patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Rest at Lion and Lamb Gallery

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Taking a rest from my over-busy schedule, I arrive at the Lion and Lamb somewhat hot and bothered. I order a drink at the bar, get mistaken for a member of a darts team playing this evening, and enjoy a good mix of sounds old and new, as I make my way to the gallery in the back room, where the exhibition Rest, curated by Wendy McLean is on show. My other passion being Ballroom, Latin and Sequence dancing I note that the rhythm they’re playing now is a Rumba. The first beat is not danced it is “rested”, the hip settling over the standing leg before the step is taken with the opposite foot. It’s not really a rest at all, it’s the means to getting good hip action. So whilst little is actually happening in terms of a step, there’s a lot going on in terms of movement.

There’s a lot going on behind or within the minimal (not necessarily Minimalist) ‘events’ being shown here, and some of it I find disconcerting enough to disturb any rest I thought I might get.  I am recalling that Robin Greenwood once brought my attention to how unlikely it must be that Matisse actually meant it when he said that he wanted his paintings to be “similar to a comfortable armchair”, Greenwood saying “If you are comfortable with Matisse, I’d worry”.

I’m feeling mildly uncomfortable figuring out what’s going on in with Ben Cain‘s three dimensional piece entitled Private Dancer, in which two  MDF panels, trying their best to look like wood, lean against MDF covered blocks on which are placed an MDF (?) baton.

Ben Cain, Private Dancer, 2014, Sealed MDF, painted and lacquered. dimensions variable

Ben Cain, Private Dancer, 2014, Sealed MDF, painted and lacquered. dimensions variable. Image by courtesy of the artist.

Each panel is host to a fragment of text, one written on the front (well, I interpret it as a ‘front’ anyway), that reads “I’m your private dancer” no doubt a quote from the Mark Knopfler song, of the same title, made famous by Tina Turner, and the other on the back that says “the only thing your eyes haven’t told me is…” the rest of the text is obscured by the block but I finish the cheap chat up line in my head … “your name”. I’m thinking about the crassness of the MDF as MDF matching the statement “I am your private dancer” and the insincerity of the chat up line somehow reflected in the quality of MDF pretending to be wood.

Ben Cain, Private Dancer, 2014, sealed MDF, painted and lacquered, dimension variable

Ben Cain, Private Dancer, 2014, sealed MDF, painted and lacquered, dimension variable. Image by courtesy of the artist

I become aware that the surfaces are worked and I wonder about the similarities and differences between the labour of, for example, a carpenter and an artist, the materials here looking like they should be functional, yet serving no function except perhaps as makeshift signs themselves fragments, abstracted from a context that might provide meaning.

It’s only a few weeks since Cain’s exhibition Down Time at The Tetley, in which he explored themes of work and so called non-productive activity, and I find that here, viewing Private Dancer, it is to these themes that I address my thoughts.

Would it be correct to categorise this and other works here as “conceptual”? I certainly find that the experience of seeing them leads to increased conceptual activity or internal dialogue, partly perhaps because there is little happening visually, yet in a very different way to say a painting by Agnes Martin, where there is little to see, yet that experience seems somehow entirely ‘visual’.

Freyja Wright, Interior Sequence, 2013, oil on linen, each panel 60 x 90 cm, Image courtesy of the artist

Freyja Wright, Interior Sequence, 2013, oil on linen, each panel 60 x 90 cm, Image courtesy of the artist

Freyja Wright’s painting, one work comprising two panels, entitled Interior Sequence, show incidental scenes, by which I mean that there is little incidence: two meticulously executed domestic interiors with a figure (she looks a lot like Joni Mitchell). Although the forms are precisely rendered, it’s difficult to read what is taking place, I think because of the lack of action. Wright describes the events depicted in her paintings as “low key moments”, like when someone turns their head, reflected perhaps in a mirror or a pane of glass. For me, these images have the quality of snapshots taken accidentally. Possibly the figure turns from one panel to the next, or maybe the viewer has turned or a door has opened creating a counter reflection in the mirror, perhaps there are two different figures within the same interior. Whilst I have difficulty identifying specifically what has happened, one thing is certain, before ever seeing the title or noting that it is one piece of work, I am reading it sequentially. So now rather than snapshot photography it’s still frames of film that I could be recognising. Yet, presented in this way, as slowly painted images, abstracted from the context which might once have generated meanings, they now appear mysterious, opaque, lacking a coherent narrative, as if the very strangeness of the visual might be what is on offer for my consideration.

Nicholas John Jones, Le Scale Mobili (the escalators) (IT), 2011, oil on linen, 38 x 32 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Nicholas John Jones, Le Scale Mobili (the escalators) (IT), 2011, oil on linen, 38 x 32 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Three paintings by Nicholas John Jones, inhabit a conceptual space within the abstract tradition, though toying with figural associations, exploring themes to do with materiality, gesture, image making, and colour. The hues are soft, and the drawing hazy, especially in the charming little painting Le Scale Mobili (The Escalators), where I feel cued to recognise shapes or a vague scene of some kind, but that won’t actually come into focus. I wonder if the title might suggest a picture of something but a set of escalators is certainly not it, much too hard and synthetic, it might be more to do with the feeling of ascending.  I could imagine being on an escalator and taking in only the sense of moving upwards as opposed to bringing the fleeting sights to recognition. This experience is decidedly visual. Less to do with the strangeness of what might be decipherable “out there”, more to do with the sense of seeing without labeling, not necessarily an inwardly focused experience, it is visual after all, more like seeing before the linguistic descriptions kick in. Here it’s the opposite of internal dialogue that is elicited. Even if only momentarily, I am in a state of rest, jaw slightly open, breathing slowed, alternating between foveal and peripheral vision.

There’s a different alternating in relation to the two paintings here by Brad Grievson, in that both employ double images one situated slightly overlapping the other, and in each painting my attention alternates between the two images, looking for the differences.

Brad Grievson, left to right, Double Drawing (Camera Edge), 2014, and Double Drawing (Shadows), 2014. Image by courtesy of Lion and Lamb Gallery

Brad Grievson, left to right, Double Drawing (Camera Edge), 2014, and Double Drawing (Shadows), 2014. Image by courtesy of Lion and Lamb Gallery

I am enthralled by them. Viewing the Jones paintings was more, if I dare use the term, emotional than the Grievson works, where my engagement has more of an intellectual quality, I might be tempted to make the distinction between ‘somatic’ for Jones and ‘cognitive’ for Grievson. My curiosity is aroused by his technique. Double Drawing (Camera Edge), and Double Drawing (Shadows) look like they may have been made with charcoal yet in each painting the ‘double’ is too exact a copy for them to be freehand drawings. I wonder which one, if any is the original, and I am asking myself whether one is a traced copy of the other or whether the two are ‘copies’ of a third image, as with printmaking. Turning to the gallery notes I discover that the images are transfers, though specifically how they are “transferred” is not stated, nor can I tell by studying the surface. Each transfer has a gloss sheen that stands out against the more matt white support. Little accidents seem to have happened along the way, a hair caught in the transfer here, or some damage to the surface there.

Ben Grievson, Double Drawing, (Camera Edge), 2014, Transfers on Canvas, 66 x 51cm, image by courtesy of Lion and Lamb Gallery

Ben Grievson, Double Drawing, (Camera Edge), 2014, Transfers on Canvas, 66 x 51cm, image by courtesy of the artist

I have written before about my own status as an identical twin becoming part of my reflection whenever looking at double images, my own transferred content, that clearly must be quite outside the artist’s intention. I also speculate on what an “expanded field” for painting might look like and I conclude that it must include printmaking/not printmaking  and drawing/not drawing. Perhaps these paintings occupy such a field. That one has the supplementary title (camera edge) gets me looking for an image and I wonder if I can see a face obscured by a camera in the moment of taking a photograph, perhaps not! Then I think that this could indeed be transferred from a photographic image. I recall that as teenagers my brother and I used to use detergent to transfer photographs from newspapers to cartridge paper. I believe the process used here is different, but the fragmentary abstract that resulted seems similar to what Grievson may be doing.

Ben Grievson, Double Drawing (Shadows), 2014, Transfers on Canvas, 66 x 51cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Ben Grievson, Double Drawing (Shadows), 2014, Transfers on Canvas, 66 x 51cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

If there is a source image it is perhaps simultaneously preserved and destroyed in the process of transferring it to canvas. Certainly a new thing results from the doubling of whatever the source image may have been. Again, we have this process of “abstracting from” that in differing ways is present in the other works here.

Rest was at Lion and Lamb Gallery from 20 June to 12 July 2014.

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