Understanding Luke Frost 
Matthew Collings

1. The facts. Big paintings -- diptychs (two big squares) -- triptychs (three horizontal long narrow sections) -- small cardboard ones that look like tryouts but have a charm of their own -- plus a right-angle structure using metal instead of canvas.

2. Acknowledged influences: Dan Flavin's neon strip-lights -- the look of art from that era -- the 60s -- Judd and so on. And Neo Geo -- the look that emerged in the mid-1980s in painting in the States and Continental-Europe -- New York, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France -- Peter Halley, Philip Taaffe, Olivier Mosset, John Armleder and others.

3. The process. He works on a canvas for a while with certain colours, intuitively searching for the right combination. When he thinks he knows what it should be he starts the real work in earnest. He builds up the layers so the colour feels like it's really there and is totally right. It's not just a question of layering the same colour-mix again and again. Sometimes he has to change the shade a bit. The thin lines are done with little brushes and take ages.

4. The result: a look that is both extremely familiar -- art from the past, some decades ago -- and odd - why do this look now? At the same time no questions at all, just acceptance of what you're looking at: a colour effect: a spatial illusion; a great expanse of space and no space at all, just physical flatness.

1. He's been working for a year in Patrick Heron's old studio. The little patches of brown oil paint on one of the walls, preserved by Heron from the time when the space was used by Ben Nicolson, are reminders of visual traditions that play a role in Luke's thought processes even if they're not in the foreground of his mind.

Colour is always light, a metaphor for light, even when all the conscious work that's gone into its presentation is about self containment or self referral, as with the Minimalist artists of the 1960s (who Heron thought were incredibly overrated).

Luke's paintings pay homage to the strange flat narrowness of that type of art, its refusal to be anything other than what it is: an object stripped down and pared back so much that the space around it becomes weirdly electrified. But his paintings do that and something different as well.

The little optical buzz he creates, the wavering effect when a very straight edge of one colour meets a very straight edge of a colour that has the exact same level of vibration but is in an opposite hue, suggests the fun and delight of ordinary existence: the glow of the bay beyond the studio, the light on some wood, the feeling of things constantly in motion, what it's like to be alive.

A light Prussian blue, a certain shade of orange -- a large area of something, a narrow strip of something else. What does it mean? You're taking in a set of impressions, and as you're absorbing them meaning invades. It's impossible to see anything as just itself, you're always relating it to everything else: the more crisply individual the flat colour-areas become in Luke's painting process, the more, on the one hand, the whole object takes its place in a world of objects, and on the other it comes alive because of its strong ability to mirror and reflect all your retained impressions of the effects of light in nature

2. Neo Geo paintings of squares and dots and straight lines and so on -- monochromes as well -- were seen in the 80s as part of a general reaction against big, rough, expressionist paintings that made a big critical and commercial hit in the early part of the decade.

The rest of the reaction included a lot of other objects besides painting, from hand-written jokes and re-photographed ads by Richard Prince, to Jeff Koons's bronze aqualung casts and Plexiglas containers full of new vacuum cleaners. Another buzzword or critical term at this time besides Neo Geo was Simulationism -- an artwork simulating another artwork, or the memory of another image -- with the implication that there perhaps isn't any "original." The mood of all this work was expected to be ironic: the embarrassing past was being re-done for weird reasons.

As a viewer you knew this past, knew it was over -- a sort of academy of Conceptualism and Minimalism -- and you could tell that there was a funny frisson of naughtiness about re-doing it. At the same time there was something formally seductive there as well. Gradually this ironic mindset on the part of the typical art fan has faded, and the whole Neo Geo moment is itself a thing of the past. (Simulationism has faded even more.)

What does the seduction part mean when it's separated from clever thoughts? Styles answer other styles and then the argument between them doesn't have the urgency of meaning any more, it's just rhetorical: it can't explain what you're seeing either positively or negatively (as in, "It's in style" or "It's out of style").

Style is only a container, not like a subject -- something to paint -- but like a mood. Within the mood anything can happen. Frothy, tragic, funny, ghastly, cruel: these words for emotions don't mean anything in a world of rectangles: dusky, sharp, slow, heavy, delicate, shimmering, breathing -- large, flat, rough, empty -- zinging -- that's more like it -- but are they really telling you anything? A painting effect is actually a painting emotion.

3. The look of his studio is like any other, pretty chaotic. Paintings are half finished or finished. Pots are on the floor. Brushes, papers, a telephone, nothing all that interesting -- the paintings look very straightforward, they don't show any existential agonising, they seem like jobs of work, but arbitrary at the same time -- the arbitrariness is to do with his own feel for relationships: what set of proportions is right, when does an object start to feel like an abstract proposal, something meaningful and thoughtful, offering delight like any carefully proportioned sculpture from thousands of years ago? Who's that on the telephone? I think I'll make some coffee.

4. He sees something and likes it, sees a colour on the way to the studio, for example. Light, textures, surfaces, there are new experiences all the time, and he tries to build them in.

The paintings answer to his daily awareness of ordinary colour, they're not colour-charts or scientific demonstrations or exercises, they have an ordinary innocent life of their own, like the sympathetic wonky feel of the studios he's working in, the walk in the door every day, the sight of the tables, pots and brushes in the room.

The paintings are more compressed and more honed and crisply detailed than these impressions. And unlike them their look never changes.

They are monumental not fleeting. But it's the ordinary human world of constant change, of constant finding and losing, that they commemorat

© Matthew Collings 2008

Matthew Collings is a British art critic, writer, broadcaster and artist.