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abstract art, a systems view

Archive for October 2013

The Discipline of Painting

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“Before there was art, there was painting”, so says Barry Schwabsky in his essay Everyday Painting in the introduction to Vitamin P2. In the earlier book Vitamin P he explored the relationship between painting as art and painting as an art, a specific discipline. Throughout its history painters have questioned, explored and challenged the boundaries of that discipline. So much so that its definition has become somewhat unstable, to the extent that it might be better to think of it as an ‘indiscipline’ as Daniel Sturgis et al did in the exhibition The Indiscipline of Painting, that opened at Tate St Ives in October 2011 and toured to Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre in January 2012, presenting a “partial and partisan” survey of abstract painting from the 60’s until now.

David Manley makes a tongue in cheek reference to that show entitling the new exhibition at Harrington Mill Studios The Discipline of Painting, featuring a ‘control group’ of works: one by Manley from 1973 along with two owned by him, a Sean Scully painting on paper from 1980 and a recent drawing on paper by David Tremlett, alongside paintings by David Ainley, Katrina Blannin, Luke Frost, Lauri Hopkins, Dan Roach, Andy Parkinson, and Trevor Sutton.

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It used to be common to divide the discipline of painting into sub-categories or genres, still life, landscape, history painting etc, and whereas there was a time when abstraction looked like it might transcend all those genres it now appears to have become a genre, or tradition, of its own. That tradition could itself be divided into two approaches one that looks “disciplined”, we might even say “austere”, as opposed to a looser more casualist approach, where “spontaneity” and “improvisation” are the watch words. According to the gallery notes, “The selection of works on display shows an abiding and durable commitment to a disciplined abstraction that foregrounds an aspect of colour and form and a certain ‘discipline’ in construction”. (A second exhibition will explore the other approach.)

Luke Frost’s paintings have been described as “austerely reductive, minimal and hard edged” whilst also being “curiously alluring”. For me there’s something paradoxical about them, that such asceticism can at the same time be so wantonly pleasurable, that pared-down emptiness can give rise to such rich fullness. Deep Brilliant Blue Volts and Tangerine Volts are highly coloured square monochrome canvases with a fine line frame, painted in a colour the complementary of the ground. This subtle intervention elicits heightened visual excitation. The space is transformed by the frame in much the same way as, in language, meaning is transformed by context or ones “frame of reference”. The colour within the frame is ‘objectively’ the same as the colour around the frame, yet I experience it as a different colour. The edge and the central colour occupies literally the same space or plane yet subjectively the outer edge is spatially nearer than the middle. It’s like looking through a window onto an infinite field of colour. Then, as I turn away fractionally the painting seems to shift, or shudder optically, as if calling my attention back to it. It doesn’t want to let me go, and I don’t want to stop looking at it. We are locked into an exchange, a deeply contemplative conversation. Yet there’s no pseudo-spirituality in this experience, reminded as I am of the artificiality of the colours, and the matter of fact-ness of their presentation, something along the lines of Frank Stella’s famous “what you see is what you see”. However, seeing is a truly remarkable experience always involving more than the strictly visual.

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Katrina Blannin’s paintings are similarly more-than factual. The three on show here are ‘the same’ in size and in design, but look very different because of the differences in colour. I have the sense of holding the whole thing constant and changing just one thing, and everything changes, recalling how in any system a change to a part always has consequences for the whole. Tracking such changes requires a serial approach, so it is particularly helpful to get three in a row here. Two are darker paintings, in indefinable blue/black/green/greys, applied in glazes (hence the difficulty of identifying specific names for the colours), with highlights in yellows, and one is in greys much nearer to white with warmer hues, creating an experience quite different to the other two. In fact so different that I have to be reminded that the design employed is ‘the same’ as in the other two paintings. Manley has positioned the two darker paintings slightly closer to each other than to the third one, a strategy that seems to heighten the contrast, whilst also allowing the two darker works to be read as a pair, hinting at relationships between the two that Blannin sometimes makes explicit in her own diptychs. The diagonal arrangement of tones and colour sets up a subjective experience of shifting planes, never just “this” or just “that” but sometimes “this” and sometimes “that”, an experience that is fundamentally time dependant.

Trevor Sutton’s beautiful paintings here are separated in time by twenty years, Rue Jacob, a circular painting with a central two tone irregular hexad shape situated within a field of fluctuating brown/grey hues, being painted in 1992, and Raindance, a vertical rectangular grid with four columns and sixteen rows in reds, pinks, greys, browns and blacks, having been painted only last year. They testify to this artist’s disciplined commitment to the idea of abstraction and to its ongoing exploration. Remembering that I saw a remarkable painting by Sutton in a show last year, Abstract Painting in the Seventies, higher in colour than these at HMS, I make comparisons in my head and note the “continued vigour” of his oeuvre (borrowing a phrase from Manley).

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At the other end of the scale as far as years of experience goes, Lauri Hopkins a recent graduate, shows the continued relevance of the tradition for younger artists. Her wonderful constructions made from combinations of different coloured book covers recall Albers and Rothko, in miniature. Strictly speaking they are collages, but they read like paintings.

Once again I am impressed by Dan Roach’s paintings. The two here are quite different, in scale and colour, yet similar in that they employ his now customary arrangements of semi-transparent cell-like structures, situated in an indefinite space. That it is now possible to present abstract paintings on an almost miniature scale seems to me to be something new in the tradition, and Roach’s paintings have contributed to this development.

Dan Roach, Falling Up the West, 2012, Oil and Wax on Oak, 14.5cm x 19.5cm. Image by Courtesy of HMS

Dan Roach, Falling Up the West, 2012, Oil and Wax on Oak, 14.5cm x 19.5cm. Image by Courtesy of HMS

The paintings by David Ainley are colour monochromes built up in layers of thick paint, forming a substantial surface into which Ainley scores lines, revealing parts of the underpainting, in a process that is similar to excavation or mining. I am interested in the systematicity of the process as well as in the resultant ‘image’, each one a subtly interrupted surface, eliciting a state-altering meditative response. I choose to prolong the experience of viewing. There’s opticality here that, for me, is always more than the “purely optical”, including a sensing of time, suspended, distorted, and also simply passing, and with it a metaphorical connection to ideas related to mining, and toil.

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I am pleased to have one of my own paintings hung alongside Ainley’s works. I think there are some resonances, in the final look, an interrupted surface that I hope engages the eye/brain, and in the process, almost in reverse. In my painting Screen (Yellow Band) it is more the process of covering than excavating that interests me. Layers of colour are hidden or covered, without being entirely obliterated. A black and white diagonal chequer pattern inadequately hides what’s underneath, forcing colour to the edges of each individual rhombus shape, and in this painting also to the right hand edge of the support, where a yellow vertical band is allowed to remain.

The Discipline of Painting is on show at Harrington Mill Studios until 27 October with a viewing on Saturday 26 October, 2-5PM. The HMS Open Studios also takes place Saturday 26 October 2-5PM and Sunday 27 October, 11-4PM

Installation shots by courtesy of David Manley

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