abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘collage

Trevor Sutton, Assembly and Image, at Class Room, Coventry

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It’s not the kind of work I might usually associate with Trevor Sutton, having become more familiar with his paintings on dual or grouped canvases in the seventies and his recent paintings on board, often including paper, which could possibly be thought of as collaged elements. And this might be the link to the works here. They are assemblages, but of deliberately manufactured, rather than found parts, in painted plywood. They have all of Sutton’s hallmark precision, I can hear people asking “how did he get those shapes and edges so precise?” Indeed, especially considering that these were made in 1981/2, before laser cutting was in general usage. But they also have a quirky informality, which I think is less characteristic of Suttons oeuvre.

Trevor Sutton, Michael, 1981, Acrylic on Wood, image by courtesy of the artist

The space here at Class Room, is informal and small. The works on view are sharp, and about the size of a human head, inviting portrait associations. These were Sutton’s first works on plywood, and some were exhibited in New Works of Contemporary Art and Music at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh and Assembly & Image Paintings at the Lisson Gallery in London, both in 1981. The artist said he wanted to make something that seemed sharper, more immediate, whilst also being intimate as if looking into a mirror, and that’s the feeling I get as I look at them here, my instinct is to get close and peer into them, whilst knowing that the action takes place at the surface, not really inside, as in a picture of something else.

Installation view, Left, Michael, 1981; Right, Walking the Dog, 1982. Image by courtesy of Matthew Macaulay

Reading the gallery notes I learn that Sutton sent diagrams and drawings to the artist George Meyrick who cut the plywood into shapes for him. Sutton painted each plywood piece separately. When it came to assembly he playfully reconfigured the pieces rather than simply assembling them as in the working drawings. The perfect marriage of precision and immediacy is a direct result of the process.

As in earlier works drawing is achieved via construction, lines are real, the edges of joined or overlapping parts but the plywood gives the “drawing” more precision, more clarity when compared with lines created in earlier paintings by joining or grouping canvases, which are inherently softer. Somehow the unmodulated painted surfaces also look crisper when the paint is applied to plywood rather than canvas. Whilst the free-form shapes didn’t continue into later work the plywood, with the increase in sharpness it provided, did. So perhaps these assemblages could be seen as a bridge between Sutton’s earlier and later work.

Trevor Sutton, Tight Tumble Tern, 1982, Acrylic on Wood, image by courtesy of the artist

Am I wrong to find some similarity to the wood reliefs of Jean (Hans) Arp? Colours in both have a low key quality, blues and greys with highlights in warmer or brighter hues. In both we get concrete forms creating an abstract figuration. Coloured shapes (geometric with Sutton and biomorphic with Arp) in wood, appear to have organised themselves into a coherent arrangement, with subtle spatial ambiguities (e.g. the bright blue square in Sutton’s Tight Tumble Tern recedes slightly in relation to the grey, yet is clearly in front of the grey physically) and referential associations. Sutton’s titles (though not Arp’s) seem to encourage associational content. However, I want to be clear that this is not the same as representation. That one thing calls to mind another is part of our experience of seeing, and arguably, this is even more present in abstract works than representational ones. What I think is presented here is that process of seeing, the double movement of observing and sense-making.

Installation view, Trevor Sutton, Beverley’s Little Car, 1982, Acrylic on Wood. Image by courtesy of Matthew Macaulay.

There’s no way of getting to “Beverley’s Little Car” from looking at the painted relief of that title, and any connection in the artist’s mind seems entirely idiosyncratic, but cartoon-like associations do come to mind for me and those circular shapes could easily suggest wheels. Even then, the artist probably had something quite different in mind. In my view, abstract artworks are better titled than simply numbered or left “untitled” if only to make them easy to distinguish and to recognise, like people’s names. These paintings have been likened to portraits, but if there is a connection it is not in their resemblances, but rather in the kind of close viewing that is elicited.

Trevor Sutton, Assembly and Image, is at Class Room until 6 April 2017, Tuesday and Saturday 11-5pm

Written by Andy Parkinson

April 3, 2017 at 10:38 am

Six Fugues by John Bunker

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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.

Installation view, my snapshot

Installation view, my snapshot

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.

John Bunker, Shady Hill Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF. Image by courtesy of the artist

John Bunker, Shady Hill Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF. Image by courtesy of the artist

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.

John Bunker, Falling Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF, 54 x 52.5cm, Image by courtesy of the artist

John Bunker, Falling Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF, 54 x 52.5cm, Image by courtesy of the artist

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.

John Bunker, Night Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF, 30 x 33cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

John Bunker, Night Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF, 30 x 33cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

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.

Installation view, my snapshot

Installation view, my snapshot

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.

John Bunker, Blue Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF, 49.5 x 38cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

John Bunker, Blue Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF, 49.5 x 38cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

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.

John Bunker, John Islip Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF, 61 x 37.5cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

John Bunker, Shattered Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF, 44 x 51cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

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.

John Bunker, John Islip Fugue, 2014, Mixed media collage on MDF, 61 x 37.5cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

John Bunker, John Islip Fugue, 2014, Mixed media collage on MDF, 61 x 37.5cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

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

Rachael Pinks at Wirksworth Festival

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Some lovely abstract paintings by artist and fellow art blogger Rachael Pinks were on show in the old Grammar School at Wirksworth Festival last weekend.

I say paintings because that’s largely how I experienced them. It may be more accurate to say collages. There is something sculptural about them too, though they are tiny, nearly all works on paper less than 12″ tall, mounted in frames in such a way that you can see the whole object, including the edges. The shape of each piece looks arrived at by the very process of collaging small pieces of painted paper rather than by staying within the confines of a predetermined shape and size. They seem constructed or modelled, so the completed object is never an exact rectangle, it is irregular, handmade.

Rachael Pinks, My Hill, Acrylic and collage on paper, 13 x 12.5cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Bits of writing show through where collage elements are painted on printed word, I thought newsprint but Rachael tells me they are books.

I find myself reading them as landscapes or seascapes, and some of the titles encourage this, though the images usually find themselves in the process of being painted, rather than in a resemblance of an actual place. ‘Real world’ starting points are more in the artist’s kinaesthetic system than the visual.

The bits of text, in an indirect way, refer to place, and to the artist’s personal history, in that they are taken from three very small poetry books, printed in 1820, seen on the way home one night when walking past in a well-known book shop in Cromford. “These old books just appealed to me when I saw them: the battered covers made me think they had been used and loved”.

Rachael Pinks, Sat Below an Almost Cloudless Sky, Acrylic and Collage on Canvas, 14cm x 19cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

I don’t know why I like it, that in Sat Below an Almost Cloudless Sky I can just make out the word “Rebellion” in capitals near the bottom right of the picture. My wife is sure that it is a picture of a boat, and I can see why. Though it has no such referential specificity, it is difficult not to see the sea in the left hand blue, with the hull of a blue boat at bottom centre, green hills higher up, along with pale sky in which is just one small cloud. I think the title refers to this reading-in, rather than to any ‘a priori’ content.

My favourite is Curled Up

Rachael Pinks, Curled up, Acrylic and Collage on Paper, 14 x 19cm. Image by courtesy the artist

A tiny edge of printed word curls away from the picture plane, whilst beneath the line it creates, a yellow triangle floats in an abstract landscape with figures, that are clearly not figures or landscape but painted, torn and cut paper arranged intuitively to form a charming miniature, intriguing and beautiful.

Written by Andy Parkinson

September 15, 2011 at 8:01 am