abstract art, a systems view

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Other Objects at Lion and Lamb Gallery

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The new exhibition at the Lion and Lamb Gallery entitled Other Objects, curated by Caterina Lewis and Gwennan Thomas, includes paintings and objects by Karl Bielik, Alice Cretney, Vincent Hawkins, Caterina Lewis, Wendy McLean, Gwennan Thomas, and David Webb and is on show until 13 July.

According to the gallery notes, the works, whilst coming from varied places of logic around abstraction, at some point in their realisation share a notion of object and placing them in proximity to other objects, persons or spaces, new relationships emerge inviting us to look again. For me “object” and “relationship” are key words in any consideration of abstract painting, even though they tend to get used in contradictory ways: in abstraction the object (content) gives way to relationship (form), or conversely the relationship (to content) gives way to the autonomous object (form).

Foreground, Alice Cretney: installation, 2013. linoleum, acrylic paint, acetate, plaster, screws. dimensions variable. On wall: Wendy McLean: Wall, a foil, a distance, 2012, oil on cotton, 85 x 113 cm; and Karl Bielik: Widescreen, 2012, oil on linen, 35 x 27cm. Image by courtesy of Lion and Lamb Gallery.

Foreground, Alice Cretney: installation, 2013. linoleum, acrylic paint, acetate, plaster, screws. dimensions variable. On wall: Wendy McLean: Wall, a foil, a distance, 2012, oil on cotton, 85 x 113 cm; and Karl Bielik: Widescreen, 2012, oil on linen, 35 x 27cm. Image by courtesy of Lion and Lamb Gallery.

Stepping into the Lion and Lamb Gallery, in the back room of a London pub, and being a keen social dancer, I notice that the music being played in the pub, is a good jive tune, and letting slip my interest to Caterina Lewis, we reflect on the way that, in ballroom dancing, forms that were once derived from certain contents now operate independently of them. In Tango the hold, and head flick, may once have been related to the avoidance of the gaucho’s smell, or in old-time dancing the man placing his left hand firmly on his hip once had the purpose of keeping his sword out of the way. No longer wearing a sword, the male dancer continues to place his hand on his hip, the object has gone and only the relationship remains.

Alice Cretney’s sculptural ‘paintings’ are autonomous objects, their relationship to everyday objects is that they are ‘other’ in their “purposeless purposiveness” to borrow a phrase from Kant. The two-part installation here seems to offer two takes on painting’s rectangular picture plane, one that is three dimensional by virtue of being stacked and the other by being rolled. On the linoleum a set of painted gestural marks cannot compete with the one sweeping gesture of the roll itself, resulting in a curling ‘B’ motif drawn in space by the edge of the lino.

Behind it, the Wendy McLean painting, Wall, a foil, a distance, could be a picture of a graffitied wall, a painting of a painting, if it weren’t so immaterial, so veil-like, the marks that I thought were graffiti looking now more like vague objects in an undefined space, receding to a yellow stripe down the left hand edge, except that now the yellow springs forward to meet the surface. To make sense of it I compare it with other paintings in my head, and whilst the association doesn’t quite feel right because McLean’s space is less cubistic, it is Lyonel Feininger that keeps coming to mind, the way his architectural objects give way to light and space, so that in the end, that’s all there is.

The light and space in Karl Bielik’s Widescreen, is interesting too. First of all there’s the literal, three dimensional space of the distressed, buckled object that appears to have been left outside overnight, or for a few nights perhaps! There is something quite beautiful about it as object alone, before ever considering the relationships within the non-literal space of the picture. Isn’t there a tradition in Japanese ceramics of damaging the vessel during its making in order for it not to be too “perfect”?

Karl Bielik, Widescreen, 2012, oil on linen, 35 x 27cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Karl Bielik, Widescreen, 2012, oil on linen, 35 x 27cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Turning my attention to the picture, I notice that white pigment, having been pushed into the canvas rather than painted upon it, reflects light back at me from within the painting, or from behind the group of drawn gestures that seem to dance across the top of a hard rectangle or box, possibly the ‘widescreen’ of the title. Above the centre line all is movement and lightness, whereas below it is stability and weight. But not quite solid. Taking my cue from the title, I imagine I am seeing objects on the top of a TV, light reflected back from a wall behind it but also generated from the TV screen below. Not that it is a representation of such a scene, but only that it is similar in structure, relationship again rather than objects. And thinking structurally, I am also tempted to speculate on other binary opposites suggested in the “above and below” of that centre line, oppositions like analogue above the line and digital below the line, or organic vs artificial, or unbound vs contained, but in doing so I become aware that so much of seeing is also interpreting, and that in observing I am also projecting, quite likely confusing facture and fiction.

The other Karl Bielik object on show here, a painting entitled Net, is also capable of provoking allusions, whilst at the same time being strictly non-representational.

Karl Bielik, Net, 2013, oil on linen, 35 x 30cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Karl Bielik, Net, 2013, oil on linen, 35 x 30cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Here paint, applied and removed, in an amazing variety of ways for such a modestly sized piece, collaborates with the viewer to construct a rich and interesting planar space that is somehow both coherent and ambiguous. Drips on the uppermost surface become structure in the ‘background’ as the free play of the painting process interacts with the free play of viewing in order to create a kind of meaning, there may be projected content (it is a stage, a face or a mask), personal meanings, but more fundamentally it’s this attempting to assign meaning that becomes the meaning of the work, relationship again as opposed to objects.

Beilik’s pictures are dialogues, improvisations, having little idea at the beginning, of what the painting will become, he proceeds to lay down paint and then he responds to what happens, leading eventually to the crystallization of some image. Working on twenty or so paintings at any one time, he starts from the unknown and takes steps towards a constructed ‘known’, at some stage possibly writing a title, likely based on an association, on the wall beside one of the paintings being made. It’s all process:  ‘how’ rather than ‘what’, relationship rather than objects of content.

Caterina Lewis starts out with an image or ‘objects’ of content and empties them out during the painting process. We could use the expression “aesthetic reconstruction”. Quoting Henk Engel on Theo van Doesburg, Lewis and Thomas seem to allude both to the curation of the exhibition: the opening up of relationships between the objects on show, and to their own working methods:

In the aesthetic reconstruction…naturalism is breached. The object falls apart. the boundaries are abolished. A field of untied relationships opens up: relationships between parts of the object and parts of the environment.. but also with parts of other objects.

In Untitled (Yellow) Lewis seems to abolish the boundaries between objects as she wipes away previously applied paint, creating an absence, not so much ‘objects’ as an object, an exquisite surface.

Caterina Lewis, Untitled (yellow), 2012 oil on board, 51 x 40 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Caterina Lewis, Untitled (yellow), 2012
oil on board, 51 x 40 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

 It is difficult not to see a head, possibly of a religious figure, especially as light seems to emanate halo-like from the ‘face’, but then it could also be read as a torso, or as an arid  landscape, but these are mere vestiges of ‘objects’ that were her starting point ending up with a “field of untied relationships”.

Her more recent painting Collar seems less glossy than Untitled (Yellow), a sketchy surface that to me looks like it is painted on canvas, though in fact it is panel. The drawing is delicate, her pictorial strategy being to use precision and accuracy in the service of the indefinite: fields of relationships again, rather than objects of content, yet the painting itself becoming autonomous object.

The Gwennan Thomas paintings have a vagueness about them too that I find fascinating, and I have a similar experience as with the Bielik paintings of trying to find meanings and resorting in the end to supplying my own, hence becoming aware of the meaning-making process rather than the ‘objects’ of meaning. The oxymoron “precisely vague” seem to sum up the character of Untitled, 2012. The surface is the result of careful painting, and when I get up close I feel sure that the detailed modelling must dutifully represent something, but I can get no clue as to what it is. Possibly Greenberg’s definition of modernism: “the imitation of imitation as process” applies here.

GwennanThomas, Untitled, 2012, oil on MDF, 30 x 20cm

GwennanThomas, Untitled, 2012, oil on MDF, 30 x 20cm

I find only few associations in David Webb’s Untitled (Tusker), where a somewhat threatening (elephantine?) grey figure takes up most of the space defined by two ‘screens’ one in front of the grey form and one behind. I am surprised that the orange of the far screen and the blue/grey of the near screen allows the space to be read as three dimensional, but it does, at least until the orange pushes forward to assert itself as figure after all and two black diagonal lines prevent the grey form from continuing to make sense as something journeying between two screens. Now I am reading the shapes purely as shapes, the grey ones painted in two different ways the ‘body’ almost forming a pool of diluted paint in contrast to the heavier painted ‘head’ that is more opaque. The application of paint has produced a few minor splashes and there are small lighter painted marks towards the edges which aren’t so easy to see in a photograph (click to enlarge). They look like happy accidents at first but then I see them as carefully included, almost as if the painting has become a catalogue of painterly marks or relationships.

David Webb, Untitled (Tusker), 2013, acrylic on canvas, 46 x 61cm

David Webb, Untitled (Tusker), 2013, acrylic on canvas, 46 x 61cm

This painting is not flat, but it keeps becoming flat. It is a picture, but it sometimes makes more sense to think of it as a catalogue, or better an empirical investigation. There’s something of that in Vincent Hawkins works on card and paper.

Vincent Hawkins, Untitled, 2013, gouache on paper, dimensions variable, image by courtesy of the artist

Vincent Hawkins, Untitled, 2013, gouache on paper, dimensions variable, image by courtesy of the artist

Whilst they are constructions, they do appear to contain some figural associations, for example in Untitled 2013, some of the shapes and colours bring to mind clouds and boats rendered in a somewhat cartoon style. However, it is the careful folding of the paper to create a relief and the cutting out to create negative shapes that forms both their unique content and their objecthood. Like Cretney’s installation these abstractions are both painting and sculpture, or perhaps they are neither painting nor sculpture but other objects that, together with the other objects on show here invite us to look again and to think relationship over content. It could even be that such an invitation contains wisdom that reaches beyond the boundaries of the purely visual, the autonomous object, far from being hermetically sealed, maintaining a relatedness to other objects, to the world of the everyday.

All photographs by Lorna Milburn

The Henk Engel quote is from “Theo van Doesburg & The Destruction of Architectural Theory” in Constructing a New World; Van Doesburg & The International Avant-Garde, 2009, London, Tate Publishing, p38.

The Clement Greenberg quote is from “Modernist Painting”, in The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 4, Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p17.


At the Point of Gesture at the Lion and Lamb Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Image as a Fading Reality, Let The World Slip, Lion & Lamb Gallery

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Alfred Korzybski‘s famous saying “the map is not the territory” acts as a reminder of the slippage between reality and representation. What’s ‘out there’ is doubly filtered, first at the moment of perception and then again during the process of re-presenting it to ourselves and to others. Let the World Slip at Lion and Lamb Gallery seems to revel in that slippage, and in the ambiguity between abstraction and figuration. To varying degrees the painters in this exhibition seem to start out with re-presentation and then to get caught up in the means of re-presenting as its own end, until in some cases it would be difficult to reconnect to a reality beyond the painted object itself. Image becomes object as what is represented fades.

Some years ago I was driving on a busy motorway when I became aware of the lights of an aeroplane making its descent to a nearby airport, and for a moment I let the world slip just enough to be paying more attention to the lights above me than I was to the road, until the pipping of a car horn behind me brought me back to the real world, (it could have been worse). The Lion and Lamb Gallery is by contrast a safe place to allow the world to slip just enough to become fascinated by the way that the ‘fragile placement of translucent paint’ can both describe and divert.

Installation shot by courtesy of Lion & Lamb Gallery

The paintings that for me seem closest to description are those by Eleanor Moreton (also showing at Ceri Hand Gallery), in that the content is recognisable at a glance, Garland Dance for example is clearly a depiction of a maypole like dance. Yet it is also an image of an image. I don’t believe that I have ever seen a Garland Dance in real life, only ever in images. And isn’t the dance itself an image of country life or a of a particular conception of a social reality, now faded, kept alive only in images?

Simon Willems, curator of this show, presents meticulously rendered images that resemble snowglobe paperweights, or alien landscapes, or alien landscapes in paperweights: object becomes image becomes object, inner and outer worlds continuously alternating as they do in our minds eye.  I get a similar sense of to-ing and fro-ing between recognisable image and constructed reality in Thomas Hylander‘s paintings Playground (left  in above photo) and Mirror Ball, only in the Hylanders I am more aware of paint whereas in Willems it is the psychological construct, or fantasy, that I pay more attention to. Nevertheless, the paint in Hylander’s work seems to mirror those internal processes of recalling, forgetting, constructing, or as Noam Chomsky might have it deleting, distorting and generalizing.

Thomas Hylander, Mirror Ball, 2012, oil on linen, 30x20cm (mobile phone snapshot)

In Mirror Ball I think it is the nominalising process that the paint reflects. In language the movement of a verb can be frozen in a noun ( a nominalisation), for example, the verb ‘to reflect’ can become the noun ‘reflection’. What fascinates in a mirror ball is the glittering effect resulting from multiple reflections of small mirrors in movement. Freeze the movement and you lose the glitter. Hence the challenge for the still image to capture something of what only movement can produce.

In the charming gouache on paper by Mark Van Yetter it is paint as a metaphor for recollection that comes to mind, and that even in my memory place seems more permanent than action, though only slightly so in the painting where the transparency of the paint reminds me that all is in flux, even the semi permanence of objects or landscape. It might even be that the painted gestures are less fleeting than the objects portrayed.

Mark Van Yetter, Untitled 2012, Gouache on paper, 36x39cm, mobile phone snapshot

As I view, I recall a particular place, not the place re-presented here, but one very much like it that I used to visit as a child. It was so secluded that it was possible to remove clothes and go for a swim in the certainty that no one would see you. And from then, the event would exist only in memory. You could go back to the place and verify its continued existence but no evidence of the skinny dip would survive, only the memory of it, fragile and fleeting like the transparency of these painted layers.

This years John Moore’s Painting Prize winner Sarah Pickstone‘s Woolf, a portrait of Virginia Woolf in a London park also has some of these fleeting qualities and in Jo Chate‘s The Last Supper the distorting effect of memory seems prominent as layered paint seems to build multiple possible realities all contained in the finished piece which bears only a vague resemblance to its starting point, if indeed it ever started with the title’s theme. It seems just as likely that the title is the end point of an exploration that led to the vague resemblance, as if the image has found its way into reality rather than being a fading recollection of it.

Let The World Slip, an exhibition of paintings by Jo Chate, Thomas Hylander, Eleanor Moreton, Sarah Pickstone, Mark Van Yetter and Simon Willems is on show at Lion and Lamb Gallery, 46 Fanshaw Street, Hoxton, London until 9 December 2012.

Lion and Lamb, Shoreditch

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The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together…

Isaiah 11:6

Lion x Lamb, Bar x Gallery, who would  have thought it?

More later….


(P.S. I said it was in Shoreditch but actually the postal address puts it in Hoxton)

Written by Andy Parkinson

June 26, 2012 at 7:00 am

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Mondrian and dance

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Broadway Boogie Woogie, by Piet Mondrian is a clear reference to music and dance. Mondrian was a keen ballroom dancer, and some of his works are named after dances, for example Fox-Trot B, and Fox-Trot-Lozenge-Composition-with-Three-Black-Lines.

I read in one place at least the implication that he was a good dancer, for example that he practised dance steps in his studio and was known as ‘The Dancing Madonna’ in Holland. Then in another place:

He went shopping for painter’s smocks with Naum Gabo’s wife Miriam and danced with Peggy Guggenheim and Virginia Pevsner in the London jazz clubs. His love of jazz and dancing was well known, but Miriam recalled that he “was a terrible dancer… Virginia hated it and I hated it, we had to take turns dancing with him”.

In an article entitled Dancing with Mondrian By Annette Chauncy, published by The International Journal of the Arts in Society, she suggests that the paintings were possibly inspired by the dances, especially the Foxtrot, the Quickstep and the Tango.

I also found this little film clip entitled Mondrian and Dance at the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art, suggesting that the paintings ‘dance’ more than perhaps we thought.

Written by Andy Parkinson

January 17, 2012 at 8:45 am