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Katy Moran, ‘Ledger’, 2008, acrylic on canvas

There are 23 paintings in Katy Moran’s first solo exhibition at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, all of which have been created since 2006, shortly after the artist graduated with an MA in painting from the Royal College of Art, London. It is an exhibition full of surprises, from the spare, striking hang by curator Gavin Delahunty, to the intimate, strangely affecting abstract canvases themselves, most measuring no more than 38 × 46 cm. These small works are densely worked, encompassing thick swipes of subtle earth-toned paint countered by flashes and spots of garish avocado-green, bright red, and deep blue. A number display expressionistic surfaces; others comprise barely-covered stretches of canvas layered with matt patches of mute gray and thin linear forms, closer to drawings or sketches than fully formed abstract paintings.

These vibrant works make clear just what is at stake in Moran’s engagement with her chosen medium. She is concerned with the edges of experience, the curiousness of paintings as objects, and of how they look when caught in the periphery of one’s line of sight. Rather than functioning as arresting objects in their own right, they set out to distract, to catch the viewer offguard, perhaps with a jarring splash of canary yellow or hot pink, or a glimpse of something hidden under the surface, almost recognisable, a house perhaps, or maybe a bird.

Katy Moran, 'Lazy Wears Blue', 2007, acrylic on canvas
Katy Moran, ‘Lazy Wears Blue’, 2007, acrylic on canvas

At other times, we might be drawn to the physical edges of the painting, to the drips of paint, or a small piece of packing paper still attached to the staple fixing the canvas to the stretcher, as is the case with the final work in Moran’s most recent triptych from 2008, ‘Short legs…I’m coming’. Moran makes the paintings by kneeling over them on the floor, occasionally hanging them upside-down so that in the final installation their entire compositional logic comes undone. This process is clear in the thick burrs of paint overhanging the side of ‘Tall and Proud’, 2006.

As part of the paintings’ playfulness with interpretation and attraction, they can appear from a distance to be luscious, beautiful objects. On close examination however, they reveal mistakes scratched into their surfaces. ‘When I’m making a painting, I get quite excited by how close to awful I can push it’, the artist declares. Moran comes close to articulating what in another context TJ Clark has called the ‘vulgar’ condition of abstract expressionist painting, as works rooted in the material world and not solely concerned with what Greenberg described as abstract paintings’ appeal to ‘eyesight alone’.

‘Ledger’, 2008, perhaps best articulates her practice. There is something provisional about this work, as though only half-finished, a page torn from a notebook. An abstract wash punctuated by thin, patchy stripes of gestural excess gives way to a series of small pen-like scratchy marks—pushing the medium to its limits. ‘Ledger’ is emblematic of a body of work significant as much for the questions it raises about the status of painting as for its own exploration of that medium to create provocative ends.

Jo Applin is a lecturer in art history at the University of York