patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Eagle Gallery

Reflections on the Paintings and Constructions of Natalie Dower

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A recent show I wish I had been able to visit, unfortunately I never managed to get there, was Reflections, Natalie Dower, at Eagle Gallery. There’s a good review of it at Saturation Point in which James Campion discusses the selection of works, reflecting on some individual pieces, specifically the Spiral Track works (1984), Colour Spiral Track no.2 (19) and Jungle Sphere, (1988), and briefly considers Dower’s relationship to the tradition of Constructivist and Systems art.

The exhibition, drawing from Dower’s career of over 40 years, and presenting recent paintings hung in counterpoint to selected historic works, including a selection of intricate reliefs that have not been exhibited since exhibitions at the Curwen Gallery, would have been an invitation to reflect on the connections between works from the eighties up to the present day. Even without a visit, in surveying material available online (the Saturation Point review, an Eagle Gallery website summary, the catalogue with images of the work and an essay by Laurence Noga), I am immediately impressed by Dower’s constancy of purpose along with the way that the relatively simple numerical systems she employs have the power to generate their own forms, almost even without the input of an artist. However, there is an artist here, constantly making choices, experimenting, offering feedback, thus contributing to that larger system, of which each work is a part, a meta-system if you will.

Natalie-Dower-Travelling-Star-1996-Dudeney-Circle-1989

Natalie Dower, Travelling Star, 1996, oil on panel, 21.2 x 21.2 cm. Dudeney Circle, 1989, avonite, 31 x 31 x 4.5 cm. Images copyright of the artist, by courtesy of Eagle Gallery

Not actually visiting, I can imagine seeing the work, and I can also remember other works by Dower that I have seen before, like the one I saw here once at the Eagle Gallery, and where, in a conversation with the gallery owner Emma Hill, she noted the beautiful, subtly “faulted” quality of the painted surface. It wasn’t the charming oil on wood Hybrid from this show, but it so easily could have been. I now know enough about Dower’s paintings to guess that they share similar qualities. To really experience them however, does mean getting up close and seeing them first-hand.

Natalie Dower, Hybrid No. 2, 2007, oil on wood, 28.4 x 26 cm. Image copyright of the artist, by courtesy of Eagle Gallery

Natalie Dower, Hybrid No. 2, 2007, oil on wood, 28.4 x 26 cm. Image copyright of the artist, by courtesy of Eagle Gallery

In the excellent publication Natalie Dower Line of Enquiry Alan Fowler summarizes the distinctive features of Dower’s work, in comparison with other systems artists, as displaying “a greater lyricism, a more varied use of colour” as well as “a freedom from the strictly orthogonal imagery that characterized the work of many earlier constructivist artists”. I think the “faulted-ness”, specifically in the paintings, is part of what might be included in the idea of the lyricism of Dower’s style.

Some think of the slippage between concept and execution, especially when very slight, as in Dower’s paintings, as a particularly human trait (see comments by Richard Guest on a previous blog post, though referring to quite different content). I think they are right. However, isn’t pure abstract thought also entirely human? (Cogito ergo sum).

For too much of my life I considered “mental arithmetic” as an enemy, a bully to be avoided, because I knew I couldn’t subdue it in open conflict. I put it down to the method of rote learning that disagreed with me as a child, and to the threat of punishment for getting my multiplication tables wrong. That beauty could reside here was unthinkable. That was until I started to notice the pleasurable rhythm of “seven sevens are forty nine” or “six sixes are thirty six” (I may never know why “six fours are twenty four” and in fact most of the other lines of the poem, didn’t have quite the same swing and therefore weren’t as memorable). Then one day one of the clever girls in my class showed me a real table (I mean a matrix not furniture) that she had drawn and coloured-in rather attractively, numbering 1 to 12 along the top and down the side and displaying plain as day the multiplication tables, even making it possible to follow a line say from 4 along the top and 6 along the side and find in the cell where they joined the number 24. It was magic, and it was beautiful: epistemology and aesthetics combined!

I am in no way comparing this visual table with the look of Dower’s paintings, nor suggesting that her work is a demonstration of numerical or arithmetic processes, simply that the sudden discovery of the beauty of number, via the visible chart has some resonance with my experience of beauty in Dower’s art.

Natalie-Dower-Spin-Off-2015-Three-Triangle-series-Five-colours-2015

Natalie-Dower, Spin Off, 2015, oil on board, 13.25 x 18.9 cm; Three Triangle Series: Five Colours 2015, oil on canvas, 43.5 x 43.5 cm. Copyright of the artist image by courtesy of Eagle Gallery

Is there in each painting and construction a physical manifestation of thought: logic apprehended by the senses, not so much “word made flesh” as perhaps number made material? I have written before about the highly pleasurable experience of attempting to recover the numerical system that spawned a particular painting or relief, and only sometimes thinking I may have succeeded. I do think this is an important aspect of viewing work of this kind, though it is by no means the only thing.

It’s Dower’s work that has me reflecting on the beauty of say a root 2 rectangle, or even a double square, and that’s when I am viewing a specific piece, and also when I am thinking about a work that I once viewed. The numerical system, now communicated, becomes available to my thought independently of the artwork, as if there were such a thing as a “realm of pure thought”. Now what had become material becomes immaterial, non physical, abstract thought.

Dower has said “I want the image to be able to attract and hold the attention of the viewer” her objects/images long since attracted my attention, and continue to hold it beyond the physical viewing of artworks. Nevertheless I do wish I had actually seen the show!

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Written by Andy Parkinson

January 28, 2016 at 8:58 pm

Chance and Order at Eagle Gallery

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The Chance and Order exhibition at Eagle Gallery takes its title from Kenneth Martin‘s early 1970s series of works, that he later developed into his Chance Order Change series, magnificent paintings in my view. The show brings works from the 1960s and 1970s by the British Constructionist and Systems Group together with more recent works by artists who currently draw upon this tradition. It is a mystery to me that this incredibly rich field in British art has been somewhat overlooked, when the paintings, drawings reliefs etc. of Kenneth and Mary Martin, Jeffrey Steele, and many others in this grouping are among the finest produced anywhere in the world. That they are being appreciated now by more than a generation of younger artists seems absolutely appropriate.

NATALIE DOWER Root Two Spirals no 2 2014 oil on canvas 85 x 122cm

Natalie Dower, Root Two Spirals no 2, 2014, oil on canvas 86 x 122 cm. Image copyright of the artist by courtesy of Eagle Gallery

The two 2014 paintings by Natalie Dower are wonderful, both exploring the properties of Root-2 rectangles, which can be halved and halved endlessly and each time the rectangles will be of the same proportions. In these paintings Dower employs a rotating or spiralling movement to position repeatedly halved rectangles or triangles, (the triangles being derived by halving the rectangle diagonally), differentiating them using a nine colour sequence, in each reduction the triangle and rectangle shape share the same colour. There are nine moves, so nine colours are duplicated on two spirals tracks, one situating the triangular units and one the rectangles. On the first move the two units occupy the same area but in the subsequent diminutions the first two moves are in the same halves but then the track of rectangles curves inwards whilst the triangle track follows the periphery. The smaller scale units have priority over the previous, larger ones.  If I am not mistaken Two Spirals No.2 is the inverse of Two Spirals No.1, in the same colours, used in different order. I read somewhere that the colours are “muted”, but that’s not really my experience, white may have been added, they are not quite primary and not quite secondary colours, but to my eyes the colours are high, with turquoise, cerulean blue, orange and yellow contrasting with Payne’s grey, white and a neutral base. The logical relationship of shapes and the sequential ordering, is combined with the intuitive, in the form of two sets of choices: the system being explored and the colours used, an inventive fusion of chance and order that I am finding in each of the works in this exhibition.

Kenneth Martin, Chance Order Change 1978 pencil and ink on paper 21.5 x 29.5cm (1)

Kenneth Martin, Chance Order Change (2 Drawings),1978, pencil and ink on paper, 21.5 x 29.5cm. Copyright Estate of Kenneth Martin, Image courtesy of Annely Juda Fine Art, London.

There’s a rotational theme too in the Kenneth Martin, Chance Order Change drawings, the paper having first been marked with numbered points, moving clockwise around the rectangle, the artist generated the lines by taking numbers, two at a time, at random out of a bag. A line was drawn between each successive pair of numbers as they were picked out. Chance determined the sequence and the number of parallel lines, the first drawn would have one line, the second two lines and so on. Change was initiated by rotating the drawing by 90 degrees and repeating the process for three rotations. The result is this intriguing network of lines which was then transferred to canvas. Order and chance may appear to be opposites, yet here their opposition is suspended, one being determined by the other.

Katrina Blannin, Diamond Light 50 (tonal Rotation with Pink/Green: Blue/Black Demarcation), 2014, acrylic on linen, 50 x 50 cm, copyright of artist by courtesy of Eagle Gallery

Katrina Blannin, Diamond Light 50 (tonal Rotation with Pink/Green: Blue/Black Demarcation), 2014, acrylic on linen, 50 x 50 cm, Image copyright of the artist by courtesy of Eagle Gallery, London

Katrina Blannin also employs rotation in her method, using the same double hexad starting point that has by now become familiar to regular viewers of her work, this time skewed to fit a square format, oriented to hang as a diamond shape, which is subdivided into triangles differentiated by a range of colours (yellow pink green red blue and grey) that get darker and then lighter in rotation. Narrow demarcation lines are also added. There is a sense in which the careful definition of parts leads to accurately separating flat areas of colour, yet they immediately set up fascinating, shifting spatial relationships that create ambiguity. I think of them oxymoronically as precisely ambiguous. There are three paintings in sequence here increasing in size from left to right: 50 x 50 cm , 60 x 60 cm and 70 x 70 cm.

Mary Martin, Drawing for Cross 1968, pen on paper 25.3 x 20.3cm

Mary Martin, Drawing for Cross 1968, pen on paper 25.3 x 20.3cm. Image Copyright: estate of Mary Martin, courtesy of Annely Juda Fine Art, London

Mary Martin‘s drawing for Cross, a preparatory study for the magnificent stainless steel on wood relief that won the John Moores prize in 1969, is a diamond shape on a square. In the drawing Martin uses six iconographic figures, one for each of the six positions of her basic unit of a half cube, cut on the hypotenuse, faced with stainless steel, that she used in the relief. The half cube, placed in six different positions and and then arranged in a variety of sequences results in an amazing complexity of form, as demonstrated in this beautiful drawing. There’s a similar strategy being followed in Jeffrey Steele‘s outstanding Six sets of 7 x 5 half circles in cinematic rotation. It does “what it says on the tin”, yet whilst the descriptive title may sound somewhat prosaic, the visual experience is surprisingly poetic. And this is where I am supposed to say that their approach is not “mechanical” or “formulaic”, because we seem prejudiced towards those ideas, preferring instead the illusion of freedom. So I am going to say the opposite: it is formulaic, mechanical, digital (though not virtual), and that’s good! These drawings and paintings are totally contemporary, dealing with the issues of our day, without ever representing them or commenting upon them. What we are faced with in these works, precisely because of their programmatic or systematic formality, are the big, dare I say existential, questions to do with freedom and necessity, chance order and change.

Andrew Bick‘s OGVDS (Tilted Forward/straightened) v 5 is perhaps less systematic. Rather than numeric permutations of a single unit, we have more playful, serial variations on a theme, the theme being a particular grid arrangement that looks very different depending on changes to colour, texture, quality of mark and perceived depth. His work has been described as ‘gently disruptive and purposefully chaotic’, and it is easy to see this here. I like the gentle disruption in the spatial shifts as two large dark grey areas, an interrupted triangular shape at bottom left and a rectangular slab taking up nearly all of the right-hand half of the painting, first share the same literal plane and then snap into opposition, the larger shape receding in space in one interpretation, or jutting forward, in another, two orange irregular rectangles joining this game of push/pull, perhaps supporting the first interpretation slightly more than the second.

Andrew Bick, OGVDS (Tilted Forward/Straightened)V 5 , 2014, mixed media on linen on wood, 76.5 x 64.5cm, image copyright of the artist by courtesy of Eagle Gallery and Hales Gallery

Andrew Bick, OGVDS (Tilted Forward/Straightened)V 5 , 2014, mixed media on linen on wood, 76.5 x 64.5cm, image copyright of the artist by courtesy of Hales Gallery, London

The Martins, in common with many of the British Constructionists moved somewhat away from painting towards constructed reliefs, Jeffrey Steele on the other hand, and it would appear that this is also true of Bick, Blannin and Dower, have stayed with painting, In a recent interview with Steele for Turps Banana, (Issue 11),  Blannin asks him “Why is it important to develop …the historically charged process of ‘paint on canvas’?” In his answer Steele says “I have always wanted to try to justify the supreme importance of painting” contrasting the painter with the artist-as-manager who has works made in a factory, arguing that in the latter process “you lose the evidence of the ‘journey'”, adding that “for me the ‘journey’ is worth knowing and (its) traces… are important to see”. In every one of the works in this exhibition there is such evidence. Perhaps the show itself evidences the continuation of a journey, starting out with the British Constructionists and reaching into the future, an exploration rather than a repetition, yet quite possibly, ending as T S Elliot would have had it, where we started and knowing the place for the first time.

Chance and Order was on view at Eagle Gallery from 20 November to 19 December 2014

Mali Morris Back to Front at Eagle Gallery

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Stepping into the upstairs gallery at Eagle and immediately seeing the luminous colours of the Mali Morris paintings at Back to Front  takes me back to a time when I was similarly surprised by the vibrancy of colours, on the top floor of the Centre Pompidou where the George Rouault  prints took my breath away.  It is strange how, whilst being present in the here and now, associations come flooding in, from a time that was like this one, and at the same time is very different, separated in time and space.

Time and space seem to be a theme in this exhibition, where earlier paintings are presented alongside newer ones, including some very recent ones, shown for the first time. Seeing paintings from a few years ago and very recent ones together foregrounds the pre-figuring of current concerns in earlier works and new paintings connecting back. Then there is that wonderful spatial back to front motion in many Mali Morris paintings, where previous layers of paint are excavated and brought up to the surface, not to mention the animating of this particular gallery space, for which some of the new paintings were specifically intended.

I was in Bournemouth recently with friends who took us to see the Rusell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, where one of the artefacts that caught my attention was an icon.

What struck me about it was that the hands and face were ‘behind’ the jewelled garments and halo that stood perhaps as much as half an inch off the surface, yet they read as forward. The ‘back’ was ‘front’  and it reminded me of the Morris paintings where what was back is now front. Two marvelous new ones are Seven/Mesh and Five/Mesh. In some of the earlier works the grid that structures the work is often hidden by overpainting, in these new paintings it is more prominent, yet it recedes behind the disks created by wiping away areas of paint to reveal underpainted colours.

Mali Morris, Seven/Mesh, 2102, Acrylic on Canvas, 45 x 60cm, copyright Mali Morris, image by Courtesy Eagle Gallery

In Seven/Mesh the loosely painted grid describes a curving and almost pulsating space whilst the luminous discs seem to occupy the area right up front, yet not equally so, the central red circle floats further back than the ones that butt up to the edge above and below.   And there is movement between the seven disks. I think I have positioned them in relation to each other only to find that they shift. In one viewing the blue, for example, seems in front of the orange but then the orange re-asserts itself pushing forward. Now, although I was sure that the red receded, I am now less sure, maybe it hovers in front of all the others after all, but just for a moment. I become aware of my own process of attention giving and how this very act brings one event momentarily to the fore whilst another recedes.

Another new painting Lying Lightly employs the characteristic disc motif as well as the wonderful brush stroke swirl that we see from time to time in Morris’s work. This time in closely matched tones around a theme of violet, with adjacent colours red and blue as well as complementary yellow.

Mali Morris, Lying Lightly, 2012, Acrylic on Canvas, 21 x 26 cm, copyright Mali Morris, image by courtesy Eagle Gallery

The double “S” that looks like it was a continuous brush stroke, seems almost ‘hemmed in’ by the frame, whereas in another of the 2012 paintings on view here Slant we get a more open swirl, or rather swirls, that look like they could extend beyond the frame, more like a ‘background’ than in Lying Lightly. And here, as in another entitled Landing Light 3, this central theme is complemented by four rectangular shaped colours, one in each corner producing a ‘negative’ cruciform shape in between them. Again, this creates a to-ing and fro-ing of back and front: when I pay attention to the cruciform shape the rectangles become frame, when I pay attention to the rectangles the cruciform shape recedes and becomes more like a swirling background. The corner rectangles themselves look at first sight like they are painted on top of the swirl (in Landing Light 3 it is a loosely painted grid) but on closer inspection I get the impression that these too are ‘excavations’ of previous layers rather than positively painted figures, though I am not entirely sure about this.

Mali Morris, Slant, 2012, Acrylic on Canvas, 40 x 50 cm, copyright Mali Morris, image by courtesy Eagle Gallery

I think it is this ambiguity that I appreciate so much in Mali Morris paintings. What’s at back could just as well turn out to be up front, the edges might become central, an area that has become dense with rich colour may be cleared away to reveal a glowing light that becomes positive ‘motif’. What appears ‘positive’ may turn out to be ‘negative’ and vice versa. I really don’t mean to find in all this metaphors for life but I can’t help it. And even then, such metaphors are quite different to ‘illustrations’ or ‘similes’, being themselves far more ambiguous and tentative. After all, it is painting we are looking at here, and painting that is resolutely and magnificently abstract.

Back to Front continues at The Eagle Gallery, 159 Farringdon Road, London, until 13 October 2012.