patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Michael Simpson

Nine Painters, Syson Gallery, Nottingham

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I must have been nine or ten years old when my dad took me to the visitor centre at the yet-to-be-built nuclear power station at Heysham, Lancs, where artist impressions of the plant were accompanied by highly optimistic commentary related via head-phones. Many years later, in 1989, I saw the plant with my own eyes and it bore little resemblance to my memory of those artist’s impressions. There was a marked contrast between what was promised and what was delivered, certainly from an aesthetic point of view. There had also by now been a huge shift in public reception of nuclear power in general. After all, there had been the Chernobyl disaster and the Three Mile Island accident. Early optimism had turned into disappointment and foreboding. There was also the feeling that malevolent forces were at work (reinforced by the blatant lies that had been told about the economics of nuclear power around the time that Thatcher’s government privatised the industry). And maybe this narrative reflects another, the rise and demise of modernism.

Sean Cummins, Operator, 2016, acrylic on canvas, image by courtesy of the artist

Sean Cummins’s large painting Operator, (2016), here at Nine Painters, at Syson Gallery, Nottingham, recalls late modernist colour field abstraction and pop art, in this pared down representation of an operator in a nuclear power plant. However, this is not a portrait, the schematic representation of the face providing little by way of individual detail. And my interpretation of the sparse forms as the interior of the operations room of a power station arises as much from the title as from specific clues in the painting. Nevertheless, it does seem to posit both optimism, or rather a nostalgia for that optimism, and foreboding. Whilst the painting is all high coloured surface, there is also a sense of something awry beneath the surface.

I think something similar is happening in Steph Goodger’s wonderful paintings of coloured flashes on dark grounds that give way only gradually to figurative detail, and there is specific detail here, almost as if they could be portraits… of places. At first I find the attractiveness of the paint handling and the colour fascinating in themselves, seeing these as abstract paintings, until it dawns on me that these are night-time scenes of the makeshift homes of refugees in Calais.

Steph Goodger, The Twilight Kingdom III, 2017, oil on canvas. Image by courtesy of the artist

There are also paintings here by Goodger of boxcars. They are even more like portraits, I hear another viewer comment on imagining that all steam engines and carriages have faces and blaming it on Thomas the Tank Engine. At least I am not on my own.  I hear someone else remark “oh a steam train, how nice!” I don’t know how long it takes for me to realise that boxcars have had a more sinister use than for freight transport. The Nazis used them to transport prisoners to the concentration camps, and it occurs to me that these paintings allude to this something awry beneath the surface. The observed details are very specific to each “portrait” but the suggestions of human cargoes are general, creating a vague sense of unease.

There are undercurrents in the minimal figuration of Michael Simpson. A tiny painting, entitled Squint, (2016-17), is cleverly situated very high on the wall in the main gallery, and could have been cut out of his large painting that won the John Moores prize last year. In that painting a step ladder is pictured beneath a leper squint. In medieval times a squint was a small opening in the wall of a church that provided people with leprosy a way of peering in to see and hear the sermon without touching any of the congregation. Here at Syson gallery we are in want of a ladder. One of the judges of the 2016 John Moores Painting Prize, the artist Ansel Krut, speaking of the winning painting said that the artist “uses an almost minimal vocabulary to open up a world of great sympathetic imagination” and that the painting “touches on the nature of silence, on distance and on exclusion. But most importantly, it touches on the privileges of looking.” The same could be said of the tiny Squint painting on display here, and also of the equally tiny paintings of single cupboards or safes (?) with their doors open.

Installation snapshot of Michael Simpson, Squint, 2016-17, oil on canvas, my photo

Another of the John Moores judges, Richard Davey, is the curator of Nine Painters, here bringing together a rather disparate group of painters from within the UK, associated with either the John Moores prize or the Royal Academy. I asked him “why these nine?” his answer was close to “why not?”

Other figurative painters here include Gabriella Boyd whose colourful works on paper may also appear at first-sight to be abstract celebrations of colour and pattern and only on further viewing do erotic undercurrents seem suggested. (I worry slightly when I say this, in case it’s just me.)

Richard Kenton Webb also approaches abstraction, in that figurative motifs resembling parts of musical instruments, in greens, yellows and blues, rendered with a chalky, high-pigment oil paint made by the artist, float in a shallow, almost non-figurative space (there are clouds and a hill). Five big paintings in horizontal, almost panoramic format, are stacked one above another creating a wall of alluring colour. The set is entitled The Five Senses, (2015-17), each painting named individually, Smell, Taste, Touch, Sound and Sight, in keeping with Webb’s interest in synaesthesia. The paintings are impossible to photograph, and absolutely have to be seen for real in an exhibition space, highlighting the artist’s insistence that digital viewing has become a commonplace, against which, going to a gallery and looking at physical works has become more interesting. The digital represents our boring experience of the everyday, which is contradicted by the committed observation that painting engenders and that evokes all the senses at once.

Stephen ChambersThe Perfect Nude 1, (2010), is clearly a figurative painting but his command of colour makes a formalist reading of his work at least tempting. A temptation to which the curator has almost succumbed by placing it next to an abstract painting Eleventh Hour Squared 3, by Selma Parlour. Both artists make extensive use of cadmium yellow, for Chambers it is the floor upon which the nude rests, for Parlour it is more ambiguous. It could describe a section of wall above what could be read as a window, or rather the top left corner of a window, or maybe instead, a quadrant of a pyramid in bird’s eye view. Alternatively, it’s a yellow truncated triangle in an arrangement of coloured geometric or architectural shapes on a flat surface.

Selma Parlour, Eleventh Hour Squared 3, 2016, oil on linen. Image by courtesy of the artist

Reading Eleventh Hour Squared 3, (2016), as a flat surface becomes more difficult the more that shadows are perceived and the more the luminous blue square is perceived as sky through a window pane flanked by a brown frame, the primary image that I keep settling upon, until the pyramid reasserts itself. But then I am puzzled by the sense of this being a corner or a quadrant. In what context might one see only this part of either a pyramid or a window? Photography comes to mind, the camera frame characteristically cropping objects in this way. And there is something about the colour quality, thinly applied hues, with the white surface behind giving them brilliance, which is reminiscent of a photograph or a computer screen. The paint application, transparent films of oil paint, with no visible traces of the artist’s toil, also lends itself to this interpretation. If photography is “drawing with light”, then Parlour’s paintings are closely akin to photography. However, they are ultimately abstract because figurative interpretations, like the ones suggested above never quite work enough to arrive at definite conclusions. What might have been perceived as a window frame probably works best if seen as a picture of a painting, this one.

Similarly in Cloud II, (2017), although there is more of a depicted space, a kind of stage within which objects are situated, the objects are like paintings within a painting. In Parlour’s work it is as if the hint at referential content is always self-referential, always bringing us back to the painting itself.

Selma Parlour, Cloud II, 2017, oil on linen, image by courtesy of the artist

There may also be references to the history of abstraction, specifically post-painterly abstraction, or colour field painting, if not in the scale of the works, then in the artist’s choice of technique, in which the method of production is hidden by the method of production itself, the labour painted out or sublimated.

The paintings here by Eleanor Bartlett, on the other hand, wear their labour on their sleeves. Here we get much more painterly abstraction in robust materials like tar and metal paint on canvas that also looks heavy-duty. Their physicality is underscored by the repudiation of colour other than the natural hues and tones of the materials. Yet the small pieces Untitled #35 and #36, (2016), have a contradictory delicate quality, as if the loose geometric forms, rough squares or rectangles cut off along one edge, resembling pits in the ground, have transformed alchemically into precious metals.

Eleanor Bartlett, Untitled #35 and #36, 2015, tar and metal paint on canvas. Image by courtesy of the artist

These two paintings are positioned right next to the tiny diptych by Michael Simpson of open-doored cupboards or safes, bringing to attention the formal similarities of the two pairs of paintings, even though they arise from quite different traditions and concerns. Curator Richard Davey seems fond of doing this, also placing larger paintings by Bartlett so they flank one of Goodger’s boxcars. Again, formal resonances between otherwise very different works are made apparent.

installation snapshot, Untitled paintings by Eleanor Bartlett, tar and metal paint on canvas, 2015, either side of Steph Goodger, Boxcar II, 2014, oil on canvas, my photo

If in Bartlett’s paintings base materials may sometimes appear to transform into precious metals it is in no way because the materials have to become form in order to achieve this. No, these paintings are physical presentations of the material displayed for its own sake. If they become something else they always do so whilst also staying resolutely material.

In Mali Morris‘s abstract paintings, although there is clear enjoyment of the materiality of the paint, it’s de-materialisation into colour and light is more important. And if the physical stuff of paint is transmuted into light, the artist’s toil is transformed into play. The paintings are joyous, fun even, but in the same way that in dance, much effort is expended in making it look easy.

Mali Morris, Together, 2011, acrylic on canvas, image by courtesy of the artist

In Together (2011), a central cruciform shape is suggested by placing rectangles of differing colours in the four corners of the canvas, over a gestural ground in magenta that also seems to float above other grounds or layers of colour, some darker and some lighter than itself. The four rectangles are flatly painted but semi-transparent. There is no doubt that they are resting upon the magenta, having been painted after it was set down. However, because they are painted in different colours they appear to occupy different planes, no longer simply floating above a ground that also appears to float, they enliven the whole space in a complex way that is difficult to describe in words. It is easier to point to it and say “this rectangle seems to occupy a space in front of this one”. The sensation of luminous colours creates a strange two-dimensional space that is anything but flat.

The artist Terry Greene recently brought my attention to a quote by Helen Frankenthaler where she says “it is light that counts above everything. Not coloured light, but colour that gives off light – radiance” and this seems highly applicable to the paintings of Mali Morris.

Mali Morris, Long Crossing (Six/Sixteen), 2012-15. Acrylic on canvas. Image by courtesy of the artist

On the opposite wall, another painting here by Morris is Long Crossing (Six/Sixteen) (2012-2015), in which a loose zig-zagging line in maroon or alizarin crimson tacks horizontally over a scumbled ground of reds, oranges and pinks and in front of it, a further line, in yellow, zig-zags a vertical pathway ending with a left-pointing arrow head. I think I know which elements came first and last, and whilst I don’t really know this, my imagined sequencing of the gestures is based on visual evidence. The yellow line/marks, like the rectangles in Together, are clearly the top layer, the rest of the action taking place behind them. But colour doesn’t behave itself. Visual space and time can disagree and colour gestures that took place earlier can project forward as if they had been made later. The ground upon which actions are based can push forward for re-examination like the surfacing of long forgotten presuppositions. Time is required for events that were background to foreground themselves and return, and for certain colours or gestures to cluster together to form temporary figures like the central S shape that forms a figure of its own only until it gives way to other gestalts. These spatial shifts and temporary alliances of parts, that never compete with the whole, cannot be perceived simultaneously even though they are always already there, and even when I have viewed the painting for a very long time new gestalts can still surprise me. I am reminded of that wonderful line in that poem by John Donne where, punning on his own name, he says “when thou hast done, thou hast not done, for I have more”. In Morris’s work I continually have this sense that there is always more, that done deals are never once and for all, that decisions are continual “decidings”, not nouns but verbs, as if our future is not necessarily closed and could yet be re-imagined, which leaves me with a certain optimism, even if only for the duration of my visit.

Nine Painters, curated by Richard Davey, continues at Syson Gallery until 6 May

It includes paintings by: Eleanor Bartlett, Gabriella BoydStephen Chambers, Sean Cummins, Steph GoodgerRichard Kenton Webb, Mali Morris, Selma Parlour, and Michael Simpson