patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Aldous Huxley

The Empiricism of Michael Kidner: Dreams of the World Order

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I have written before about two approaches to making an abstract painting. We could call one of them ‘dialogical’: the artist enters a conversation with the materials in a state of ‘not knowing’ or with only a vague idea of what s/he is going to paint. The process becomes one of responding to previous ‘moves’, most of the decisions about the work being made during its production. The other strategy is pre-planned, with decisions being made before any paint is applied to a support. If the first is in danger of becoming ‘automatic writing’ the second may suffer from being too predictable. Perhaps they correspond to what Michael Kidner referred to as “the gestural approach”, which to him seemed “foreign to Western tradition” and lacked the possibility to develop, as opposed to the “preconceived image” which he thought “seems contrived”. Instead of either he proposed an empiricism of “imagery through optics” stating that “whereas a painting conceived in two colours can fairly easily be predicated in the mind’s eye, the addition of a third colour makes this impossible. The work necessarily becomes empirical.”

At Michael Kidner, Dreams of the World Order – Early Paintings at Flowers Gallery until 20 October 2012, this empiricism is evidenced in the relationship between paintings shown in the downstairs galleries and between those paintings and the wonderful (preparatory?) works on paper that are shown upstairs.

The exhibition explores four of Kidner’s sub-themes: After Image, Stripe, Moirè and Wave, described in the catalogue as “progressive experiments with optical effects and rational procedures, inspired by his preoccupation with how space, pattern and form function” and explaining that “a year after Kidner’s death in 2009, a number of rolled up paintings were discovered in his Hampstead Hill Gardens studio. These have now been re-united with this iconic body of work”. Many of the works on view in this exhibition are being shown for the first time.

It is a real treat being able to see them together, and to discover that some of the works on paper are double-sided (thank you to the show’s curator Amie Conway for demonstrating this).

One of the paintings I am particularly impressed by today is Circle after Image, 1959-60. Seeing an after image presented simultaneously below the image is a strange contradiction, the equivalent of an oxymoron like “objectively subjective”, and caught in this contradiction I am made aware of the temporal dimension of viewing a painting, and of vision in general. The after image is there represented by the artist yet as I view it, after about 20 seconds, I cannot help but project my own after image of the upper half of the canvas into the lower half.

Circle after Image 1959-60, Oil on canvas, 151.5 x 124.5 cm / 59¾ x 49¼ in, AFG 42498, ©The Estate of Michael Kidner, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

I feel sure that Slavoj Zizek had something different in mind when he said that the ethical duty of the modern artist is to confront us with “not objective reality but the objectively subjective” though it does seem to apply. It is almost as if there is a double constructivism at play here, the paintings themselves being situated within that tradition, that also produce a keen awareness in the viewer of the part s/he plays in constructing visual reality.

Seeing the smaller after image paintings on paper in the upstairs gallery gives an insight into Kidner’s empirical working method, yet I hesitate to label them ‘preparatory’ because they provide specific experiences that are similar but different to the larger painting, and highly interesting and enjoyable in their own right.

A painting for which I find no preparatory works, unless perhaps it should be grouped in the “towards moire” category is Raindrops, 1960, a wonderfully chaotic yet finely ordered painting.

Raindrops 1960, Oil on canvas, 97 x 122 cm / 38¼ x 48 in, AFG 42486, ©The Estate of Michael Kidner, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

The clear circular motif seems to break down on prolonged viewing, and then as I notice the complementary coloured squares I realise that this too is based on after images, and indeed the ‘figures’ becoming unstable is in part due to my own after images that the painting provokes. There is also a small painting on paper entitled Moving Green from this same period that explores a similar theme. The after images do seem to pulsate and to move and there is also something ‘moving’ (in the emotional sense) about seeing them. I note my involuntary sigh that signals a change of state as I look at these beautiful paintings, yet my cognitive mind is an equal partner in the experience.

To my mind the work in this exhibition is proof, if proof were needed, that a rational, systematic (empirical rather than pre-conceived) approach to abstraction can result in works that are both emotionally charged and intellectually interesting. It could even be said that Kidner combines the opposing traditions of expressionism and constructivism. Although he criticised abstract expressionism for its “assault on the unconscious” there is something of Rothko’s feeling for colour in these paintings. Yet there is no mysticism or ‘spirituality’ here, even though there is Grace in the sense of the term that (following Aldous Huxley) systems thinker Gregory Bateson used of “integrating conscious and unconscious minds”.

(All images by courtesy of Flowers Gallery. My Zizek quote is taken from How to Read Lacan, chapter 4, my Bateson quote is taken from Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Part II and all my Kidner quotes are taken from the exhibition catalogue.)

Mali Morris at Mostyn Gallery

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When you plan your trip to see Mali Morris: Works on Canvas and Paper at Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno, even though it continues until 24 June 2012, and even though Mostyn Gallery is open 7 days a week, go sooner rather than later, because when you’ve been the once, you will probably want to visit a second or third time.

What is it about these works that rewards prolonged viewing and that later, when enjoying the memory of them, seems to draw me back for a repetition? And, on repeat viewing, I realise the impossibility of repetition: it is something different I am noticing in the work this time around.

If abstract painting, to quote Matthew Collings on Mali Morris, is about “constantly coming up with visual metaphors for experience”, and the artist’s job is to produce this metaphor-world “in the form of visual pleasure, or beauty”, that’s a great metaphor for what Mali Morris does. And visual pleasure begins even as I peer though the window, waiting for the gallery to open

and even more so when I get inside and confront, or am confronted by the large painting North & South, on loan from The Royal Academy.

Love at first sight (!) is my response to the startling beauty that seems to be “out there”, or the visual pleasure, that seems to be “in here”. Beauty seems connected to desire, and the goal of desire, according to Slavoj Zizek “is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire”. Seeing it, I want to see it some more, and looking more closely, what started out like an epiphany becomes more like a slow reveal. The brightness of the coloured discs immediately grabs my attention from a distance, and moving nearer, I get interested in their very specific characters, each one different as a result not only of the quality of the particular chosen colour but because of the way it is arrived at. And are they contained within shaped ‘fields’ or do they sit on top of flat planes? Or maybe they inhabit different spaces, some receding further back than others, or then again, perhaps they hover above twisting and bending spaces. Seeing the painting from a different angle the space certainly appears to bend, but not in an “op art” way, it is slower and gentler than that. The colour creates space, and doesn’t perceiving this colour at least hint at a suspension of the natural cycle of desire, a kind of “bliss” according to Roland Barthes?

I missed the artist’s talk at the exhibition opening, the day before my visit, but a member of the gallery staff was kind enough to relate some of what had been said, recalling that partly it had been about the influence of other painters both modern and pre-modern, and remembering a comment about the relationship of the size of the works to the body, not just the artist’s hand or wrist but indeed the whole arm, and in the larger works the whole body.

Looking at the paintings, whilst the circular forms, even in the works that seem to hold just one such form, never become ‘faces’ or ‘heads’, they do engage me in a kind of conversation and I wonder if that’s what the first painting in this show brings to mind, or rather to heart, in its title: Reply.

I can imagine the two circles replying, or being a reply to one another, or the two circles in conversation with the blue-ish over-painted “ground”. Or is the painting itself a reply to previous paintings, (working as Morris does in series tends to create an ongoing conversation of art works)? I can also imagine the whole exhibition as a reply to a previous one, almost as if this first painting, on a wall of its own, announces that the show is the artists reply, situated within a previously established dialogue. And doesn’t an artist also enter into a kind of debate with the painting itself, so that the work could even be a reply to the artist as if it had a life of its own? It could equally be that the artist is engaging me in a discussion, replying to my statement or question about art or about life. The painting greets me, draws me into a conversation, but one that has already commenced some time ago, a bit like when I meet up with my twin brother and we just “carry on from where we left off” even though we haven’t seen each other for months. Even so, it is a conversation beyond or before language, where again it is colour that seems to temporarily suspend the necessity of language and thought-as-language (internal dialogue).

There are 18 paintings on canvas in the downstairs gallery, mostly small in size, yet each one ‘big’ enough to get a good ‘conversation’ going between painting and viewer. The way they are arranged also means they get ‘conversations’ going between themselves.

In the upstairs gallery there are 18, mostly smaller, paintings on paper including the very recent series the Mostyn Suites, which remind me of jewels, approaching tiny at 10 x 15 cm, in amazingly luminous colour (my photos don’t do them justice have a look at the picture on the Mostyn web site).

In David Batchelor‘s book Chromophobia he observes that in literature colour often gets “caught in the spell of gems and precious stones” and that “gems often stand in for colour-in-general. They represent the point at which colour becomes independent and assertive…” Whether in Aldous Huxley’s visions of Heaven: “always a place of gems” or Dorothy’s Oz, “colour – intense, heightened, pure, unqualified offer(s) a glimpse of the ‘Other World’, a world beyond Nature and the Law”. In Mali Morris’s little works on paper, gem-like in their luminosity, colour seems to become independent and brilliantly assertive. The modernist abstract tradition where the words “big” and “abstract” belong together has clear resonance with Morris’s work, yet in these little paintings she almost turns the theory of colour-field abstraction on its head.