abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Sam Cornish

Six Fugues by John Bunker

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On my trip to London on what must be the hottest day of the year so far, even though it’s now about 7 o’clock  in the evening it’s still really warm and here I am wearing a suit, carrying luggage and chasing across the capital to visit Westminster Library, to see collages by John Bunker in the show Six Fugues, curated by Sam Cornish.

Installation view, my snapshot

Installation view, my snapshot

The moment I set eyes on them I know the effort was more than worth it. I have seen one of these in reproduction and liked it, but seeing them here for real is so much better. Why is it that not being able to hold them in my hand and perceiving the depth of the supports and the proper sizes makes a difference?  Also, that they have weight, they are on MDF rather than paper, (no glass – excellent), adds to the sense of their physical presence. That, as well as the stuff they’re made from, “torn posters, shattered CDs, abandoned chicken-shop boxes,”  combined with the painterliness of the gestural flourishes, even in collage there are plenty of those, all adds to their materiality. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think of them as paintings, the construction method of which is  collage, rather than collages made with painted elements.

John Bunker, Shady Hill Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF. Image by courtesy of the artist

John Bunker, Shady Hill Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF. Image by courtesy of the artist

In the exhibition notes Sam Cornish reminds me that collage is a century old, and the many library books open at appropriate pages assembled on a table and in a display case connect Bunkers work clearly to this tradition, a reproduction of Kurt Schwitters’ The Hitler Gang from 1944, having immediate resonance, for me, with Bunker’s Falling Fugue with it’s strong triangular figure and concentric circle motif.  As in other works here, the figures(torn and cut shapes and gestural painterly marks), seem to occupy a fairly narrow cubist space, blues often being interpreted (by me at any rate) as sky, which sometimes opens up into a much deeper space than I was first perceiving, especially in Shady Hill Fugue where the blue plane on the right hand edge becomes as sky seen beneath, but also beyond, an archway suggested by an arc in sandstone ochre, possibly the MDF support. A triangle of a similar colour inserts itself at the bottom right hand corner which is different enough tonally to bring it forward of the darker and more saturated central ochre colour, allowing the other shapes to dance within the space created. I say dance because they seem ungrounded, there’s no sense of an earth or floor other than the bottom edge of the support.

John Bunker, Falling Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF, 54 x 52.5cm, Image by courtesy of the artist

John Bunker, Falling Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF, 54 x 52.5cm, Image by courtesy of the artist

In Falling Fugue the obstructed blue circle along the left edge doesn’t quite become open space, unless I focus on the bottom half of the work and then the blue area does seem to recede further than when I have the whole image in view. My eye seems to be taken downwards, I guess it must be because of the strong direction lines, pointing towards the lower edge. I do indeed get a sensation of things falling. Also, I feel that I may be looking slightly upwards, as if I am nearer to the bottom of the frame, whereas in Night Fugue it’s the other way around, enhanced in the photo by the downward angle of the shot, but still taking place when looking directly at the picture. Here the light blues and greys also sometimes become infinite space against which the flatter coloured areas jut forward or within which ink splatters become forms. Then the arrangement shifts so that the large flat area of red becomes a plane in front of which ochre, green, orange blue and grey cut outs jostle or float. The pink triangle at the bottom edge positions itself in front of the ochre but behind the grey/blue pentagon, in front of which a pale yellow triangle hovers, itself obstructed by a dark blue shape that is echoed higher up.

John Bunker, Night Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF, 30 x 33cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

John Bunker, Night Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF, 30 x 33cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

And then, of course, they are simply torn papers (etc) randomly assembled on a flat surface. I get to wondering about how much randomness there is in Bunker’s process, I imagine him scattering this week’s finds across the floor and then frenetically rearranging them. What do I know? His method may be quite the opposite of that.

Looking in other library book reproductions, I see similarities also in Cubist works from 1913 or 14, especially perhaps Juan Gris still-lives, with extensive use of collage and creating similar pictorial spaces as these I see in this show. What seems different though is the continued link in the still-lives to representational content. However much a Picasso, Braque or Gris still life is ‘abstracted from’ reality it still maintains that connection, I can recognise a guitar here, a rum bottle or a fragment of newspaper there. In Bunker’s work such elements are almost completely absent, and where for example, a fragment of newsprint or a star motif might be recognised they seem accidental.

Installation view, my snapshot

Installation view, my snapshot

The overriding similarities however, might be in the method of composition, according to rules, that are indeed abstract, in the same way perhaps that the strict laws of counterpoint and fugue in music are abstract.

Speaking of musicality in regard to Cubism, most of the following words by Paul Erich Küppers, director of the Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hanover, writing in 1920, could apply to Bunkers collages:

“…from pale harmonies of colour lines ascend, prisms shoot up, advance towards us or jump backwards, cutting steps out of the infinite space…They multiply, cluster into chords animated by the rhythm, executing their dance against the backdrop of that absolute music which is space. One experiences this transcendental dynamism no differently from the counterpoint of Bach’s fugues, so far removed from reality”∗.

And I say “most of the following words” only because “pale harmonies of colour” understates the power of the colours in Bunkers fugues, and also I don’t really find “prisms”, his shapes are flatter that that, as indeed they often were also in the collage still-lives of Gris.

John Bunker, Blue Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF, 49.5 x 38cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

John Bunker, Blue Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF, 49.5 x 38cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

If that modernist innovation collage is 100 years old, so also is the tradition of speaking of visual abstract works in terms of the musical structure of the fugue. Whilst allusions to fugue are only occasionally found in nineteenth century writings about art, they abound in the early twentieth century, the dawn of abstraction. Kandinsky entitled a 1912 painting Fugue (Controlled Improvisation), and by the 1920s lots of artists were doing it, Paul Klee and Josef Albers, amongst them.

John Bunker, John Islip Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF, 61 x 37.5cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

John Bunker, Shattered Fugue, 2014, mixed media collage on MDF, 44 x 51cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

In a fugue, one instrument or voice follows another echoing note for note the initial tune, as in a ’round’, the voice that enters last reiterates the opening melody (the fugue subject) whilst the preceding voice carries on with its own independent tune (the counter subject), with three or more parts the same process is repeated several times, amazingly the voices fitting together and making sense in ‘counterpoint’. There are usually three sections: an exposition, a development and a recapitulation. Melodies might be repeated backwards or upside down or played again with doubled or halved note values, and counterpoint intervals may be varied.

Such a structure can easily be translated to the visual modality, a figure being inverted, rotated, mirrored, drawn back to front, etc and it all exists simultaneously in the same space. Hence its attraction perhaps for visual artists, and specifically for abstract artists because the structure is entirely formal, no rushing water, no bird song, no bell ringing, no Wagnerian images.

John Bunker, John Islip Fugue, 2014, Mixed media collage on MDF, 61 x 37.5cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

John Bunker, John Islip Fugue, 2014, Mixed media collage on MDF, 61 x 37.5cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

So, for example, in John Islip Fugue, we get arcs and circles each echoing another, in similar and contrasting hues, impossible now to tell which one was placed first, and rectangles that may have been rotated and layered one over another. What I am not sure about is just how systematic Bunker’s method is, the extent to which the fugue is a strict compositional device or whether it’s a fairly loose metaphor. I suspect it is the latter.

Another attraction of the fugue for abstract artists is that it offers a structural method that offers an alternative to more arbitrary approaches and it appeals more to the intellect than it does to the emotions (though we shouldn’t overlook the emotional impact) . The Constructivist tradition comes to mind for me now, with its own take on collage, structure and fugue-like systems of rotation, repetition, inversion, etc. but I will leave those reflections for another day. Enough now to say that Bunker’s six fugues are a delight!

Six Fugues: New Collages by John Bunker was showing at Westminster Library between 1 July and 19 July 2014.


∗Paul Erich Küppers quote taken from The Music of Painting by Peter Vergo

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.


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.