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abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Sarah McNulty

Form/Function at Piccadilly Place Manchester

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When the awards are handed out for services to abstraction, Lisa Denyer and Matthew Macaulay should get big shiny ones for continuing to bring interesting contemporary abstract paintings to engaging city centre venues outside of London. At Form/Function they bring together work from ten artists in a difficult space, an unoccupied office block at Piccadilly Place, Manchester, that works many times more than perhaps it should do, and the sense of it working, against all the odds, increases as I pay attention to each piece. Perhaps it’s the fact that the artists were asked to respond to the space, and its subverted functionality, that makes the show so successful.

Karl Bielik, Arrow, oil on canvas. Image by courtesy of Lisa Denyer and the artist.

Karl Bielik, Arrow, oil on canvas. Image by courtesy of Lisa Denyer and the artist.

The rich greys in Karl Bielik‘s “Arrow” seem to echo the greys of the walls, without blending into them, and there is enough natural light to see the subtle rhythms in the image as spatial passages between roughly painted figures opens up. A luminous yellow/green area underneath a layer of grey shines through to the surface. Above it a white painted area has a hardness about it and the spaces within it start to resemble the kind of space you get in a rock or mountain formation. It’s just enough to evoke landscape without attempting to represent a landscape, in the same way that a poem or a song might evoke an experience without actually describing it. Then the shapes seem more to connote a stage, the kind that children might make from furniture draped with a white sheet. That a grey/brown shape towards the right hand edge could be read as having an edge like the edge of a sheet of paper adds to my “home made stage” fantasy. But studying the rest of the painting ultimately denies these associations and I become aware of my active participation as an interpreter, that what I “observe” turns out to be a projection. And this engagement of my own epistemological processes is, for me, one of the attractions of abstract art.

Terry Greene 'The world is a hankerchief' and 'Mi casa, su casa'

Installation shot showing Terry Greene, ‘The world is a handkerchief’ and ‘Mi casa, su casa’. Image by courtesy of Lisa Denyer.

The two paintings by Terry Greene feature painted lines on canvas, with accompanying events. They are nearer to ‘geometrical’ than other paintings of his I have seen, whilst in continuation with other of his work, he employs a method of making multiple iterations, arriving at a final form as if by thinking aloud, previous versions, becoming a part, even if as shadows, of the completed whole.

Paintings by Brendan Lancaster appear almost to grow out of the wall, mortar and other markings in the environment could be tracks or drips of paint from one of Lancaster’s canvases. However, the pictorial space in the paintings contrasts with the flatness of the grey breeze blocks. In Snag, a portal almost gives view of a world beyond the canvas but also continually brings my eye back to the painting’s surface. Long brush strokes produce curving bands, recalling a morbius strip, tracing a route that creates a shallow cubist space at the right hand edge, but leads into something approaching illusionistic three dimensions just above the centre. My attempts to make sense of what might be “out there” are frustrated by the reappearance of the wall-like surface toward the left hand side.

Brendan Lancaster 'Snag'

Brendan Lancaster ‘Snag’. Image by courtesy of Lisa Denyer

There are wonderful little paintings on paper here by Rachael Macarthur, one posted to a concrete pillar functions as a marker, alerting me to the possibility that the pillar could itself be a painting of sorts, having circles inscribed into its surface along with an accidental smear of paint. I suspect that it is the minimalism (I mean it in an informal sense) of the art work that leads me to notice what’s around it, and to include it in my experience of looking at the art. However, it is also the art works difference to the environment that becomes heightened. The stark utility of the surroundings contrasts with the uncertain functionality of the paintings.

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Installation shot: Rachael Macarthur painting on paper on pillar in foreground with Brendan Lancaster and Terry Greene paintings on wall behind. Image by courtesy of Lisa Denyer.

Sarah McNulty‘s paintings share with the others here an interest in minimal form as well as an experimental approach to image making. I get the feeling that her paintings invent themselves under the general tutelage of the artist. I wonder if the choice to place the painting ‘Foil’ on a concrete brick was influenced by the Plane Space exhibition at Worcester Cathedral in 2012, where one of her paintings was similarly situated. Having seen that show I cannot help but make the connection, and to note both similarities and huge differences in the type of space being inhabited.

Sarah McNulty 'T.' and 'Foil'

Sarah McNulty: ‘T’., oil on linen, 61x 50cm (left) and ‘Foil’, oil on panel, 50x50cm (right). Image by courtesy of Lisa Denyer

Lisa Denyer‘s paintings, once much more geometrical, these days approach diaphanous veils of carefully mixed colours, bursting into arrays of amorphous shapes, evoking landscape, and more often sky or space-scape, like miniature milky ways, . And the process of seeing them has similarities to the act of looking into the night sky and constructing images from constellations and clouds.

Lisa Denyer, Billow, 25x30cm. Image by courtesy of the artist.

Lisa Denyer, Billow, 25x30cm. Image by courtesy of the artist.

By now, I am used to seeing paintings by Matthew Macaulay propped up against a wall (at Meditations) or on a shelf (at Treatment) so it should be no surprise to see them here placed directly on the floor where there situation has to be taken into account when looking at them. In fact there is something vaguely humorous about their placing, so that although I shouldn’t be surprised I am, and I smile. That I get taken aback slightly seems right to me. In other arrangements of paintings by Macaulay interesting relationships between small paintings are set up, such that a novel way of organising separate images, becomes the art work. Arranging the paintings becomes drawing. Here the relationship with the immediate context rather than with other paintings could be seen as part of the work.

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Painting by Matthew Macaulay. Image by courtesy of Terry Greene

By far the most difficult wall to deal with in this exhibition is the one with the shiny insulating material and Macaulay dares to place a tiny painting of his against it, as if to challenge us to notice it. Next to it is probably the largest painting in the show that just about competes with that wall, a marvelous oil on canvas by Joe Packer entitled LizardDays, a tree-like image with barely anything happening in the ‘leaves’ and lots of painterly events crammed into the ‘trunk’ space. Daubs of contrasting colours appear to float in mid air, sometimes serenely and at other times frantically, beneath a vast green canopy.

In front are three raised platforms, displaying over 20 small images on paper by Phoebe Mitchell. They form a delightful collection that functions as an artist’s book (I might have said ‘sketchbook’, except that they are much more refined than sketches), each individual piece worthy of prolonged viewing whilst also looking good as an arrangement.

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Back wall: Joe Packer and Matthew Macaulay, front: Phoebe Mitchell. Image by courtesy of Lisa Denyer

Melanie Russell‘s attractive new paintings are characteristically high in colour, with a synthetic quality, abstracted from “real life” observation (apparently, these have a relationship to power lines) they have become explorations of the kinds of spaces that hard edge bands of colour distributed over flat expanses of colour create.

Installation: Terry Greene, Matthew Macaulay, Melanie Russell, Karl Bielik. Image by courtesy of Lisa Denyer

Installation: Terry Greene, Matthew Macaulay, Melanie Russell, Karl Bielik. Image by courtesy of Lisa Denyer

Lisa Denyer’s three dimensional painting on a piece of stone salvaged from a soon to be demolished building is perhaps the biggest surprise for me in this show. It is clearly painted from the outside, yet with little if any evidence of brush work, the colours look like they are pushed or stained into the surface. Enhancing the undulations of the existing form, I could imagine that the colours, rather than being applied, are drawn out from within. Its an old discarded stone, transformed, made precious, but also in another sense quite unchanged.

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In a domestic environment this and other of the forms in the exhibition, might function as decoration, (in my view a more worthy function than is often allowed), but not here. These forms don’t really adorn the space and make it more beautiful, they are too small for that, and the space too imposing, but they do make it more interesting, and seem to highlight aspects of the environment that I would quite literally have overlooked. The exhibition also poses questions about the what, the how and the why of painting, in other words about how abstract painting functions as well as what its function might be.

Form/Function, curated by Lisa Denyer and Matthew Macaulay, continues at Piccadilly Place Manchester until Sunday 22 September
Exhibition open: Saturdays and Sundays 12 – 6pm, or by appointment. Contact: lisadenyer84@hotmail.com

Rachael Macarthur paintings in the Meditations show at Pluspace

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I posted recently about the excellent exhibition Meditations curated by Lisa Denyer and Matthew Macaulay at Pluspace, Coventry, showing paintings by Karl Bielik, Lisa Denyer, Rachael Macarthur, Matthew Macaulay, Sarah McNulty, Phoebe Mitchell, Joe Packer and Melanie Russell, on until 7 July. I said little then about four charming paintings on paper by Rachael Macarthur, and I cannot resist returning now to say more about them.

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On entering the gallery space it is Macarthur’s paintings that I come to first, and to begin with I don’t really know what to make of them. Mostly I perceive them as figure on a ground paintings, particularly the first two, Tabula Rasa and Voyages Grand, but also to a lesser degree the others, and whilst I find the overall colour of each piece attractive, there is something about the figures that I find, if not ugly, then certainly awkward.  Is it perhaps that they seem inchoate or even malformed? As I get into a conversation with myself about what they are I realise that I am enjoying them a lot, and it occurs to me that the slight awkwardness prevents them from veering into the territory of the “merely decorative”. They could be experiments in form, the drawing looking like it came from the inside out, as if the shapes evolved from within the painting process rather than being imposed from the outside by the artist’s hand.

Tabula Rasa, looks like a red/terracotta ground was laid down first and then an image was allowed to generate itself almost unconsciously by applying brushstrokes, lighter in tone than the ground and in impasto, towards the centre of the paper, resulting in an abstract portrait. It could be a head in ¾ view.  I can imagine the artist working, holding the paper in one hand and painting with the other, or perhaps resting the paper on the floor or a table and rotating it as she works. Believing I can see finger prints along the left hand edge reinforces this imagined scenario.

Rachael Macarthur, Tabula Rasa, 2013, acrylic on paper. Image by courtesy of the artist

Rachael Macarthur, Tabula Rasa, 2013, acrylic on paper. Image by courtesy of the artist

The painting is audaciously simple, yet any more work on it would be too much, it would become something else, and the purity of the image would be lost. Similarly, to transcribe it into paint on canvas or into a larger scale would be to lose the spontaneity and directness that seems to come so easily in this format.

In Voyages Grand Macarthur appears to have followed a similar method, an image painted atop a layered ground. This time the central image, a rounded triangular figure is darker than the light blue/green ground that it is difficult not to read as sea or sky…

Rachael Macarthur, Voyages Grand, 2013, acrylic on paper. Image by courtesy of the artist

Rachael Macarthur, Voyages Grand, 2013, acrylic on paper. Image by courtesy of the artist

…except that it is so self evidently paint, no effort being made to specifically describe sea or sky. The association is in the colour and perhaps in the way the light shines through it like sunlight from behind storm clouds.

In comparison with Tabula Rasa the central shape, also made up of impasto brush strokes, this time in grey, and concentric, whereas it is eccentric in Tabular Rasa, appears to float. Both of these are pictures, yet it is unclear what specifically they are pictures of, and I think it is the attempt to work them out that both gives pleasure to the viewer and at the same time creates a certain amount of discomfort. It’s a bit like waking from a dream and vainly trying to recall it. Parts of it come back for a moment and then are gone again. Or to stretch the analogy further I could say that attempting to make sense of these pictures is like attempting to interpret a dream. Gregory Bateson describes dreams as “bits and pieces of the stuff of which we are made. The non-objective stuff” pointing out that “the dream contains no label to tell us what it is about” likening it to “an old manuscript or letter that has lost its beginning and end, and the historian has to guess what it’s all about and who wrote it and when – from inside it”. In this sense I think these pictures have a dream like quality and didn’t Freud identify dreams as “the royal road to the unconscious”?

The third painting Keep Your Shadow is arguably more complex than the first two, in that the one central figure is replaced with a cluster of figures and there is overlapping and containing of figures one over another or one within another. The figures seem to be the result of applied colours being allowed to find their own boundaries rather than drawing shapes that are then “coloured in”.

In both Keep Your Shadow and Split Mimic, there is more ambiguity between figure and ground than there is in the first two pictures. In Split Mimic an indeterminate green ground, looking more like thin air than solid mass, supports a solid looking ochre “V” at the lower edge. Above it, or rather behind it, a red figure emerges appearing to stand within the space rendered by the green coloured ground. And then in front of everything else a swarm of outlined shapes, or perhaps a school as they are vaguely reminiscent of fish, hovers, seemingly in motion, progressing from left to right.

Split Mimic

Rachael Macarthur, Split Mimic; 2013, acrylic on paper. Image by courtesy of the artist

In relation to this picture, it is easier to describe the relationships between the various elements than it is to describe what those elements are, again recalling Bateson on dreams saying that “The dream elaborates on the relationship but does not identify the things that are related.” Aren’t we back in that distinction between process and content?

In another of my lives I sometimes lead groups in guided fantasy, and I have learned that this works well when I stay out of content, engaging only in process instructions. For example, if I instruct a group to “in your imagination, find a safe place to rest, paying attention to what you see hear and feel in that safe place” each member of the group will supply their own content. Some people will imagine themselves on a beach in the warm sun, and even then all those beaches will have different features, others will be indoors somewhere and others may imagine themselves in the countryside, the supplied content differing with each individual. If I make the mistake of indulging in content the experience will be impaired. Say in a further instruction I suggest they feel the warmth of the sun, the fantasy will be broken for all those whose safe place was indoors and their experience will be diminished.

Of course, in making these parallels I am speaking metaphorically about the experience of looking at these paintings. I am not saying that the same thing is going on, and I am not even sure that my speculation throws any light on the experience, though I do think that, at the risk of lapsing into anti-intellectualism, it has some affinity with the idea expressed in the exhibition notes, of presenting paintings that are supposed to be “meditated on and enjoyed with the senses” rather than understood.

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)

(Bateson quotes are from Steps to an Ecology of Mind by Gregory Bateson, University of Chicago Press, 1972, 2000)

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)

First Come First Served at Lion and Lamb Gallery

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First Come First Served, the open show at Lion and Lamb Gallery, with no selection criteria other than ‘first come first served’ is described to me by one of the participants at the hang/opening as “democratic”. If that suggest selection by majority then perhaps “anarchic” says it better, so long as we remember that anarchy and chaos are not at all the same thing. I keep hearing people say how curated it looks, how considerately artists have placed their work, leaving room for others and seeking complementarity rather than competition, which is perhaps what you would expect at a venue named after that biblical lion and lamb pairing.

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It’s a collaboration of sorts, unspoken and implicit, reminiscent of a group exercise I learned from Simon Horton, author of Negotiation Mastery, where in large group of people each individual chooses two others in the room, and without letting on who they are positions themselves so they form three points an equilateral triangle. After a few minutes of moving around, and without speaking  or signalling to each other, the group quickly settles into a whole where every part forms an equilateral triangle with two others. The space at Lion and Lamb seems to have been negotiated in a similar fashion.

The only thing that is predictable about a show of this kind is its unpredictability and variety. There are works here by a diverse range of artists including Katrina Blannin, Alli Sharma, Sarah McNulty, Andy Wicks, Laurence Noga, Andrew Bick, Gwennan Thomas and a host of other names some well known and some new to me. I have met Nancy Cogswell here at a PV at the Lion and Lamb Gallery before so it was good to meet her again and to see her exquisitely painted masquerade-style mask in a drawer (sorry, Nancy I don’t know the title and my snap isn’t good enough to show). I met Laurence Noga also at the show he curated here a few months ago. Today his diptych is reminiscent of one of the paintings he showed then, but much smaller, almost like a miniature preliminary study, except that the collage elements, I think, make it look much more a thing in itself. It’s quite beautiful, tiny and jewel-like.

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Removing my own 8″ square painting Duke Street Tetractys from my bag, I place it in a position that had been left especially for it, directly beneath a lovely painting that could be a photogram of a necklace.

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I am enjoying talking with artists about their work and I am asked a few times about my own, one person tentatively classifying it as “Op?” It occurs to me that, like “systems”, that’s a category that often gets disavowed: “it’s not quite Op” or ” it’s not strictly systems art” as though either of those would be very bad. So I proudly answer “yes, and it’s systems based”. I get to say something about my interest in colour-spread phenomena.

Andy Wicks‘ unique lino and digital print with acrylic, Mudlarks seems uncharacteristic of other work I have seen by him, more figurative perhaps in that there are figures in a ‘land’scape, though there is a marine connection as there are with other of his paintings.

Andy Wicks, Mudlarks, 2012, Unique lino and digital print on paper with acrylic paint (edition of 70 with hand painted colour varations)13 x 19 cmImage by courtesy of the artist

Andy Wicks, Mudlarks, 2012, Unique lino and digital print on paper with acrylic paint (edition of 70 with hand painted colour variations)
13 x 19 cm
Image by courtesy of the artist

The lino cut here, taken from a Victorian etching, shows boys ‘mudlarking’ on the banks of the River Thames, superimposed on a WW2 propaganda image of the Royal air force flying over a naval convoy, boys and their toys, so there is this interesting layering of references and time periods, brought up to date by the adding of Wellington boots to the figures. Seeing is a complex process, triggering imagination, memories and associations. This complex little print highlights for me what might be ‘seen’ in our mind’s eye when we view an image, reminding me of how, at a more general level, we construct meaning through the processes of framing, layering and juxtaposition.

Complex also, but in a different way is Katrina Blannin’s beautiful, systems based, gouache on paper. I am interested in the multiple ways of reading it, negative spaces shifting to positive shapes, and back again, only now it’s a different negative space I am seeing. However hard-edged, or high in clarity the image might be, ambiguities abound. Do we say that something is “deceptively simple” when at first sight it communicates simplicity and matter-of-factness whilst on continued viewing it turns out to be thoroughly nuanced?

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Then I start to wonder about how the colours were achieved: to what degree were they mixed prior to being placed, or how much is the result of physical layering on the paper? Then again, how much of the mixing is taking place on my retina? And I note that a painting can be a lot about colour without necessarily being highly coloured.

First Come First Served is on at The Lion and Lamb Gallery until 11 January 2013, all the works are for sale.

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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.

Dan Roach etc.

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I wish I had seen the Dan Roach exhibition at Harrington Mill Studios in 2010, having recently viewed a magnificent painting by him at the Double Vision show at the Lion and Lamb Gallery…

…beautifully painted, the way that various layers show through carefully rendered transparent shapes, themselves forming a rhythm that echoes the central figure, and contrasting with other shapes that are also made by revealing underpainted areas but this time as if clearing away the top layer to allow a gestural mark to come right up to the surface.

I am glad that David Manley recently brought my attention to another opportunity to see work by Dan Roach at the upcoming Plane Space exhibition in Worcester Cathedral from 8 to 15 September.

It also includes, Katrina Blannin and Sarah McNulty (they also showed work at Double Vision) as well as Paul Rosenbloom, Gwennan Thomas and Karl Bielik. Thinking of Bielik there’s this good write-up of a studio visit by Paul Bhenke at Structure and Imagery.

More from Double Vision

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The Double Vision show at Lion and Lamb Gallery, curated by Katrina Blannin and showing until 14 July 2012 is an excellent selection of paintings by abstract artists working today. I enjoyed every work in this show, so excuse me if I come back to it more than once, to comment about another painting or two.

My snapshot of Geoffrey Rigden’s painting “Erik” 2012, 30.5 x 30.5 cm

Geoffrey Rigden’s Erik reminds me of a painting I saw at the Hepworth Wakefield last year by John Piper: Forms on a White Ground, 1935. It may simply be that they both contain ‘forms on a white ground’ and that the forms could be people, even whilst so clearly not being. The connection is no doubt an entirely personal one. Seeing this Rigden painting triggered my experience of the John Piper, of how ‘big’ the little painting had seemed to be, and how strange. I love the informality of the geometry, its ‘painterliness’ and the playing with space. My eye gets taken into those spaces in the centre and the figure (three rhombus shapes combined) on the left appears to be in front of the one on the right (again, not really a figure so much as four black shapes that my eye groups together and interprets as a figure), that ochre square in the bottom left is definitely in front of the red/brown square, until suddenly the white space in the middle becomes figure, softer and slightly curved, which for less than a second might be a female figure, or a face. And then my eye rests on the odd little cluster of triangular shapes towards the top centre of the painting which could be a painting all of its own, a painting within the painting perhaps, and then the upper pointing triangle takes me up and around the whole again. I have no sense that this is “abstracted from” anything, yet it does have some connections to picture-making and composition that I think of as “figurative” even within the larger frame of abstraction.

I find less picture-making in the painting by Estelle Thompson.

My (poor) snapshot of Estelle Thompson’s “Look at Me Now and Here I Am”, 2011, Oil on Panel, 50 x 40 cm

I first saw paintings by Thompson at the Angel Row Gallery in Nottingham in 200o and I was so impressed by them that I could hardly stay away. I worked near there at the time, so visiting them became my regular lunchtime activity for the duration of the show. Those paintings were stripe paintings, quite spectacular, eliciting lots of optical excitation. They grabbed your attention in a way that the painting here does not. It is almost as if Thompson says “now I have done that successfully, what would its opposite be like?” this painting rewards my attention rather than grabbing it. It is double in that we very clearly have a top and a bottom “half”, there’s also the duality of black and white VS colour (black and white is a major sub current in this exhibition), or rather it seems to highlight how black and white behave as colours. The red, black and white “half” of the painting looks harder to me than the bottom “half” of yellow/orange and a peach/flesh colour. The fleshy area also looks softer than any other section in the way the paint is applied too. This seems to contribute to my sometimes seeing the bottom “half” of the painting as sitting forward of the top “half” and sometimes seeing the other harder shapes as framing the soft fleshy area. And then the black and red seem to join forces with the yellow/orange to create a form in distinction to the white and flesh colour that become its ground. I hope it is not too grand to say that when looking at this painting I find that I am thinking first about what a strange thing this is but then about what a strange thing I am, that I can find many different ways of seeing such a “simple” arrangement of colour/shapes.

Does the title Look at Me Now and I am Here refer to this conversation I am having with the painting and with myself? I am reminded of that cartoon by Ad Reinhardt where a viewer of an abstract painting in an art gallery is mockingly asking “what does this represent?” only to be answered by the painting “what do you represent?” but the experience is more gentle than that. It is more like that greeting of West African origin that I came across in an NLP workshops with Robert Dilts, where one person says “I see you” and the other replies “I am here”. Until we are seen by another we do not yet exist, and that seems to be what’s going on here. This painting exists when I pay attention to it, and it rewards my continued looking with visual pleasure.

The other artists in this exhibition are: Chris Baker / Dominic Beattie / Isha Bøhling / Ian Bottle / Katrina Blannin/ Alice Browne / Simon Callery / Keith Coventry / Natalie Dower / Tom Hackney / Jumpei Kinoshita / Hannah Knox / John McLean/ Sarah McNulty / Neil Mendock / Mali Morris/ Jost Münster / Selma Parlour / Dan Roach / Danny Rolph / David Ryan / Julian Wakelin.