patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Chambers

Nine Painters, Syson Gallery, Nottingham

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I must have been nine or ten years old when my dad took me to the visitor centre at the yet-to-be-built nuclear power station at Heysham, Lancs, where artist impressions of the plant were accompanied by highly optimistic commentary related via head-phones. Many years later, in 1989, I saw the plant with my own eyes and it bore little resemblance to my memory of those artist’s impressions. There was a marked contrast between what was promised and what was delivered, certainly from an aesthetic point of view. There had also by now been a huge shift in public reception of nuclear power in general. After all, there had been the Chernobyl disaster and the Three Mile Island accident. Early optimism had turned into disappointment and foreboding. There was also the feeling that malevolent forces were at work (reinforced by the blatant lies that had been told about the economics of nuclear power around the time that Thatcher’s government privatised the industry). And maybe this narrative reflects another, the rise and demise of modernism.

Sean Cummins, Operator, 2016, acrylic on canvas, image by courtesy of the artist

Sean Cummins’s large painting Operator, (2016), here at Nine Painters, at Syson Gallery, Nottingham, recalls late modernist colour field abstraction and pop art, in this pared down representation of an operator in a nuclear power plant. However, this is not a portrait, the schematic representation of the face providing little by way of individual detail. And my interpretation of the sparse forms as the interior of the operations room of a power station arises as much from the title as from specific clues in the painting. Nevertheless, it does seem to posit both optimism, or rather a nostalgia for that optimism, and foreboding. Whilst the painting is all high coloured surface, there is also a sense of something awry beneath the surface.

I think something similar is happening in Steph Goodger’s wonderful paintings of coloured flashes on dark grounds that give way only gradually to figurative detail, and there is specific detail here, almost as if they could be portraits… of places. At first I find the attractiveness of the paint handling and the colour fascinating in themselves, seeing these as abstract paintings, until it dawns on me that these are night-time scenes of the makeshift homes of refugees in Calais.

Steph Goodger, The Twilight Kingdom III, 2017, oil on canvas. Image by courtesy of the artist

There are also paintings here by Goodger of boxcars. They are even more like portraits, I hear another viewer comment on imagining that all steam engines and carriages have faces and blaming it on Thomas the Tank Engine. At least I am not on my own.  I hear someone else remark “oh a steam train, how nice!” I don’t know how long it takes for me to realise that boxcars have had a more sinister use than for freight transport. The Nazis used them to transport prisoners to the concentration camps, and it occurs to me that these paintings allude to this something awry beneath the surface. The observed details are very specific to each “portrait” but the suggestions of human cargoes are general, creating a vague sense of unease.

There are undercurrents in the minimal figuration of Michael Simpson. A tiny painting, entitled Squint, (2016-17), is cleverly situated very high on the wall in the main gallery, and could have been cut out of his large painting that won the John Moores prize last year. In that painting a step ladder is pictured beneath a leper squint. In medieval times a squint was a small opening in the wall of a church that provided people with leprosy a way of peering in to see and hear the sermon without touching any of the congregation. Here at Syson gallery we are in want of a ladder. One of the judges of the 2016 John Moores Painting Prize, the artist Ansel Krut, speaking of the winning painting said that the artist “uses an almost minimal vocabulary to open up a world of great sympathetic imagination” and that the painting “touches on the nature of silence, on distance and on exclusion. But most importantly, it touches on the privileges of looking.” The same could be said of the tiny Squint painting on display here, and also of the equally tiny paintings of single cupboards or safes (?) with their doors open.

Installation snapshot of Michael Simpson, Squint, 2016-17, oil on canvas, my photo

Another of the John Moores judges, Richard Davey, is the curator of Nine Painters, here bringing together a rather disparate group of painters from within the UK, associated with either the John Moores prize or the Royal Academy. I asked him “why these nine?” his answer was close to “why not?”

Other figurative painters here include Gabriella Boyd whose colourful works on paper may also appear at first-sight to be abstract celebrations of colour and pattern and only on further viewing do erotic undercurrents seem suggested. (I worry slightly when I say this, in case it’s just me.)

Richard Kenton Webb also approaches abstraction, in that figurative motifs resembling parts of musical instruments, in greens, yellows and blues, rendered with a chalky, high-pigment oil paint made by the artist, float in a shallow, almost non-figurative space (there are clouds and a hill). Five big paintings in horizontal, almost panoramic format, are stacked one above another creating a wall of alluring colour. The set is entitled The Five Senses, (2015-17), each painting named individually, Smell, Taste, Touch, Sound and Sight, in keeping with Webb’s interest in synaesthesia. The paintings are impossible to photograph, and absolutely have to be seen for real in an exhibition space, highlighting the artist’s insistence that digital viewing has become a commonplace, against which, going to a gallery and looking at physical works has become more interesting. The digital represents our boring experience of the everyday, which is contradicted by the committed observation that painting engenders and that evokes all the senses at once.

Stephen ChambersThe Perfect Nude 1, (2010), is clearly a figurative painting but his command of colour makes a formalist reading of his work at least tempting. A temptation to which the curator has almost succumbed by placing it next to an abstract painting Eleventh Hour Squared 3, by Selma Parlour. Both artists make extensive use of cadmium yellow, for Chambers it is the floor upon which the nude rests, for Parlour it is more ambiguous. It could describe a section of wall above what could be read as a window, or rather the top left corner of a window, or maybe instead, a quadrant of a pyramid in bird’s eye view. Alternatively, it’s a yellow truncated triangle in an arrangement of coloured geometric or architectural shapes on a flat surface.

Selma Parlour, Eleventh Hour Squared 3, 2016, oil on linen. Image by courtesy of the artist

Reading Eleventh Hour Squared 3, (2016), as a flat surface becomes more difficult the more that shadows are perceived and the more the luminous blue square is perceived as sky through a window pane flanked by a brown frame, the primary image that I keep settling upon, until the pyramid reasserts itself. But then I am puzzled by the sense of this being a corner or a quadrant. In what context might one see only this part of either a pyramid or a window? Photography comes to mind, the camera frame characteristically cropping objects in this way. And there is something about the colour quality, thinly applied hues, with the white surface behind giving them brilliance, which is reminiscent of a photograph or a computer screen. The paint application, transparent films of oil paint, with no visible traces of the artist’s toil, also lends itself to this interpretation. If photography is “drawing with light”, then Parlour’s paintings are closely akin to photography. However, they are ultimately abstract because figurative interpretations, like the ones suggested above never quite work enough to arrive at definite conclusions. What might have been perceived as a window frame probably works best if seen as a picture of a painting, this one.

Similarly in Cloud II, (2017), although there is more of a depicted space, a kind of stage within which objects are situated, the objects are like paintings within a painting. In Parlour’s work it is as if the hint at referential content is always self-referential, always bringing us back to the painting itself.

Selma Parlour, Cloud II, 2017, oil on linen, image by courtesy of the artist

There may also be references to the history of abstraction, specifically post-painterly abstraction, or colour field painting, if not in the scale of the works, then in the artist’s choice of technique, in which the method of production is hidden by the method of production itself, the labour painted out or sublimated.

The paintings here by Eleanor Bartlett, on the other hand, wear their labour on their sleeves. Here we get much more painterly abstraction in robust materials like tar and metal paint on canvas that also looks heavy-duty. Their physicality is underscored by the repudiation of colour other than the natural hues and tones of the materials. Yet the small pieces Untitled #35 and #36, (2016), have a contradictory delicate quality, as if the loose geometric forms, rough squares or rectangles cut off along one edge, resembling pits in the ground, have transformed alchemically into precious metals.

Eleanor Bartlett, Untitled #35 and #36, 2015, tar and metal paint on canvas. Image by courtesy of the artist

These two paintings are positioned right next to the tiny diptych by Michael Simpson of open-doored cupboards or safes, bringing to attention the formal similarities of the two pairs of paintings, even though they arise from quite different traditions and concerns. Curator Richard Davey seems fond of doing this, also placing larger paintings by Bartlett so they flank one of Goodger’s boxcars. Again, formal resonances between otherwise very different works are made apparent.

installation snapshot, Untitled paintings by Eleanor Bartlett, tar and metal paint on canvas, 2015, either side of Steph Goodger, Boxcar II, 2014, oil on canvas, my photo

If in Bartlett’s paintings base materials may sometimes appear to transform into precious metals it is in no way because the materials have to become form in order to achieve this. No, these paintings are physical presentations of the material displayed for its own sake. If they become something else they always do so whilst also staying resolutely material.

In Mali Morris‘s abstract paintings, although there is clear enjoyment of the materiality of the paint, it’s de-materialisation into colour and light is more important. And if the physical stuff of paint is transmuted into light, the artist’s toil is transformed into play. The paintings are joyous, fun even, but in the same way that in dance, much effort is expended in making it look easy.

Mali Morris, Together, 2011, acrylic on canvas, image by courtesy of the artist

In Together (2011), a central cruciform shape is suggested by placing rectangles of differing colours in the four corners of the canvas, over a gestural ground in magenta that also seems to float above other grounds or layers of colour, some darker and some lighter than itself. The four rectangles are flatly painted but semi-transparent. There is no doubt that they are resting upon the magenta, having been painted after it was set down. However, because they are painted in different colours they appear to occupy different planes, no longer simply floating above a ground that also appears to float, they enliven the whole space in a complex way that is difficult to describe in words. It is easier to point to it and say “this rectangle seems to occupy a space in front of this one”. The sensation of luminous colours creates a strange two-dimensional space that is anything but flat.

The artist Terry Greene recently brought my attention to a quote by Helen Frankenthaler where she says “it is light that counts above everything. Not coloured light, but colour that gives off light – radiance” and this seems highly applicable to the paintings of Mali Morris.

Mali Morris, Long Crossing (Six/Sixteen), 2012-15. Acrylic on canvas. Image by courtesy of the artist

On the opposite wall, another painting here by Morris is Long Crossing (Six/Sixteen) (2012-2015), in which a loose zig-zagging line in maroon or alizarin crimson tacks horizontally over a scumbled ground of reds, oranges and pinks and in front of it, a further line, in yellow, zig-zags a vertical pathway ending with a left-pointing arrow head. I think I know which elements came first and last, and whilst I don’t really know this, my imagined sequencing of the gestures is based on visual evidence. The yellow line/marks, like the rectangles in Together, are clearly the top layer, the rest of the action taking place behind them. But colour doesn’t behave itself. Visual space and time can disagree and colour gestures that took place earlier can project forward as if they had been made later. The ground upon which actions are based can push forward for re-examination like the surfacing of long forgotten presuppositions. Time is required for events that were background to foreground themselves and return, and for certain colours or gestures to cluster together to form temporary figures like the central S shape that forms a figure of its own only until it gives way to other gestalts. These spatial shifts and temporary alliances of parts, that never compete with the whole, cannot be perceived simultaneously even though they are always already there, and even when I have viewed the painting for a very long time new gestalts can still surprise me. I am reminded of that wonderful line in that poem by John Donne where, punning on his own name, he says “when thou hast done, thou hast not done, for I have more”. In Morris’s work I continually have this sense that there is always more, that done deals are never once and for all, that decisions are continual “decidings”, not nouns but verbs, as if our future is not necessarily closed and could yet be re-imagined, which leaves me with a certain optimism, even if only for the duration of my visit.

Nine Painters, curated by Richard Davey, continues at Syson Gallery until 6 May

It includes paintings by: Eleanor Bartlett, Gabriella BoydStephen Chambers, Sean Cummins, Steph GoodgerRichard Kenton Webb, Mali Morris, Selma Parlour, and Michael Simpson

Lion and Lamb Gallery Summer Saloon Show

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Getting to the Lion and Lamb Summer Saloon Show early on opening night I bump into artist Enzo Marra. We take some snaps and chat about the work on view. Forty three painters are represented:

Phillip Allen, Kiera Bennett, Simon Bill, Juan Bolivar, Claudia Böse, John Bunker, Jane Bustin, Stephen Chambers, John ChilverDan Coombs, Ashley Davies, Benjamin Deakin, Hayley Field, Mick Finch, Kirsten Glass, Andrew Graves, Hanz Hancock, Dan HaysMark Jones, David Leeson, Caroline List, Declan McMullan, Patrick Morrisey, Alex Gene Morrison, Darren Murray, Joe Packer, Andy Parkinson, Dan Perfect, Daniel Pettitt, Clare Price, Fiona Rae, Andrew Seto, Francesca Simon, Lucy Stein, Michael Stubbs, Emma TalbotDolly Thompsett, Michelle Ussher, Jacqueline Utley, Covadonga Valdes, Caroline Walker, Freyja Wright, Mark Wright.

Many of them are well known, and many are artists previously not shown.

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Fiona Rae’s Party Time is Coming takes central position, with its black fluffy figures and colourful cartoon swishes and stars, on a lilac ground topped with a pink pool of paint running over into carefully controlled drips.

Fiona Rae, Party Time Is Coming

My snap of Fiona Rae, Party Time Is Coming

As well as the demoniacal teddy there are black ‘non-figures’ dancing in an ambiguous space that has hints of a floor but then could just as well be outer space. The paintings is both frivolous and slightly menacing, party time is coming but that’s not necessarily a good thing, almost like the invitation to party is being called by mischievous gremlins from Joe Dante’s 1984 comic horror film.

Above Party Time Is Coming, on the right, is Emma Talbot’s Matins Vespers, a “before and after” painting, in two halves separated horizontally, morning  and night, a female cartoon-like figure in a kitchen making a drink of tea or coffee of hot chocolate, the action of the intervening day being hinted in the ‘after’ state. There’s anticipation and regret simultaneously evoked on a representation of a black and white gridded decorative tile, another kitchen theme. Katrina Blannin suggests to me that the black and white grid is “in conversation” with my own painting Cover, to the left of the Rae, a grid or chequer board of lozenge shapes in black and white, obscuring a multi-coloured surface underneath, but not so much obscured that you can’t tell it’s there. The underneath is incorporated into the covering top layer.  And layering seems to be a theme in many of the paintings here. Enzo brings my attention to the layering and the grid armature in Mark Jones’ painting Baby Doll, commenting on how the armature becomes incorporated into the content, another layer of meaning if you will.

My snap of Mark Jones, Baby Doll, oil on canvas

My snap of Mark Jones, Baby Doll, oil on canvas

It’s Mark Jones who points out to me the layering in Daniel Pettit’s Lovely Slang, above and left of the Fiona Rae, a green ground supporting a minimum of events,  and then there’s Sacrifice by Jane Bustin, a beautiful surface created by tiny oil paint brush strokes over a muslin support, leaving half of the muslin unpainted and see-through. Joe Packer’s Superstrake also employs purposive layering, more in perception than materially perhaps, in that it’s trees and landscape that is evoked as if I’m looking through layers of foliage, or undergrowth, and not quite getting out into the clearing, and yet knowing all the time that its paint and maybe “only paint”. Packer says he wants a “suggestion of a looking through trees or a forest, but not in a literal or descriptive way, so that the brushstrokes are still not trying to be anything other than themselves”.

Joe Packer, Superstrake, 2013, oil on canvas, 30cm x 25cm, image by courtesy of the artist

Joe Packer, Superstrake, 2013, oil on canvas, 30cm x 25cm, image by courtesy of the artist

Oasis by Juan Bolivar, is a delightful painting of a painting, or more accurately a naturalistic painting of a postcard of an abstract painting, with full trompe-l’oeil effect. As such it is paradoxical, akin to the liar paradox (Epimenides the Cretan saying “all Cretans are liars”)  it is abstract by being figurative and figurative by being abstract. The content being a Damien Hirst spot painting, it could be said to be ironical about the ironic. It also seems possible that this array of dots is not a Hirst painting at all, simply an array of dots. in relation to a Hirst then it could be a simulacra, a copy without an original.

My photo of Juan Bolivar, Oasis, 2012, acrylic on canvas

My photo of Juan Bolivar, Oasis, 2012, acrylic on canvas

In interpreting it I am tempted to use that famous Zen formulation where all four statements comprise a truth: “it is abstract” “it is not abstract” “it is both abstract and non abstract” “it is neither abstract nor non abstract”. This painting also settles the question for me about whether a painting of a painting could ever be better than the original. This one in my view is better than the ‘original’. Better in that the use of appropriation is more layered therefore more interesting, as well as in its virtuoso painting technique: a hand painted miniature (Enzo Marra: “how did he get the spots flat?”). I like that, for me, it connects to philosophy (and not only Braudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation) and to the tradition of paintings of paintings that goes back way further than postmodernism, into the middle ages, as recently highlighted in Alexander Nagel’s wonderful 2012 book Medieval Modern, Art Out of Time, yet its also a beautiful painting to look at, with all that spatial layering that I am finding so fascinating.

There are other paintings too that I think of as ‘virtuoso’, like Stephen Chambers’ Man with Twig, which reminds me of a Persian miniature, Hayley Field’s Mean Machine, an obscured Sunflower, Dan Hayes’ Interstate, comprising a marix of precisely constructed coloured dots, that coheres into a highway only from a distance (and I sense that I can’t get back quite far enough). Also there’s Francesca Simon’s Below Ground 10, a dark painting that may be a grave stone or simply a square in an illusionistic space, Cavadonga Valdes’ untitled painting of a house and trees in a reflected in a puddle, the theatrical scene by Michelle Ussher: Holding the Head, Freyja Wright’s photographic Journey Between Homes and Caroline Walker’s picture of a swimming pool being cleared of leaves: Skimmed.

Then there are other very precise paintings that are strictly abstract, like the systems inspired paintings of Patrick Morrisey, Francesca Simon and Hanz Hancock along with others that address the tradition of abstraction, like Kiera Bennet’s Painting recalling early modernism. Keep It All, by Claudia Bose is a charming painting of indefinite window-like shapes over a green ground allowing a partial view of something beyond the ‘windows’, layers again, like in Sleep by Clare Price, where a pink and blue roughly painted layer of semi transparent colour all but erases a series of near geometric figures or patterns. Andrew Graves’ daring Untitled painting is orange on orange, a piece of orange painted canvas stuck onto a canvas painted with an orange ground ( I remember it as orange but the photo may be correct in showing it as nearer to red).

Top left: Claudia Bose, "Keep it all", Bottom left: John Bunker "Charline" Right: Andrew Graves: "Untitled"

Top left: Claudia Bose, “Keep it all”, Bottom left: John Bunker “Charline” Right: Andrew Graves: “Untitled”

John Bunker’s collage Charline, includes elements that are reminiscent of Russian Constructivism along with more irregular shapes that I read as somehow more irrational, though I doubt the rationale of that reading. Just above the centre a mirror-like shiny aluminium foil (?) square brings the external world into the picture frame. I suspect Ad Reinhardt would have disapproved.

I have long admired paintings I have seen only in reproduction or online by Andrew Seto, Alex Gene Morrison, Dan Coombs, Dan Perfect and Phillip Allen, and their work here is distinctive.  Seto’s painterly object(s) in Device, could be sculptures in an unspecified space, marked out only by the horizon line and a sense of ‘floor’, whereas Morrison’s image has more the feel of a poster, but more painterly than that, with diagonal green strokes to the bottom right opening up a receding space against the darker green ground. The Dan Coombs painting could be two stretched out figures, male heads on female bodies, throwing snowballs at each other in the fiery heat of a tropical landscape, the heads, each a mirror image of the other, look dot matrix printed and stuck on, they may even be famous but if they are I am not recognising them. I think the snowballs are drawing-pins stuck into the canvas. It’s anarchic and wonderful. So is Dan Perfect’s Operator, a maximal space, crammed with events that almost seem to make sense figuratively, whilst constantly thwarting figural interpretation. The celebration of image and paint in high colour seems to induce a state that alternates between euphoria and mania. There’s celebration of paint too in the painting by Phillip Allen. I am impressed by the variety of handling, combining flatly painted areas in the centre with thick encrusted layers lining the top and bottom, creating a space that resembles a theatre of competing patterns.

My photo of the Phillip Allen painting (no description details)

My photo of the Phillip Allen painting (no description details)

A theatre of competing patterns might also be a description of the summer saloon show. One of the things I like about the Lion and Lamb Gallery is this continued bringing together of different painters, creating a rich dialogue about what contemporary painting is and might become.

The show continues until September 1st.

Summer Saloon!

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