Lisson Gallery, 1 April – 7 May 2016
Halloween, 1954: an astronomer and animal ethnologist couple, with an interest in the paranormal, invite artist John Latham to create a mural for a party in their Hampshire home. In response, Latham gets a spray gun from an ironmonger and spurts their white wall (or, in some accounts, their ceiling) with black paint. The resulting burst of dots sets off a series of associations for the artist: a sculpture, performance, drawing and painting all at once, that looks like an inverse night sky. The spray gun becomes a regular feature in his work, but also a tool to think through his growing theory that physics has got it all wrong: the basic unit of the universe isn’t the particle, but a minimal, time-based something, anything, happening – what he later called a ‘least event’. Latham’s widespread influence hasn’t been so much the result of his early splotchy part-figurative paintings, or his later muddy, messy assemblages and destructive performances, but is more due to his persistent promotion of the artist as a sort of eccentric natural philosopher.
His playful and somewhat arbitrary cosmology animated all kinds of heavy metaphors used in his work: books as knowledge, glass as a sort of existential clean slate, and sprayed paint – as is the focus of this show of his ‘Spray Paintings’ from 1955 to 1995 – as the universe itself in formation. Upstairs, a few bits of wood and panels from desks have been painted white and flecked with black as ‘one second drawings’. The left side of Two Noit. One-Second Drawing (1970–71) remains blank, the right side contains a dozen heavy spots and hundreds of tiny marks. Two official-looking stamps mark each side as a ‘noit’ (another of his conjectured terms of time measurement), the left side noted as taking place the last second of December 1970, the right occurring the first second of January 1971.
The main body of the exhibition, though, is several large, colourful shapes sprayed onto unprimed canvases. These works are bold, graphic, surprisingly more akin to the language of advertising than any metaphysical vocabulary. Black, yellow and white racing stripes run down Painting not out of a Book (1963), while the faded neon yellow and burnt orange in Untitled Painting (1963) slope down the painting with a more gentle curve, both works fading in the middle to an unknown vanishing point. The best of these works is Untitled (Roller Painting) (1964), a two-metre-plus canvas that unfurls to the floor with an electric motor; lines of red and black flow down like water, with wisps of half-hidden pinks and blobs of purple. Up close, these forms disintegrate, returning to their atomised dots of spray, merging with the water stains and marks of rust and tape that pock the canvases. It would seem the spray gun gave Latham not just a conceptual jolt, but also an excuse to have fun with shape and colour.
But that brief glimpse into a sunnier, more light-hearted side of his practice is the most this exhibition provides. The unspoken tragedy behind all this is the imminent closure of Flat Time House, Latham’s former home and studio in Peckham, a ‘living sculpture’ and embodiment of his idiosyncratic approach. The building, as a site for events and experimentation, has been a more appropriate context for exploring his ideas than these bits of wood and unprimed canvas, giving more of a framework for understanding how a few spatters on a rolled up bit of cloth might point towards a whole different scientific paradigm. But, after eight years as a residency and exhibition space it’s going to be left to be devoured by the London property market. This show emphasises how much Latham’s work needs framing and narrative around it to give it its trajectory; like the Halloween and New Year’s Eve that precipitated his momentarily cosmic excursions, there were always quite mortal circumstances that provided the boundaries for his flights of fancy. We never act in a complete void – there is no clean slate or, as Latham was seeking, a single unified theory that will bind us all. It’s that seeking, rather than what arrived on the surfaces of the canvas and wood themselves, that reminds us that we can still benefit from wildly gesticulating artists’ theories that try to prod at and undermine the ground we think we’re standing on: it’s a serious zaniness that is sorely lacking in how today’s artists envision their role in the world.
Originally published in ArtReview, vol. 68, No.4, May 2016.