of the 1920s, Paul Nash was an abstract artist, although he painted landscapes that were clearly landscapes and had names such as Stone Cliff. One obvious way to subvert abstraction is to paint known things and then call them abstract, or to make abstracts out of materials that are recognisable as objects: cheeses, say. This is the opposite of abstraction as we more usually know it, a style whose aim is to look like nothing at all – the anti-representational rectangles of Mondrian, say, or the flicks and drips of a Jackson Pollock. Roth's allusive abstraction may sound like a case of having your cheese and eating it, but then that is rather the point.



Take Robert Gober's Unfolding Door. Gober's sculpture is more or less what it says it is, a traditional white-painted wooden door sliced up, reassembled – sideways-on, it looks like a swastika – and hung on a wall. If it wasn't a door, it might be a Donald Judd, a piece of Minimalist sculpture. But it is, insistently, a door. A Judd wall piece may look like a shelf, but it doesn't mean to; Gober's sculpture looks like a door, and it does. Why?



It's a question that runs through the Whitechapel's show. The second in a series of four called Keeping It Real, Subversive Abstraction is drawn from the collection of a Greek yogurt millionaire called D Daskalopoulos. Food is a visceral thing to have made your money in, and Daskalopoulos's collection seems commensurately gutsy. Not for him the cerebral agonising of Neo-Geo Abstractionists such as Tomma Abts, but an (occasionally cheesy) abstraction which starts from the known object. Thus Mike Kelley's Transplant consists of three rag rugs with toy pooches on them made out of scraps of fabric; here a yellow gingham leg, there a Laura Ashley tail. Part of the uncanniness of Kelley's work lies in a process of what you might call de-representation, making familiar things look unfamiliar, the representational feel abstract. So, too, with the space capsule/hot-water boiler of Nikos Kessanlis, an artist I'd always thought of as a painter but who seems to have gone in for a kind of Hellenic Arte Povera sculpting as well.



The problem with all of this – a niggling one only – is that of intent. I'd imagine that Mr Daskalopoulos collects things he likes, but I'd rather doubt that he starts off by saying, "Today I'm going to buy something that subverts abstraction." That spin on his collection, or at least this part of it, comes from the curators of Subversive Abstraction. In these anti-elitist days, you can't really put on a show called Loans from the D Daskalopoulos Collection. Things have got to be contextualised, de-personalised. And so the Whitechapel has squeezed the work to fit a theory, convincingly so most of the time but not all of it. Why does Daniel Subkoff's slashed-canvas canvas count as subversive abstraction? Search me. But this is a nice show, and a clever one, and I should go if I were you.



To 5 Dec (020-7522 7878).



Next week

Charles Darwent seeks the definitive Monet at the Grand Palais, Paris

Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz