patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Gabriel Hartley

Betty Parsons and Abstract Expressionism

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AbEx being in vogue just now reminds me of a painting I saw at a wonderful exhibition earlier this year. The exhibition, back in March at Seventeen Gallery, curated by Gabriel Hartley and Rhys Coren was Cuts, Shapes, Breaks and Scrapes and the painting was Forms 1 ,1978, by Betty Parsons. Yes THE Betty Parsons who Rhys Coren described as “the one and only, gallerist and artist extraordinaire”, known for her early championing of Abstract Expressionism through her New York gallery, where she exhibited Pollock, Rothko, Reinhardt, Still and Newman long before they were well known. Helen Frankenthaler said of her that she and her gallery “helped construct the centre of the art world”. Nevertheless, every summer, she would close the gallery to concentrate on her own art.

Her driftwood assemblage sculptures, mostly small sized totemic abstract figures sometimes wall mounted, are probably better known than her paintings. They seem to borrow from the “primitive” art traditions that Barnett Newman, writing for the catalogue of Parson’s opening exhibition Northwest Coast Indian Painting, had already connected to “our modern American abstract artists”

In her paintings Parsons borrows more from her AbEx contemporaries, but without the all-important scale, Clyfford Still in miniature, almost. Parsons also looks back to earlier European modernist works, those of Paul Klee for example, not only in the modest sizes of her canvases but also in their whimsical lack of certainty.

Betty Parsons, Forms 1, 1978. Oil on canvas, 72 x 70.5 cm, my photo 20160323_143442

Betty Parsons, Forms 1, 1978. Oil on canvas, 72 x 70.5 cm, my photo

In Forms 1, irregular, roughly geometric forms in four loose columns situate themselves on a grey ground, which looks as though it may be comprised of many layers of other colours in order to arrive at the richness of the final colour. The forms may have been drawn by brushing the painted ground only as far as the perimeter of imagined figures, constructing shapes from negative spaces, allowing a previous layer of colour to remain, a blue here, a yellow ochre or a green there. If the ground had been blue the forms might have looked like islands in a sea but as some of the forms are themselves blue, maybe they more resemble fishing holes in ice. When I see the painting this way I realise it must be an aerial view, a plan or a map, and this quality is present in many of the paintings that Parsons made around this time. Moonlight – Maine, 1972 looks so much like a map of ocean and islands, (possibly the gulf of Maine), that I find it difficult to read in any other way. But if they are maps, they are very unusual ones in that they are entirely without function, “cheerfully useless cartography”, to borrow a phrase that Roberta Smith used in relation to them. They do not describe a territory, rather the map is the territory; signifier and signified have become one and the same.

Another painting Journey 1975, on the other hand, can be perceived as oriented vertically or horizontally, and in this respect I think it has more of the quality of Forms 1.

Seen vertically, Forms 1, might show two abstracted human, animal or machine figures, inhabiting a space in which there are other unspecified objects, the figure on the right is possibly carrying something. But then, they are so vaguely described that the gestalts quickly rearrange into simply multiple forms, of various colours and shapes, some repeated or reversed, creating shifting spatial links, and indefinite relationships.

Here, Parsons does not take some real world starting point and abstract from it in the process of representation, rather she invents by pushing the paint about on the canvas until forms suggest themselves. And the suggestions remain just that, never quite becoming precise things, always ambiguous, hovering between definition and doubt.

If the paintings of Pollock, Rothko, Newman and Still are epic and tragic Parsons works are lyric and comic. Rather than concertos they are chamber music, “the music of friends” (an apt expression for someone as generous as Parsons). And if a concerto might seem more ambitious, the domesticity of chamber music should in no way be disparaged. After all, monumentality is much more useful to propagandists of corporate capital than is humility. In a 1981 interview with Gerald Silk, Parsons recalls that Newman saw how the apparently uncompromising could be pressed into the service of the ruling class. Parsons reports that when she had referred to Rothko as “The Painter of the sublime” Newman’s response was “It should be The Painter of the Establishment”[i]. Why that should be true of Rothko only, I have no idea.

In Parsons we get wavering uncertainty, appropriately small in scale, not overwhelming but enticingly intimate. Jeanette Winterson once argued that our experience of art “suggests that the monolith of corporate culture is only a partial reality”, an idea that may seem especially pertinent when viewing works by Parsons such as Forms 1.

 

 

[i] Gerald Silk interview with Betty Parsons: Oral history interview with Betty Parsons, 1981 June 11, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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At the Point of Gesture at the Lion and Lamb Gallery

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At the Point of Gesture opened at the Lion and Lamb Gallery on 23 February 2013 and runs until 23 March: curated by David Ryan it’s a show of abstract paintings and a video, by five artists Clem Crosby, Gabriel Hartley, Andrea Medjesi-JonesDavid Ryan and Alaena Turner , each in their different ways exploring the potential of gesture, materiality and improvisation.

Maybe the exhibition title suggests that the works are only just at the point of gesture, like the Andrea Madjesi-Jones painting, where gesture seems to be included in a wider pictorial strategy, or perhaps that they have arrived at the point of gesture having set out from some other place, Clem Crosby’s work, for example, coming out of the monochrome tradition to a reconsideration of the role of drawing. Then again, in Aleana Turner’s Secret Action Painting 3 gesture is as much implied as it is physically present.

A point could almost be the opposite of a gesture, I’m thinking of pointillism where all those dots of colour negate the action of the sweeping brush stroke, yet once the dots are aggregated gestures of a sort do start to emerge. In physiological communication, to point is to gesture, and now I have in mind Grunwald’s amazing Isenhheim altarpiece where John the Baptist points at the crucified Jesus. Here the gesture refers to another, and I wonder if that might also be the case with gesture in abstract (non referential) painting, the minimum reference being to the act of painting itself, surely one of the points of the current Painting After Performance show at Tate modern.

Gabriel Hartley’s spray paint over impasto brushwork seems somehow to simultaneously both dissolve and emphasise the gestural mark-making, such contradictions being possible in a painting, even if nowhere else.

Gabriel Hartley, Frack, 2013, spray paint and oil on canvas, 76 x 61cm, Image by courtesy of Lion and Lamb Gallery

Gabriel Hartley, Frack, 2013, spray paint and oil on canvas, 76 x 61cm, Image by courtesy of Lion and Lamb Gallery

Approaching action painting, the individual marks almost lose themselves in the one gesture that is the finished piece. Kelp is almost white and Frack is almost black, and it’s difficult not to read them as monochromes, even though that tradition usually implies the repudiation of the gestural.

David Ryan’s Fame in California/1964, a small canvas in orange and pink has a central ‘sculptural’ figure flanked by indistinct forms or brushmarks and overlayed (or wrapped around) with a roughly painted green motif.  In the top left hand corner a flat white rectangle asserts the painting’s edge, against which the rest of the action seems to recede in a pictorial, non-perspectival space. Because it is optical, the space is ambiguous, it shifts slightly and the pink and orange brush strokes or blobs and a line that traces the edge of the figure, now appear to occupy a place somewhere in between the white rectangle up front and the main form further back.   

David Ryan, Fame in California/1964, 2012, Oil on Canvas, 30 x 36cm. Image by courtesy Lion and Lamb Gallery

David Ryan, Fame in California/1964, 2012, Oil on Canvas, 30 x 36cm. Image by courtesy Lion and Lamb Gallery

I recall that I enjoyed seeing another David Ryan painting here in the summer of 2012, a lovely little thing in black white and greys, entitled Index. It had a white rectangle in the left hand corner, similar to the one on show today. In both works this ‘hard edge’ rectangle seems incongruous, as if, there, inserted into the picture, is another very different one, a monochrome again, a painting within a painting that has me consider what other kinds of picture this one could also have become.

In Clem Crosby’s Little Wing, magenta and black continuous swirling lines dance on a grey ground that looks like the result of all but erased previous versions of the loose network that forms the painted ‘image’. It’s difficult not to see it as existing in a kind of landscape, the loops at the bottom of the canvas suggesting a floor upon which the lines are ‘standing’, like a sculpture of string or tape.

Clem Crosby, Little Wing, 2012-2013, Oil on Formica mounted on Aluminium, 76.2 x 61cm. Image by courtesy of Lion and Lamb Gallery

Clem Crosby, Little Wing, 2012-2013, Oil on Formica mounted on Aluminium, 76.2 x 61cm. Image by courtesy of Lion and Lamb Gallery

I attempt to work out where each swirl begins and ends. In an image there is no such thing as a start and a finish yet the brush had to touch the support somewhere first and lay off somewhere too, but those entry and exit points become difficult to identify. In tracing the action with my eye and brain I also have something of the sensation of following with my hand and arm, for all I know they are actually moving, like when feeding an infant I find that I open my own mouth. So I notice that I am at the point of gesture myself, as if answering an invitation to explore the theme of the exhibition, as a viewer and also as a practitioner of abstract painting. The exhibition poses questions, for me, about the role of painterliness, offering a kind of counterpoint to my own preoccupation with systems. Here, painting is physical and the design is improvised, whereas my own practice is more cerebral and pre-planned. It’s not that a systems approach precludes chance and gesture, Kenneth Martin comes to mind as does Mel Prest whose gestural line drawings produced in a totally non-random fashion have the appearance of something random or ‘felt’, and David Ryan’s work already addresses the relationship between construction and improvisation. However, this show opens up for me some interesting questions and suggestions for future practice are starting to form.

One of the stated goals of the Lion and Lamb Gallery is to provide an opportunity for painters to curate visual essays that examine current practices in painting, and for me this show delightfully succeeds in this intention.