patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘meditation

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.

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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)

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.

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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)