abstract art, a systems view

in the Attic

with 9 comments

A few hundred yards from my hotel in Swansea (see yesterday blog), there is the Attic Gallery, apparently Wales’ longest established private gallery.

Attic attic gallery

The Attic website says that the gallery “was founded in 1962 to highlight the work of contemporary artists working in Wales.” I think the word ‘contemporary’ here refers to ‘living and working today’ as opposed to ‘modern’ or, in more recent usage, ‘more modern than modern’, which may also imply ‘post-modern’ and ‘having “high Art” pretensions’. I wouldn’t describe the work on show at Attic using these other definitions of the word ‘contemporary’.

I saw paintings by Kathryn Le Grice. I liked them. Here’s an image of one the paintings in the show, (on until Saturday 2 July), Central Park NY (Bridge II) . Painted in 2010/11, I understand that is is more typical of her earlier work.

Kathryn Le Grice, Central Park, NY (Bridge II), mixed media, 17.5 x 23 ins,image courtesy of Attic Gallery

And here is another, more typical of later work, Circle of Trees.

Kathryn Le Grice, Circle of Trees, acrylic, 11.5 x 7 ins, image by courtesy of Attic Gallery

Both these paintings, like all her work in this show, are abstract in the sense of ‘abstracted from’. (If my memory is correct Harold Osborne uses the term ‘semantic abstraction’ for this type of abstraction, which is actually a form of representation, as opposed to ‘syntactic’ or ‘non-iconic abstraction’ for work that claims to represent nothing other than itself. In the late 70s, when he was writing about this, I think the distinction might have mattered more than it seems to do today.)

Le Grice abstracts from nature and architecture “the patterns which form part of our everyday world” making paintings in acrylic or mixed media, that are quite modest in size. The forms she paints inhabit a shallow, cubist-like space, if I have the chronology correct many of the later works are larger in size.

Circle of Trees is a later painting, but small at less than 12″ in either direction. It is the stained-glass-like luminosity of the colour that impresses me. Even from a distance it looks bright. It is reminiscent of a Rouault, with the thick black lines adding to both the stained-glass look and to the luminosity of the colours, arranged in complementaries of green/red and blue/orange.  It has a rhythm based on a central diagonal line around which the tree shapes seem to curve, creating a single arabesque shape.

It is supposed to be decorative, and it is! Decorative is a bad word in some circles. It’s not a bad word for me. And not for the circle of trees either!

9 Responses

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  1. Very nice. As a New Yorker, I appreciate the pattern-painting of Central Park. Painting is a difficult subject for me. You see, I agree with Rodchenko that painting in the traditional sense of representing the world is dead, having been permanently superseded by photography. The forms of painting that survive should continue to abstract from the world into its simplest elements or at least significantly distort reality: Malevich’s Suprematism, Mondrian’s Neoplasticism, or Lissitzky’s PROUNs, or the later (last gasp of the) avant-garde with abstract expressionism or Francis Bacon’s figural distortions.

    Since the late 1960s, I generally accept Arthur Danto’s thesis that we have reached another “end of art,” especially in its modernist incarnation as a series of avant-gardes. The question of what makes something “art” is no longer self-evident. Before this question came to predominate, starting from Hegel’s announcement of the “death of art” in 1825, the question of romantic and modern art was more “On what concrete principles should we base the new art?” This received various answers: regarding the nature of human perception (impressionism, pointillism), the transhistorical/mythological symbolism of concepts and emotions (Romanticism, Symbolism, Art Nouveau, Vienna Secession, German Expressionism), the fragmentation of reality and the portrayal of motion in a static medium (Cubism, Italian Futurism, Rayonism, Vorticism), the fundamental/non-representational geometric patterns or colors of the human mind (Neoplasticism, Suprematism, Abstract Expressionism), nonsense and the destruction of meaning (Dadaism), the unconscious (Surrealism), or construction (Constructivism).

    Today, the notion of avant-garde art seems to be applicable nearly everything that seems to be experimental or “on the cutting edge,” a much looser definition than it had in the past. Until recently, artistic and architectural avant-gardes understood themselves as self-defined movements founded upon common principles and a single theoretical foundation that justified their approach to art. Generally, the members of these avant-gardes would publish their own journals or periodicals explicating their radical new methodology and its basis in some aspect of reality. They were identifiable by “isms,” just as Lissitzky’s book showed. This is no longer the case. Most ostensibly “avant-garde” artists try to distance themselves from definitions of art or associations with an identifiable group, stressing the singularity of their creative act.

    Sorry to go on this long spiel on my interpretation of the history of art, but it’s what I feel justifies the kind of pattern-abstractions you present here. These patterns would be excellent for just what you say, patterns, perhaps for fabric or wallpaper, or as single “stills” inscribed on dinner plates and other objects of everyday use.

    Ross Wolfe

    June 30, 2011 at 4:21 pm

  2. Thanks for your considered comment Ross, and glad to receive such a “long spiel” I was going to visit your blog and ask you to comment on painting. I enjoy what you have to say about architecture a lot and I wondered what you might have to say about art (and I had guessed fairly accurately). One of the things I really like about your approach is your unashamedly positive appreciation of modernism (such a dirty word for so many these days).
    I’m not sure the artist would see your fabric, wallpaper and dinner plate suggestion in a very positive light. My take is that if it is successfully decorative then it is worthy of being viewed ‘properly’, by which I mean on the wall. If it is good I think it rewards extended and repeated viewing and I am not sure you get that from wallpaper or dinner plates.

    Andy Parkinson

    July 1, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    • Yes, I was probably just projecting my own modernist imperatives regarding non-representational or abstract-representational paintings onto Le Grice’s works that you show here. The idea of bringing “art into life” or fusing art and life absolutely is something I always respected not only from the Constructivist movement, but from its more abstract forebear, Suprematism. Suetin’s [a href=]revolutionary Suprematist plates[/a] or the ones by his master, [a href=]Malevich[/a], are prime examples of the kind of thing I’m talking about. The Art Nouveau, Expressionist, Constructivist, and Bauhaus obsession with typography and the proliferation of characteristic fonts would be another. The Constructivist designs for workers’ outfits, chairs, and so on, would also obviously fit into this pattern.

      Thank you for your tolerance of my long-winded and, as you point out, my “unashamedly positive appreciation of modernism.” When you say “extended and repeated viewing,” however, do you mean just the painting hung on the wall and framed, as in tradition? I mean, I can definitely agree with you that this mode of viewing emphasizes the singularity and self-perfection of an individual work of art, in the sense that a piece is able to be viewed as a self-sufficient whole. The extension and repetition of viewing you mention would be temporal, too, I imagine — according to the idea of the contemplation of the work of art. Otherwise, however, I would imagine that extension and repetition of the art object would be spatial, and would require the seriality of wallpaper or plate design.

      Ross Wolfe

      July 3, 2011 at 1:21 pm

  3. Ross, I like your comments (and your blog) so much!
    you make “the singularity and self-perfection of an individual work of art, in the sense that a piece is able to be viewed as a self-sufficient whole” sound like such a bad thing ….and come to think of it, it probably is!
    Really, I was just thinking of how the food on the dinner plate might distract one from viewing something that was good enough to be viewed in its own right as a thing-to-be-viewed-rather-than-also-eaten-from.

    Andy Parkinson

    July 3, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    • I am really pleased to hear you like my comments and blog so much. You run quite a nice blog yourself, engaging the non-architectural visual arts and criticism in a way that my work does not.

      It’s not that “the singularity and self-perfection of an individual work of art, in the sense that a piece is able to be viewed as a self-sufficient whole” is such a bad thing; I would argue that it simply belongs to a different time. I believe that the visual arts took a long time coming to grips with the absolute realistic verisimilitude of photography (even confined as it was for so long in black and white). The inherent seriality of the photo-negative meant that it was potentially infinitely reproducible, tearing down once and for all the notion of the “original” piece. This is how I interpret Benjamin’s deservedly famous essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility.” This serialization of the artistic object displaced the once-coveted “aura” of the genuine artifact.

      The aesthetic problematic that flowed out of the subjective interiority of Romanticism was then faced with a new crisis of representationalism with further advancements in photography. This led to the subsequent stream of “isms” that increasingly distorted visual reality in ways that the photograph could not. Evoking impressionistic, expressionistic, or mythologically symbolist scenes, the representation of objects became ever-more fragmented (Cubism, Futurism) and abstracted from reality (culminating in Ozenfant’s Purism, Mondrian’s Neoplasticism, and Malevich’s Suprematism).

      With Rodchenko’s final triptych, in solid primary colors he declared his career as a painter dead, and instead pursued photography from then on. I believe he made the correct choice, though Abstract Expressionism and Bacon’s figurative distortions were still important after the War.

      Ross Wolfe

      July 4, 2011 at 3:11 am

  4. thanks Ross
    one of the things your comments are doing for me is prompting me to look afresh at Mondrian, Malevich and Rodchenko. When I think ‘modernist’ I think Greenberg and Fried in art criticism, and the late Abstract Expressionists in art practice. You probably noticed that it is abstract painting that really interests me, and looking again at Constructivist and Suprematist art (and theory, some of it anyway) is occupying my thinking, reading, and viewing just now.
    As far as photography is concerned, a lot of people have pronounced the death of painting (Zizek seems fond of noting the second death, painting has died many more times than just the twice. By the way, that would make a good book wouldn’t it: ‘The Many Deaths of Painting’) wasn’t it Paul Delaroche who, on seeing the Daguerreotype said “from today, painting is dead”?
    But it didn’t die, it remade itself, as either an investigation of the process of representation (I would suggest that’s what good representational painting achieves) or as a ‘non-representational’ art. There is something primal about the urge to draw and paint, almost as basic as song. It pre-dates capitalism (though in a different form) and I think it will outlive capitalism, though in a different form. I’m not thinking of the art market, or the aura of the work of art with a capital A, but more the simple enjoyment of making and viewing.

    Andy Parkinson

    July 8, 2011 at 10:38 pm

  5. The overcoming of capitalism poses difficult questions for art as it has traditionally been understood and theorized. Although art has often taken on a utopian role, positively depicting what out to be or negatively depicting what is, the notion of art in an emancipated society — freed from the contradictions of capitalist society — would be severely problematized. For insofar as much art (be it dramatic, literary, musical, painted, or sculpted) is based on principles of conflict, the antagonisms between the self and the world, between one person and another, and so on, it would find before itself now only objective freedom and harmony.

    But on the other hand, as Adorno once pointed out, toward the beginning of Negative Dialectics, “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” Here he is tacitly referring to one of Marx’s early formulations, that through revolutionary transformation, “the world might be made philosophical.” In a similar way, the idea that art might someday become obsolete might imply that such a revolution would make the whole world artistic, or perhaps even transform the world into a work of art. Such speculations are, of course, highly abstract and unimaginable to spell out in its concrete details. But the category of real possibility allows for such radical flights of fancy.

    Ross Wolfe

    July 11, 2011 at 3:26 am

  6. […] thinking in terms of high and low art, so it is a rebuke to me too. Edward, Alissa, Artdog and Ross,  you have all recently brought my attention to art as ‘art and craft’ and I am […]

  7. […] for his encouragement to take another look at Suprematist and other early modernist art, in his comments on my blog and at his own blog, see for example Trotsky’s theory of art. Consequently, I have been […]

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