‘Even in the most impoverished places, you can bring about the ennobling of something ignoble.’ 1 The first impression delivered by Keith Coventry’s 2012 series of Junk paintings is of a tremendous optical punch. Sharp-edged blocks of pure red or yellow fall at dynamic angles across a white monochromatic background with striking visual panache. At the same time, the graphic quality of Coventry’s sharply defined geometries makes us unconsciously attempt to read them as signs.
He combines hard-edged abstraction with meaty brushstrokes that give his paintings a rough, cross-hatched surface. The intrusion of craft into the purist realm of geometric abstraction recalls the object-like quality of early modernist painting. who has not been surprised – and moved – when close inspection of a Mondrian grid reveals crackled paint and uneven edges? Into the realm of pure form, supposedly evacuated of subjectivity or facture, Coventry interposes evidence of the artist’s hand, the bristles of the brush and the materiality of paint.? The first series of Junk paintings was made in 2002 and is part of Coventry’s wider investigation into two forms of abstraction – aesthetic and socio-political. The word abstract is both a noun and a verb. Coventry creates ‘Abstracts’ to expose the action of abstracting – for example of people from places, or of labour from capital. His ‘Estate’ paintings of the late 1990s feature elegant arrangements of squares and rectangles against white monochromes. They actually represent aerial views of public housing estates where the utopian ethos of social housing, encapsulated in romantic designations such as the ‘lakeview Estate’, are at odds with the squalor and alienation often experienced by their residents.
The Junk paintings of 2002 similarly move between different levels of abstraction. They reveal what is more obliquely referenced in the 2012 series, that is, that the source of Coventry’s palette and of his dynamic curves and trapezoids is the most ubiquitous logo in the world – the ‘golden arches’ of the Mcdonald’s ‘M’. The early 20th century avant-gardes conceived of abstraction as a universal visual language with which to transcend culture or class. for artists such as Malevich it also represented ‘creative work which will be not merely personal but belong to the united masses’2. Yet this is precisely what has been achieved by a multinational food corporation’s brand. It is no wonder that the Junk paintings trigger a sense of recognition. Coventry has identified a common formal language that signifies historic Modernism at the same time as subliminally evoking a sign that has come to encapsulate capitalism. These paintings prompt us to consider how modernity has shifted from a revolutionary dream of social transformation through creativity, to a dystopian reality of cultural impoverishment and environmental destruction through mass consumerism.
Ultimately however the art of Keith Coventry is redemptive. The title ‘junk’ can refer to ‘junk food’ and the rubbish that proliferates around fast food outlets. But it is also a derogatory term for the consumers of cheap food. Through the sheer transcendent beauty of these paintings, Coventry transforms these debased forms to show the possibility of a return to that lost vision of the modern art project.