patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘John Hoyland

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

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Meditations at Pluspace Coventry

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I have, from time to time, complained on this blog about how rare it is to see abstract paintings outside London. Not today! Meditations, a lively show of paintings by eight artists “working within a predominantly non-representational vocabulary”: Karl Bielik, Lisa Denyer, Rachael Macarthur, Matthew Macaulay, Sarah McNulty, Phoebe Mitchell, Joe Packer, Melanie Russell is showing at Pluspace, smack bang in the middle of Coventry city centre.

The exhibition notes quote John Hoyland “Paintings are there to be experienced, they are events. They are also to be meditated on and to be enjoyed by the senses, to be felt through the eye. Paintings are not to be reasoned with, they are not to be understood, they are to be recognized.”

Meditations is a fair title for a show of paintings that are more to be “meditated on” than “reasoned with”, more to be “enjoyed” and “felt with the eye” than “understood”. It could equally have been entitled Experiences or Events as Matthew Macaulay acknowledges in his Collection of Events, a series of oil painting on panels of sometimes slightly differing size or shape and leaned against the wall, mostly in sequence with one panel placed in front of two others partially obscuring them, and one placed partly behind another.

Matthew Macaulay, Collection of Events. 2013, Oil on Panel

Matthew Macaulay, Collection of Events. 2013, oil on panel, image by courtesy of the artist.

I find that I am “reading” the work a panel at a time, from left to right as I would a text, so themes of language and communication come to mind, and then I am recalling that excellent article by Alan Gouk where he disputes the notion (borrowed from Lacan) that painting is “structured like a language”. This particular painting may not be structured like a language, but it is structured very much like a sentence. The syntax could be rearranged and it would have a different “meaning”, the word best defined according to the well known systems dictum: “the meaning of a communication is the response you receive, rather than the intention you had for it”.

There is something urban about Macaulay’s painting. It reminds me of how a shared space like a city centre, whilst being consciously built, because there are multiple players involved also develops unconsciously, in a way that almost resembles organic growth, evolving and changing. In our conversation, Macaulay emphasises the temporary nature of the gallery/studio space. This temporariness seems to be echoed in both city centre and painting. Many of the shops are empty with whited out windows and even the ways in which the whitening is applied seems to carry through to Macaulay’s painting: gesture and movement becoming object, for contemplation.

DSCF3392

installation shot courtesy of Matthew Macaulay

For me, the most meditative of the works here is the tiny diptych by Lisa Denyer, Untitled 2013, (seen far left in the above installation shot), where at normal distance I “feel with my eye”, each panel, as if each one is presented to each of my eyes, such that the negative line of the wall space between them seems to project forward and glow. At least that’s what happens as I view, with a light trance state beginning to develop. The other painting by Denyer (far right in the installation shot) evokes night time sky and constellations, the dark ground at the lower edge suggesting ground as in ‘floor’, with one undefined colour/form anchored to it on the left hand side whilst another towards the top right appears to float. There is more directed accident in these two paintings than in Denyer’s more geometric works, but the landscape associations are a constant.

In the three paintings by Melanie Russell, the associations appear to be more about food, they look edible. Macaulay comments that they have some of the attractiveness of a sweet shop and I agree. We mean it only in a good way, but it could be taken to be a bad thing. I am reminded of my own thoughts towards a painting I was working on recently where the support was a chocolate box lid. We used to use the label “chocolate box”  to mean sweetly decorative, trivial or sickly. Russell seems to be playing with this in making paintings that are structured like a dessert.

Melanie Russell, Massive Meringue Pie, 2013, oil on panel, image by courtesy of Pluspace

Melanie Russell, Massive Meringue Pie, 2013, oil on panel, image by courtesy of Pluspace

Playful they may be, but they are not lacking in seriousness, operating perhaps as visual metaphors for the tension between indulgence and discipline, freedom vs control, unconscious vs conscious, or to use Stephen Gilligan‘s distinction, “essen” (to eat) and “fressen” (to pig out).

I wonder if these connect to a further distinction we could make in regard to abstract painting between the analogue and the digital. I think I have in mind something similar to David Sweet‘s “rough finish of 20th century canvases” vs ” the uninterrupted texture of photography and screen based media”. Whilst much of what is on show here seems to relate more to the former than to the latter I could speculatively suggest that there is at play an attempt to integrate the two. Might the title of one of Phoebe Mitchel’s paintings, Smoke Screen, even allude to this: the uninterrupted texture of the screen, itself a product of gestural ‘smoke’?

smoke screen

Phoebe Mitchell, Smoke Screen, 2013, oil on polyester. Image by courtesy of Pluspace

Her Untitled 2013, is even more nearly a monochrome than Smoke Screen, yet is itself comprised of multiple semi-transparent layers of colour. Sarah McNulty’s Green T, also very nearly moves into the territory of the monochrome yet, far from being unmodulated, is made up of circling gestures, similar to the whiting out of shop windows alluded to earlier.

Her Portrait II, like Joe Packer’s Vorticist. D. Baby, vaguely resembles a portraiture of sorts, taking me back to the quote with which I started, Hoyland saying that paintings, like people, are to be recognized rather than understood.

Rachel Macarthur’s four oil paintings on paper are informal, gestural, arriving-at-form in the process of paint application, and there is gesture and painterly dialogue in the three wonderful paintings by Karl Bielik. Bite has a trio of irregular white triangles that zig zag horizontally across the centre not unlike clothes on a washing line or bunting, their rhythm echoed by other more or less triangular shapes in green above and below, between them creating eccentric negative shapes that push forward, shifting alternately between figure and ground.

Karl Bielik, Spy, 2013, oil on panel. Image by courtesy of Pluspace

Karl Bielik, Spy, 2013, oil on panel. Image by courtesy of Pluspace

Spy looks like the support could once have been the lid of an old school desk, the hinges are still attached and the ground might be the distressed varnish upon which I imagine that Bielik has painted his main motif, a series of lozenge shapes in a net formation. I have the sense that I am looking through it to the picture plane and also looking through it to memories of lifting my school desk to create cover for an illicit conversation with a friend.

Meditating on paintings can elicit this kind of age regression, bringing to mind memories and associations that may have been long forgotten, and in this evocation of youth, amongst these new abstract paintings (all less than than three years old and most of them made in 2013) I get the impression that abstraction could still be in its infancy, as if Bielik’s Curtains that cleverly close the show also, at the same time suggest future openings.

Meditations is showing at Pluspace, The Meter Room, 58 -64 Corporation Street, Coventry, until 7 July 2013. (Open Friday – Saturday, 11am – 5pm or by appointment by emailing matthew@pluspace .com)

Art in the University workplace

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I have written from time to time about art in the workplace, keen as I have become, to see good paintings there, pleased on the odd occasion that I find some, and fascinated by the responses of workers.

Why I haven’t thought before about art on display in those particular workplaces called universities I don’t know, especially as there are often galleries associated with them, and also that the buildings are sometimes open to the public. In Nottingham the Lakeside Gallery is part of the University of Nottingham and The Bonington Gallery is in the School of Art & Design at  Nottingham Trent University. It is not so long since I visited the Whitworth, at Manchester University and the other day I was introduced to the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery in the Parkinson Building of Leeds University.

They have some lovely abstract paintings, including work by John Hoyland, Terry Frost (one that I think is particularly good), Victor Vaserely, Victor Pasmore and Trevor Bell.

I have many times been on the campus of Warwick University but never realised that there was art to be seen there, not only at the Mead Gallery, but also on the walls in the University buildings. Click here for an excellent introductory online exhibition.

Constructivism casts its shadow in Leeds

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At last I got to see the show Construction and its Shadow at Leeds Art Gallery, that had appeared on the Abstraktion blog a few weeks ago.

constructivism and systems

Constructivism and its Shadow at Leeds Art Gallery, May 2011 - finishing soon

When I mentioned to the museum attendant how good I thought it was she seemed pleased that I liked it (we all like to get a ‘like’ every now and again). She said that most people who comment say that it’s rubbish.

What? Most of this work is ‘old’, the exhibition is a reminder of a tradition. Surely, the fact of abstraction has lost its ability to shock, surprise and elicit “a child could have done that” by now. Especially this work, most of it is quite complex and I would have thought difficult to dismiss. Well, I have been wrong before!

In my continuing quest to see abstract art outside of London, I had a good day in Leeds. At the Constructivism exhibition I was particularly interested in the work by Jeffrey Steele. Later, I noticed that at the seminar I missed, about the influence of the British Constructivist and Systems groups, Jeffrey Steele had been speaking and I wished I had been there.

Jeffrey Steele

Jeffrey Steele, SG 1 62, Oil on Canvas

In the permanent collection of contemporary art (post 1880 I think was their definition) I saw a Robyn Denny that I haven’t seen for ages. When I saw it, I remembered hat I had seen it before, at Leeds many years ago. I also imagined that, back then I saw a big John Hoyland painting, but if I did it wasn’t there today. (Just checking the catalogue I downloaded from the gallery website, there is a Hoyland in their collection. I would have liked to see that)

There were three impressive John Walker paintings, as well as some by Terry Frost (not his best), and one by Gillian Ayres (Helios 1990, not my favourite).

There were some interesting paintings in the other collections, I particularly enjoyed looking at an Ivon Hitchens landscape.

Then, visiting the cafe was an art experience itself, not the food necessarily (which was good and reasonably priced), but the environment of the Tiled Hall

tiles

Tiled Hall 1

tiles etc

Tiled Hall 2

Floor

Tiled Hall 3

tile hall ceiling

Tiled Hall ceiling

tile hall ceiling 2

well, this is definitely the ceiling

On the way out I did wonder whether you could see too much Henry Moore (!)

Leeds

Henry Moore figure outside Leeds Art Gallery, looking away from the gallery

Henry Moore Leeds

Henry Moore figure outside Leeds Art Gallery, looking towards the gallery

perhaps not.

Leeds, Henry Moore Institute

Henry Moore Institute

We did go into the Henry Moore Institute attached to the Gallery (nice building) and looked at interesting photographs and sculptural pieces by Jean-Marc Bustamante, but in a hurry, because it was very nearly 5pm and they were getting ready to close.