patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Archive for January 2012

Waltz, Quickstep, Mondrian and the Endurance of Abstraction

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Mondrian, a keen social dancer, disliked the Waltz. It was romantic, emotional, and the rise and fall and sway seemed to denote the curved line. He preferred the Foxtrot and the rhythms and figures that would later become the Quickstep, modern, all straight lines, abrupt changes of direction, obtuse angles and speed. I could imagine that some social dancers like Mondrian might have expected the new dances to replace the Waltz for ever. However, rather than one replacing another they all carried on being danced, side by side, as it were. Today, no longer new, the Modern Waltz, Modern Foxtrot etc continue to be danced.

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) Composition C (no.III), with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1935 Oil on canvas, 56.2 x 55.1 cm Private collection, on loan to Tate © 2012 Mondrian/ Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International Washington DC

At the time (not long before Mondrian was in London painting, and dancing, with the Nicholson/Hepworth crowd),  I wonder if it could have seemed like abstraction might replace figurative painting. Now in the modern ‘modern world’ (metamodern possibly), both remain whilst newer art forms than painting are dominant. Like ballroom dancing, painting continues alongside more contemporary practices, and within the (in)discipline of painting representation and abstraction co-exist.

At the Indiscipline of Painting  exhibition at the Mead Gallery some of the abstract paintings on show question the relationship between abstraction and representation. The show as a whole explores the endurance of abstraction (arguably Mondrian’s invention), specifically concentrating on international abstract painting since the sixties. There is an international element to another abstract painting exhibition that opens in February: Mondrian//Nicholson in Parallel at the Courtauld Gallery where the relationship between the these two artists and their work is the theme. For a few weeks the Courtauld exhibition and the Mead Gallery exhibition will be showing in parallel, a short train journey apart.

Seeing them in parallel may give us a detailed view of abstraction since its early days, what has happened and what is now happening to it, especially now that we no longer think of the adventure in terms of linear progression.

At the Indiscipline show, Bernard Frize’s wonderful painting for example, has little continuity with Mondrian, other than its abstractness, neither in the way it looks nor in its attitude.

Bernard Frize, Suite Segond 100 no 3, 1980, Alkyd Urethane lacquer on canvas162 x 130 cmCollection of the artist, courtesy Simon Lee Gallery, London

Has Mondrian’s utopian purity been replaced by its opposite? Instead of painstaking corrections in the search for harmony we have a chance placing of colours skimmed from the top of the paint cans. Mondrian’s dislike of the curve was not shared by other early abstractionists, for Nicholson the circle starts to look like an image of purity, but not here. For Frize it even has a referent, the paint can. Also, long gone is the insistence on red yellow and blue with black and white, and whereas Mondrian and Nicholson thought of their art as ‘spiritual’ and somewhat lofty, Frize’s seems entirely ‘material’ and approaching the trivial. It is matter of fact, mechanical perhaps, yet not quite resigned or cynical. I still have the sense of searching, discovery and playfulness (or possibly gamefulness) that seems to me to be part of what makes abstraction continually new, interesting and endurable. In ballroom dancing, though the steps and figures of each dance were invented long ago, their repetition in each new performance continues to demonstrate the impossibility of repetition. Though I have heard it said that the ‘language’ of abstraction has now been invented, it is still very much alive.

Mondrian//Nicholson in Parallel is showing from 16 February 2012 to 20 May 2012, and The Indiscipline of Painting is at the Mead Gallery until 10 March 2012.

Against Nature ( A Rebours)

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Previously, I posted about an artwork by Klaus Weber subtitled Against Nature an allusion to the novel A Rebours (Against Nature, or alternatively Against the Grain) by J.K. Huysmans.

I had also seen a photo of another art work entitled Against Nature, this one by David Batchelor and I had wondered if the latter work also referenced the Huysmans novel. Noting that it was on display at the University of Warwick, I hoped to see it soon. Well, soon arrived recently and I got to view the piece. I also recently got to talk with the artist, who confirmed the reference.

against nature 1 against nature 2 against nature 3 against nature 7

Reading his book Chromophobia, the reference might have been obvious. He writes with affection on A Rebours.

The colours in the piece are ‘unnatural’, neon, flourescent, artificial, of the city rather than of ‘nature’. Made from second-hand, discarded lightboxes, neon signs, exit signs etc, with painted plexiglas and light shone through them, they are also repaired, re-used and recycled (so not “against nature” in that respect).

I heard him say recently that there is too much brown, grey and magnolia (non-colours) in British contemporary art, and that you can hardly speak of “bright grey” or “bright brown”. I think he is right (though I did shortly afterwards hear someone use just that term “bright brown”. The sentence went something like: “It’s not a dull brown though, it is a bright brown… copper”).

I love this piece of work. It has some painting in it even though we would hardly call it a painting. It is almost as if the colours have been freed from the constraints of pigment and medium, yet in a totally unnatural way. “Pure” and “impure” at the same time.

Abstract portraits?

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Dan Coombs has suggested that the abstract paintings of Tomma Abts are better understood “not so much as material objects in the abstract painting tradition but as surrogate people with their own personalities. Each painting is a portrait …of something that does not yet exist[1]“. Seeing the Tomma Abts painting at The Indiscipline of painting exhibition at the Mead Gallery, I was reminded of Coombs’ article. The painting is entitled Thiale, a first name I believe. The format looks like a portrait as does its size (48cm x 38cm).

Tomma Abts, Thiale, 2004, Courtesy of greengrassi, London

It draws us in for closer inspection, I mean for us to inspect the painting, not the other way around, though who knows, maybe whilst I am studying it, it is also studying me? And studying is the mode of viewing that it seems to elicit. Some of the other paintings in the show need to be simply enjoyed, breathed in almost, but not this one; it seems to require close attention or study. And studying it slowly reveals the slowness of its making as evidence of corrections and underpainting becomes apparent.

It isn’t the only ‘portrait’ here. There is also the much larger scale work by Moira Dyer entitled The Vanishing Self-Portrait. There is underpainting of sorts in this one, but hardly in the sense of ‘corrections’. In the Tomma Abts I get the sense of painstaking application and revision, until the ‘correct’ form is arrived at. The Moira Dyer seems more about following a pre-determined course, and quickly. Painted in 1990, only two years before she died at the age of 34, it is balanced on a small tree trunk, rather than hanging on the wall. I could imagine it having been painted right there, the lateral brush strokes in a pale blue/grey with a slightly bluer frame painted around the edge with one blue paint run on the left hand side, that has been allowed to follow its course almost to the bottom edge. The paint looks like it was erased rather than applied, the erasing of an image of the artist perhaps, yet the brush strokes and the dimensions attesting to the artists presence, and body. She was here, and this ‘image’ is what is left of her performance, the record of it hasn’t vanished.

And in looking at these abstract portraits I am reminded of the Clare Woods exhibition at Hepworth Wakefield: The Unquiet Head, showing until 29 January. As well as the large abstract landscapes, which themselves allude to figures in rock formations, there are some smaller works of rocks that are specifically presented as portraits, a series of Idol heads. And then there is a small painting on aluminium entitled Hollow Face, a portrait ‘read into’ the negative space, a hole, or a clearing, in a hedge or some shrubs.

Clare Wood, Hollow Face, (my photo)

This also vanishes, if ever it was there, or only there because we see the absence as a presence and see in that a face. The painting is already there in ‘nature’ but always only inside the imagination, a portrait of something that is both there and not there at the same time, a visual metaphor perhaps. The Moira Dryer portrait is of an event, a performance that once took place, now a nominalisation, whereas the Abts portrait is of a ‘personality’ that exists only because it has been painted into existence.

The Indiscipline of Painting: International Abstraction from 1960 to Now is showing at Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, until 10 March 2012.

The Unquiet Head is showing at Hepworth Wakefield until 29 January 2012


[1] Tomma Abts by Dan Coombs in Turps Banana, Issue Ten

Mondrian and dance

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Broadway Boogie Woogie, by Piet Mondrian is a clear reference to music and dance. Mondrian was a keen ballroom dancer, and some of his works are named after dances, for example Fox-Trot B, and Fox-Trot-Lozenge-Composition-with-Three-Black-Lines.

I read in one place at least the implication that he was a good dancer, for example that he practised dance steps in his studio and was known as ‘The Dancing Madonna’ in Holland. Then in another place:

He went shopping for painter’s smocks with Naum Gabo’s wife Miriam and danced with Peggy Guggenheim and Virginia Pevsner in the London jazz clubs. His love of jazz and dancing was well known, but Miriam recalled that he “was a terrible dancer… Virginia hated it and I hated it, we had to take turns dancing with him”.

In an article entitled Dancing with Mondrian By Annette Chauncy, published by The International Journal of the Arts in Society, she suggests that the paintings were possibly inspired by the dances, especially the Foxtrot, the Quickstep and the Tango.

I also found this little film clip entitled Mondrian and Dance at the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art, suggesting that the paintings ‘dance’ more than perhaps we thought.

Written by Andy Parkinson

January 17, 2012 at 8:45 am

The Indiscipline of Enjoyment

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This weekend The Indiscipline of Painting exhibition moved from Tate St Ives to Mead Gallery, a mere 120 mile round trip for me, so, after all the anticipation, I finally got to see it (well, not finally because I will be visiting many times between now and when it closes in March).

At the opening party a crowd of us had gathered before the doors were swung back at 6.30 on the dot and in we poured, seeing first the unmistakable Frank Stella painting Hyena Stomp and the gigantic Keith Coventry England 1938 (1994 -2011), as if to make the point that the show would feature international abstraction from the sixties to now.

I turned left, seeing the show ‘backwards way round’ gazing with dropped jaw at the brilliant Brillian Xanthinus Arborexcans by John Armleder, Primalon Ballroom by Mary Heilman, and finding my breath taken by Peter Davies’ Small Touching Squares Painting, reminiscent in its effect of a huge Seurat: the grandest scale made up of tiny dots, or in Davies’ case tiny squares, creating a massive ripple, a gesturless gesture.

Thinking of dots, the painting that I may have looked at longest, and over which I had a conversation with a small band of Italian students, was #16 – 1968 (Dot Painting) by Peter Young.

Peter Young, #16 - 1968 (Dot Painting), 1968, Courtesy of Kunstmuseum St Gallen, Formal collection Rolf Ricke

Unlike Seurat’s dots these do not combine to create an image, nor are they of differing colours that mix optically. Instead they are the same dark (black, I think) colour arranged so they are more or less of equal distance from each other, on a ground of white over pinks greens yellows and blues. Whilst the colours are perceived as shifting after-images, my eye cannot but trace circular patterns in the dots, moving and bending and not quite forming. I become aware in viewing it that I am actively participating in its construction, which I experience as playful enjoyment especially when for a few moments I turn off the dialogue (both external and internal) and simply look. Once the dialogue returns I have moved from thinking about what kind of painting it is to what kind of world this is that I actively construct even whilst appearing to passively observe.

Opticality seems an important sub plot in this show, and its’ not just the Peter Young or the stunning Cantus Firmus by Bridget Riley that I have in mind, there is also the early Sean Scully painting East Coast Light 2, the pulsating Auditorium by Dan Walsh, Depth of Field by Richard Kirwan, as well as the strangely photographic Flirt by Jane Harris and Untitled (fold) by Tauba Auerbach. Above all there is No Other Home by Daniel Sturgis who selected the paintings in this show.

Daniel Sturgis, No Other Home, 2011, Courtesy of the artist / Gallerie Holenbach Stuttgar & Zurich

The carefully painted chequer patterns have an optical charge all of their own and the fact that the two central layers one stacked upon the other are misaligned creates further visual excitation. The shallow space fluctuates and bends, partly as a result of the pattern and partly as a result of the colour. Even the space between viewer and painting seems animated as if the action truly resides in that optical place. Multiple experiences of visuality seem stacked in much the same way as the coloured or patterned bands in the painting are stacked one upon the other. The effect for me is slightly trance inducing leading to that enjoyable feeling of engaged relaxation. You could almost say that these are experiences that have no other home than in that odd discipline called painting, and specifically abstraction.

One painting here has no other home than Mead gallery, painted directly onto the wall by Francis Baudevin The Only Truth samples the cover for Paul Haig’s 12″ single of the same title.

Francis Baudevin, The Only Truth, 2010, Courtesy of Mead Gallery

“The title of the show The Indiscipline of Painting is a contradiction” said a woman standing next to me as we looked at the Baudevin “because these paintings are very disciplined aren’t they?” I agreed and I asked her if she was used to looking at paintings. She was not, having been invited along by a friend. She was clearly enjoying it, itself an indisciplined kind of discipline.

The Indiscipline of Painting: International Abstraction from 1960 to Now is showing at Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, until 10 March 2012.

The discipline of the indiscipline

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Very soon The Indiscipline of Painting exhibition comes to the Mead Gallery at the University of Warwick. Photos of the installation process can already be seen on the Mead Gallery Facebook page (they kindly said I could include one here).

It takes some discipline to get a show like this together!

Featuring work by 41 abstract painters from the sixties to now, it starts on 14 January 2012 and runs until 10 March 2012. As well as seeing the show you can also book a tour of the abstract paintings in the University of Warwick collection, attend a talk by Daniel Sturgis artist and curator of the show and join a symposium for an in-depth discussion of the origins and endurance of abstraction.

Written by Andy Parkinson

January 9, 2012 at 8:45 am

Now that is scale!

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Yesterday, I was thinking about reducing the scale of my work from a modest 4′ x 4′ to a prudish 4″ x 6″. I think I have noticed a trend towards working on a smaller scale in painting. Perhaps in times of ecomomic downturn it is to be expected. Not for Clare Woods, whose gigantic abstract landscapes can be seen at Hepworth, Wakefield until 29 January 2012.

You can see the connection to Barbara Hepworth in the landscape and figure references, figures that is of stone, “natural” sculpture. The paintings seem to explore the relationship between abstraction and figuration, the way that we read into “abstract” objects like rock formations, images of human forms, and the way that we can also see a represented form as an abstract one (“before a paintings is anything else it is first and foremost a blank surface covered with colours in varying patterns” – J.A.M Whistler).

It is difficult not to read this as a scull,

and am I right to see it as a reference to that particular anamorphic skull in The Ambassadors by Holbein?

And though there are unambigous references to rock formations and their fugural associations here, this painting asserts itself first and foremost as …. etc etc

Written by Andy Parkinson

January 8, 2012 at 8:45 am