Visible Invisible, Parasol Unit, London

Mind games, lies, deception – all are playfully and thoughtfully explored in this exhibition that sets off a new trend

How far exhibitions are creatures of their time is open to debate. Curators are as prone to personal history as they are to art history, the work they favour reflecting both the zeitgeist and their potty training.

Still, a show called Visible Invisible: Against the Security of the Real at London's Parasol Unit does make you wonder if there is something afoot in the world, the artists in it being uniformly concerned with deceit.

Art has always been tied up with deception. When Zeuxis painted grapes so real that birds were said to have come down to peck them, he was lying not once but twice: in trompe-ing the oeil in the first place, and in making up a story about it. (Birds cannot see in metaphor.) Abstraction, the varied squares of Malevich and Mondrian, set out to unshackle art from illusionism or, if you prefer, from lying. All painting sits on a line between Zeuxis and Malevich, between fooling the eye and refusing to do so.

So, what of artists who aim specifically for the mid-point of that line – who make work that flickers back and forth between illusionism and abstraction? In the days of high postmodernism, narrators of novels would stop mid-flow to remind you that they were narrators of novels, that what you were reading was fiction. The work in Visible Invisible does something else. Although pretty well all the artists in the show go in for pastiche, it is not with glib postmodern intent. Pastiche calls for an act of memory, a recognition of the thing pastiched. The best work in Visible Invisible – and it is a very good show full of very good work – offers you half-seen glimpses of things half remembered which prove not to be there when you come to look for them.

Take Katy Moran's Salter's Ridge, in acrylic on canvas and about a foot and a half square. It is intentionally overlookable – small, unframed – and yet its palette is reminiscent of Manet. Stare at the work and you expect to see a picnic on the grass. Except that you don't, because it isn't there: for all their hints at figuration, Moran's brush strokes are just that, sweeps of paint.

Much better known than Moran, Cecily Brown does the same thing in reverse. Her large triptych, Girl Eating Birds, looks at first to have been made in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, its mosaic of forms and colours mere mark-making and gesture. In fact, they are more in the way of collage. Woven on the picture's surface are motifs that read as hands with pointing fingers, a human figure, sprigs of greenery, some kind of vessel. The triptych's three canvases run together as if to suggest a continuous narrative that isn't there. As with Moran, Brown plays games with memory, using our memory of looking at art to raise expectations and dash them.

Why? The nearest equivalent I can think of to what Brown and Moran are doing lies in the work of a short-lived movement of the mid-1930s called Objective Abstraction, championed by artists such as Rodrigo Moynihan who would later sign up to the Euston Road School. The aim of Objective Abstract work was to hint at representation the better to be non-representational. Only by allowing the possibility of illusion could an artist show that he was having no truck with it – that his art was about painting paint, not painting bowls of fruit.

In this, Objective Abstraction was modern in an old-fashioned way. The territory it explored had already been mapped by the Impressionists, and playing around with representation meant avoiding the scarier modernity of painters such as Ben Nicholson. Like Moynihan, Brown and Moran and the three other artists in Visible Invisible seem to define themselves against the prevailing modernisms of our day, not by being postmodern and jokey but by opening the Pandora's box of history. Bound up in their work is the story of art and the story of our looking at art: a work such as Salter's Ridge is a kind of Rorschach blot, our reading of it shaped by our own experience.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the painting in this show (there is also strong work by the octogenarian Swiss sculptor, Hans Josephsohn) is just how painterly it is. For all their games with tradition, Brown and Moran handle their medium with a skill and sureness that buy into the past. Whatever questions they ask about where painting is going, they are certain that it is going somewhere. Objective Abstraction lasted a couple of years before hitting its own cul de sac. Let's hope this new trend lasts longer.

'Visible Invisible' (020-7490 7373), to 7 Feb

Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

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
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.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?