abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Coventry

Interpreting the Abstract: Pareidolia at Pluspace Coventry

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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.

Ralph Anderson, Cut Out, Image by courtesy of the artist

Ralph Anderson, Cut Out 738, Image by courtesy of the artist

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.

Louisa Chambers, Balance I, 2013, acrylic on card, 16 x 22 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist. Image by courtesy of the artist

Louisa Chambers, Balance I, 2013, acrylic on card, 16 x 22 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist. Image by courtesy of the artist

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.

Left: David Manley, Martin Beck. Right: Ralph Anderson, Cut Out 738, My snapshot

Left: David Manley, Martin Beck. Right: Ralph Anderson, Cut Out 738, My snapshot

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.

Phoebe Mitchell, Comfort, 2013, oil on board, 17 x 14cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Phoebe Mitchell, Comfort, 2013, oil on board, 17 x 14cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

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.

Left: Jack Foster, Untitled, Right: Phoebe Mitchel, Untitled and Comfort. My snapshot

Left: Jack Foster, Untitled, Right: Phoebe Mitchel, Untitled and Comfort. My snapshot

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.

Left: Louisa Chambers, Balance 1, Right: Andy Parkinson, Hexagon Colour-Spread (BGRYMC). My snapshot

Left: Louisa Chambers, Balance 1, Right: Andy Parkinson, Hexagon Colour-Spread (BGRYMC). My snapshot

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.)

Left: Rachael MacArthur, Untitled, Right: Ellie MacGarry, Paradise (Yellow and Grey)

Left: Rachael MacArthur, Untitled, Right: Ellie MacGarry, Paradise (Yellow and Grey). My snapshot

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?

Frances Disley, Figure. Image by courtesy of the artist

Frances Disley, Figure, Image by courtesy of the artist

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.

Meditations at Pluspace Coventry

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I have, from time to time, complained on this blog about how rare it is to see abstract paintings outside London. Not today! Meditations, a lively show of paintings by eight artists “working within a predominantly non-representational vocabulary”: Karl Bielik, Lisa Denyer, Rachael Macarthur, Matthew Macaulay, Sarah McNulty, Phoebe Mitchell, Joe Packer, Melanie Russell is showing at Pluspace, smack bang in the middle of Coventry city centre.

The exhibition notes quote John Hoyland “Paintings are there to be experienced, they are events. They are also to be meditated on and to be enjoyed by the senses, to be felt through the eye. Paintings are not to be reasoned with, they are not to be understood, they are to be recognized.”

Meditations is a fair title for a show of paintings that are more to be “meditated on” than “reasoned with”, more to be “enjoyed” and “felt with the eye” than “understood”. It could equally have been entitled Experiences or Events as Matthew Macaulay acknowledges in his Collection of Events, a series of oil painting on panels of sometimes slightly differing size or shape and leaned against the wall, mostly in sequence with one panel placed in front of two others partially obscuring them, and one placed partly behind another.

Matthew Macaulay, Collection of Events. 2013, Oil on Panel

Matthew Macaulay, Collection of Events. 2013, oil on panel, image by courtesy of the artist.

I find that I am “reading” the work a panel at a time, from left to right as I would a text, so themes of language and communication come to mind, and then I am recalling that excellent article by Alan Gouk where he disputes the notion (borrowed from Lacan) that painting is “structured like a language”. This particular painting may not be structured like a language, but it is structured very much like a sentence. The syntax could be rearranged and it would have a different “meaning”, the word best defined according to the well known systems dictum: “the meaning of a communication is the response you receive, rather than the intention you had for it”.

There is something urban about Macaulay’s painting. It reminds me of how a shared space like a city centre, whilst being consciously built, because there are multiple players involved also develops unconsciously, in a way that almost resembles organic growth, evolving and changing. In our conversation, Macaulay emphasises the temporary nature of the gallery/studio space. This temporariness seems to be echoed in both city centre and painting. Many of the shops are empty with whited out windows and even the ways in which the whitening is applied seems to carry through to Macaulay’s painting: gesture and movement becoming object, for contemplation.


installation shot courtesy of Matthew Macaulay

For me, the most meditative of the works here is the tiny diptych by Lisa Denyer, Untitled 2013, (seen far left in the above installation shot), where at normal distance I “feel with my eye”, each panel, as if each one is presented to each of my eyes, such that the negative line of the wall space between them seems to project forward and glow. At least that’s what happens as I view, with a light trance state beginning to develop. The other painting by Denyer (far right in the installation shot) evokes night time sky and constellations, the dark ground at the lower edge suggesting ground as in ‘floor’, with one undefined colour/form anchored to it on the left hand side whilst another towards the top right appears to float. There is more directed accident in these two paintings than in Denyer’s more geometric works, but the landscape associations are a constant.

In the three paintings by Melanie Russell, the associations appear to be more about food, they look edible. Macaulay comments that they have some of the attractiveness of a sweet shop and I agree. We mean it only in a good way, but it could be taken to be a bad thing. I am reminded of my own thoughts towards a painting I was working on recently where the support was a chocolate box lid. We used to use the label “chocolate box”  to mean sweetly decorative, trivial or sickly. Russell seems to be playing with this in making paintings that are structured like a dessert.

Melanie Russell, Massive Meringue Pie, 2013, oil on panel, image by courtesy of Pluspace

Melanie Russell, Massive Meringue Pie, 2013, oil on panel, image by courtesy of Pluspace

Playful they may be, but they are not lacking in seriousness, operating perhaps as visual metaphors for the tension between indulgence and discipline, freedom vs control, unconscious vs conscious, or to use Stephen Gilligan‘s distinction, “essen” (to eat) and “fressen” (to pig out).

I wonder if these connect to a further distinction we could make in regard to abstract painting between the analogue and the digital. I think I have in mind something similar to David Sweet‘s “rough finish of 20th century canvases” vs ” the uninterrupted texture of photography and screen based media”. Whilst much of what is on show here seems to relate more to the former than to the latter I could speculatively suggest that there is at play an attempt to integrate the two. Might the title of one of Phoebe Mitchel’s paintings, Smoke Screen, even allude to this: the uninterrupted texture of the screen, itself a product of gestural ‘smoke’?

smoke screen

Phoebe Mitchell, Smoke Screen, 2013, oil on polyester. Image by courtesy of Pluspace

Her Untitled 2013, is even more nearly a monochrome than Smoke Screen, yet is itself comprised of multiple semi-transparent layers of colour. Sarah McNulty’s Green T, also very nearly moves into the territory of the monochrome yet, far from being unmodulated, is made up of circling gestures, similar to the whiting out of shop windows alluded to earlier.

Her Portrait II, like Joe Packer’s Vorticist. D. Baby, vaguely resembles a portraiture of sorts, taking me back to the quote with which I started, Hoyland saying that paintings, like people, are to be recognized rather than understood.

Rachel Macarthur’s four oil paintings on paper are informal, gestural, arriving-at-form in the process of paint application, and there is gesture and painterly dialogue in the three wonderful paintings by Karl Bielik. Bite has a trio of irregular white triangles that zig zag horizontally across the centre not unlike clothes on a washing line or bunting, their rhythm echoed by other more or less triangular shapes in green above and below, between them creating eccentric negative shapes that push forward, shifting alternately between figure and ground.

Karl Bielik, Spy, 2013, oil on panel. Image by courtesy of Pluspace

Karl Bielik, Spy, 2013, oil on panel. Image by courtesy of Pluspace

Spy looks like the support could once have been the lid of an old school desk, the hinges are still attached and the ground might be the distressed varnish upon which I imagine that Bielik has painted his main motif, a series of lozenge shapes in a net formation. I have the sense that I am looking through it to the picture plane and also looking through it to memories of lifting my school desk to create cover for an illicit conversation with a friend.

Meditating on paintings can elicit this kind of age regression, bringing to mind memories and associations that may have been long forgotten, and in this evocation of youth, amongst these new abstract paintings (all less than than three years old and most of them made in 2013) I get the impression that abstraction could still be in its infancy, as if Bielik’s Curtains that cleverly close the show also, at the same time suggest future openings.

Meditations is showing at Pluspace, The Meter Room, 58 -64 Corporation Street, Coventry, until 7 July 2013. (Open Friday – Saturday, 11am – 5pm or by appointment by emailing matthew@pluspace .com)