abstract art, a systems view

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The Paintings of Lisa Denyer

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I have missed too many painting shows already this year. One that I would have loved to see, but just couldn’t get my calendar to co-coincide with, was Geode, an exhibition of paintings by Lisa Denyer, at South Square. Often quite ‘formless’, especially compared to her earlier geometric paintings, Denyer’s recent paintings are like gaseous non-substances, diaphanous veils, pure illusion, immaterial yet at the same time exulting in materiality. The contradiction puts me in mind of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried’s enthusiasm for “flatness and its delineation” being simultaneously an insistence on “opticality”, prompting the distinction between, and the ‘holding in tension’ of, image and object[i].

Lisa Denyer, Cube, acrylic on found plywood. Image by courtesy of the artist

Lisa Denyer, Cube, 2014, acrylic on found plywood, 28 x 31 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

I find this tension in Denyer’s paintings, which is not to suggest that she is committed to the Greenbergian position that was so influential for abstract painters in the latter half of the twentieth century. In fact, working against the visual modality, or opticality, is a clear interest in surface texture, which provokes at least an imagined crossover from visual to kinaesthetic perception. So when she’s working on found plywood, it’s the rough-and-readiness of the surface that is enhanced by the application of thin layers of liquid paint that adheres to the crevices amplifying the texture. There’s also an emphasis on the engagement of the viewer that Fried might have objected to, no doubt labelling it “theatricality”. The subjective participation of the viewer ‘completes’ these paintings in a fashion akin to the action of gazing into a fire and seeing one’s own imagined universe, or if not the universe, certainly the milky way, Denyer’s art so often resembling the night sky.

Lisa Denyer, Moon, acrylic and emulsion on found plywood. Image by courtesy of the artist

Lisa Denyer, Moon, 2014, acrylic and emulsion on found plywood, 28 x 30cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

The two dimensional paintings, usually on plywood, look like they were factured on the horizontal, either on the floor or on a table, and the images, in so far as they are images at all, look less composed than arrived at through operational processes. Leo Steinberg’s “flatbed picture plane” comes to mind. And it seems a natural step from these works to the three dimensional paintings on stone, which I do think of much more as paintings than as sculptures.

Geode, Installation view. Image by courtesy of the artist.

Geode, Installation view. Image by courtesy of the artist.

Like the works on plywood, these paintings also explore surface texture, both affirming and denying it, attempting perhaps to bring out the hidden qualities of the stone, as if the crevices, geode like, are lined with minerals or crystals. That the inherent qualities of the stone are highlighted reminds me of Michelangelo’s prisoners, where figures emerges from rocks “as though surfacing from a pool of water”. But there is nothing figural here, it’s more like space itself is surfaced, having been developed from something latent within the object, as opposed to having been imposed upon the object. In this respect we could make a contrast with Kurt Schwitters’ Painted Stone, where a geometric pattern looks more to have been inscribed onto the rock from without.
Lisa Denyer, Painted Stone. Image by courtesy of the artist

Lisa Denyer, Painted Stone, 2013, 23 x 17 x 13 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Denyer’s stones are rescued from local derelict buildings, ready-mades, years ago having been quarried, dressed and built, only then to become weathered and eventually falling into collapse or demolition, almost returning to their natural state, before she reclaims them, transforming them into giant synthetic gems.

Whether on plywood or stone, Denyer’s paintings have this gemlike quality as if by some alchemy she transforms her materials into precious metals, once liquid now gemstone, that when gazed into appear to contain the night sky.

[i] For an excellent recent discussion see the chapter on Opticality in Modernist Painting and Materiality by Graig Staff


Studying Mondrian

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This link shows the Mondrian on view at The Hepworth,Wakefield: Composition C (No.III) with Red, Yellow and Blue  1935. I am making studies of it. It is nearly square.

Sean Scully says somewhere that if you have Mondrian, Matisse and Rothko, then you have his (Scully’s) work, and he also says that its impossible to get to the artist’s touch in Mondrian (that’s how I remember what he said anyway, what I have forgotten is where I read it). If that’s what he said he certainly has a point.

However, there is something of Mondrian’s touch in the paintings. Though it never approaches gesture, I do get a sense of the numerous re-workings. In Scully’s paintings you can clearly see lots of layers of under-painting, whereas in Mondrian you discern them.

Don’t you also get a strong sense of the thinking process of making the work, the creative tension between thinking and doing?

Written by Andy Parkinson

November 1, 2011 at 8:00 am