patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Archive for December 2012

Duke Street Tetractys

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I had the idea for this tetractys when I was working at Wallacespace on Duke Street, St Pancras

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Duke Street Tetractys 2, 2012, Acrylic and Permanent Marker on Board, 11 1/4″ x 11 1/4″

I was clearing away the marker pens after the day’s work when I noted this sequence of colours: yellow + blue = green, complementary = red, adjacent to orange made by adding yellow, complementary = purple. I made a sketch that same day and then during the next few days completed a version in acrylic and marker pen on acrylic paper, currently on display at First Come First Served at The Lion and Lamb Gallery. More recently I painted the version shown above, on board using narrower lines (possibly too narrow).

(The photo has a slight red cast due to the direct sunlight. My fairly good camera has a limitation of having automatic white balance only.)

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First Come First Served at Lion and Lamb Gallery

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First Come First Served, the open show at Lion and Lamb Gallery, with no selection criteria other than ‘first come first served’ is described to me by one of the participants at the hang/opening as “democratic”. If that suggest selection by majority then perhaps “anarchic” says it better, so long as we remember that anarchy and chaos are not at all the same thing. I keep hearing people say how curated it looks, how considerately artists have placed their work, leaving room for others and seeking complementarity rather than competition, which is perhaps what you would expect at a venue named after that biblical lion and lamb pairing.

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It’s a collaboration of sorts, unspoken and implicit, reminiscent of a group exercise I learned from Simon Horton, author of Negotiation Mastery, where in large group of people each individual chooses two others in the room, and without letting on who they are positions themselves so they form three points an equilateral triangle. After a few minutes of moving around, and without speaking  or signalling to each other, the group quickly settles into a whole where every part forms an equilateral triangle with two others. The space at Lion and Lamb seems to have been negotiated in a similar fashion.

The only thing that is predictable about a show of this kind is its unpredictability and variety. There are works here by a diverse range of artists including Katrina Blannin, Alli Sharma, Sarah McNulty, Andy Wicks, Laurence Noga, Andrew Bick, Gwennan Thomas and a host of other names some well known and some new to me. I have met Nancy Cogswell here at a PV at the Lion and Lamb Gallery before so it was good to meet her again and to see her exquisitely painted masquerade-style mask in a drawer (sorry, Nancy I don’t know the title and my snap isn’t good enough to show). I met Laurence Noga also at the show he curated here a few months ago. Today his diptych is reminiscent of one of the paintings he showed then, but much smaller, almost like a miniature preliminary study, except that the collage elements, I think, make it look much more a thing in itself. It’s quite beautiful, tiny and jewel-like.

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Removing my own 8″ square painting Duke Street Tetractys from my bag, I place it in a position that had been left especially for it, directly beneath a lovely painting that could be a photogram of a necklace.

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I am enjoying talking with artists about their work and I am asked a few times about my own, one person tentatively classifying it as “Op?” It occurs to me that, like “systems”, that’s a category that often gets disavowed: “it’s not quite Op” or ” it’s not strictly systems art” as though either of those would be very bad. So I proudly answer “yes, and it’s systems based”. I get to say something about my interest in colour-spread phenomena.

Andy Wicks‘ unique lino and digital print with acrylic, Mudlarks seems uncharacteristic of other work I have seen by him, more figurative perhaps in that there are figures in a ‘land’scape, though there is a marine connection as there are with other of his paintings.

Andy Wicks, Mudlarks, 2012, Unique lino and digital print on paper with acrylic paint (edition of 70 with hand painted colour varations)13 x 19 cmImage by courtesy of the artist

Andy Wicks, Mudlarks, 2012, Unique lino and digital print on paper with acrylic paint (edition of 70 with hand painted colour variations)
13 x 19 cm
Image by courtesy of the artist

The lino cut here, taken from a Victorian etching, shows boys ‘mudlarking’ on the banks of the River Thames, superimposed on a WW2 propaganda image of the Royal air force flying over a naval convoy, boys and their toys, so there is this interesting layering of references and time periods, brought up to date by the adding of Wellington boots to the figures. Seeing is a complex process, triggering imagination, memories and associations. This complex little print highlights for me what might be ‘seen’ in our mind’s eye when we view an image, reminding me of how, at a more general level, we construct meaning through the processes of framing, layering and juxtaposition.

Complex also, but in a different way is Katrina Blannin’s beautiful, systems based, gouache on paper. I am interested in the multiple ways of reading it, negative spaces shifting to positive shapes, and back again, only now it’s a different negative space I am seeing. However hard-edged, or high in clarity the image might be, ambiguities abound. Do we say that something is “deceptively simple” when at first sight it communicates simplicity and matter-of-factness whilst on continued viewing it turns out to be thoroughly nuanced?

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Then I start to wonder about how the colours were achieved: to what degree were they mixed prior to being placed, or how much is the result of physical layering on the paper? Then again, how much of the mixing is taking place on my retina? And I note that a painting can be a lot about colour without necessarily being highly coloured.

First Come First Served is on at The Lion and Lamb Gallery until 11 January 2013, all the works are for sale.

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British Abstract Painting in the Seventies: Stagnation or New Possibilities?

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In the seventies abstract painting in Britain was in crisis. At least that’s how it seemed to some. If during the sixties it had become hegemonic that privileged position was on the wane. Peter Fuller would shortly declare American abstraction to be not much more than a CIA plot, within the discipline of painting figuration was in resurgence, whilst outside it performance art and conceptualism were fast becoming the dominant art forms, leading to the stagnation of abstract painting. The exhibition New Possibilities, Abstract Painting from the Seventies, a show of fourteen painters from the period (all still painting today), at the Piper Gallery counters this viewpoint, demonstrating that instead abstraction in this decade was vibrant and varied.

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Installation shot (right. Gary Wragg, Carnival, left Trevor Sutton That Swing.4.K). Image by courtesy of The Piper Gallery

In her gallery talk co curator Sandra Higgins introduces Gary Wragg‘s Carnival (1977-79) as the show’s opening statement, as if it were shouting “this is abstraction!” not a representation of the world, rather a celebration within in it, the gestures and colours resonant of graffiti and the detritus of building sites, brimming with the energy and excitement of the city, simultaneous with its squalor and vulnerability.

And if the opening statement is a shout, the next is almost a whisper: Trevor Sutton‘s That Swing.4.K (1979), five foot square, bisected by an off vertical line achieved by joining two canvases black to the left and blue to the right, with the green of the painted edge just showing as a narrow line down the (off) centre.

Turning to the Untitled (1973) geometric painting on paper by Patricia Poullain, Higgins tells the story of her continuing to paint every day in her summer-house, facing the countryside, whilst making ‘pure painting’, both “in nature” and “against nature” at the same time.

In Alice Sielle‘s 3D Blue and Gold Segments (1978), drawing, within a shallow illusionistic space is more prominent. Approaching Op Art, carefully rendered three-dimensional abstract objects (segments) combine together on a grey ground to make an image that is more than the sum of its parts, appearing to generate light as much as reflect it. Sandra Higgins recalls asking her how she managed to paint it with such precision, and receiving the answer “I don’t know”.

The one painting I came here specifically to see was Purple Heart (1979) by Mali Morris. If Carnival is a shout and That Swing.4.K is a whisper then this is a song.

Mali Morris, 'Purple Heart', 1979, Acrylic on canvas, 167 x 165.5 cm. Image courtesy of Piper Gallery

Mali Morris, Purple Heart, 1979, Acrylic on canvas, 167 x 165.5 cm, Image courtesy of Piper Gallery

The purple heart shape of the title takes up nearly half of the canvas, and around it smaller, colour/forms harmonize, mediating, for me, a set of binary oppositions like hard and soft, head and heart, colour and line, form and content, object and image, words and music.

In Graham Boyd‘s Descender (1976) the large canvas has undergone a process of masking and spray painting resulting in a series of subtly gradated narrow bands of rich colour creating an undulating optical space.

The earliest painting in the show, Albert Irvin‘s Glow (1971) has decorative colours that echo the lines of the support whilst also looking virtually formless, the liquid paint poured, sprayed, splattered and at times approaching the condition of a gas.

William Henderson‘s marvelous Funky Black and Catch Me (1978) is as much built as painted. Rainbow bands on a black ground multiplying from left to right, until at the right hand third the space is completely filled, and the space itself seems to bend and deepen towards that side. It is an exciting painting, the visual equivalent of jazz ( be-bop rather than cool). Looking at the painting with me he explains how he achieved the rainbow stripes by loading a brush with contrasting colours and drawing it across the canvas. Either it worked or it didn’t and he would have to do it again.

Perfectly situated at the end of the gallery so it can be seen from many distances is Barrie Cook‘s spray painted Blue, Red and Yellow Grid (1977). As I journey towards it I am unsure how much of what’s happening is optical and how much is physically there.

Installation image by courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Installation image by courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Black vertical stripes are flanked by blue and violet creating an optical central horizontal light blue line – I think.

There’s opticality even in Jeanne Masoero‘s Basis for Light, Series II, no. 7 (1977) the nearest work in the exhibition to ‘systems art’. Comprising built up layers of torn white paper and PVA glue in loosely alternating rectangles of horizontal and vertical lines and resembling ploughed fields seen from the air, the structure is both accentuated and denied by the way the light and shadow is distributed over the uneven surface. Momentarily, I feel sure I see colours on that surface …and then I’m less sure.

Tess Jaray‘s Petros (1979) indices a different kind of uncertainty, the muted colours at times only just distinguishing the repeated architecture based motifs from the ground on which they seem to hover.

Rush Green (1977) by Frank Bowling is arrived at through the pouring of paint, more gravitational than gestural, the flow of paint looking gentle and slow. The verticality of the image elicits figure associations, and the richness of colour leads me to relate to it as if it were a mummy or possibly even the Turin Shroud.

Frank Bowling, Rush Green, 1977, Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery, 1977,

Frank Bowling, Rush Green, 1977, Acrylic on canvas, 167.6 x 71.1 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery

Whilst Bowling achieves an ‘all-over’ anti-composition, by contrast C. Morey de Morand‘s masking tape rectangles in There is Always More (1978) are deliberately placed in four colour groups against a shifting red ground.

Finally, six Desmond Rayner gouaches offer yet another version of abstract painting: Art Deco inspired geometric patterns that could be mistaken for screen prints if it weren’t for the uniqueness of the colour mixes. Interested in invention rather than personal expression he sees the works as entertainment, encouraging us to “relax and enjoy (them) at surface level”.

Installation shot, Desmond Rayner Gouaches, Courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Installation shot, Desmond Rayner Gouaches, Courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Seeing the diversity of these works I find agree with Sam Cornish who, in the catalogue essay, argues that this exhibition shows that

The break up of the Modernist consensus and the rise of the expanded field did not result in abstraction stagnating but rather in a period of complex, even frenetic experimentation, of new possibilities.

But what of continuing relevance? In the same essay Cornish brings attention to Mali Morris’s “materiality and touch”, which reminds me of the recent article by David Sweet at Abstract Critical where, questioning the relevance of  “the kind of average lyrical abstraction of the late colour field period” and highlighting the importance of detail in the era of high-definition he partially equates touch with detail. Commenting on a 2012 painting by Morris he describes her intelligent handling of the “resolution that detail brings”.

And glancing up at my HD TV whilst writing this, I am distracted by a programme about the popular singer Tony Bennett, suggesting that his refusal to update his material was later interpreted by younger audiences as “cool” leading to his recent return to popularity. Could it be that Patricia Poullain also remains relevant but this time through her persistence, doggedly following her very specific, repetitive, line of enquiry?

Patricia Poullain, 'Untitled' 1973, Acrylic on paper, 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy The Piper Gallery

Patricia Poullain, Untitled 1973, Acrylic on paper, 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy of The Piper Gallery

In suggesting that Morris’s work stays relevant by updating itself and Poullain’s by staying the same I am no doubt having my cake and eating it, so let me suggest a third way in which these abstract painters may continue to be relevant. Advances in the field of cognitive science made since the seventies could make some of these paintings more contemporary now than they were then. Barrie Cook’s work for example has affinity with experimental findings made recently into how we construct colour, findings that challenge some of what we thought we knew from Sir Isaac Newton, the philosophical implications of which are explored by Donald D. Hoffman in his book Visual Intelligence, How We Create What We See.

Indulging in these closing speculations I find that I am making a claim not only for the vitality of abstract painting in the seventies but also for the new possibilities abstraction may yet have in store.

New Possibilities: Abstract Painting From The Seventies is on at The Piper Gallery, 18 Newman Street, London until 21 December 2012.

Flank induction

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Flank induced colour-spread phenomena:

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Written by Andy Parkinson

December 1, 2012 at 9:00 am