Peter Dreher and Stuart Cumberland both had solo exhibitions at The Approach this summer. Both were painting shows that focussed on variations among repeated instances of the same fairly straightforward representational image. The formal similarities pretty much stop there – the paintings themselves, and the projects they’re part of, are very different indeed – but I can’t ignore the cumulative fact of their repetition.
Cumberland’s paintings look good. The best ones are bright green and brave, with brushwork that’s succulent and brash. And they’re of bottles of Champagne. One is of a bottle of Champagne with a cartoon foot in it. It looks like Cumberland’s been trying things out, one after the other, and I like the feeling that none of them quite did the trick so he had to keep starting new ones. But repeated over and over again with a stencilled outline, the image becomes more of a motif or a mantra than a statement of its own, and the statement you’re left with is the bald fact of repetition: no longer ‘here is this’, but ‘this is here many times over’. And so for all the vocal strength of Cumberland’s works, they stay immensely quiet.
Quietness is abundant in Peter Dreher’s project Tag um Tag ist guter Tag (Day by Day is a Good Day), an ongoing series of over four thousand near-identical paintings of the same glass in the same place. An earnest, quotidian study, at once exhaustive and hopelessly incomplete. Only a couple of dozen fitted onto the walls at the Approach in the summer, where the scale of the project was amplified by the immense absence of almost all of it.
Reiteration comes up a lot in my own practice because I work with translation, and I’ve found there’s something about translated texts that makes them resist being read. The meaning resides somewhere other than in the artefact you have in front of you. Translations enact frustration – they’re just off the tip of your tongue, or floating an inch from the surface of the page – and they excite the impulse to go back to the original and compare the two.
And just as a translation can never shake its original, so a repeated image can never stand on its own without recourse to its brothers. The Dreher exhibition is a quiet exercise in resistance. Even as you minutely watch the details of one canvas something is tearing you away, to look at the next one, or to stand back and survey them all at once. The possibility of such recourse is thwarted not only by their number but by the fact that most of their number aren’t even in the country – they’re on show elsewhere, or stacked up in the artist’s studio. The whole work is inaccessible; the work is wholly inaccessible; and this is all we can get at: it is the whole work.
So what are we left with, when our only access to the work is truncated, or whispered, or under erasure? We fall through. As each separate utterance of the physical thing is quietened we’re left with the space in between the words: the matrix-stuff that joins them. Cumberland’s Congratulations anthropomorphises the floating space in between, with some frustrated artist-persona springing to the fore, stuck making the same thing over and over again with a fervour that steals the limelight from the paintings themselves. But Dreher is private, and smooths himself out of his work. What he leaves behind is the cancellation of the project entirely; the pulse of insistent indecision; an anti-manifesto.