abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Cybernetics

Zero Tolerance at Lion and Lamb Gallery

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Borrowing its title from the terminology of manufacture and law enforcement, Zero Tolerance at Lion and Lamb Gallery, focuses on the extent to which three contemporary painters, Juan Bolivar, Nick Dawes and Katrina Blannin, employ systematic methodologies, or strict sets of rules, to construct their work. For me, it forms an urgent investigation into an aesthetic, highly relevant to contemporary life, that forms an alternative to the romantic/expressionistic tendency. I think systems aesthetics are being proposed here in other ways too.

Juan Bolivar, Anvil, 2013, acrylic on canvas, Perspex and sprayed MDF, 33 x 28 cm

Juan Bolivar, Anvil, 2013, acrylic on canvas, Perspex and sprayed MDF, 33 x 28 cm. Image by courtesy of Lion and Lamb Gallery

In Juan Bolivar‘s painting, Anvil, we have a system of signs, that remind me of a set of nested Russian Dolls, the outer one being the perspex framing device that functions both literally, as a transparent cover for the painting, and also as a signal to read the work as participating in the tradition of constructive art. The painting housed by the perspex frame looks like a postcard of a Mondrian, taped to a flat surface. We are presented with a construction containing a representation of a representation of a nonrepresentational painting. I think it is more paradoxical than ironic: a sign that reads “this is not a sign”.

Nick Dawes’ paintings are sign systems in a more literal sense. He appropriates ordinary road signs as subverted content in the style of the Readymade. Crossings features three gloss black “Level Crossing” signs on a matt black triangular canvas, as much recalling the “Give Way” sign as it does also the shaped canvases of late Modernist abstract paintings by artists such as Kenneth Noland or Frank Stella. Formalist painting becomes content as much as it also becomes analogous with popular cultural design. I am tempted to say that here a formalist abstraction has become a representation of a road sign that resembles a formalist abstract painting. If Clement Greenberg proposed that Modernist painting, in privileging form over content, could be defined as “the imitation of imitation as process”, I wonder whether in Post-Modernist abstraction the process becomes rather “the imitation of the imitation of imitation”.

Nick Dawes, Crossings, 2012, gloss houshold paint on acrylic on canvas, 213.5cm x 249cm x 8.5cm

Nick Dawes, Crossings, 2012, gloss houshold paint on acrylic on canvas, 213.5cm x 249cm x 8.5cm. Image by courtesy of Lion and Lamb Gallery

Both Bolivar’s and Dawe’s paintings, can be situated in relation to wider systems, whether high art or popular culture, just as they can to that other sense of the word “system” as in “systematic”, i.e. following a predetermined path, a procedure. And this is true also of Katrina Blannin‘s work in, I think,  a different way. Clearly, Blannin is participating in that other tradition of abstraction that is connected more to Constructivism than to American Abstract Expressionism, the tradition that includes the British Constructionists and the Systems Group where the sense of “system” is a mathematical one. However there is also yet another sense of the word, that I want to explore, at least speculatively, for a moment, in relation to Blannin’s work and that’s the sense of “system” used in cybernetics, where a central concept is that of “feedback”, the process in which information about the past or present influences the same phenomenon in the present or future, forming a chain of cause-and-effect, a circuit or loop: output becomes input.

Viewing Three-piece Suite: Red/White (Double Hexad: Contracted, Root and Expanded + 123/321 Tonal Rotation with Shift), I have an experience close to ecstasy, and I deliberately choose the word for it’s inappropriateness when considering a piece that is mathematical, logical, rational. One of the things that I tend to do whenever looking at work of this kind is to count things. Before ever reading the title on the notes sheet I have counted the system or set of canvases that forms the triptych and then counted the triangular motifs that form the expanded system, noting how the white triangles are contained by a red line and the light grey ones by a black line leaving the dark grey ones unable to be highlighted, thus more readily becoming ‘ground’ or negative space against which the other triangles become ‘figure’. I have noted how the three tone/colours are arranged so that the same arrangement of lines (that also differs across each canvas because the widths of each canvas vary) is “coloured in” such that no colour/shape is repeated horizontally, in other words, there’s a tonal rotation with a shift. So, I’m doing all this counting and working out the logic of the piece and it might all seem so rational, cerebral, cognitive, yet I am using the word “ecstasy” that seems to belong more to our experiences of feeling and emotion.

Katrina Blannin, Three-piece Suite: Red/White (Double Hexad: Contracted, Root and Expanded + 123/321 Tonal Rotation with Shift), 2014, acrylic on linen, tryptich: 50 x 50 cm, 50 x 60cm and 50 x 70 cm

Katrina Blannin, Three-piece Suite: Red/White (Double Hexad: Contracted, Root and Expanded + 123/321 Tonal Rotation with Shift), 2014, acrylic on linen, tryptich: 50 x 50 cm, 50 x 60cm and 50 x 70 cm. Image by courtesy of Lion and Lamb Gallery

But after a few moments of looking (and it does require a few moments, and real looking is also necessary, a mere glance will not do justice to the piece) I find that my emotional state has been affected, I have experienced a shift in state that approaches something of what I think we mean by a word like ecstasy. Where else does this happen? Doesn’t counting and emotion get conflated in our experience of anything that has rhythm? I am thinking of music and dance, where mathematical relationships become transformed into emotion. And there’s another context that I think is even closer to what’s happening to me in front of this painting and that’s the context of hypnosis where a trance might be induced through counting.

I could speculate that it’s the tessellating, the shifting of figure and ground, that leads to this shift of state-of-mind, (or emotional state), and this is where I come back to the concept of the “feedback loop”. Surely, it’s not really the object that tessellates at all. It’s a result of what the viewer does in relation to the object. At any one time, I am likely to see a different tessellation than the one you see. The object hasn’t changed, yet I am seeing something different to what you are seeing. It’s this system of object/viewer that Blannin’s paintings emphasise for me, and I wonder if what’s going on is that output becomes input becomes output in this continuous feedback loop and I experience this as fascinating, and even trance inducing.

In all these ways it seems to me that Zero Tolerance is an invitation to “think system”. Unfortunately, my brief review here is a bit late and the show has only a few more days to run. You can catch it at Lion and Lamb Gallery until 22 Feb.


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).


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.