patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Emma Talbot

Painting past present

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There’s a wonderful exhibition at Laing Art Gallery, where eleven contemporary painters respond to paintings from the past in a visual dialogue. Some of the older paintings aren’t that old so it’s not always easy to tell which of the works are past and which are contemporary, after all paintings exist always in the present, and some of the ‘past’ painters in this show are still making new paintings today. Frank Auerbach’s Julia, painted as recently as 1987, hangs here alongside a delicious 2013 painting by Laura Lancaster, and there’s an untitled painting by Paul Huxley from 1974 alongside Sue Spark’s 2013 painting Drop Zone.

The oldest work is William Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil, chosen by Emma Talbot. I wonder whether its first viewers would have been as familiar with its story, based on the Keats poem, as say contemporary audiences might be with the storyline of a popular film. Perhaps the title would have been enough to cue recognition of Isobella clutching the basil pot containing, beneath the soil,  the head of her beloved. For me, I had to to read the notes in order to understand that beneath all the ornament and sumptuous decorative surfaces, just as beneath the soil in the pot, lies a narrative of violence and despair, almost as if the decor in the painting, and indeed the painting itself, were a kind of sublimation.

Carpet Painting (Isabella and The Pot of Basil), acrylic on canvas, 2013. Image by courtesy of the artist

Carpet Painting (Isabella and The Pot of Basil), acrylic on canvas, 2013. Image by courtesy of the artist

Talbot responds with her Carpet Painting (Isobella and the the Pot of Basil), contemporising the decorative and narrative elements, and adding some of Holman Hunt’s story, who had made the painting shortly after his wife died, and based the figure on her. Talbot inserts or overlays cartoon-like captions or graphics, onto a patterned carpet design, of colour similar to the Holman Hunt. Here the violent content is above rather than beneath the surface, up front rather than behind, almost projecting into the real space of the viewer.

The other 19th century painting here is Newcastle upon Tyne from the East, 1898, by Neils Møller Lund, a portrait of the city from a specific vantage point, generalised by the impressionistic rendering, yet by no means strictly representing light as it falls on the retina. This painting, less modern than an impressionist painting proper, less critical, seems to me to rather glory in the magnificence of the city not withstanding its squalor, in something approaching an evocation of empire.

Neils Møller Lund, Newcastle upon Tyne from the East, 1898, oil on canvas, image by courtesy of Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, (Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums)

Neils Møller Lund, Newcastle upon Tyne from the East, 1898, oil on canvas, image by courtesy of Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, (Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums)

Perhaps that’s what Helen Smith’s 2013 painting of the same title attempts to erase. I could imagine that she started out with Møller Lund’s picture and painted over it until all that remains is the record of its erasure, a violent act, though what’s left is this rather beautiful veil, not unlike a colour field painting.

Helen Smith, Newcastle from the East, 2013, oil on canvas. Image by courtesy of the artist

Helen Smith, Newcastle from the East, 2013, oil on canvas. Image by courtesy of the artist

Helen Baker‘s wonderful Blocks on Green with Shelf, has lots of resonance with William Brooker’s painting of objects on a table exhibited alongside it, but the balance of abstraction to representation possibly goes in opposite directions. Brooker’s still life could also be seen as an abstract painting, whereas Baker’s abstract painting with a literal shelf, might also be seen as a representation of objects on a table or even a landscape, a village green perhaps or a bowling green, rather than, abstractly, the colour green.

Helen Baker, Blocks on Green with Shelf, 2012, acrylic on linen with plywood shelf. Image by courtesy of the artist

Helen Baker, Blocks on Green with Shelf, 2012, acrylic on linen with plywood shelf. Image by courtesy of the artist

James Ryan also plays with the literal versus the non-literal in Grid 1, painted in acrylic on checked fabric that looks at first like a trompe loeil effect but turns out to be real patterned fabric. Floating in a space in front of it we see a transparent geometrical figure, or cluster of figures, that alternates between being flat and being three dimensional, the whole painting also seeming to undulate gently. John Piper’s Town from Water Meadows, shown alongside it, also has some of the same shifting of space and oscillation between solidity and transparency of forms.

James Ryan, Grid 1, 2013, acrylic on checked fabric. Image by courtesy of the artist

James Ryan, Grid 1, 2013, acrylic on checked fabric. Image by courtesy of the artist

It occurs to me that the dialogue taking place here between these artists, past and present, includes an element of positioning in relation to Modernism, itself a past for the contemporary painters shown here but present or future for the others. So we have the pre-modernism of Edmund Blair Leighton, pretending, as Eleanor Moreton points out in the Gallery notes, that his medium is not paint, and Holman Hunt’s proto-modernism (in Clement Greenberg‘s view at least), and the early modernism of Winifred Nicholson, whose painting Evening at Boothby, is chosen by Mali Morris and exhibited next to her Due North, 2013. If Modernism in painting engendered an essentialist approach, asking “what is painting?” or even “what could painting be?” and Post Modernism answered “anything goes”, Helen Baker seems interested in a slightly different question when, in the exhibition publication, she asks “what is this fine art craft about?” When I look at a painting by Mali Morris, as with others here, it’s not so much what painting is, nor even what it is about that comes to mind for me, it’s more what painting does or can do.

Mali Morris, Due North, 2013, acrylic on canvas. Image by courtesy of the artist

Mali Morris, Due North, 2013, acrylic on canvas. Image by courtesy of the artist

In her recent paintings, and Due North is a good example, the structuring grid, which in previous paintings may have been implicit, appears to have become explicit, which in turn seems to provide an opportunity to introduce rectangular ‘figures’ that interact with the now familiar circular forms, except they’re only figures when they become such, other times they are gaps, portals, windows, negative spaces in the grid. They become positive forms that push forward of the grid when figure and ground shift in relation to each other. But they don’t press as far forward as the discs that I sense would hover in real space were it not for the canvas edge that just about keeps them in place. It’s this ability of paint to suspend colour only long enough to let it go, as if it had a life of its own, that I think Morris exploits. And the colour creates space that is literally two dimensional but optically not just three, but four dimensional, the shifting of the space being experienced over time and alerting me again to my own subjectivity, my active participation in constructing the world I see. That the light “emanates from the painting and expands the space” is something that also happens in the Winifred Nicholson painting and Morris specifically refers to it in the gallery publication. I could imagine that if she had learned it from someone she could have learned it here, from Nicholson.

Painting Past Present: A Painters Craft, is on show at Laing Art Gallery until 09 February 2014 and includes paintings by Frank Auerbach, Laura Lancaster, William Brooker, Helen Baker, Derek Hirst, Narbi Price, William Holman Hunt, Emma Talbot, Paul Huxley, Sue Spark, Louis James, Paul Housley, Edmund Blair Leighton, Eleanor Moreton, Neils Moller Lund, Helen Smith, Winifred Nicholson, Mali Morris, Victore Pasmore, Ali Sharma, John Piper and James Ryan.

Lion and Lamb Gallery Summer Saloon Show

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Getting to the Lion and Lamb Summer Saloon Show early on opening night I bump into artist Enzo Marra. We take some snaps and chat about the work on view. Forty three painters are represented:

Phillip Allen, Kiera Bennett, Simon Bill, Juan Bolivar, Claudia Böse, John Bunker, Jane Bustin, Stephen Chambers, John ChilverDan Coombs, Ashley Davies, Benjamin Deakin, Hayley Field, Mick Finch, Kirsten Glass, Andrew Graves, Hanz Hancock, Dan HaysMark Jones, David Leeson, Caroline List, Declan McMullan, Patrick Morrisey, Alex Gene Morrison, Darren Murray, Joe Packer, Andy Parkinson, Dan Perfect, Daniel Pettitt, Clare Price, Fiona Rae, Andrew Seto, Francesca Simon, Lucy Stein, Michael Stubbs, Emma TalbotDolly Thompsett, Michelle Ussher, Jacqueline Utley, Covadonga Valdes, Caroline Walker, Freyja Wright, Mark Wright.

Many of them are well known, and many are artists previously not shown.

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Fiona Rae’s Party Time is Coming takes central position, with its black fluffy figures and colourful cartoon swishes and stars, on a lilac ground topped with a pink pool of paint running over into carefully controlled drips.

Fiona Rae, Party Time Is Coming

My snap of Fiona Rae, Party Time Is Coming

As well as the demoniacal teddy there are black ‘non-figures’ dancing in an ambiguous space that has hints of a floor but then could just as well be outer space. The paintings is both frivolous and slightly menacing, party time is coming but that’s not necessarily a good thing, almost like the invitation to party is being called by mischievous gremlins from Joe Dante’s 1984 comic horror film.

Above Party Time Is Coming, on the right, is Emma Talbot’s Matins Vespers, a “before and after” painting, in two halves separated horizontally, morning  and night, a female cartoon-like figure in a kitchen making a drink of tea or coffee of hot chocolate, the action of the intervening day being hinted in the ‘after’ state. There’s anticipation and regret simultaneously evoked on a representation of a black and white gridded decorative tile, another kitchen theme. Katrina Blannin suggests to me that the black and white grid is “in conversation” with my own painting Cover, to the left of the Rae, a grid or chequer board of lozenge shapes in black and white, obscuring a multi-coloured surface underneath, but not so much obscured that you can’t tell it’s there. The underneath is incorporated into the covering top layer.  And layering seems to be a theme in many of the paintings here. Enzo brings my attention to the layering and the grid armature in Mark Jones’ painting Baby Doll, commenting on how the armature becomes incorporated into the content, another layer of meaning if you will.

My snap of Mark Jones, Baby Doll, oil on canvas

My snap of Mark Jones, Baby Doll, oil on canvas

It’s Mark Jones who points out to me the layering in Daniel Pettit’s Lovely Slang, above and left of the Fiona Rae, a green ground supporting a minimum of events,  and then there’s Sacrifice by Jane Bustin, a beautiful surface created by tiny oil paint brush strokes over a muslin support, leaving half of the muslin unpainted and see-through. Joe Packer’s Superstrake also employs purposive layering, more in perception than materially perhaps, in that it’s trees and landscape that is evoked as if I’m looking through layers of foliage, or undergrowth, and not quite getting out into the clearing, and yet knowing all the time that its paint and maybe “only paint”. Packer says he wants a “suggestion of a looking through trees or a forest, but not in a literal or descriptive way, so that the brushstrokes are still not trying to be anything other than themselves”.

Joe Packer, Superstrake, 2013, oil on canvas, 30cm x 25cm, image by courtesy of the artist

Joe Packer, Superstrake, 2013, oil on canvas, 30cm x 25cm, image by courtesy of the artist

Oasis by Juan Bolivar, is a delightful painting of a painting, or more accurately a naturalistic painting of a postcard of an abstract painting, with full trompe-l’oeil effect. As such it is paradoxical, akin to the liar paradox (Epimenides the Cretan saying “all Cretans are liars”)  it is abstract by being figurative and figurative by being abstract. The content being a Damien Hirst spot painting, it could be said to be ironical about the ironic. It also seems possible that this array of dots is not a Hirst painting at all, simply an array of dots. in relation to a Hirst then it could be a simulacra, a copy without an original.

My photo of Juan Bolivar, Oasis, 2012, acrylic on canvas

My photo of Juan Bolivar, Oasis, 2012, acrylic on canvas

In interpreting it I am tempted to use that famous Zen formulation where all four statements comprise a truth: “it is abstract” “it is not abstract” “it is both abstract and non abstract” “it is neither abstract nor non abstract”. This painting also settles the question for me about whether a painting of a painting could ever be better than the original. This one in my view is better than the ‘original’. Better in that the use of appropriation is more layered therefore more interesting, as well as in its virtuoso painting technique: a hand painted miniature (Enzo Marra: “how did he get the spots flat?”). I like that, for me, it connects to philosophy (and not only Braudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation) and to the tradition of paintings of paintings that goes back way further than postmodernism, into the middle ages, as recently highlighted in Alexander Nagel’s wonderful 2012 book Medieval Modern, Art Out of Time, yet its also a beautiful painting to look at, with all that spatial layering that I am finding so fascinating.

There are other paintings too that I think of as ‘virtuoso’, like Stephen Chambers’ Man with Twig, which reminds me of a Persian miniature, Hayley Field’s Mean Machine, an obscured Sunflower, Dan Hayes’ Interstate, comprising a marix of precisely constructed coloured dots, that coheres into a highway only from a distance (and I sense that I can’t get back quite far enough). Also there’s Francesca Simon’s Below Ground 10, a dark painting that may be a grave stone or simply a square in an illusionistic space, Cavadonga Valdes’ untitled painting of a house and trees in a reflected in a puddle, the theatrical scene by Michelle Ussher: Holding the Head, Freyja Wright’s photographic Journey Between Homes and Caroline Walker’s picture of a swimming pool being cleared of leaves: Skimmed.

Then there are other very precise paintings that are strictly abstract, like the systems inspired paintings of Patrick Morrisey, Francesca Simon and Hanz Hancock along with others that address the tradition of abstraction, like Kiera Bennet’s Painting recalling early modernism. Keep It All, by Claudia Bose is a charming painting of indefinite window-like shapes over a green ground allowing a partial view of something beyond the ‘windows’, layers again, like in Sleep by Clare Price, where a pink and blue roughly painted layer of semi transparent colour all but erases a series of near geometric figures or patterns. Andrew Graves’ daring Untitled painting is orange on orange, a piece of orange painted canvas stuck onto a canvas painted with an orange ground ( I remember it as orange but the photo may be correct in showing it as nearer to red).

Top left: Claudia Bose, "Keep it all", Bottom left: John Bunker "Charline" Right: Andrew Graves: "Untitled"

Top left: Claudia Bose, “Keep it all”, Bottom left: John Bunker “Charline” Right: Andrew Graves: “Untitled”

John Bunker’s collage Charline, includes elements that are reminiscent of Russian Constructivism along with more irregular shapes that I read as somehow more irrational, though I doubt the rationale of that reading. Just above the centre a mirror-like shiny aluminium foil (?) square brings the external world into the picture frame. I suspect Ad Reinhardt would have disapproved.

I have long admired paintings I have seen only in reproduction or online by Andrew Seto, Alex Gene Morrison, Dan Coombs, Dan Perfect and Phillip Allen, and their work here is distinctive.  Seto’s painterly object(s) in Device, could be sculptures in an unspecified space, marked out only by the horizon line and a sense of ‘floor’, whereas Morrison’s image has more the feel of a poster, but more painterly than that, with diagonal green strokes to the bottom right opening up a receding space against the darker green ground. The Dan Coombs painting could be two stretched out figures, male heads on female bodies, throwing snowballs at each other in the fiery heat of a tropical landscape, the heads, each a mirror image of the other, look dot matrix printed and stuck on, they may even be famous but if they are I am not recognising them. I think the snowballs are drawing-pins stuck into the canvas. It’s anarchic and wonderful. So is Dan Perfect’s Operator, a maximal space, crammed with events that almost seem to make sense figuratively, whilst constantly thwarting figural interpretation. The celebration of image and paint in high colour seems to induce a state that alternates between euphoria and mania. There’s celebration of paint too in the painting by Phillip Allen. I am impressed by the variety of handling, combining flatly painted areas in the centre with thick encrusted layers lining the top and bottom, creating a space that resembles a theatre of competing patterns.

My photo of the Phillip Allen painting (no description details)

My photo of the Phillip Allen painting (no description details)

A theatre of competing patterns might also be a description of the summer saloon show. One of the things I like about the Lion and Lamb Gallery is this continued bringing together of different painters, creating a rich dialogue about what contemporary painting is and might become.

The show continues until September 1st.

Summer Saloon!

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