patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Archive for March 2012

Mondrian, my wife and Alex Hubbard

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My wife kindly agreed to come with me to see the Mondrian/Nicholson in Parallel exhibition at The Courtauld Gallery, London

She isn’t massively interested in art, but I thought that she might quite like the Mondrians. Imagine my surprise when she was totally underwhelmed. Partly she was bored, and more than that she just didn’t seem to ‘get it’. I have come to think of those paintings as traditional but her reaction showed me that they remain challenging. In fact, the fact of abstraction can continue to be challenging, even now 100 years since its birth.

I had planned to visit the Alex Hubbard show at Simon Lee the next day and I anticipated her finding that even more of a challenge. After all, the paintings are virtually monochromes with plastic rubbish embedded into their glossy surfaces, and the videos could be seen as making no sense. But she was fascinated by the videos and watched them with me a few times and she thoroughly enjoyed looking at the paintings.

This work is, to my mind, much more contemporary and much more challenging than the Mondrian and Nicholson paintings, yet she could connect with them and enjoy them. Partly she was attracted to the colours, it had not occurred to me how decorative they could appear. She was also sure that the embedded pieces of rubbish were selected for their colour and carefully placed. At the time I disagreed with her, but now I am beginning to think she may be right.

Mondrian/Nicholson in Parallel is showing at The Courtauld Gallery until 20 May 2012 and Alex Hubbard, Eat Your Friends is showing at Simon Lee until 5 April 2012

Rest and motion at Castleford Civic Centre

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Piet Mondrian suggested that humanity seeks rest within motion, or “repose through movement”[1] and he found an example of it in dance, referring possibly to the foxtrot, he said “each movement is immediately neutralized by a countermovement which signifies the search for equilibrium”[2].

Taking part in the ISTD dance medallist competition (ballroom, latin and sequence) at Castleford Civic Centre on 11 March, I thought that my own foxtrot seemed to have too much repose and not enough movement! Maybe I was feeling too relaxed after looking at the Henry Moore reclining figure on the way into the centre.

 

The reclining figure figures a lot in Henry Moore’s oeuvre, and he donated this one in 1980 to Castleford, the town where he was born, the Civic Centre having been officially opened a decade earlier on 24 March 1970.

 

The Civic Centre, a fine example of modernist architecture, designed by Derek Goad, is an optimistic looking building if ever I saw one, even now when it seems to reflect an optimism about the future that is a situated in the modernist period, when perhaps we believed more honestly in “a steady advance from the poor environment of the past to the more pleasant and brighter surroundings of the future”[3]. One of the features of the building is its facing in precast concrete panels manufactured from a limestone aggregate chosen for its weathering properties: “it has been found to get naturally lighter in colour with exposure to the atmosphere so counteracting the darkening process caused by the atmosphere itself”[4]. Apart from the darkening beneath the windows this hope, this countermovement does seem to have been realised.

 

I find it a hopeful place also by association, because of the activity (medallist competition dancing) for which I have been here a few times now. I go in filled with hope anyway! Sometimes I come out feeling even better than when I went in, other times less so. I first started to become interested in the building when I looked across the dancefloor/theatre and saw the wall sculpture, comissioned for the opening in 1970, silent, static, yet visually rhythmic (movement through repose perhaps). The dynamic rhythms of the dancefloor seem to be echoed in the sculptural forms.

The artist is Diana Dean, who was working with abstract geometric form in both painting and sculpture at the time, and the work, made in stainless steel, is entitled Symmetry in Opposition. I could wonder to what extent the title also echoes that idea of equilibrium found in the Mondrian quote above. Dean explained to me that at first the two projected squares were facing inwards with two corners touching, and then this changed to the outward projection which is why she called it Symmetry in Opposition.

Here are some photo’s of what it looked like in 1970.

 

I wonder if I also find Mondrian’s notion of the neutralisation of opposites in the contrast between the stasis of the final form Vs the activity of its making.

Dean moved to Canada in 1975, where she focused on painting and moved away from abstraction, the geometry hidden, as it were, within the structure, supporting the figuration. When I contacted her recently she replied saying “I felt it was quite synchronistic to receive your email this week as I had just begun a portrait painting with geometric patterning appearing in the carpet and all perspective lines in the room going to the left eye of the sitter. Maybe I am moving towards a new form of geometric abstraction again”[5].

A psychological reading might suggest that we are witnessing a “return of the repressed”.

(Thanks to Diana Dean and Derek Goad for supplying information and pictures for this blog post)


[1] Piet Mondrian. ‘Natural Reality and Abstract Reality: an essay in Trialogue Form’ (1919-1920) in Mondrian:

Natural Reality and Abstract Reality edited by Martin James (1995) p.27 quoted in Dancing with Mondrian by Annette Chauncy, in The International Journal of the Arts in Society vol 5, no.3

[2] Piet Mondrian. ‘The New Plastic in Painting’ (1917) in The New Life the New Art – Collected writings of Piet

Mondrian edited by Harry Holtzman & Martin James (1987). P.43, quoted in Dancing with Mondrian by Annette Chauncy, in The International Journal of the Arts in Society vol 5, no.3

[3] Opening ceremony brochure

[4] Opening ceremony brochure

[5] Personal email from the artist

Alex Hubbard Exhibition: Eat Your Friends, at Simon Lee

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The Alex Hubbard exhibition at Simon Lee Gallery, London, entitled Eat Your Friends, just six works, two of them being videos and the other four being paintings, is absolutely wonderful.

The “title track” is a video that I just cannot help but read as a moving painting with sound.

Montage-like, there are at least three camera views, two look down onto a table top or the floor and one looks forward, and as they overlap actions in one descreet space seem to be taking place also in another. Here it is quite possible to be in two places at once. The actions include spray painting the words “EAT YOUR FRIENDS”, constructing a tower with large cups of take-away coffee until it collapses spilling the contents, and moving a cuboid frame around, “building” some temporary structure the purpose of which seems to defy the logic of building.

The paintings more or less coloured monochromes, made with fibreglass, and found objects: plastic bottles, syringes, broken bits of things, rubbish, the resin sticking the objects to the canvas and forming a high gloss surface over a stained acrylic base. I try to decide whether the objects are carefully placed or randomly scattered and I suspect it’s a bit of both. I study them and then wonder why I am studying them so carefully, what am I expecting to find? Yet I do keep looking, hesitiating to admit that they are beautiful.

 

Finding beauty and being fascinated is my response to the paintings and also to the two videos. I watch them both a few times (they are only about 5 minutes in length). They have narrative of sorts, something happens, and yet also nothing happens. BOTTOM OF THE TOP, like the first video, also uses text, this time not spray painted but possibly arrived at through cutting out the lettering and dropping it in place along the right hand edge of the frame (I so nearly wrote “painting”) over the duration of the video. That’s how it looked to me. And following what is being written, making sense of it yet it not making sense, is matched by the rest of the action,even whilst acknowledging some of the references, the most obvious one being Magritte’s painting Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe, a pipe in the bottom left corner billows smoke across the picture plane throughout. In the top right an electric fan whirs and carnations are ‘fed’ through the mesh until, hitting the blades, they are scattered across the picture plane in the opposite direction to the smoke. This is what happens when the carnations hit the fan! Meanwhile the artist’s head wrapped in bandages(?) which he paints blue appears at the bottom. We see only head and an arm placing a fish and an eel and flowers above his head, moving them around and eventually cutting the fish and placing the flowers inside it.

There’s beauty here, amid lots of humour. I am reminded of some of those old black & white surrealist films but can’t quite recall a specific one, and action painting, abstract expressionism, neo Dada, are all in here too, as are art-historical/art critical ideas of constructivism, all overness, and Leo Steinberg’s “flatbed picture plane”, in other words modernism, post modernism, and I want to say post-post modernism (Metamodernism even). For all its humour, this work never seems to me to be parody or irony, or of it is ironic I get the sense that it is post-modern irony itself that is being parodied.

The art works in this show seem to blur the distinction between sculpture, painting, performance, and video as well as the ‘genres’ of figuration, abstraction and surrealism, and delightfully question our ways of making sense of art, non-art and everything else.

Eat Your Friends is showing at Simon Lee Gallery, London until 4 April 2012.

Mondrian and Nicholson in Parallel

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At last, I got to see Mondrian//Nicholson In Parallel at The Courtauld Gallery over the weekend, and it was worth the wait. Just two rooms of  modestly sized paintings and reliefs, a small exhibition, that delivers a lot. It explores the relationship between the works of Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson during the 1930’s when their  friendship culminated with Mondrian moving to London in 1938. They worked in neighbouring Hampstead studios for two years, London at this time being the centre of an international community of avant-garde artists.

Their influence on each other is undeniable and can be seen in the works shown here in their obvious similarity. I am tempted to say that Mondrian’s influence on Nicholson’s painting seems clearer than the other way round. Stylistically, Nicholson’s work appears to have changed  more under Mondrian’s influence than Mondrian’s did as a result of Nicholson’s,  but it surely was not the “one way street” that some commentators have inferred.  Nicholson did a lot for the reception of abstraction in the UK, and he helped to secure sales of Mondrian’s paintings, these actions alone would have been positively reinforcing for Mondrian’s art.

Looking at the work in this show the similarities soon start to give way to the differences. In Mondrian’s Composition C (no. III), with Red, Yellow and Blue, the grid lines and intersectional coloured rectangles seem to refuse any representational associations I might attempt to bring to it.

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

I keep coming up against its decisive abstractness, almost like it says “oh no you don’t” every time I find the beginnings of pictorial content. The Nicholsons’, on the other hand, almost invite it. These two paintings hang side by side in this exhibition, highlighting for me this similarity-giving-way-to-difference.

Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) 1937 (painting) Oil on canvas, 79.5 x 91 cm The Courtauld Gallery, London, Samuel Courtauld Trust (Alistair Hunter Bequest, 1984) © Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

In the Mondrian paintings we get primary colours with Black and White. The painting above being the only one in the exhibition with all three primary colours. By contrast, in Nicholson’s 1937 (painting), planes of primary, secondary and tertiary colours group around a red square, creating a pictorial space with potential associations. For me it resembles architectural forms or possibly a spiral staircase. Although, as with the Mondrian, I am ultimately brought back to its abstractness, it happens less insistently.

I am also surprised to find more evidence of underpainting in Mondrian than in Nicholson, looking like the final version of, for example, Composition C is arrived at through multiple re-workings, whereas I wonder if 1937 (painting) follows a more pre-determined course. Not that either of these approaches is better than the other, just different.

I love the colours of the Nicholson paintings, so it is with some reluctance that I say that he is most authoritative in the white reliefs, (that somehow I still tend to read as paintings). Even there I find it difficult not to read figuration into the abstract forms. A square and a circle looking at times like a building and a full moon. Nevertheless, it is the purity of the forms that ‘speaks’ rather than those ‘accidental’ associations. And they speak of a time when abstract art was capable of opening up a whole new world of possibilities, compared with today when that language seems more or less fixed, and we speak of the ‘abstract tradition’, not to mention its impossibility.

Me and My Shadow… and the Shadow of Two Forms With White (Greek)

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Reblogging an appropriation of a shadow of an artwork

rhetorical pens

As the sun slowly sank towards the Wakefield horizon on Tuesday evening, I amused myself, in an empty gallery, by admiring the shadows cast by Babs’ sculpture Two Forms With White (Greek) on the wall.

No photographs of this sculpture are allowed to be taken, or at least not without signing lots of forms, but can you copyright the shadow of an artwork?

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Written by Andy Parkinson

March 20, 2012 at 9:44 am

Posted in Art

Tagged with ,

The Warwick Dials

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For me, the best thing about Warwick Arts Centre is The Mead Gallery. However, it is also an arts venue with dance, film, theatre and music performances. The Warwick Dials, art work by Richard Wentworth, could easily be mistaken for real dysfunctional clocks.

warwick dials 2 

Well that’s what they are!

Written by Andy Parkinson

March 19, 2012 at 8:45 am

Mali Morris: Works on Canvas and Paper at Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno | Painters’ Table

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Mali Morris: Works on Canvas and Paper at Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno | Painters’ Table.

I love Painters’ table…

…and especially so when they feature patternsthatconnect!

Written by Andy Parkinson

March 17, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

For the millions

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When I was touring the art collection at Warwick University, assistant curator Elizabeth Dooley introduced a wonderful painting by Patrick Heron. I heard her call it “For the Millions”..

…and in this collection, dispersed as it is throughout the university and right there where work is being done, as well as open for public viewing, it may well get seen by ‘the millions’. However, I mis-heard her. The title is Four Vermillions. Four reds near enough in value, tone and hue to be called “vermillion” yet different enough for there to be four very distinct colours.

I recently heard David Batchelor (there is a marvelous piece by him in the same building entitled Against Nature, photo below) say that he does not use the names of colours, as you cannot know what kind of the named colour it is without actually seeing it. He said something like that anyway, unless I mis-heard him.

Thanks Liz, for the tours, they were excellent.

Written by Andy Parkinson

March 16, 2012 at 8:45 am

Mali Morris at Mostyn Gallery

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When you plan your trip to see Mali Morris: Works on Canvas and Paper at Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno, even though it continues until 24 June 2012, and even though Mostyn Gallery is open 7 days a week, go sooner rather than later, because when you’ve been the once, you will probably want to visit a second or third time.

What is it about these works that rewards prolonged viewing and that later, when enjoying the memory of them, seems to draw me back for a repetition? And, on repeat viewing, I realise the impossibility of repetition: it is something different I am noticing in the work this time around.

If abstract painting, to quote Matthew Collings on Mali Morris, is about “constantly coming up with visual metaphors for experience”, and the artist’s job is to produce this metaphor-world “in the form of visual pleasure, or beauty”, that’s a great metaphor for what Mali Morris does. And visual pleasure begins even as I peer though the window, waiting for the gallery to open

and even more so when I get inside and confront, or am confronted by the large painting North & South, on loan from The Royal Academy.

Love at first sight (!) is my response to the startling beauty that seems to be “out there”, or the visual pleasure, that seems to be “in here”. Beauty seems connected to desire, and the goal of desire, according to Slavoj Zizek “is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire”. Seeing it, I want to see it some more, and looking more closely, what started out like an epiphany becomes more like a slow reveal. The brightness of the coloured discs immediately grabs my attention from a distance, and moving nearer, I get interested in their very specific characters, each one different as a result not only of the quality of the particular chosen colour but because of the way it is arrived at. And are they contained within shaped ‘fields’ or do they sit on top of flat planes? Or maybe they inhabit different spaces, some receding further back than others, or then again, perhaps they hover above twisting and bending spaces. Seeing the painting from a different angle the space certainly appears to bend, but not in an “op art” way, it is slower and gentler than that. The colour creates space, and doesn’t perceiving this colour at least hint at a suspension of the natural cycle of desire, a kind of “bliss” according to Roland Barthes?

I missed the artist’s talk at the exhibition opening, the day before my visit, but a member of the gallery staff was kind enough to relate some of what had been said, recalling that partly it had been about the influence of other painters both modern and pre-modern, and remembering a comment about the relationship of the size of the works to the body, not just the artist’s hand or wrist but indeed the whole arm, and in the larger works the whole body.

Looking at the paintings, whilst the circular forms, even in the works that seem to hold just one such form, never become ‘faces’ or ‘heads’, they do engage me in a kind of conversation and I wonder if that’s what the first painting in this show brings to mind, or rather to heart, in its title: Reply.

I can imagine the two circles replying, or being a reply to one another, or the two circles in conversation with the blue-ish over-painted “ground”. Or is the painting itself a reply to previous paintings, (working as Morris does in series tends to create an ongoing conversation of art works)? I can also imagine the whole exhibition as a reply to a previous one, almost as if this first painting, on a wall of its own, announces that the show is the artists reply, situated within a previously established dialogue. And doesn’t an artist also enter into a kind of debate with the painting itself, so that the work could even be a reply to the artist as if it had a life of its own? It could equally be that the artist is engaging me in a discussion, replying to my statement or question about art or about life. The painting greets me, draws me into a conversation, but one that has already commenced some time ago, a bit like when I meet up with my twin brother and we just “carry on from where we left off” even though we haven’t seen each other for months. Even so, it is a conversation beyond or before language, where again it is colour that seems to temporarily suspend the necessity of language and thought-as-language (internal dialogue).

There are 18 paintings on canvas in the downstairs gallery, mostly small in size, yet each one ‘big’ enough to get a good ‘conversation’ going between painting and viewer. The way they are arranged also means they get ‘conversations’ going between themselves.

In the upstairs gallery there are 18, mostly smaller, paintings on paper including the very recent series the Mostyn Suites, which remind me of jewels, approaching tiny at 10 x 15 cm, in amazingly luminous colour (my photos don’t do them justice have a look at the picture on the Mostyn web site).

In David Batchelor‘s book Chromophobia he observes that in literature colour often gets “caught in the spell of gems and precious stones” and that “gems often stand in for colour-in-general. They represent the point at which colour becomes independent and assertive…” Whether in Aldous Huxley’s visions of Heaven: “always a place of gems” or Dorothy’s Oz, “colour – intense, heightened, pure, unqualified offer(s) a glimpse of the ‘Other World’, a world beyond Nature and the Law”. In Mali Morris’s little works on paper, gem-like in their luminosity, colour seems to become independent and brilliantly assertive. The modernist abstract tradition where the words “big” and “abstract” belong together has clear resonance with Morris’s work, yet in these little paintings she almost turns the theory of colour-field abstraction on its head.

Farewell Indiscipline

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Regular visitors to this blog will have noticed that I have been enjoying the exhibition The Indiscipline of Painting, International Abstraction from 1960 to now, that started out at Tate St Ives late in 2011 and moved to Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, in January 2012. Well, today is the final day of the show and bidding it farewell seems an opportune moment to reflect on what I got from visiting it many times.

The early Sean Scully painting East Coast Light 2, was a surprise to me. I like Scully’s work. especially the Wall of Light series, and that the earlier paintings look so very different to the more recent ones was more of a surprise than I expected. I was surprised by the surprise. I had read in Scully’s book Resistance and Persistence that this early work was “frankly illusionistic” and I saw a photograph of East Coast Light 2 in that book. But seeing it for real it is frankly illusionistic! much more so than in the reproduction. Seeing it here opposite the Bridget Riley Painting Cantus Firmus was interesting, as there are obvious connections and also differences. The space in the Scully is illusionistic in that it it opens up “inside” the painting, whereas Riley’s space is “outside”, between painting and viewer.

Sean Scully, East Coast Light 2, 1973, Courtesy of the artist and Neo Neo Inc.

Just down from the Scully, Karin Davie‘s lovely painting is highly gestural and though there is space “inside” or “behind” and “through” the gestural line, it is less illusionistic, much shallower than in East Light 2.

Karin Davie, Symptomania No 7, Image Courtesy of the artist

Richard Kirwan‘s painting Depth of Field seems also to be about what we might call “optical space”, a magnificent painting of the simplest motif repeated many times: an asterisk, possibly a reference to text and therefore to language and sign. Is our attention being brought to multiple footnotes? One of the experiences I have whilst viewing this, and many other paintings in this exhibition is the pure pleasure of seeing. Then my internal dialogue kicks in asking what it is that provokes that pleasure, seeking to ‘unpack’ it intellectually, to follow-up on the “footnotes”. So I read the catalogue, finding out more about the works and the patterns that connect them. At the gallery talk last Saturday with Bob Nickas and Alison Green (both who write in the catalogue), Alison Green commented on the many “back stories” of these paintings suggesting that the pleasure of looking at art includes learning those stories, and that it is not a solely visual experience. I think she is right about that, even though looking without knowing is immensely pleasurable. There seems something very playful about being amazed at how the asterisks seem to rotate. When you have seen the painting before you know it is going to happen but you are still thrilled by it when it does!

Richard Kirwan, Depth of Field, 2011, Copyright the artist / Galerie Hollenbach Stuttgar & Zurich

No Other Home by Daniel Sturgis, the artist who selected the work for this show, has a similar optical buzz, only more so. As I look, I notice my breathing change, almost a sigh, that seems to signal a change of state. Exhaling, my shoulders relax and I ‘take in’ the painting, puzzled by its structure and almost laughing when those chequer patterns seem to dance. Then I get fascinated by the blue discs, and getting up close I just cannot tell whether, for example, the disc on the right looking like it is balanced dangerously close to a cliff edge, and the other one slightly further in (almost immediately left), are the same physical colour, the surrounding colours making them look quite different to each other, or whether in fact they are mixed as different colours. However many times I step nearer and further away from the painting I am unable to verify which it is, though I suspect the former (and later, asking the artist, he confirms it).

Dan Sturgis, No Other Home, 2011, Courtesy of the artist / Galerie Hollenbach Stuttgar & Zurich

At the gallery talk Bob Nickas likened abstract painting to the Hitchcock film The Trouble With Harry, about a dead body that is discovered, hidden, buried, dug up and rediscovered etc, the trouble being that it just “won’t stay dead”. Painting, and specifically abstraction, have been pronounced dead umpteen times but the discipline (or rather the indiscipline, its status being highly contingent) just won’t stay dead.

This show, with 49 artists represented, gives me 49 reasons to continue making abstract paintings, or I learn 49 ways to do abstract painting now that it is dead, or I get to see 49 responses to what to do with abstract painting since its demise: possibly three ways of saying the same thing.

Sarah Shalgosky, Curator, University of Warwick, in her guided tour of this exhibition suggested that it was a “walk through the mind of Daniel Sturgis” and she also said that in bringing these works together they wanted us to have “visual fun”. Judging from the numerous conversations I have had with people at the gallery since the opening night, I am sure that I am not the only one for whom this goal was amply met.