abstract art, a systems view

Mapping the Abstract at Beers.Lambert

with 2 comments

Seeing the current exhibition at Beers.Lambert, and feeling at first that the paintings in this show are too ‘figurative’ to be Mapping the Abstract, puts me in mind of the difficulty of talking about abstraction, and particularly the ambiguity of the word “abstract” in relation to painting. In one sense, the further removed our experience is from empirical reality the more “abstract” it is. Thinking in terms of “levels of abstraction”, seeing something in the “real world” is a representation “in our heads”, an image that is one removed from “reality”, already an abstraction even at the point of perception, to use Korzybski’s distinction: a map rather than the territory. When an artist then seeks to represent in paint what s/he sees, that representation is a further abstraction, a higher level abstraction if you will. To then “abstract from” that representation is a higher level of abstraction still. In this sense of the word “abstract”, a representation is a lower level abstraction.

However, the expression “non-representational” has also become synonymous with “abstract” because abstract art seeks to do something different than to represent. Consequently, some have preferred the word “constructive”, or “constructionist” (as did Charles Biederman, for whom Korzybski was an important influence) or “concrete”, which in that other sense is the exact opposite of “abstract”. Rather than being removed from observable reality the abstract painting is itself a sub-set of that reality, an autonomous self-organizing system. Things become further complicated when that autonomy is itself called into question as it has, for example by abstract painters such  Jonathan Lasker, Francis Baudevin, Ingrid Calame or Fiona Rae, to name only a few.

It is against this complex background that the three painters in this show: Blake Daniels, Robert Fry and Benjamin Brett could be said to map the abstract.

Installation shot: far wall - Robert Fry, Related Study E, 2011,oil,acrylic and mixed media on canvas, left: Benjamin Brett, Floorswamp, 2013, oil on linen, and Dancer, 2013, oil on linen. Image by courtesy of Beers. Lambert

Installation shot: far wall – Robert Fry, Related Study E, 2011,oil,acrylic and mixed media on canvas, left – Benjamin Brett, Untitled,  2013, oil on linen, and Dancer, 2013, oil on linen. Image by courtesy of Beers.Lambert

Benjamin Brett‘s Dancer is very clearly a figure, as the title suggests, what the dancer is actually doing is difficult to work out, though s/he seems to be making a gesture not unlike the gestures the painter has made on the canvas. I have no way of knowing whether an observed event was the occasion for an abstraction or whether something resembling a figure was the result of ‘free’ gestural mark making. I recall that Kandinsky, in relation to his own paintings, distinguished between an impression (an abstracted representation) and an improvisation (an image that presents itself from within the mark-making process). I wonder whether Brett’s Dancer might borrow from both these approaches.

His painting Untitled, grabs my attention because of its similarity to a pattern I have been exploring in my own work, a diagonally oriented grid resulting in a rhomboid chequerboard, resembling floor tiles. My interest has been in how when the scale is small this formation becomes a network of scintilla. Brett’s formation is large scale which seems to reduce the optical ‘buzz’ of the image, retaining whilst slowing down, the figure ground oscillation. The contrast between the hard edge, flatly rendered ’tiles’ and the loose gestural graffiti drawn over the top tends to create a ‘background’ of the geometrical pattern, except that the gestures then interact with the shifting of figure/ground so that at times I attempt to situate them spatially somewhere in between the dark and light tiles, in an impossible space, or one that is available only to the sense of sight. I am unsure what to make of the drawings of hands, a cup, a rib cage (?) and I relate to them as if their purpose was to deface the geometry. Then I become aware of a blue mark, roughly central toward the lower left hand quadrant of the painting. When the white rhombus shapes are ‘figures’ it positions itself behind a ‘hole’ in the surface, but when they are ‘ground’ it pushes forwards so that it sits on the surface of the brown tile. It also leads my eye to the lower left hand corner where one of the dark tiles is painted light blue as opposed to the brown of the others and the tile above it is divided more or less in half along the diagonal, with the lower half in blue and the higher half in green, reading at times like these two tile shapes have been cut into the surface and I am peering into quite a deep space through the cut-outs. There is no attempt to create a believable representational space here, yet this two dimensional space is anything but flat, and anything but still.

And in the end, I think it is space that is being explored by all three painters in this mapping of the abstract. Robert Fry‘s paintings are clearly representations of male figures, and they are drawn with a certain degree of illusionistic depth within the figure, for example when the figure is side on, the half of the body that is nearest to the viewer looks nearer than the other half, and the space between the feet is readable as a three dimensional space. However the space behind or in front of the figure is not so readable, the space that the figures inhabit then is shallow, and the negative spaces between the figures also read sometimes as positive figures themselves.  To me, they are tableaus with figures, bearing some similarity to ancient Egyptian  tomb decorations except that whereas there the figures are flat here they are almost naturalistic. But if there is a naturalism it is only a naturalism of sorts, in that body parts, for example, sometimes occupy spaces of their own, or seem to have detached themselves from a body in a way that could never be an observable “real world” event.

Blake Daniels paintings are high level abstractions from the real world, the kind of abstraction that take place in dreams where there may be a narrative but one that makes little rational sense, bringing previously unrelated events together, and parts of different wholes interact in a space and time that makes perfect sense only in the dream.

Mapping the Abstract is on at Beers.Lambert, 1 Baldwin Street, London, until 21 September 2013.

2 Responses

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  1. Similar qualms expressed about the figurative nature of the show on the Abstract Critical site comments thread, Andy.

    Re: ‘Non-Representational’ as abstract – another synonym, I think especially in Germany, has been Non-Objective art and the difference between these is subtle but instructive. Non-Representational is often used to declare a non-pictorial meaning. That is, the painting still stands for, or conveys meaning, but does so without resorting to depiction. Its qualities of colour, facture, scale, shape, etc are then considered to supply either literal examples of the options available for picturing to the artist, or metaphors for the artist’s disposition – that is, an expressive dimension (either geometric or gestural). The difficulty with this term is that ‘representational’ is not narrowly understood as exclusively pictorial. Our ‘representatives’ in parliament, court and gallery offices, all supposedly ‘represent’ us, but hardly depict or portray us. Representation is best understood as a synonym for reference, to stand for or point to something else. Non-Representational paintings still refer, but do so by other two-dimensional means. The difficulty then is saying just how different these are from depiction. Pattern is the principle option (notation another). I won’t go into grey areas between these, although a good slab of twentieth century painting does….

    Non-Objective on the other hand, emphasises that the picture simply has no object – or subject, if you will. It does not stand for or point to something else. A Non-Objective painting is thus still a picture, but a strictly self-referential one, concerned with colour, facture, shape, scale etc. Again, just when a picture is principally only about intrinsic or formal qualities and not extrinsic or content qualities, has remained controversial for almost a century, in aesthetics and first philosophy. But whether or not we can draw a hard and fast line between objective and non-objective (the term has at least the advantage or avoiding the ambiguities of a distinction with the ‘figurative’ – which is commonly used to mean the metaphorical – although a great deal of ‘figurative’ painting is actually literal!) Non-Objective at least has the advantage of preserving a reference relation, which I and many others would hold as necessary to a work of art.

    Whether more abstract content strictly converges on abstract form is also controversial. A picture of a typical tiger (as in a children’s learn-to-read book) or an ideal man or woman is assuredly abstract, in the Platonic sense, and is only to be pictured by ultimately considering pictorial means. Actually I would take an even stronger line and assert that we only actually realise what line or tone, colour or shape, etc are, for this exercise. We make up our intrinsic or formal means, as we make out our ideal content. The world of hypotheticals is a way for us to master picturing – whether free fantasy or exacting design for poet or architect. So I go along with the levels of abstraction idea. It is perhaps clearer if thought of as levels of stylisation. Stylisation, like typifying or classification, is another way of abstracting objects, ultimately the pictures that contain them.

    As an after-thought – Arthur Danto in his latest book – What Art Is – argues against abstract paintings considered as pictures (although Greenberg continued to talk of abstract paintings as pictures, I think rightly).


    September 14, 2013 at 12:34 am

    • Hi Gerry. Thank you for commenting and for bringing my attention to the Abstract Critical review of this show by Dan Coombs that I had not seen before (at Thanks also for highlighting the label “non-objective” as an alternative to “abstract” that works well. Whenever I meet abstract painters and discuss their work with them I ask if the noun “picture” is OK with them. Most say “yes” which surprises me, perhaps because I am not so happy with it myself. Once again, you make lots of interesting points.

      Andy Parkinson

      September 16, 2013 at 12:03 pm

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