Trevor Sutton, Assembly and Image, at Class Room, Coventry
It’s not the kind of work I might usually associate with Trevor Sutton, having become more familiar with his paintings on dual or grouped canvases in the seventies and his recent paintings on board, often including paper, which could possibly be thought of as collaged elements. And this might be the link to the works here. They are assemblages, but of deliberately manufactured, rather than found parts, in painted plywood. They have all of Sutton’s hallmark precision, I can hear people asking “how did he get those shapes and edges so precise?” Indeed, especially considering that these were made in 1981/2, before laser cutting was in general usage. But they also have a quirky informality, which I think is less characteristic of Suttons oeuvre.
The space here at Class Room, is informal and small. The works on view are sharp, and about the size of a human head, inviting portrait associations. These were Sutton’s first works on plywood, and some were exhibited in New Works of Contemporary Art and Music at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh and Assembly & Image Paintings at the Lisson Gallery in London, both in 1981. The artist said he wanted to make something that seemed sharper, more immediate, whilst also being intimate as if looking into a mirror, and that’s the feeling I get as I look at them here, my instinct is to get close and peer into them, whilst knowing that the action takes place at the surface, not really inside, as in a picture of something else.
Reading the gallery notes I learn that Sutton sent diagrams and drawings to the artist George Meyrick who cut the plywood into shapes for him. Sutton painted each plywood piece separately. When it came to assembly he playfully reconfigured the pieces rather than simply assembling them as in the working drawings. The perfect marriage of precision and immediacy is a direct result of the process.
As in earlier works drawing is achieved via construction, lines are real, the edges of joined or overlapping parts but the plywood gives the “drawing” more precision, more clarity when compared with lines created in earlier paintings by joining or grouping canvases, which are inherently softer. Somehow the unmodulated painted surfaces also look crisper when the paint is applied to plywood rather than canvas. Whilst the free-form shapes didn’t continue into later work the plywood, with the increase in sharpness it provided, did. So perhaps these assemblages could be seen as a bridge between Sutton’s earlier and later work.
Am I wrong to find some similarity to the wood reliefs of Jean (Hans) Arp? Colours in both have a low key quality, blues and greys with highlights in warmer or brighter hues. In both we get concrete forms creating an abstract figuration. Coloured shapes (geometric with Sutton and biomorphic with Arp) in wood, appear to have organised themselves into a coherent arrangement, with subtle spatial ambiguities (e.g. the bright blue square in Sutton’s Tight Tumble Tern recedes slightly in relation to the grey, yet is clearly in front of the grey physically) and referential associations. Sutton’s titles (though not Arp’s) seem to encourage associational content. However, I want to be clear that this is not the same as representation. That one thing calls to mind another is part of our experience of seeing, and arguably, this is even more present in abstract works than representational ones. What I think is presented here is that process of seeing, the double movement of observing and sense-making.
There’s no way of getting to “Beverley’s Little Car” from looking at the painted relief of that title, and any connection in the artist’s mind seems entirely idiosyncratic, but cartoon-like associations do come to mind for me and those circular shapes could easily suggest wheels. Even then, the artist probably had something quite different in mind. In my view, abstract artworks are better titled than simply numbered or left “untitled” if only to make them easy to distinguish and to recognise, like people’s names. These paintings have been likened to portraits, but if there is a connection it is not in their resemblances, but rather in the kind of close viewing that is elicited.
Trevor Sutton, Assembly and Image, is at Class Room until 6 April 2017, Tuesday and Saturday 11-5pm