Posts Tagged ‘Sean Scully’
“Before there was art, there was painting”, so says Barry Schwabsky in his essay Everyday Painting in the introduction to Vitamin P2. In the earlier book Vitamin P he explored the relationship between painting as art and painting as an art, a specific discipline. Throughout its history painters have questioned, explored and challenged the boundaries of that discipline. So much so that its definition has become somewhat unstable, to the extent that it might be better to think of it as an ‘indiscipline’ as Daniel Sturgis et al did in the exhibition The Indiscipline of Painting, that opened at Tate St Ives in October 2011 and toured to Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre in January 2012, presenting a “partial and partisan” survey of abstract painting from the 60’s until now.
David Manley makes a tongue in cheek reference to that show entitling the new exhibition at Harrington Mill Studios The Discipline of Painting, featuring a ‘control group’ of works: one by Manley from 1973 along with two owned by him, a Sean Scully painting on paper from 1980 and a recent drawing on paper by David Tremlett, alongside paintings by David Ainley, Katrina Blannin, Luke Frost, Lauri Hopkins, Dan Roach, Andy Parkinson, and Trevor Sutton.
It used to be common to divide the discipline of painting into sub-categories or genres, still life, landscape, history painting etc, and whereas there was a time when abstraction looked like it might transcend all those genres it now appears to have become a genre, or tradition, of its own. That tradition could itself be divided into two approaches one that looks “disciplined”, we might even say “austere”, as opposed to a looser more casualist approach, where “spontaneity” and “improvisation” are the watch words. According to the gallery notes, “The selection of works on display shows an abiding and durable commitment to a disciplined abstraction that foregrounds an aspect of colour and form and a certain ‘discipline’ in construction”. (A second exhibition will explore the other approach.)
Luke Frost’s paintings have been described as “austerely reductive, minimal and hard edged” whilst also being “curiously alluring”. For me there’s something paradoxical about them, that such asceticism can at the same time be so wantonly pleasurable, that pared-down emptiness can give rise to such rich fullness. Deep Brilliant Blue Volts and Tangerine Volts are highly coloured square monochrome canvases with a fine line frame, painted in a colour the complementary of the ground. This subtle intervention elicits heightened visual excitation. The space is transformed by the frame in much the same way as, in language, meaning is transformed by context or ones “frame of reference”. The colour within the frame is ‘objectively’ the same as the colour around the frame, yet I experience it as a different colour. The edge and the central colour occupies literally the same space or plane yet subjectively the outer edge is spatially nearer than the middle. It’s like looking through a window onto an infinite field of colour. Then, as I turn away fractionally the painting seems to shift, or shudder optically, as if calling my attention back to it. It doesn’t want to let me go, and I don’t want to stop looking at it. We are locked into an exchange, a deeply contemplative conversation. Yet there’s no pseudo-spirituality in this experience, reminded as I am of the artificiality of the colours, and the matter of fact-ness of their presentation, something along the lines of Frank Stella’s famous “what you see is what you see”. However, seeing is a truly remarkable experience always involving more than the strictly visual.
Katrina Blannin’s paintings are similarly more-than factual. The three on show here are ‘the same’ in size and in design, but look very different because of the differences in colour. I have the sense of holding the whole thing constant and changing just one thing, and everything changes, recalling how in any system a change to a part always has consequences for the whole. Tracking such changes requires a serial approach, so it is particularly helpful to get three in a row here. Two are darker paintings, in indefinable blue/black/green/greys, applied in glazes (hence the difficulty of identifying specific names for the colours), with highlights in yellows, and one is in greys much nearer to white with warmer hues, creating an experience quite different to the other two. In fact so different that I have to be reminded that the design employed is ‘the same’ as in the other two paintings. Manley has positioned the two darker paintings slightly closer to each other than to the third one, a strategy that seems to heighten the contrast, whilst also allowing the two darker works to be read as a pair, hinting at relationships between the two that Blannin sometimes makes explicit in her own diptychs. The diagonal arrangement of tones and colour sets up a subjective experience of shifting planes, never just “this” or just “that” but sometimes “this” and sometimes “that”, an experience that is fundamentally time dependant.
Trevor Sutton’s beautiful paintings here are separated in time by twenty years, Rue Jacob, a circular painting with a central two tone irregular hexad shape situated within a field of fluctuating brown/grey hues, being painted in 1992, and Raindance, a vertical rectangular grid with four columns and sixteen rows in reds, pinks, greys, browns and blacks, having been painted only last year. They testify to this artist’s disciplined commitment to the idea of abstraction and to its ongoing exploration. Remembering that I saw a remarkable painting by Sutton in a show last year, Abstract Painting in the Seventies, higher in colour than these at HMS, I make comparisons in my head and note the “continued vigour” of his oeuvre (borrowing a phrase from Manley).
At the other end of the scale as far as years of experience goes, Lauri Hopkins a recent graduate, shows the continued relevance of the tradition for younger artists. Her wonderful constructions made from combinations of different coloured book covers recall Albers and Rothko, in miniature. Strictly speaking they are collages, but they read like paintings.
Once again I am impressed by Dan Roach’s paintings. The two here are quite different, in scale and colour, yet similar in that they employ his now customary arrangements of semi-transparent cell-like structures, situated in an indefinite space. That it is now possible to present abstract paintings on an almost miniature scale seems to me to be something new in the tradition, and Roach’s paintings have contributed to this development.
The paintings by David Ainley are colour monochromes built up in layers of thick paint, forming a substantial surface into which Ainley scores lines, revealing parts of the underpainting, in a process that is similar to excavation or mining. I am interested in the systematicity of the process as well as in the resultant ‘image’, each one a subtly interrupted surface, eliciting a state-altering meditative response. I choose to prolong the experience of viewing. There’s opticality here that, for me, is always more than the “purely optical”, including a sensing of time, suspended, distorted, and also simply passing, and with it a metaphorical connection to ideas related to mining, and toil.
I am pleased to have one of my own paintings hung alongside Ainley’s works. I think there are some resonances, in the final look, an interrupted surface that I hope engages the eye/brain, and in the process, almost in reverse. In my painting Screen (Yellow Band) it is more the process of covering than excavating that interests me. Layers of colour are hidden or covered, without being entirely obliterated. A black and white diagonal chequer pattern inadequately hides what’s underneath, forcing colour to the edges of each individual rhombus shape, and in this painting also to the right hand edge of the support, where a yellow vertical band is allowed to remain.
The Discipline of Painting is on show at Harrington Mill Studios until 27 October with a viewing on Saturday 26 October, 2-5PM. The HMS Open Studios also takes place Saturday 26 October 2-5PM and Sunday 27 October, 11-4PM
Installation shots by courtesy of David Manley
Regular visitors to this blog will have noticed that I have been enjoying the exhibition The Indiscipline of Painting, International Abstraction from 1960 to now, that started out at Tate St Ives late in 2011 and moved to Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, in January 2012. Well, today is the final day of the show and bidding it farewell seems an opportune moment to reflect on what I got from visiting it many times.
The early Sean Scully painting East Coast Light 2, was a surprise to me. I like Scully’s work. especially the Wall of Light series, and that the earlier paintings look so very different to the more recent ones was more of a surprise than I expected. I was surprised by the surprise. I had read in Scully’s book Resistance and Persistence that this early work was “frankly illusionistic” and I saw a photograph of East Coast Light 2 in that book. But seeing it for real it is frankly illusionistic! much more so than in the reproduction. Seeing it here opposite the Bridget Riley Painting Cantus Firmus was interesting, as there are obvious connections and also differences. The space in the Scully is illusionistic in that it it opens up “inside” the painting, whereas Riley’s space is “outside”, between painting and viewer.
Just down from the Scully, Karin Davie‘s lovely painting is highly gestural and though there is space “inside” or “behind” and “through” the gestural line, it is less illusionistic, much shallower than in East Light 2.
Richard Kirwan‘s painting Depth of Field seems also to be about what we might call “optical space”, a magnificent painting of the simplest motif repeated many times: an asterisk, possibly a reference to text and therefore to language and sign. Is our attention being brought to multiple footnotes? One of the experiences I have whilst viewing this, and many other paintings in this exhibition is the pure pleasure of seeing. Then my internal dialogue kicks in asking what it is that provokes that pleasure, seeking to ‘unpack’ it intellectually, to follow-up on the “footnotes”. So I read the catalogue, finding out more about the works and the patterns that connect them. At the gallery talk last Saturday with Bob Nickas and Alison Green (both who write in the catalogue), Alison Green commented on the many “back stories” of these paintings suggesting that the pleasure of looking at art includes learning those stories, and that it is not a solely visual experience. I think she is right about that, even though looking without knowing is immensely pleasurable. There seems something very playful about being amazed at how the asterisks seem to rotate. When you have seen the painting before you know it is going to happen but you are still thrilled by it when it does!
No Other Home by Daniel Sturgis, the artist who selected the work for this show, has a similar optical buzz, only more so. As I look, I notice my breathing change, almost a sigh, that seems to signal a change of state. Exhaling, my shoulders relax and I ‘take in’ the painting, puzzled by its structure and almost laughing when those chequer patterns seem to dance. Then I get fascinated by the blue discs, and getting up close I just cannot tell whether, for example, the disc on the right looking like it is balanced dangerously close to a cliff edge, and the other one slightly further in (almost immediately left), are the same physical colour, the surrounding colours making them look quite different to each other, or whether in fact they are mixed as different colours. However many times I step nearer and further away from the painting I am unable to verify which it is, though I suspect the former (and later, asking the artist, he confirms it).
At the gallery talk Bob Nickas likened abstract painting to the Hitchcock film The Trouble With Harry, about a dead body that is discovered, hidden, buried, dug up and rediscovered etc, the trouble being that it just “won’t stay dead”. Painting, and specifically abstraction, have been pronounced dead umpteen times but the discipline (or rather the indiscipline, its status being highly contingent) just won’t stay dead.
This show, with 49 artists represented, gives me 49 reasons to continue making abstract paintings, or I learn 49 ways to do abstract painting now that it is dead, or I get to see 49 responses to what to do with abstract painting since its demise: possibly three ways of saying the same thing.
Sarah Shalgosky, Curator, University of Warwick, in her guided tour of this exhibition suggested that it was a “walk through the mind of Daniel Sturgis” and she also said that in bringing these works together they wanted us to have “visual fun”. Judging from the numerous conversations I have had with people at the gallery since the opening night, I am sure that I am not the only one for whom this goal was amply met.
This link shows the Mondrian on view at The Hepworth,Wakefield: Composition C (No.III) with Red, Yellow and Blue 1935. I am making studies of it. It is nearly square.
Sean Scully says somewhere that if you have Mondrian, Matisse and Rothko, then you have his (Scully’s) work, and he also says that its impossible to get to the artist’s touch in Mondrian (that’s how I remember what he said anyway, what I have forgotten is where I read it). If that’s what he said he certainly has a point.
However, there is something of Mondrian’s touch in the paintings. Though it never approaches gesture, I do get a sense of the numerous re-workings. In Scully’s paintings you can clearly see lots of layers of under-painting, whereas in Mondrian you discern them.
Don’t you also get a strong sense of the thinking process of making the work, the creative tension between thinking and doing?
Thinking of Sean Scully as I have been doing recently, I was remembering the exhibition of paintings and works on paper at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal in 2005.
Was it really that long ago? Visiting it was my birthday treat that year, and I took the trip up a few times during the three months it was open.
I liked that there were so many pieces of work (there were 23 in all) in a relatively small space. It was possible to get to know them over a period of time and to see how they related to each other. Although we wouldn’t think of Scully as a systems artist, the fact that he works in series means that you do see relationships between works very clearly and that the work becomes more than each individual painting.
In the catalogue for that show Scully says:
…very often with painting, when you see someone’s painting for the first time you can’t really relate to it. You have to see it over time, and you have to see different kinds of works by the same artist, and kind of live with it, live with the experience of that painting and come back to it until you sort of connect to it
If I have a favourite artist it is Sean Scully. I remember once visiting Tate Modern with a friend, and in the time it took him to see everything in there I had viewed only the three Scullys that were on show. I was literally mesmerised by them. For me, the type of naturally occurring trance state, or reverie, that Franz Anton Mesmer (re)discovered is just the kind of experience provoked by many of Scully’s paintings. Whilst in some ways all aesthetic experience comes into the category of naturally occurring trance, (or if you prefer ‘flow’ state), the work by Sean Scully seems particularly to put me there.
You could imagine that a gallery might be a good place to find time for contemplation. .. unless it is such a gigantic space that walking past the art becomes the norm.
Surely he is right about abstraction, it does require contemplation and time, and isn’t it also the case that it rewards the time and contemplation given to it. That is certainly my experience with Scully’s paintings, even the early, minimalist-leaning work.
In Turps Banana, the interview is supplemented by some excellent reproductions, all of early work. I have come to like the more recent Wall of Light series (like the one in my photograph above, taken at Centre Pompidou) so much that I had forgotten how powerful some of the early works are. Soft Ending 1969, for example, seems to have an opticality that is understated or resisted in the later work. The development of Scully’s oeuvre could be read as an increasing emphasis on the physicality and objecthood of painting. Of course that physicality includes the optical much as it could also be seen as a container for the spiritual. Scully talks a lot about the spiritual in art, but I don’t remember him defining what he means by it. What he says in Turps Banana about contemplation and time possibly hints at a way of viewing that approaches spirituality in the sense of meditation.
The new issue of Turps Banana also includes interviews with, or articles about painters such as, Tomma Abts, Christopher P. Wood, Che Lovelace, Gavin Lockheart, René Daniëls and Rose Wylie.
Check out this post at Abstraction Blog with some good photos of three new Scully paintings at his current show at Kerlin Gallery, Dublin, and a link to itunes where you can download Turps Banana.
Abstraction Blog posted about a new exhibition at Tate St Ives: The Indiscipline of Painting, subtitled International Abstraction from the 1960s to Now. At last! A big show of abstract painting, and it’s outside London too.
It opened yesterday and continues until 3 January 2012, bringing together paintings by British, American and European artists, made during the last fifty years.
I am even more delighted to discover that this project is a collaboration between Tate St Ives and Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, and that when it has closed at Tate St Ives it will travel to the Mead Gallery and show between 14 January and 10 March 2012. Coventry Arts Centre is near where I live (no matter that every time I have attempted to visit this year it has been closed). I can go see it in St Ives and then visit regularly from January to March.
Of the 49 painters included in the show I am particularly looking forward to seeing work by Tomma Abts ; John M. Armleder, Daniel Buren, Mary Heilmann, Blinky Palermo, Bridget Riley, Robert Ryman, Sean Scully, Frank Stella, Myron Stout and Dan Walsh.
The Tate write-up about the exhibition says
The contemporary position of abstract painting is problematic. It can be seen to be synonymous with a modernist moment that has long since passed, and an ideology which led the medium to stagnate in self-reflexivity and ideas of historical progression. The Indiscipline of Painting challenges such assumptions. It reveals how painting’s modernist histories, languages and positions have continued to provoke ongoing dialogues with contemporary practitioners, even as painting’s decline and death has been routinely and erroneously declared.
Painting is dead. Long live painting!