patternsthatconnect

abstract art and systems thinking

Posts Tagged ‘aesthetics

The Illusion of Flatness

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At the height of Modernism in painting, it was all about “flatness and the delineation of flatness”. (We might even say that the meta-narrative of Modernism was the repudiation of narrative and the illusionistic space that accompanied it, just as the repudiation of the meta-narrative was the meta-narrative of Post-Modernism.)

I became interested in this image because seen from one particular vantage point it looks flat…

although it is an illusion, as seeing it from any other point demonstrates.

Is it the opposite of the illusionistic space of one point linear perspective in that instead of the illusion of depth, you get the illusion of flatness?

Pattern and Meaning

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My twin brother Robert is a Baptist minister and he writes a church blog on WordPress. Recently he reviewed the Jonathan Sacks book The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning. No prizes for guessing it is about Science and Religion.

In it Sacks argues that science and religion need each other. Like the left and right sides of the brain, science and religion provide different modes of engagement with the world. They are separate but complementary. ‘Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.’

I haven’t read the book myself, and I don’t know if I agree with the point being made. What interested me was the idea of ‘searching for meaning’. I have the impression that searching for meaning, or attempting to make sense of the world, is a what makes looking at abstract paintings pleasurable, and I think this was one of the points that Jane Raymond made at her talk From Seeing to Feeling: What does the Human Brain Do When it Looks at Paintings? that I attended at Mostyn Gallery in May. Is it a ‘lower level’ of searching for meaning I have in mind perhaps, along the lines of Pattern detection?

I think I am correct to distinguish between levels of search, similar to the levels of abstraction implied in the distinction between two meanings of the verb ‘to feel’ 1) physical feel, touch and 2) emotional feeling (possibly Virginia Satir would identify that as ‘a feeling about a feeling’) or like John Grinder‘s distinction between f1 and f2 filters, where f1 filters are pre-linguistic, the filtering that takes place at the point of perception and f2 filters are linguistic, taking place after the percept has been apprehended.

Turps Banana Issue 11

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I love it when that Turps Banana hits my door mat. I know that I am in for a treat of looking at good reproductions of interesting paintings, reading thought-provoking articles and interviews and then pondering on it all for ages afterwards. Sorry, if I am sounding like an advert. I just can’t help being a big fan.

turps banana 11

It says it on the cover, so I won’t tell you that it is Turps Banana, issue 11.

In issue 11 there are two interviews, or conversations, that I am particularly enjoying, with two very different abstract painters: Katharina Grosse and Jeffrey Steele, the interviewers being Peter Dickinson and Katrina Blannin respectively. Dickinson opens with a statement about abstraction, which leads to a discussion about different definitions, Grosse saying ” I am not an abstract painter any more” where abstraction is understood to be “abstracting from or generating a residue of something seen”. Dickinson proposes a contemporary definition, where it is “the process of thinking and action” the resultant product being a record of that process. Clearly, the paintings/installations of Katarina Grosse come into this category, and so do the paintings of Jeffrey Steele, though the products of these two artists seem poles apart. There is something at least apparently subjective and random in the Grosse paintings in contrast to the mathematical and systems orientation of the Steele paintings, and Blannin does a great job of teasing out the origins, rationale and methods of his approach.

Neither interview is “easy” and both provoke as many questions as they answer (in a twitter exchange with painter Dean Melbourne on the morning we opened our copies of the Turps we acknowledged that our initial response was to feel a bit thick) which I think is what a good journal is meant to do.

Written by Andy Parkinson

July 9, 2012 at 9:41 am

Chris Baker and Natalie Dower in “Double Vision”

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The Double Vision show at Lion and Lamb Gallery, Hoxton has a lot to keep going back for, and I have at least one other trip planned before it closes on 14 July 2012.

Two paintings I want to see again are Natalie Dower‘s Fast Track Through 44 Points and Metan by Chris Baker. Both paintings seem to position themselves in a continuing relation to Modernism, as opposed to a break with it, and I guess this may be true of all of the paintings on show here. Maybe this is to state the obvious, it’s abstract art after all. But Modernism breaks down into a number of traditions even when we are within the general term ‘abstraction’.

Chris Baker seems to draw from many of those traditions, and I am not always entirely sure that they are ‘abstract’ as figurative elements sometimes find their way in, though not so with Metan.  Is the title Old English? Others of his titles are similar. Could it be that the paintings reference an outmoded language, one that has lost its original meaning and can be plundered now for new ones?

It “draws from” quite literally, the lines seem excavated from a less than unified ground, or alternatively it is created by filling in the negative spaces allowing the linear structure to emerge. It is double in that it presents a strong figure/ground contrast, the light lattice like structure being figure against the dark ‘background’ that is actually ‘foreground’.  It is also double in terms of the divided space, the structure bisecting the canvas down and across the middle (more or less) as well as in numerous other ways. The structure looks arrived at through trial and error, like a form trying to get out of the otherwise monochrome surface, and in getting out it bends the space, so that the bottom half recedes, giving the appearance of horizontality, whereas the top half extends upwards giving a vertical appearance. The bottom half of the structure could be the shadow of the top half if the lines corresponded, which they don’t so that interpretation is discarded, but then it reasserts itself, only to be discarded, it’s a cycle, a system, in a way.

Chris Baker, Metan, oil on canvas, 75 x 60cm, image by courtesy of Lion & Lamb Gallery

I situate Natalie Dower’s paintings within the tradition of Constructivism and more specifically Systems art. One of the many things I appreciate about that approach is the unpredictable and un-work-out-able results that can be generated by logical means, or a pre-determined path. The great systems thinker Gregory Bateson’s question: “What pattern connects the crab to the oyster and the orchid to the primrose and all the four of them to me, and me to you?” seems to resonate with Dower’s aesthetic investigations, based as they are on the abstract pattern that connects all things. Mel Gooding recently said of her: “Like her ‘Systems’ comrades, Dower has worked in the knowledge that all nature – from the spiralling mechanics of the galaxies to the growth of a snail’s shell and the branching of a plum-tree – is governed by mathematical rules”. So when I look at the wonderful Fast track Through 44 points, I know that it is ordered by mathematical rules, I just don’t quite know what they are.

Natalie Dower, “Fast Track Through 44 Points”, 2008, oil on panel, 29 x 29cm, image by courtesy of Lion & Lamb Gallery

I approach it a bit like I might a puzzle, attempting to work out what is going on, except that I don’t care much for puzzles whereas I do care a lot for this painting and paintings of this kind. Possibly the title helps to solve it, though it could be a diversion. I am sure that the organisation of the line and points through which it passes as it journeys about the surface is not random, but I am unable to determine the rules for it. As I study the construction I feel sure that the ordering principle is staring me in the face but I just can’t see it. I realise that this may be saying a lot more about me and my slowness to catch on, than about the painting! Again the ‘figures’ (the bars and lines) look like they are the consequence of filling in the spaces with black, so that it is difficult to decide which are the positive and which the negative  shape, though I think we would agree that we read the black as space and the lighter tones as structure, until we don’t. The support is shaped, therefore some of the bars are ‘real’ rather than drawn. I like the difference between the constructed edges and the drawn edges, and that the image extends beyond the confines of the square, confounding its identity as image and asserting its constructed-ness.

These are wonderful things to view, and I am looking forward to making another visit soon.

The other artists in this exhibition are: Dominic Beattie / Isha Bøhling / Ian Bottle / Katrina Blannin/ Alice Browne / Simon Callery / Keith Coventry / Tom Hackney / Jumpei Kinoshita / Hannah Knox / John McLean/ Sarah McNulty / Neil Mendock / Mali Morris/ Jost Münster / Selma Parlour / Geoffrey Rigden / Dan Roach / Danny Rolph / David Ryan / Estelle Thompson / Julian Wakelin.

better but worse?

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Today’s drawing is better than yesterday’s. Each line more accurately intersects the previous intersection than did yesterday’s. Also I maintained control of what I was doing, whereas yesterday I ‘lost the plot’ (using a rule makes a big difference). Today the drawing was finished only when I seemed to run out of spaces to divide: a natural conclusion.

 

today                                                                                                yesterday

Yet the doesn’t the worse drawing seem to have more energy? I like it more than the better one, which seems worse for being better. I guess it all depends on what criteria I am applying.

Written by Andy Parkinson

April 6, 2012 at 8:00 pm

Metamodernism, Oscillation and the Beer Game

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In Luke Turner‘s Metamodernist Manifesto he says “oscillation is the natural order of things” and he, along with Robin van den Akker, Nadine Feßler and Timotheus Vermeulen, sees this oscillation ( “between a modern desire for sens and a postmodern doubt about the sense of it all, between a modern sincerity and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy and empathy and apathy and unity and plurality and purity and corruption and naïveté and knowingness; between control and commons and craftsmanship and conceptualism and pragmatism and utopianism”) as an indication of the emergence of a new cultural dominant – metamodernism.

I feel sure that I am mixing metaphors as I attempt to question the naturalness of oscillation by referring to a business simulation known as the Beer Game, invented, I believe, at M.I.T by Jay Forrester and referenced by Peter Senge in the opening chapter of his book The Fifth Discipline.

Four ‘players’ take up the positions of Factory, Distributor, Wholesaler and Retailer, making up a production and distribution system, the product being crates of beer, represented by coins or counters, that make their way from the factory, to the other sectors and ending up as sales to external customers.

There are some system conditions: no communication takes place between the sectors other than the placing of orders and the receiving of product (silence), and there are delays in production and  transportation as well as in processing the orders. Orders are made by external customers and they are re-acted by each sector concluding with the factory that places orders with its own workforce. The decision-making required by each sector, at the end of each week, is how many crates of beer to order from their supplier upstream.

The activity spans a simulated year, at the beginning the system is stable, customers are ordering 4 crates of beer per week and each sector has 12 crates of beer in their respective inventories. Each sector aims to minimise costs by keeping inventory down at the same time as preventing backlog.

In conducting this simulation (as I have done with groups over 100 times in the last two years) we always find that when external customer orders are stable, the system becomes unstable, with sometimes wild oscillation, (as well as amplification: the oscillation pattern becoming more pronounced the further upstream you go).  A flat line could represent the orders from customers whereas this graph shows the oscillating pattern of orders placed within the system.

Getting back to the Metamodernist Manifesto, if we were to think of orders from customers as the external environment or  ‘nature’, we might conclude that oscillation is an artificial experience. It is not the ‘natural oder of things’ so much as the invented and exaggerated response to external stimuli. We do it to ourselves (that’s what really hurts, apologies Radiohead).

Then again, we could say that it is ‘natural’ in the sense that it is the repeated and predictable response: it seems to come naturally to us.

Maybe what I am saying is that although oscillation may indeed be ‘the natural order of things’, the natural order of things is not itself natural. Whilst the territory is flat, our maps oscillilate wildly.

More on ‘what is metamodernism?’

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What is Metamodernism? is a question asked at Notes on Metamodernism, edited by Nadine Fessler, Robin van den Akker, and Timotheus Vermeulen. Here is part of their response to their own question:

We understand metamodernism first and foremost as a structure of feeling, which can be defined, after Raymond Williams, as “a particular quality of social experience […] historically distinct from other particular qualities, which gives the sense of a generation or of a period.” Metamodernism therefore is both a heuristic label to come to terms with recent changes in aesthetics and culture and a notion to periodize these changes. So when we speak of metamodernism we do not refer to a particular movement, a specific manifesto or a set of theoretical or stylistic conventions. We do not attempt, in other words, as Charles Jencks would do, to group, categorize and pigeonhole the creative work of this or that architect or artist.  We rather attempt to chart, after Jameson, the ‘cultural dominant’ of a specific stage in the development of modernity.

Having said all that about not a particular movement or a manifesto, artist Luke Turner has written a Metamodernist Manifesto as follows:

  1. We recognise oscillation to be the natural order of the world.
  2. We must liberate ourselves from the inertia resulting from a century of modernist ideological naivety and the cynical insincerity of its antonymous bastard child.
  3. Movement shall henceforth be enabled by way of an oscillation between positions, with diametrically opposed ideas operating like the pulsating polarities of some colossal electric machine, propelling the world into action.
  4. We acknowledge the limitations inherent to all movement and experience, and the futility of any attempt to transcend the boundaries set forth therein. The essential incompleteness of a system should necessitate an adherence, not in order to achieve a given end or be slaves to its course, but rather perchance to glimpse by proxy some hidden exteriority. Existence is enriched if we set about our task as if those limits might be exceeded, for such action unfolds the world.
  5. All things are caught up within the irrevocable slide towards a state of maximum entropic dissemblance. Artistic creation is contingent upon the origination or revelation of difference therein. Affect at its zenith is the unmediated experience of difference in itself. It must be art’s role to explore the promise of its own paradoxical ambition by coaxing excess towards presence.
  6. The present is a symptom of the twin birth of immediacy and obsolescence. The new technology enables the simultaneous experience and enactment of events from a multiplicity of positions. Far from signalling its demise, these emergent networks facilitate the democratisation of history, illuminating the forking paths along which its grand narratives may navigate the here and now.
  7. Just as science strives for poetic elegance, artists might assume a quest for truth. All information is grounds for knowledge, whether empirical or aphoristic, no matter its truth-value. We should embrace the scientific-poetic synthesis and informed naivety of a magical realism. Erroneousness breeds sense.
  8. We propose a pragmatic romanticism unhindered by ideological anchorage. Thus, metamodernism shall be defined as the mercurial condition that lies between, beyond and in pursuit of a plurality of disparate and fragmentary positions. We must go forth and oscillate.

I love the (im)possibility of it, and that it leaves me feeling unsure about whether to take it seriously. It is almost as if the manifesto could itself be seen as an example of the metamodern. It seems to oscilate between sincerity and irony, setting out on a course that is destined to failure but doing it anyway. I think it may offer a basis for further consideration, debate, and practice, and in future posts I will act as if it does, and see what happens.

Unresolved resolution

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Apparently Tomma Abts consider her paintings to be finished when they are congruent with themselves.

Here’s something I am working on. I think it is a heightened incongruence I am looking for.

Written by Andy Parkinson

October 23, 2011 at 7:30 am

Posted in Art

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Sean Scully, contemplation and time

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If I have a favourite artist it is Sean Scully. I remember once visiting Tate Modern with a friend, and in the time it took him to see everything in there I had viewed only the three Scullys that were on show. I was literally mesmerised by them. For me, the type of naturally occurring trance state, or reverie, that Franz Anton Mesmer (re)discovered is just the kind of experience provoked by many of Scully’s paintings. Whilst in some ways all aesthetic experience comes into the category of naturally occurring trance, (or if you prefer ‘flow’ state), the work by Sean Scully seems particularly to put me there.

In Issue Ten of Turps Banana, Scully, talking to Peter Dickinson about the bad reception abstract art gets in the UK, says that looking at abstract art “requires contemplation and time”

Sean Scully, Soft Ending, 1969, Acrylic on canvas (226.1 x 226.1 cm). Courtesy of the artist

You could imagine that a gallery might be a good place to find time for contemplation. .. unless it is such a gigantic space that walking past the art becomes the norm.

Sean Scully, Moon, being walked by at Centre Pompidou, Paris in 2008, my photo

Surely he is right about abstraction, it does require contemplation and time, and isn’t it also the case that it rewards the time and contemplation given to it. That is certainly my experience with Scully’s paintings, even the early, minimalist-leaning work.

In Turps Banana, the interview is supplemented by some excellent reproductions, all of early work. I have come to like the more recent Wall of Light series (like the one in my photograph above, taken at Centre Pompidou) so much that I had forgotten how powerful some of the early works are. Soft Ending 1969, for example, seems to have an opticality that is understated or resisted in the later work. The development of Scully’s oeuvre could be read as an increasing emphasis on the physicality and objecthood of painting. Of course that physicality includes the optical much as it could also be seen as a container for the spiritual. Scully talks a lot about the spiritual in art, but I don’t remember him defining what he means by it. What he says in Turps Banana about contemplation and time possibly hints at a way of viewing that approaches spirituality in the sense of meditation.

The new issue of Turps Banana also includes interviews with, or articles about painters such as, Tomma Abts, Christopher P. Wood, Che Lovelace, Gavin Lockheart, René Daniëls and Rose Wylie.

Check out this post at Abstraction Blog with some good photos of three new Scully paintings at his current show at Kerlin Gallery, Dublin, and a link to itunes where you can download Turps Banana.

Awkwardness as an aesthetic category

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There is something awkward about the paintings of Rose Wylie, and it’s part of what is so appealing about them. In Issue Ten of Turps Banana, Jeff McMillan interviews the artist (actually, it’s more like a conversation than an interview). He says to her “…your work has a kind of awkwardness” and she answers “Well, I am awkward really”. The awkwardness of the work comes from the artist’s own awkwardness, and I think I respond favourably to it as a viewer because I am also awkward really. Is it just me, or do we often find ourselves in situations where we don’t quite know how to act or what to say? In those moments we find that we lack grace, or ease of movement. Of course, we learn to overcome it, we become comfortable and the ease of movement returns, we no longer feel awkward in that situation. One of the things I like about Rose Wylie’s paintings is that they seem to keep you in that slightly uncomfortable experience.

Rose Wylie, Truss, 2000, Oil on canvas (183 x 178 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Union Gallery, London

I am not quite sure what to make of the painting. It isn’t beautiful, or sublime is it? It is slightly ugly, and that’s equally in the subject matter and in the paint handling. I think that’s a way of saying that it is well observed. The form is congruently related to the content. In the Turps Banana interview she says “I hate elegance… I like ducks”.

(The new issue of Turps Banana also carries, among other things, articles about Sean Scully, René Daniëls, Christopher P. Wood, Che Lovelace, Gavin Lockheart and Tomma Abts.)

Written by Andy Parkinson

October 17, 2011 at 7:49 am

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