I arrive very late in the day (both literally and metaphorically) for the amazing exhibition Crossing Lines, at &Model in Leeds, and being my first visit to this venue I am immediately impressed both by its central Leeds location, opposite the Art Gallery and Town Hall, and by the space itself, occupying all three floors of a 19th century building. Just looking through the window the work looks great and I am relieved that someone has waited for me so I can see the whole show.
I learn from the gallery notes that “The sixteen artists presented by Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hanz Hancock … all share reductive, formal, or non-objective approaches to image making”. It occurs to me that what we mean by labels like abstraction is as difficult to situate now as ever, and perhaps more so now because contemporary practitioners may well be doing something quite different than its early proponents. I usually hesitate to use the word “reductive”connoting, for me, a paring down to essentials, or a search for essence as well as a lessening, and I find myself unwilling to think of the concentration on process or form as in any way a lack. Seeing the work on show here, if ever I needed proof of the vitality of contemporary abstract/reductive/formal etc, approaches it is here in abundance.
I am even tempted to propose the word additive, wondering if, contrary to a “paring down” we get instead a “building up”, adding new objects/images to the world, objects and images that continue to be as challenging and interesting as the abstraction of 100 years ago.
Drawing on the constructivist tradition, Morrisey and Hancock pursue a systems approach, as do others here like David Riley and possibly Giulia Ricci and Andrew Harrison. Because I know that Morrisey’s paintings and videos (the video Four States, shown here is mesmerizing), are based on numerical systems, I attempt to work them out and fairly quickly reach the limit of my ability to do so without an external prompt. It’s one of the things that fascinates me about number in relation to images: attempting to “break the code”, is a specific mode of viewing, or state, that seems different to the one I engage in when I give up the attempt and simply look. And simply looking I appreciate the beauty of the image: I “get” the beauty of the abstract relations even without being able to translate them (back) into the numerical code. I think what’s going on here is akin to the pleasure I get from listening to Bach.
Looking at Tower, by Clive Hanz Hancock, I become unclear about what is image and what is object, I know it’s a relief, constructed from plastic tubing arranged in a vertical grid, yet it seems flat, I even begin to wonder whether the plastic tubing is a trompe l’oeil effect. What’s coming into question for me here is what I know, and how I know it: “how much of this construction is “out there” and how much of it is “in here” and realizing that it’s the interplay, that constitutes the art work. Here aesthetics and epistemology meet.
David Riley’s Code, is a series of digital images printed on sheets of paper, presented like brochures, and held together with plastic binding combs, the combs becoming part of the overall image. I read it as a painting, whilst simultaneously seeing printed digital material, and again I believe that the image is based on a numerical or alphabetical code that I struggle to decode. It’s the very act of looking that I think is being deconstructed in the process of viewing this piece.
There’s something architectural about Riley’s image, as there is in the works of Andrew Harrison (entitled Construction Project 3 and Construction Project 4) and Clive Hanz Hancock. In these pieces it’s the boundary or extension of abstraction, that comes to mind, as it does in many of the paintings here that almost approach figuration as in Mary Yacoob‘s Doodle Drawings, and the painting Low Down by Daniel Sturgis from his Boulders series, where changes of scale seem to create vast spaces and where abstract image becomes slightly humorous, perhaps referencing the cartoon, a kind of abstract pop art?
Vincent Hawkins’ paintings and works on paper are probably the most provisional of the works on show here and possibly Tom McGlynn’s Signal the most minimal, if such labels are not too misleading. Likening Hancock’s and Morrissey’s sculptural pieces, colour intervals on wood strips leaned against the wall, to John McCraken‘s minimalist work is I am sure also misleading but a connection I find difficult not to make. There are sculptural pieces here also by Mick Frangou, Phill Hopkins and Andy Wicks, all that seem to at least quote minimalism whilst also expanding it, Hopkins ans Wicks exploring the border between the two and three dimensional as well the border between art and everyday objects and Frangou continuing his personal process of repeating a T shape symbol.
Marion Piper paintings here from her Free Man series are marvelous. I have the impression that her process in these paintings involves a dialectical pairing of opposing forces that are held together by overlaying one upon the other, as if something suggestive of the organic (wavy lines or soft free-flowing motifs) is overlaid with ‘harder’ geometric designs, resulting in a synthesis which is both and neither the other two, “transcending them” sounds too metaphysical, and “combining them” sounds too prosaic, but in viewing the paintings I enter a state in which these opposing positions seem to be held in stasis, not just visually, but also psychologically.
I think something similar takes place in relation to Giulia Ricci’s beautifully executed drawings where a carefully ordered design begins to break down, or a pattern is systematically interrupted, the tracing of which, by eye and mind, seems to create a shift of state. This mildly “calming” experience is repeated for me in many different ways in this show, Frixos Papantoniou appearing to suspend geometric (mostly triangular) shapes in a contemplative space, David Leapman getting close to psychedelia, and Mark Sengsbusch presenting dualisms that are entirely matter of fact, (he describes them as “two-color painting(s) where there is no background or foreground. No layering. All of the paint is equa-distant to your eye”), yet the viewing of them is psychologically complex.
And perhaps that’s what I want to say most about this exhibition of contemporary reductive art: there is nothing “reduced” in the action of seeing these works, I experience more of an “addition”, a “fulness”, an “abundance”.
Crossing Lines was on show at &Model from 23 January to 22 February 2014. I just wish I’d got there sooner!
Borrowing its title from the terminology of manufacture and law enforcement, Zero Tolerance at Lion and Lamb Gallery, focuses on the extent to which three contemporary painters, Juan Bolivar, Nick Dawes and Katrina Blannin, employ systematic methodologies, or strict sets of rules, to construct their work. For me, it forms an urgent investigation into an aesthetic, highly relevant to contemporary life, that forms an alternative to the romantic/expressionistic tendency. I think systems aesthetics are being proposed here in other ways too.
In Juan Bolivar‘s painting, Anvil, we have a system of signs, that remind me of a set of nested Russian Dolls, the outer one being the perspex framing device that functions both literally, as a transparent cover for the painting, and also as a signal to read the work as participating in the tradition of constructive art. The painting housed by the perspex frame looks like a postcard of a Mondrian, taped to a flat surface. We are presented with a construction containing a representation of a representation of a nonrepresentational painting. I think it is more paradoxical than ironic: a sign that reads “this is not a sign”.
Nick Dawes’ paintings are sign systems in a more literal sense. He appropriates ordinary road signs as subverted content in the style of the Readymade. Crossings features three gloss black “Level Crossing” signs on a matt black triangular canvas, as much recalling the “Give Way” sign as it does also the shaped canvases of late Modernist abstract paintings by artists such as Kenneth Noland or Frank Stella. Formalist painting becomes content as much as it also becomes analogous with popular cultural design. I am tempted to say that here a formalist abstraction has become a representation of a road sign that resembles a formalist abstract painting. If Clement Greenberg proposed that Modernist painting, in privileging form over content, could be defined as “the imitation of imitation as process”, I wonder whether in Post-Modernist abstraction the process becomes rather “the imitation of the imitation of imitation”.
Both Bolivar’s and Dawe’s paintings, can be situated in relation to wider systems, whether high art or popular culture, just as they can to that other sense of the word “system” as in “systematic”, i.e. following a predetermined path, a procedure. And this is true also of Katrina Blannin‘s work in, I think, a different way. Clearly, Blannin is participating in that other tradition of abstraction that is connected more to Constructivism than to American Abstract Expressionism, the tradition that includes the British Constructionists and the Systems Group where the sense of “system” is a mathematical one. However there is also yet another sense of the word, that I want to explore, at least speculatively, for a moment, in relation to Blannin’s work and that’s the sense of “system” used in cybernetics, where a central concept is that of “feedback”, the process in which information about the past or present influences the same phenomenon in the present or future, forming a chain of cause-and-effect, a circuit or loop: output becomes input.
Viewing Three-piece Suite: Red/White (Double Hexad: Contracted, Root and Expanded + 123/321 Tonal Rotation with Shift), I have an experience close to ecstasy, and I deliberately choose the word for it’s inappropriateness when considering a piece that is mathematical, logical, rational. One of the things that I tend to do whenever looking at work of this kind is to count things. Before ever reading the title on the notes sheet I have counted the system or set of canvases that forms the triptych and then counted the triangular motifs that form the expanded system, noting how the white triangles are contained by a red line and the light grey ones by a black line leaving the dark grey ones unable to be highlighted, thus more readily becoming ‘ground’ or negative space against which the other triangles become ‘figure’. I have noted how the three tone/colours are arranged so that the same arrangement of lines (that also differs across each canvas because the widths of each canvas vary) is “coloured in” such that no colour/shape is repeated horizontally, in other words, there’s a tonal rotation with a shift. So, I’m doing all this counting and working out the logic of the piece and it might all seem so rational, cerebral, cognitive, yet I am using the word “ecstasy” that seems to belong more to our experiences of feeling and emotion.
But after a few moments of looking (and it does require a few moments, and real looking is also necessary, a mere glance will not do justice to the piece) I find that my emotional state has been affected, I have experienced a shift in state that approaches something of what I think we mean by a word like ecstasy. Where else does this happen? Doesn’t counting and emotion get conflated in our experience of anything that has rhythm? I am thinking of music and dance, where mathematical relationships become transformed into emotion. And there’s another context that I think is even closer to what’s happening to me in front of this painting and that’s the context of hypnosis where a trance might be induced through counting.
I could speculate that it’s the tessellating, the shifting of figure and ground, that leads to this shift of state-of-mind, (or emotional state), and this is where I come back to the concept of the “feedback loop”. Surely, it’s not really the object that tessellates at all. It’s a result of what the viewer does in relation to the object. At any one time, I am likely to see a different tessellation than the one you see. The object hasn’t changed, yet I am seeing something different to what you are seeing. It’s this system of object/viewer that Blannin’s paintings emphasise for me, and I wonder if what’s going on is that output becomes input becomes output in this continuous feedback loop and I experience this as fascinating, and even trance inducing.
In all these ways it seems to me that Zero Tolerance is an invitation to “think system”. Unfortunately, my brief review here is a bit late and the show has only a few more days to run. You can catch it at Lion and Lamb Gallery until 22 Feb.
..long enough to see some of what’s going on in this little painting. Mostly you are doing it yourself, it just takes a short while to get going.
Somehow, taking time to really look seems contrary to what we do when we look at an image online. It is a practice more easily accomplished when seeing the actual object in the flesh (Walter Benjamin not withstanding).
Ross Wolfe on Repetition
Originally posted on The Charnel-House:
Repetition takes place in time and space. But the same may be said of everything aesthetic, architectural or otherwise. Which of these has priority, then? Time or space? Empirically, the recognition of repeated instances is almost always a temporal affair. They take a little while to figure out, in other words. Some disagreement remains as to whether this procedure is more a function of memory or perception, however. In studies of repetition blindness, for example, it is unclear if the failure to recognize recurring items in a sequence owes primarily to one’s inability to notice similarities the second time something appears. Conflicting evidence indicates it could just as easily involve an inability to remember the qualities it displayed the first time around. Psychologists are still split over this question.
Repetition has been acknowledged as an important aspect of architecture and design for several centuries now, although it was seldom theorized until recently. Despite architecture’s usual preoccupation with problems of space, most repeating patterns or spatial arrangements require time to grasp. That is, unless they’re intuited all at once, in a single glance. One must first be allowed to perambulate the structure, eyes gliding along its surface.
There’s a wonderful exhibition at Laing Art Gallery, where eleven contemporary painters respond to paintings from the past in a visual dialogue. Some of the older paintings aren’t that old so it’s not always easy to tell which of the works are past and which are contemporary, after all paintings exist always in the present, and some of the ‘past’ painters in this show are still making new paintings today. Frank Auerbach’s Julia, painted as recently as 1987, hangs here alongside a delicious 2013 painting by Laura Lancaster, and there’s an untitled painting by Paul Huxley from 1974 alongside Sue Spark’s 2013 painting Drop Zone.
The oldest work is William Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil, chosen by Emma Talbot. I wonder whether its first viewers would have been as familiar with its story, based on the Keats poem, as say contemporary audiences might be with the storyline of a popular film. Perhaps the title would have been enough to cue recognition of Isobella clutching the basil pot containing, beneath the soil, the head of her beloved. For me, I had to to read the notes in order to understand that beneath all the ornament and sumptuous decorative surfaces, just as beneath the soil in the pot, lies a narrative of violence and despair, almost as if the decor in the painting, and indeed the painting itself, were a kind of sublimation.
Talbot responds with her Carpet Painting (Isobella and the the Pot of Basil), contemporising the decorative and narrative elements, and adding some of Holman Hunt’s story, who had made the painting shortly after his wife died, and based the figure on her. Talbot inserts or overlays cartoon-like captions or graphics, onto a patterned carpet design, of colour similar to the Holman Hunt. Here the violent content is above rather than beneath the surface, up front rather than behind, almost projecting into the real space of the viewer.
The other 19th century painting here is Newcastle upon Tyne from the East, 1898, by Neils Møller Lund, a portrait of the city from a specific vantage point, generalised by the impressionistic rendering, yet by no means strictly representing light as it falls on the retina. This painting, less modern than an impressionist painting proper, less critical, seems to me to rather glory in the magnificence of the city not withstanding its squalor, in something approaching an evocation of empire.
Perhaps that’s what Helen Smith’s 2013 painting of the same title attempts to erase. I could imagine that she started out with Møller Lund’s picture and painted over it until all that remains is the record of its erasure, a violent act, though what’s left is this rather beautiful veil, not unlike a colour field painting.
Helen Baker‘s wonderful Blocks on Green with Shelf, has lots of resonance with William Brooker’s painting of objects on a table exhibited alongside it, but the balance of abstraction to representation possibly goes in opposite directions. Brooker’s still life could also be seen as an abstract painting, whereas Baker’s abstract painting with a literal shelf, might also be seen as a representation of objects on a table or even a landscape, a village green perhaps or a bowling green, rather than, abstractly, the colour green.
James Ryan also plays with the literal versus the non-literal in Grid 1, painted in acrylic on checked fabric that looks at first like a trompe l‘oeil effect but turns out to be real patterned fabric. Floating in a space in front of it we see a transparent geometrical figure, or cluster of figures, that alternates between being flat and being three dimensional, the whole painting also seeming to undulate gently. John Piper’s Town from Water Meadows, shown alongside it, also has some of the same shifting of space and oscillation between solidity and transparency of forms.
It occurs to me that the dialogue taking place here between these artists, past and present, includes an element of positioning in relation to Modernism, itself a past for the contemporary painters shown here but present or future for the others. So we have the pre-modernism of Edmund Blair Leighton, pretending, as Eleanor Moreton points out in the Gallery notes, that his medium is not paint, and Holman Hunt’s proto-modernism (in Clement Greenberg‘s view at least), and the early modernism of Winifred Nicholson, whose painting Evening at Boothby, is chosen by Mali Morris and exhibited next to her Due North, 2013. If Modernism in painting engendered an essentialist approach, asking “what is painting?” or even “what could painting be?” and Post Modernism answered “anything goes”, Helen Baker seems interested in a slightly different question when, in the exhibition publication, she asks “what is this fine art craft about?” When I look at a painting by Mali Morris, as with others here, it’s not so much what painting is, nor even what it is about that comes to mind for me, it’s more what painting does or can do.
In her recent paintings, and Due North is a good example, the structuring grid, which in previous paintings may have been implicit, appears to have become explicit, which in turn seems to provide an opportunity to introduce rectangular ‘figures’ that interact with the now familiar circular forms, except they’re only figures when they become such, other times they are gaps, portals, windows, negative spaces in the grid. They become positive forms that push forward of the grid when figure and ground shift in relation to each other. But they don’t press as far forward as the discs that I sense would hover in real space were it not for the canvas edge that just about keeps them in place. It’s this ability of paint to suspend colour only long enough to let it go, as if it had a life of its own, that I think Morris exploits. And the colour creates space that is literally two dimensional but optically not just three, but four dimensional, the shifting of the space being experienced over time and alerting me again to my own subjectivity, my active participation in constructing the world I see. That the light “emanates from the painting and expands the space” is something that also happens in the Winifred Nicholson painting and Morris specifically refers to it in the gallery publication. I could imagine that if she had learned it from someone she could have learned it here, from Nicholson.
Painting Past Present: A Painters Craft, is on show at Laing Art Gallery until 09 February 2014 and includes paintings by Frank Auerbach, Laura Lancaster, William Brooker, Helen Baker, Derek Hirst, Narbi Price, William Holman Hunt, Emma Talbot, Paul Huxley, Sue Spark, Louis James, Paul Housley, Edmund Blair Leighton, Eleanor Moreton, Neils Moller Lund, Helen Smith, Winifred Nicholson, Mali Morris, Victore Pasmore, Ali Sharma, John Piper and James Ryan.