The Basic unit of painting, the brushstroke, has in itself accrued many meanings through the history of art. It has variously operated as evidence of the hand of the master, (“the masterstroke”), and an anti-classical gesture in its rough realness. It has mimicked atomic units of visual sensation (in Pointillism and Impressionism), or stood in for matter (in the way that the thick paint stands in for flesh in the work of Francis Bacon or Frank Auerbach for instance). It has been representative of expressionist meaning, embodying a mood or something of the painter’s self, and operated as the abject, leaking smear that so readily elicits psychoanalytic readings of much contemporary art.
But while the brushstroke has borne all these meanings, decoration has not traditionally been a primary one. The brushstroke in oil painting particularly is too physical, too corporeal, too ‘fat’ and oily to have become a unit in a decorative scheme. The exceptions to this rule derive mostly from Roy Liechtenstein’s famous painting of a brushstroke. That work, of course, was a play on the Abstract Expressionist brushstroke that denoted authorial presence. In Liechtenstein’s painting the brushstroke became a graphic mark, effectively flattened out by his Pop depiction of it. In losing its corporeality, it acquired a decorative potential it did not have before.
Christian Lock pulls a similar trick, rehabilitating the brushstroke to play a part in a decorative economy. He too effectively flattens the brushstroke, but he does so in quite a different way. He fixes a real stroke of paint, as thick and demonstrative as any, between layers of resin, flattening it, and placing it against glistening, holographic surfaces, so that it speaks of movement and energy, unhindered by the matter and mass we traditionally associate with the paint of gestural abstraction.
The smoothing of the surface is in a way homogenising gesture, a literal glossing over if not removal of the wok’s manual origins, creating flawlessly slick confections that, combined with the techno-quality of the holographic materials Lock uses, are suggestive of a kind of contemporary Carolina desire “ to be a machine”. This is furthered by the processes Lock uses. His systematic selection and conscious arrangement and layering of his painted gestures over his readymade backgrounds suggest the primacy of aesthetic considerations, a move towards the decorative, a contemporary beauty.
Unlike Liechtenstein through, Lock’s movement into the decorative seems provisional; it is not a complete renunciation of older traditions. All the old meanings and uses of the brushstroke are still perceptible, lying as if cryogenically shelved in his layers of resin. More than self-justifying mark-making. Lock’s sampling of the gestures preserves it as symbolic of all these histories, and these traces of meaning give the work an underlying strength and richness that seems antithetical to Liechtenstein’s Pop. The ordered matrices of this work in particular are evocative of shimmering macrocosms, allusive of something beyond what we can see. Like a window onto an otherwise invisible world of ideal from that underlies our own.
Finally it should not be overlooked that formally Lock’s work recall religious icons, Instead of painted saints against a ground of gold leaf, they place paint (the brushstroke) against reflective iridescent backdrops. Lock’s jammy impastos are trowelled over grounds that in their metallic lustre recall the gold leaf that symbolises a higher world. Of course, her it is not Paradise that is suggested, but the gleaming sheer, almost weightless surfaces of modern manufacturing and technology. It is against this ground that Lock’s strokes of paint undergo their transmutation into pure energy and movement, removed, if not irreparable divorced, form their corporeal origins.
Maria Bilske & Michael Newall