abstract art, a systems view

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Betty Parsons and Abstract Expressionism

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AbEx being in vogue just now reminds me of a painting I saw at a wonderful exhibition earlier this year. The exhibition, back in March at Seventeen Gallery, curated by Gabriel Hartley and Rhys Coren was Cuts, Shapes, Breaks and Scrapes and the painting was Forms 1 ,1978, by Betty Parsons. Yes THE Betty Parsons who Rhys Coren described as “the one and only, gallerist and artist extraordinaire”, known for her early championing of Abstract Expressionism through her New York gallery, where she exhibited Pollock, Rothko, Reinhardt, Still and Newman long before they were well known. Helen Frankenthaler said of her that she and her gallery “helped construct the centre of the art world”. Nevertheless, every summer, she would close the gallery to concentrate on her own art.

Her driftwood assemblage sculptures, mostly small sized totemic abstract figures sometimes wall mounted, are probably better known than her paintings. They seem to borrow from the “primitive” art traditions that Barnett Newman, writing for the catalogue of Parson’s opening exhibition Northwest Coast Indian Painting, had already connected to “our modern American abstract artists”

In her paintings Parsons borrows more from her AbEx contemporaries, but without the all-important scale, Clyfford Still in miniature, almost. Parsons also looks back to earlier European modernist works, those of Paul Klee for example, not only in the modest sizes of her canvases but also in their whimsical lack of certainty.

Betty Parsons, Forms 1, 1978. Oil on canvas, 72 x 70.5 cm, my photo 20160323_143442

Betty Parsons, Forms 1, 1978. Oil on canvas, 72 x 70.5 cm, my photo

In Forms 1, irregular, roughly geometric forms in four loose columns situate themselves on a grey ground, which looks as though it may be comprised of many layers of other colours in order to arrive at the richness of the final colour. The forms may have been drawn by brushing the painted ground only as far as the perimeter of imagined figures, constructing shapes from negative spaces, allowing a previous layer of colour to remain, a blue here, a yellow ochre or a green there. If the ground had been blue the forms might have looked like islands in a sea but as some of the forms are themselves blue, maybe they more resemble fishing holes in ice. When I see the painting this way I realise it must be an aerial view, a plan or a map, and this quality is present in many of the paintings that Parsons made around this time. Moonlight – Maine, 1972 looks so much like a map of ocean and islands, (possibly the gulf of Maine), that I find it difficult to read in any other way. But if they are maps, they are very unusual ones in that they are entirely without function, “cheerfully useless cartography”, to borrow a phrase that Roberta Smith used in relation to them. They do not describe a territory, rather the map is the territory; signifier and signified have become one and the same.

Another painting Journey 1975, on the other hand, can be perceived as oriented vertically or horizontally, and in this respect I think it has more of the quality of Forms 1.

Seen vertically, Forms 1, might show two abstracted human, animal or machine figures, inhabiting a space in which there are other unspecified objects, the figure on the right is possibly carrying something. But then, they are so vaguely described that the gestalts quickly rearrange into simply multiple forms, of various colours and shapes, some repeated or reversed, creating shifting spatial links, and indefinite relationships.

Here, Parsons does not take some real world starting point and abstract from it in the process of representation, rather she invents by pushing the paint about on the canvas until forms suggest themselves. And the suggestions remain just that, never quite becoming precise things, always ambiguous, hovering between definition and doubt.

If the paintings of Pollock, Rothko, Newman and Still are epic and tragic Parsons works are lyric and comic. Rather than concertos they are chamber music, “the music of friends” (an apt expression for someone as generous as Parsons). And if a concerto might seem more ambitious, the domesticity of chamber music should in no way be disparaged. After all, monumentality is much more useful to propagandists of corporate capital than is humility. In a 1981 interview with Gerald Silk, Parsons recalls that Newman saw how the apparently uncompromising could be pressed into the service of the ruling class. Parsons reports that when she had referred to Rothko as “The Painter of the sublime” Newman’s response was “It should be The Painter of the Establishment”[i]. Why that should be true of Rothko only, I have no idea.

In Parsons we get wavering uncertainty, appropriately small in scale, not overwhelming but enticingly intimate. Jeanette Winterson once argued that our experience of art “suggests that the monolith of corporate culture is only a partial reality”, an idea that may seem especially pertinent when viewing works by Parsons such as Forms 1.



[i] Gerald Silk interview with Betty Parsons: Oral history interview with Betty Parsons, 1981 June 11, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.


Imperfect Reverse Symposium

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I wish I had been able to get to the recent symposium held in conjunction with the Imperfect Reverse exhibition currently on show at  Camberwell Space Projects.

Imperfect Reverse, photo credit: Frederic Anderson

Imperfect Reverse, photo credit: Frederic Anderson

Frederic Anderson writes a reflective review at the UAL Post Graduate Community Blog, describing it as a “window onto a way of making art that at first glance can appear rather impenetrable” reporting on the “dialogue between the original 1970’s Systems Group and contemporary practitioners employing similar methods today” and noting the contradiction that forms the core concept of the show: the possibility of a precise system generating an ultimately imprecise realization.

Read his review here

See more images of the works and the exhibition catalogue at the Saturation Point Website here.

Written by Andy Parkinson

November 15, 2016 at 2:45 pm

Imperfect Reverse 18 October – 18 November

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Written by Andy Parkinson

September 12, 2016 at 8:30 am

Approaches to Colour: KALEIDOSCOPE at Fold Gallery

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Working for a day in central London, only yards away from New Cavendish Street where FOLD Gallery’s summer exhibition Kaleidoscope, curated by Dominic Beattie, is on show, I get my lunch hour to go and see it. Having learned from the publicity flyer that the seven artists, Dominic KennedyMali MorrisBridget RileyJulian WildJames Alec HardySelma Parlour and Martin Maloney, work with colour in “radically different ways” each one presenting “a unique vision of how to liberate colour to stimulate and energise the viewer” I wonder if I can discover in my short visit what it is that they are doing differently with colour. 

Installation view, with works from left to right by Bridget Riley, James Alec Hardy and Julian Wild. Image courtesy of Fold gallery

Installation view, with works from left to right by Bridget Riley, James Alec Hardy and Julian Wild. Image courtesy of Fold gallery

I already know that in a work by Bridget Riley I will find a clear structure within which colour can do it’s thing, where individual colours will change in relation to each other depending on the specific juxtaposition and where the overall colour sensation will change, structure being essential not for control but rather so that the colour can achieve free play. So when I see the Riley prints here, About Lilac (2009) and One Small Step (2007), I get what I expected, but the experiencing of it is, as always, surprising.

In Selma Parlour’s fascinating paintings, there is also this freeing of colour by keeping the drawing precise, but with Parlour it’s more minimal. In Metapainting (One for Each Eye 1) 2015, Metapainting (One for Each Eye 2) 2015, and One for Each Eye 4 (2016), two rectangles of different colours, oil on linen, in thinly painted veils allowing the white underneath to shine through as in watercolour painting, are presented to the viewer as one rectangle for each eye. I take the titles as an invitation to stare, as one might do in a visual cognition experiment. Almost immediately after-imaging and merging of the two colours begins to take place, a hazy third colour sometimes appearing. In One For Each Eye 4, I start to see a rainbow in the white space between the two rectangles. I cross my eyes slightly which enhances the perception of the rainbow down the central divide. There is no doubt that my engagement with these paintings has its own unique quality, akin to experimentation, triggered specifically by what the artist is doing with colour.

Installation shot, with works, from left to right, by Dominic Kennedy, Selma Parlour and Julian Wild

Installation view, with works, from left to right, by Dominic Kennedy, Selma Parlour and Julian Wild. Image courtesy of Fold Gallery

If the attention I give to Parlour’s paintings has this quasi-scientific quality, that doesn’t seem quite so appropriate for the Julian Wild sculptures, though here colour is also used, at least in part, to reveal aspects that might otherwise be hidden. I think it is the case that in both these sculptures the “inside” of the object is demarcated by colour and re-positioned so it is “outside”. In Peeled (2015), a wonderfully polished stainless steel bar, presented horizontally on the gallery floor, is divided down the middle at one end and one half of the divided section is bent upwards and out and coloured bright red, whereas in Himalayan Balsam (2013), a bright pink colour is used to explicate the inside and outside-ness of a vertical knotted steel bar.

In Dominic Kennedy’s painting Slowly Fading Forms (2016), colour perhaps does the opposite of what it does in Wild’s sculptures. In the Wild sculptures colour makes explicit, along the lines of “colour coding” but with a much stronger emphasis on sensation than any code might exhibit. In the Kennedy painting colour dissolves form, rays from a summer sun dazzling rather than revealing. The sun is represented in the top left hand corner of this near seven foot canvas. In the rest of the picture the sun’s rays meet dissembling forms, all held within a shallow near-cubist space that hints at deeper spatial recession in the top right hand quarter. Forms and rays of light merge so it’s difficult to differentiate the two. Colour describes form only long enough to depict its dissolution, even whilst materially constructed in oil paint, oil stick, crayon and pencil, with wood, felt and pins stuck on here and there, yellow felt strips making up a slim frame around the image. Here colour represents and symbolizes, or does it go only so far as to suggest or connote that ‘beneath’ the illusory appearance of solid forms, all of matter is sub atomic flux?

Martin Maloney, Studio Flowers #47, 2016, oil on canvas, 76 x 61cm, image by courtesy of the artist and Fold Gallery

Martin Maloney, Studio Flowers #47, 2016, oil on canvas, 76 x 61cm, image by courtesy of the artist and Fold Gallery

There is perhaps more description of appearances in Martin Maloney’s Studio Flowers #47, (2016), but this painting is by no means an observational study. A bowl of flowers is undoubtedly represented, but in semi symbolic style. Taking a cartoon impressionist approach to depiction, blobs of pink are flowers and red diagonal bars are stems, with green dashes for leaves, emerging from a terracotta semi circle that must be a plant pot and all against the blue/green of the studio wall that also pushes forwards spatially to interrupt the rhythm of the red bars and green dashes.  The naming of colours comes to mind, how certain colours are so associated with certain objects or experiences that each is named by the other: orange, sky-blue, lime, lilac, green grass, fuchsia pink etc.

James Alec Hardy creates video installations using obsolete analogue equipment from TV studios, displaying arrangements of monitors as symbolic motifs. Here 160804 comprises eighteen VGA monitors forming an S shape that produces a negative cross above the centre, showing the same images on each screen but rotated physically in that the monitors themselves are different ways up. The images are generated by setting up feedback loops with analogue video processors. Without the use of cameras, or external input, obsolete analogue broadcast and editing devices, are connected in sequence, and manipulated in real time. Jerky changes of colour and image in the video are the result of the artist’s hand manipulating the devices. A computer is used only to digitise the video for playback purposes. A progression of colour and shape presented simultaneously by each monitor, fractal like, coheres into an overall image whilst continually changing, like a kaleidoscope. As what’s presented changes the overall ‘mood’ changes; I have the feeling that sounds are involved but I am not hearing any. I could have this completely wrong, but the sense I have is of something approaching colour/sound synesthesia.

Mali Morris, Second Stradella, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 198 x 214 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist and Fold Gallery

Mali Morris, Second Stradella, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 198 x 214 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist and Fold Gallery

The analogy with music is appropriate for many of the paintings here, and none more than Second Stradella (2016) by Mali Morris, even though only Hardy’s video installation shares with music the quality of being played over an actual time duration. Over six foot tall, not quite square, a grid of twenty rectangular colour cells taller than they are wide, some of which are divided by a curve creating two shapes of contrasting hue and seen together suggest a large circular shape competing with the grid formation, is the visual equivalent of a multiplicity of chords being sounded together. Yet all is not strictly simultaneous. Perceptual figure/ground shifts create change, movement and depth that are specifically two-dimensional. If one shape/colour stands out way in front of the others there must be quite a deep space here, but no sooner have I perceived it than it snaps back into its flat presentation, only then to make way for another cell, shape or gestalt to project outward or to recede. All this without the slightest hint of linear perspective. Not one of the colours here is the same as another, the curving pink triangles on the top row that look similar, are not identical. The one on the left is slightly darker, more saturated and shinier than the other. The blacks and whites are never actually black or white, and again none are precisely repeated. It is difficult to show this in a photograph but the two jade green/whites in the second row up are not the same colour, nor are any of the black/greys on that row. It’s difference within sameness and things never being quite as they seem that I become mindful of now.

The sameness in the exhibition is these artists involvement with colour, the differences are their particular approaches to it. The variety keeps me interested for longer than this lunch hour really allows.

Kaleidoscope is on show at Fold Gallery only until Saturday 27th August 2016!

Laurence Noga also writes about this show at the Saturation Point website


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Curated by Dominic Beattie, KALEIDOSCOPE opens at FOLD Gallery London today, featuring  Dominic KennedyMali MorrisBridget RileyJulian WildJames Alec HardySelma ParlourMartin Maloney, seven artists who have each developed their own sense of the ‘right’ colour choice, liberating colour to stimulate and energise the viewer in radically different ways.

Though I won’t get there today, I do hope to see it, and write a review before it closes on Saturday 27th August 2016!

Two solo shows at Nottingham Contemporary: Yelena Popova’s After Image and Michael Beutler’s Pump House

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Go to Saturation Point website for my review of two very different exhibitions currently on show at Nottingham Contemporary. Michael Beutler’s Pump House and Yelena Popova’s After Image. Whilst they are completely separate shows they do share some things in common, both artists work in their medium’s “expanded field”, Popova being nearest to painting and Beutler nearest to sculpture. Both create installations rather than single art objects and both work in idioms that have roots in twentieth century abstraction, branching out into their own foliage under highly contemporary skies.

Michael Beutler, Pump House, installation shot, detail, photo by Sam Kirby, image by courtesy of Nottingham Contemporary

Michael Beutler, Pump House, installation shot, detail, photo by Sam Kirby, image by courtesy of Nottingham Contemporary

Beutler’s amazing labyrinth of hand made walls, tools, furniture and models is a repeat-with-differences of the recent show at Spike Island Bristol. The differences reflect the different spaces, though they are similar in many ways, the link being the architects Caruso St John who transformed the Spike Island space only two years before their design of Nottingham Contemporary. Here are a couple of photos, but really you have to be there to experience it. Continuing in the tradition of the total art experience or Gesamtkunstwerk, it is a delight for all the senses.

Michael Beutler, Pump House, detail: wall Elefant Und Schwein 2010 / 2016

Michael Beutler, Pump House, detail: wall Elefant Und Schwein 2010 / 2016

Popova’s installation more or less divides into paintings in one gallery and a video piece, a digital animation, in the other. The paintings are at the same time wonderfully fragile, their images in delicate washes only just there, and robust, the heaviness of the linen and and clarity of its weave taking precedence over image, the arrangements of the paintings then becoming more important than any individual one.

 Yelena Popova, Public Gallery, detail: Untitled 2016, mixed media on linen + wooden pieces, dimensions variable, Photo by Sam Kirby, image by courtesy of Nottingham Contemporary

Yelena Popova, Public Gallery, detail: Untitled 2016, mixed media on linen + wooden pieces, dimensions variable, Photo by Sam Kirby, image by courtesy of Nottingham Contemporary

In the digital animation This Certifies That, a collaboration between Popova and computer programmer Noel Murphy, multiple images of the Euro banknote, are randomly generated in constantly changing sequences, to the accompaniment of a mesmerising soundtrack by Nottingham based sound artist Rebecca Lee. The words “an excess of images leads to a crash” and “a new sequence begins” can be heard intermittently, perhaps marking the ending and beginning of each sequence. The narrative here references a late 19th Century political conspiracy, led by Leon Warneker, who, working with a loose grouping of anarchists, attempted to crash Russia’s economy by flooding the market with forged banknotes. The work surely also brings to mind the financial crisis of 2007-08 precipitated by the credit crunch. The continuation of the guilloché lines from the video piece into the surrounding space as a wallpaper looks like a ‘pure’ abstract drawing. However, as what you see is always more than just what you see, it is also a reminder of the all-encompassing reality of capitalism as a system, whilst the work as a whole suggests the possibility of the system crashing and something new emerging in its place.

Yelena Popova, After Image, detail: Installation shot of gallery 1, my photo

Yelena Popova, After Image, detail: Installation shot of gallery 1, my photo

There’s a very attractive monograph/catalogue available for the Popova show, with texts by Brian Dillon and Claire-Louise Bennett. Highly recommended! I wish there had also been a document for Beutler’s Pump House. However, Nottingham Contemporary have uploaded this marvelous video of his talk prior to the show.

I have written a review of these two shows for Saturation Point, click here to read it and I hope to write discussion pieces for Abcrit at a later date.

Both exhibitions are on show until 25 September 2016

Hickster Projects, Upcoming Exhibition Inherent Vice

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Once a year, in the summer, Hickster Projects holds a platform event in a remote, beautiful part of central Italy, near Siena. The aim is to show innovative and interesting new work in a context that differs both from the city based gallery and the artist-led space. This year’s exhibition, entitled Inherent Vice, features paintings by three artists Nicola Melinelli, Sue Kennington and Nancy Milner (paintings in that order in photo below).

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‘Inherent Vice’ is a term used to denote ‘the tendency in physical objects to degrade because of the fundamental instability of the components from which they are made, as opposed to deterioration that is caused by external forces’. The reference then is to the instability of colour as a medium of communication. If we think of colour as a language, precisely what it communicates is difficult to translate. It continually resists our attempts to pin it down, to systematise it, to tame it. These painters choose instead to treat it with respect, not so much using it, either descriptively or symbolically, as creating contexts in which it communicates in its own way.

Melinelli’s disorientating labyrinths, Milner’s visual buzz as colours meet and Kennington’s surprise spaces, show off the medium in three quite different ways.

Nicola Melinelli (b 1988, Perugia, Italy) is an artist based in Bologna, He had work in MAMBO in Bologna this year and is represented by CARDRDE in Bologna, and A+B Contemporary Art in Brescia.

Sue Kennington, (b 1955 London, UK) is curating Hickster Projects and is showing at Yellow in Varese and in London with Saturation Point later this year.

Nancy Milner (b 1986 Barnsley, UK) has just completed the prestigious Abbey award at the British School in Rome and was shortlisted for the John Moores prize 2016

I was delighted to be invited to write a text (click here) for this show which runs from 21 to 28 August 2016

For further information and visiting by appointment email:

Written by Andy Parkinson

July 12, 2016 at 9:44 pm