abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘John Piper

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.

More from Double Vision

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The Double Vision show at Lion and Lamb Gallery, curated by Katrina Blannin and showing until 14 July 2012 is an excellent selection of paintings by abstract artists working today. I enjoyed every work in this show, so excuse me if I come back to it more than once, to comment about another painting or two.

My snapshot of Geoffrey Rigden’s painting “Erik” 2012, 30.5 x 30.5 cm

Geoffrey Rigden’s Erik reminds me of a painting I saw at the Hepworth Wakefield last year by John Piper: Forms on a White Ground, 1935. It may simply be that they both contain ‘forms on a white ground’ and that the forms could be people, even whilst so clearly not being. The connection is no doubt an entirely personal one. Seeing this Rigden painting triggered my experience of the John Piper, of how ‘big’ the little painting had seemed to be, and how strange. I love the informality of the geometry, its ‘painterliness’ and the playing with space. My eye gets taken into those spaces in the centre and the figure (three rhombus shapes combined) on the left appears to be in front of the one on the right (again, not really a figure so much as four black shapes that my eye groups together and interprets as a figure), that ochre square in the bottom left is definitely in front of the red/brown square, until suddenly the white space in the middle becomes figure, softer and slightly curved, which for less than a second might be a female figure, or a face. And then my eye rests on the odd little cluster of triangular shapes towards the top centre of the painting which could be a painting all of its own, a painting within the painting perhaps, and then the upper pointing triangle takes me up and around the whole again. I have no sense that this is “abstracted from” anything, yet it does have some connections to picture-making and composition that I think of as “figurative” even within the larger frame of abstraction.

I find less picture-making in the painting by Estelle Thompson.

My (poor) snapshot of Estelle Thompson’s “Look at Me Now and Here I Am”, 2011, Oil on Panel, 50 x 40 cm

I first saw paintings by Thompson at the Angel Row Gallery in Nottingham in 200o and I was so impressed by them that I could hardly stay away. I worked near there at the time, so visiting them became my regular lunchtime activity for the duration of the show. Those paintings were stripe paintings, quite spectacular, eliciting lots of optical excitation. They grabbed your attention in a way that the painting here does not. It is almost as if Thompson says “now I have done that successfully, what would its opposite be like?” this painting rewards my attention rather than grabbing it. It is double in that we very clearly have a top and a bottom “half”, there’s also the duality of black and white VS colour (black and white is a major sub current in this exhibition), or rather it seems to highlight how black and white behave as colours. The red, black and white “half” of the painting looks harder to me than the bottom “half” of yellow/orange and a peach/flesh colour. The fleshy area also looks softer than any other section in the way the paint is applied too. This seems to contribute to my sometimes seeing the bottom “half” of the painting as sitting forward of the top “half” and sometimes seeing the other harder shapes as framing the soft fleshy area. And then the black and red seem to join forces with the yellow/orange to create a form in distinction to the white and flesh colour that become its ground. I hope it is not too grand to say that when looking at this painting I find that I am thinking first about what a strange thing this is but then about what a strange thing I am, that I can find many different ways of seeing such a “simple” arrangement of colour/shapes.

Does the title Look at Me Now and I am Here refer to this conversation I am having with the painting and with myself? I am reminded of that cartoon by Ad Reinhardt where a viewer of an abstract painting in an art gallery is mockingly asking “what does this represent?” only to be answered by the painting “what do you represent?” but the experience is more gentle than that. It is more like that greeting of West African origin that I came across in an NLP workshops with Robert Dilts, where one person says “I see you” and the other replies “I am here”. Until we are seen by another we do not yet exist, and that seems to be what’s going on here. This painting exists when I pay attention to it, and it rewards my continued looking with visual pleasure.

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

Mondrian and Nicholson

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At The Painting Space I found out about a very exciting exhibition planned for next year ( February to May 2012) at the Courtauld Gallery, London, exploring the relationship between two important early modernist, abstract painters  Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson.

The Painting Space post reminds us that in the 1930s they were leading forces of avant-garde art in Europe. Maybe a re-view of their work and the patterns that connect them will help us to think again about abstraction, its tradition and its continued relevance. In my opinion, the project that they started (non) represents a rich vein for current and future artists to tap.

One of the aspects of Ross Wolfe‘s recent guest post that I particularly appreciated was his celebration of the work of Mondrian, Malevich, Rodchenko and other early avant-garde artists. Ben Nicholson was clearly influenced by these artists and he contributed massively to a broadening of awareness of abstract art in the UK.  Earlier this year, seeing one of his paintings, as well as a Winifred Nicholson, a John Piper, and Barbara Hepworth‘s sculptures  alongside a magnificent Mondrian at the Hepworth in Context  display at the Hepworth, Wakefield, highlighted for me just how wonderful some of the abstract art of the 1930s could be.

The Hepworth Wakefield Installation shot, image by courtesy Hepworth, Wakefield

Written by Andy Parkinson

September 13, 2011 at 8:00 am

Hepworth Wakefield!

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We had just under an hour to visit the Hepworth,

on Bank Holiday Monday…not enough time, especially as there was no parking (today only, I understand – though the parking at the site does look limited) and finding our way to the park & ride (good idea, but only provided for the first two weekends) delayed us further. We got the last bus of the day.

last bus

Park & Ride

Hepworth Wakefield

A magnificent building, I liked the outside, but the inside wow! A great space, in which the sculpture looked just right. In his blog, Tim Garratt says it’s “16000  square feet making it the largest exhibition space outside London”. I found that difficult to believe. It didn’t feel big. Perhaps that’s because each gallery made such good use of the space, it was uncluttered. Hence, viewing the work was a delight.

I was surprised by how many paintings were on view, and I particularly enjoyed the gallery exploring the context in which Hepworth worked. The Piet Mondrian painting was striking, as were the Ben Nicholsons, looking particularly good in this space. Two paintings that surprised me by their brilliance were Quarante Huit Quai d’Auteil by Winifred Nicholson and Forms on a White Ground by John Piper. I hate John Pipers architecture in landscape semi-abstract things, but this one really got me. He was a much better abstractionist than I had realised. The little paintings in this show had a monumentality way beyond their actual size – and whilst I know that’s such a cliché, it is how I experienced them. They absolutely deserve a second, third and fourth look.

In the Garden (misty wet with rain) there’s Heather and Ivan Morison’s The Black Cloud

black cloud

Black Cloud with photographers

I am yours

I am yours and Black Cloud

It is a magnificent space and I will be returning very soon.

hepworth purchase

No method, no guru, no catalogue, I hurriedly scribbled down the details of the paintings that had interested me the most

(Van Morrison fans will have noticed that the mention of Heather and Ivan got me remembering lines from In the Garden)