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abstract art, a systems view

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Without an Edge There is no Middle, at Pluspace

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Pluspace, in the Meter Rooms, just on the edge of Coventry city centre, is host to a wonderful exhibition celebrating the continuing exploration of the possibilities inherent in abstract painting. Without an Edge There is no Middle brings together a diverse set of contemporary abstract painters that “look beyond the comfort of the safe harbour of the middle, and push towards the unknown edges”. Curated by Matthew Macaulay, it captures, if just for a moment, that determined if sometimes gradual, pushing out towards the edge of what painting can be and do. No longer a “progression” as it might once have seemed, and inevitably including repetition or recommencement, there is also a faltering “progress” of sorts, a wending of different ways towards one end.

The artists exhibited are Katrina Blannin, Julian Brown, Gordon Dalton, Andrew Graves, Terry Greene, Mark Kennard, Hannah Knox, Mali Morris, Joanna Phelps, Dan Roach, David Ryan, Andrew Seto, and David Webb.

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Installation shot. Image by courtesy of Pluspace

Again, I find that the paintings of Mali Morris quite literally take my breath away. I don’t know that I have ever seen colour so luminous, or space, self evidently the result of painterly gesture or manipulation, so mysterious. The central ‘figure’ in Blue Flame, a near perfectly formed blue circle supporting a further inchoate circle that resembles a flame, hovers above a gestural violet ground, itself resting upon a ground of the same colour as the blue flame, clearly seen at the top left edge but also shining through the darker gestural brushstrokes. However, this figure in the middle is made of the same stuff as the edge, created as it is by the removal of the upper layers of paint, an inverted keyhole through which a lower layer of blue ground is reveled, yet reading as if it were a positive shape above the ground.

Mali Morris, Blue Flame, Image by courtesy of the artist via Pluspace

Mali Morris, Blue Flame, Acrylic on Canvas, Image by courtesy of the artist via Pluspace

I think it is this play of figure and ground, both literal and optical, combined with the quality of colour/light, that I find so appealing in paintings by Morris, and I can hardly help saying “that’s beautiful” when I look at them.

Almost, includes a gestural white helix over a multicolored ground, possible wet on wet, creating not just a sweeping rhythm but also depth through and beyond the gesture, with sentinel-like coloured discs that appear impossibly to be both tied to the surface by an imaginary or obscured grid and also free floating in space, almost airborne but held back also by the edges of the support.  Yet, as with Blue Flame, those positive circular shapes hovering “above” are clearly excavations of lower layers of colour.

Mali Morris, Almost

Mali Morris, Almost, Acrylic on Canvas, Image by courtesy of the artist via Pluspace

I don’t think it is just my playing with the title of the exhibition that leads me to pay attention to the edges of many of the paintings here, sometimes as if the action gets pushed outwards, as in Andrew Graves audacious painting Tomorrow. a stained canvas of magenta stapled over a blue canvas, covering it almost entirely, the colour contrast taking place right at the edge, creating tension between the framed image and the parameters of the object. I am tempted to liken it to colour field painting on a small scale, if that were possible.

Andrew Graves, Tomorrow, 2013, Oil on Canvas, image by courtesy of Pluspace

Andrew Graves, Tomorrow, 2013, Oil on Canvas, image by courtesy of Pluspace

Mark Kennard‘s Untitled, is more or less a monochrome ground, again with the action taking place towards the edges as the bars of the stretcher seem to bleed through to the surface, creating a frame, within which barely perceptible events take place. In his Nine Lines on Black, narrow, differently coloured lines, all of similar length, interrupt a black ground, each line having at least one end touching an edge, and non of them crossing each other. The subtlest of interventions resulting in spatial shifts, clearly two dimensional yet also suggesting box-like objects on a floor.

But it isn’t the edge I pay attention to in the Andrew Seto paintings. More pictorial, they seem to be paintings of something, as if structures formed of triangles situated in a sparse landscape or interior were actually constructed of sumptuous oil paint.  They have this sculptural look to them, even though in the two paintings here, Ahead and Pom Pom, there is no horizon line, (in contrast to Seto’s Device, currently on show at the Lion and Lamb Gallery), so situating them in a space becomes more difficult, and alternative interpretations might assert themselves. Ahead looks totemic, recalling African masks as painted by Picasso, whilst the thickness of the paint has something Auerbachian about it , but richer in colour and without the external referent. Around the central figure, the warm area that I am reading as ‘background’ pushes forward creating depth through the latticework structure only to lead the eye back to the surface again. Pom Pom, is a flatter image, without the impasto, in rich grey and blue, also exploiting triangular forms with much more of an alternation between figure and ground. Seto seems to have discovered a fascinating modular structure that is capable of multiple combination, extension and variation.

Andrew Seto, Ahead, oil on canvas. Image by courtesy of Pluspace

Andrew Seto, Ahead, Oil on canvas. Image by courtesy of the artist via Pluspace

Terry Greene‘s  They’re not scared of you, is an attractive painting with simple bar shapes of blue on ochre against a variegated green and blue ground, It’s simple yet has the appearance of having been hard to come by, there are signs of struggle. I reflect on Greene’s process, thinking that the first thing that goes down on the canvas is necessarily a “mistake”, the painting appearing to have progressed via a series of “corrections” not knowing what the end will look like until it arrives. The starting point is an act of faith, like Abraham “who went out without knowing where he was going” (Heb 11:8). It occurs to me that abstraction could be classified according to the amount of planning that takes place before work commences. Terry Greene would be at one end of the scale, with say, Katrina Blannin at the opposite end.

David Ryan‘s paintings might include improvised events within a planned structure, possibly comprising a systematic study. The two paintings here Set c and Set 5 (d), both read to me like paintings within a painting, different versions of abstraction in conversation with each other, both of them including a monochrome and a more gestural piece, signs almost, of differing approaches, held together within a frame, forming a kind of “gallery” where they jostle for attention, achieving a continuous push-pull effect.

installation shot, above David Ryan, Set C, oil on canvas, below Terry Greene, They're not scared of you, oil on canvas. Image by courtesy of Pluspace

installation shot, above David Ryan, Set C, oil on canvas, below Terry Greene, They’re not scared of you, oil on canvas. Image by courtesy of Pluspace

I am enjoying seeing two David Webb paintings, a very recent one Untitled (Windmill) close to the older, Smoking Room (Blue) the former is more abstract the latter more obviously on the edge of figuration. I love its humour and simplicity. The Dan Roach paintings also nod towards figuration in that the beautiful hexagonal forms he employs could be cells of a honeycomb, yet they inhabit only this abstract space, combining in transparent overlapping layers to form an entirely abstract arrangement, virtually impossible to tell which layers are above and which below when I allow my attention to take in more than two cells. There is something entirely congruent about the scale of these paintings in relation to the cells: architecture in miniature, challenging, along with other artists here, the notion that abstraction must necessarily be big.

Dan Roach, Aye Takeuder. Oil Acrylic and Whiting on Panel. Image by courtesy of  Pluspace

Dan Roach, Aye Takeuder. Oil Acrylic and Whiting on Panel. Image by courtesy of the artist via Pluspace

The hexagonal or hexad form also features strongly in Katrina Blannin‘s work but if Roach’s hexagons are organic in character Blannins are geometric, rather than allowing overlapping of forms, she explores the ‘natural’ propensity of geometric hexagons, and triangles to tessellate.

Katrina Blannin, Double Hexad Black Pink. Acrylic on Line. Image by courtesy of the Artist via Pluspace

Katrina Blannin, Double Hexad Black Pink. Acrylic on Linen. Image by courtesy of the Artist via Pluspace

Double Hexad – Black Pink, one of an ongoing series, does however have layering of a different kind, each geometric form being achieved by applying paint in glazes, layer upon layer until the colour and tone make visual sense, each shape being visible as part but without distracting from the perception of the whole. I am fascinated by the way the texture and weave of the linen shows through, creating a two-tone effect, the pinks appearing to glisten, and where areas are very closely matched in hue or value they are demarcated by a narrow drawn line. The  space appears to bend. It has depth to it, but shifting gently, undulating almost as my perception of the image changes. One of the qualities of a two dimensional image is ‘simultaneity’, more than one event can be seen at once, yet these tessellating forms seem to contradict that characteristic, multiple readings being possible, but sequentially not simultaneously. And that’s surely what creates the experience of fascination for the viewer: seeing the image, for example with blacks as positive shapes, giving way to seeing it with blacks as negative spaces and then trying to get the former view back again and finding it difficult to do so, is enchanting. It’s also possible that a new reading will suddenly present itself, causing surprise for the viewer, as no doubt it did also for the artist during the empirical process of making the painting. Blannin says it this way:

 Whatever the intention, the finished work is never entirely as envisaged. the power of surprise is important: its Gestalt, or ability to be more than the sum of its parts.

The 22 paintings in this exhibition all have an edginess about them that makes them appealing, and all worth spending some time with, all approaching the task of painting and of abstract painting in particular, in different and interesting ways.

The exhibition title is based on two pieces of prose by the author and poet Toby Litt which can be read on the Pluspace website.

Without an Edge There is no Middle continues until 8 September, Friday, Saturday 11am – 5pm (closed Saturday 24 August) or appointments can be made by emailing matthew@pluspace.com

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Lion and Lamb Gallery Summer Saloon Show

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Getting to the Lion and Lamb Summer Saloon Show early on opening night I bump into artist Enzo Marra. We take some snaps and chat about the work on view. Forty three painters are represented:

Phillip Allen, Kiera Bennett, Simon Bill, Juan Bolivar, Claudia Böse, John Bunker, Jane Bustin, Stephen Chambers, John ChilverDan Coombs, Ashley Davies, Benjamin Deakin, Hayley Field, Mick Finch, Kirsten Glass, Andrew Graves, Hanz Hancock, Dan HaysMark Jones, David Leeson, Caroline List, Declan McMullan, Patrick Morrisey, Alex Gene Morrison, Darren Murray, Joe Packer, Andy Parkinson, Dan Perfect, Daniel Pettitt, Clare Price, Fiona Rae, Andrew Seto, Francesca Simon, Lucy Stein, Michael Stubbs, Emma TalbotDolly Thompsett, Michelle Ussher, Jacqueline Utley, Covadonga Valdes, Caroline Walker, Freyja Wright, Mark Wright.

Many of them are well known, and many are artists previously not shown.

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Fiona Rae’s Party Time is Coming takes central position, with its black fluffy figures and colourful cartoon swishes and stars, on a lilac ground topped with a pink pool of paint running over into carefully controlled drips.

Fiona Rae, Party Time Is Coming

My snap of Fiona Rae, Party Time Is Coming

As well as the demoniacal teddy there are black ‘non-figures’ dancing in an ambiguous space that has hints of a floor but then could just as well be outer space. The paintings is both frivolous and slightly menacing, party time is coming but that’s not necessarily a good thing, almost like the invitation to party is being called by mischievous gremlins from Joe Dante’s 1984 comic horror film.

Above Party Time Is Coming, on the right, is Emma Talbot’s Matins Vespers, a “before and after” painting, in two halves separated horizontally, morning  and night, a female cartoon-like figure in a kitchen making a drink of tea or coffee of hot chocolate, the action of the intervening day being hinted in the ‘after’ state. There’s anticipation and regret simultaneously evoked on a representation of a black and white gridded decorative tile, another kitchen theme. Katrina Blannin suggests to me that the black and white grid is “in conversation” with my own painting Cover, to the left of the Rae, a grid or chequer board of lozenge shapes in black and white, obscuring a multi-coloured surface underneath, but not so much obscured that you can’t tell it’s there. The underneath is incorporated into the covering top layer.  And layering seems to be a theme in many of the paintings here. Enzo brings my attention to the layering and the grid armature in Mark Jones’ painting Baby Doll, commenting on how the armature becomes incorporated into the content, another layer of meaning if you will.

My snap of Mark Jones, Baby Doll, oil on canvas

My snap of Mark Jones, Baby Doll, oil on canvas

It’s Mark Jones who points out to me the layering in Daniel Pettit’s Lovely Slang, above and left of the Fiona Rae, a green ground supporting a minimum of events,  and then there’s Sacrifice by Jane Bustin, a beautiful surface created by tiny oil paint brush strokes over a muslin support, leaving half of the muslin unpainted and see-through. Joe Packer’s Superstrake also employs purposive layering, more in perception than materially perhaps, in that it’s trees and landscape that is evoked as if I’m looking through layers of foliage, or undergrowth, and not quite getting out into the clearing, and yet knowing all the time that its paint and maybe “only paint”. Packer says he wants a “suggestion of a looking through trees or a forest, but not in a literal or descriptive way, so that the brushstrokes are still not trying to be anything other than themselves”.

Joe Packer, Superstrake, 2013, oil on canvas, 30cm x 25cm, image by courtesy of the artist

Joe Packer, Superstrake, 2013, oil on canvas, 30cm x 25cm, image by courtesy of the artist

Oasis by Juan Bolivar, is a delightful painting of a painting, or more accurately a naturalistic painting of a postcard of an abstract painting, with full trompe-l’oeil effect. As such it is paradoxical, akin to the liar paradox (Epimenides the Cretan saying “all Cretans are liars”)  it is abstract by being figurative and figurative by being abstract. The content being a Damien Hirst spot painting, it could be said to be ironical about the ironic. It also seems possible that this array of dots is not a Hirst painting at all, simply an array of dots. in relation to a Hirst then it could be a simulacra, a copy without an original.

My photo of Juan Bolivar, Oasis, 2012, acrylic on canvas

My photo of Juan Bolivar, Oasis, 2012, acrylic on canvas

In interpreting it I am tempted to use that famous Zen formulation where all four statements comprise a truth: “it is abstract” “it is not abstract” “it is both abstract and non abstract” “it is neither abstract nor non abstract”. This painting also settles the question for me about whether a painting of a painting could ever be better than the original. This one in my view is better than the ‘original’. Better in that the use of appropriation is more layered therefore more interesting, as well as in its virtuoso painting technique: a hand painted miniature (Enzo Marra: “how did he get the spots flat?”). I like that, for me, it connects to philosophy (and not only Braudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation) and to the tradition of paintings of paintings that goes back way further than postmodernism, into the middle ages, as recently highlighted in Alexander Nagel’s wonderful 2012 book Medieval Modern, Art Out of Time, yet its also a beautiful painting to look at, with all that spatial layering that I am finding so fascinating.

There are other paintings too that I think of as ‘virtuoso’, like Stephen Chambers’ Man with Twig, which reminds me of a Persian miniature, Hayley Field’s Mean Machine, an obscured Sunflower, Dan Hayes’ Interstate, comprising a marix of precisely constructed coloured dots, that coheres into a highway only from a distance (and I sense that I can’t get back quite far enough). Also there’s Francesca Simon’s Below Ground 10, a dark painting that may be a grave stone or simply a square in an illusionistic space, Cavadonga Valdes’ untitled painting of a house and trees in a reflected in a puddle, the theatrical scene by Michelle Ussher: Holding the Head, Freyja Wright’s photographic Journey Between Homes and Caroline Walker’s picture of a swimming pool being cleared of leaves: Skimmed.

Then there are other very precise paintings that are strictly abstract, like the systems inspired paintings of Patrick Morrisey, Francesca Simon and Hanz Hancock along with others that address the tradition of abstraction, like Kiera Bennet’s Painting recalling early modernism. Keep It All, by Claudia Bose is a charming painting of indefinite window-like shapes over a green ground allowing a partial view of something beyond the ‘windows’, layers again, like in Sleep by Clare Price, where a pink and blue roughly painted layer of semi transparent colour all but erases a series of near geometric figures or patterns. Andrew Graves’ daring Untitled painting is orange on orange, a piece of orange painted canvas stuck onto a canvas painted with an orange ground ( I remember it as orange but the photo may be correct in showing it as nearer to red).

Top left: Claudia Bose, "Keep it all", Bottom left: John Bunker "Charline" Right: Andrew Graves: "Untitled"

Top left: Claudia Bose, “Keep it all”, Bottom left: John Bunker “Charline” Right: Andrew Graves: “Untitled”

John Bunker’s collage Charline, includes elements that are reminiscent of Russian Constructivism along with more irregular shapes that I read as somehow more irrational, though I doubt the rationale of that reading. Just above the centre a mirror-like shiny aluminium foil (?) square brings the external world into the picture frame. I suspect Ad Reinhardt would have disapproved.

I have long admired paintings I have seen only in reproduction or online by Andrew Seto, Alex Gene Morrison, Dan Coombs, Dan Perfect and Phillip Allen, and their work here is distinctive.  Seto’s painterly object(s) in Device, could be sculptures in an unspecified space, marked out only by the horizon line and a sense of ‘floor’, whereas Morrison’s image has more the feel of a poster, but more painterly than that, with diagonal green strokes to the bottom right opening up a receding space against the darker green ground. The Dan Coombs painting could be two stretched out figures, male heads on female bodies, throwing snowballs at each other in the fiery heat of a tropical landscape, the heads, each a mirror image of the other, look dot matrix printed and stuck on, they may even be famous but if they are I am not recognising them. I think the snowballs are drawing-pins stuck into the canvas. It’s anarchic and wonderful. So is Dan Perfect’s Operator, a maximal space, crammed with events that almost seem to make sense figuratively, whilst constantly thwarting figural interpretation. The celebration of image and paint in high colour seems to induce a state that alternates between euphoria and mania. There’s celebration of paint too in the painting by Phillip Allen. I am impressed by the variety of handling, combining flatly painted areas in the centre with thick encrusted layers lining the top and bottom, creating a space that resembles a theatre of competing patterns.

My photo of the Phillip Allen painting (no description details)

My photo of the Phillip Allen painting (no description details)

A theatre of competing patterns might also be a description of the summer saloon show. One of the things I like about the Lion and Lamb Gallery is this continued bringing together of different painters, creating a rich dialogue about what contemporary painting is and might become.

The show continues until September 1st.

Summer Saloon!

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