Chance and Order at Eagle Gallery
The Chance and Order exhibition at Eagle Gallery takes its title from Kenneth Martin‘s early 1970s series of works, that he later developed into his Chance Order Change series, magnificent paintings in my view. The show brings works from the 1960s and 1970s by the British Constructionist and Systems Group together with more recent works by artists who currently draw upon this tradition. It is a mystery to me that this incredibly rich field in British art has been somewhat overlooked, when the paintings, drawings reliefs etc. of Kenneth and Mary Martin, Jeffrey Steele, and many others in this grouping are among the finest produced anywhere in the world. That they are being appreciated now by more than a generation of younger artists seems absolutely appropriate.
The two 2014 paintings by Natalie Dower are wonderful, both exploring the properties of Root-2 rectangles, which can be halved and halved endlessly and each time the rectangles will be of the same proportions. In these paintings Dower employs a rotating or spiralling movement to position repeatedly halved rectangles or triangles, (the triangles being derived by halving the rectangle diagonally), differentiating them using a nine colour sequence, in each reduction the triangle and rectangle shape share the same colour. There are nine moves, so nine colours are duplicated on two spirals tracks, one situating the triangular units and one the rectangles. On the first move the two units occupy the same area but in the subsequent diminutions the first two moves are in the same halves but then the track of rectangles curves inwards whilst the triangle track follows the periphery. The smaller scale units have priority over the previous, larger ones. If I am not mistaken Two Spirals No.2 is the inverse of Two Spirals No.1, in the same colours, used in different order. I read somewhere that the colours are “muted”, but that’s not really my experience, white may have been added, they are not quite primary and not quite secondary colours, but to my eyes the colours are high, with turquoise, cerulean blue, orange and yellow contrasting with Payne’s grey, white and a neutral base. The logical relationship of shapes and the sequential ordering, is combined with the intuitive, in the form of two sets of choices: the system being explored and the colours used, an inventive fusion of chance and order that I am finding in each of the works in this exhibition.
There’s a rotational theme too in the Kenneth Martin, Chance Order Change drawings, the paper having first been marked with numbered points, moving clockwise around the rectangle, the artist generated the lines by taking numbers, two at a time, at random out of a bag. A line was drawn between each successive pair of numbers as they were picked out. Chance determined the sequence and the number of parallel lines, the first drawn would have one line, the second two lines and so on. Change was initiated by rotating the drawing by 90 degrees and repeating the process for three rotations. The result is this intriguing network of lines which was then transferred to canvas. Order and chance may appear to be opposites, yet here their opposition is suspended, one being determined by the other.
Katrina Blannin also employs rotation in her method, using the same double hexad starting point that has by now become familiar to regular viewers of her work, this time skewed to fit a square format, oriented to hang as a diamond shape, which is subdivided into triangles differentiated by a range of colours (yellow pink green red blue and grey) that get darker and then lighter in rotation. Narrow demarcation lines are also added. There is a sense in which the careful definition of parts leads to accurately separating flat areas of colour, yet they immediately set up fascinating, shifting spatial relationships that create ambiguity. I think of them oxymoronically as precisely ambiguous. There are three paintings in sequence here increasing in size from left to right: 50 x 50 cm , 60 x 60 cm and 70 x 70 cm.
Mary Martin‘s drawing for Cross, a preparatory study for the magnificent stainless steel on wood relief that won the John Moores prize in 1969, is a diamond shape on a square. In the drawing Martin uses six iconographic figures, one for each of the six positions of her basic unit of a half cube, cut on the hypotenuse, faced with stainless steel, that she used in the relief. The half cube, placed in six different positions and and then arranged in a variety of sequences results in an amazing complexity of form, as demonstrated in this beautiful drawing. There’s a similar strategy being followed in Jeffrey Steele‘s outstanding Six sets of 7 x 5 half circles in cinematic rotation. It does “what it says on the tin”, yet whilst the descriptive title may sound somewhat prosaic, the visual experience is surprisingly poetic. And this is where I am supposed to say that their approach is not “mechanical” or “formulaic”, because we seem prejudiced towards those ideas, preferring instead the illusion of freedom. So I am going to say the opposite: it is formulaic, mechanical, digital (though not virtual), and that’s good! These drawings and paintings are totally contemporary, dealing with the issues of our day, without ever representing them or commenting upon them. What we are faced with in these works, precisely because of their programmatic or systematic formality, are the big, dare I say existential, questions to do with freedom and necessity, chance order and change.
Andrew Bick‘s OGVDS (Tilted Forward/straightened) v 5 is perhaps less systematic. Rather than numeric permutations of a single unit, we have more playful, serial variations on a theme, the theme being a particular grid arrangement that looks very different depending on changes to colour, texture, quality of mark and perceived depth. His work has been described as ‘gently disruptive and purposefully chaotic’, and it is easy to see this here. I like the gentle disruption in the spatial shifts as two large dark grey areas, an interrupted triangular shape at bottom left and a rectangular slab taking up nearly all of the right-hand half of the painting, first share the same literal plane and then snap into opposition, the larger shape receding in space in one interpretation, or jutting forward, in another, two orange irregular rectangles joining this game of push/pull, perhaps supporting the first interpretation slightly more than the second.
The Martins, in common with many of the British Constructionists moved somewhat away from painting towards constructed reliefs, Jeffrey Steele on the other hand, and it would appear that this is also true of Bick, Blannin and Dower, have stayed with painting, In a recent interview with Steele for Turps Banana, (Issue 11), Blannin asks him “Why is it important to develop …the historically charged process of ‘paint on canvas’?” In his answer Steele says “I have always wanted to try to justify the supreme importance of painting” contrasting the painter with the artist-as-manager who has works made in a factory, arguing that in the latter process “you lose the evidence of the ‘journey'”, adding that “for me the ‘journey’ is worth knowing and (its) traces… are important to see”. In every one of the works in this exhibition there is such evidence. Perhaps the show itself evidences the continuation of a journey, starting out with the British Constructionists and reaching into the future, an exploration rather than a repetition, yet quite possibly, ending as T S Elliot would have had it, where we started and knowing the place for the first time.
Chance and Order was on view at Eagle Gallery from 20 November to 19 December 2014