Luke Frost
Tony Godfrey

I belong to the last generation of English people who as children were made to stand in the corner when the teacher decided we had been naughty. Yet the term lingers in our language – my children recognise what Martin Kippenberger is getting at when he made a manikin of himself exiled in disgrace to the corner. It is a place of low repute: where shadows gather and dross gets dumped.

What does it mean to put a painting in the corner? (Or more precisely make a painting to be fitted into the corner, as Luke Frost does with Red and Orange Volts No. 2 or Pale Blue Volts?) We expect paintings to be on the wall – in fact in the middle of the wall. When we hang the first picture in a room we instinctively hang it in the centre of the main wall. Hanging it in corner seems perverse.

Gaston Bachelard writes a whole chapter on corners in his famous book Poetics of Space: “…every corner in a house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination; that is to say, it is the germ of a room, or of a house.”

As he points out children will treat the corner as a house and play there oblivious to all else. As always, he waxes lyrical, quoting Rilke’s personal identification with the corner of a room, he then suggests that the corner is the “chamber of being”. “Consciousness of being at peace in one’s corner produces a sense of immobility, and this, in turn, radiates immobility. An imaginary room rises up around our bodies, which think that they are well hidden when we take refuge in a corner. Already the shadows are walls, …”

Whatever, the corner is where dust and cobwebs and shadows gather, where things go undisturbed, it is the least used, the least traversed part of the room. In museums it is empty of art. But in the home it is a place of introspection: a room within a room. Above all, we respond to it as a space in a complicated and generally unconscious way.

What did Malevich seek to do when he put his paintings in the corner? To break with convention: to break out from the corner into space; to make the corner active not introspective. Luke Frost seems to do the opposite in his corner paintings: to draw one into the corner…even into introspection?

It is important to think of these paintings as being in a room because it is with the sense of that room and our human movements in that room that they are in dialogue. In his paintings Frost is concerned with notions of space and light; these  may not seem intimate paintings with their precise facture but they are sensitised to their setting – always in response to it.

This should make us wary, sensitive to other changes in his work – there seems to be more here than meets the eye. We look at these monochrome paintings with vertical stripes and think we get it immediately. But then at a second glance and third glance our eye slows down and we start to note small, precise and telling oddities: these stripes are made of two colours not one; they are not exactly on the centre, instead one of their edges may define the centre.

In painting terms these apparently minute variations and tweaks are like the beat of the butterfly wing that supposedly can cause a typhoon on the other side of the world. They are like stones dropped precisely into a pool – the ripples spreading out across the entire surface slowly and inexorably. Think of Supervolts, Yellow and Grey series No. 2 and Supervolts, Yellow and Grey series No. 3. The paintings are almost identical: each has three panels. The main differences are that the two bars or stripes in No. 3 are much more closely toned to the orange ground and the grey grounds lighter. But they are such different paintings: No 2 is much more assertive, the bars marching out into the room towards us, whereas in No. 3 the dove grey and the understated bars seem to pull back – as if into some metaphoric corner!  Furthermore,  as we look closer and longer we realise that the monochrome panels either side of thesupervolts are each slightly different shades of grey or yelow, once again, more subtle, almost perverse deflections and adjustments. The stable world of classic modernism wobbles and shifts a little.

Supervolts, Yellow and Grey series No. 2 and No. 3 – the titles seem to give little or nothing away: we have to do it all with the eye. Or perhaps the titles do tell us something: that the bars and stripes are like flashes of electricity. They are alive, dynamic, energised.

And as we look – and looking can be both an active and a passive activity, we first stare analytically, probing, and then we sit back and let the impressions flood in – we notice how the colour of the panels reflects into their shadows, how the wall becomes subtly coloured by these reflections – especially in the gaps between them. We see the paintings as shapes, we focus in on the volts and then pan out to see the whole wall, the whole room.

These paintings are about attentiveness to the world – both in the making of them and the viewing of them.

When he was preparing for his 2008 show at the Tate St Ives he had a wall covered with small rough colour sketches: an orange strip – or volt as he calls them – against green, two yellows bordering a  light blue, dark blue against a strong red, bent into a corner. These were generative: not as shapes or as compositions but as something like musical keys.

These paintings look like regular modern art: but they are not. There are very different tweaks and subtleties.

On the one hand we can say that these paintings treat modernism as an unfinished project - that they follow on quite naturally from Mondrian, De Stijl, Ellsworth Kelly et al., that they build on their analytic researches into colour and shape - or we could, on the other hand, say they are subtly perverse. That everything in these paintings that looks like regular modernism, everything that looks like four square geometry, turns out to not be quite so.

It is significant that Frost works in Cornwall and that he is a third generation St. Ives artists. What most defines his work is not the geometry but a concern with light and space. The pleasure in his work is not radically dissimilar to that of looking at the gentle gradations of colour across the early morning sky as the sun slowly begins to rise and dark blue, in infinitesimal shifts turns to light blue, to apricot to pink, to flaming red, to…. However one describes the morning sky, it is never quite the same. When our eyes scan up and down a painting such as Supervolts, Red series No. 1 it does more than note the three different blues and the red, but also notes the stripe and notes it is actually two stripes and in fact is in eight varied colours and is not quite central and then we note the way the shadows between the panels and on either side of each panel throw different coloured shadows and that between them the colours mix and modulate and gradate.  

The painting, as we watch it, seems to slowly spread out across the wall like a large puddle of sky. This is of course, the opposite of what the corner paintings do: they seem rather to pull the wall in towards themselves.

But to return to the corner paintings again we have not mentioned Red and Orange Volts No. 1, the companion piece to Red and Orange Volts No. 2. Where No. 2 pulls itself into the corner of the room, No 1 wraps or hugs itself round the protruding corner. (Notice how anthropomorphic this language we use to describe paintings is: wraps, hugs, pulls, withdraws.) But in No 1 the volts are pushed, pointed out into the room as if on the tip of an arrowhead. We experience the two paintings very differently.

The titles are revealing here too: the paintings are named after the volts alone: the 95% of the canvas given over to the unmentioned ground colour is necessary but backing only – like the orchestra to the piano in a concerto. It is the little incident –the volt of energy – that brings the painting to life.

The obvious comparison to make with a painter of vertical stripes such as Frost is Barnett Newman. Newman’s paintings are often large, consciously sublime, have portentous titles. Frost is concerned more with the phenomenological – with how we experience the world as an environment. It is revealing that he is much more interested in the work of Dan Flavin and the way Flavin’s coloured light tubes animate and complicate our experience of a room.

Unlike Newman Frost makes domestic size paintings. Even a large five panel work like Supervolts No. 5 requests slow time and an intimate looking. It’s paradoxical, of course, the “supervolt” this blast of released energy becomes on closer examination ten carefully adjudged lines of different colour against five pairs of very closely matched colour. Yes, the monochrome panel is never quite! Simplicity breaks down into complexity, the striking holistic composition breaks down into subtle variations and gradations. The energising volt stops shouting and becomes a subtle hum.

This is a very human art, gauged to the size of the human body and our interiors, animated by the way we move and experience that room. And they are painted intuitively, by eye. There are no colour charts in his studio to calculate chromatic difference or contrast. The paint is built up in layers both to get that perfect surface and to discover the exact meeting of different colours. A meeting that is completed by our arrival, entrance and perusal.

© Tony Godfrey 2010  

Tony Godfrey is the author of 'Painting Today' published by Phaidon.

1 First published as La poétique de l’espace, 1958. Translated into English by Maria Jolas and published as The Poetics of Space, Orion Press, 1964. Reprinted by Beacon Press with new foreword in 1994. All references are to this later edition of the English translation. P. 136

2 Op cit. p. 137.

3 See my discussion in the catalogue for Luke Frost: Paintings in Five Dimensions at Tate St. Ives, 2009, p. 9

4 Reproduced in Tate catalogue p. 20-21