Archive for the ‘Abstract art’ Category
Saturation Point is the online editorial and curatorial project for reductive, geometric and systems artists working in the UK. It grew out of the exhibition of the same title held in 2011, curated by Patrick Morrissey and Hanz Hancock. The site includes exhibition information, reviews, interviews and publications. Among other things, you can see a recent review of Vanessa Jackson: Rough Cut and Faceted, by Charley Peters and Fine Line: Concrete, Constructivist and Minimalist Art, by Laurence Noga, as well as new interviews with Natalie Dower, Jane Bustin and a very recent one with me.
You can also follow a link to purchase the book Natalie Dower: Line of Enquiry, and you can download the Saturation Point 2011 Catalogue. In my admittedly biased view, it’s a really interesting project. Don’t take my word for it, go check it out for yourself.
A few hundred yards from my hotel in Swansea (see yesterday blog), there is the Attic Gallery, apparently Wales’ longest established private gallery.
The Attic website says that the gallery “was founded in 1962 to highlight the work of contemporary artists working in Wales.” I think the word ‘contemporary’ here refers to ‘living and working today’ as opposed to ‘modern’ or, in more recent usage, ‘more modern than modern’, which may also imply ‘post-modern’ and ‘having “high Art” pretensions’. I wouldn’t describe the work on show at Attic using these other definitions of the word ‘contemporary’.
I saw paintings by Kathryn Le Grice. I liked them. Here’s an image of one the paintings in the show, (on until Saturday 2 July), Central Park NY (Bridge II) . Painted in 2010/11, I understand that is is more typical of her earlier work.
And here is another, more typical of later work, Circle of Trees.
Both these paintings, like all her work in this show, are abstract in the sense of ‘abstracted from’. (If my memory is correct Harold Osborne uses the term ‘semantic abstraction’ for this type of abstraction, which is actually a form of representation, as opposed to ‘syntactic’ or ‘non-iconic abstraction’ for work that claims to represent nothing other than itself. In the late 70s, when he was writing about this, I think the distinction might have mattered more than it seems to do today.)
Le Grice abstracts from nature and architecture “the patterns which form part of our everyday world” making paintings in acrylic or mixed media, that are quite modest in size. The forms she paints inhabit a shallow, cubist-like space, if I have the chronology correct many of the later works are larger in size.
Circle of Trees is a later painting, but small at less than 12″ in either direction. It is the stained-glass-like luminosity of the colour that impresses me. Even from a distance it looks bright. It is reminiscent of a Rouault, with the thick black lines adding to both the stained-glass look and to the luminosity of the colours, arranged in complementaries of green/red and blue/orange. It has a rhythm based on a central diagonal line around which the tree shapes seem to curve, creating a single arabesque shape.
It is supposed to be decorative, and it is! Decorative is a bad word in some circles. It’s not a bad word for me. And not for the circle of trees either!
Someone said that they would like to know more about the link between systems thinking and my abstract paintings.
This impasse was seen to be the result of a reductionist approach where art was divesting itself of all that was unnecessary to its specific characteristics. The art critics Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried were great proponents of this reductionist grand narrative, and their heroes were the Abstract Expressionists (Pollock, Newman, Motherwell, Rothko, Gottleib, Frankenthaler, etc) and later, so called Post-Painterly Abstraction, and colour field painting (Stella, Louis, Noland, Olitski etc) that had supposedly shown the way beyond Jackson Pollock’s all-over painting via the staining technique that they claimed to have learned from Helen Frankenthaler’s watercolour Mountains and Sea. However, where could you go to beyond the (monochromatic) colour field?
Systems thinking outside of the art world had been catching on for some time. Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory (1968) brought together much that he had been working on for years previously, concentrating on how systems are structured. In 1948 Norbert Weiner published Cybernetics, focussing on how a system functions, regardless of what the system is. A group of systems thinkers from different disciplines, including Weiner, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, John Von Neumann and Warren McCulloch had been meeting every year between 1942 and 1951 at the Macy conferences. In 1961 Jay Forrester applied systems thinking to the economy, urban industry and housing. Donella Meadows and the Club of Rome applied systems thinking to problems of pollution and ecology, resulting in the publication of the influential book The Limits to Growth in 1972. Much later (1990) Peter Senge applied systems thinking to management and organisations in his book The Fifth Discipline. The work of W. Edwards Deming is also an example of systems thinking applied to business and management. I would also argue that Karl Marx was a great systems thinker long before the term was coined.
(I came to systems thinking through my work with people in organisations not primarily as an artist. In relation to painting I had more or less given up on it, after all where else could you go after the monochrome colour field?)
Systems thinking was largely a reaction against reductionism in science and an attempt to unify its various disciplines. It argued that real systems are open to, and interact with, their environments, and that they can acquire qualitatively new properties through emergence, resulting in continual evolution.
Rather than reducing an entity (e.g. the human body) to the properties of its parts or elements (e.g. organs or cells), systems theory focuses on the arrangement of and relations between the parts which connect them into a whole. This particular organisation determines a system, which is independent of the concrete substance of the elements (e.g. particles, cells, transistors, people, etc).
It was only a matter of time before someone in the visual art world would notice that systems thinking promised an alternative approach to modernist reductionism. One such ‘someone’ was Jack Burnham.
Jack Burnham’s systems aesthetic took issue with late modernist painting, offering five key insights:
- That there has been a transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture.
- That art does not reside in material entities.
- That art is not autonomous.
- That art is conceptual focus.
- That no definition or theory of art can be historically invariant.
For many involved in systems aesthetics this spelled the death of painting (one day I must blog about painting’s many deaths). Burnham and others majored on the context in which art takes place: the system of art production.
For me, these five insights can be appropriate to painting itself. Rather than emphasising objecthood, materiality and autonomy, painting can be systems oriented, serial and conceptual and this is one of the ways in which I think of my paintings as systems. I am interested in the ways that the parts relate to each other in the whole that is the painting, and in the larger whole that is the viewing experience. I am interested in the system: artist/painting/viewer(s) and particularly in the ways in which viewers can have differing perceptions (physically, emotionally and conceptually) of a painting.