Ruth Barker

Is This The Avant Garde? / Forme Floue: Just what is it that makes todays art so different, so appealing?


If a widely held ideological position is never explicitly defined or articulated through language, there is a risk that it becomes an unspoken normative position from which all alternatives seem either ‘other’ or naïve misinterpretation. From this basis I see a priority in naming and defining an apparently undefined trend within contemporary fine art. Should this ‘style’ actually be considered an identifiable movement within contemporary art? If so, what might the current state of this movement be?

In order to open a dialogue of nomenclature through which items and objects may be discussed with convenience I have ascribed the term ‘forme floue’ to a particular branch of contemporary practice whose work proliferates in example, and which I will now attempt to define. Firstly, within the forme floue aesthetic, style has absolutely become matter and so to approach or define its concerns one must initially be able to describe the work through its outward visual signifiers.


Primarily, work of the forme floue presents with a combination of the worked and the apparently haphazard, lo-fi, or awkward. (Observance of) the colloquial appears as an optative premise throughout, juxtaposing the theory-heavy art reference with the shrug of contemporary culture. Broadly, artists’ concerns are voiced through the irreverent appropriation of the loosely made structure or similitude, and materially throwaway media.

Within forme floue sculpture, the requisitioned pallet of low-fi materials gestures toward the representational form of an object or figure rather than emulation in any great degree. There is a high degree of consideration as to the finish of work. Typically, a final veneer surface of Artex, paint, or resin is applied over the structural form to deliver a ‘crude’ ‘brash’ or ‘brutal’ aesthetic. This construction is on no way amateurish or ill-considered, but is a self-conscious and traditional way of manipulating materials to simultaneously comment upon both their own essential qualities and (often humorously) the qualities of the represented other. The materials used (cardboard, polystyrene, chicken-wire, timber, expanding foam, denim etc.) may echo the history of the readymade but are seldom used as readymades in an ‘untreated’ state – being variously sewn, covered, coloured, or coated. 

Equivalent priorities may be seen within the 2D work that has emerged alongside the sculptural: forme floue a peer-context indicated by something gestural, something accidental, and something contrived within the work. A splash of irony can be seen, a knowing wink and the sly edge of humour alongside the ubiquitous art-historical reference. Process is important with the finished object becoming the residue of a train of thought or private exploration. Materials are traditional and none-too-precious: masking tape and sugar-paper, tracing paper and Quink ink, HB pencil or watercolour on cartridge. Again, forme floue practice moves between the representational and the abstract according to individual preference while the core indicators of this deliberately casual, carefully obtuse style remain.



So far we have given a name to a language and said something of its alphabet. For us to be able to describe forme floue legitimately as a movement rather than a style, however, we need also to say something of what that alphabet is employed to discuss. What are the concerns of forme floue?

Over and above the concerns of a given individual artist, the formal and aesthetic structure of forme floue connotes an immediate position for the maker in relation to the viewer of the work. The artist presents the viewer with a symbol representing an essentially private discussion. The lay-viewer is required to posses prior knowledge to unlock the codes of art-historical reference which may overlay the work. Even if these cues are secondary, the ‘meaning’ of the piece still rests entirely with the artist: the viewer may approach and even second-guess, but forme floue is the antithesis of Open. The audience becomes the by-product of an infallible artistic process which they are neither privy too nor voyeurs of. The role of reference within Forme Floue is complex, but it again serves to actively reinforce the idea of legitimacy of practice. This work is valid fundamentally because it stems from a legitimate fine-art tradition, coming close to Kosuth’s assertion during the 1960’s of the existence of an ‘art condition’.

The constructed aesthetics of forme floue contribute to our understanding of the concerns. The use of a high level of finish to render an ‘ugly’ aesthetic hints toward a re-emergence of the notion of the Avant Garde. This hypothesis that the presence of a traditionally attractive aesthetic within the art object is inherently ideologically problematic has many times led to the conclusion that to therefore remove this aesthetic from one’s work sidesteps any such ideological difficulties. Within this context, to produce work that professes (perhaps rather disingenuously) to contain no ‘skill’ overtly signifies that the artist practices with scant regard to contemporary good taste, and that the work therefore surpasses any reductive claims from the current art market and the established gallery system. Forme floue consequently suggests that an authoritative ideological stance has been chosen over and above commercial appeasement or recognition. Thus the defining characteristic of forme floue may be its most critical engagement: the very aesthetic which has become so identifiable is seen as a condition a priori of its apparent concerns.


From the discussion above it can certainly be argued that forme floue is indeed a movement within contemporary fine-art as evidenced through it’s display of both an identifiable position and a specific language employed to convey that position. It is almost as a footnote that I must now ask what the current statement of this movement might be. This question, although secondary, is significant. Forme floue seems to take the shock of the Avant Garde as a defining characteristic and so it is important to ask whether this truly is the cutting edge of culture. The answer is a difficult one. Certainly the general public (if such a thing exists) finds forme floue difficult, challenging, and confrontational in its aesthetic position. The art-market, however, as well as both the public and the commercial gallery system, seems to have taken the movement to its heart. Forme floue graces the walls of art-fairs and exhibitions from London to Glasgow as well as artist-initiated galleries and more prestigious core-funded cultural centres throughout the country.

Infinitely mutable, the forme floue movement seems all things to all gallerists – its aesthetic comfortably sellable as well as rebellious and principled. Is this hypocrisy? Perhaps, but perhaps not, although it does indicate that this cutting-edge movement has become the mainstream. The public can still be suitably confused or even repulsed if they wish – and after all, if curators didn’t like the work, no-one would get to see it. Forme floue has perhaps legitimately emerged from an Avant Garde position and it has certainly retained some of its trappings, but its success now means that it has become the institution. Frustrating as this is for practicioners operating outside of this movement – it by no means represents the whole of contemporary practice - from the viewpoint of both the artists and the dealers involved, forme floue is certainly a win-win situation.