Posts Tagged ‘abstract painting’
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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) 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.
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)?
The Chance and Order exhibition at Eagle Gallery takes its title from Kenneth Martin‘s early 1970s series of works, that he later developed into his Chance Order Change series, magnificent paintings in my view. The show brings works from the 1960s and 1970s by the British Constructionist and Systems Group together with more recent works by artists who currently draw upon this tradition. It is a mystery to me that this incredibly rich field in British art has been somewhat overlooked, when the paintings, drawings reliefs etc. of Kenneth and Mary Martin, Jeffrey Steele, and many others in this grouping are among the finest produced anywhere in the world. That they are being appreciated now by more than a generation of younger artists seems absolutely appropriate.
The two 2014 paintings by Natalie Dower are wonderful, both exploring the properties of Root-2 rectangles, which can be halved and halved endlessly and each time the rectangles will be of the same proportions. In these paintings Dower employs a rotating or spiralling movement to position repeatedly halved rectangles or triangles, (the triangles being derived by halving the rectangle diagonally), differentiating them using a nine colour sequence, in each reduction the triangle and rectangle shape share the same colour. There are nine moves, so nine colours are duplicated on two spirals tracks, one situating the triangular units and one the rectangles. On the first move the two units occupy the same area but in the subsequent diminutions the first two moves are in the same halves but then the track of rectangles curves inwards whilst the triangle track follows the periphery. The smaller scale units have priority over the previous, larger ones. If I am not mistaken Two Spirals No.2 is the inverse of Two Spirals No.1, in the same colours, used in different order. I read somewhere that the colours are “muted”, but that’s not really my experience, white may have been added, they are not quite primary and not quite secondary colours, but to my eyes the colours are high, with turquoise, cerulean blue, orange and yellow contrasting with Payne’s grey, white and a neutral base. The logical relationship of shapes and the sequential ordering, is combined with the intuitive, in the form of two sets of choices: the system being explored and the colours used, an inventive fusion of chance and order that I am finding in each of the works in this exhibition.
There’s a rotational theme too in the Kenneth Martin, Chance Order Change drawings, the paper having first been marked with numbered points, moving clockwise around the rectangle, the artist generated the lines by taking numbers, two at a time, at random out of a bag. A line was drawn between each successive pair of numbers as they were picked out. Chance determined the sequence and the number of parallel lines, the first drawn would have one line, the second two lines and so on. Change was initiated by rotating the drawing by 90 degrees and repeating the process for three rotations. The result is this intriguing network of lines which was then transferred to canvas. Order and chance may appear to be opposites, yet here their opposition is suspended, one being determined by the other.
Katrina Blannin also employs rotation in her method, using the same double hexad starting point that has by now become familiar to regular viewers of her work, this time skewed to fit a square format, oriented to hang as a diamond shape, which is subdivided into triangles differentiated by a range of colours (yellow pink green red blue and grey) that get darker and then lighter in rotation. Narrow demarcation lines are also added. There is a sense in which the careful definition of parts leads to accurately separating flat areas of colour, yet they immediately set up fascinating, shifting spatial relationships that create ambiguity. I think of them oxymoronically as precisely ambiguous. There are three paintings in sequence here increasing in size from left to right: 50 x 50 cm , 60 x 60 cm and 70 x 70 cm.
Mary Martin‘s drawing for Cross, a preparatory study for the magnificent stainless steel on wood relief that won the John Moores prize in 1969, is a diamond shape on a square. In the drawing Martin uses six iconographic figures, one for each of the six positions of her basic unit of a half cube, cut on the hypotenuse, faced with stainless steel, that she used in the relief. The half cube, placed in six different positions and and then arranged in a variety of sequences results in an amazing complexity of form, as demonstrated in this beautiful drawing. There’s a similar strategy being followed in Jeffrey Steele‘s outstanding Six sets of 7 x 5 half circles in cinematic rotation. It does “what it says on the tin”, yet whilst the descriptive title may sound somewhat prosaic, the visual experience is surprisingly poetic. And this is where I am supposed to say that their approach is not “mechanical” or “formulaic”, because we seem prejudiced towards those ideas, preferring instead the illusion of freedom. So I am going to say the opposite: it is formulaic, mechanical, digital (though not virtual), and that’s good! These drawings and paintings are totally contemporary, dealing with the issues of our day, without ever representing them or commenting upon them. What we are faced with in these works, precisely because of their programmatic or systematic formality, are the big, dare I say existential, questions to do with freedom and necessity, chance order and change.
Andrew Bick‘s OGVDS (Tilted Forward/straightened) v 5 is perhaps less systematic. Rather than numeric permutations of a single unit, we have more playful, serial variations on a theme, the theme being a particular grid arrangement that looks very different depending on changes to colour, texture, quality of mark and perceived depth. His work has been described as ‘gently disruptive and purposefully chaotic’, and it is easy to see this here. I like the gentle disruption in the spatial shifts as two large dark grey areas, an interrupted triangular shape at bottom left and a rectangular slab taking up nearly all of the right-hand half of the painting, first share the same literal plane and then snap into opposition, the larger shape receding in space in one interpretation, or jutting forward, in another, two orange irregular rectangles joining this game of push/pull, perhaps supporting the first interpretation slightly more than the second.
The Martins, in common with many of the British Constructionists moved somewhat away from painting towards constructed reliefs, Jeffrey Steele on the other hand, and it would appear that this is also true of Bick, Blannin and Dower, have stayed with painting, In a recent interview with Steele for Turps Banana, (Issue 11), Blannin asks him “Why is it important to develop …the historically charged process of ‘paint on canvas’?” In his answer Steele says “I have always wanted to try to justify the supreme importance of painting” contrasting the painter with the artist-as-manager who has works made in a factory, arguing that in the latter process “you lose the evidence of the ‘journey'”, adding that “for me the ‘journey’ is worth knowing and (its) traces… are important to see”. In every one of the works in this exhibition there is such evidence. Perhaps the show itself evidences the continuation of a journey, starting out with the British Constructionists and reaching into the future, an exploration rather than a repetition, yet quite possibly, ending as T S Elliot would have had it, where we started and knowing the place for the first time.
Chance and Order was on view at Eagle Gallery from 20 November to 19 December 2014