patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘painting

Paintings by Susan Disley at HMS

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My ongoing quest to see abstract paintings north of London brings me today to Harrington Mill Studios in Long Eaton, where there are paintings by Susan Disley. There are also works by Rosie Kearton: photograms, etchings, collagraphs, related to walking in the landscape, very enjoyable, just that it’s the painting I have specifically come here to see.

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Like Kearton’s prints, Disley’s paintings are related to landscape, abstract landscapes perhaps, some more clearly connected to their starting point than others. It’s the ones that are the most ‘abstracted’ that interest me the most, pared down to almost no-thing, as if in a search for ultimate form.

Susan Disley is better known for her ceramics, and even if I had not known this I think I would still find something vessel-like in the forms she arrives at. Mr Blue Sky, shown in the installation shot above, has just three parts, a widened out, light blue “U” shape at bottom that is virtually impossible not to perceive as sea, but could also be read as a cup or similar container, cradling an earth-space that takes up most of the one meter square canvas, and a dark blue line at top that is probably the blue sky of the title. However, this blue strip is darker and heavier than sky. I find it slightly disconcerting.  Surely, in the normal scheme of things, light is up whereas dark/heavy is down. Here it is the other way around. The hint of threat contained in this inversion seems to create an element of seriousness without quite becoming angst. It’s abstract impressionism this, rather than expressionism (acknowledgements to Zak Braiterman for a novel application of this distinction). For the most part it is warmth and joy that the painting communicates, something like that feeling of well-being that comes over me on a hot sunny day. The central part of the painting, a muted earth colour, seems to reflect not just light but warmth back at the viewer.

Where the earth and light blue areas meet they form an indecisive edge, as if we can’t be sure where one ends and the other begins. In nature, boundary lines are fuzzy, but we go ahead and assign them anyway. According to George Lackoff and Mark Johnson, “When things are not clearly discrete or bounded, we still categorize them as such, e.g. mountains, street corners,hedges etc. Such ways of viewing physical phenomena are needed to satisfy certain purposes that we have: locating mountains, meeting on street corners,trimming hedges. Human purposes typically require us to impose artificial boundaries that make physical phenomena discrete…”

Susan Disley, Enclosure I, Enclosure II, oil on board, each is 35cm x 35 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist and HMS

Susan Disley, Enclosure I, Enclosure II, oil on board, each is 35cm x 35 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist and HMS

The boundaries in Enclosure I and Enclosure II, are more distinct than in Mr Blue Sky, the paintings appearing to be about the very act of demarcation. Contemplating these abstract images I am impressed by the beauty of the resultant forms and at the same time reminded of the political implications of land enclosure. Imposing artificial boundaries helps us to understand the world around us, and is also a means of exercising power. The birds eye view emphasises this for me, picture making here becoming similar to map making, again a means both of understanding and control.

Sue Disley, Landscape in Pink, 2013, oil on board, 1m x1m, image by courtesy of the artist and HMS

Sue Disley, Landscape in Pink, 2013, oil on board, 1m x1m, image by courtesy of the artist and HMS

We’re back to fuzzy boundaries in Landscape in Pink, and the interpretive cues are almost so generalised as to lose the landscape association, except that it is virtually impossible to lose, as if we carry it with us in our bodies. Even if there was no intentional link to landscape we would probably find ourselves making the connection anyway. We refer to the very orientation of the support as either “portrait” or “landscape”, hence artists such as Kazimir Malevich and Ad Reinhardt favoured the square format, incidentally Disley’s favoured format also, as if unconsciously she wanted to make the viewing of them as landscapes problematic.

As in Mr Blue Sky there are three areas: an “above”, a “below” and a large expanse between them, this time in warm pink, with other colours pushing through a scumbled light ground. Almost the opposite of the other painting: there’s a heavy dark grey below and light blue above, but if they relate to sea and sky or earth and sky I find it fairly difficult to read that way. More than anything else I think it’s a painting of space. It reminds me of a habit I like to indulge in of gazing into the mid distance. Someone usually asks what I’m staring at and I try to mark out the area of space in three dimensions with my hands: “that’s ridiculous you can’t be staring at that, there’s nothing there”. And it’s something similar that I think is going on here, as if the attempt is being made not so much to paint an area of earth as to paint the space above the area of earth, the space in the mid distance that has nothing in it. Or is it rather that viewing the painting triggers that experience? Because here I am staring and slowly becoming aware of the space between me and the painting. I get nearer so that I can see the brush strokes and the way the surface is constructed, inspecting the canvas edges where the colours underneath the unifying ground are more easily identified, and so it is the painting I am seeing rather than the space between us. Then, as I step back to make sense of the whole it’s that mid space again. The painting wants to be stared at in this way! And it dawns on me that it’s boundaries I am thinking about again, the boundaries within the painting, then the boundary between the painting and it’s environment, between the painting and me, and that is a very fuzzy boundary indeed. I find that I can identify with the painting and also dis-identify, I can be “in it” and “outside it” just by shifting my awareness subtly, in a similar way to the shifting between figure and ground that is part of what happens in these pictures. The painting is a container, but what it contains extends beyond its own boundaries, limited not so much by the edges of the canvas as by my own visual field.

Talking with David Manley, the curator of this exhibition, we note some of Disley’s influences, there’s something of William Scott in here, especially in the drawing, and I wonder if Agnes Martin’s use of muted colour might also be an influence. I think that Scott’s paintings seem to be much more about tone and Martin’s much more about hue and I attempt to characterise Disley’s paintings using the same categories, but come to no conclusion. I do find that I am influenced by them, as getting back to the studio I realise that I have filtered out the high colour in the painting I am currently working on.

Susan Disley – Rosie Kearton is showing at Harrington Mill Studios until 31 July, viewing by appointment email or tel: 07891 262 202

(The Lackoff and Johnson quote is from George Lackoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 1980, University of Chicago Press)

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’?

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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)

Systems at Lion and Lamb and William Scott at Hepworth, Wakefield

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I wish I was going to the opening of this show at the Lion and Lamb Gallery tonight.

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I do hope to get along to see it before it closes on 15 June and, assuming I manage it, I will write about it.

In the opposite direction travel-wise there is also an interesting show starting up at the Hepworth, Wakefield this evening and I will be going along to that  (it’s much closer to where I live. If there was nothing in it as far as travel and cost are concerned I would be in a dilemma as to which one to go to).

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and I hope to write about this one too during the next few days.

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.

Turps Banana 12

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Turps Banana, Issue Twelve is out!

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In the early eighties Donald A. Schon, in his book The Reflective Practitioner, brought attention to the gap “between the kinds of knowledge honoured in academia and the kinds of competence valued in professional practice”  and proposed an epistemology of practice he called reflection-in-action.

Turps Banana Issue Twelve opens with a brief editorial in which Marcus Harvey and Peter Ashton Jones quote from Issue Nine, where Gavin Lockheart asks Peter Doig about his approach to teaching and Doig suggests that rather than teaching anyone anything we have conversations and discussions. I think what’s implied is that learning somehow takes place in what we might call reflective dialogue. It’s not teaching (not in the traditional sense anyway) but there is learning, or at least the potential for learning to take place. The editorial creates a frame for viewing Turps Twelve as being about the relationship between painting and learning.  It occurs to me that painting is a particularly good site for reflection-in-action, a discipline in which thinking and doing are re-united (it could be argued that in a technological society the two are separated, and to such an extent as to become highly problematical).

So I find the theme of learning cropping up in one way or another in each of the conversations, articles and discussions.

Bernard Cohen in conversation with David Leeson, learns from paintings in the Flemish room at the National Gallery, as well as from meetings with Barnett Newman, from the danger and purity in European painting, from the paintings and writings of Paul Klee, from Kenneth Martin saying “It doesn’t matter what you paint so long as you build something”, from Rudi Wittkower at the Slade, from Pueblo pottery, Albert Camus and the Myth of Sisyphus.  Then there’s a short article by Cohen on Leonard Applebee about his influence on Cohen both as a teacher and as a painter, and how the two practices of teaching and painting are interconnected.

Lucy Stein and Alasdair Gray talk about the paintings of Carole Gibbons and again the subject of learning comes up, this time from peers, specifically Alan Fletcher, whilst at Glasgow School of Art, saying something to me about the relationship between influence, learning and teaching: “nobody he influenced became his imitators. He helped us teach ourselves”

Mali Morris interviews Geoffrey Rigden where we learn about the influence of jazz, the teaching of Hans Hofmann, what it means to be contemporary (what a great question, by the way), the influence of Noland and Louis in the early days as well as Milton Avery and Albert Marquet, also other less well known figures at the time like Adolf Gottlieb, for Rigden “still more pertinent and engaging than Pollock”. It’s like I am eavesdropping on a conversation by two painters and as a result learning about the paintings, about influence and about learning itself. Later as I reflect on what I read, I join the dialogue, in my imagination. ( That’s a study of my own that I would like to do: on the influence or otherwise of ‘internal dialogue’ in the painting process.)

My snaphot of Geoffrey Rigden's painting "Erik" 2012, 30.5 x 30.5 cm

My snapshot of Geoffrey Rigden’s painting “Erik” 2012, 30.5 x 30.5 cm at Double Vision, Lion & Lamb Gallery in 2012

Continuing the learning theme there’s a couple of pages about the Turps Art School taking applications for the studio programme September 2013 – August 2014 and the correspondence course October 2013 – September 2014.

Nancy Cogswell visits the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington USA to talk with painting conservators there, and we get part-one of the interview, which ends on the nearest thing I can imagine to a cliff hanger for this type of serial, getting into some really interesting territory, asking just the questions I’d want to ask like “are there certain paintings you prefer to work on?” “Does Moholy-Nagy use masking tape to get the sharp edges on ZII ?” “How much room for manoeuvre does an individual conservator have?” “Do you think of yourselves as painters?” and  “What kind of problems do you have with the colour field painters?” The interview ends with a consideration of how you learn to do something (like clean a Morris Louis) when there is no accepted way of doing it and how you gain empirical knowledge over twenty five years, surely a metaphor for painting.

Whilst the acquiring of empirical knowledge is still fresh in my mind I turn the page to find that  Joan Key is writing on The Empiric or Picturesque in the work of Amikam Toren. and whilst I think it likely that connections between articles may be accidental she seems to elaborate on the visual/intellectual processes of observation interpretation and judgment that were present ‘beneath the surface’ in other articles and started to become explicit in Nancy Cogswell’s interview.

One of the things I like in each of the Turps Banana volumes is the way the varied conversations interconnect, almost like they are themselves conversing with each other, so that it is this process of conversation, reported and imagined, that pleasurable learning takes place for the reader, and thinking of pleasure, the pictures are great!

( You can subscribe online at www.turpsbanana.com )

Geoff Jones at D H Lawrence Heritage Cente

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My friend Geoff Jones has a solo exhibition at The D H Lawrence Heritage Centre, (winner of the Best Visitor Attraction in Nottinghamshire Award 2012). I helped him hang the paintings last week and I did a short piece of writing for him to use, much of which I reproduce here.

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Looking at the images in this exhibition, mostly paintings, it’s surely no surprise that Geoff started his artistic career as a printmaker. The processes of printing and copying are repeatedly referenced. It’s highlighted in the show’s title Made in Their Image.

The paintings are direct copies, enlargements, of black and white sketches made by the artist. That’s not the same thing as working from preliminary drawings. Where an artist works from a study the painting tends to ‘correct’ the sketch. Jones copies the sketch, including any strange marks that on second sight may seem meaningless to the depiction. The marks hence start to have a life of their own, independent almost of the things they are describing. Map becomes more important than territory. In one painting, for example, a red mark appearing alongside a tree trunk is vaguely reminiscent of a fire extinguisher or some such object. What’s it doing there? It’s alien, unless read as an accidental mark from the drawing that now gets included in the painting. The finished picture is less a version of the scene, more a version of the representation, an image of an image. The colours also have an arbitrariness that might be associated with printing a design in a variety of schemes. The decorative Six Line Cups especially so, along with the series of paintings on canvas of cups and saucers in differing colours entitled The Four Seasons but there is also some of this in the paintings of trees.

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The exhibition starts out with line drawings of a cathedral in different surfaces (in each one the drawing is ‘in’ rather than ‘on’ the coloured ground) and two portraits in a similar style to the cathedrals. The represented object or subject is almost absent as if having to be put together by the viewer. Other works seem the opposite of these in that the objects represented have more ‘presence’ than perhaps they should have. Trees take on an eerie, person-like character. They are slightly unsettling, and not just because of the long shadows that tend to induce an atmosphere of foreboding associated with evening time. In these paintings the long shadows are morning shadows and the colours have a certain optimism that prevents the feeling of being unsettled from becoming full blown dread. However, there is something of an expressionistic approach being taken. Jones’s religious titles encourage not just an expressionistic reading but a symbolist one as well, so it might be in keeping imagining, with the prophet Isaiah, the trees of the fields clapping their hands (Isa 55:12).

The show continues until 24 February 2013.

Written by Andy Parkinson

January 11, 2013 at 12:25 pm

British Abstract Painting in the Seventies: Stagnation or New Possibilities?

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In the seventies abstract painting in Britain was in crisis. At least that’s how it seemed to some. If during the sixties it had become hegemonic that privileged position was on the wane. Peter Fuller would shortly declare American abstraction to be not much more than a CIA plot, within the discipline of painting figuration was in resurgence, whilst outside it performance art and conceptualism were fast becoming the dominant art forms, leading to the stagnation of abstract painting. The exhibition New Possibilities, Abstract Painting from the Seventies, a show of fourteen painters from the period (all still painting today), at the Piper Gallery counters this viewpoint, demonstrating that instead abstraction in this decade was vibrant and varied.

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Installation shot (right. Gary Wragg, Carnival, left Trevor Sutton That Swing.4.K). Image by courtesy of The Piper Gallery

In her gallery talk co curator Sandra Higgins introduces Gary Wragg‘s Carnival (1977-79) as the show’s opening statement, as if it were shouting “this is abstraction!” not a representation of the world, rather a celebration within in it, the gestures and colours resonant of graffiti and the detritus of building sites, brimming with the energy and excitement of the city, simultaneous with its squalor and vulnerability.

And if the opening statement is a shout, the next is almost a whisper: Trevor Sutton‘s That Swing.4.K (1979), five foot square, bisected by an off vertical line achieved by joining two canvases black to the left and blue to the right, with the green of the painted edge just showing as a narrow line down the (off) centre.

Turning to the Untitled (1973) geometric painting on paper by Patricia Poullain, Higgins tells the story of her continuing to paint every day in her summer-house, facing the countryside, whilst making ‘pure painting’, both “in nature” and “against nature” at the same time.

In Alice Sielle‘s 3D Blue and Gold Segments (1978), drawing, within a shallow illusionistic space is more prominent. Approaching Op Art, carefully rendered three-dimensional abstract objects (segments) combine together on a grey ground to make an image that is more than the sum of its parts, appearing to generate light as much as reflect it. Sandra Higgins recalls asking her how she managed to paint it with such precision, and receiving the answer “I don’t know”.

The one painting I came here specifically to see was Purple Heart (1979) by Mali Morris. If Carnival is a shout and That Swing.4.K is a whisper then this is a song.

Mali Morris, 'Purple Heart', 1979, Acrylic on canvas, 167 x 165.5 cm. Image courtesy of Piper Gallery

Mali Morris, Purple Heart, 1979, Acrylic on canvas, 167 x 165.5 cm, Image courtesy of Piper Gallery

The purple heart shape of the title takes up nearly half of the canvas, and around it smaller, colour/forms harmonize, mediating, for me, a set of binary oppositions like hard and soft, head and heart, colour and line, form and content, object and image, words and music.

In Graham Boyd‘s Descender (1976) the large canvas has undergone a process of masking and spray painting resulting in a series of subtly gradated narrow bands of rich colour creating an undulating optical space.

The earliest painting in the show, Albert Irvin‘s Glow (1971) has decorative colours that echo the lines of the support whilst also looking virtually formless, the liquid paint poured, sprayed, splattered and at times approaching the condition of a gas.

William Henderson‘s marvelous Funky Black and Catch Me (1978) is as much built as painted. Rainbow bands on a black ground multiplying from left to right, until at the right hand third the space is completely filled, and the space itself seems to bend and deepen towards that side. It is an exciting painting, the visual equivalent of jazz ( be-bop rather than cool). Looking at the painting with me he explains how he achieved the rainbow stripes by loading a brush with contrasting colours and drawing it across the canvas. Either it worked or it didn’t and he would have to do it again.

Perfectly situated at the end of the gallery so it can be seen from many distances is Barrie Cook‘s spray painted Blue, Red and Yellow Grid (1977). As I journey towards it I am unsure how much of what’s happening is optical and how much is physically there.

Installation image by courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Installation image by courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Black vertical stripes are flanked by blue and violet creating an optical central horizontal light blue line – I think.

There’s opticality even in Jeanne Masoero‘s Basis for Light, Series II, no. 7 (1977) the nearest work in the exhibition to ‘systems art’. Comprising built up layers of torn white paper and PVA glue in loosely alternating rectangles of horizontal and vertical lines and resembling ploughed fields seen from the air, the structure is both accentuated and denied by the way the light and shadow is distributed over the uneven surface. Momentarily, I feel sure I see colours on that surface …and then I’m less sure.

Tess Jaray‘s Petros (1979) indices a different kind of uncertainty, the muted colours at times only just distinguishing the repeated architecture based motifs from the ground on which they seem to hover.

Rush Green (1977) by Frank Bowling is arrived at through the pouring of paint, more gravitational than gestural, the flow of paint looking gentle and slow. The verticality of the image elicits figure associations, and the richness of colour leads me to relate to it as if it were a mummy or possibly even the Turin Shroud.

Frank Bowling, Rush Green, 1977, Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery, 1977,

Frank Bowling, Rush Green, 1977, Acrylic on canvas, 167.6 x 71.1 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery

Whilst Bowling achieves an ‘all-over’ anti-composition, by contrast C. Morey de Morand‘s masking tape rectangles in There is Always More (1978) are deliberately placed in four colour groups against a shifting red ground.

Finally, six Desmond Rayner gouaches offer yet another version of abstract painting: Art Deco inspired geometric patterns that could be mistaken for screen prints if it weren’t for the uniqueness of the colour mixes. Interested in invention rather than personal expression he sees the works as entertainment, encouraging us to “relax and enjoy (them) at surface level”.

Installation shot, Desmond Rayner Gouaches, Courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Installation shot, Desmond Rayner Gouaches, Courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Seeing the diversity of these works I find agree with Sam Cornish who, in the catalogue essay, argues that this exhibition shows that

The break up of the Modernist consensus and the rise of the expanded field did not result in abstraction stagnating but rather in a period of complex, even frenetic experimentation, of new possibilities.

But what of continuing relevance? In the same essay Cornish brings attention to Mali Morris’s “materiality and touch”, which reminds me of the recent article by David Sweet at Abstract Critical where, questioning the relevance of  “the kind of average lyrical abstraction of the late colour field period” and highlighting the importance of detail in the era of high-definition he partially equates touch with detail. Commenting on a 2012 painting by Morris he describes her intelligent handling of the “resolution that detail brings”.

And glancing up at my HD TV whilst writing this, I am distracted by a programme about the popular singer Tony Bennett, suggesting that his refusal to update his material was later interpreted by younger audiences as “cool” leading to his recent return to popularity. Could it be that Patricia Poullain also remains relevant but this time through her persistence, doggedly following her very specific, repetitive, line of enquiry?

Patricia Poullain, 'Untitled' 1973, Acrylic on paper, 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy The Piper Gallery

Patricia Poullain, Untitled 1973, Acrylic on paper, 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy of The Piper Gallery

In suggesting that Morris’s work stays relevant by updating itself and Poullain’s by staying the same I am no doubt having my cake and eating it, so let me suggest a third way in which these abstract painters may continue to be relevant. Advances in the field of cognitive science made since the seventies could make some of these paintings more contemporary now than they were then. Barrie Cook’s work for example has affinity with experimental findings made recently into how we construct colour, findings that challenge some of what we thought we knew from Sir Isaac Newton, the philosophical implications of which are explored by Donald D. Hoffman in his book Visual Intelligence, How We Create What We See.

Indulging in these closing speculations I find that I am making a claim not only for the vitality of abstract painting in the seventies but also for the new possibilities abstraction may yet have in store.

New Possibilities: Abstract Painting From The Seventies is on at The Piper Gallery, 18 Newman Street, London until 21 December 2012.

Nothing Plain at Plane Space

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There’s nothing plain about Plane Space, an exhibition of abstract paintings, at Worcester Cathedral Crypt, 8 – 15 September 2012, curated by Dan Roach, artist in residence there. The show includes paintings by Karl Bielik, Katrina Blannin, Sarah McNulty, Dan Roach, Paul Rosenbloom and Gwennan Thomas, scattered throughout the crypt, rather than ‘hung’,  I guess partially because of the limitations of using such a poetic space (I would be amazed if you were allowed to drive screws into the ancient wall). I had no idea when I visited that as well  as negotiating the planar space of the abstract paintings on show, those paintings themselves would also be influencing me to explore the anything but plain space of the Cathedral Crypt, in a manner not unlike ‘hunt the thimble’.

 

Nearly every church building I  have seen today has an ‘Open’ sign outside it. Worcester Cathedral is no exception, and there are numerous visitors to the crypt who had no expectation of seeing paintings here. On entering, they look slightly confused, as if to ask (without actually asking anyone) “what are these people looking at?” Their experience may have been in the opposite direction to my own. I came to view paintings and they seemed to lead me to the space, they came for the space and it presented them with the paintings. Like the tiny Dan Roach situated at the foot of a statue.

When I posted previously about a Dan Roach painting, Zak Braiterman made the observation that my write-up sounded to him like a description of religion, something to do with clearing away of layers and gestural marks on the ritual surface . I am not sure I quite get it, yet it’s strange now to be seeing Roach paintings in this religious setting. And there is something of a ritual quality to his production, repeating his now familiar hexagonal motif, as if attempting to understand it rather than just to ‘use’ it, or as if the act of painting is a process of learning, of coming to know something that may already be known by others but for the learner is known for the first time, a revelation.

Dan Roach, New Unit, 2012, Oil and wax on oak, 20 x 34cm

In this painting the hexagonal motifs float in a space that I cannot help but see as deeper than the two-dimensional flat plane that I know it is and that the painting itself keeps reminding me it is, by the refusal to open up a window on the world of recognizable objects, almost as if I find myself at the moment where perception attempts to become cognition and the attempt is continually thwarted. Maybe that moment (which, following John Grinder and Judith DeLozier, I think of as similar to the state that Carlos Castaneda referred to as “stopping the world”) holds information for us, and abstract painting allows us to remain there for longer than we usually do. Those organic hexagons could settle, they could join in network-like formation, yet they remain perpetually frozen in that space-time moment of being just about to form.

Katrina Blannin’s marvelous paintings here look fully formed, yet in each one there is also a shifting, just when you think you’ve ‘got it’ the forms or gestalts shift and you notice a different reading, and then another, and another.

Even the fact that we so clearly have a series: diptychs exploring the same arrangement of triangles and rectangles in different colours, that change things remarkably, reminds me of the unfixedness of fixed things, or that within a rational order is infinite variety. I like seeing two of them here, and I hope for an occasion to see the whole series together. On seeing the first one, even in this small space, separated far enough from the other as to be unaware of its presence, my reaction is to wonder if it is the same one I had seen recently at the Double Vision exhibition at the Lion and Lamb Gallery. Even though I know it is not the same, the colours are different, I consider it possible that I am mis-remembering it. On seeing the second diptych here, I realise that both these two are different to the one I saw a few weeks previously. I am an identical twin and when my brother and I are apart we often get mistaken for one another, which could not happen when we are together. I think these paintings are like that.

In a similar way to the series reminding me that this one work is also a part of a larger whole, a system, this particular ‘hang’ sets up clear connections with the surroundings so that it is not just each painting that I am viewing but its relationship to a wider context. It would be difficult not to notice the beauty in the contrast between the copper colours in the wall and the blues in Blannin’s Hexad painting.

Similarly, the Sarah McNulty painting M (II), cannot not be connected to the environment when it is already placed on concrete before then being placed here in this space. Other paintings here sometimes have a pebble or a piece of wood perhaps, discretely placed beneath them to keep them straight, but these are not part of the painting whereas in the McNulty the medium is “Gouache on Linen on  Concrete”. The relationship between art work and plinth sounds like a concern more associated with sculpture. The object-ness of an abstract painting also brings this consideration to mind in painting and being in this space seems to emphasise that.

The painting Apostrophe by Karl Beilik seems to assert that abstract painting can evoke places and events, and that a motif might be borrowed from everyday text, yet in such a way that is ambiguous, are they “really” apostrophes or do they just look a bit like them?

Gwennan Thomas’s paintings are similarly ambiguous: forms that don’t quite form, bringing my attention to the way objects are formed or coded, before ever considering what they might mean.

The Paul Rosenblooms resemble cave paintings, marks etched into painted grounds, gestures and ritual again maybe, invoking a past much older even than Worcester Cathedral’s Norman origins, or of abstraction’s barely 100-year-old history.

On viewing these abstract paintings at Plane Space, I could easily begin to speculate on the status of abstract painting in contemporary art, for some already consigned to the crypt, painting being dead and abstract painting especially so, quite possibly in danger of becoming a mere footnote in its ancient history. Here in this crypt however, it seems very much alive, demonstrating its power to evoke and reveal, not so much the visual world outside it as the very coding of the visual.

Turps Banana Issue 11

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I love it when that Turps Banana hits my door mat. I know that I am in for a treat of looking at good reproductions of interesting paintings, reading thought-provoking articles and interviews and then pondering on it all for ages afterwards. Sorry, if I am sounding like an advert. I just can’t help being a big fan.

turps banana 11

It says it on the cover, so I won’t tell you that it is Turps Banana, issue 11.

In issue 11 there are two interviews, or conversations, that I am particularly enjoying, with two very different abstract painters: Katharina Grosse and Jeffrey Steele, the interviewers being Peter Dickinson and Katrina Blannin respectively. Dickinson opens with a statement about abstraction, which leads to a discussion about different definitions, Grosse saying ” I am not an abstract painter any more” where abstraction is understood to be “abstracting from or generating a residue of something seen”. Dickinson proposes a contemporary definition, where it is “the process of thinking and action” the resultant product being a record of that process. Clearly, the paintings/installations of Katarina Grosse come into this category, and so do the paintings of Jeffrey Steele, though the products of these two artists seem poles apart. There is something at least apparently subjective and random in the Grosse paintings in contrast to the mathematical and systems orientation of the Steele paintings, and Blannin does a great job of teasing out the origins, rationale and methods of his approach.

Neither interview is “easy” and both provoke as many questions as they answer (in a twitter exchange with painter Dean Melbourne on the morning we opened our copies of the Turps we acknowledged that our initial response was to feel a bit thick) which I think is what a good journal is meant to do.

Written by Andy Parkinson

July 9, 2012 at 9:41 am

Red Rhombus

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It’s a composite of four “identical” paintings, arranged in mirror opposition, resulting in the central red rhombus figure…

Red Rhombus,July 2012, acrylic on canvas, 24″x24″

…and what else?

Written by Andy Parkinson

July 5, 2012 at 7:00 am