patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Paintings by Susan Disley at HMS

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My ongoing quest to see abstract paintings north of London brings me today to Harrington Mill Studios in Long Eaton, where there are paintings by Susan Disley. There are also works by Rosie Kearton: photograms, etchings, collagraphs, related to walking in the landscape, very enjoyable, just that it’s the painting I have specifically come here to see.

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Like Kearton’s prints, Disley’s paintings are related to landscape, abstract landscapes perhaps, some more clearly connected to their starting point than others. It’s the ones that are the most ‘abstracted’ that interest me the most, pared down to almost no-thing, as if in a search for ultimate form.

Susan Disley is better known for her ceramics, and even if I had not known this I think I would still find something vessel-like in the forms she arrives at. Mr Blue Sky, shown in the installation shot above, has just three parts, a widened out, light blue “U” shape at bottom that is virtually impossible not to perceive as sea, but could also be read as a cup or similar container, cradling an earth-space that takes up most of the one meter square canvas, and a dark blue line at top that is probably the blue sky of the title. However, this blue strip is darker and heavier than sky. I find it slightly disconcerting.  Surely, in the normal scheme of things, light is up whereas dark/heavy is down. Here it is the other way around. The hint of threat contained in this inversion seems to create an element of seriousness without quite becoming angst. It’s abstract impressionism this, rather than expressionism (acknowledgements to Zak Braiterman for a novel application of this distinction). For the most part it is warmth and joy that the painting communicates, something like that feeling of well-being that comes over me on a hot sunny day. The central part of the painting, a muted earth colour, seems to reflect not just light but warmth back at the viewer.

Where the earth and light blue areas meet they form an indecisive edge, as if we can’t be sure where one ends and the other begins. In nature, boundary lines are fuzzy, but we go ahead and assign them anyway. According to George Lackoff and Mark Johnson, “When things are not clearly discrete or bounded, we still categorize them as such, e.g. mountains, street corners,hedges etc. Such ways of viewing physical phenomena are needed to satisfy certain purposes that we have: locating mountains, meeting on street corners,trimming hedges. Human purposes typically require us to impose artificial boundaries that make physical phenomena discrete…”

Susan Disley, Enclosure I, Enclosure II, oil on board, each is 35cm x 35 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist and HMS

Susan Disley, Enclosure I, Enclosure II, oil on board, each is 35cm x 35 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist and HMS

The boundaries in Enclosure I and Enclosure II, are more distinct than in Mr Blue Sky, the paintings appearing to be about the very act of demarcation. Contemplating these abstract images I am impressed by the beauty of the resultant forms and at the same time reminded of the political implications of land enclosure. Imposing artificial boundaries helps us to understand the world around us, and is also a means of exercising power. The birds eye view emphasises this for me, picture making here becoming similar to map making, again a means both of understanding and control.

Sue Disley, Landscape in Pink, 2013, oil on board, 1m x1m, image by courtesy of the artist and HMS

Sue Disley, Landscape in Pink, 2013, oil on board, 1m x1m, image by courtesy of the artist and HMS

We’re back to fuzzy boundaries in Landscape in Pink, and the interpretive cues are almost so generalised as to lose the landscape association, except that it is virtually impossible to lose, as if we carry it with us in our bodies. Even if there was no intentional link to landscape we would probably find ourselves making the connection anyway. We refer to the very orientation of the support as either “portrait” or “landscape”, hence artists such as Kazimir Malevich and Ad Reinhardt favoured the square format, incidentally Disley’s favoured format also, as if unconsciously she wanted to make the viewing of them as landscapes problematic.

As in Mr Blue Sky there are three areas: an “above”, a “below” and a large expanse between them, this time in warm pink, with other colours pushing through a scumbled light ground. Almost the opposite of the other painting: there’s a heavy dark grey below and light blue above, but if they relate to sea and sky or earth and sky I find it fairly difficult to read that way. More than anything else I think it’s a painting of space. It reminds me of a habit I like to indulge in of gazing into the mid distance. Someone usually asks what I’m staring at and I try to mark out the area of space in three dimensions with my hands: “that’s ridiculous you can’t be staring at that, there’s nothing there”. And it’s something similar that I think is going on here, as if the attempt is being made not so much to paint an area of earth as to paint the space above the area of earth, the space in the mid distance that has nothing in it. Or is it rather that viewing the painting triggers that experience? Because here I am staring and slowly becoming aware of the space between me and the painting. I get nearer so that I can see the brush strokes and the way the surface is constructed, inspecting the canvas edges where the colours underneath the unifying ground are more easily identified, and so it is the painting I am seeing rather than the space between us. Then, as I step back to make sense of the whole it’s that mid space again. The painting wants to be stared at in this way! And it dawns on me that it’s boundaries I am thinking about again, the boundaries within the painting, then the boundary between the painting and it’s environment, between the painting and me, and that is a very fuzzy boundary indeed. I find that I can identify with the painting and also dis-identify, I can be “in it” and “outside it” just by shifting my awareness subtly, in a similar way to the shifting between figure and ground that is part of what happens in these pictures. The painting is a container, but what it contains extends beyond its own boundaries, limited not so much by the edges of the canvas as by my own visual field.

Talking with David Manley, the curator of this exhibition, we note some of Disley’s influences, there’s something of William Scott in here, especially in the drawing, and I wonder if Agnes Martin’s use of muted colour might also be an influence. I think that Scott’s paintings seem to be much more about tone and Martin’s much more about hue and I attempt to characterise Disley’s paintings using the same categories, but come to no conclusion. I do find that I am influenced by them, as getting back to the studio I realise that I have filtered out the high colour in the painting I am currently working on.

Susan Disley – Rosie Kearton is showing at Harrington Mill Studios until 31 July, viewing by appointment email or tel: 07891 262 202

(The Lackoff and Johnson quote is from George Lackoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 1980, University of Chicago Press)

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5 Responses

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  1. I bought a Susan Disley Ceramic a few years ago and it is one of our most treasured pieces of art, simple but powerful, it gives us joy every day. I think her landscapes are simply beautiful.

    Nicholas Herbert

    July 12, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    • Thanks for commenting Nicholas. Her ceramics are great aren’t they, and I agree with you that the landscapes are beautiful. I am also very taken with your own!

      Andy Parkinson

      July 15, 2013 at 1:02 pm

      • Thanks Andy! I hadn’t come across her landscapes before, so glad you did that blog! Best, Nicholas.

        Nicholas Herbert

        July 15, 2013 at 2:02 pm

  2. Thanks for this post Andy I love these reviews!

    sbmacinnis

    July 12, 2013 at 9:55 pm


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