abstract art, a systems view

Archive for May 2012

Patrick Heron at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

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At the moment the modern collection at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is in gallery 21. The Patrick Heron painting seems to dominate the room, as if it has a different aesthetic to all the other works on view. His use of colour in his “wobbly hard edge” paintings (his term) makes everything else in here look dull.

Having said that, the little Winifred Nicholson painting of flowers at a window is lovely and there is at least one good Ben Nicholson painting on show.

The two abstract paintings seem to present two quite different versions of modernist abstraction don’t they?

P.S. Sam Cornish on Twitter pointed out that these two are in fact quite similar, and he’s right isn’t he? both are stacked rectangles holding circles. My response was that as an identical twin I see differences where others see similarity. A bad excuse if ever I heard one. I guess what I really have in mind is to do with the colour. When I walked into this space the Patrick Heron painting dominated in a way that the Nicholson collage didn’t. The strong flat colours in the Heron made it the only one in the room that was absolutely other than a window on the world. Actually, it seemed totally out of place. I love the Nicholsons, but they didn’t seem different to all the others in quite the same way as the Heron. Both abstract, both circles and rectangles, maybe we could say the drawing is similar, yet they seem to be different versions of abstraction in that the Nicholson seems to be about line whereas the Heron seems to be about colour.


Studio Visit, David Manley

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Two studio visits in one day. One was a visit to the dance studio for a lesson, and the other was a visit to an online friend, David Manley whom I have now met in “the real world”, at the Harrington Mill Studios in Long Eaton. What a space, and some great work being done there.


Thank you David, for showing me around and for chatting with me about your work, art in general, painting in particular, abstraction, some recent and current exhibitions and some of the exhibitions that you have curated.

I like the deadly delicious series you are working on just now, and I am interested in how you get from “real world” source to painted object/image. There’s a sense in which the sources of these paintings, certain viruses, are already images, not so much the photographic images of the viruses as the viruses themselves, made visible, as you explained to me, by the use of dyes. (Deadly and dyed.)

The earliest two of these seemed quite similar to a series of yours that I saw at the Tarpey Gallery last year, a show entitled From the Earth Wealth, paintings based on North West Leicestershire settlements. Since getting back I have looked up your blog about the way the series developed and enjoyed it. There was a time when I used to like reading Marvel comics and especially the origin stories, how for example, Peter Parker first became Spiderman. In transmuted form it remains a fascination: how did this abstract painting get to look like this? Your own method seems very different to my own, which I guess is one of the reasons that learning about it is so instructive.

Thanks also for bringing my attention to the show by Beth Shapeero, Pale Uneasy Shapes, abstraction of a different kind again, and a show which was so minimal that if you hadn’t pointed it out I might not have seen it at all.

Written by Andy Parkinson

May 20, 2012 at 8:30 am

Do the arts make us better?

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In the chapter entitled Do the Arts Make us Better? from John Carey’s book What Good are the Arts, he answers his own question with a resounding no. Apparently the arts do not make us better. “Better in comparison to what?” I hear you say. Well, here he has in mind mostly ‘moral betterment’. I am interested in the question with a therapeutic meaning: do the arts make us better i.e. heal us, or at least make us feel better (than we did before looking at the art)? More specifically I am interested in the ability (or otherwise) of visual art to do this.

I saw a blog post at air about an evaluation of their arts programme in Derby Hospitals carried out by the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at the University of Nottingham in 2010. It concluded that visual art in this environment implied, for many, a taking of pride in creating a high standard of care, that artworks also acted as a distraction from health issues and as a therapeutic aid to well-being as well as providing a practical means of “wayfinding” within the hospital.

I recall that about a year ago I was at Sandwell Hospital, accompanying my son who was having an operation, and what a stressful experience it was. The paintings on the wall (many really good ones) certainly acted as a distraction for me and as a kind of therapy. I wasn’t the patient but I was in need of cheering up and I got that from the paintings. Clearly, not everyone did, I was already interested in seeing paintings, and much of the ‘therapy’ may have been simply the pleasant surprise of seeing good art in this environment. I would much rather be in a gallery than a hospital after all! Nevertheless I have no doubt about the positive effect it had on me.

I am also connecting the qualitative study by the University of Nottingham, my experience of wellbeing, and an upcoming talk I am looking forward to hearing on 27 May 2012, at the Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno by Jane Raymond PhD, Professor of Visual Cognition Psychology, Bangor University and University of Birmingham, entitled From Seeing to Feeling: what does the human brain do when it looks at paintings? A gallery talk specifically with the paintings of Mali Morris in mind (and in view).

Written by Andy Parkinson

May 19, 2012 at 8:00 am

colour and light

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Sir Isaac Newton’s experiments with prisms, where white light passing through a prism emerges in a spectrum of colours like a rainbow led him to conclude that “Colours in the Object are nothing but a Disposition to reflect this or that sort of Rays more copiously than the rest.” In other words, light is composed of different rays (we might now say different frequencies), a given surface reflects certain rays and absorbs others. If it reflects low frequencies and absorbs high, then its colour will be at the red end of the spectrum whereas if it reflects high frequencies and absorbs low then it will be towards the blue end of the spectrum. However, a study of simultaneous colour contrasts shows that the “same colour” will look very different depending on its context. So “pattern of reflectance = colour of surface” is not the whole story, there is the ‘subjective’ side of colour construction to take into account.

Donald D Hoffman, in his book Visual Intelligence shows just how complex a process this is, and suggests some of the rules we use to construct the colours we see. I borrowed one of his experiments/demonstrations (which he credits to Christoph Redies and Lothar Spillmann)  for my painting Glow Grid, where coloured discs are constructed by the viewer:

and more recently I have been playing with colour mixing and wondering about how much of this takes place on the canvas (out there) and how much takes place optically (in here).

In the New Testament (of all places) we read that “the light of the body is the eye” emphasising not the objective (out there) source of light and colour (as perhaps J.M.W. Turner did when he said “the Sun is God”) but the subjective “in here” construction of it.

Mondrian and Nicholson revisited

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I posted about the recent Mondrian and Nicholson in Parallel exhibition long before I read an excellent review of that show by Alan Gouk at Abstract Critical, where he asks

  • Do I prefer the Nicholsons to the Mondrians?
  • Do I think Nicholsons aesthetic carries greater potential for the future/present of painting?

and offers some really interesting answers.

Read them for yourself here.

Written by Andy Parkinson

May 7, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Art

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Sing Sing Sing!

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I wonder of the painting by Jack Bush with the same title (see was a reference to this tune. Popular models in abstract painting?





World Music - the Music Journey

“Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)” is a 1936 song, written by Louis Prima and first recorded by him with the New Orleans Gang and released in March 1936 as a 78 as Brunswick 7628 (with “It’s Been So Long” as the B side). It is strongly identified with the big band and swing eras. It was covered by Fletcher Henderson and most famously Benny Goodman.

The Benny Goodman’s version

When I learned Quickstep, I danced it with the rhythm of this song

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Written by Andy Parkinson

May 6, 2012 at 6:48 pm