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abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘abstract painting

Trevor Sutton, Assembly and Image, at Class Room, Coventry

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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.

Trevor Sutton, Michael, 1981, Acrylic on Wood, image by courtesy of the artist

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.

Installation view, Left, Michael, 1981; Right, Walking the Dog, 1982. Image by courtesy of Matthew Macaulay

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.

Trevor Sutton, Tight Tumble Tern, 1982, Acrylic on Wood, image by courtesy of the artist

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.

Installation view, Trevor Sutton, Beverley’s Little Car, 1982, Acrylic on Wood. Image by courtesy of Matthew Macaulay.

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

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Written by Andy Parkinson

April 3, 2017 at 10:38 am

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.

Wrap 2

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A Parkinson, Wrap 2, 2016, acrylic PVA and paper on canvas, 51 x 20.5cm

A Parkinson, Wrap 2, 2016, acrylic PVA and paper on canvas, 51 x 20.5cm

Written by Andy Parkinson

November 17, 2016 at 8:30 am

Katrina Blannin Annodam at Jessica Carlisle

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Katrina Blannin‘s very smart looking solo show Annodam at Jessica Carlisle closes in just two days.

Katrina Blannin, Annodam, by Jessica Carlisle, photo by Tom Carter, image by courtesy of Jessica Carlisle

Katrina Blannin, Annodam, installation photo by Tom Carter, image by courtesy of Jessica Carlisle

Geoff Hands recommends going to see it, in his article at Abcrit, though I had deliberately avoided reading what he has to say until now because I was writing my own review and I didn’t want to be influenced. You can read my review here at Saturation Point, the online editorial and curatorial project for reductive, geometric and systems artists working in the UK. 

Katrina Blannin, Annodam, installation photo by Tom Carter, courtesy of Jessica Carlisle

Katrina Blannin, Annodam, installation photo by Tom Carter, courtesy of Jessica Carlisle

Annodam is Madonna spelt backwards, all the paintings in the exhibition being strangely connected to the Madonna del Parto (c.1455-60), a fresco by Piero della Francesca. But how are they connected? Read more here

Written by Andy Parkinson

April 7, 2016 at 9:56 pm

Warp and Weft (new painting)

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Andrew Parkinson, Warp & Weft, 2016, acrylic on canvas x 2, each stretcher 30" x 30".

Andrew Parkinson, Warp & Weft, 2016, acrylic on canvas x 2, each stretcher 30″ x 30″.

Written by Andy Parkinson

March 1, 2016 at 8:30 am

Reflections on the Paintings and Constructions of Natalie Dower

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A recent show I wish I had been able to visit, unfortunately I never managed to get there, was Reflections, Natalie Dower, at Eagle Gallery. There’s a good review of it at Saturation Point in which James Campion discusses the selection of works, reflecting on some individual pieces, specifically the Spiral Track works (1984), Colour Spiral Track no.2 (19) and Jungle Sphere, (1988), and briefly considers Dower’s relationship to the tradition of Constructivist and Systems art.

The exhibition, drawing from Dower’s career of over 40 years, and presenting recent paintings hung in counterpoint to selected historic works, including a selection of intricate reliefs that have not been exhibited since exhibitions at the Curwen Gallery, would have been an invitation to reflect on the connections between works from the eighties up to the present day. Even without a visit, in surveying material available online (the Saturation Point review, an Eagle Gallery website summary, the catalogue with images of the work and an essay by Laurence Noga), I am immediately impressed by Dower’s constancy of purpose along with the way that the relatively simple numerical systems she employs have the power to generate their own forms, almost even without the input of an artist. However, there is an artist here, constantly making choices, experimenting, offering feedback, thus contributing to that larger system, of which each work is a part, a meta-system if you will.

Natalie-Dower-Travelling-Star-1996-Dudeney-Circle-1989

Natalie Dower, Travelling Star, 1996, oil on panel, 21.2 x 21.2 cm. Dudeney Circle, 1989, avonite, 31 x 31 x 4.5 cm. Images copyright of the artist, by courtesy of Eagle Gallery

Not actually visiting, I can imagine seeing the work, and I can also remember other works by Dower that I have seen before, like the one I saw here once at the Eagle Gallery, and where, in a conversation with the gallery owner Emma Hill, she noted the beautiful, subtly “faulted” quality of the painted surface. It wasn’t the charming oil on wood Hybrid from this show, but it so easily could have been. I now know enough about Dower’s paintings to guess that they share similar qualities. To really experience them however, does mean getting up close and seeing them first-hand.

Natalie Dower, Hybrid No. 2, 2007, oil on wood, 28.4 x 26 cm. Image copyright of the artist, by courtesy of Eagle Gallery

Natalie Dower, Hybrid No. 2, 2007, oil on wood, 28.4 x 26 cm. Image copyright of the artist, by courtesy of Eagle Gallery

In the excellent publication Natalie Dower Line of Enquiry Alan Fowler summarizes the distinctive features of Dower’s work, in comparison with other systems artists, as displaying “a greater lyricism, a more varied use of colour” as well as “a freedom from the strictly orthogonal imagery that characterized the work of many earlier constructivist artists”. I think the “faulted-ness”, specifically in the paintings, is part of what might be included in the idea of the lyricism of Dower’s style.

Some think of the slippage between concept and execution, especially when very slight, as in Dower’s paintings, as a particularly human trait (see comments by Richard Guest on a previous blog post, though referring to quite different content). I think they are right. However, isn’t pure abstract thought also entirely human? (Cogito ergo sum).

For too much of my life I considered “mental arithmetic” as an enemy, a bully to be avoided, because I knew I couldn’t subdue it in open conflict. I put it down to the method of rote learning that disagreed with me as a child, and to the threat of punishment for getting my multiplication tables wrong. That beauty could reside here was unthinkable. That was until I started to notice the pleasurable rhythm of “seven sevens are forty nine” or “six sixes are thirty six” (I may never know why “six fours are twenty four” and in fact most of the other lines of the poem, didn’t have quite the same swing and therefore weren’t as memorable). Then one day one of the clever girls in my class showed me a real table (I mean a matrix not furniture) that she had drawn and coloured-in rather attractively, numbering 1 to 12 along the top and down the side and displaying plain as day the multiplication tables, even making it possible to follow a line say from 4 along the top and 6 along the side and find in the cell where they joined the number 24. It was magic, and it was beautiful: epistemology and aesthetics combined!

I am in no way comparing this visual table with the look of Dower’s paintings, nor suggesting that her work is a demonstration of numerical or arithmetic processes, simply that the sudden discovery of the beauty of number, via the visible chart has some resonance with my experience of beauty in Dower’s art.

Natalie-Dower-Spin-Off-2015-Three-Triangle-series-Five-colours-2015

Natalie-Dower, Spin Off, 2015, oil on board, 13.25 x 18.9 cm; Three Triangle Series: Five Colours 2015, oil on canvas, 43.5 x 43.5 cm. Copyright of the artist image by courtesy of Eagle Gallery

Is there in each painting and construction a physical manifestation of thought: logic apprehended by the senses, not so much “word made flesh” as perhaps number made material? I have written before about the highly pleasurable experience of attempting to recover the numerical system that spawned a particular painting or relief, and only sometimes thinking I may have succeeded. I do think this is an important aspect of viewing work of this kind, though it is by no means the only thing.

It’s Dower’s work that has me reflecting on the beauty of say a root 2 rectangle, or even a double square, and that’s when I am viewing a specific piece, and also when I am thinking about a work that I once viewed. The numerical system, now communicated, becomes available to my thought independently of the artwork, as if there were such a thing as a “realm of pure thought”. Now what had become material becomes immaterial, non physical, abstract thought.

Dower has said “I want the image to be able to attract and hold the attention of the viewer” her objects/images long since attracted my attention, and continue to hold it beyond the physical viewing of artworks. Nevertheless I do wish I had actually seen the show!

Written by Andy Parkinson

January 28, 2016 at 8:58 pm

Richard Devereux, Continuous Now at Tarpey Gallery

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It already seems like an age since I bumped into a few friends at the PV of the Richard Devereux exhibition Continuous Now, at Tarpey Gallery, though it was only November. There is much debate about the work on show, mostly a fascination with the “how” rather than the more contemplative mode that I had expected. They’re enchanting paintings that probably aren’t paintings at all, and that’s part of what gets us into conversation before each work: “what is it?” not in the sense of “what does it represent?” but “what is this thing that I am looking at and how was it made?” They didn’t drop out of the sky that’s for sure but were they actually touched by human hands? They almost approach the acheiropoiesis of certain byzantine icons, that were supposedly made “not with human hands”. Their method of production, though it is clear that they were brought about by some process of making, is unfathomable, at least to me, and to those gathered at the PV, each of us offering our speculations, maybe they are printed, or possibly the process is close to photography. I get up really close to see if there is texture and if the smaller marks are really marks at all, much as one might check whether an image is a reproduction. I am searching for clues as to how the work is made. I take my glasses off and put them back on again. I look from the side and from the front, at different distances, and I am still unsure. Even when I decide one thing I later change my mind.

Richard Devereux, One Morning We'll Slip Into A Harbour We Have Never Known, (After Olav H. Hauge), 2015, aqueous polyester and pigment dispersal on panel, 121.0 x 162.5 x 5.0 cm. Image © Richard Devereux 2015

Richard Devereux, One Morning We’ll Slip Into A Harbour We Have Never Known, (After Olav H. Hauge), 2015, aqueous polyester and pigment dispersal on panel, 121.0 x 162.5 x 5.0 cm. Image © Richard Devereux 2015

In a recent article at Abcrit Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe argues that “we see paintings as beings rather than things. To share a space with them is more like being with a person than with a table or a rug”. Being with these artworks is not at all like being with a table or a rug. Maybe that’s why I think they are paintings, whether strictly speaking they are or not. After all, what is “aqueous polyester and pigment dispersal”? None of us here can explain it even though at first we thought we knew what it meant. Reading in the gallery notes that

the work is made by using a high-density pigment which is applied to a 100% cotton fibre membrane. By employing conventional masking methods and a variety of ‘pressure dispersal techniques’ – which have evolved over extensive periods of experimentation – the unique surface evolves as the dispersal flow is disturbed and randomised by a form of ‘particle interference’. The finished membrane is then mounted and then coated with several applications of archival, water-clear, acid-free, matt varnish,

helps me a bit, and I have to say that it does sound like painting, if not quite as we know it.

Other Places ()29.1 x 40.2 x 4.0 cm

Richard Devereux, Other Places (series two) II, 2015, pigment dispersal on panel, 29.1 x 40.2 x 4.0 cm. Image © Richard Devereux 2015

Once I get over that I don’t know how they’re made and I get on with just looking at them. I am captivated, enthralled even, but not quieted. My state is more one of excitation, and it only very slowly gives way to something calmer.

The paintings (?) are quite similar, monochromatic or almost so, always blue or turquoise, the parts entirely determined by the whole, yet themselves making up that whole, and only subtly differentiating themselves as ‘parts’. The differences between one painting and another becomes interesting. I have favourites, but it’s not easy to say why. I like the ones that don’t have a border more than the ones that do, and I attempt to rationalize why that might be. Is it that the border appears to display the work more conventionally, emphasizing the image more than the object, whereas in those that have no border the image/object relation is more ambiguous? I am enjoying all of them, each individual work having something at times only slightly different to offer. In One Morning We’ll Slip Into A Harbour We Have Never Known and Other Places (series two) II, I sense that I am looking at a landscape but only long enough to be brought back to the surface by the homogeneity of incident and lack of representational markers. But the surface is difficult to discern, I know it is flat yet it contains a strange kind of illusionistic quality, as if it also contains the illusion of another surface, lunar or aquatic. Then again, maybe it is a kind of weaved fabric I am studying.

OTHER PLACES (I), 2015, aqueous polyester and pigment dispersal on panel, 25.5 x 17.0 x 3.8 cm,

OTHER PLACES (I), 2015, aqueous polyester and pigment dispersal on panel, 25.5 x 17.0 x 3.8 cm. Image © Richard Devereux 2015

Other Places (I) and Other Places (II), both small paintings, have obvious similarities as well as noticeable differences. Other Places (I) has more the appearance of movement, as if the image was fixed in mid flow, whereas Other Places (II) is static both in the sense of “still”and in the sense of an electrical buzz that is almost auditory, and it seems to hold more surface detail. It’s this second one that I like the most. I really like it and spend ages looking at it. Yet, I find it almost impossible to verbalize what it is that I am enjoying so much. I like the other one, but I like this one more, why? I am reminded of a time I was viewing a painting by Clem Crosby in a London gallery not so long ago. A critic who joined me pronounced an immediate judgment, something along the lines of “the colour is awful”. I made the mistake of asking him what he thought was “awful” about it, only to find that If I didn’t already know he certainly wasn’t going to explain it to me, it was so obviously self-evident. My own view was that the colour was rather good, but I would have been equally unable to justify my position. I am not at all sure that the words I have learned to say to myself are anything like an accurate report of my experience. Is this the whole point of looking? Almost that the more difficult it is to say in words what’s happening, the more interesting is the work, but that’s no reason to give up on the attempt! Nevertheless, for now, I just look.

OTHER PLACES (I), 2015, aqueous polyester and pigment dispersal on panel, 25.5 x 17.0 x 3.8 cm

OTHER PLACES (II), 2015, aqueous polyester and pigment dispersal on panel, 25.5 x 17.0 x 3.8 cm. Image © Richard Devereux 2015

Continuing to look, it’s the constructed-ness of the work that regains my attention, and I imagine once again the method of its making and what relationship the artist has to each finished piece. How much control does he exert, versus the paintings almost making themselves? Could it be that the notion of self-organization, or autopoiesis is helpful in thinking about this artist’s production, a development from the acheiropoiesis I started out with? As Devereux says

The work continually evolves, the work carries me – it knows far more than I do – I’m simply a facilitator.

It is no longer idols or icons I have in mind, more the way that (living) systems invent themselves. I am thinking metaphorically, clearly paintings are not alive, yet we do tend to relate to them “as beings rather than things”. Is a painting akin to a self-organizing system, and perhaps specifically so in Devereux’s method, (though indeed I have little understanding, if any, of what that method might actually be)?

Written by Andy Parkinson

January 14, 2016 at 11:50 am