patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘metaphor

William Scott at the Hepworth, Wakefield

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Isn’t  there something about still lives, or nature morte, that corresponds to painting itself? Their near two-dimensionality, the synthetic arrangement and the stillness seems to echo the characteristics of a completed painting. And they are already in a way “abstract”, emptied of narrative and even of nature, in that it is dead. Only in their relationship to the viewer, often as anticipated meal, do they still live.

Perhaps this is what Scott had in mind when he said that they “convey nothing. There is no meaning to them at all but they are a means to making a picture” and that his paintings were abstract “as a still life by Chardin is abstract”.

CR_0151

William Scott, Still Life with Candlestick, 1949-50, Private Collection, Copyright 2013 estate of William Scott, Image by courtesy estate of William Scott and The Hepworth, Wakefield.

Yet, without meaning they are also full of meanings, the table being an ancient metaphor for social life, and in the New Testament, for the kingdom of God. Scott’s paintings, nearly all still lives, on show at the Hepworth Wakefield until 29 September, even at their most abstract evoke other experiences ‘outside of themselves’ often employing straight forward sexual symbolism as in Still Life with Candlestick, 1949-50.

A phallic symbol works by visual pun, it’s a double image, and Scott uses double images in other ways too, a primary reading of a painting often giving way to secondary or tertiary ones.  As well as the purely formal reading, a still life could also easily be interpreted as a landscape or a figure. The magnificent Blue Abstract, 1959, winner of the John Moores Painting Prize that year, is a good example of this, where the still life quickly gives way to the purely formal, and then evokes a landscape. In an earlier painting The Harbour , 1952,  the formal arrangement of lines and colours is primary for me, becoming a representation of a harbour, itself already a symbol of shelter and nurture, and then becoming a reclining figure, recalling the bathing figure in Bonnard’s The Bath, of which Scott painted his own version, entitled White Reclining Nude, in 1956.

The Harbour, 1952

William Scott, The Harbour, 1952, Tate, Copyright 2013 estate of William Scott, Image by courtesy estate of William Scott and The Hepworth Wakefield

At the Hepworth show it is easy to see how the scale and simplification of the image increases through Scott’s career, almost always keeping the referent content of still life, figure or landscape, yet becoming increasingly abstract and universal.

William Scott, White, Sand and Ochre, 1960-1

William Scott, White, Sand and Ochre, 1960-1, Tate, copyright 2013 estate of William Scott, image by courtesy of the estate of William Scott and The Hepworth Wakefield.

Paintings like White, Sand and Ochre, and Still Life with Orange Note, as well as one of Scott’s latest paintings Orange Segments, remind me of the way that ‘pure’ colours refer to the outside world even in the names we give to them, and I experience a moment of confusion: “is orange a colour or a fruit?”

William Scott, Still Life with Orange Note, 1970

William Scott, Still Life with Orange Note, 1970, Collection Ulster Museum, National Museums Northern Ireland, copyright 2013 estate of William Scott, Image by courtesy of the estate of William Scott and The Hepworth Wakefield

I wonder if the more abstract they become the more they invite multiple references, but increasingly ambiguous, subjective ones. Patrick Heron referred to Scott’s work as an “intensely personal amalgam of the figurative and non-figurative” and Herbert Read said that in Scott’s more abstract work he found “a sensuousness and a potency of evocation that I find completely seductive”. Isn’t this what happens with abstraction, and the modernist search for the universal? The more universal the image, the more particulars can be projected onto it. For me, the legacy of modernism that remains urgent is the form or process and content distinction, as well as the recognition of how easily the distinction breaks down, because form is always content at the next higher logical level. The content “an orange”, at  at the next logical level is “a colour contained in a circle” in other words form, but at the next logical level that circular colour becomes content.

The most abstract paintings here are the ones from Scott’s Berlin Blues series, for me the highlight of the show, the blue forms becoming almost pure rhythm especially when each individual painting is seen as part of the larger whole of the series, (effectively achieved in the marvelous space of the Hepworth), blues pulsating against the whites of the ground creating after images that reverberate with the overall rhythm. Here, the associations are with music and dance, despite Scott’s denial that the blues of the title made any reference to “The Blues” explaining that it was named after the blue paint he discovered whilst in Berlin.

In this room and throughout the exhibition, the serial aspect of Scott’s method shows through, too much improvisation and imperfection to be systematic  but certainly series, according to Scott every one of his paintings was related to the one before either as a “continuation of a previous painting or… a reaction against it” and I get a strong sense of that here at the Hepworth. It is a wonderful exhibition and a timely reminder of the brilliance of Scott’s oeuvre.

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Long ago: Mali Morris at Angel Row Gallery Nottingham

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It was May 2002 and I was walking in Nottingham, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed the name ‘Mali Morris’. She had been one of my external tutors when I studied Fine Art at Nottingham Trent, many years earlier so I stopped in my tracks. An exhibition of her paintings was being advertised at The Angel Row Gallery (now replaced by Nottingham Contemporary). Around this time there had been a number of painting shows at this gallery that I liked (I thought then, and still do now, that painting is so much out of fashion, especially abstract painting, that it is difficult to see any, if you’re not in the capital at any rate).

What a show it was! Here are pictures of two of the painting that were on view

Mali Morris, Pale Yellow Curly Clearing 2001, Acrylic on Canvas, 61 x 77 cm, Image by courtesy of the artist

Mali Morris, Ripple 2000, Acrylic on Canvas, 21 x 41 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

I was expecting large paintings. For me, at that time, ‘abstract’ and ‘large’ tended to go together; it took me a while to realise that these two terms could be disconnected. These paintings gave me some good reasons why. Pale Yellow Curly Clearing, 2001 was the largest one in the show (there was one other with the same dimensions) and still a modest size at 61 x 77cm. They didn’t need to be any bigger, in fact part of their power (my perception of them was that they were powerful images, though on prolonged viewing they became something much too subtle for that word) was their smallness. They had an immediate appeal and they seemed to draw me in for closer inspection. It really felt like the paintings were exerting this power over me.

Every Autumn, near where I live I see kids jumping up or throwing sticks into horse chestnut trees. We think of the agency as being with the kids: they jump or throw. But year on year it’s different kids, same tress. Maybe in the system of tree-kids, it’s the tree that acts, putting out conkers each year always draws the kids up into the trees.

anyway I was drawn in, and when I got up close I found that simple though the images were they rewarded prolonged attention. The colours were doing something, but not in the sense of direct excitation, somehow it seemed indirect. They slowly unfolded, yet each one in a different way.

I chose the two above for contrast. Of course there are distinct similarities, you could say that the image is the same: monochromatic, with a circular shape against a ground, framed inside an almost square rectangle. And this would be loosely true for all the paintings that were in the exhibition. But look at the differences! Yellow and blue are very different in hue and tone. They do very different things. Yellow seems to expand, whereas blue seems to contract. The painting behave differently. In Pale Yellow Curly Clearing, and I think the title refers to the act of clearing away the paint to allow what’s underneath to show through, note how that particular way of placing, painting, clearing away, leads to a picture that behaves in that specific manner. Whereas, Ripple, 2001 ripples, and it was made by rippling, with a ripple or some such a comb-like instrument. And it’s just enough, any more and we would be looking at another painting, with another way of operating, and in each case this particular painting would have been lost.

Written by Andy Parkinson

July 26, 2011 at 7:28 am