abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Juan Bolivar

Zero Tolerance at Lion and Lamb Gallery

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Borrowing its title from the terminology of manufacture and law enforcement, Zero Tolerance at Lion and Lamb Gallery, focuses on the extent to which three contemporary painters, Juan Bolivar, Nick Dawes and Katrina Blannin, employ systematic methodologies, or strict sets of rules, to construct their work. For me, it forms an urgent investigation into an aesthetic, highly relevant to contemporary life, that forms an alternative to the romantic/expressionistic tendency. I think systems aesthetics are being proposed here in other ways too.

Juan Bolivar, Anvil, 2013, acrylic on canvas, Perspex and sprayed MDF, 33 x 28 cm

Juan Bolivar, Anvil, 2013, acrylic on canvas, Perspex and sprayed MDF, 33 x 28 cm. Image by courtesy of Lion and Lamb Gallery

In Juan Bolivar‘s painting, Anvil, we have a system of signs, that remind me of a set of nested Russian Dolls, the outer one being the perspex framing device that functions both literally, as a transparent cover for the painting, and also as a signal to read the work as participating in the tradition of constructive art. The painting housed by the perspex frame looks like a postcard of a Mondrian, taped to a flat surface. We are presented with a construction containing a representation of a representation of a nonrepresentational painting. I think it is more paradoxical than ironic: a sign that reads “this is not a sign”.

Nick Dawes’ paintings are sign systems in a more literal sense. He appropriates ordinary road signs as subverted content in the style of the Readymade. Crossings features three gloss black “Level Crossing” signs on a matt black triangular canvas, as much recalling the “Give Way” sign as it does also the shaped canvases of late Modernist abstract paintings by artists such as Kenneth Noland or Frank Stella. Formalist painting becomes content as much as it also becomes analogous with popular cultural design. I am tempted to say that here a formalist abstraction has become a representation of a road sign that resembles a formalist abstract painting. If Clement Greenberg proposed that Modernist painting, in privileging form over content, could be defined as “the imitation of imitation as process”, I wonder whether in Post-Modernist abstraction the process becomes rather “the imitation of the imitation of imitation”.

Nick Dawes, Crossings, 2012, gloss houshold paint on acrylic on canvas, 213.5cm x 249cm x 8.5cm

Nick Dawes, Crossings, 2012, gloss houshold paint on acrylic on canvas, 213.5cm x 249cm x 8.5cm. Image by courtesy of Lion and Lamb Gallery

Both Bolivar’s and Dawe’s paintings, can be situated in relation to wider systems, whether high art or popular culture, just as they can to that other sense of the word “system” as in “systematic”, i.e. following a predetermined path, a procedure. And this is true also of Katrina Blannin‘s work in, I think,  a different way. Clearly, Blannin is participating in that other tradition of abstraction that is connected more to Constructivism than to American Abstract Expressionism, the tradition that includes the British Constructionists and the Systems Group where the sense of “system” is a mathematical one. However there is also yet another sense of the word, that I want to explore, at least speculatively, for a moment, in relation to Blannin’s work and that’s the sense of “system” used in cybernetics, where a central concept is that of “feedback”, the process in which information about the past or present influences the same phenomenon in the present or future, forming a chain of cause-and-effect, a circuit or loop: output becomes input.

Viewing Three-piece Suite: Red/White (Double Hexad: Contracted, Root and Expanded + 123/321 Tonal Rotation with Shift), I have an experience close to ecstasy, and I deliberately choose the word for it’s inappropriateness when considering a piece that is mathematical, logical, rational. One of the things that I tend to do whenever looking at work of this kind is to count things. Before ever reading the title on the notes sheet I have counted the system or set of canvases that forms the triptych and then counted the triangular motifs that form the expanded system, noting how the white triangles are contained by a red line and the light grey ones by a black line leaving the dark grey ones unable to be highlighted, thus more readily becoming ‘ground’ or negative space against which the other triangles become ‘figure’. I have noted how the three tone/colours are arranged so that the same arrangement of lines (that also differs across each canvas because the widths of each canvas vary) is “coloured in” such that no colour/shape is repeated horizontally, in other words, there’s a tonal rotation with a shift. So, I’m doing all this counting and working out the logic of the piece and it might all seem so rational, cerebral, cognitive, yet I am using the word “ecstasy” that seems to belong more to our experiences of feeling and emotion.

Katrina Blannin, Three-piece Suite: Red/White (Double Hexad: Contracted, Root and Expanded + 123/321 Tonal Rotation with Shift), 2014, acrylic on linen, tryptich: 50 x 50 cm, 50 x 60cm and 50 x 70 cm

Katrina Blannin, Three-piece Suite: Red/White (Double Hexad: Contracted, Root and Expanded + 123/321 Tonal Rotation with Shift), 2014, acrylic on linen, tryptich: 50 x 50 cm, 50 x 60cm and 50 x 70 cm. Image by courtesy of Lion and Lamb Gallery

But after a few moments of looking (and it does require a few moments, and real looking is also necessary, a mere glance will not do justice to the piece) I find that my emotional state has been affected, I have experienced a shift in state that approaches something of what I think we mean by a word like ecstasy. Where else does this happen? Doesn’t counting and emotion get conflated in our experience of anything that has rhythm? I am thinking of music and dance, where mathematical relationships become transformed into emotion. And there’s another context that I think is even closer to what’s happening to me in front of this painting and that’s the context of hypnosis where a trance might be induced through counting.

I could speculate that it’s the tessellating, the shifting of figure and ground, that leads to this shift of state-of-mind, (or emotional state), and this is where I come back to the concept of the “feedback loop”. Surely, it’s not really the object that tessellates at all. It’s a result of what the viewer does in relation to the object. At any one time, I am likely to see a different tessellation than the one you see. The object hasn’t changed, yet I am seeing something different to what you are seeing. It’s this system of object/viewer that Blannin’s paintings emphasise for me, and I wonder if what’s going on is that output becomes input becomes output in this continuous feedback loop and I experience this as fascinating, and even trance inducing.

In all these ways it seems to me that Zero Tolerance is an invitation to “think system”. Unfortunately, my brief review here is a bit late and the show has only a few more days to run. You can catch it at Lion and Lamb Gallery until 22 Feb.


Lion and Lamb Gallery Summer Saloon Show

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

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

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


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

Fiona Rae, Party Time Is Coming

My snap of Fiona Rae, Party Time Is Coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The show continues until September 1st.

Summer Saloon!

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