foreverisms: Allan Gardner

5 April - 18 May 2024 Gallery Exhibitions
“Forever is as easy to define as love. When we ask someone to explain what love is, words normally fail, we resort to memory - to examples of times we’ve experienced love. Those experiences ultimately create a metric for how close something comes to love, what it means to be loved and whether we are or not. In essence, it is undefinable through language, only interpretable through experience. My theory is that by using words, something we think of as having established definitions, in place of pictures will allow viewers to drop into those experiences, engage memory and feel the extent to which these things define meaning.”
- Allan Gardner
Cob is pleased to present Foreverisms the London debut solo exhibition for Scottish artist Allan Gardner.
Foreverisms encapsulates Gardner’s provocative, multi-layered conceptual approach to painting through an installation of all new works, including his largest to date. Within this series, Gardner delves into the art historical canon of abstract painting, and the value of meaning within a contemporary cultural context.
Central to Gardner’s artistic practice is the act of interpretation, constructing narratives from various elements of popular culture, personal experiences, art history, and critical theory. Through his responsive approach, Gardner aims to stimulate critical discourse on contemporary art, culture, and the politics of social and personal identity. His work prompts viewers to consider their relationship with others, the role of aesthetics, and the power of symbols.
Unlike Gardner's previous works, often characterised by ethereal figurative portraiture derived from photography, Foreverisms shifts focus to representations of words. Language, often a contentious subject in contemporary art, serves as a recurring theme. Gardner challenges viewers to consider how meaning is derived from language, the fallibility of definitions and the extent to which personal biases assign values to symbols and aesthetics. The shift from photography to text aims to distance viewers from the image economy, eschewing personal media literacy in favour of language's false sense of definitiveness.
In the context of artmaking, Gardner sees artworks as catalysts for communication and dialogue, extending beyond the confines of exhibition spaces. The history of abstraction informs the structure of Foreverisms, inviting reflection on how value is perceived in contemporary painting.  In turn, Gardner’s abstract painting series can be read as an affront to trends in contemporary painting - a deliberate painterly act that is a bold challenge to the naive Figuration that has dominated the commercial art market since 2015.  The paintings, in their scale and arrangement across the gallery spaces allude to the function of the ab-ex museum hang (since appropriated by commercial galleries) to imply spiritual grandeur in abstraction.  
Gardner’s aesthetic has recently been characterised by the application of a muted, pastel palette and diluted spills of oil paint that contribute to a pervading sense of longing and romanticism.   In this series, these colour washes are engaged as an abstraction device - obscuring previous layers of text and incarnations of surface, just  transparent enough to reveal to the viewer that something else was once there.  The paintings in Foreverisms feature distorted cursive script, focusing on phrases associated with the concept of eternity.  Those universally recognisable phrases and sentiments synonymous with that particular style of body art - Always, Endless, Dreaming, Ever After emerge fleeting, oversized, cropped and repeated-  as ghostly apparition from those monochromatic inky colour fields.  Initially, the works conjure memories of love, loss and desire - but for Gardner, the notion of forever evokes a sense of horror vacui — a fear of emptiness and eternal stagnation.  In a similar double edged sword, Gardner employs a typical sardonic humour - where the viewer is invited to quietly meditate on the works much like we would a museum displayed Rothko, with the weight of melancholy turned inside out.
Ultimately, Foreverisms serves as a contemplative exercise, exploring the nuances of language interpretation and its relevance in daily life. While meaning may be transient and subjective, the exploration of meaning is integral to human existence, paralleling the essence of abstraction itself.
Featured Press


Allan Gardner’s Foreverisms

By Barry Schwabsky


It happened while I was thinking about what to say about Allan Gardner’s art that I happened to see, on Instagram, a clip of Yohji Yamamoto, in which he says, “If you really want to see real things, real beauty, you have to go there by walking. And go there and touch it and smell it. Don’t use computer, otherwise you cannot get real emotion. If you want to create something you need real excitement, emotion—not superficial vision.” Of course, as much as I sympathize with what the great designer was saying, I had to reflect on the ironic fact that his wisdom was coming to me, not on account of my having walked somewhere to meet him, not because I had seen him face to face, shaken his hand, spoken to him, not through a direct connection—but through a form of vision even more superficial than that of the computer, namely of my iPhone.


And yet I insist there was some reality to the emotion I felt on hearing him speak from the heart. Superficial vision can go deeper than it seems. And that, in case, you’re wondering, is where Gardner comes in. I got to know his work through his 2022 New York exhibition “Distant Stars,” the subject of which was—as Maggie Dunlop wrote in the exhibition text, “how we reify our identities through the images we produce and the images we consume that prove we existed.” Though it was not immediately apparent what that show’s paintings and watercolors depicted, thanks to a painterly style that accented the materiality of mark-making over imagistic legibility, most of the works were derived from images found on a Tumblr page devoted to “girls and meth.” Creepy, right? But the work neither sensationalized nor romanticized the subject. It offered neither complicity nor judgement, but a close engagement with a rather disturbing reality—not so only the drug use itself but also its availability as a subject for voyeurism. To my mind, this had something to do with realism, and with the ethical demand that realism insists on, that one must not look away. But was I really looking at women smoking meth? The paintings themselves insisted that I was there, not with the meth smokers but with very rough depictions of them. Let me believe that Gardner had never gone in person to witness such scenes. Still, his depictions did seem to have a touch, a smell of the real. And the paintings embodied a kind of ugly beauty I felt I could in turn touch and smell and that perturbed me.


As for Gardner’s new paintings, I was not able to walk, sail, or fly to see them in person. I had to rely on superficial vision. But I think I can see something nonetheless about what they are, and how they are painted. As in “Distant Stars,” I detect a roughness of handling that puts an accent on the surface and makes the image almost intangible—not in the sense that the viewer is denied contact but rather that the contact consists of a kind of visual equivalent of feeling something slipping from your fingers. But the imagery is altogether different: the image of language. The very title of one of the paintings, If Only for a Moment, 2023-24, embodies this sense of the elusive—of desire unfulfilled and perhaps unfulfillable. And the painting and its title are in accord. The words, their cursive script floating there in no particular order as they emerge and dissolve, somehow communicates the essence of (as the Velvet Underground put it) “had but couldn’t keep.” Or look at Angel, 2024: The faint traces of the word among still fainter traces of arabesque marks that might or might not also be lettering seem to lay, not on the painting’s surface, but somewhere under a layer or layers of translucent integument. Could it be a faded tattoo? Faded, that is, like a memory one had wanted to inscribe permanently into one’s being, now receding? In any case, this painting conveys something hauntingly fleshlike. Forever, 2023, by contrast, seems to be more about an acoustic space than about a visible phenomenon—a recurrent echoing, yet that echo is always dying out rather than persisting. But Gardner translates this fading sound in tactile terms: as a kind of smudging of the repeating word. Will it repeat forever? That depends on who’s looking. 


In resorting to language rather than pictures as the matter of his paintings, Gardner seems to be aligning himself with Yamamoto’s suspicion that vision is merely “superficial.” And yet as Gardner knows, words are, compared to images, more abstract. But they are never abstract enough to overcome the reality that meaning, as he says, “is ultimately fleeting - tied to too many circumstantial and personal factors to ever possibly be uniform.” 


In order words, meaning, never quite absent, is always nonetheless in the process of escaping the painting that tries to contain it. Its traces are durable. Yes, you can touch them, smell them. But nothing is forever.



Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation, international reviews editor for Artforum, and has recently contributed to publications on Pierre Bonnard, Issy Wood, Rose Wylie, and others. His recent books include two collections of poetry, Water from Another Source (Spuyten Duyvil, 2023) and Feelings of And (Black Square Editions, 2022).