abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Noam Chomsky

Black Country at Lion and Lamb Gallery

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Traveling this weekend from the Black Country, that beloved place in the Midlands, famous for its industrial heritage and the regional dialect, where I really did hear someone say “how am ya?” and see a children’s colouring book on sale for £2.99 entitled Colouring the Black Country (Lets See How Colourful We Can Make It), to the Lion and Lamb Gallery exhibition Black Country, curated by Nancy Cogswell, seems an odd enough co-incidence to mention it. In the exhibition the term has a more psychological meaning to do with memory, uncertainty, the dark unconscious, the buried and the hidden.

Two paintings by Gillian Lawler seem to reference dystopian science-fiction terrains where one might imagine that mining has resulted in not just subsidence but actual fissures in the earth’s surface. It’s just conceivable that they could depict real landscapes, the naturalistic style suggests as much, rather in the manner of certain Surrealist painters. And something approaching an updated Surrealism is the effect that the paintings have. They elicit a sense of unease, they disconcert, but only slightly, which somehow makes them doubly disconcerting. In relation to anxiety I have the impression that “less is more” especially seems to apply. There is something unsettling in attempting to work out whether the scene portrayed is “real” or fictional, whether to relate to the image as something abstract or representational and then the difference between the two becomes conflated.

Then I discover that the title of one of these paintings Centralia is named after a mining town in the USA that the artist plans to visit in November. The town has been burning underground since the 70s, built over coal mining deposits, sinkholes have appeared, creating fissures with thick dark smoke. All the inhabitants were urged to leave and only a few people still live there.

Gillian Lawler, Centralia, 40 x 40 cm, oil on canvas, 2012. Image by courtesy of the artist

Gillian Lawler, Centralia, 40 x 40 cm, oil on canvas, 2012. Image by courtesy of the artist

Nancy Cogswell’s wonderful painting Dopellganger II is similarly “both abstract and figurative”. I know that’s true of any painting (the famous Maurice Denis quote immediately springs to mind: “It should be remembered that a picture—before being a warhorse, a nude, or an anecdote of some sort—is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order”) but I have a heightened sense of it here. The horizontal bands of bright colour makes it highly reminiscent of an abstract painting somewhere between colour field painting and hard edge abstraction, and the precision of the representational drawing is close to being undermined by the paint drips and runs that become visible on close inspection.  This uncertainty at the formal level is mirrored in the content. Is it just me, or is there something eerie about a partially opened drawer, especially when you can’t see into it? C S Lewis seemed to be onto this in the children’s classic story The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Narnia could be accessed only if the wardrobe door was left ajar. As a child I remember finding this truly frightening. But what to make of two drawers open in mirror opposition? Some form of communication seems to be taking place, but thwarted if ever it had been possible in the first place. I get the sense of hidden content that remains hidden even in the attempt to communicate it to another.

Doppelganger II

Nancy Cogswell, Doppelganger II, 2012, mixed media on linen, 145x120cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Julia Hamilton’s paintings here also have an eerie quality. Both are black and white pictures of objects, one is a jar with a lid, a ginger jar perhaps, and the other is a jug or a chamber pot that has the blurred look a photographed object would have if it was shaken on exposure. And there is an analogue-photographic feel to them, one showing more evidence of paintwork, drips etc than the other. I am particular impressed by the way the image seems to form out of nothing or nowhere, as if it had been latent, in the canvas, and somehow ‘developed’ using paint.


Julia Hamilton, Ajar 2012, oil on canvas, 70 x 50 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

And that development could be seen as almost magical, a revealing of whats beneath, much as the surrealists attempted with automatic writing, painting as communication with the unconscious.

Julia Hamilton, Séance 2012, oil on canvas, 70 x 50 cm

Julia Hamilton, Séance 2012, oil on canvas, 70 x 50 cm

Chris Hanlon’s paintings are enigmatic, engendering a sense of something lost or forgotten, or covered over. Untitled, a picture of a curtain drawn around an object, looks funereal, like it might be hiding a coffin, or maybe only a theatre stage. It is familiar enough to be recognised as a curtain, yet unfamiliar, mysterious because we cannot access what might be covered. But then that’s what curtains do, they obscure. Here we have painting as a window on an obscured reality. We wait for it to draw back to enlighten, but it remains closed.

Cave, is a beautifully precise rendering of a fragment of cloth or paper, a crumpled surface that may once have ‘housed’ something else, a gift perhaps, but the thing it covered has now gone, so peering beneath it reveals nothing.

Christopher Hanlon, Cave, 2011

Christopher Hanlon, Cave 2011, oil on canvas laid over board, 40x25cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Richard Hoey’s Rent covers and reveals at the same time. Behind a slit in glitter encrusted fabric, is a photo of a crucifix, a combination of sexual and religious symbolism, opposing the sacred to the profane as well as questioning that opposition, whereas Reece Jones process driven, dark drawings of places reminiscent of cinematic locations carry an intense and absorbing psychological charge.

Rob Brown examines the way virtual reality penetrates the ‘real’. In Aldeburgh Arch and Chrome Limbo high colour abstract forms are combined with the hyper-real to create places that look plausible as illusionistic spaces, but that could only exist in painting, imagination or in digital media. They are artificial environments built on a sub structure of the natural, that for me act like metaphors for what in Chomsky’s terminology we might call “surface structure” and “deep structure”, abstractions in the sense of (continuing with the Chomskian language) generalisations, deletions and distortions, that serve to conceal the “deep structure” of directly sensed information. For Brown this is “akin to our relationship with dreams and the slippage that occurs when rationalising the unattainable and uninhabitable”.

aldeburgh arch

Robert Brown, Aldeburgh Arch, Acrylic on MDF, 40x38cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

What’s beneath the surface might be unpalatable “truth”, what’s on the surface is glossy and artificial. Painting here reveals its own propensity to decorate, to gloss over, to construct falsehoods. Indeed the children’s colouring book title may be apposite  after all: in colouring the black country, let’s see how colourful we can make it!

Black Country, is showing at The Lion and Lamb Gallery, Fanshaw Street, London until 5 October 2013.

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.