Somewhat Abstract at Nottingham Contemporary
The exhibition Somewhat Abstract, drawn from The Arts Council’s national collection, on view at Nottingham Contemporary until 29 June 2014, is abstract to varying degrees, and in a variety of ways. After all, both the following statements hold true, “all art is abstract” and “there is no such thing as abstract art”. Hence, the show’s curator, Alex Farquharson, can say of abstract art that it “is many things, if it can be said to exist at all”.
In the gallery notes we get an excellent discussion of the multiple relationships to the abstract characterised in the show (see fig 1), from work that is downright figurative but that either “verges on the abstract” or that “could not have been made without the knowledge of it” to the work of proponents of ‘pure’ abstraction like Kenneth Martin. There’s the suggestion that even the exemplars of abstraction like Anthony Caro, Bridget Riley and John Hoyland, are more connected to the ‘real world’ than we might once have allowed. I find this argument to be much more convincing in relation to Hepworth, Clough and Paolozzi than I do for Caro, Riley and Hoyland. The reference to landscape made for Hoyland’s magnificent Red Over Yellow, 18.9.73, seems somewhat spurious. The point being made is that the most abstract art may be more figurative than we think and that the old distinction between abstraction and figuration is no longer relevant. Certainly there’s a strong case for seeing ‘nature’ in the most abstract of works, if more in the sense of “the pattern that connects” to quote Gregory Bateson ; or in Bridget Riley’s own words: “I draw from nature, I work with nature, although in completely new terms. For me nature is not landscape, but the dynamism of visual forces – an event rather than an appearance”. So whilst there is a deep connection with nature, the work doesn’t become ‘figurative’, as Riley goes on to say: “These forces can only be tackled by treating colour and form as ultimate identities, freeing them from all descriptive or functional roles.”
There are also works that specifically reference abstraction, a relatively new phenomenon in my book, because whilst there have always been “paintings of paintings” and references to art of the past, the paradoxical referencing of a class seems to me to be a postmodern invention. Its power comes from a deliberate confusion of logical types. Abstract or non-representational art’s claim to the status of autonomous object means that it now becomes grist for the mill of representation, leading to the paradoxical position of art that is abstract by being non-abstract, and vice versa. Keith Coventry‘s CrackCity series here is a brilliant example of this. What, at first sight, look like appropriations of Kazimir Malevich‘s white on white paintings, turn out to be representations of the footprints of South London tower blocks, a critical comment on the failure of modernism at the social level, the design of tower blocks clearly sharing in the heritage of Malevich and Russian Constructivism, ending not in utopia but in dysfunction and ugliness.
Perhaps this failure was reflected in the choice by artists such as Kenneth Martin, of a specifically non-utopian abstract art. (Martin preferred the word ‘construction’ which he stated was “the opposite of abstraction”.)
The paintings of Tomma Abts, one of the new generation of abstract artists, recall the constructivist tradition. The contemporary resurgence of abstraction in painting and sculpture is acknowledged in the gallery notes, finding a distinct contrast between the abstract art of the middle half of the twentieth century and that of today, the mid century version being “associated with boldness of scale, conception and execution” (check out the John Hoyland) as opposed to the vulnerability of the more recent return. In Abts’ painting Heit, the scale is modest and the form looks carefully arrived at through multiple iterations. I see it from a distance and could have continued walking past without really seeing it because it absolutely doesn’t “grab my attention”. It is unassuming, reticent even, and it is only as I deliberately get closer to look at it that it discloses itself. Even then, one of its fascinating qualities is the white line that bisects the painting vertically about a third of the way in from the right. It reads like another of the lines on the painting’s surface, in fact hovering above the other lines in a space that projects outward, whilst being clearly the result of placing two stretchers almost together. The presence of the line (I am tempted to see it as a reference to a Barnett Newman ‘zip’) is in fact an absence, like the Lacanian “absent centre” of the subject.
The untitled painting here by Alexis Harding, is also modest in scale, without quite the intimacy of Abts, looks like it is in the process of decomposing, . The impression I have is that the materials have reacted with each other in an unstable way, the abstract grid becoming wonky, out of control in the centre, now resembling a figurative, almost cartoon-like, rendering of a disintegrating net. It’s a wonderful painting and seems to reverse the more familiar sequence of events in which a realistic image becomes increasingly “abstracted”. Here the abstract image becomes figuration.
There’s a strange abstract/figurative relationship in Daniel Sinsel‘s beautifully executed Untitled, where the more realistic the image the more abstract it appears. Perhaps this is the result of the close harmony of form and content, a flattened figure-of-eight arrangement of a piece of cloth, resembling so much the formal, literal, ontology of a painting: two-dimensional, motionless, fabric.
My friend suggests that, with so many outstanding works here, it’s difficult to find one that “stands out”. However, for me, the star of the show is Bridget Riley’s 1962 black and white painting, Movement in Squares. I keep coming back to it for another look, and even back at home much later, I can’t get it out of my head (a non-optical kind of after-image). In viewing this painting I start to become aware of my own movement in the gallery space, attempting to find a position from which to really see this thing and to experience it. The nearest analogy I can find is that of music when it is ‘heard’ not just aurally but when the vibrations are also felt, physically, in the body. Here, seeing is somehow also felt in the body. I have a physical sensation approaching motion sickness (except it’s pleasurable), and observing the reactions of others around me, I sense I am not alone in this. Now, this painting does seem to ‘grab attention’ but it also has amazing subtlety that I fear could be lost in first impressions alone. It’s too easy to let the attention first be ‘grabbed’ and then to allow it to be distracted with something else. This painting deserves prolonged attention. And it’s only then that its nuances are realised. It’s not just that studying the execution of it I note that the nails fixing the board to the support are just visible, protruding slightly above the surface, or that the earlier drawing marks shine around the blocks of black paint, those are mere details, it’s the way the structure takes on different emphases, and even that the squares of black and white start to look like multiple kinds of grey. In fact, now I feel sure that I am seeing colours, yellows greens and then reds and violets, in the pulsating ‘mid’ section (more or less along the golden mean), where the squares become narrow rectangles. I have the strong sense that colours are generated, issuing from the painting into the space in front of it. Admittedly they are faint, like a diffused light, only just perceptible. I absolutely cannot get this from looking at the reproduction, only from standing at a certain point in front of the painting itself. Then, I doubt myself; this subjective experience must indeed be so subjective that it is actually entirely imaginary. So I check it out with someone else, who agrees that they are also seeing colours.
The experience of looking becomes the experience of doubting my senses and then of starting to become conscious of my own process of ‘map making’, at the point just before my own linguistic abstractions start to come into play, which they do almost immediately and I get into a conversation with myself about what’s going on. At this second stage, I am a further step removed from direct experience, commenting upon it and adding meanings. These are my own processes of abstracting: the abstractions of thought.
This exhibition brings to awareness the many uses of the word, ‘abstract’, in art, in thought and in life. It’s as visually interesting as its scope is ambitious, and I know I will be revisiting it many times.
Artists include Tomma Abts, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, David Batchelor, Karla Black, Peter Blake, Zarina Bhimji, Anthony Caro, Helen Chadwick, Prunella Clough, Richard Deacon, Jeremy Deller, Barry Flanagan, Elizabeth Frink, Gilbert and George, Barbara Hepworth, Yoko Ono, Eduardo Paolozzi, Bridget Riley, Walter Sickert, Wolfgang Tillmans, Mark Wallinger, Cathy Wilkes and Rachel Whiteread.
 See Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature, A Necessary Unity (1979)
 From The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley, Collected Writings 1965 – 2009, edited by Robert Kudielka, p 110
 See Kenneth Martin: Construction from Within, in The Tradition of Constructivism, edited by Stephen Bann 1974, reprinted 1990