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abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Clement Greenberg

The Paintings of Lisa Denyer

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I have missed too many painting shows already this year. One that I would have loved to see, but just couldn’t get my calendar to co-coincide with, was Geode, an exhibition of paintings by Lisa Denyer, at South Square. Often quite ‘formless’, especially compared to her earlier geometric paintings, Denyer’s recent paintings are like gaseous non-substances, diaphanous veils, pure illusion, immaterial yet at the same time exulting in materiality. The contradiction puts me in mind of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried’s enthusiasm for “flatness and its delineation” being simultaneously an insistence on “opticality”, prompting the distinction between, and the ‘holding in tension’ of, image and object[i].

Lisa Denyer, Cube, acrylic on found plywood. Image by courtesy of the artist

Lisa Denyer, Cube, 2014, acrylic on found plywood, 28 x 31 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

I find this tension in Denyer’s paintings, which is not to suggest that she is committed to the Greenbergian position that was so influential for abstract painters in the latter half of the twentieth century. In fact, working against the visual modality, or opticality, is a clear interest in surface texture, which provokes at least an imagined crossover from visual to kinaesthetic perception. So when she’s working on found plywood, it’s the rough-and-readiness of the surface that is enhanced by the application of thin layers of liquid paint that adheres to the crevices amplifying the texture. There’s also an emphasis on the engagement of the viewer that Fried might have objected to, no doubt labelling it “theatricality”. The subjective participation of the viewer ‘completes’ these paintings in a fashion akin to the action of gazing into a fire and seeing one’s own imagined universe, or if not the universe, certainly the milky way, Denyer’s art so often resembling the night sky.

Lisa Denyer, Moon, acrylic and emulsion on found plywood. Image by courtesy of the artist

Lisa Denyer, Moon, 2014, acrylic and emulsion on found plywood, 28 x 30cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

The two dimensional paintings, usually on plywood, look like they were factured on the horizontal, either on the floor or on a table, and the images, in so far as they are images at all, look less composed than arrived at through operational processes. Leo Steinberg’s “flatbed picture plane” comes to mind. And it seems a natural step from these works to the three dimensional paintings on stone, which I do think of much more as paintings than as sculptures.

Geode, Installation view. Image by courtesy of the artist.

Geode, Installation view. Image by courtesy of the artist.

Like the works on plywood, these paintings also explore surface texture, both affirming and denying it, attempting perhaps to bring out the hidden qualities of the stone, as if the crevices, geode like, are lined with minerals or crystals. That the inherent qualities of the stone are highlighted reminds me of Michelangelo’s prisoners, where figures emerges from rocks “as though surfacing from a pool of water”. But there is nothing figural here, it’s more like space itself is surfaced, having been developed from something latent within the object, as opposed to having been imposed upon the object. In this respect we could make a contrast with Kurt Schwitters’ Painted Stone, where a geometric pattern looks more to have been inscribed onto the rock from without.
Lisa Denyer, Painted Stone. Image by courtesy of the artist

Lisa Denyer, Painted Stone, 2013, 23 x 17 x 13 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Denyer’s stones are rescued from local derelict buildings, ready-mades, years ago having been quarried, dressed and built, only then to become weathered and eventually falling into collapse or demolition, almost returning to their natural state, before she reclaims them, transforming them into giant synthetic gems.

Whether on plywood or stone, Denyer’s paintings have this gemlike quality as if by some alchemy she transforms her materials into precious metals, once liquid now gemstone, that when gazed into appear to contain the night sky.


[i] For an excellent recent discussion see the chapter on Opticality in Modernist Painting and Materiality by Graig Staff

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Other Objects at Lion and Lamb Gallery

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The new exhibition at the Lion and Lamb Gallery entitled Other Objects, curated by Caterina Lewis and Gwennan Thomas, includes paintings and objects by Karl Bielik, Alice Cretney, Vincent Hawkins, Caterina Lewis, Wendy McLean, Gwennan Thomas, and David Webb and is on show until 13 July.

According to the gallery notes, the works, whilst coming from varied places of logic around abstraction, at some point in their realisation share a notion of object and placing them in proximity to other objects, persons or spaces, new relationships emerge inviting us to look again. For me “object” and “relationship” are key words in any consideration of abstract painting, even though they tend to get used in contradictory ways: in abstraction the object (content) gives way to relationship (form), or conversely the relationship (to content) gives way to the autonomous object (form).

Foreground, Alice Cretney: installation, 2013. linoleum, acrylic paint, acetate, plaster, screws. dimensions variable. On wall: Wendy McLean: Wall, a foil, a distance, 2012, oil on cotton, 85 x 113 cm; and Karl Bielik: Widescreen, 2012, oil on linen, 35 x 27cm. Image by courtesy of Lion and Lamb Gallery.

Foreground, Alice Cretney: installation, 2013. linoleum, acrylic paint, acetate, plaster, screws. dimensions variable. On wall: Wendy McLean: Wall, a foil, a distance, 2012, oil on cotton, 85 x 113 cm; and Karl Bielik: Widescreen, 2012, oil on linen, 35 x 27cm. Image by courtesy of Lion and Lamb Gallery.

Stepping into the Lion and Lamb Gallery, in the back room of a London pub, and being a keen social dancer, I notice that the music being played in the pub, is a good jive tune, and letting slip my interest to Caterina Lewis, we reflect on the way that, in ballroom dancing, forms that were once derived from certain contents now operate independently of them. In Tango the hold, and head flick, may once have been related to the avoidance of the gaucho’s smell, or in old-time dancing the man placing his left hand firmly on his hip once had the purpose of keeping his sword out of the way. No longer wearing a sword, the male dancer continues to place his hand on his hip, the object has gone and only the relationship remains.

Alice Cretney’s sculptural ‘paintings’ are autonomous objects, their relationship to everyday objects is that they are ‘other’ in their “purposeless purposiveness” to borrow a phrase from Kant. The two-part installation here seems to offer two takes on painting’s rectangular picture plane, one that is three dimensional by virtue of being stacked and the other by being rolled. On the linoleum a set of painted gestural marks cannot compete with the one sweeping gesture of the roll itself, resulting in a curling ‘B’ motif drawn in space by the edge of the lino.

Behind it, the Wendy McLean painting, Wall, a foil, a distance, could be a picture of a graffitied wall, a painting of a painting, if it weren’t so immaterial, so veil-like, the marks that I thought were graffiti looking now more like vague objects in an undefined space, receding to a yellow stripe down the left hand edge, except that now the yellow springs forward to meet the surface. To make sense of it I compare it with other paintings in my head, and whilst the association doesn’t quite feel right because McLean’s space is less cubistic, it is Lyonel Feininger that keeps coming to mind, the way his architectural objects give way to light and space, so that in the end, that’s all there is.

The light and space in Karl Bielik’s Widescreen, is interesting too. First of all there’s the literal, three dimensional space of the distressed, buckled object that appears to have been left outside overnight, or for a few nights perhaps! There is something quite beautiful about it as object alone, before ever considering the relationships within the non-literal space of the picture. Isn’t there a tradition in Japanese ceramics of damaging the vessel during its making in order for it not to be too “perfect”?

Karl Bielik, Widescreen, 2012, oil on linen, 35 x 27cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Karl Bielik, Widescreen, 2012, oil on linen, 35 x 27cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Turning my attention to the picture, I notice that white pigment, having been pushed into the canvas rather than painted upon it, reflects light back at me from within the painting, or from behind the group of drawn gestures that seem to dance across the top of a hard rectangle or box, possibly the ‘widescreen’ of the title. Above the centre line all is movement and lightness, whereas below it is stability and weight. But not quite solid. Taking my cue from the title, I imagine I am seeing objects on the top of a TV, light reflected back from a wall behind it but also generated from the TV screen below. Not that it is a representation of such a scene, but only that it is similar in structure, relationship again rather than objects. And thinking structurally, I am also tempted to speculate on other binary opposites suggested in the “above and below” of that centre line, oppositions like analogue above the line and digital below the line, or organic vs artificial, or unbound vs contained, but in doing so I become aware that so much of seeing is also interpreting, and that in observing I am also projecting, quite likely confusing facture and fiction.

The other Karl Bielik object on show here, a painting entitled Net, is also capable of provoking allusions, whilst at the same time being strictly non-representational.

Karl Bielik, Net, 2013, oil on linen, 35 x 30cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Karl Bielik, Net, 2013, oil on linen, 35 x 30cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Here paint, applied and removed, in an amazing variety of ways for such a modestly sized piece, collaborates with the viewer to construct a rich and interesting planar space that is somehow both coherent and ambiguous. Drips on the uppermost surface become structure in the ‘background’ as the free play of the painting process interacts with the free play of viewing in order to create a kind of meaning, there may be projected content (it is a stage, a face or a mask), personal meanings, but more fundamentally it’s this attempting to assign meaning that becomes the meaning of the work, relationship again as opposed to objects.

Beilik’s pictures are dialogues, improvisations, having little idea at the beginning, of what the painting will become, he proceeds to lay down paint and then he responds to what happens, leading eventually to the crystallization of some image. Working on twenty or so paintings at any one time, he starts from the unknown and takes steps towards a constructed ‘known’, at some stage possibly writing a title, likely based on an association, on the wall beside one of the paintings being made. It’s all process:  ‘how’ rather than ‘what’, relationship rather than objects of content.

Caterina Lewis starts out with an image or ‘objects’ of content and empties them out during the painting process. We could use the expression “aesthetic reconstruction”. Quoting Henk Engel on Theo van Doesburg, Lewis and Thomas seem to allude both to the curation of the exhibition: the opening up of relationships between the objects on show, and to their own working methods:

In the aesthetic reconstruction…naturalism is breached. The object falls apart. the boundaries are abolished. A field of untied relationships opens up: relationships between parts of the object and parts of the environment.. but also with parts of other objects.

In Untitled (Yellow) Lewis seems to abolish the boundaries between objects as she wipes away previously applied paint, creating an absence, not so much ‘objects’ as an object, an exquisite surface.

Caterina Lewis, Untitled (yellow), 2012 oil on board, 51 x 40 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Caterina Lewis, Untitled (yellow), 2012
oil on board, 51 x 40 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

 It is difficult not to see a head, possibly of a religious figure, especially as light seems to emanate halo-like from the ‘face’, but then it could also be read as a torso, or as an arid  landscape, but these are mere vestiges of ‘objects’ that were her starting point ending up with a “field of untied relationships”.

Her more recent painting Collar seems less glossy than Untitled (Yellow), a sketchy surface that to me looks like it is painted on canvas, though in fact it is panel. The drawing is delicate, her pictorial strategy being to use precision and accuracy in the service of the indefinite: fields of relationships again, rather than objects of content, yet the painting itself becoming autonomous object.

The Gwennan Thomas paintings have a vagueness about them too that I find fascinating, and I have a similar experience as with the Bielik paintings of trying to find meanings and resorting in the end to supplying my own, hence becoming aware of the meaning-making process rather than the ‘objects’ of meaning. The oxymoron “precisely vague” seem to sum up the character of Untitled, 2012. The surface is the result of careful painting, and when I get up close I feel sure that the detailed modelling must dutifully represent something, but I can get no clue as to what it is. Possibly Greenberg’s definition of modernism: “the imitation of imitation as process” applies here.

GwennanThomas, Untitled, 2012, oil on MDF, 30 x 20cm

GwennanThomas, Untitled, 2012, oil on MDF, 30 x 20cm

I find only few associations in David Webb’s Untitled (Tusker), where a somewhat threatening (elephantine?) grey figure takes up most of the space defined by two ‘screens’ one in front of the grey form and one behind. I am surprised that the orange of the far screen and the blue/grey of the near screen allows the space to be read as three dimensional, but it does, at least until the orange pushes forward to assert itself as figure after all and two black diagonal lines prevent the grey form from continuing to make sense as something journeying between two screens. Now I am reading the shapes purely as shapes, the grey ones painted in two different ways the ‘body’ almost forming a pool of diluted paint in contrast to the heavier painted ‘head’ that is more opaque. The application of paint has produced a few minor splashes and there are small lighter painted marks towards the edges which aren’t so easy to see in a photograph (click to enlarge). They look like happy accidents at first but then I see them as carefully included, almost as if the painting has become a catalogue of painterly marks or relationships.

David Webb, Untitled (Tusker), 2013, acrylic on canvas, 46 x 61cm

David Webb, Untitled (Tusker), 2013, acrylic on canvas, 46 x 61cm

This painting is not flat, but it keeps becoming flat. It is a picture, but it sometimes makes more sense to think of it as a catalogue, or better an empirical investigation. There’s something of that in Vincent Hawkins works on card and paper.

Vincent Hawkins, Untitled, 2013, gouache on paper, dimensions variable, image by courtesy of the artist

Vincent Hawkins, Untitled, 2013, gouache on paper, dimensions variable, image by courtesy of the artist

Whilst they are constructions, they do appear to contain some figural associations, for example in Untitled 2013, some of the shapes and colours bring to mind clouds and boats rendered in a somewhat cartoon style. However, it is the careful folding of the paper to create a relief and the cutting out to create negative shapes that forms both their unique content and their objecthood. Like Cretney’s installation these abstractions are both painting and sculpture, or perhaps they are neither painting nor sculpture but other objects that, together with the other objects on show here invite us to look again and to think relationship over content. It could even be that such an invitation contains wisdom that reaches beyond the boundaries of the purely visual, the autonomous object, far from being hermetically sealed, maintaining a relatedness to other objects, to the world of the everyday.

All photographs by Lorna Milburn

The Henk Engel quote is from “Theo van Doesburg & The Destruction of Architectural Theory” in Constructing a New World; Van Doesburg & The International Avant-Garde, 2009, London, Tate Publishing, p38.

The Clement Greenberg quote is from “Modernist Painting”, in The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 4, Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p17.

Abstraction, decoration and Tomma Abts by Dan Coombs in Turps Banana

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In Turps Banana issue ten, Dan Coombs writes about the paintings of Tomma Abts. I like her work. At least I think I do, only having seen it in reproduction, and looking forward to seeing some of it in ‘real life’ soon.

Tomma Abts, Schwiddo, 2008, Oil and acrylic on canvas (46 x 38 cm). Courtesy of the artist and greengrassi, London

One of the recurring themes of this blog is abstraction and its relationship (or not) to decoration. In his Turps Banana article Coombs makes some interesting points on this subject. I have noticed that whenever the ‘D’ word is used in relation to abstract art it is usually the late modernist painters, championed by Clement Greenberg, that we have in mind.  I remember being horrified at a lecture by Peter Fuller in 1979 when he referred to the paintings of Jules Olitski as ‘terrible’ (in the bad sense) and I think it was what Coombs calls the ‘innocently decorative’ that he was reacting against, and what the earlier generation Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman referred to pejoratively as ‘batik’. Coombs suggests that what Greenberg left out was the psychological component of art, a dimension he finds plenty of in Abts paintings and that prevents them from ever becoming ‘innocently decorative’.

I like his discussion of Abts’ painting Schwiddo, shown above, where he senses a note of disquiet invoked by the dip in tone within the smaller of the two central circles. I agree with him, and I wonder how it works: how is it that I interpret a dip in tone as a note of disquiet? And this interpretation is only secondarily cognitive, I can describe my experience in this way but first I feel it, somatically. It is this kind of experience that makes the painting more than decorative, and in Coombs’ words nudges it “towards having a subject, or more precisely, into being a subject”.  I am reminded of that famous cartoon by Ad Reinhardt of the abstract painting in a museum confronting the viewer who had mockingly asked “what does this represent?” Pointing its finger back at the viewer the painting  demands “what do you represent?”

(The new issue of Turps Banana also carries, among other things, articles about Sean Scully, René Daniëls, Christopher P. Wood, Che Lovelace, Gavin Lockheart and Rose Wylie. As usual there is a plate entitled The Banana, in this issue by Dolly Thompsett. And whilst on the subject of bananas, though nothing at all to do with the Turps Banana,  I couldn’t help but connect to the blog posts I saw yesterday at Geokult on Carmen Banana, Big Banana Time, and Going Bananas)

Written by Andy Parkinson

October 14, 2011 at 8:48 am

why systems thinking?

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Someone said that they would like to know more about the link between systems thinking and my abstract paintings.

beer game set up

Set up for The Beer Game, a simulation (devised by Jay Forrester) that helps teach systems thinking in organisations

Berkeley Square 1

Berkeley Square 1, marker pen on post-it notes on board, 122cm x 122cm, by Andy Parkinson

For some, in the late 1960’s, systems art seemed to point beyond the impasse of late modernism.

This impasse was seen to be the result of a reductionist approach where art was divesting itself of all that was unnecessary to its specific characteristics. The art critics Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried were great proponents of this reductionist grand narrative, and their heroes were the Abstract Expressionists (Pollock, Newman, Motherwell, Rothko, Gottleib, Frankenthaler, etc)  and later, so called Post-Painterly Abstraction, and colour field painting (Stella, Louis, Noland, Olitski etc)  that had supposedly shown the way beyond Jackson Pollock’s all-over painting via the staining technique that they claimed to have learned from Helen Frankenthaler’s watercolour Mountains and Sea.  However, where could you go to beyond the (monochromatic) colour field?

Systems thinking outside of the art world had been catching on for some time. Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory (1968) brought together much that he had been working on for years previously, concentrating on how systems are structured. In 1948 Norbert Weiner published Cybernetics, focussing on how a system functions, regardless of what the system is. A group of systems thinkers from different disciplines, including Weiner, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, John Von Neumann and Warren McCulloch had been meeting every year between 1942 and 1951 at the Macy conferences.  In 1961 Jay Forrester applied systems thinking to the economy, urban industry and housing. Donella Meadows and the Club of Rome applied systems thinking to problems of pollution and ecology, resulting in the publication of the influential book The Limits to Growth in 1972. Much later (1990) Peter Senge applied systems thinking to management and organisations in his book The Fifth Discipline. The work of W. Edwards Deming is also an example of systems thinking applied to business and management. I would also argue that Karl Marx was a great systems thinker long before the term was coined.

(I came to systems thinking through my work with people in organisations not primarily as an artist. In relation to painting I had more or less given up on it, after all where else could you go after the monochrome colour field?)

Systems thinking was largely a reaction against reductionism in science and an attempt to unify its various disciplines. It argued that real systems are open to, and interact with, their environments, and that they can acquire qualitatively new properties through emergence, resulting in continual evolution.

Rather than reducing an entity (e.g. the human body) to the properties of its parts or elements (e.g. organs or cells), systems theory focuses on the arrangement of and relations between the parts which connect them into a whole. This particular organisation determines a system, which is independent of the concrete substance of the elements (e.g. particles, cells, transistors, people, etc).

From http://www.istheory.yorku.ca/generalsystemstheory.htm

It was only a matter of time before someone in the visual art world would notice that systems thinking promised an alternative approach to modernist reductionism.  One such ‘someone’ was Jack Burnham.

Jack Burnham’s systems aesthetic took issue with late modernist painting, offering five key insights:

  1. That there has been a transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture.
  2. That art does not reside in material entities.
  3. That art is not autonomous.
  4. That art is conceptual focus.
  5. That no definition or theory of art can be historically invariant.

For many involved in systems aesthetics this spelled the death of painting (one day I must blog about painting’s many deaths). Burnham and others majored on the context in which art takes place: the system of art production.

For me, these five insights can be appropriate to painting itself. Rather than emphasising objecthood, materiality and autonomy, painting can be systems oriented, serial and conceptual and this is one of the ways in which I think of my paintings as systems. I am interested in the ways that the parts relate to each other in the whole that is the painting, and in the larger whole that is the viewing experience. I am interested in the system: artist/painting/viewer(s) and particularly in the ways in which viewers can have differing perceptions (physically, emotionally and conceptually) of a painting.