Alex Bacon

In Constant Rotation

Daniel Pettitt’s paintings are effusive and reticent at the same time. They entice the viewer with dense compositions and an often ebullient colour palette. Yet, once seduced we quickly get mired in the complexities of the sense of density they impart, which is simultaneously compositional, physical, and conceptual. While continuing to maintain this trio of concerns, Pettitt’s works have shifted in the last year, during which he has been at the University of Brighton on a painting fellowship. Compositional complexity used to arise from how Pettitt would often rework his canvases, adjusting and overpainting previous compositions in a slow, yet deliberate fashion driven by intuitive decision-making. In the past year he gained a new confidence from this process to isolate certain gestures in comparatively sparse, but still dense, direct, and powerful, compositions.

As an example of the previous work, consider—for example—Crop Rotation XXXV (2019). Upon close inspection the ghosts of the painting’s history come through in various passages and marks, such as in the tracks of thinned pigment running in different directions, which betray that the artist rotated the canvas at one point, changing its orientation. This layering also gives rise to the painting’s physical presence which, as in certain other works, is in part due to the accretion of washes of paint.

Looking at a recent painting, such as Cephas (2022), the dense layering has become isolated to a sweeping band of purple in the bottom section of the canvas. Within this passage we find a condensed example of Pettitt’s signature way of working, including the various thin washes, which progress through liquid traces of the brush and the drips they leave across the bottom of the composition, not unlike the bottom margin of Brice Marden’s encaustic monochromes of the 1960s and ‘70s. 

The three valences of Pettitt’s density are interconnected. Alongside the work’s unrepentant embrace of beauty, its conceptual element is perhaps most important, and the most in need of being unpacked. This too arises from the extended timeline of the work’s drawn out execution, whereby the different layers and adjustments have a meaning beyond simply their formal impact on the viewer. Pettitt’s paintings set in motion a conversation about the meaning of gesture today by being made over a protracted period of time, the different stages of their making left visible in a given work’s layered gestures. 

Pettitt’s paintings are comprised of numerous discrete marks. Some of these are indexical rather than allusive—traces of the passage of brush over canvas—while others approximate known entities. For example, there are works that incorporate biomorphic forms evocative of fragments of animals and bodies, without being specific, as in the curving shapes clustered towards the centre of Crop Rotation XXXV. In other works motifs are drawn from a language of natural phenomena, including rainbow, sun, and sky motifs. As in Crop Rotation XLI (2020), where flurries of strokes describe the arcs of a rainbow-like form and also exist for themselves, both respecting and breaking free from that iconographic logic. 

This continues for certain recent paintings as well, such as Skeleton Tree (2022), which contains an obscured landscape-esque motif, with a circular sun or moon shape and vaguely tree-like forms that are submerged beneath a cascade of drips. In this sense we might understand these works less as assembled to convey a certain singular meaning, but rather as entities to, as the artist puts it, “hang paint on ” That is, as a means to organise a composition and also to provide the viewer with a way to make sense of what they are seeing—an entry point into what is before them. At first this might lead us to assess Pettitt’s paintings as descendants of Abstract Expressionism. In a sense they are, but more so they are cognisant of the various critiques of such painting that have been leveraged since the 1950s: as, for example, overly reliant on an implicitly white male model of authorial “mastery.” 

However, Pettitt’s work is not simply critical, in the sense that some so-called “postmodern” work of the 1980s was. He is clearly convinced of the power of the brush to convey feeling, which he delivers to the viewer with the convincing muscularity of his gestures. Witness, for example, the exuberant arcs and swerves of overlain purples and greys that coalesce into a semi-legible form in lower half of Cephas. But Pettitt is simultaneously skeptical of an unfettered humanist address to the senses. As such every gesture is as if met with its counterpoint. Subsequent marks pile up, often atop and next to one another, making his surfaces—especially those with abstract topographic elements—into a patchwork of different zones, legible as laid out across an expanse, not unlike a map. This as opposed to being perceivable as singularly immersive, like a painted vista would be. Such a shift was already inaugurated in the 1950s in the work of Robert Rauschenberg, as Leo Steinberg famously articulated of that artist’s move from the conventional perspectival picture to the flatbed picture plane, which lected an interest in the accumulation and arrangement of disparate types of information. The map is one example of such a flatbed picture plane.

To introduce the notion of topography is to assess Pettitt’s paintings as lying somewhere between representation and analysis. They suggest we might be looking at something familiar, but also prevent us from fully apprehending it. In this way they are, as the critic Charles Harrison wrote of Art & Language’s Hostage paintings of the late 1980s, “related as two points are which are drawn upon a map which is drawn over an abyss.” In this way Pettitt’s works do not simply chart familiar territory, instead they install in the very process through which they are made a fundamental skepticism and uncertainty that we come to feel is what unseats an entire representational regime that might otherwise order and organise the aspects of the world that creep in: from rays of sunshine, to fragments of landscape, to almost emergent figures and objects. 

This is on display, for example, in the drawing Grand Parade (2022), where abstract forms that suggest any range of figurative referents feel in tension with the surrounding grey ground, which seems to be as if swirling around, almost never quite touching the forms, but feeling as if it is organising and holding them in place, like rocks caught in a strong current. This analogy is applicable across Pettitt’s paintings and drawings of recent years. In this way elements of a work mutually support, while also threatening to eradicate, one another. Such an array of marks is neither painstakingly determined beforehand, nor mindlessly executed in a passion of making. They are part of a carefully orchestrated oscillation, played out by the artist on his canvas, between intuitive gesture and a deep seated skepticism about what such gestures might promise. This continues in the recent, sparser works, as in Crop Rotation (Brighton) (2022), where bright, banded washes of acrylic mirror one another, framing and revolving around the quieter tiered centre.

This leads to constant acts of revision and rewriting, which may eventually lead a given painting to being “finished,” in the sense of having gone as far as possible. But Pettitt consciously never fully resolves the work and, as such, keeps its ultimate meaning suspended and open for the viewer. This suggests the title of many works over recent years, “Crop Rotation,” which refers to the changing of the types of crop planted in a given field from season to season so as to keep the land fertile. For Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard this method had relevance to the aesthetic realm. He proposed that the person concerned with aesthetics should similarly rotate their pursuits so as to derive maximum pleasure and satisfaction from them. We might imagine that Pettitt is accomplishing something similar within a given painting, not resting on one way of making or motif, instead exploring different techniques and compositions within a single work. This method also occurs from canvas to canvas. Pettitt shifts the meanings of his language of marks by planting them in different plots, and then reorienting them within it over the process of the painting’s making, leaving it up to the viewer to determine the resonance for themselves of these revolving arrangements of signs.

Alex Bacon is an art historian and critic based in London and New York



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