patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘David Sweet

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.

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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)

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British Abstract Painting in the Seventies: Stagnation or New Possibilities?

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In the seventies abstract painting in Britain was in crisis. At least that’s how it seemed to some. If during the sixties it had become hegemonic that privileged position was on the wane. Peter Fuller would shortly declare American abstraction to be not much more than a CIA plot, within the discipline of painting figuration was in resurgence, whilst outside it performance art and conceptualism were fast becoming the dominant art forms, leading to the stagnation of abstract painting. The exhibition New Possibilities, Abstract Painting from the Seventies, a show of fourteen painters from the period (all still painting today), at the Piper Gallery counters this viewpoint, demonstrating that instead abstraction in this decade was vibrant and varied.

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Installation shot (right. Gary Wragg, Carnival, left Trevor Sutton That Swing.4.K). Image by courtesy of The Piper Gallery

In her gallery talk co curator Sandra Higgins introduces Gary Wragg‘s Carnival (1977-79) as the show’s opening statement, as if it were shouting “this is abstraction!” not a representation of the world, rather a celebration within in it, the gestures and colours resonant of graffiti and the detritus of building sites, brimming with the energy and excitement of the city, simultaneous with its squalor and vulnerability.

And if the opening statement is a shout, the next is almost a whisper: Trevor Sutton‘s That Swing.4.K (1979), five foot square, bisected by an off vertical line achieved by joining two canvases black to the left and blue to the right, with the green of the painted edge just showing as a narrow line down the (off) centre.

Turning to the Untitled (1973) geometric painting on paper by Patricia Poullain, Higgins tells the story of her continuing to paint every day in her summer-house, facing the countryside, whilst making ‘pure painting’, both “in nature” and “against nature” at the same time.

In Alice Sielle‘s 3D Blue and Gold Segments (1978), drawing, within a shallow illusionistic space is more prominent. Approaching Op Art, carefully rendered three-dimensional abstract objects (segments) combine together on a grey ground to make an image that is more than the sum of its parts, appearing to generate light as much as reflect it. Sandra Higgins recalls asking her how she managed to paint it with such precision, and receiving the answer “I don’t know”.

The one painting I came here specifically to see was Purple Heart (1979) by Mali Morris. If Carnival is a shout and That Swing.4.K is a whisper then this is a song.

Mali Morris, 'Purple Heart', 1979, Acrylic on canvas, 167 x 165.5 cm. Image courtesy of Piper Gallery

Mali Morris, Purple Heart, 1979, Acrylic on canvas, 167 x 165.5 cm, Image courtesy of Piper Gallery

The purple heart shape of the title takes up nearly half of the canvas, and around it smaller, colour/forms harmonize, mediating, for me, a set of binary oppositions like hard and soft, head and heart, colour and line, form and content, object and image, words and music.

In Graham Boyd‘s Descender (1976) the large canvas has undergone a process of masking and spray painting resulting in a series of subtly gradated narrow bands of rich colour creating an undulating optical space.

The earliest painting in the show, Albert Irvin‘s Glow (1971) has decorative colours that echo the lines of the support whilst also looking virtually formless, the liquid paint poured, sprayed, splattered and at times approaching the condition of a gas.

William Henderson‘s marvelous Funky Black and Catch Me (1978) is as much built as painted. Rainbow bands on a black ground multiplying from left to right, until at the right hand third the space is completely filled, and the space itself seems to bend and deepen towards that side. It is an exciting painting, the visual equivalent of jazz ( be-bop rather than cool). Looking at the painting with me he explains how he achieved the rainbow stripes by loading a brush with contrasting colours and drawing it across the canvas. Either it worked or it didn’t and he would have to do it again.

Perfectly situated at the end of the gallery so it can be seen from many distances is Barrie Cook‘s spray painted Blue, Red and Yellow Grid (1977). As I journey towards it I am unsure how much of what’s happening is optical and how much is physically there.

Installation image by courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Installation image by courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Black vertical stripes are flanked by blue and violet creating an optical central horizontal light blue line – I think.

There’s opticality even in Jeanne Masoero‘s Basis for Light, Series II, no. 7 (1977) the nearest work in the exhibition to ‘systems art’. Comprising built up layers of torn white paper and PVA glue in loosely alternating rectangles of horizontal and vertical lines and resembling ploughed fields seen from the air, the structure is both accentuated and denied by the way the light and shadow is distributed over the uneven surface. Momentarily, I feel sure I see colours on that surface …and then I’m less sure.

Tess Jaray‘s Petros (1979) indices a different kind of uncertainty, the muted colours at times only just distinguishing the repeated architecture based motifs from the ground on which they seem to hover.

Rush Green (1977) by Frank Bowling is arrived at through the pouring of paint, more gravitational than gestural, the flow of paint looking gentle and slow. The verticality of the image elicits figure associations, and the richness of colour leads me to relate to it as if it were a mummy or possibly even the Turin Shroud.

Frank Bowling, Rush Green, 1977, Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery, 1977,

Frank Bowling, Rush Green, 1977, Acrylic on canvas, 167.6 x 71.1 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery

Whilst Bowling achieves an ‘all-over’ anti-composition, by contrast C. Morey de Morand‘s masking tape rectangles in There is Always More (1978) are deliberately placed in four colour groups against a shifting red ground.

Finally, six Desmond Rayner gouaches offer yet another version of abstract painting: Art Deco inspired geometric patterns that could be mistaken for screen prints if it weren’t for the uniqueness of the colour mixes. Interested in invention rather than personal expression he sees the works as entertainment, encouraging us to “relax and enjoy (them) at surface level”.

Installation shot, Desmond Rayner Gouaches, Courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Installation shot, Desmond Rayner Gouaches, Courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Seeing the diversity of these works I find agree with Sam Cornish who, in the catalogue essay, argues that this exhibition shows that

The break up of the Modernist consensus and the rise of the expanded field did not result in abstraction stagnating but rather in a period of complex, even frenetic experimentation, of new possibilities.

But what of continuing relevance? In the same essay Cornish brings attention to Mali Morris’s “materiality and touch”, which reminds me of the recent article by David Sweet at Abstract Critical where, questioning the relevance of  “the kind of average lyrical abstraction of the late colour field period” and highlighting the importance of detail in the era of high-definition he partially equates touch with detail. Commenting on a 2012 painting by Morris he describes her intelligent handling of the “resolution that detail brings”.

And glancing up at my HD TV whilst writing this, I am distracted by a programme about the popular singer Tony Bennett, suggesting that his refusal to update his material was later interpreted by younger audiences as “cool” leading to his recent return to popularity. Could it be that Patricia Poullain also remains relevant but this time through her persistence, doggedly following her very specific, repetitive, line of enquiry?

Patricia Poullain, 'Untitled' 1973, Acrylic on paper, 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy The Piper Gallery

Patricia Poullain, Untitled 1973, Acrylic on paper, 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy of The Piper Gallery

In suggesting that Morris’s work stays relevant by updating itself and Poullain’s by staying the same I am no doubt having my cake and eating it, so let me suggest a third way in which these abstract painters may continue to be relevant. Advances in the field of cognitive science made since the seventies could make some of these paintings more contemporary now than they were then. Barrie Cook’s work for example has affinity with experimental findings made recently into how we construct colour, findings that challenge some of what we thought we knew from Sir Isaac Newton, the philosophical implications of which are explored by Donald D. Hoffman in his book Visual Intelligence, How We Create What We See.

Indulging in these closing speculations I find that I am making a claim not only for the vitality of abstract painting in the seventies but also for the new possibilities abstraction may yet have in store.

New Possibilities: Abstract Painting From The Seventies is on at The Piper Gallery, 18 Newman Street, London until 21 December 2012.