Form/Function at Piccadilly Place Manchester
When the awards are handed out for services to abstraction, Lisa Denyer and Matthew Macaulay should get big shiny ones for continuing to bring interesting contemporary abstract paintings to engaging city centre venues outside of London. At Form/Function they bring together work from ten artists in a difficult space, an unoccupied office block at Piccadilly Place, Manchester, that works many times more than perhaps it should do, and the sense of it working, against all the odds, increases as I pay attention to each piece. Perhaps it’s the fact that the artists were asked to respond to the space, and its subverted functionality, that makes the show so successful.
The rich greys in Karl Bielik‘s “Arrow” seem to echo the greys of the walls, without blending into them, and there is enough natural light to see the subtle rhythms in the image as spatial passages between roughly painted figures opens up. A luminous yellow/green area underneath a layer of grey shines through to the surface. Above it a white painted area has a hardness about it and the spaces within it start to resemble the kind of space you get in a rock or mountain formation. It’s just enough to evoke landscape without attempting to represent a landscape, in the same way that a poem or a song might evoke an experience without actually describing it. Then the shapes seem more to connote a stage, the kind that children might make from furniture draped with a white sheet. That a grey/brown shape towards the right hand edge could be read as having an edge like the edge of a sheet of paper adds to my “home made stage” fantasy. But studying the rest of the painting ultimately denies these associations and I become aware of my active participation as an interpreter, that what I “observe” turns out to be a projection. And this engagement of my own epistemological processes is, for me, one of the attractions of abstract art.
The two paintings by Terry Greene feature painted lines on canvas, with accompanying events. They are nearer to ‘geometrical’ than other paintings of his I have seen, whilst in continuation with other of his work, he employs a method of making multiple iterations, arriving at a final form as if by thinking aloud, previous versions, becoming a part, even if as shadows, of the completed whole.
Paintings by Brendan Lancaster appear almost to grow out of the wall, mortar and other markings in the environment could be tracks or drips of paint from one of Lancaster’s canvases. However, the pictorial space in the paintings contrasts with the flatness of the grey breeze blocks. In Snag, a portal almost gives view of a world beyond the canvas but also continually brings my eye back to the painting’s surface. Long brush strokes produce curving bands, recalling a morbius strip, tracing a route that creates a shallow cubist space at the right hand edge, but leads into something approaching illusionistic three dimensions just above the centre. My attempts to make sense of what might be “out there” are frustrated by the reappearance of the wall-like surface toward the left hand side.
There are wonderful little paintings on paper here by Rachael Macarthur, one posted to a concrete pillar functions as a marker, alerting me to the possibility that the pillar could itself be a painting of sorts, having circles inscribed into its surface along with an accidental smear of paint. I suspect that it is the minimalism (I mean it in an informal sense) of the art work that leads me to notice what’s around it, and to include it in my experience of looking at the art. However, it is also the art works difference to the environment that becomes heightened. The stark utility of the surroundings contrasts with the uncertain functionality of the paintings.
Sarah McNulty‘s paintings share with the others here an interest in minimal form as well as an experimental approach to image making. I get the feeling that her paintings invent themselves under the general tutelage of the artist. I wonder if the choice to place the painting ‘Foil’ on a concrete brick was influenced by the Plane Space exhibition at Worcester Cathedral in 2012, where one of her paintings was similarly situated. Having seen that show I cannot help but make the connection, and to note both similarities and huge differences in the type of space being inhabited.
Lisa Denyer‘s paintings, once much more geometrical, these days approach diaphanous veils of carefully mixed colours, bursting into arrays of amorphous shapes, evoking landscape, and more often sky or space-scape, like miniature milky ways, . And the process of seeing them has similarities to the act of looking into the night sky and constructing images from constellations and clouds.
By now, I am used to seeing paintings by Matthew Macaulay propped up against a wall (at Meditations) or on a shelf (at Treatment) so it should be no surprise to see them here placed directly on the floor where there situation has to be taken into account when looking at them. In fact there is something vaguely humorous about their placing, so that although I shouldn’t be surprised I am, and I smile. That I get taken aback slightly seems right to me. In other arrangements of paintings by Macaulay interesting relationships between small paintings are set up, such that a novel way of organising separate images, becomes the art work. Arranging the paintings becomes drawing. Here the relationship with the immediate context rather than with other paintings could be seen as part of the work.
By far the most difficult wall to deal with in this exhibition is the one with the shiny insulating material and Macaulay dares to place a tiny painting of his against it, as if to challenge us to notice it. Next to it is probably the largest painting in the show that just about competes with that wall, a marvelous oil on canvas by Joe Packer entitled LizardDays, a tree-like image with barely anything happening in the ‘leaves’ and lots of painterly events crammed into the ‘trunk’ space. Daubs of contrasting colours appear to float in mid air, sometimes serenely and at other times frantically, beneath a vast green canopy.
In front are three raised platforms, displaying over 20 small images on paper by Phoebe Mitchell. They form a delightful collection that functions as an artist’s book (I might have said ‘sketchbook’, except that they are much more refined than sketches), each individual piece worthy of prolonged viewing whilst also looking good as an arrangement.
Melanie Russell‘s attractive new paintings are characteristically high in colour, with a synthetic quality, abstracted from “real life” observation (apparently, these have a relationship to power lines) they have become explorations of the kinds of spaces that hard edge bands of colour distributed over flat expanses of colour create.
Lisa Denyer’s three dimensional painting on a piece of stone salvaged from a soon to be demolished building is perhaps the biggest surprise for me in this show. It is clearly painted from the outside, yet with little if any evidence of brush work, the colours look like they are pushed or stained into the surface. Enhancing the undulations of the existing form, I could imagine that the colours, rather than being applied, are drawn out from within. Its an old discarded stone, transformed, made precious, but also in another sense quite unchanged.
In a domestic environment this and other of the forms in the exhibition, might function as decoration, (in my view a more worthy function than is often allowed), but not here. These forms don’t really adorn the space and make it more beautiful, they are too small for that, and the space too imposing, but they do make it more interesting, and seem to highlight aspects of the environment that I would quite literally have overlooked. The exhibition also poses questions about the what, the how and the why of painting, in other words about how abstract painting functions as well as what its function might be.
Form/Function, curated by Lisa Denyer and Matthew Macaulay, continues at Piccadilly Place Manchester until Sunday 22 September
Exhibition open: Saturdays and Sundays 12 – 6pm, or by appointment. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org