Posts Tagged ‘abstract’
The Long Gallery at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery is an excellent setting for sixteen marvelous paintings, seven by Dan Perfect and nine by Fiona Rae. In the adjacent room there are some smaller works on paper by Perfect and collages by Rae along with a video about their respective practices. Curated by Tristram Aver, this must be one of the best shows I have seen in Nottingham for a long time, though we are doing well this year, a Tess Jaray exhibition having just finished at Lakeside and Somewhat Abstract continuing at Nottingham Contemporary until 29 June.
In London, almost a year ago I saw small paintings by Rae and Perfect in a group show at the Lion and Lamb Summer Saloon, and when, around that time, I also heard that the Nottingham show was being planned I thought that the two would make a brilliant combination, not knowing then that the artists are in fact married to each other.
I had been impressed by the Dan Perfect painting Operator, and much of what I admired in that little painting I am seeing again here at Nottingham Castle only on a much larger scale.
I wonder if the operator in the title is the artist, acting upon the materials of canvas and paint, or maybe even the painting itself as it operates upon me the viewer, changing my experience, visually and psychologically. Likewise, the huge painting Transporter, here at Nottingham Castle, affects me, taking me somewhere, similar to the way that a dramatic natural landscape might act upon my gaze, as if I were a passive observer, transported even to some ‘spiritual’ place, when in fact I am the one who is actively constructing the world I see. I am the operator, the transporter or the Generator, another of the paintings here. Then again, maybe the motifs, figures or gestures within each of these paintings take on such agency, painted marks or patterns first creating spaces that they then inhabit. In Generator clusters of atom-like, circular forms, seem to hover in spatial crevices, but take the motif away and no space is now perceived. In Transporter a blue disc atop a meandering line could be read as a wheel travelling along a highway, without the disc the line wouldn’t be a highway and without the line the disc would not seem to travel. Once the highway association has been made I am cued to read the rest of the painting as landscape, with trees and mountains perhaps, even whilst knowing full well that no such landscape has actually been described.
Whilst I may be paying too much attention to the titles and not enough to the objects themselves, I think Perfect chooses his titles carefully, so that when I come across a painting entitled Laocoön or another entitled Cerberus, surely I must be expected to think of, in the first case, the famous statue in the Vatican Museum, and its reference to Greek mythology, or, in the second, of the mythological, gigantic three-headed, creature guarding the gates of Hades. And in viewing the painting Cerberus I start to think that the central white shape might resemble a head of the dreaded creature, and then to wonder what might be guarded, i.e prevented from getting out of the painting into the external world, or vice versa. And even as I am talking to myself about this. I hear Perfect speaking on video about his paintings being abstract in the same sense that mathematics is abstract, i.e. existing in its own tautologous world.
Noting the title Laocoön, I cannot help but bring to mind the article Towards a Newer Laocoön by Clement Greenberg in which he made his (in)famous case for value in abstract painting based on medium specificity. Martin Herbert makes this connection in his essay in the excellent catalogue for this show. He also reminds us, if reminder were needed, that Perfects painting Full Fathom Five, borrows its title from Jackson Pollock‘s 1947 painting of the same name. In Pollock’s famous painting we find bits of the ‘real world’ embedded into the surface, objects such as nails, thumbtacks, cigarette butts, coins, buttons, and a key. The ‘real world’ has changed a lot since 1947, one massive change being the rise of the computer and digital media. Could it be said that embedded in Perfect’s painting are bits of the virtual world, using as he does in his practice, Photoshop to manipulate sketched material, a hard copy of which he then uses as a ‘score’ for the paintings? The digitized image finds its way into the painting. In Full Fathom Five a swirling gesture in the bottom left hand corner changes colour abruptly halfway through its stroke, it looks like a digital edit. Similarly, the very fine circular doodles in Transporter look a lot like digital doodles. I have the sense that I am witnessing a visual conversation between the digital and the analogue.
I think I find a similar dialogue taking place in Fiona Rae’s paintings, only here the digital seems to be referenced more in the synthetic colours and the insertion of manufactured collaged elements from childish popular culture, girly stationery, stickers of cute cartoon pandas, her now familiar mixing of crass pop decor with the tropes of Abstract Expressionism, that continues to have the power to jar, entertain, and provoke.
If Perfect’s paintings resemble landscapes Rae’s are more like full-figure portraits, at least in their orientation, there is something person-like in their physical scale, but optically it is space that seems to be portrayed. Both artists open up spaces that appear cosmic, Rae’s to an even greater degree, her choice often of blue hues, the inclusion of stick-on stationery stars and her tracing direction lines from their points all add to this impression of the stellar.
Rae’s has an amazing facility with paint, her dramatic swooping gestures look effortless and also delightfully intricate. There’s something Rauschenbergian about them in their faux authenticity, yet with playfulness and a much greater sense of enjoyment than in Rauschenberg. Rae seems to revel in the contradictions of technological culture. The suggestion of personal expression and subjectivity yet also its knowing denial. Her inclusion of geometric motifs, references also the Constructivist strand of abstraction, acknowledging both its promise and its failure. Am I indulging my imagination too much seeing in these paintings a hint at a new vision, an acceptance of where we are now, tentatively hoping for a future that is more than parody, irony and the feeling of being stuck?
In the painting See Your World, a synthetic sky is populated by squiggles, gestures and apparently decomposing cartoon pandas. It’s high-tech Abstract Expressionism-meets-Manga, that I think does reflect the contemporary east/west, post apocalyptic, almost sci-fi world we now inhabit, without quite representing it. Just as the pandas appear both cute and sinister, the technological future might seem both attractive and menacing. I am reminded of the small painting by Rae that I saw at that Lion and Lamb exhibition, Party Time is Coming, it might even be here already, and it’s not necessarily a good thing, even though I do think Rae’s paintings are a very good thing!
Dan Perfect and Fiona Rae’s joint exhibition, ‘Painter, Painter: Dan Perfect, Fiona Rae’, is on show at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery from 3rd May to 6th July. The exhibition, will travel to Southampton City Art Gallery 18th July to 18th October.
Seeing the current exhibition at Beers.Lambert, and feeling at first that the paintings in this show are too ‘figurative’ to be Mapping the Abstract, puts me in mind of the difficulty of talking about abstraction, and particularly the ambiguity of the word “abstract” in relation to painting. In one sense, the further removed our experience is from empirical reality the more “abstract” it is. Thinking in terms of “levels of abstraction”, seeing something in the “real world” is a representation “in our heads”, an image that is one removed from “reality”, already an abstraction even at the point of perception, to use Korzybski’s distinction: a map rather than the territory. When an artist then seeks to represent in paint what s/he sees, that representation is a further abstraction, a higher level abstraction if you will. To then “abstract from” that representation is a higher level of abstraction still. In this sense of the word “abstract”, a representation is a lower level abstraction.
However, the expression “non-representational” has also become synonymous with “abstract” because abstract art seeks to do something different than to represent. Consequently, some have preferred the word “constructive”, or “constructionist” (as did Charles Biederman, for whom Korzybski was an important influence) or “concrete”, which in that other sense is the exact opposite of “abstract”. Rather than being removed from observable reality the abstract painting is itself a sub-set of that reality, an autonomous self-organizing system. Things become further complicated when that autonomy is itself called into question as it has, for example by abstract painters such Jonathan Lasker, Francis Baudevin, Ingrid Calame or Fiona Rae, to name only a few.
It is against this complex background that the three painters in this show: Blake Daniels, Robert Fry and Benjamin Brett could be said to map the abstract.
Benjamin Brett‘s Dancer is very clearly a figure, as the title suggests, what the dancer is actually doing is difficult to work out, though s/he seems to be making a gesture not unlike the gestures the painter has made on the canvas. I have no way of knowing whether an observed event was the occasion for an abstraction or whether something resembling a figure was the result of ‘free’ gestural mark making. I recall that Kandinsky, in relation to his own paintings, distinguished between an impression (an abstracted representation) and an improvisation (an image that presents itself from within the mark-making process). I wonder whether Brett’s Dancer might borrow from both these approaches.
His painting Untitled, grabs my attention because of its similarity to a pattern I have been exploring in my own work, a diagonally oriented grid resulting in a rhomboid chequerboard, resembling floor tiles. My interest has been in how when the scale is small this formation becomes a network of scintilla. Brett’s formation is large scale which seems to reduce the optical ‘buzz’ of the image, retaining whilst slowing down, the figure ground oscillation. The contrast between the hard edge, flatly rendered ’tiles’ and the loose gestural graffiti drawn over the top tends to create a ‘background’ of the geometrical pattern, except that the gestures then interact with the shifting of figure/ground so that at times I attempt to situate them spatially somewhere in between the dark and light tiles, in an impossible space, or one that is available only to the sense of sight. I am unsure what to make of the drawings of hands, a cup, a rib cage (?) and I relate to them as if their purpose was to deface the geometry. Then I become aware of a blue mark, roughly central toward the lower left hand quadrant of the painting. When the white rhombus shapes are ‘figures’ it positions itself behind a ‘hole’ in the surface, but when they are ‘ground’ it pushes forwards so that it sits on the surface of the brown tile. It also leads my eye to the lower left hand corner where one of the dark tiles is painted light blue as opposed to the brown of the others and the tile above it is divided more or less in half along the diagonal, with the lower half in blue and the higher half in green, reading at times like these two tile shapes have been cut into the surface and I am peering into quite a deep space through the cut-outs. There is no attempt to create a believable representational space here, yet this two dimensional space is anything but flat, and anything but still.
And in the end, I think it is space that is being explored by all three painters in this mapping of the abstract. Robert Fry‘s paintings are clearly representations of male figures, and they are drawn with a certain degree of illusionistic depth within the figure, for example when the figure is side on, the half of the body that is nearest to the viewer looks nearer than the other half, and the space between the feet is readable as a three dimensional space. However the space behind or in front of the figure is not so readable, the space that the figures inhabit then is shallow, and the negative spaces between the figures also read sometimes as positive figures themselves. To me, they are tableaus with figures, bearing some similarity to ancient Egyptian tomb decorations except that whereas there the figures are flat here they are almost naturalistic. But if there is a naturalism it is only a naturalism of sorts, in that body parts, for example, sometimes occupy spaces of their own, or seem to have detached themselves from a body in a way that could never be an observable “real world” event.
Blake Daniels paintings are high level abstractions from the real world, the kind of abstraction that take place in dreams where there may be a narrative but one that makes little rational sense, bringing previously unrelated events together, and parts of different wholes interact in a space and time that makes perfect sense only in the dream.
Mapping the Abstract is on at Beers.Lambert, 1 Baldwin Street, London, until 21 September 2013.
I posted recently about the excellent exhibition Meditations curated by Lisa Denyer and Matthew Macaulay at Pluspace, Coventry, showing paintings by Karl Bielik, Lisa Denyer, Rachael Macarthur, Matthew Macaulay, Sarah McNulty, Phoebe Mitchell, Joe Packer and Melanie Russell, on until 7 July. I said little then about four charming paintings on paper by Rachael Macarthur, and I cannot resist returning now to say more about them.
On entering the gallery space it is Macarthur’s paintings that I come to first, and to begin with I don’t really know what to make of them. Mostly I perceive them as figure on a ground paintings, particularly the first two, Tabula Rasa and Voyages Grand, but also to a lesser degree the others, and whilst I find the overall colour of each piece attractive, there is something about the figures that I find, if not ugly, then certainly awkward. Is it perhaps that they seem inchoate or even malformed? As I get into a conversation with myself about what they are I realise that I am enjoying them a lot, and it occurs to me that the slight awkwardness prevents them from veering into the territory of the “merely decorative”. They could be experiments in form, the drawing looking like it came from the inside out, as if the shapes evolved from within the painting process rather than being imposed from the outside by the artist’s hand.
Tabula Rasa, looks like a red/terracotta ground was laid down first and then an image was allowed to generate itself almost unconsciously by applying brushstrokes, lighter in tone than the ground and in impasto, towards the centre of the paper, resulting in an abstract portrait. It could be a head in ¾ view. I can imagine the artist working, holding the paper in one hand and painting with the other, or perhaps resting the paper on the floor or a table and rotating it as she works. Believing I can see finger prints along the left hand edge reinforces this imagined scenario.
The painting is audaciously simple, yet any more work on it would be too much, it would become something else, and the purity of the image would be lost. Similarly, to transcribe it into paint on canvas or into a larger scale would be to lose the spontaneity and directness that seems to come so easily in this format.
In Voyages Grand Macarthur appears to have followed a similar method, an image painted atop a layered ground. This time the central image, a rounded triangular figure is darker than the light blue/green ground that it is difficult not to read as sea or sky…
…except that it is so self evidently paint, no effort being made to specifically describe sea or sky. The association is in the colour and perhaps in the way the light shines through it like sunlight from behind storm clouds.
In comparison with Tabula Rasa the central shape, also made up of impasto brush strokes, this time in grey, and concentric, whereas it is eccentric in Tabular Rasa, appears to float. Both of these are pictures, yet it is unclear what specifically they are pictures of, and I think it is the attempt to work them out that both gives pleasure to the viewer and at the same time creates a certain amount of discomfort. It’s a bit like waking from a dream and vainly trying to recall it. Parts of it come back for a moment and then are gone again. Or to stretch the analogy further I could say that attempting to make sense of these pictures is like attempting to interpret a dream. Gregory Bateson describes dreams as “bits and pieces of the stuff of which we are made. The non-objective stuff” pointing out that “the dream contains no label to tell us what it is about” likening it to “an old manuscript or letter that has lost its beginning and end, and the historian has to guess what it’s all about and who wrote it and when – from inside it”. In this sense I think these pictures have a dream like quality and didn’t Freud identify dreams as “the royal road to the unconscious”?
The third painting Keep Your Shadow is arguably more complex than the first two, in that the one central figure is replaced with a cluster of figures and there is overlapping and containing of figures one over another or one within another. The figures seem to be the result of applied colours being allowed to find their own boundaries rather than drawing shapes that are then “coloured in”.
In both Keep Your Shadow and Split Mimic, there is more ambiguity between figure and ground than there is in the first two pictures. In Split Mimic an indeterminate green ground, looking more like thin air than solid mass, supports a solid looking ochre “V” at the lower edge. Above it, or rather behind it, a red figure emerges appearing to stand within the space rendered by the green coloured ground. And then in front of everything else a swarm of outlined shapes, or perhaps a school as they are vaguely reminiscent of fish, hovers, seemingly in motion, progressing from left to right.
In relation to this picture, it is easier to describe the relationships between the various elements than it is to describe what those elements are, again recalling Bateson on dreams saying that “The dream elaborates on the relationship but does not identify the things that are related.” Aren’t we back in that distinction between process and content?
In another of my lives I sometimes lead groups in guided fantasy, and I have learned that this works well when I stay out of content, engaging only in process instructions. For example, if I instruct a group to “in your imagination, find a safe place to rest, paying attention to what you see hear and feel in that safe place” each member of the group will supply their own content. Some people will imagine themselves on a beach in the warm sun, and even then all those beaches will have different features, others will be indoors somewhere and others may imagine themselves in the countryside, the supplied content differing with each individual. If I make the mistake of indulging in content the experience will be impaired. Say in a further instruction I suggest they feel the warmth of the sun, the fantasy will be broken for all those whose safe place was indoors and their experience will be diminished.
Of course, in making these parallels I am speaking metaphorically about the experience of looking at these paintings. I am not saying that the same thing is going on, and I am not even sure that my speculation throws any light on the experience, though I do think that, at the risk of lapsing into anti-intellectualism, it has some affinity with the idea expressed in the exhibition notes, of presenting paintings that are supposed to be “meditated on and enjoyed with the senses” rather than understood.
Meditations is showing at Pluspace, The Meter Room, 58 -64 Corporation Street, Coventry, until 7 July 2013. (Open Friday – Saturday, 11am – 5pm or by appointment by emailing matthew@pluspace .com)
(Bateson quotes are from Steps to an Ecology of Mind by Gregory Bateson, University of Chicago Press, 1972, 2000)
Networked double tetractys…
…divided in half vertically, one half inverted and arranged in opposition.