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To say the least: Considering form, colour, surface and process in Deb Covell's work.

An essay by Laura Gray

May 2016

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Form, colour, surface and process are the four main principles of Deb Covell's practice. To understand how they function in her work is to open a world of references and possibilities that are initially concealed by simplicity of form. The visual purity of Covell's paintings centre the artist and the viewer on the act of creation and the moment of encounter. Yet at the same time, these paintings connect the artist and the viewer with one hundred years of radical painting and sculpture. Looking at Covell's work from an art-historical point of view is to engage with the legacy of the most important and exhilarating art of the twentieth century. Through her black and white paintings Deb Covell probes the expressive possibilities of simple, monochrome shapes, asking her audience to bring only an open mind and open eyes.

Deb Covell, From Nowt to Summat (2014). Acrylic paint, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. Photo by Cal Carey

Deb Covell, From Nowt to Summat (2014). Acrylic paint, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. Photo by Cal Carey

Form and colour 

For a century it has been impossible to paint a black square without conjuring up Kazimir Malevich's talismanic Black Square. Painted in Russia in 1915, Black Square continues to needle those who like their paintings to be of recognisable things.  Form, colour and surface. Malevich was the first to realise that these categories could be independent of anything but themselves; an idea that came to have huge influence on the trajectory of art, particularly in the minimalism that came to the fore in the 1960s. For Malevich the square was the perfect form. It was a form beyond the physical world. It was pure abstraction. In his suprematist paintings he explored weightless and pure form, ideas taken up by key figures such as Richard Serra. With his balanced slabs of steel, Serra is in direct dialogue with Malevich's ground-breaking floating shapes.  

Deb Covell's commitment to non-objectivity through her use of black squares and rectangles makes her paintings free, as Malevich put it, “from the dead weight of the real world”. Yet while Covell rejects imitation in favour of the purity of geometry, as an artist she is fully engaged with the real world in which her work will be seen, in which the very density of the layered paint will confront the viewer. The painting in the presence of the viewer, the viewer in the presence of the painting; this is not a by-product of the exercise of making work, it is its apotheosis. Malevich's shapes usually floated against a white ground, but in Covell's work the white ground is drawn into the painting, becoming the back of the work, which is exposed by pleating, folding and draping. Instead of the form floating against a white background, the work floats against the 'ground' of the gallery. This meeting between artwork and audience in the gallery space can be both physically and intellectually challenging.

Deb Covell, Present (2016) 140 x 140cm, Gesso and acrylic paint, courtesy of Object /A, Manchester, photo by Cal Carey

Covell's invocation of Malevich's most recognisable form draws attention to the legacy of his work, a legacy that has resonated and reverberated through American art in particular. In 1974 the American public was exposed to Malevich's suprematist works on a large scale in an exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York. The sculptor Donald Judd wrote an essay for the catalogue, likening the artist to unblended scotch, “single and free”. This important exhibition, as well as MoMA's strong holdings of his work, resulted in Malevich's influence being strongly felt in the work of artists such as Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Dan Flavin. These artists and their contemporaries came to prominence in the 1960s.

They set about making work that was engaged in ideas around reduction, abstraction, seriality and repetition; strategies that have surfaced in Covell's paintings. 

Deb Covell's interests converge with those of the American Minimalists in a number of ways. First, with regard to the environment in which the object is encountered and the importance of the viewer in the ‘activation’ of the artwork. This encounter is one of the key concerns of Minimalism because of the use of non-art materials for which those artists were notorious. Second, Covell harnesses the formal austerity of Minimalism. Her works are abstract, geometric and without decorative detail. Finally, Covell draws upon the movement’s preoccupation with space and movement around the object, as well the use of repeated forms across a body of work, as seen in her 2016 Present series. 

Covell's current adherence to black and white means that she presents paintings of 'charged neutrality' that challenge the viewer to fully engage with what they are seeing. As Michael Craig-Martin explains:  

“Minimalism seeks the meaning of art in the immediate and personal experience of the viewer in the presence of a specific work. There is no reference to another previous experience (no representation), no implication of a higher level of experience (no metaphysics), no promise of a deeper intellectual experience (no metaphor). Instead Minimalism presents the viewer with objects of charged neutrality.” 

M. Craig-Martin, ‘The Art of Context’, in L. Biggs, editor, Minimalism, London, Tate Publishing, 1989, p.7. 

There are, however, limits to Covell's engagement with Minimalism. She is not involved in the renunciation of the personal workmanship that is so important to this type of art. Instead, the element of chance is brought into play in her draped works. This brings a distinctly human element to these stark hanging pieces. Further, the hand-making process is an essential part of creating the paintings. Covell builds up layers of paint onto stretched polythene sheets, creating a thick palimpsest of acrylic. Once dry, the paint is carefully peeled from the polythene. There is no canvas to support the work. The paint supports itself; flexile and pliant, it can be manipulated into different forms or suspended in the air, coming to an end in pleats and ripples on the gallery floor.

Deb Covell, Fold 1(2013). Acrylic paint, 51cm x 68cm, photo by Cal Carey

Surface and Chance 

A striking feature of Covell's works is the way in which she disrupts the perfection of the shape. Her works Fold 1, Fold 2, Back Flip, White Curve and Double Edge, with their folds and turned corners, simultaneously show part of the front and the back of the work to the viewer. Covell is subverting Minimalism's attempted separation of human creation from the artwork by turning the corners and edges of her paintings up, under and over. Marking her role in making the work, just as you turn the page of a book to keep your place.

The sculptor Eva Hesse also drew on and subverted the Minimalist processes. Hesse brought an organic, unpredictable element to repeated forms. Her works such as Addendum (1967) and Repetition Nineteen III (1968) make use of repeated, serial forms such as vessels and ropes, but the vessels are crumpled and the hanging ropes are unruly. The systematic deployment of the object in multiple is subverted by the element of chance that governs the appearance of the final work.  

In Covell's work there are rules governing colour, material, shape and process, but there is also a freedom of appearance for the individual pieces. She interprets the tropes of Minimalism – squares, economy of colour, repetition – and embraces the human element (folds, hanging, draping, tension and release). A system is present, but not rigid, resulting in work that is personal and expressive while adhering to certain formal criteria. Covell loosens the principles of seriality and repetition and allows the expression of the human element. In doing so, the unease caused by Minimalism’s “reductive, potentially dehumanised and industrial matter-of-fact character of minimalist objects” is offset. (A. Potts, The Sculptural Imagination: Figurative, Modernist, Minimalist, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000, p.190)

Repetition and Remembering 

Covell is interested in repetition; both in working with a set process for making her work, and in employing a fixed formal criteria that governs its appearance. This commitment to repeating and remaking is comparable with recalling a memory. Each time we recall a memory we remake it. Remembering is a constructive and adaptive process, and makes an apt metaphor for Covell's working method with its careful layering process. This ordered process is followed by impulsivity and freedom as the work is reshaped and remodelled into its final form. Covell is dedicated to exploring the object rather than the subject, constantly reproducing and representing the tabula rasa, making something new and different each time she commits herself to work with the same materials, colours, forms and processes. 

Covell's earlier works are evocative of the white reliefs that Ben Nicholson made in the 1930s. Both artists investigate the potential of white, although now, in place of Nicholson's built-up wood, we have Covell's built-up layers of paint. Each artist has created works of visual purity in a cluttered and imperfect world, an idea developed further by Covell in her large suspended pristine white banners of paint. We wait with interest to see where Deb Covell's pursuit of form, colour, surface and process will take her work next. For the time being, with her pure and crisp forms she reminds us that economy of expression does not equate to absence of meaning. 

Deb Covell, Real lines (2011). Alkyd paint on card, photo by Cal Carey

Deb Covell, Drape (2013). Acrylic paint, 15cm x 66cm, photo by Cal Carey

Deb Covell, Nowt to Summat (2014), 270 cm x 120 cm. Acrylic paint, courtesy of Castlefield Gallery, Manchester, photo by Cal Carey.