On my trip to London on what must be the hottest day of the year so far, even though it’s now about 7 o’clock in the evening it’s still really warm and here I am wearing a suit, carrying luggage and chasing across the capital to visit Westminster Library, to see collages by John Bunker in the show Six Fugues, curated by Sam Cornish.
The moment I set eyes on them I know the effort was more than worth it. I have seen one of these in reproduction and liked it, but seeing them here for real is so much better. Why is it that not being able to hold them in my hand and perceiving the depth of the supports and the proper sizes makes a difference? Also, that they have weight, they are on MDF rather than paper, (no glass – excellent), adds to the sense of their physical presence. That, as well as the stuff they’re made from, “torn posters, shattered CDs, abandoned chicken-shop boxes,” combined with the painterliness of the gestural flourishes, even in collage there are plenty of those, all adds to their materiality. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think of them as paintings, the construction method of which is collage, rather than collages made with painted elements.
In the exhibition notes Sam Cornish reminds me that collage is a century old, and the many library books open at appropriate pages assembled on a table and in a display case connect Bunkers work clearly to this tradition, a reproduction of Kurt Schwitters’ The Hitler Gang from 1944, having immediate resonance, for me, with Bunker’s Falling Fugue with it’s strong triangular figure and concentric circle motif. As in other works here, the figures(torn and cut shapes and gestural painterly marks), seem to occupy a fairly narrow cubist space, blues often being interpreted (by me at any rate) as sky, which sometimes opens up into a much deeper space than I was first perceiving, especially in Shady Hill Fugue where the blue plane on the right hand edge becomes as sky seen beneath, but also beyond, an archway suggested by an arc in sandstone ochre, possibly the MDF support. A triangle of a similar colour inserts itself at the bottom right hand corner which is different enough tonally to bring it forward of the darker and more saturated central ochre colour, allowing the other shapes to dance within the space created. I say dance because they seem ungrounded, there’s no sense of an earth or floor other than the bottom edge of the support.
In Falling Fugue the obstructed blue circle along the left edge doesn’t quite become open space, unless I focus on the bottom half of the work and then the blue area does seem to recede further than when I have the whole image in view. My eye seems to be taken downwards, I guess it must be because of the strong direction lines, pointing towards the lower edge. I do indeed get a sensation of things falling. Also, I feel that I may be looking slightly upwards, as if I am nearer to the bottom of the frame, whereas in Night Fugue it’s the other way around, enhanced in the photo by the downward angle of the shot, but still taking place when looking directly at the picture. Here the light blues and greys also sometimes become infinite space against which the flatter coloured areas jut forward or within which ink splatters become forms. Then the arrangement shifts so that the large flat area of red becomes a plane in front of which ochre, green, orange blue and grey cut outs jostle or float. The pink triangle at the bottom edge positions itself in front of the ochre but behind the grey/blue pentagon, in front of which a pale yellow triangle hovers, itself obstructed by a dark blue shape that is echoed higher up.
And then, of course, they are simply torn papers (etc) randomly assembled on a flat surface. I get to wondering about how much randomness there is in Bunker’s process, I imagine him scattering this week’s finds across the floor and then frenetically rearranging them. What do I know? His method may be quite the opposite of that.
Looking in other library book reproductions, I see similarities also in Cubist works from 1913 or 14, especially perhaps Juan Gris still-lives, with extensive use of collage and creating similar pictorial spaces as these I see in this show. What seems different though is the continued link in the still-lives to representational content. However much a Picasso, Braque or Gris still life is ‘abstracted from’ reality it still maintains that connection, I can recognise a guitar here, a rum bottle or a fragment of newspaper there. In Bunker’s work such elements are almost completely absent, and where for example, a fragment of newsprint or a star motif might be recognised they seem accidental.
The overriding similarities however, might be in the method of composition, according to rules, that are indeed abstract, in the same way perhaps that the strict laws of counterpoint and fugue in music are abstract.
Speaking of musicality in regard to Cubism, most of the following words by Paul Erich Küppers, director of the Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hanover, writing in 1920, could apply to Bunkers collages:
“…from pale harmonies of colour lines ascend, prisms shoot up, advance towards us or jump backwards, cutting steps out of the infinite space…They multiply, cluster into chords animated by the rhythm, executing their dance against the backdrop of that absolute music which is space. One experiences this transcendental dynamism no differently from the counterpoint of Bach’s fugues, so far removed from reality”∗.
And I say “most of the following words” only because “pale harmonies of colour” understates the power of the colours in Bunkers fugues, and also I don’t really find “prisms”, his shapes are flatter that that, as indeed they often were also in the collage still-lives of Gris.
If that modernist innovation collage is 100 years old, so also is the tradition of speaking of visual abstract works in terms of the musical structure of the fugue. Whilst allusions to fugue are only occasionally found in nineteenth century writings about art, they abound in the early twentieth century, the dawn of abstraction. Kandinsky entitled a 1912 painting Fugue (Controlled Improvisation), and by the 1920s lots of artists were doing it, Paul Klee and Josef Albers, amongst them.
In a fugue, one instrument or voice follows another echoing note for note the initial tune, as in a ’round’, the voice that enters last reiterates the opening melody (the fugue subject) whilst the preceding voice carries on with its own independent tune (the counter subject), with three or more parts the same process is repeated several times, amazingly the voices fitting together and making sense in ‘counterpoint’. There are usually three sections: an exposition, a development and a recapitulation. Melodies might be repeated backwards or upside down or played again with doubled or halved note values, and counterpoint intervals may be varied.
Such a structure can easily be translated to the visual modality, a figure being inverted, rotated, mirrored, drawn back to front, etc and it all exists simultaneously in the same space. Hence its attraction perhaps for visual artists, and specifically for abstract artists because the structure is entirely formal, no rushing water, no bird song, no bell ringing, no Wagnerian images.
So, for example, in John Islip Fugue, we get arcs and circles each echoing another, in similar and contrasting hues, impossible now to tell which one was placed first, and rectangles that may have been rotated and layered one over another. What I am not sure about is just how systematic Bunker’s method is, the extent to which the fugue is a strict compositional device or whether it’s a fairly loose metaphor. I suspect it is the latter.
Another attraction of the fugue for abstract artists is that it offers a structural method that offers an alternative to more arbitrary approaches and it appeals more to the intellect than it does to the emotions (though we shouldn’t overlook the emotional impact) . The Constructivist tradition comes to mind for me now, with its own take on collage, structure and fugue-like systems of rotation, repetition, inversion, etc. but I will leave those reflections for another day. Enough now to say that Bunker’s six fugues are a delight!
Six Fugues: New Collages by John Bunker was showing at Westminster Library between 1 July and 19 July 2014.
∗Paul Erich Küppers quote taken from The Music of Painting by Peter Vergo
Taking a rest from my over-busy schedule, I arrive at the Lion and Lamb somewhat hot and bothered. I order a drink at the bar, get mistaken for a member of a darts team playing this evening, and enjoy a good mix of sounds old and new, as I make my way to the gallery in the back room, where the exhibition Rest, curated by Wendy McLean is on show. My other passion being Ballroom, Latin and Sequence dancing I note that the rhythm they’re playing now is a Rumba. The first beat is not danced it is “rested”, the hip settling over the standing leg before the step is taken with the opposite foot. It’s not really a rest at all, it’s the means to getting good hip action. So whilst little is actually happening in terms of a step, there’s a lot going on in terms of movement.
There’s a lot going on behind or within the minimal (not necessarily Minimalist) ‘events’ being shown here, and some of it I find disconcerting enough to disturb any rest I thought I might get. I am recalling that Robin Greenwood once brought my attention to how unlikely it must be that Matisse actually meant it when he said that he wanted his paintings to be “similar to a comfortable armchair”, Greenwood saying “If you are comfortable with Matisse, I’d worry”.
I’m feeling mildly uncomfortable figuring out what’s going on in with Ben Cain‘s three dimensional piece entitled Private Dancer, in which two MDF panels, trying their best to look like wood, lean against MDF covered blocks on which are placed an MDF (?) baton.
Each panel is host to a fragment of text, one written on the front (well, I interpret it as a ‘front’ anyway), that reads “I’m your private dancer” no doubt a quote from the Mark Knopfler song, of the same title, made famous by Tina Turner, and the other on the back that says “the only thing your eyes haven’t told me is…” the rest of the text is obscured by the block but I finish the cheap chat up line in my head … “your name”. I’m thinking about the crassness of the MDF as MDF matching the statement “I am your private dancer” and the insincerity of the chat up line somehow reflected in the quality of MDF pretending to be wood.
I become aware that the surfaces are worked and I wonder about the similarities and differences between the labour of, for example, a carpenter and an artist, the materials here looking like they should be functional, yet serving no function except perhaps as makeshift signs themselves fragments, abstracted from a context that might provide meaning.
It’s only a few weeks since Cain’s exhibition Down Time at The Tetley, in which he explored themes of work and so called non-productive activity, and I find that here, viewing Private Dancer, it is to these themes that I address my thoughts.
Would it be correct to categorise this and other works here as “conceptual”? I certainly find that the experience of seeing them leads to increased conceptual activity or internal dialogue, partly perhaps because there is little happening visually, yet in a very different way to say a painting by Agnes Martin, where there is little to see, yet that experience seems somehow entirely ‘visual’.
Freyja Wright’s painting, one work comprising two panels, entitled Interior Sequence, show incidental scenes, by which I mean that there is little incidence: two meticulously executed domestic interiors with a figure (she looks a lot like Joni Mitchell). Although the forms are precisely rendered, it’s difficult to read what is taking place, I think because of the lack of action. Wright describes the events depicted in her paintings as “low key moments”, like when someone turns their head, reflected perhaps in a mirror or a pane of glass. For me, these images have the quality of snapshots taken accidentally. Possibly the figure turns from one panel to the next, or maybe the viewer has turned or a door has opened creating a counter reflection in the mirror, perhaps there are two different figures within the same interior. Whilst I have difficulty identifying specifically what has happened, one thing is certain, before ever seeing the title or noting that it is one piece of work, I am reading it sequentially. So now rather than snapshot photography it’s still frames of film that I could be recognising. Yet, presented in this way, as slowly painted images, abstracted from the context which might once have generated meanings, they now appear mysterious, opaque, lacking a coherent narrative, as if the very strangeness of the visual might be what is on offer for my consideration.
Three paintings by Nicholas John Jones, inhabit a conceptual space within the abstract tradition, though toying with figural associations, exploring themes to do with materiality, gesture, image making, and colour. The hues are soft, and the drawing hazy, especially in the charming little painting Le Scale Mobili (The Escalators), where I feel cued to recognise shapes or a vague scene of some kind, but that won’t actually come into focus. I wonder if the title might suggest a picture of something but a set of escalators is certainly not it, much too hard and synthetic, it might be more to do with the feeling of ascending. I could imagine being on an escalator and taking in only the sense of moving upwards as opposed to bringing the fleeting sights to recognition. This experience is decidedly visual. Less to do with the strangeness of what might be decipherable “out there”, more to do with the sense of seeing without labeling, not necessarily an inwardly focused experience, it is visual after all, more like seeing before the linguistic descriptions kick in. Here it’s the opposite of internal dialogue that is elicited. Even if only momentarily, I am in a state of rest, jaw slightly open, breathing slowed, alternating between foveal and peripheral vision.
There’s a different alternating in relation to the two paintings here by Brad Grievson, in that both employ double images one situated slightly overlapping the other, and in each painting my attention alternates between the two images, looking for the differences.
I am enthralled by them. Viewing the Jones paintings was more, if I dare use the term, emotional than the Grievson works, where my engagement has more of an intellectual quality, I might be tempted to make the distinction between ‘somatic’ for Jones and ‘cognitive’ for Grievson. My curiosity is aroused by his technique. Double Drawing (Camera Edge), and Double Drawing (Shadows) look like they may have been made with charcoal yet in each painting the ‘double’ is too exact a copy for them to be freehand drawings. I wonder which one, if any is the original, and I am asking myself whether one is a traced copy of the other or whether the two are ‘copies’ of a third image, as with printmaking. Turning to the gallery notes I discover that the images are transfers, though specifically how they are “transferred” is not stated, nor can I tell by studying the surface. Each transfer has a gloss sheen that stands out against the more matt white support. Little accidents seem to have happened along the way, a hair caught in the transfer here, or some damage to the surface there.
I have written before about my own status as an identical twin becoming part of my reflection whenever looking at double images, my own transferred content, that clearly must be quite outside the artist’s intention. I also speculate on what an “expanded field” for painting might look like and I conclude that it must include printmaking/not printmaking and drawing/not drawing. Perhaps these paintings occupy such a field. That one has the supplementary title (camera edge) gets me looking for an image and I wonder if I can see a face obscured by a camera in the moment of taking a photograph, perhaps not! Then I think that this could indeed be transferred from a photographic image. I recall that as teenagers my brother and I used to use detergent to transfer photographs from newspapers to cartridge paper. I believe the process used here is different, but the fragmentary abstract that resulted seems similar to what Grievson may be doing.
If there is a source image it is perhaps simultaneously preserved and destroyed in the process of transferring it to canvas. Certainly a new thing results from the doubling of whatever the source image may have been. Again, we have this process of “abstracting from” that in differing ways is present in the other works here.
Rest was at Lion and Lamb Gallery from 20 June to 12 July 2014.
Here’s a link to Traction Magazine’s interview with me.
What great questions.
Thank you Traction Magazine.
I Listen To Color featuring works by Michael Davidson, Robert Otto Epstein, Lauri Hopkins, Anna Kunz, Rob de Oude and Julie Torres at the Frank Juarez Gallery
Originally posted on Frank Juarez Gallery:
Frank Juarez Gallery is pleased to announce its newest exhibition titled, “I Listen to Color” featuring assemblages, paintings, drawings and installation by Michael Davidson (WI), Robert Otto Epstein (NJ), Lauri Hopkins (UK), Anna Kunz (IL/NY), Rob de Oude (NY) and Julie Torres (NY). Exhibition curated by Frank Juarez.
Join us for an artist reception on July 12 from 5 to 8pm with an artist talk at 6pm. The gallery is located at 1109 North 8th Street in Sheboygan. This exhibition runs from June 21-July 26, 2014.
When you look at a piece of art what intrigues you? Is it the use of materials? The interplay between line and movement? Use of color? “I Listen To Color” is an exhibition focusing primarily on the use of color and how it drives the work of these six artists. A TedTalk presentation titled, “I Listen To Color”, which Neil Harbisson presented in…
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