patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Gregory Bateson

Generator Discussion

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On the final day of the Generator exhibition, Duncan Brennan from Kaleidoscope Gallery, posed a few questions for discussion by the artists. Here is an attempt at recovering some of the conversation from notes. I wasn’t actually there. Think of it as an exercise in constructed memory. I have also taken the liberty of adding some thoughts of my own. I think that the questions alone are generative enough to be worth a post.

DB: How would you define the type of work in this exhibition?

HH: It is work that is created by using a mathematical or logical system

CP (from the exhibition introduction): artwork that is by nature ‘generative’, created once an artist cedes control to an external system or set of rules. The artwork thus results not from the wholly instinctive decisions of the artist, but is formed by objective rules or logical instructions that shape its process or material outcome.

Andy Parkinson, Six Hexagons, acrylic on six canvases, total 77 x 79 cm

Andy Parkinson, Six Hexagons, 2015, acrylic on six canvases, total 77 x 79 cm

DB: Can you talk about some of the defining characteristics of generative work?

AP: In his 2010 paper Program, be Programmed or Fade Away: Computers and the Death of Constructivist Art, Richard Wright summarises Kenneth Martin’s division of systematic work into three types : 1) the completely predefined system which once set in motion can generate work independently of any further input from the artist. 2) a system that may be initially predefined but is then constantly altered through feedback, bringing into contact with other systems, the ‘program’ thereby being written in conjunction with the work itself. 3) the system which builds up from a primary act without any previous planning, like a self propelled aggregation of logical steps. The works in Generator may be closest to the first of these three definitions.

Charley Peters, Configuration #30,

Charley Peters, Configuration #30, 2014, acrylic on plywood, 25 x 50 x 3 cm

DB: What makes this different to other forms of abstraction, such as constructivism?

AP: I think it is situated within the Constructivist tradition, though that historical moment has passed. British Constructionist and Systems Group artists saw the need to abandon its utopianism and showed how art could be generated by a numerical or mathematical system. It is different from expressionism, which has been another strand within abstraction.

HH: Constructivism was /is a more political form of creation. Generative art has its own roots, the methodology and interpretatons are unique to the individual

Patrick Morrissey, Indeterminant

Patrick Morrissey, Indeterminant, 2011, Acrylic on linen, 6’ x 4’

DB: Would you agree that rules need to be constructive rather than restrictive?

HH: Everything in the world is generated by rules. Painting a landscape has rules that govern the outcome of what will be a recognisable presentation. Working in the constraints of rules or systems allows the artist to interpret data and input  in many ways. I use a system at work which plots the movement of the railways in graphic representation. I use the variations in the programme to generate  some of my own work, the patterns vary according to the input in spite of the fact that the system itself is governed or regulated by a computer.

Left Christina France, Right Hanz Hancock

Left Christina France, Equilibrium 1 and 2, pigment, archival digital print on German etching paper, 80 x 60 cm. Right Hanz Hancock, Untitled, 2015, mixed media, 51 x 51 cm

DB Can a computer make art?

HH: A computer can make extremely complex patterns/can create algorithmic sequences , it cannot make emotional decisions as to what looks good. That is down to human preference. I/we make sequences based on numerical systems, something working within the grid. Patrick created several works that generated themselves: a module was sent into rotation within a grid, in a concentric spiral and each module had a graphic relationship or difference to the positioning of the the other. However, because of the repetitive nature of the system, repeating aggregations became apparent, appearing almost at random within the matrix, i.e. the formation of pattern. This could then be sampled and magnified into groups and in turn, work was made from tha , a sort of generative mechanism or device to generate pattern.

JI: Yes, computers can make art but humans make computers. The computer is just a tool. An algorithm, performed by a computer, is just a mirror of a set of processes condensed in time and space. It is in this compression that the art lies.

AP: Your question reminds me of a story told by that great systems thinker Gregory Bateson, of a computer programmer in the days of big mainframe computing, who wanted to know about mind in his private large computer. He asked it, “Do you compute that you will ever think like a human being?” The machine then set to work to analyse its own computational habits. Finally, the machine printed the answer ticker tape style, as such machines used to do. The programmer ran to get the answer and found, neatly typed, the words: THAT REMINDS ME OF A STORY”.

James Irwin, Silicon Binary Progression (ii), 2014, HD video, monitor, media player, dexuob speed frame, MDF, 4 mins 15 secs

James Irwin, Silicon Binary Progression (ii), 2014, HD video, monitor, media player, dexuob speed frame, MDF, 4 mins 15 secs

DB: Has the computer changed the focus of generative art? Is the computer to generative art what the camera was to representational art?

JI: Good question and there’s probably the same analogue relationship between the computer and generative work, and the camera’s photographic image. It’s not that simple though. Using the computer is just one way of working generatively. It isn’t definitive of generative art.

HH: Human beings create programs by which the computer will create images, but the camera can only record the image which can then be manipulated both outside of the camera and electronically inside. The human brain has always generated images and pattern forming/art. The computers is a tool not a focus, as is the camera for human imagination.

AP: I have my doubts about that little word  “just”, as much as I do also about the idea of the computer as a tool. It seems to me that the computer, and indeed technology more generally, gets characterised as just a tool to make it seem smaller than us and in our control, like a spanner, a hammer or a paint brush, when in fact, as a system it obeys its own rules, and incorporates us into its usage. Nevertheless, in Generator it is the contemporary analogue, rather than digital, ‘programmatic’ that is being explored. The computer programme is often used as a metaphor for the human processes of thinking/doing, so we might wonder what the programme is for activities like walking, or breathing, or even attempt to codify neuro-linguistic programmes for performance excellence in any particularly field. In this exhibition the systems that generates the artwork are thought of as analogue programmes, which have clearly been around a lot longer than have computer programmes, but only now that we have the computer are we able to utilise the metaphor for thinking about thinking. I like the circularity of it.

Left, Mary Yacoob, Right Katrina Blannin

Left, Mary Yacoob, Modular Hakka House, 2014, ink and graphite on paper, 50.8 x 40.6 cm, Right, Katrina Blannin, blackgreyblackgreyblackwhiteblackwhiteblackwhite-orange 50, 2015, acrylic on linen, 70 x 70 cm

DB: What characterises good generative art? Is it necessary to be either or both conceptually and aesthetically strong?

AP: I think Natalie Dower and Jeffrey Steele answer this best. Here’s Dower in an interview with Patrick Morrissey: “If the input that has generated the idea does not translate into valid visual terms I do not accept it.  I have had intellectually interesting ideas that I have had to abandon for that reason”. And here’s Steele in an interview with Katrina Blannin: “…something has good Gestalt or bad Gestalt — has it got a clear shape to it? I can look at one of my paintings and see whether it has good Gestalt or bad, and this has happened occasionally. A clear process of abstract thinking should lead to a satisfying visual Gestalt. I don’t necessarily “reject” or stop working on a project when this is not happening, but it bothers me, and I want to know what is going wrong”.

DB: Are you looking to formalise the human aesthetic?

JI: A human aesthetic is wide reaching and all encompassing. Defining a human aesthetic as work that shows signs of ‘the hand’if that’s what the question suggests, is too limiting”

AP: Maybe formal logic and formal linguistics, abstract languages, like mathematics, all pertinent to computer programming, have close connections to the formal ‘language’ of abstract painting.

DB: Does any of your work explore any of the hypotheses, the rules and processes of the scientist? Do you think generative art work like this can inform scientific study?

AP: I was going to say that whilst likely to have been informed by scientific study, the relationship is unlikely to be reciprocal, but then I remembered that some of the truly fascinating discoveries made in the last few decades in the science of visual cognition was discovered by map makers in the seventeenth century, so I guess you never know!

Generator print by MuirMcNeil (2015), edition of 400

Generator print by MuirMcNeil (2015), edition of 400

Generator: Systems Logic and the Analogue Art of Programming, at Kaleidoscope Gallery from 11 June to 11 July 2015, included work by Katrina Blannin, Christina France, Hanz Hancock, James Irwin, Patrick Morrissey,  Andy Parkinson, Charley Peters and Mary Yacoob.
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“Conversations Around Marlow Moss” and “Parallel Lives”

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Cullinan Richards, Savage School Window Gallery, 2008 ongoing text: MARLOW MOSS, perspex and aluminium light box, 18 x 140 x 300cm with scaffold stand (dimensions variable). Image by courtesy of the artist

Cullinan Richards, Savage School Window Gallery, 2008 ongoing text: MARLOW MOSS, perspex and aluminium light box, 18 x 140 x 300cm with scaffold stand (dimensions variable). Image by courtesy of the artist

I think there is something rather ironic about seeing a great big cinema-style sign heralding MARLOW MOSS, as if she were a household name, when in fact, although highly deserving of attention, she has been a little known figure, especially here in the UK, where she was born and spent the latter part of her life, only recently being recognised as one of Britain’s most important Constructivist artists.

The paintings and constructions, currently on show at the Leeds Art Gallery exhibition Parallel Lives (Marlow Moss and Claude Cahoun) are marvellous. I am particularly impressed by the two paintings White Blue Yellow & Blue, 1954, a finished and an unfinished version. Comparing the two, I gain information about her working method, how the lines are drawn in pencil and ‘filled in’ with colour rather than using masking tape, and how the white is applied last. (A gallery note contrasts Mondrian’s method of painting a white ground first.) Mondrian recognised her ‘double-line’ as a contribution to the visual ‘language’ of Neo-Plasticism. If she was a disciple, she was also an innovator in her own right. She was associated not only with Mondrian in Paris in the thirties but also with other international artists: Max Bill, Vantongerloo and Jean Gorin, being a founder member of the the Association Abstraction-Création in 1931. Yet returning to England in 1941 living and working in Cornwall she seems to have been somewhat ignored by other British artists, (unanswered letters to Ben Nicholson are included in the exhibition).

Marlow Moss installation shot. Image courtesy of Leeds Art Gallery.

Marlow Moss installation shot. Image courtesy of Leeds Art Gallery.

The lightbox sign of her name is itself an artwork, by Cullinan Richards, in the window of &Model, the gallery almost directly opposite Leeds Art Gallery, announcing the exhibition Conversations Around Marlow Moss, curated by Andrew Bick and Katrina Blannin. The work Savage School Window Gallery, seems to create both an invitation and a barrier at the same time, as does all good art.

Something similar happens for me viewing the first painting I see on the inside of the gallery, a piece also by Cullinan Richards entitled Ian Poulter wore shocking pink, and including a newspaper photo of Poulter beneath an abstract composition, possibly based on (abstracted from) the colours in the photo. There’s the hint of a narrative, abstracted from a newspaper report, or perhaps  even a headline, announcing a narrative that is not actually fulfilled, now that only the photo and title remain, of a piece that I must imagine actually existed. “Meaning” is context dependent, and the change of context creates something like a jarring sensation for me as I struggle to make sense of the object/image before me. Although I attempt simply to observe, I keep on interpreting, and my own processes of interpretation keep on coming to my attention. I am myself “abstracting” in the sense that I think Alfred Korzybski, Gregory Bateson and Chris Argyris may have understood the term, identifying at least these levels of abstraction: observation, interpretation and judgement. I judge the work to be good when it has this effect on me, of alerting me to my own seeing/thinking/abstracting and in doing so bringing me “back to my senses” where I notice the colour and shapes and materials, and also make an (probably incorrect) association with that 1915 Malevich painting entitled Painterly Realism of a Boy with Knapsack – Colour Masses in the Fourth Dimension, comprising only a black and a red square on a white ground. Already, I am interpreting again.

Left: Andrew Bick, Mirror Variant Drawing #1, 2011 -12, acrylic charcoal, digital print, spray paint and watercolour on cut paper, 135 x 135 cm. Right: Cullinan Richards, Ian Poulter wore shocking pink, 2012, oil paint, canvas, household paint, polythene sheet and newspaper, 113 x 85 cm. Image by courtesy of Andrew Bick

Left: Andrew Bick, Mirror Variant Drawing #1, 2011 -12, acrylic charcoal, digital print, spray paint and watercolour on cut paper, 135 x 135 cm. Right: Cullinan Richards, Ian Poulter wore shocking pink, 2012, oil paint, canvas, household paint, polythene sheet and newspaper, 113 x 85 cm. Image by courtesy of Andrew Bick

Any conversation around Marlow Moss must surely reference Modernism, abstraction, and specifically that strand of abstract art that we might group under the heading of Constructivism, developing as she did “a Constructivism from the Russian movement synthesised with Parisian Purism and Neo-Plasticism”[1]. The show at &Model brings together contemporary artists who have some form of dialogue with the positions of Constructivism, (e.g. its emphasis on non-objectivity or abstraction, its privileging of material over form, its critical engagement of the viewer), with British Construction and Systems artists forming part of a larger exchange artists are making now with modernist positions.

I find the large Black & White paintings by Jeffrey Steele here, entirely convincing. It occurs to me that even in 2 dimensions, prints or paintings, systems are never composed, always constructed. Hence no individual part has compositional preference over another, or over the whole, we have a lack of hierarchy, every part functioning according to the purpose of the system. Every part is “determined”, yet there is also a certain amount of “free” play provided by the near infinite variety of permutations, as well as in the unpredictable phenomena of “emergence”. The paintings are radically abstract yet also completely related to my lived experience of determinism within a system. If ever I needed persuading of the power, not to mention the beauty, of this approach these works amply achieve criteria, though you probably guessed that I am already fully persuaded.

Installation shot showing portfolio on tables and Jeffrey Steele paintings on walls

Installation shot showing portfolio on tables and Jeffrey Steele paintings on walls, left: Syntagma Sg IV 117, right: Syntagma Sg 116, both 1991, pencil and oil on canvas, 122 x 122cm. Image by courtesy of Andrew Bick

I find David Saunders‘ sequence of six canvases entitled Black Transformation painted in 1973-4 similarly convincing, and I am surprised by the dates as the piece appears contemporary enough to have been painted this year.

I am interested also by other works from the same era: as well as the wonderful 1977 Rational Concepts portfolio of prints (7 English artists: Norman Dilworth, Anthony Hill, Malcolm Hughes, Peter Lowe, Kenneth Martin, Jeffrey Steele, Gillian Wise) there’s a delightful pastel colour study by Jean Spencer and two of Peter Lowe‘s reliefs from 1968 in perspex mounted on wood, both 23 x 23 cm: Permutation of 4 Groups of 2 and Permutation of 4 Groups of 3, in which rational order and faktura combine to produce objects of staggering beauty.

The influence of these artists on Katrina Blannin and Andrew Bick is self evident. Bick’s OGVDS-GW #2, directly quotes a work of Gillian Wise, and Blannin clearly follows a systems approach in her paintings. The wonderful paintings by Maria Lalic here Bohemian Green Landscape Painting and Sevres Blue Landscape Painting, both constructed by placing two landscape oriented canvases one above the other creating a “real” horizon line, also have visual similarities to the Jean Spencer study.

Installation shot, Left: Maria Lalic, Sevres Blue Landscape Painting, Front: Rational Concepts  portfolio of prints, Back Andrew Bick OGVDS - GW #2. Image by courtesy of Andrew Bick.

Installation shot, Left: Maria Lalic, Sevres Blue Landscape Painting, Front: Rational Concepts portfolio of prints, Back Andrew Bick OGVDS – GW #2. Image by courtesy of Andrew Bick.

Andrew Bick’s paintings may have a rather playful connection to systems, introducing what appear to be random markings, textures, colours, or materials, to a programmatic method of repeating the form and structure of a previous work. Sometimes the end result looks anything but rational, approaching Dada even! (Here, one of Bicks paintings is placed quite comfortably over a dishevelled stairway.) I might venture to suggest that his system is a stochastic one, wherein “a random component is combined with a selective process so that only certain outcomes are allowed to endure”[2]. There is also playfulness in his references to the history of abstraction: as well as his Gillian Wise quotation mentioned earlier, his placing of a canvas across the corner of the gallery must surely be a nod to Malevich that I interpret as humorous rather than ironic.

There’s something Dada-like in the interventions of Adam Gillam included in this exhibition, for example the placing of two sticks, pieces of wood or dowelling to which are attached high colour, painted false finger nails (from the nail salon next door), alongside the Anthony Hill pages from the publication Module, Proportion, Symmetry. It’s as if it fulfils the function of a disturbance, prompting a “double-take” in the viewer. Am I also reconnected for a moment to the actual environment within and around the gallery and jolted out of my art-trance? I don’t know why I am recalling Van Doesburg’s Dadaist alter ego I.K. Bonset, through whom he could participate in a very different kind of art making as a kind of foil for his own De Stijl Constructivism. Perhaps Gillam plays a similar role here.

I have written before about Katrina Blannin’s paintings, and seeing new ones here, I continue to be impressed by her work, not least by her commitment to her series of rotations of a bisected hexad. The variables are kept stable enough that learning can actually take place, yet there’s enough newness to create surprise and enjoyment.

Installation shot showing Katrina Blannin paintings and plinth with Adam Gillam intervention with Anthony Hill pages from Module, Proportion, Symmetry. Image by courtesy of Andrew Bick

Installation shot showing Katrina Blannin paintings and plinth with Adam Gillam intervention with Anthony Hill pages from Module, Proportion, Symmetry. Image by courtesy of Andrew Bick

What I get from Blannin’s paintings is the integration of intellectual and emotional experience, at least the part of experience that is to be had by looking at images and objects. Come to think of it, it may even be in the mediation of these two (image and object) that such integration takes place. I am trying to explain the felt pleasure (which I associate with emotion) that I am having when viewing or perhaps more accurately, studying (associated with intellect), these new works. I know it’s corny now to allude to “laughing out loud” but that’s close to the delight I am enjoying as I note the differences in scale, size and colour, and the sheer beauty of the objects themselves.

Over the last year or so, Blannin has introduced a demarcation line between the sections, and it adds first clarity and then nuance, on concentrated viewing, as the figure/ground shifts lead to constantly changing interpretations of the image.

Katrina Blannin, Bisected Double Hexad Rotation - Lemon/Delft Blue, 2014, acrylic on hessian, 30 x 25cm

Katrina Blannin, Bisected Double Hexad Rotation – Lemon/Delft Blue, 2014, acrylic on hessian, 30 x 25cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

The smaller works are painted on coloured Hessian, and whilst I am fairly sure that none of it actually shows through the opacity of the acrylic paint, I do think that it seems to add a new brightness to the paintings. The high colour of the Hessian on the sides of these immaculately painted objects casts a reflection on the wall and maybe that influences my perception of the colour, or maybe it’s simply the new colours that Blannin is using here that creates, for me, the impression of a change to a higher register or key.

Eva Berendes, Untitled, 2012, steel, brass. lacquer, 220 x 90 x 60 cm, image by courtesy of & Model

Eva Berendes, Untitled, 2012, steel, brass. lacquer, 220 x 90 x 60 cm, image by courtesy of the artist

The imposing sculptural work of Eva Berendes and Liadin Cooke take up most of the ground floor of this show so I spend some time with them on my way out of the exhibition.

Berendes Untitled sculpture in lacquered steel and brass reminds me of a screen and functions like one in this space by dividing the room in half diagonally, yet it counters such a purpose in that it’s “see through”. I think of it as a decorative screen that neither decorates nor provides privacy: an attractive object that counters its own suggested utility.

Cooke’s large scale relief in felt and Perspex entitled Housement provokes similar contradictions, being imposing, weighty, sculptural in scale whilst also fragile, soft and ephemeral in material and colour. It simultaneously affirms and denies its own materiality.

Liadin Cooke, Housement, 2010, Felt, Perspex, 100 x 200 x 21.5cm. Image by courtesy of the Artist

Liadin Cooke, Housement, 2010, Felt, Perspex, 100 x 200 x 21.5cm. Image by courtesy of the Artist

All the works in this show can be situated in relation to the Constructivist tradition in which Marlow Moss was a worthy participant, but it’s a critical relationship, questioning and perhaps even extending it. Modernisms keep renewing themselves by continually criticising their own foundations. I suspect that new modernisms will continue to find inspiration in their chequered pasts, and often by re-evaluating the contributions of particular individuals and their contexts.

 

Conversations Around Marlow Moss continues at &Model until 18 July and Parallel Lives: Marlow Moss and Claude Cahoun, continues at LeedsArtGallery until 7 September 2014.

 

 

[1] Lucy Howarth The Lonely Radical

[2] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature, 1979

 

Somewhat Abstract at Nottingham Contemporary

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The exhibition Somewhat Abstract, drawn from The Arts Council’s national collection, on view at Nottingham Contemporary until 29 June 2014, is abstract to varying degrees, and in a variety of ways. After all, both the following statements hold true, “all art is abstract” and “there is no such thing as abstract art”. Hence, the show’s curator, Alex Farquharson, can say of abstract art that it “is many things, if it can be said to exist at all”.

In the gallery notes we get an excellent discussion of the multiple relationships to the abstract characterised in the show (see fig 1), from work that is downright figurative but that either “verges on the abstract” or that “could not have been made without the knowledge of it” to the work of proponents of ‘pure’ abstraction like Kenneth Martin. There’s the suggestion that even the exemplars of abstraction like Anthony Caro, Bridget Riley and John Hoyland, are more connected to the ‘real world’ than we might once have allowed. I find this argument to be much more convincing in relation to Hepworth, Clough and Paolozzi than I do for Caro, Riley and Hoyland. The reference to landscape made for Hoyland’s magnificent Red Over Yellow, 18.9.73, seems somewhat spurious. The point being made is that the most abstract art may be more figurative than we think and that the old distinction between abstraction and figuration is no longer relevant. Certainly there’s a strong case for seeing ‘nature’ in the most abstract of works, if more in the sense of “the pattern that connects” to quote Gregory Bateson [1]; or in Bridget Riley’s own words: “I draw from nature, I work with nature, although in completely new terms. For me nature is not landscape, but the dynamism of visual forces – an event rather than an appearance”[2]. So whilst there is a deep connection with nature, the work doesn’t become ‘figurative’, as Riley goes on to say: “These forces can only be tackled by treating colour and form as ultimate identities, freeing them from all descriptive or functional roles.”

Fig.1 Relationships to abstraction

Fig.1 Relationships to abstraction

There are also works that specifically reference abstraction, a relatively new phenomenon in my book, because whilst there have always been “paintings of paintings” and references to art of the past, the paradoxical referencing of a class seems to me to be a postmodern invention. Its power comes from a deliberate confusion of logical types.  Abstract or non-representational art’s claim to the status of autonomous object means that it now becomes grist for the mill of representation, leading to the paradoxical position of art that is abstract by being non-abstract, and vice versa. Keith Coventry‘s CrackCity series here is a brilliant example of this. What, at first sight, look like appropriations of Kazimir Malevich‘s white on white paintings, turn out to be representations of the footprints of South London tower blocks, a critical comment on the failure of modernism at the social level, the design of tower blocks clearly sharing in the heritage of Malevich and Russian Constructivism, ending not in utopia but in dysfunction and ugliness.

Perhaps this failure was reflected in the choice by artists such as Kenneth Martin, of a specifically non-utopian abstract art. (Martin preferred the word ‘construction’ which he stated was “the opposite of abstraction”.[3])

Viewing Kenneth Martin's Endless Configuration, 1964, oil on board. (My own snapshot)

Viewing Kenneth Martin’s Endless Configuration, 1964, oil on board. (My own snapshot)

The paintings of Tomma Abts, one of the new generation of  abstract artists, recall the constructivist tradition. The contemporary resurgence of abstraction in painting and sculpture is acknowledged in the gallery notes, finding a distinct contrast between the abstract art of the middle half of the twentieth century and that of today, the mid century version being “associated with boldness of scale, conception and execution” (check out the John Hoyland) as opposed to the vulnerability of the more recent return. In Abts’ painting Heit, the scale is modest and the form looks carefully arrived at through multiple iterations. I see it from a distance and could have continued walking past without really seeing it because it absolutely doesn’t “grab my attention”. It is unassuming, reticent even, and it is only as I deliberately get closer to look at it that it discloses itself. Even then, one of its fascinating qualities is the white line that bisects the painting vertically about a third of the way in from the right. It reads like another of the lines on the painting’s surface, in fact hovering above the other lines in a space that projects outward, whilst being clearly the result of placing two stretchers almost together. The presence of the line (I am tempted to see it as a reference to a Barnett Newman ‘zip’) is in fact an absence, like the Lacanian “absent centre” of the subject.

Tomma Abts, Heit, 2011. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. Photo: Marcus Leith. Courtesy of greengrassi, London

Tomma Abts, Heit, 2011. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. Photo: Marcus Leith. Courtesy of greengrassi, London

The untitled painting here by Alexis Harding, is also modest in scale, without quite the intimacy of Abts, looks like it is in the process of decomposing, . The impression I have is that the materials have reacted with each other in an unstable way, the abstract grid becoming wonky, out of control in the centre, now resembling a figurative, almost cartoon-like, rendering of a disintegrating net. It’s a wonderful painting and seems to reverse the more familiar sequence of events in which a realistic image becomes increasingly “abstracted”. Here the abstract image becomes figuration.

Alexis Harding, Untitled, 1995, oil and gloss on canvas. Image by courtesy of Mummery + Schnelle

Alexis Harding, Untitled, 1995, oil and gloss on canvas. Image by courtesy of Mummery + Schnelle

There’s a strange abstract/figurative relationship in Daniel Sinsel‘s beautifully executed Untitled, where the more realistic the image the more abstract it appears. Perhaps this is the result of the close harmony of form and content, a flattened figure-of-eight arrangement of a piece of cloth, resembling so much the formal, literal, ontology of a painting: two-dimensional, motionless, fabric.

Daniel Sinsel, Untitled, 2012. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. (c) the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

Daniel Sinsel, Untitled, 2012. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. (c) the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

My friend suggests that, with so many outstanding works here, it’s difficult to find one that “stands out”. However, for me, the star of the show is Bridget Riley’s 1962 black and white painting, Movement in Squares. I keep coming back to it for another look, and even back at home much later, I can’t get it out of my head (a non-optical kind of after-image).  In viewing this painting I start to become aware of my own movement in the gallery space, attempting to find a position from which to really see this thing and to experience it. The nearest analogy I can find is that of music when it is ‘heard’ not just aurally but when the vibrations are also felt, physically, in the body. Here, seeing is somehow also felt in the body. I have a physical sensation approaching motion sickness (except it’s pleasurable), and observing the reactions of others around me, I sense I am not alone in this. Now, this painting does seem to ‘grab attention’ but it also has amazing subtlety that I fear could be lost in first impressions alone. It’s too easy to let the attention first be ‘grabbed’ and then to allow it to be distracted with something else. This painting deserves prolonged attention. And it’s only then that its nuances are realised. It’s not just that studying the execution of it I note that the nails fixing the board to the support are just visible, protruding slightly above the surface, or that the earlier drawing marks shine around the blocks of black paint, those are mere details, it’s the way the structure takes on different emphases, and even that the squares of black and white start to look like multiple kinds of grey. In fact, now I feel sure that I am seeing colours, yellows greens and then reds and violets, in the pulsating ‘mid’ section (more or less along the golden mean), where the squares become narrow rectangles. I have the strong sense that colours are generated, issuing from the painting into the space in front of it. Admittedly they are faint, like a diffused light, only just perceptible. I absolutely cannot get this from looking at the reproduction, only from standing at a certain point in front of the painting itself. Then, I doubt myself; this subjective experience must indeed be so subjective that it is actually entirely imaginary. So I check it out with someone else, who agrees that they are also seeing colours.

Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares, 1962. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London (c) Bridget Riley 2014. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London

Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares, 1962. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London (c) Bridget Riley 2014. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London

The experience of looking becomes the experience of doubting my senses and then of starting to become conscious of my own process of ‘map making’, at the point just before my own linguistic abstractions start to come into play, which they do almost immediately and I get into a conversation with myself about what’s going on. At this second stage, I am a further step removed from direct experience, commenting upon it and adding meanings. These are my own processes of abstracting: the abstractions of thought.

This exhibition brings to awareness the many uses of the word, ‘abstract’, in art, in thought and in life. It’s as visually interesting as its scope is ambitious, and I know I will be revisiting it many times.

Artists include Tomma Abts, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, David Batchelor, Karla Black, Peter Blake, Zarina Bhimji, Anthony Caro, Helen Chadwick, Prunella Clough, Richard Deacon, Jeremy Deller, Barry Flanagan, Elizabeth Frink, Gilbert and George, Barbara Hepworth, Yoko Ono, Eduardo Paolozzi, Bridget Riley, Walter Sickert, Wolfgang Tillmans, Mark Wallinger, Cathy Wilkes and Rachel Whiteread.

 


Notes:

[1] See Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature, A Necessary Unity (1979)

[2] From The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley, Collected Writings 1965 – 2009, edited by Robert Kudielka, p 110

[3] See Kenneth Martin: Construction from Within, in The Tradition of  Constructivism, edited by Stephen Bann 1974, reprinted 1990

Rachael Macarthur paintings in the Meditations show at Pluspace

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I posted recently about the excellent exhibition Meditations curated by Lisa Denyer and Matthew Macaulay at Pluspace, Coventry, showing paintings by Karl Bielik, Lisa Denyer, Rachael Macarthur, Matthew Macaulay, Sarah McNulty, Phoebe Mitchell, Joe Packer and Melanie Russell, on until 7 July. I said little then about four charming paintings on paper by Rachael Macarthur, and I cannot resist returning now to say more about them.

2013-06-11 13.13.00

On entering the gallery space it is Macarthur’s paintings that I come to first, and to begin with I don’t really know what to make of them. Mostly I perceive them as figure on a ground paintings, particularly the first two, Tabula Rasa and Voyages Grand, but also to a lesser degree the others, and whilst I find the overall colour of each piece attractive, there is something about the figures that I find, if not ugly, then certainly awkward.  Is it perhaps that they seem inchoate or even malformed? As I get into a conversation with myself about what they are I realise that I am enjoying them a lot, and it occurs to me that the slight awkwardness prevents them from veering into the territory of the “merely decorative”. They could be experiments in form, the drawing looking like it came from the inside out, as if the shapes evolved from within the painting process rather than being imposed from the outside by the artist’s hand.

Tabula Rasa, looks like a red/terracotta ground was laid down first and then an image was allowed to generate itself almost unconsciously by applying brushstrokes, lighter in tone than the ground and in impasto, towards the centre of the paper, resulting in an abstract portrait. It could be a head in ¾ view.  I can imagine the artist working, holding the paper in one hand and painting with the other, or perhaps resting the paper on the floor or a table and rotating it as she works. Believing I can see finger prints along the left hand edge reinforces this imagined scenario.

Rachael Macarthur, Tabula Rasa, 2013, acrylic on paper. Image by courtesy of the artist

Rachael Macarthur, Tabula Rasa, 2013, acrylic on paper. Image by courtesy of the artist

The painting is audaciously simple, yet any more work on it would be too much, it would become something else, and the purity of the image would be lost. Similarly, to transcribe it into paint on canvas or into a larger scale would be to lose the spontaneity and directness that seems to come so easily in this format.

In Voyages Grand Macarthur appears to have followed a similar method, an image painted atop a layered ground. This time the central image, a rounded triangular figure is darker than the light blue/green ground that it is difficult not to read as sea or sky…

Rachael Macarthur, Voyages Grand, 2013, acrylic on paper. Image by courtesy of the artist

Rachael Macarthur, Voyages Grand, 2013, acrylic on paper. Image by courtesy of the artist

…except that it is so self evidently paint, no effort being made to specifically describe sea or sky. The association is in the colour and perhaps in the way the light shines through it like sunlight from behind storm clouds.

In comparison with Tabula Rasa the central shape, also made up of impasto brush strokes, this time in grey, and concentric, whereas it is eccentric in Tabular Rasa, appears to float. Both of these are pictures, yet it is unclear what specifically they are pictures of, and I think it is the attempt to work them out that both gives pleasure to the viewer and at the same time creates a certain amount of discomfort. It’s a bit like waking from a dream and vainly trying to recall it. Parts of it come back for a moment and then are gone again. Or to stretch the analogy further I could say that attempting to make sense of these pictures is like attempting to interpret a dream. Gregory Bateson describes dreams as “bits and pieces of the stuff of which we are made. The non-objective stuff” pointing out that “the dream contains no label to tell us what it is about” likening it to “an old manuscript or letter that has lost its beginning and end, and the historian has to guess what it’s all about and who wrote it and when – from inside it”. In this sense I think these pictures have a dream like quality and didn’t Freud identify dreams as “the royal road to the unconscious”?

The third painting Keep Your Shadow is arguably more complex than the first two, in that the one central figure is replaced with a cluster of figures and there is overlapping and containing of figures one over another or one within another. The figures seem to be the result of applied colours being allowed to find their own boundaries rather than drawing shapes that are then “coloured in”.

In both Keep Your Shadow and Split Mimic, there is more ambiguity between figure and ground than there is in the first two pictures. In Split Mimic an indeterminate green ground, looking more like thin air than solid mass, supports a solid looking ochre “V” at the lower edge. Above it, or rather behind it, a red figure emerges appearing to stand within the space rendered by the green coloured ground. And then in front of everything else a swarm of outlined shapes, or perhaps a school as they are vaguely reminiscent of fish, hovers, seemingly in motion, progressing from left to right.

Split Mimic

Rachael Macarthur, Split Mimic; 2013, acrylic on paper. Image by courtesy of the artist

In relation to this picture, it is easier to describe the relationships between the various elements than it is to describe what those elements are, again recalling Bateson on dreams saying that “The dream elaborates on the relationship but does not identify the things that are related.” Aren’t we back in that distinction between process and content?

In another of my lives I sometimes lead groups in guided fantasy, and I have learned that this works well when I stay out of content, engaging only in process instructions. For example, if I instruct a group to “in your imagination, find a safe place to rest, paying attention to what you see hear and feel in that safe place” each member of the group will supply their own content. Some people will imagine themselves on a beach in the warm sun, and even then all those beaches will have different features, others will be indoors somewhere and others may imagine themselves in the countryside, the supplied content differing with each individual. If I make the mistake of indulging in content the experience will be impaired. Say in a further instruction I suggest they feel the warmth of the sun, the fantasy will be broken for all those whose safe place was indoors and their experience will be diminished.

Of course, in making these parallels I am speaking metaphorically about the experience of looking at these paintings. I am not saying that the same thing is going on, and I am not even sure that my speculation throws any light on the experience, though I do think that, at the risk of lapsing into anti-intellectualism, it has some affinity with the idea expressed in the exhibition notes, of presenting paintings that are supposed to be “meditated on and enjoyed with the senses” rather than understood.

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)

(Bateson quotes are from Steps to an Ecology of Mind by Gregory Bateson, University of Chicago Press, 1972, 2000)

The Empiricism of Michael Kidner: Dreams of the World Order

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I have written before about two approaches to making an abstract painting. We could call one of them ‘dialogical’: the artist enters a conversation with the materials in a state of ‘not knowing’ or with only a vague idea of what s/he is going to paint. The process becomes one of responding to previous ‘moves’, most of the decisions about the work being made during its production. The other strategy is pre-planned, with decisions being made before any paint is applied to a support. If the first is in danger of becoming ‘automatic writing’ the second may suffer from being too predictable. Perhaps they correspond to what Michael Kidner referred to as “the gestural approach”, which to him seemed “foreign to Western tradition” and lacked the possibility to develop, as opposed to the “preconceived image” which he thought “seems contrived”. Instead of either he proposed an empiricism of “imagery through optics” stating that “whereas a painting conceived in two colours can fairly easily be predicated in the mind’s eye, the addition of a third colour makes this impossible. The work necessarily becomes empirical.”

At Michael Kidner, Dreams of the World Order – Early Paintings at Flowers Gallery until 20 October 2012, this empiricism is evidenced in the relationship between paintings shown in the downstairs galleries and between those paintings and the wonderful (preparatory?) works on paper that are shown upstairs.

The exhibition explores four of Kidner’s sub-themes: After Image, Stripe, Moirè and Wave, described in the catalogue as “progressive experiments with optical effects and rational procedures, inspired by his preoccupation with how space, pattern and form function” and explaining that “a year after Kidner’s death in 2009, a number of rolled up paintings were discovered in his Hampstead Hill Gardens studio. These have now been re-united with this iconic body of work”. Many of the works on view in this exhibition are being shown for the first time.

It is a real treat being able to see them together, and to discover that some of the works on paper are double-sided (thank you to the show’s curator Amie Conway for demonstrating this).

One of the paintings I am particularly impressed by today is Circle after Image, 1959-60. Seeing an after image presented simultaneously below the image is a strange contradiction, the equivalent of an oxymoron like “objectively subjective”, and caught in this contradiction I am made aware of the temporal dimension of viewing a painting, and of vision in general. The after image is there represented by the artist yet as I view it, after about 20 seconds, I cannot help but project my own after image of the upper half of the canvas into the lower half.

Circle after Image 1959-60, Oil on canvas, 151.5 x 124.5 cm / 59¾ x 49¼ in, AFG 42498, ©The Estate of Michael Kidner, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

I feel sure that Slavoj Zizek had something different in mind when he said that the ethical duty of the modern artist is to confront us with “not objective reality but the objectively subjective” though it does seem to apply. It is almost as if there is a double constructivism at play here, the paintings themselves being situated within that tradition, that also produce a keen awareness in the viewer of the part s/he plays in constructing visual reality.

Seeing the smaller after image paintings on paper in the upstairs gallery gives an insight into Kidner’s empirical working method, yet I hesitate to label them ‘preparatory’ because they provide specific experiences that are similar but different to the larger painting, and highly interesting and enjoyable in their own right.

A painting for which I find no preparatory works, unless perhaps it should be grouped in the “towards moire” category is Raindrops, 1960, a wonderfully chaotic yet finely ordered painting.

Raindrops 1960, Oil on canvas, 97 x 122 cm / 38¼ x 48 in, AFG 42486, ©The Estate of Michael Kidner, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

The clear circular motif seems to break down on prolonged viewing, and then as I notice the complementary coloured squares I realise that this too is based on after images, and indeed the ‘figures’ becoming unstable is in part due to my own after images that the painting provokes. There is also a small painting on paper entitled Moving Green from this same period that explores a similar theme. The after images do seem to pulsate and to move and there is also something ‘moving’ (in the emotional sense) about seeing them. I note my involuntary sigh that signals a change of state as I look at these beautiful paintings, yet my cognitive mind is an equal partner in the experience.

To my mind the work in this exhibition is proof, if proof were needed, that a rational, systematic (empirical rather than pre-conceived) approach to abstraction can result in works that are both emotionally charged and intellectually interesting. It could even be said that Kidner combines the opposing traditions of expressionism and constructivism. Although he criticised abstract expressionism for its “assault on the unconscious” there is something of Rothko’s feeling for colour in these paintings. Yet there is no mysticism or ‘spirituality’ here, even though there is Grace in the sense of the term that (following Aldous Huxley) systems thinker Gregory Bateson used of “integrating conscious and unconscious minds”.

(All images by courtesy of Flowers Gallery. My Zizek quote is taken from How to Read Lacan, chapter 4, my Bateson quote is taken from Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Part II and all my Kidner quotes are taken from the exhibition catalogue.)

Chris Baker and Natalie Dower in “Double Vision”

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The Double Vision show at Lion and Lamb Gallery, Hoxton has a lot to keep going back for, and I have at least one other trip planned before it closes on 14 July 2012.

Two paintings I want to see again are Natalie Dower‘s Fast Track Through 44 Points and Metan by Chris Baker. Both paintings seem to position themselves in a continuing relation to Modernism, as opposed to a break with it, and I guess this may be true of all of the paintings on show here. Maybe this is to state the obvious, it’s abstract art after all. But Modernism breaks down into a number of traditions even when we are within the general term ‘abstraction’.

Chris Baker seems to draw from many of those traditions, and I am not always entirely sure that they are ‘abstract’ as figurative elements sometimes find their way in, though not so with Metan.  Is the title Old English? Others of his titles are similar. Could it be that the paintings reference an outmoded language, one that has lost its original meaning and can be plundered now for new ones?

It “draws from” quite literally, the lines seem excavated from a less than unified ground, or alternatively it is created by filling in the negative spaces allowing the linear structure to emerge. It is double in that it presents a strong figure/ground contrast, the light lattice like structure being figure against the dark ‘background’ that is actually ‘foreground’.  It is also double in terms of the divided space, the structure bisecting the canvas down and across the middle (more or less) as well as in numerous other ways. The structure looks arrived at through trial and error, like a form trying to get out of the otherwise monochrome surface, and in getting out it bends the space, so that the bottom half recedes, giving the appearance of horizontality, whereas the top half extends upwards giving a vertical appearance. The bottom half of the structure could be the shadow of the top half if the lines corresponded, which they don’t so that interpretation is discarded, but then it reasserts itself, only to be discarded, it’s a cycle, a system, in a way.

Chris Baker, Metan, oil on canvas, 75 x 60cm, image by courtesy of Lion & Lamb Gallery

I situate Natalie Dower’s paintings within the tradition of Constructivism and more specifically Systems art. One of the many things I appreciate about that approach is the unpredictable and un-work-out-able results that can be generated by logical means, or a pre-determined path. The great systems thinker Gregory Bateson’s question: “What pattern connects the crab to the oyster and the orchid to the primrose and all the four of them to me, and me to you?” seems to resonate with Dower’s aesthetic investigations, based as they are on the abstract pattern that connects all things. Mel Gooding recently said of her: “Like her ‘Systems’ comrades, Dower has worked in the knowledge that all nature – from the spiralling mechanics of the galaxies to the growth of a snail’s shell and the branching of a plum-tree – is governed by mathematical rules”. So when I look at the wonderful Fast track Through 44 points, I know that it is ordered by mathematical rules, I just don’t quite know what they are.

Natalie Dower, “Fast Track Through 44 Points”, 2008, oil on panel, 29 x 29cm, image by courtesy of Lion & Lamb Gallery

I approach it a bit like I might a puzzle, attempting to work out what is going on, except that I don’t care much for puzzles whereas I do care a lot for this painting and paintings of this kind. Possibly the title helps to solve it, though it could be a diversion. I am sure that the organisation of the line and points through which it passes as it journeys about the surface is not random, but I am unable to determine the rules for it. As I study the construction I feel sure that the ordering principle is staring me in the face but I just can’t see it. I realise that this may be saying a lot more about me and my slowness to catch on, than about the painting! Again the ‘figures’ (the bars and lines) look like they are the consequence of filling in the spaces with black, so that it is difficult to decide which are the positive and which the negative  shape, though I think we would agree that we read the black as space and the lighter tones as structure, until we don’t. The support is shaped, therefore some of the bars are ‘real’ rather than drawn. I like the difference between the constructed edges and the drawn edges, and that the image extends beyond the confines of the square, confounding its identity as image and asserting its constructed-ness.

These are wonderful things to view, and I am looking forward to making another visit soon.

The other artists in this exhibition are: Dominic Beattie / Isha Bøhling / Ian Bottle / Katrina Blannin/ Alice Browne / Simon Callery / Keith Coventry / Tom Hackney / Jumpei Kinoshita / Hannah Knox / John McLean/ Sarah McNulty / Neil Mendock / Mali Morris/ Jost Münster / Selma Parlour / Geoffrey Rigden / Dan Roach / Danny Rolph / David Ryan / Estelle Thompson / Julian Wakelin.

On sequence dancing and learning to learn

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At the Blackpool Sequence Dance Festival 2011, in the Empress Ballroom of the Winter Gardens, attempting to learn brand new sequence dances, with a large group of people, I found it very difficult. It was wonderful and I loved it, especially as others took pity on us and helped us out, yet I really struggled to pick up 16 bars of steps in half an hour.

I could see many people, 20 years my senior and more, finding it quite easy to do what seemed an almost impossible task to me. What was it that made us different?

Maybe we could put it down to learning styles: this is not my favoured way of learning, I would rather read instructions first or have them explained to me in an environment where I could ask lots of questions, and then slowly piece the whole together part by part. I also seemed to suffer from ‘performance pressure’ that may have been absent in a smaller group or on my own.

It was possibly David Kolb that introduced the notion of learning styles, along the lines of: learning has a cycle of four stages and though all stages are required we may have a preference for a certain stage more than others. I have the impression that Honey and Mumford‘s learning styles are more or less the same as Kolb’s, but with more accessible labels, so we have Activist, Reflector, Theorist and Pragmatist styles. One implication of the theory is that we learn best when our own style is adequately catered for, Activists and Pragmatists preferring to learn by doing, Reflectors and Theorists favouring a more thinking approach etc. Learning professionals closer to NLP might use the distinctions Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic as learning styles.

But isn’t this somewhat limiting? “I don’t learn that way” “It’s not my learning style” could easily become an excuse to prevent further learning. Isn’t it rather that what is needed is learning at a higher level?

Gregory Bateson proposed that there are levels of learning, where Learning 0 is an habitual automatic response to a given stimulus, Learning 1 is a trial and error process of adaptation to the given environment, Learning 2 is a process of corrective change in the set of alternatives from which choices are made at level 1, and Learning 3 (which rarely, if ever occurs) is about our whole process of forming, exchanging and losing level 2 habits.

Learning how to learn in the situation I described above would be Learning 2, which would then mean that on future occasions I could participate more successfully in the trial and error process of learning the new dances in the large group in only half an hour. One way to do this would be to model the strategies of other dancers/learners, which would I suggest also be a more sophisticated use of NLP.

Written by Andy Parkinson

November 10, 2011 at 8:00 am