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.
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.
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!
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).
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.