BEXHILL-ON-SEA, England — Structural plans, both manmade and cosmic, are brought to light by the paintings of Alison Turnbull. The meticulous results are abstracted if not complete abstracts. She gives us reality at two removes: distilled building cross sections, fragmentary diagrams of the firmament, and pages of international stationery which she has filled with grids, meshes, shadings and straight lines — all with the care of a good, if somewhat distracted, student.
Here is an artist with no compunction about using rulers and geometric stencils to achieve finishes that would not look out of place in an A-grade geography project. And homework, just for this show, includes a well mapped blueprint of the gallery itself. (That would be the De La Warr Pavilion on the English South Coast. Architecture is always on the agenda here, since many claim this building to be the first example of modernism in the UK.) “Mendelsohn’s Staircase” (2013) underlines the boldness of the venue’s design.
Seen from above the staircase makes a cog, bringing to mind Le Corbusier’s well known description of a perfect house: “a machine for living in”. But in 1935, Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff were designing a cultural centre not a house. So DLWP became, at length, a machine for looking at art. Today windows in the downstairs gallery have been opened up to let Turnbull’s show bask in a spell of winter sunshine. You might even say that the many calibrations in the work here are designed to measure such light; walking through the door you are, after all, greeted with an observatory, albeit in two-dimensional plan form.
This is another Mendelsohn building, namely “Einstein’s Tower” (2013), once used to measure light from sun and stars. And here too you can’t help but get inside and imagine climbing, thanks to a compulsive pristene cross section. This time you follow a staggered staircase in and out of several floors. Highlights, in just two shades of grey, are so restrained they seem at odds with the nearby photograph of the original observatory in Potsdam, Germany. This thrusts its way rudely through a forest canopy.
But the impact of Turnbull’s plans is tonal rather than phallic. Both of these new commissions are anchored with a bright rainbow colour swatch, like the run off from a printed package of magazine page. The swatches hint at a potential kaleidoscope, but one which is tempered by this artist’s taste for geometry, maps, charts and plans. In terms of colour, at the very least, Turnbull is a minimalist and these busy ROYGBIV bars draw your attention to just how much she holds back.
With “Lighthouse VII” (2012) we are back to an aerial elevation as the artist takes seven cross sections from an abandoned seven-story lighthouse. Again the palette is muted, her dislocated discs given some weight by slate grey and baby pink highlights, the background a domestic shade of off-white. Once again, you can still imagine yourself climbing this tower. Turnbull’s precision and restraint ensure a smooth ascent. And if you were still expecting phallic symbolism, the sharp slices on view will make your eyes water.
Your eyes will do many funny things in this show. They will, for example, be dazzled and befogged by “Blue Space” (2012). This is a two metre-squared plane of light blue covered with a tight grid of perfect spots. Their colors are orange, cream, grey, black. But step back from the picture and it seems you are looking at deep space, or at least a photo of deep space in all its dusty splendor. Rarely has so much order (a rigorous grid) resulted in so much disorder. Turnbull must have taken hundreds of color decisions to bring us to this point.
No less intense is nearby smaller work “White Light” (2008). Here is another tight grid, this time silver spots on a white background. You may look for a focal point, but there is none. So the eye has these blind spots of lost focus which swim around the canvas, despite your best efforts to see whatever is right before you. Given the whiteness of the gallery walls, the vertical and horizontal axises in this picture spin you out towards infinity. Turnbull repeats the trick with a violent red spot piece nearby.
These concentrated, pin sharp spot pieces make the blobby efforts of other recent spot merchants look a bit anodyne. If spots are a brand for Damien Hirst and a symptom for Yayoi Kusama, then Turnbull uses her points of colour like a plan for so many conducting rods. Electricity crackles from her most intense pieces. And so “White Light,” with its silverpoint grid, puts one in mind of “Lightning Field” by Walter De Maria: land art made from 400 stainless steel poles.
And yet London-based Turnbull appears the most rational of these three artists, with her collection of international stationery and her interest in orderly plans. She only really cuts loose when painting over a map for one of the most absorbing pieces in this show: “We Crossed the Minch” (2011). This work on paper takes its starting point from an Ordinance Survey map. It transports us to the Outer Hebrides, a remote cluster of islands off Scotland’s North West coast. We can visualize the body of water in the title of the piece, since yet more spots cross it for us like stepping stones.
In a sense the artist is unfortunate that her primary motif had such a major year in 2012, with the global exhibiting of Hirst’s spot paintings and Yayoi Kusama’s major retrospective at Tate Modern. But as a glance at aboriginal art reminds us, meticulous spottery is a mainstay of visual culture with roots going back to the dawn of civilization. Turnbull is neither mystic nor showman, but a process-driven artist, outside of fashion, who achieves primeval optical effect from otherwise dry study. No one should have a monopoly on spots.
Alison Turnbull continues at the De La Warr Pavilion (Marina, Bexhill on Sea, East Sussex) through February 23.