Veeke is as jagged a painting as its spiky name suggests. From a base colour of murky green grey emerge what appear like flat knives or spears, layered on top of one another, and streaking across the canvas from right to left like a dirty neon chevron. They seem to cast softer dove-grey shadows as they pass, creating intricate, impossible perspectives. Like many of Abts’ paintings, Veeke appears, at first, insolent and introspective, concerned only with itself. Muted and sombre in timbre, the complex layering of space folds over and over onto itself, creating a kind of self-sufficient vortex that can almost be likened to a pool.
Abts is utterly systematic in terms of painting, each canvas an individual member of a larger project of rules and variations. Every painting is 19 by 15 inches (48 x 38 cm), and painted intuitively, without planning. Abts begins only with a base shape and colour, which is painted and over-painted and adapted continuously – a process visible on the canvas. Consequently, a painting can be dramatically different in hue or composition until the very last minute, when it is given a name. This is taken from a dictionary of first names, and looking at these paintings of a particularly human scale, like a mirror or portrait, it is certainly possible to imagine that one is looking at an individual, a painting with a personality – albeit one that is difficult to deconstruct.
Veeke, like many of Abts’ works, features tangible yet ghostly layers and lines that have been painted over. In this case, for example, beyond the highest point of the spiky, triangular shapes at the top of the painting, one can discern a trace of a line extending to the top of the canvas: the shapes appear to have reached beyond where they eventually settled. Another set of ridges can be made out along the horizontal centre of the canvas, where a set of grey triangular shapes almost appear to have been folded down the middle, highlighting their deviation from the straight and narrow centre line. On the top layer are the darkest lines of maroons and navy blues – the colour of a boy’s uniform from a particularly grim school. In contrast, the thinnest, barest layers of the canvas are those that are coloured in fluorescent shades that appear muddied and dirty.
Particularly evocative when considering Veeke’s contrasts of sharpness with a kind of watery soup is Abts’ comment that Gwen John’s description of bathing in a natural rock pool seemed to resonate with a particular idea of painting for her.
‘I cannot dive to the bottom, and I can swim in it – but there is no delicious danger about it, so yesterday I sat on the edge of the rock to see what would happen – and a great wave came and rolled me over and over – which was humiliating and very painful, and then it washed me out to sea – and that was terrifying – but I was washed up again. Today the sky is low, everything is grey and covered in mist – it is a good day to paint.’
The cleanly defined angles of Veeke, however, bring to mind not a seaside pool but perhaps a deep puddle in the city: reflecting glass and concrete, streaked neon and dirt and warning signs. And yet it is a city not from this world. One might imagine Abts’ pulling these odd, difficult shapes out of this swirling murky water, creating tighter and tighter forms, commanding the paintings to crystallise, until the canvas appears a complete entity – its own city.
© Laura McLean-Ferris
1. Abts on Gwen John’s Chloë Boughton-Leigh (1904–08), Tate Etc., 5 (Autumn 2005), 109