Posts Tagged ‘art exhibitions’
The exhibition Here and Now, recently on show at OBJECT / A, Manchester, UK, featured just the one artwork, a wonderful painting entitled Present (2016) by Deb Covell, a painted black square, without a support, gesso and acrylic on nothing, suspended from the ceiling by wire.
Read my review of it here at the Saturation Point website.
Two exhibitions I would like to see or to have seen, but sadly are too many miles away, with a great big ocean separating us, are Bed Bath and Between, at Soil Gallery, Seattle, which closed on 28 February, and Territory of Abstraction, at Pentimenti Gallery, Philadelphia until 04 April 2015. Both exhibitions feature artists from within and outside the USA. Both shows look ambitious and interesting.
Bed Bath and Between, suggests ideas of home decoration and domesticity, (apparently there is a store reference in the title that is probably lost on UK audiences, we might point towards say Habitat or Ikea) hence in this show the paintings by Julie Alexander, Katrin Bremermann, Maria Britton, Dawn Cerny, Terry Green, Margie Livingston, Nicholas Nyland, Matthew Offenbacher, and Mathieu Wernert are set on highly patterned wall coverings, inviting us to consider their function, at the risk of our dismissing them as “merely decorative”.
In 1948 Clement Greenberg expressed a concern that “the ‘all-over’ picture … comes very close to decoration, to the kind seen in wallpaper patterns that can be repeated indefinitely” and although the paintings on show at Bed Bath and Between are nowhere near the mural sized works that he was referring to, showing them against this backdrop seems to court the very spectre that Greenberg feared. The whole installation, does more than simply come close to decoration, it squares right up to it and… I don’t know whether to say delivers it an ultimatum, or gets in bed with it.
The wallpapers are hand painted by the three artists in the exhibition who also curated it: Julie Alexander, Nicholas Nyland and Matthew Offenbacher, provoking a dialogue between the roles of curator and artist and questioning where the art begins and ends, it becoming difficult at times to differentiate art-work from environment, portable easel painting from site specific installation.
I am reminded of the work of John Armleder, though his paintings seem slicker in comparison to the more casualist work on view here, and in Armleder I get more the impression of clearly demarcated juxtaposition whereas here the paintings all but entirely merge with their surroundings.
Julie Alexander’s Sweet Potato is comprised of three layers of painted or dyed unstretched fabric. The base layer is hemmed and supports an informal design of multiple blobs in pastel colours, yellow, blue and pink. It is partially obscured by a smaller scrap stained in similar hues, and in front of that are pinned two tiny strips, one yellow and one blue. The painting may be less ‘finished’ than the wall behind it, the art work having become entirely provisional, asserting itself against the patterned background via its lighter tonality and the crispness of the hemmed edges, but never quite achieving independence.
Perhaps this is less so in works like Katrin Bremermann’s Letter to Sol where the art object is more clearly differentiated from its context, but here a kind of merging does also take place by virtue of its veil like transparency. Dawn Cerny’s screen print on the other hand might itself be a fragment of wallpaper.
UK artist Terry Greene’s diminutive paintings, are more muted in colour than the wallpaper against which they attempt to distinguish themselves. Contrast is found in their tendency more towards the geometric than to the gestural style of the paper behind. There’s a push/pull going on not only within the paintings but between the paintings and the various wallpaper motifs, and I think this is generally the case with the various artists’ work on show here.
Greene’s titles evoke snatches of overheard conversation: “Something is still something, less than that is nothing”, “Lord have mercy! Is that what that is?” and “All we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut”, the paintings possessing something of the informality of vernacular language.
The other USA show that grabs my interest just now could perhaps be positioned at the opposite end of an imagined continuum. At one extreme the dress code is casual, whereas at the other it is much more suit-and-tie. ‘Classical’ feels wrong when it’s abstract works we are considering but it possibly holds if we think of hard-edge, reductive, post-minimalist abstraction as Classical, and a softer, more lyrical, expressionist or casualist abstraction as Romantic. Maybe we could even invoke the Nietzschean categories of the Apollonian v.s. the Dionysian.
At the Dionysian end we have Bed Bath and Between and at the Apollonian end, we have Territory of Abstraction, a group show of new paintings, works on paper and sculpture by twelve artists who, sharing an interest in geometry, colour, pattern and repetition, also manage to form a wider territory by approaching their similar concerns in uniquely individual ways. To quote the gallery write up: “When put together, their work showcases the expansive nature of contemporary abstract art, and the potential content of relatively simple forms”. Even at this extreme on my imagined continuum there’s all this variety. The artists are Steven Baris, Rob De Oude, Edgar Diehl, Gabriele Evertz, Kevin Finklea, Enrico Gomez, Brent Hallard, Gibert Hsiao, Gracia Khouw, Joanne Mattera, Mel Prest, and Debra Ramsay.
I’m kicking myself now that realise I missed an opportunity to see works by Kevin Finklea at the Eagle Gallery, London, in November, where he was included in the group exhibition Panel Painting 2. Sometimes it doesn’t take an ocean to get in the way of a good show. Seeing his painting at Territory only in online reproduction, a solid rectangle of blue on a brown ground, I am interested in the apparent simplicity of it and even more in what the colour does. However, struggling to imagine the size even though I know the dimensions and not being able to get up to the surface and see the relationship of paint to canvas, or check out the edges, I am alerted to the importance of actually seeing it for real. In the seventies, if we wanted to know what was being made over the water, in that same week, we often had to make do with black and white grainy photocopied images, so things have certainly improved since then, but the virtual image is a poor substitute for the “real thing”, itself already a re-presentation, an image presented to the occipital lobe.
I have been following some of these artists online ever since seeing a report of the Doppler shows, geographically diverse artists taking their works on international tour by literally transporting them by suitcase: Steven Baris, Edgar Diehl, Kevin Finklea, Brent Hallard, Gilbert Hsiao, Mel Prest and Debra Ramsay. I am also familiar with Joanne Mattera’s work through her excellent blog. Rob de Oude’s paintings, with carefully placed repeated lines, focusing on colour rhythm and composition, and Gabriele Evertz’s sequences of clean stripes of pure hues contrasted with greys are new to me, as are the abstracted letter forms of Enrico Gomez and Gracia Khouw.
Edgar Diehl and Brent Hallard create brightly coloured geometric forms that seem to confront us with the subjective constructed-ness of visual perception. Mel Prest likewise, with her highly personal systems of contrary directional lines, presents us with concentrated fields, that seem to pulsate with energy and even to generate their own light. In Mirror Cycle the work seems to fold into itself, one red pushing against nearly the same red on a green ground, shaping the space. Prest, Diehl and Hallard seem to share with Steven Baris an interest in spatial ambiguity, and “opticality”, a watchword for all of these works, Gilbert Hsiao ‘s paintings for example, tending to elicit pre-linguistic experience, by which I mean that stage of perception before we are able to assign words or names to what is being perceived. At the risk of sounding too new age, I might suggest a parallel with the concept in the writings of Carlos Casteneda, of “stopping the world”.
Joanne Mattera utilises a diagonally skewed grid as a structuring mechanism in her Chromatic Geometry series of paintings, enabling her to realise a set of diamonds intrinsically linked to the edges of the support, truncated by coloured triangles and held in a pictorial space by the addition of a central horizon line that divides the painting into two different coloured grounds before which the triangles appear to float.
Debra Ramsay’s works on paper employ a mathematical logic, generating perhaps more precise forms than Mattera’s and the overall look is less pictorial. From what I can tell, there’s little or no colour. possibly white on white. My “perhaps” and “possibly” brings me back to noting the differences between virtual and “real” seeing, and hoping that we get to see some of the artists’ works from both of these shows in the UK sometime soon.
Viewing images by photomontage artist Clay Smith in the exhibition Dystopia at Harrington Mill Studios, I am reminded of the constructedness of our present and that we do not necessarily live in the best of all possible worlds. All is not what it seems, just beneath the surface of civilisation is flesh and the ‘civilising’ itself may not be a good thing. There’s a series of images here that runs in a sequence revealing the process of social and technological development as beginning with control and ending in cannibalism. Yet all the images have beauty, whether in the soft magenta and tan colours or in the subtle blemishes that are as near to painterly that a photo can get. They pose questions for me about beauty, meaning and process. Rather than attempting to think through these questions on my own, I asked the artist for an interview. My questions are shown as headings with Clay Smith’s responses below each one.
To what degree do you think of your images as “abstract”?
My works are very recognisable, you can easily spot the imagery in them but I use them in a way that changes the culture or meaning of the originality of the image. I see that as an abstract variant. I change the meaning and use of the image, making the viewer look differently at the work, to think about the piece perhaps on an abstracted level. I love abstract paintings, I even tried it myself many years ago, but failed terribly! I prefer to look at paintings than photography as they allow the viewer to interpret the piece as they wish. I’d like people to perhaps do the same with my work although not abstract in aesthetic they could be abstracts in how we would deal with them intellectually.
How do you make them? Surely not physically cut out, nor likely to have been made in a darkroom, are they digitally manipulated?
I use photographic slides, I find them, buy them and get given them. I also make my own. I look through hundreds of them to find the images that I need, then I scan them. I used to send them to the Palm Labs in Birmingham but I now own my own scanner so I do them myself. When they are scanned and made into TIFF files I only adjust the contrast a little and that is it! I leave everything else as it was, the dust specks, the hairs, water stains and grit. I love em! Then they get printed onto light sensitive papers using a Chromira printer. The files are projected onto the paper as light, then it goes through another machine that fixes the image, then hey-presto! Out it pops. So, they are kinda produced in a dark room but on a modern technological ground.
Do they exist primarily as digital images that could then be printed, or are the physical images the artworks?
I usually have an issue of say 3-15 depending on the work, but I would like to start working on issues of just 1 so that the piece would be the artwork. I’d like to make photography just as important as painting, and for it to be viewed the same. I don’t like the idea of reprinting work over and over again, to me that takes away some kind of layer from the piece. Perhaps it begins to destroy its originality and heart. The sizes of my work mean a lot. Depending on the condition of the slide and its content, I will only print the work to a size according to how best the image will be displayed. Some of my pieces can only be printed at a small size due to the unfocused nature of the image or how busy the image is, and some can only be printed large because of the content of the image. For example, open mountain scenes that are pretty well composed and shot can be printed large as this gives a better impact.
Earlier you were using real moths, clearly a mix of digital and real, has that changed?
I was going through a transitional state when I was using moths and butterflies. I wanted to use two different ‘cultures’ with my work so I tried using insects and photography as a way of displaying two different objects within the same frame and making them work. My photographic work still uses two or even three different images in the same way as the butterflies did but I have gone completely photographic now. There is more material out there and of course I can make my own. With my new work I want to get across something very different then the butterfly work.
What specifically is the difference?
The butterfly works were objects of collage that would just be looked upon as objects of collage. Any attachments people would have had would be more about how the two collaged objects worked well together. My new works are more about how the photographic images create an entirely different meaning and direction to the original image. They hopefully question the image, create dialogue that will change the way we look at images perhaps, if it’s only whilst looking at my work. I want the images that we recognize in the work to have new meaning for the viewer. I have a lot more scope and flexibility with pure photography then I did when using insects. This alone gives my work more freedom of expression and expansion that’s open to reinterpretation and analysis.
Do your pictures come together by assembling disparate found images or do you have images in mind and go looking for them?
I collect as many slides as possible (good and bad) and go through them to find images that I am currently working with like open landscapes, empty townscapes or planes. I organise my slides into sections of ‘landscapes’ ‘planes’ ‘medical’ ‘towns’ ‘people’ etc. If I need to find some people to put into a medical image I know where to find them. If I receive a bag of slides I may just make a series of work from that one bag, keeping them together. I was given a bag of slides from the artist Laura Ellen Bacon and with the slides I was able to make just one image, that’s good enough for me! It is a good image. So sometimes I will keep a collection together or I will mix and match to find what I want from other collections.
How important is the content for you? And what are your main interests in relation to the content?
The content is everything but its meaning means nothing to me. I try to par images together in order to create for the images a completely different objective. Images that I work with are usually amateur holiday and family snap shots, when I make my images they become semi political and questions societies and their cultures a little. Using slide film allows me to flip the image around which also allows me to flip its content around, this works well for me as I feel the world from how people see it should be flipped about a bit!
What artists do you appreciate?
I tend to lean towards established artists for various reasons: Werner Herzog the film maker for his directing methods and character/actor choices. Shomie Tomatsu for his ambiguous photograph of the glass bottle, Jan Saudek for his backgrounds, Gottfried Helnwein for his scale and the ability to prove just how powerful art can be and Alberto Burri for his choice of material.
To what extent do you see your work as participating in a tradition?
My work lends itself to exploration of a theme rather than tradition. It is because of this I’ve been able to find myself as an artist. Tradition to me is craft, and I think a lot of artists get trapped in the tradition of making and not creating. I use photography but I wouldn’t call myself a photographer, far from it. I am an artist that uses photography. In fact I could go as far as to not even call myself an artist! To call yourself something traps you in its meaning which doesn’t allow you to breath properly. I see really amazing printers using acid, copper, etching etc, but some of them are trapped in their tradition as printers and produce work that only displays a great skill in printmaking and not art. I can say perhaps that I am a photomontage artist.
When people look at your pictures what do you hope they will experience?
I hope that they will walk away feeling a little different then they did when they walked in, and that they will say ‘thank you’ when they leave.
Some of your images have shock value (some for example are obscene) is that a reaction you seek?
I think some people are shocked by viewing something in a gallery that has an erection in it or scenes of a medical nature because of the environment they are in. These same people wouldn’t think twice about flicking on the t.v and watching A&E or enjoying some private time with an erection or two! Some of my images are extreme, such as the use of Marilyn Monroe. I find her very extreme, nothing normal about Marilyn at all, so I will use an image that I think is equally as extreme but taken from the other side of the wall. In the Marilyn case I used an image of a medical nature, and it worked. I have used pornography, but after I have worked with it the final piece of work no longer has any attachments to pornography because I have perhaps merged it with a photograph of an English gentleman. I think it’s this that people are offended by. People don’t like to view things out of its rightful context. I don’t make work in order to shock, that would be too easy, I use certain imagery in order to get across the extremism of people.
Why are the aeroplanes upside down?
To give us the viewer the impression that something isn’t quite right. To establish a kind of dystopian environment to which I feel we created by how we treat each other. The abnormal and surreal action of the plane is a metaphor for our times.
The exhibition Dystopia is on at Harrington Mill Studios. Long Eaton until 7 October 2014.
Pareidolia is a special case of apophenia: the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. Having spent years in operational management I have been subject to numerous examples of apophenia, the most common being when a manager sees a dip in performance figures, interprets it as a sign of some lack at the individual level and decides to “take action,” a pep talk or a telling off, and then, when the stat’s show an ‘improvement’ the next day, ascribes the ‘change’ to his or her actions. In fact the data was random, both before and after the intervention. No change took place, just variation within a stable system.
With pareidolia a vague visual stimulus is perceived as something clear and distinct, like the horrifying face I always saw within the pattern and folds of my bedroom curtains when I was a child, or that image of Mother Teresa in a potato I was amused by this morning. Something more than the pattern is read-in, or projected. Jesus in the bacon dripping is a personal favourite. (For me, it’s so convincing I suspect it’s a hoax.)
In writing recently about the paintings of Lisa Denyer, I said that the viewer ‘completes’ the paintings in a similar way to “gazing into a fire and seeing one’s own imagined universe”, which I think is to encourage pareidolia. It’s not quite the same as seeing something that isn’t there, an hallucination,. If we distinguish, within the act of seeing, three separate actions: observation, interpretation and judgement, an hallucination takes place at the observation stage, whereas pareidolia is linked more to interpretation. Both seem to involve the imaginary, possibly in hallucination it is unconscious whereas in pareidolia it is conscious.
When I’m looking at Cut Out 738 by Ralph Anderson, I am not hallucinating the drips of paint that are also cut out of the ply wood of which the work is constructed, they are really there, and palpably so. Pareidolia kicks in when I start to read the curved line toward bottom right as a letter “c” and the green diagonal brushstroke as a forward slash above which is an “i”, i over c, sounds like a vaguely Lacanian sign for something. I check it out with others who didn’t see it until I mentioned it. Perhaps there are degrees or levels of pareidolia, in which case this is low level, not Jesus-in-the-bacon-fat, full blown pareidolia. it’s possible that the artist intended for me to at least question whether these works are signs for something, or possibly even signs that signify only themselves.
In Louisa Chambers‘ painting Balance 1, I am imagining some alchemy, the forms recalling, for me, laboratory instruments upon a table or work bench and the colours are fire. There’s a believable space in which some unknown drama is being enacted, unknown because it’s not quite figural enough to figure out what’s happening, other than the placement of colour-shapes, so I do what we all do in lieu of adequate information, I make stuff up, or rather I employ my powers of association in order to make sense of what I see.
David Manley‘s wonderful oval shaped black and white painting on aluminium, Martin Beck, seems impenetrable, I am struggling to read anything into the six semi circular shapes, subtle scuff markings and clearly drawn white lines, on a glossy black surface. Pareidoliac images form more easily where there is an abundance of indeterminate markings, in other words in works that are “painterly”, and even though here the black ground is far from unmodulated, it’s not painterly enough for pictures to suggest themselves. The painting is more object than image, more so even than Ralph Anderson’s “is it two, is it three dimensional?” piece. Knowing that it is from Manley’s Black North series, inspired by Scandinavian Noir doesn’t lead me to find images, other than the oval shape itself and the hardness of the decorated surface. The sense I have is of being confronted by something that is attempting to occupy my personal space, in fact I can be more specific now, it’s a shield, equally aggressive as it is defensive. And it’s only now that I realise that something similar to pareidolia is taking place after all.
With Phoebe Mitchell‘s Comfort, there being little formal structure and much painterly gesture, there’s ample opportunity for Pareidolia, almost an open invitation to read-in, not that much different than looking at Rorschach ink blots, if it weren’t for the fact that Mitchell’s work has many more times the beauty, and I don’t think that’s a projection. Similarly, in her other tiny painting here, and also in Rachael Macarthur‘s Untitled, what’s being presented is artfully vague enough to encourage the viewer to free-associate.
Should we distinguish between intended and unintended pareidolia? Is it part of an artists skill to direct the viewer to see what the artist wants, and to prevent ab-interpretations? (I am reminded of Adolph Gottlieb, in relation to his pictographs, if he discovered that one of his signs was actually existent in a past culture he would drop it from his repertoire.) However, sometimes an artist’s intention is for us to see things that s/he did not specifically intend, and I think that’s where Gottleib got to later on. The surrealist practice of decalcomania also seems like a good example of this attitude.
Jack Foster’s Untitled poses questions of interpretation that are more conceptual perhaps than others here. I experience far less free-association in pondering the inverted head on a green ground and I engage in a more linguistic attempt to interpret what is being presented. There’s little by way of free-association also in my own painting Hexagon Colour-Spread (BGRYMC), but the emphasis is more perceptual, the way the viewer constructs colour and shape is what’s being explored, the shifting gestalts also bringing attention to the pre-linguistic processes of perception.
The link between percept and memory construct is I think what is emphasised in the vulnerable little painting by Rachael MacArthur, shapes only just distinct enough to become forms but never enough to become anything specific. I like the pairing of this hesitant image with the more forceful and the largest painting here: Paradise (Yellow and Grey) by Ellie MacGarry, a painting that seems to exult in the perception of colour, showing how it changes as two colours cross, creating a third that is at the same time both and neither of the other two. Clashes of hue create lots of optical buzz and a lively space that keeps opening up and then bringing me back to the painting’s surface. The drawing is simple and confident, looking like there was little room for error, as if the artist got just the one chance to place this series of lines, or this marvelous expanse of grey. (Speaking to her, I find out that I am wrong about this and that other versions exist underneath the surface.)
Colour appears also to be a preoccupation of Frances Disley, in her three-dimensional painting Figure, especially in its power to dissolve form as much as to describe it, and to mislead even, creating events out of the absent shapes that are cut out of the surface and either discarded or added back on in a different place, along with cut-outs of digital prints or spray painted bits of foam. The piece has something theatrical about it, looking vaguely like an object from a science fiction set, Star Trek perhaps, a rock that might also be a creature, but that all along is clearly made from cardboard, or is it?
How we interpret abstract paintings, and the strangeness of sense-making, seems to be what Pluspace curator Matthew Macaulay is exploring by bringing together the work of these nine artists in the exhibition Pareidolia, which can be seen on Saturdays and Sundays at 50 Bishop Street, Coventry until 14 September.
There are some wonderful paintings (etc.) on show at the Lion and Lamb Summer Saloon 2014. My particular interest is in the “abstract” or “reductive” work.
Onya McCausland‘s double painting Attachment, two eliptical shapes, mirroring each other, one earth pigment on ply panel and the other earth pigment on aluminium panel, seems to extend the criteria of what we mean by “painting”, as does Simon Callery‘s Red Painting (Soft), an object that resembles a canvas bag more than it does a ‘picture’. Both these are engaging pieces of work, existing in that space between painting and sculpture, and leading me to wonder whether the further away from the traditional definition an artwork becomes, the more important it might be to identify it as a “painting” in the title. The boundaries and settled conventions are challenged, whilst also acknowledging that painting is in fact a thoroughly conventional medium.
What gets challenged in Painting by Telepathy by Biggs and Collings is more the viewer’s perception than the medium, not so much questioning “what is painting?” so much as “what is vision?” The image alters depending on the particular gestalt that is prominent for me at any moment, and if you were standing beside me, then you might be seeing a different painting than the one I am seeing. Multiple views are present in the one object at all times, yet they can only be accessed singularly, one interpretation must give way to another. As a result, I sense movement, and space, “real” movement and “real” space but of a strictly two-dimensional kind.
I am impressed by the beauty of it, even though that might seem like a rather old fashioned idea, by which I think I mean the fascinating surface, the particular sensation of colour and structure, as well as this experience of shifting gestalts. I find myself saying “wow” and only then considering what such a response might mean, as well as how specifically it was elicited.
It’s a different kind of beauty that I find in Floyd Varey‘s painting. The perception-altering experience I had when viewing Painting by Telepathy is absent. Instead I see something more object-like, more literal, more able to exist on its own without my participation: objectively present, if that were possible. I am still fascinated by the surface and its extension beyond and wrapping around the support, on the verge of becoming three-dimensional, the simple result of a particular process.
Would it be correct to say that in Painting by Telepathy it is more image than object that I am aware of, whereas with Callery and Varey, it’s the object that is more prominent? If so, perhaps there’s a similar conversation going on in Ralph Anderson‘s Summer Toiler, the literal materiality of the paint runs, suggesting a triple movement, from image to object and back again. At times these material gestures cohere into forms I recognise but that I think are my own projections, like the figure 2 that I keep seeing, above which is a division sign beneath a telephone handset. It may also be a projection when I see visual echoes of Frank Stella’s later paintings, in miniature.
Playing with the process of painting, and of abstraction, David Webb‘s now familiar Parcheesi form becomes star-like against a blue/green ground in one reading, or alternatively, a figure emerges from the negative spaces created by moving objects on different planes, much as on TV, when the Channel 4 ident comes into view.
Tim Renshaw‘s tiny, immaculately executed painting, on aluminium, entitled Notebook Architecture 10, is in one sense the simplest of things, two sets of vertical lines, yet it is also highly complex visually, especially in the altering spatial relationship between the two sets of lines, which are stripes towards the bottom edge but when I attend to the upper half of the image they look more like bars that have volume and depth. Space seems to open up between the two banks of lines or bars, a space that twists as I attempt to make sense of it. The groups of bars starts to read like doors slowly opening, suggesting also a deeper space behind them. Becoming aware of the title I start to think that they could be behaving something like the leaves of a notebook.
There’s a host of good work here,with tons of variety. If this is an indication of what’s happening in contemporary painting right now, then I think it’s looking healthy. There are interesting conceptual and figurative pieces along with other abstract works that I cannot do justice to in the space I have. One Two Three, by Julian Wakelin seems to be as much about what isn’t there as what is, Rebecca Meanley‘s abstract impressionist landscape, an alluring riot of colour and gesture, almost coalesces into a pinky-blue monochrome, whilst Louise Hopkins’s Outlast, a sophisticated work on paper, economically follows or counters with pencil and watercolour the geometry of folded paper.
Julian Wakelin, Matthew Musgrave, Vincent Hawkins and Jessica Wilson all show paintings that are daring in their sparsity, I’d say audacious if they didn’t also appear somewhat vulnerable, their modest size and their informality suggesting an alternative to the polished and the spectacular that sometimes seems to be our dominant cultural expression.
There are two charming process paintings by Erin Lawlor Slip and Bite, wet on wet, and showing clear enjoyment of what paint does when you simply make a brushstroke. In Catherine Ferguson‘s Angels, a blue brush stroke traces a curving line horizontally across a vibrant yellow ground, populated by pink swirling shapes, at once gestures and figures, kept in place by a jarring orange frame.
I think I stay longest with Natalie Dower‘s wonderful little painting Seventeen. It’s just 35 x 35cm, a 17 x 17 square grid (my maths! I’m struggling to work out what the dimensions of each cell must be), in black, white, grey and green, again the simplest yet most complex of things, I’m approaching it a bit like I might a puzzle, attempting to work out the criteria for placing the parts, only five different elements in all: a light green square, a grey square, a blue/green square, a black square and a white rhombus set inside a grey square.
Whatever the rules governing their placement, I note that repetition is involved in the whole but that the relationships between the five parts in any one line is never repeated, in any direction. There is nothing random about the arrangement of these elements, even if I can’t actually work out how to state the rule, the formula if you will. And I absolutely don’t need it in order to see that what results is surprising and interesting, in contradistinction to what is meant when works are sometimes labelled “formulaic”. It’s a system, and one of the characteristics of a system is emergence, where “larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties”, so that the space created by the aggregation of single grey squares, or the generation of just one complete grey rhombus, itself not one of the five elements, are emergent properties of this system. The phenomenon of emergence is where surprises come from, that I think is a feature of a systems aesthetic.
There’s also something akin to emergence that takes place whenever you bring an array of disparate works together in an exhibition like this one at the Lion and Lamb Summer Saloon.
The full list of artists included is as follows:
Ralph Anderson, Dominic Beattie, Dan Beard, Kiera Bennett, Biggs & Collings, Michael Boffey, Britta Bogers, Simon Callery, Ad Christodoulou, Graham Cowley, Karen David, Nelson Diplexcito, Kaye Donachie, Natalie Dower, Cath Furguson, Hester Finch, Andrew Grassie, Steve Green, John Greenwood, Vincent Hawkins, Gerard Hemsworth, Sam Herbert, Sigrid Holmwood, Suzanne Holtom, Louise Hopkins, Dan Howard-Birt, Erin Lawlor, George Little, Onya McCausland, Declan McMullan, Damien Meade, Rebecca Meanley, Matthew Musgrave, Selma Parlour, Tim Renshaw, Kevin Smith, Benet Spencer, Neal Tait, Dolly Thompsett, Joel Tomlin, Floyd Varey, Jessica Voorsanger, Julian Wakelin, Richard Wathen, David Webb, Robert Welch, Simon Willems and Jessica Wilson.
The show continues until 30 August. Later it will travel to Aldeburgh Beach South LOOKOUT Project, Aldeburgh, Suffolk hosted by Caroline Wiseman Modern Contemporary, 20 – 21 September 2014.
On my trip to London on what must be the hottest day of the year so far, even though it’s now about 7 o’clock in the evening it’s still really warm and here I am wearing a suit, carrying luggage and chasing across the capital to visit Westminster Library, to see collages by John Bunker in the show Six Fugues, curated by Sam Cornish.
The moment I set eyes on them I know the effort was more than worth it. I have seen one of these in reproduction and liked it, but seeing them here for real is so much better. Why is it that not being able to hold them in my hand and perceiving the depth of the supports and the proper sizes makes a difference? Also, that they have weight, they are on MDF rather than paper, (no glass – excellent), adds to the sense of their physical presence. That, as well as the stuff they’re made from, “torn posters, shattered CDs, abandoned chicken-shop boxes,” combined with the painterliness of the gestural flourishes, even in collage there are plenty of those, all adds to their materiality. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think of them as paintings, the construction method of which is collage, rather than collages made with painted elements.
In the exhibition notes Sam Cornish reminds me that collage is a century old, and the many library books open at appropriate pages assembled on a table and in a display case connect Bunkers work clearly to this tradition, a reproduction of Kurt Schwitters’ The Hitler Gang from 1944, having immediate resonance, for me, with Bunker’s Falling Fugue with it’s strong triangular figure and concentric circle motif. As in other works here, the figures(torn and cut shapes and gestural painterly marks), seem to occupy a fairly narrow cubist space, blues often being interpreted (by me at any rate) as sky, which sometimes opens up into a much deeper space than I was first perceiving, especially in Shady Hill Fugue where the blue plane on the right hand edge becomes as sky seen beneath, but also beyond, an archway suggested by an arc in sandstone ochre, possibly the MDF support. A triangle of a similar colour inserts itself at the bottom right hand corner which is different enough tonally to bring it forward of the darker and more saturated central ochre colour, allowing the other shapes to dance within the space created. I say dance because they seem ungrounded, there’s no sense of an earth or floor other than the bottom edge of the support.
In Falling Fugue the obstructed blue circle along the left edge doesn’t quite become open space, unless I focus on the bottom half of the work and then the blue area does seem to recede further than when I have the whole image in view. My eye seems to be taken downwards, I guess it must be because of the strong direction lines, pointing towards the lower edge. I do indeed get a sensation of things falling. Also, I feel that I may be looking slightly upwards, as if I am nearer to the bottom of the frame, whereas in Night Fugue it’s the other way around, enhanced in the photo by the downward angle of the shot, but still taking place when looking directly at the picture. Here the light blues and greys also sometimes become infinite space against which the flatter coloured areas jut forward or within which ink splatters become forms. Then the arrangement shifts so that the large flat area of red becomes a plane in front of which ochre, green, orange blue and grey cut outs jostle or float. The pink triangle at the bottom edge positions itself in front of the ochre but behind the grey/blue pentagon, in front of which a pale yellow triangle hovers, itself obstructed by a dark blue shape that is echoed higher up.
And then, of course, they are simply torn papers (etc) randomly assembled on a flat surface. I get to wondering about how much randomness there is in Bunker’s process, I imagine him scattering this week’s finds across the floor and then frenetically rearranging them. What do I know? His method may be quite the opposite of that.
Looking in other library book reproductions, I see similarities also in Cubist works from 1913 or 14, especially perhaps Juan Gris still-lives, with extensive use of collage and creating similar pictorial spaces as these I see in this show. What seems different though is the continued link in the still-lives to representational content. However much a Picasso, Braque or Gris still life is ‘abstracted from’ reality it still maintains that connection, I can recognise a guitar here, a rum bottle or a fragment of newspaper there. In Bunker’s work such elements are almost completely absent, and where for example, a fragment of newsprint or a star motif might be recognised they seem accidental.
The overriding similarities however, might be in the method of composition, according to rules, that are indeed abstract, in the same way perhaps that the strict laws of counterpoint and fugue in music are abstract.
Speaking of musicality in regard to Cubism, most of the following words by Paul Erich Küppers, director of the Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hanover, writing in 1920, could apply to Bunkers collages:
“…from pale harmonies of colour lines ascend, prisms shoot up, advance towards us or jump backwards, cutting steps out of the infinite space…They multiply, cluster into chords animated by the rhythm, executing their dance against the backdrop of that absolute music which is space. One experiences this transcendental dynamism no differently from the counterpoint of Bach’s fugues, so far removed from reality”∗.
And I say “most of the following words” only because “pale harmonies of colour” understates the power of the colours in Bunkers fugues, and also I don’t really find “prisms”, his shapes are flatter that that, as indeed they often were also in the collage still-lives of Gris.
If that modernist innovation collage is 100 years old, so also is the tradition of speaking of visual abstract works in terms of the musical structure of the fugue. Whilst allusions to fugue are only occasionally found in nineteenth century writings about art, they abound in the early twentieth century, the dawn of abstraction. Kandinsky entitled a 1912 painting Fugue (Controlled Improvisation), and by the 1920s lots of artists were doing it, Paul Klee and Josef Albers, amongst them.
In a fugue, one instrument or voice follows another echoing note for note the initial tune, as in a ’round’, the voice that enters last reiterates the opening melody (the fugue subject) whilst the preceding voice carries on with its own independent tune (the counter subject), with three or more parts the same process is repeated several times, amazingly the voices fitting together and making sense in ‘counterpoint’. There are usually three sections: an exposition, a development and a recapitulation. Melodies might be repeated backwards or upside down or played again with doubled or halved note values, and counterpoint intervals may be varied.
Such a structure can easily be translated to the visual modality, a figure being inverted, rotated, mirrored, drawn back to front, etc and it all exists simultaneously in the same space. Hence its attraction perhaps for visual artists, and specifically for abstract artists because the structure is entirely formal, no rushing water, no bird song, no bell ringing, no Wagnerian images.
So, for example, in John Islip Fugue, we get arcs and circles each echoing another, in similar and contrasting hues, impossible now to tell which one was placed first, and rectangles that may have been rotated and layered one over another. What I am not sure about is just how systematic Bunker’s method is, the extent to which the fugue is a strict compositional device or whether it’s a fairly loose metaphor. I suspect it is the latter.
Another attraction of the fugue for abstract artists is that it offers a structural method that offers an alternative to more arbitrary approaches and it appeals more to the intellect than it does to the emotions (though we shouldn’t overlook the emotional impact) . The Constructivist tradition comes to mind for me now, with its own take on collage, structure and fugue-like systems of rotation, repetition, inversion, etc. but I will leave those reflections for another day. Enough now to say that Bunker’s six fugues are a delight!
Six Fugues: New Collages by John Bunker was showing at Westminster Library between 1 July and 19 July 2014.
∗Paul Erich Küppers quote taken from The Music of Painting by Peter Vergo
At first sight the works of Alex Dewart, Lindall Pearce and Marion Piper, currently featured in the exhibition At the First Clash at Surface Gallery, Nottingham, are highly dissimilar, a clash of styles and approaches whose relationship to one another is symmetrical rather than complementary. However, a Twitter comment by Gill Gregory suggests she finds as much confluence or convergence as collision. Perhaps as soon as disparate practices are brought together in a shared space the similarities and interconnections become apparent, even when it’s difference that we’re celebrating. In the excellent essay by Maggie Gray, which accompanies the exhibition, she proposes that these three artists find commonality in “their awareness and manipulation of surfaces”. I wonder if what unites them is the clash of opposites (and possible reconciliation) that occurs in each of their works.
In Dewart’s paintings, highly coloured flat patterns clash with illusionistic grey monochrome figures. The figures are context-less, appearing to have weight and volume yet they float in space against high colour backgrounds that clamour for attention. Elements of the pattern sometimes occupy positions in front of or on the same plane as the grey figures. In Pelle (Skin), a leaf motif breaks free from the ground and touches the left shoulder of an armoured figure. Visually there are cues to suggest that the figure is seated on a horse, even though there is no horse shown. Where the horse’s mane might be the pattern appears to push spatially forward of the figure, almost describing the horse’s neck.
I find myself searching for meanings that a context might provide, and in lieu of evidence I do what we all do in such situations, I make stuff up. So I consider the grey figures to be statues and I speculatively suggest to myself that, for example, Verdi sul Verde may show a statue of Giuseppe Verdi (really!) against a green floral ground, “Verdi on the green”, a way of being “green on green” that isn’t abstract in the sense of “non-representational”, but quite abstract in the sense of “levels of abstraction” i.e. as opposed to direct sensory experience. In other words, I am required to interpret, linguistically or conceptually if you will, in order to make sense of what I am looking at.
The kind of interpretation required when viewing paintings by Marion Piper is nearer to the pre-linguistic, or perceptual. The experience of ‘clash’ is between differing styles (e.g. painterly or gestural vs. geometric), as well as of competing interpretations of geometric gestalts. Rather than consciously thinking through potential meanings I just keep seeing the arrangement differently, sometimes seeing depth for example, and other times seeing flat shapes. It’s as if the interpreting takes place in the eye/brain, rather than in the mind.
I first saw paintings by Piper at the Crossing Lines exhibition, earlier this year at &Model Gallery, where I noted that in her Free Man series she appeared to be combining an organic, free-flowing, process with geometry. There’s some of that going on here at the Surface Gallery exhibition in her Or To series, where fluid grey markings (not quite poured, more like staining) clash with measured geometric shapes, but the clash is suppressed perhaps, in that it exists beneath multiple layers, only traces showing through. It’s almost as if the geometry has succeeded in bringing order to the more chaotic, near gestural activity beneath the surface. Or is it that those liquid gestures actually construct the hard edged structures, the outlines being “filled in” with paint whilst in this fluid condition? It’s difficult to tell. The process is evident but not enough to reliably reconstitute it step by step. I can guess at it, but I have little confidence that my guessing matches any of the events that actually took place on the canvas.
In Or To 9, illusionistic space is posited along the bottom edge, take the zig zagging triangles away and the alternate bars or stripes of light and dark grey no longer look three dimensional. The triangles lead us to see the stripes as mountain and valley folds, a concertina formation, with a light source from the left. At least two readings compete with each other in an unresolvable conflict. Though contradictory, we believe both interpretations are equally true, not simultaneously but sequentially, first it’s this and then it’s that and next it’s this again, perhaps reminiscent of wave-particle duality in quantum physics. Whatever reading we come to first, we have to concede that “the opposite is also true”.
In the works here by Lindall Pearce the clash is between artwork and arbitrary object, everyday objects being combined to produce highly attractive assemblages. They draw from the tradition of the “ready-made”, but in the end they are not ready-mades, there’s too much craft for that. It could even be that the tradition is turned back on itself by the reintroduction of facture. Nevertheless, the banal object never become so much an artwork that it loses its thingness, nor does the art ever lapse back into banal utilitarian function.
In Chroma Chameleon, adjustable shaving mirrors (I think) are arranged on a black and white striped, painted table top, the mirror glasses having been replaced or painted over, with coloured circles. Even though they do retain some of their reflectiveness they no longer function specifically as mirrors. They create an interesting array of angles, planes and colours and subvert the original purposes of both table and mirrors. Come to think of it, I am now doubting whether “assemblage” is the best label for this and other works by Pearce in this show. In an assemblage don’t pre-existing, unrelated objects get placed together? Yet it looks to me as if Pearce works on her objects and then also makes something else out of them, which possibly brings them closer to “constructions”. (In pondering this distinction I am following a conversation between Peter Lowe and Katrina Blannin recently reported by Blannin in a review at Abstract Critical.)
Looking at the works of these three artists, I think I discover resonance in their appreciation of clashes of opposites, whether two dimensional pattern vs. three dimensional figuration in Dewart, opposing gestalts in Piper or readymade vs. construction in Pearce. Furthermore, they seem unwilling to resolve the contradictions by favouring one position over another. Instead, they hold both sides of the argument in tension, and only then does some form of reconciliation take place. Could it be that the title of the exhibition would be better rendered with a comma after the word “First” so that it would read “At the First, Clash” (to begin with a clash and only then reconciliation)? Tongue firmly in cheek, if I wanted to give this a theological slant, following Karl Barth, I might insist that the divine “no” always precedes the divine “yes”, or if I wanted to sound more political I might echo that other Karl as well as that old band The Clash: “There’s got to be a Clash, there’s no alternative”.
At the First Clash is on at Surface Gallery until 12 July 2014