Archive for September 2012
I have written before about two approaches to making an abstract painting. We could call one of them ‘dialogical’: the artist enters a conversation with the materials in a state of ‘not knowing’ or with only a vague idea of what s/he is going to paint. The process becomes one of responding to previous ‘moves’, most of the decisions about the work being made during its production. The other strategy is pre-planned, with decisions being made before any paint is applied to a support. If the first is in danger of becoming ‘automatic writing’ the second may suffer from being too predictable. Perhaps they correspond to what Michael Kidner referred to as “the gestural approach”, which to him seemed “foreign to Western tradition” and lacked the possibility to develop, as opposed to the “preconceived image” which he thought “seems contrived”. Instead of either he proposed an empiricism of “imagery through optics” stating that “whereas a painting conceived in two colours can fairly easily be predicated in the mind’s eye, the addition of a third colour makes this impossible. The work necessarily becomes empirical.”
At Michael Kidner, Dreams of the World Order – Early Paintings at Flowers Gallery until 20 October 2012, this empiricism is evidenced in the relationship between paintings shown in the downstairs galleries and between those paintings and the wonderful (preparatory?) works on paper that are shown upstairs.
The exhibition explores four of Kidner’s sub-themes: After Image, Stripe, Moirè and Wave, described in the catalogue as “progressive experiments with optical effects and rational procedures, inspired by his preoccupation with how space, pattern and form function” and explaining that “a year after Kidner’s death in 2009, a number of rolled up paintings were discovered in his Hampstead Hill Gardens studio. These have now been re-united with this iconic body of work”. Many of the works on view in this exhibition are being shown for the first time.
It is a real treat being able to see them together, and to discover that some of the works on paper are double-sided (thank you to the show’s curator Amie Conway for demonstrating this).
One of the paintings I am particularly impressed by today is Circle after Image, 1959-60. Seeing an after image presented simultaneously below the image is a strange contradiction, the equivalent of an oxymoron like “objectively subjective”, and caught in this contradiction I am made aware of the temporal dimension of viewing a painting, and of vision in general. The after image is there represented by the artist yet as I view it, after about 20 seconds, I cannot help but project my own after image of the upper half of the canvas into the lower half.
I feel sure that Slavoj Zizek had something different in mind when he said that the ethical duty of the modern artist is to confront us with “not objective reality but the objectively subjective” though it does seem to apply. It is almost as if there is a double constructivism at play here, the paintings themselves being situated within that tradition, that also produce a keen awareness in the viewer of the part s/he plays in constructing visual reality.
Seeing the smaller after image paintings on paper in the upstairs gallery gives an insight into Kidner’s empirical working method, yet I hesitate to label them ‘preparatory’ because they provide specific experiences that are similar but different to the larger painting, and highly interesting and enjoyable in their own right.
A painting for which I find no preparatory works, unless perhaps it should be grouped in the “towards moire” category is Raindrops, 1960, a wonderfully chaotic yet finely ordered painting.
The clear circular motif seems to break down on prolonged viewing, and then as I notice the complementary coloured squares I realise that this too is based on after images, and indeed the ‘figures’ becoming unstable is in part due to my own after images that the painting provokes. There is also a small painting on paper entitled Moving Green from this same period that explores a similar theme. The after images do seem to pulsate and to move and there is also something ‘moving’ (in the emotional sense) about seeing them. I note my involuntary sigh that signals a change of state as I look at these beautiful paintings, yet my cognitive mind is an equal partner in the experience.
To my mind the work in this exhibition is proof, if proof were needed, that a rational, systematic (empirical rather than pre-conceived) approach to abstraction can result in works that are both emotionally charged and intellectually interesting. It could even be said that Kidner combines the opposing traditions of expressionism and constructivism. Although he criticised abstract expressionism for its “assault on the unconscious” there is something of Rothko’s feeling for colour in these paintings. Yet there is no mysticism or ‘spirituality’ here, even though there is Grace in the sense of the term that (following Aldous Huxley) systems thinker Gregory Bateson used of “integrating conscious and unconscious minds”.
(All images by courtesy of Flowers Gallery. My Zizek quote is taken from How to Read Lacan, chapter 4, my Bateson quote is taken from Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Part II and all my Kidner quotes are taken from the exhibition catalogue.)
The paintings by Anthony Daley, Caroline List, Laurence Noga, Katie Pratt and Raf Zawistowski on show at Intuition/Anti-intuition at the Lion and Lamb Gallery until 29 September 2012 have something of game and play about them. The word ‘play’ suggests an activity that is free, spontaneous, intuitive whereas ‘game’ connotes something with pre-established rules, and an activity that might resemble work more than play even though a game is quite clearly played, rather than worked.
There is something about abstract painting that is playful. That dialogical approach to painting where the artist does not know what s/he is going to paint before beginning has a lot of play in it. Which is not at all the same as saying there are no rules. Even “anything goes” is a rule, and all behaviour is rule governed, we just might not know what the rules are. Then, there is another approach where the rules are much more explicitly stated and many more of the decisions about the work are made before the painting is executed. The former approach is improvised and the latter is pre-planned. The former seems more intuitive and the latter anti-intuitive.
On visiting the exhibition and reading that its title “refers to a shared approach through process and materiality” and that “a conscious strategy to subvert intuition is developed by an engagement with rules or games, often through self-imposed instructions” I can imagine that much of the approach these artists take is indeed shared. However, the degree of intuition or anti-intuition, play or game, varies from one artist to another. I don’t think that I am seeing anything here that is as pre-planned as say Natalie Dower or Katrina Blannin (whose work I saw when I visited last time). And even within this shared approach that deliberately follows rules, I struggle to work out what the rules are. And this is part of the pleasure of the show for me: I feel a bit like a spectator of a sports competition, the rules of which I do not know but seek to deduce by watching the game play out. Except that I get nearer to deciphering them when I watch the sport than when I see the paintings. It’s probably just me, but however long I study, I doubt I will fathom the rules. (Whilst I got a sense of this when looking at Natalie Dower’s paintings in that, when I was sure I had worked out what was happening I then discovered that there was much more going on than that, or that I was just wrong, at least I thought that I was getting somewhere, and most of the time I probably was.) Here I am less sure I am getting somewhere. Then, I realise that this too is a game. My experience as a viewer is both intuitive and anti-intuitive, I wonder if I would have been puzzling about the rules if I had not read about that strategy to subvert intuition, maybe I would have intuited them.
Anyway, I am enjoying the puzzle as I view the evocative and lyrical paintings of Anthony Daley, Caroline List and Katie Pratt. Each containing allusions to a world outside of the canvas, although what is being celebrated is the painting process. List’s painterly marks, fluid in blues, whites and greys, sometimes a shiny lustre glaze and sometimes a matt white flurry, can’t help but suggest a seascape, possibly being viewed through the porthole of a ship. And I am making tree associations when I view the highly playful lines and gestures in Katie Pratt’s marvelous ‘Jamerera’. Daley’s “like” paintings invite metaphorical landscape readings, not just in their titles.
I am finding landscape imagery in Raf Zawitowski’s ‘West of Eden’ and again I think the title confirms the association, but this time far from a lyrical evocation, I am reminded of the violence and ‘unnaturalness’ of nature. If the others made connections to earth and water now it is fire I am being confronted by. Then, in case I am allowing my intuition to over-indulge in associations the density of the surface (the paint stands about an inch from the canvas) brings me quickly to my senses, the look and texture of the paint as well as the smell, I can definitely smell oil paint, asserts the materiality of the painted object. C.G. Jung opposed “sensing” to “intuition” and I wonder if this distinction is relevant here, at least to the game I am playing of viewing these paintings.
The two paintings by Laurence Noga also bring me back to my senses, specifically the visual. That “colour underpins decisions” is clearest here. Yet the results of those decisions, that suggest control of the process, also lead to a disorienting effect in the viewer, as they must have done in the viewer/artist when the painting was in progress. It is as if the paintings assert the unpredictability of colour, however much you think you know about it.
whilst the process may indeed be anti-intuitive, the colour arouses not just visual excitation but also all kinds of intuitions, thoughts, associations, prompted by the experience of viewing but way out of the control of the artist.
There’s nothing plain about Plane Space, an exhibition of abstract paintings, at Worcester Cathedral Crypt, 8 – 15 September 2012, curated by Dan Roach, artist in residence there. The show includes paintings by Karl Bielik, Katrina Blannin, Sarah McNulty, Dan Roach, Paul Rosenbloom and Gwennan Thomas, scattered throughout the crypt, rather than ‘hung’, I guess partially because of the limitations of using such a poetic space (I would be amazed if you were allowed to drive screws into the ancient wall). I had no idea when I visited that as well as negotiating the planar space of the abstract paintings on show, those paintings themselves would also be influencing me to explore the anything but plain space of the Cathedral Crypt, in a manner not unlike ‘hunt the thimble’.
Nearly every church building I have seen today has an ‘Open’ sign outside it. Worcester Cathedral is no exception, and there are numerous visitors to the crypt who had no expectation of seeing paintings here. On entering, they look slightly confused, as if to ask (without actually asking anyone) “what are these people looking at?” Their experience may have been in the opposite direction to my own. I came to view paintings and they seemed to lead me to the space, they came for the space and it presented them with the paintings. Like the tiny Dan Roach situated at the foot of a statue.
When I posted previously about a Dan Roach painting, Zak Braiterman made the observation that my write-up sounded to him like a description of religion, something to do with clearing away of layers and gestural marks on the ritual surface . I am not sure I quite get it, yet it’s strange now to be seeing Roach paintings in this religious setting. And there is something of a ritual quality to his production, repeating his now familiar hexagonal motif, as if attempting to understand it rather than just to ‘use’ it, or as if the act of painting is a process of learning, of coming to know something that may already be known by others but for the learner is known for the first time, a revelation.
In this painting the hexagonal motifs float in a space that I cannot help but see as deeper than the two-dimensional flat plane that I know it is and that the painting itself keeps reminding me it is, by the refusal to open up a window on the world of recognizable objects, almost as if I find myself at the moment where perception attempts to become cognition and the attempt is continually thwarted. Maybe that moment (which, following John Grinder and Judith DeLozier, I think of as similar to the state that Carlos Castaneda referred to as “stopping the world”) holds information for us, and abstract painting allows us to remain there for longer than we usually do. Those organic hexagons could settle, they could join in network-like formation, yet they remain perpetually frozen in that space-time moment of being just about to form.
Katrina Blannin’s marvelous paintings here look fully formed, yet in each one there is also a shifting, just when you think you’ve ‘got it’ the forms or gestalts shift and you notice a different reading, and then another, and another.
Even the fact that we so clearly have a series: diptychs exploring the same arrangement of triangles and rectangles in different colours, that change things remarkably, reminds me of the unfixedness of fixed things, or that within a rational order is infinite variety. I like seeing two of them here, and I hope for an occasion to see the whole series together. On seeing the first one, even in this small space, separated far enough from the other as to be unaware of its presence, my reaction is to wonder if it is the same one I had seen recently at the Double Vision exhibition at the Lion and Lamb Gallery. Even though I know it is not the same, the colours are different, I consider it possible that I am mis-remembering it. On seeing the second diptych here, I realise that both these two are different to the one I saw a few weeks previously. I am an identical twin and when my brother and I are apart we often get mistaken for one another, which could not happen when we are together. I think these paintings are like that.
In a similar way to the series reminding me that this one work is also a part of a larger whole, a system, this particular ‘hang’ sets up clear connections with the surroundings so that it is not just each painting that I am viewing but its relationship to a wider context. It would be difficult not to notice the beauty in the contrast between the copper colours in the wall and the blues in Blannin’s Hexad painting.
Similarly, the Sarah McNulty painting M (II), cannot not be connected to the environment when it is already placed on concrete before then being placed here in this space. Other paintings here sometimes have a pebble or a piece of wood perhaps, discretely placed beneath them to keep them straight, but these are not part of the painting whereas in the McNulty the medium is “Gouache on Linen on Concrete”. The relationship between art work and plinth sounds like a concern more associated with sculpture. The object-ness of an abstract painting also brings this consideration to mind in painting and being in this space seems to emphasise that.
The painting Apostrophe by Karl Beilik seems to assert that abstract painting can evoke places and events, and that a motif might be borrowed from everyday text, yet in such a way that is ambiguous, are they “really” apostrophes or do they just look a bit like them?
Gwennan Thomas’s paintings are similarly ambiguous: forms that don’t quite form, bringing my attention to the way objects are formed or coded, before ever considering what they might mean.
The Paul Rosenblooms resemble cave paintings, marks etched into painted grounds, gestures and ritual again maybe, invoking a past much older even than Worcester Cathedral’s Norman origins, or of abstraction’s barely 100-year-old history.
On viewing these abstract paintings at Plane Space, I could easily begin to speculate on the status of abstract painting in contemporary art, for some already consigned to the crypt, painting being dead and abstract painting especially so, quite possibly in danger of becoming a mere footnote in its ancient history. Here in this crypt however, it seems very much alive, demonstrating its power to evoke and reveal, not so much the visual world outside it as the very coding of the visual.
Berwick Watchtower is a new art space being opened by writer and critic William Feaver on Saturday 8 September and will house a permanent display of works by the mighty Ian Stephenson as well as showing temporary exhibitions by other artists. It’s ages since I saw paintings by Stephenson. I am looking forward to seeing the eight large paintings here in the same space as smaller work by Morris and Lewis (no reference to Morris Louis intended).
…beautifully painted, the way that various layers show through carefully rendered transparent shapes, themselves forming a rhythm that echoes the central figure, and contrasting with other shapes that are also made by revealing underpainted areas but this time as if clearing away the top layer to allow a gestural mark to come right up to the surface.
It also includes, Katrina Blannin and Sarah McNulty (they also showed work at Double Vision) as well as Paul Rosenbloom, Gwennan Thomas and Karl Bielik. Thinking of Bielik there’s this good write-up of a studio visit by Paul Bhenke at Structure and Imagery.