abstract art, a systems view

Archive for May 2011

Constructivism casts its shadow in Leeds

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At last I got to see the show Construction and its Shadow at Leeds Art Gallery, that had appeared on the Abstraktion blog a few weeks ago.

constructivism and systems

Constructivism and its Shadow at Leeds Art Gallery, May 2011 - finishing soon

When I mentioned to the museum attendant how good I thought it was she seemed pleased that I liked it (we all like to get a ‘like’ every now and again). She said that most people who comment say that it’s rubbish.

What? Most of this work is ‘old’, the exhibition is a reminder of a tradition. Surely, the fact of abstraction has lost its ability to shock, surprise and elicit “a child could have done that” by now. Especially this work, most of it is quite complex and I would have thought difficult to dismiss. Well, I have been wrong before!

In my continuing quest to see abstract art outside of London, I had a good day in Leeds. At the Constructivism exhibition I was particularly interested in the work by Jeffrey Steele. Later, I noticed that at the seminar I missed, about the influence of the British Constructivist and Systems groups, Jeffrey Steele had been speaking and I wished I had been there.

Jeffrey Steele

Jeffrey Steele, SG 1 62, Oil on Canvas

In the permanent collection of contemporary art (post 1880 I think was their definition) I saw a Robyn Denny that I haven’t seen for ages. When I saw it, I remembered hat I had seen it before, at Leeds many years ago. I also imagined that, back then I saw a big John Hoyland painting, but if I did it wasn’t there today. (Just checking the catalogue I downloaded from the gallery website, there is a Hoyland in their collection. I would have liked to see that)

There were three impressive John Walker paintings, as well as some by Terry Frost (not his best), and one by Gillian Ayres (Helios 1990, not my favourite).

There were some interesting paintings in the other collections, I particularly enjoyed looking at an Ivon Hitchens landscape.

Then, visiting the cafe was an art experience itself, not the food necessarily (which was good and reasonably priced), but the environment of the Tiled Hall


Tiled Hall 1

tiles etc

Tiled Hall 2


Tiled Hall 3

tile hall ceiling

Tiled Hall ceiling

tile hall ceiling 2

well, this is definitely the ceiling

On the way out I did wonder whether you could see too much Henry Moore (!)


Henry Moore figure outside Leeds Art Gallery, looking away from the gallery

Henry Moore Leeds

Henry Moore figure outside Leeds Art Gallery, looking towards the gallery

perhaps not.

Leeds, Henry Moore Institute

Henry Moore Institute

We did go into the Henry Moore Institute attached to the Gallery (nice building) and looked at interesting photographs and sculptural pieces by Jean-Marc Bustamante, but in a hurry, because it was very nearly 5pm and they were getting ready to close.


A million lines never precisely repeating

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Gregory Bateson faced his students with what he said was an aesthetic 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?”

Lines of symmetry, erupting into pattern, transforming into speed, colour and line,  a million lines never precisely repeating: the pattern which connects.

This wonderful audio-visual slideshow by Christopher Kinman, posted on The Rhizome Network, is an appreciation of Gregory Bateson entitled The Pattern Which Connects (click on slideshow to view it now).

Written by Andy Parkinson

May 28, 2011 at 9:04 am

Selections From Dismissing God by Donald D. Hoffman (via Paying Attention To The Sky)

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I am thoroughly enjoying the writing of Donald D. Hoffman

you could say I am a big fan

He writes about visual perception and how we construct the world in which we live. No room for gods in this world view?

Selections From Dismissing God by Donald D. Hoffman Donald D. Hoffman is a Professor in the Department of Cognitive Science, University of California Irvine, California. If you are like me, you may be a little tired of the Steven Pinker neuroscientists and their broad claims at having discovered the Soul or God in the human brain. Dr. Hoffman makes a clear case here as to what neuroscience knows and doesn’t know. Debates between theists and atheists often hinge, naturally enough, on advances in co … Read More

via Paying Attention To The Sky

Written by Andy Parkinson

May 18, 2011 at 8:35 am

The Public: Owamya?

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In the Black Country “How are you?” is “How am you?” or rather “Owamya?”


We took our son Joel to The Black Country, to Sandwell General Hospital West Bromwich, for an A.C.L. operation, and waiting, we visited The Public. (It was famous in the UK when it was built, for being late and way over budget.  No Public city is bad Public city, we’d heard of it and sought it out.)

It’s an art space and not an art space. they call it ” a creative, community, cultural and business space in the heart of West Bromwich…Sandwell – today one of the most deprived areas in the UK but with a long history of creativity, innovation and community pride which changed the world.”

There are exhibitions as well as interactive galleries:

My interactive drawing on a touch screen

my wife Dawn's interactive drawing

Judith, one of the staff (she’s wonderful) showed us some of the exhibits, and explained some Black Country slang, using one of the interactive pieces (a fridge magnet type activity – all the interactive things reminded me of games and that reminded me of how much game and play is part of what ‘creativity’ means).

Judith explains that 'fust' is 'first' in Black Country lingo

“Fust” is first and “bist” is been: “hows he bin?” “he bist fine” (?)

When I saw one of the words I couldn’t resist an homage to Barnett Newman (I continue to want to see abstract painting in art spaces)

vir heroicis sublimis (not)

Sorry, corny I know.

The exhibitions included Out of this Universe, featuring models, costumes and props from Dr Who, Star Wars, etc


In the Best Light: Maurice Broomfield, industrial  photographs


and, The Art of Invention: From the Frank Cohen Collection, contemporary art including some paintings! (No abstract paintings though. Is it that because there are none in the Frank Cohen Collection? Perhaps it is because they are thought to be less relevant than figurative work? In the ‘about’ section of their website I read: “The Public also has a role in making the arts more accessible to a community which traditionally has low participation in the creative industries”. I would argue that abstraction is particularly relevant and accessible in this industrial context.)

The industrial photographs were magnificent. To me, they seemed to capture the hope and excitement of industry at the same time as its monotony and false promise. The images somehow looked both modern and dated at the same time. My pictures here don’t do the setting justice. Whilst the whole downstairs does have this pink colour pervading everything, here I didn’t perceive it the way the digital camera does. In fact, there was lots of daylight and the photographs looked great. These were also the nearest thing to abstract paintings.

The work from the Frank Cohen collection included some interesting sculpture

Patrick O'Reilly, Quiet Desperation 1996

Patrick O'Reilly The Leader Speaks, 1995

The Patrick O’Reilly sculptures were witty and spoke to my feelings of alienation in a (post-)industrial world, but visually rather unsatisfying. I felt similarly about the Till Gerhard painting

Till Gerhard, Wochenendhaus, 2004, Acrylic on canvas

It was interesting (not witty) and I looked at it a lot. I got that the painterly marks could be sinister and associated the red with blood and the pink shapes with internal organs, possibly the wire from the boy’s microphone resembling intestines, or certainly something unpleasant. I felt like I should be able to work out why the eyes were obscured with an unpleasant red mark, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure if the fir-tree was growing or cut, a Christmas tree and maybe the coloured marks suggested that it was decorated. Lots to look at yet, in the end, I felt unsatisfied, like I wanted to find something in the paint to enjoy but found my enjoyment was repeatedly barred. I felt slightly sick. Perhaps that was intended. I didn’t like that experience very much. Though I did go back to the work again before we left… and I don’t always do that!

Another painting I didn’t like:

Steve Canaday, Double Death Honk, 2002, Acrylic on canvas

though again, I have been thinking about it since, so it must have done something.  What I have found myself remembering is the bland grey ground on which the painted objects are placed, and working out how he achieved that with acrylic paint. The exhibition notes tell me that Canaday’s work is an example of the LA based practice called “Bad Painting“. What I thought was most bad (I mean it in a bad sense) was that again any enjoyment of the paint I may have hoped to experience was thwarted. I also had the impression that the artist gained no enjoyment in painting it.

Even though my wish to see abstract painting was unmet (painting has become a marginal activity it seems, and abstract painting even more so) I am glad I saw this work.

The Public is well worth a visit, even the cafe is reasonably priced, most unusual.

On leaving, we missed out on the tea-dance, mostly because we didn’t have our dance shoes with us (Joel was ages yet in recovery). Apparently as many as 100 people turn up to dance every other Wednesday afternoon, and being keen ballroom, latin and  sequence dancers ourselves we would have enjoyed that too!

Written by Andy Parkinson

May 13, 2011 at 6:55 am

why systems thinking?

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Someone said that they would like to know more about the link between systems thinking and my abstract paintings.

beer game set up

Set up for The Beer Game, a simulation (devised by Jay Forrester) that helps teach systems thinking in organisations

Berkeley Square 1

Berkeley Square 1, marker pen on post-it notes on board, 122cm x 122cm, by Andy Parkinson

For some, in the late 1960’s, systems art seemed to point beyond the impasse of late modernism.

This impasse was seen to be the result of a reductionist approach where art was divesting itself of all that was unnecessary to its specific characteristics. The art critics Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried were great proponents of this reductionist grand narrative, and their heroes were the Abstract Expressionists (Pollock, Newman, Motherwell, Rothko, Gottleib, Frankenthaler, etc)  and later, so called Post-Painterly Abstraction, and colour field painting (Stella, Louis, Noland, Olitski etc)  that had supposedly shown the way beyond Jackson Pollock’s all-over painting via the staining technique that they claimed to have learned from Helen Frankenthaler’s watercolour Mountains and Sea.  However, where could you go to beyond the (monochromatic) colour field?

Systems thinking outside of the art world had been catching on for some time. Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory (1968) brought together much that he had been working on for years previously, concentrating on how systems are structured. In 1948 Norbert Weiner published Cybernetics, focussing on how a system functions, regardless of what the system is. A group of systems thinkers from different disciplines, including Weiner, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, John Von Neumann and Warren McCulloch had been meeting every year between 1942 and 1951 at the Macy conferences.  In 1961 Jay Forrester applied systems thinking to the economy, urban industry and housing. Donella Meadows and the Club of Rome applied systems thinking to problems of pollution and ecology, resulting in the publication of the influential book The Limits to Growth in 1972. Much later (1990) Peter Senge applied systems thinking to management and organisations in his book The Fifth Discipline. The work of W. Edwards Deming is also an example of systems thinking applied to business and management. I would also argue that Karl Marx was a great systems thinker long before the term was coined.

(I came to systems thinking through my work with people in organisations not primarily as an artist. In relation to painting I had more or less given up on it, after all where else could you go after the monochrome colour field?)

Systems thinking was largely a reaction against reductionism in science and an attempt to unify its various disciplines. It argued that real systems are open to, and interact with, their environments, and that they can acquire qualitatively new properties through emergence, resulting in continual evolution.

Rather than reducing an entity (e.g. the human body) to the properties of its parts or elements (e.g. organs or cells), systems theory focuses on the arrangement of and relations between the parts which connect them into a whole. This particular organisation determines a system, which is independent of the concrete substance of the elements (e.g. particles, cells, transistors, people, etc).


It was only a matter of time before someone in the visual art world would notice that systems thinking promised an alternative approach to modernist reductionism.  One such ‘someone’ was Jack Burnham.

Jack Burnham’s systems aesthetic took issue with late modernist painting, offering five key insights:

  1. That there has been a transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture.
  2. That art does not reside in material entities.
  3. That art is not autonomous.
  4. That art is conceptual focus.
  5. That no definition or theory of art can be historically invariant.

For many involved in systems aesthetics this spelled the death of painting (one day I must blog about painting’s many deaths). Burnham and others majored on the context in which art takes place: the system of art production.

For me, these five insights can be appropriate to painting itself. Rather than emphasising objecthood, materiality and autonomy, painting can be systems oriented, serial and conceptual and this is one of the ways in which I think of my paintings as systems. I am interested in the ways that the parts relate to each other in the whole that is the painting, and in the larger whole that is the viewing experience. I am interested in the system: artist/painting/viewer(s) and particularly in the ways in which viewers can have differing perceptions (physically, emotionally and conceptually) of a painting.

art signs

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I have written before about signs and art.

This sign is art


Leo Fitzmaurice, Arcadia (one of a series scattered around YSP)

whereas this sign is not

Just because it is at Yorkshire Sculpture Park does not mean it is art

The function of the Leo Fitzmaurice sign is different to the function of the caution sign. However this could simply be that they are differing kinds of sign. One is a label and the other is a warning.

Though Arcadia is a label sign, the thing (or place) labelled is absent, bringing our attention to its absence. It reminds us that the map is not the territory, the name is not the thing named (Korzybski).

The Arcadia sign refers to a past, almost forgotten, inaccessible reality (or myth) and elicits action which is more like not-acting: the act of reflecting. For me, that makes it different to other label signs.

In one way the caution sign is similar, it requires a ‘slowing down’ a reflectiveness of sorts. Though its hardly a reflection on signs and their relationship to our experience, or on art and life. If the caution sign were to elicit this kind of reflectiveness it would have failed to do its job, we would no longer be proceeding with caution.

Here’s another sign from YSP (again not art)

Warning sign alerting us to read signs!

Warning sign alerting us to read signs!

It is a sign about signs! (You might need to click on the image to get the smaller print.)

It reminds me of an episode of the Simpsons where Homer gets obsessed with putting up safety signs and eventually resorts to putting up signs exhorting us to take note of the signs.

Written by Andy Parkinson

May 10, 2011 at 7:11 am

the art of non-verbal communication

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The sign says

"Please do not climb on the Sol LeWitt"

yet the art work says

"Please climb on me"

The meaning of the communication is the response it elicits, not necessarily the intention of the communicator.



My guess is that  Sol LeWitt knew that one of the meanings of this piece would become  “climb on me”, maybe it is the message of all public sculptures ( some more than others).

The sign not to climb, the verbal communication, is incongruent with the non-verbal communication, the sign that is the art work itself. Possibly, that’s why people ignore it, or notice it after they have already transgressed! I suppose it’s a lot like “do not walk on the grass”.

Written by Andy Parkinson

May 3, 2011 at 8:17 am

sheep love sculpture

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At YSP the other day (see yesterday’s blog), I was amazed at how much the sheep seemed to appreciate this Barbara Hepworth (or is it by Henry Moore?)

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Sheep can’t read the sign that says “please do not climb on the sculptures” but they do seem to be able to read the non-verbal ‘sign’ that says “walk around me”.

Written by Andy Parkinson

May 1, 2011 at 8:23 am