patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘symbol

William Scott at the Hepworth, Wakefield

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Isn’t  there something about still lives, or nature morte, that corresponds to painting itself? Their near two-dimensionality, the synthetic arrangement and the stillness seems to echo the characteristics of a completed painting. And they are already in a way “abstract”, emptied of narrative and even of nature, in that it is dead. Only in their relationship to the viewer, often as anticipated meal, do they still live.

Perhaps this is what Scott had in mind when he said that they “convey nothing. There is no meaning to them at all but they are a means to making a picture” and that his paintings were abstract “as a still life by Chardin is abstract”.

CR_0151

William Scott, Still Life with Candlestick, 1949-50, Private Collection, Copyright 2013 estate of William Scott, Image by courtesy estate of William Scott and The Hepworth, Wakefield.

Yet, without meaning they are also full of meanings, the table being an ancient metaphor for social life, and in the New Testament, for the kingdom of God. Scott’s paintings, nearly all still lives, on show at the Hepworth Wakefield until 29 September, even at their most abstract evoke other experiences ‘outside of themselves’ often employing straight forward sexual symbolism as in Still Life with Candlestick, 1949-50.

A phallic symbol works by visual pun, it’s a double image, and Scott uses double images in other ways too, a primary reading of a painting often giving way to secondary or tertiary ones.  As well as the purely formal reading, a still life could also easily be interpreted as a landscape or a figure. The magnificent Blue Abstract, 1959, winner of the John Moores Painting Prize that year, is a good example of this, where the still life quickly gives way to the purely formal, and then evokes a landscape. In an earlier painting The Harbour , 1952,  the formal arrangement of lines and colours is primary for me, becoming a representation of a harbour, itself already a symbol of shelter and nurture, and then becoming a reclining figure, recalling the bathing figure in Bonnard’s The Bath, of which Scott painted his own version, entitled White Reclining Nude, in 1956.

The Harbour, 1952

William Scott, The Harbour, 1952, Tate, Copyright 2013 estate of William Scott, Image by courtesy estate of William Scott and The Hepworth Wakefield

At the Hepworth show it is easy to see how the scale and simplification of the image increases through Scott’s career, almost always keeping the referent content of still life, figure or landscape, yet becoming increasingly abstract and universal.

William Scott, White, Sand and Ochre, 1960-1

William Scott, White, Sand and Ochre, 1960-1, Tate, copyright 2013 estate of William Scott, image by courtesy of the estate of William Scott and The Hepworth Wakefield.

Paintings like White, Sand and Ochre, and Still Life with Orange Note, as well as one of Scott’s latest paintings Orange Segments, remind me of the way that ‘pure’ colours refer to the outside world even in the names we give to them, and I experience a moment of confusion: “is orange a colour or a fruit?”

William Scott, Still Life with Orange Note, 1970

William Scott, Still Life with Orange Note, 1970, Collection Ulster Museum, National Museums Northern Ireland, copyright 2013 estate of William Scott, Image by courtesy of the estate of William Scott and The Hepworth Wakefield

I wonder if the more abstract they become the more they invite multiple references, but increasingly ambiguous, subjective ones. Patrick Heron referred to Scott’s work as an “intensely personal amalgam of the figurative and non-figurative” and Herbert Read said that in Scott’s more abstract work he found “a sensuousness and a potency of evocation that I find completely seductive”. Isn’t this what happens with abstraction, and the modernist search for the universal? The more universal the image, the more particulars can be projected onto it. For me, the legacy of modernism that remains urgent is the form or process and content distinction, as well as the recognition of how easily the distinction breaks down, because form is always content at the next higher logical level. The content “an orange”, at  at the next logical level is “a colour contained in a circle” in other words form, but at the next logical level that circular colour becomes content.

The most abstract paintings here are the ones from Scott’s Berlin Blues series, for me the highlight of the show, the blue forms becoming almost pure rhythm especially when each individual painting is seen as part of the larger whole of the series, (effectively achieved in the marvelous space of the Hepworth), blues pulsating against the whites of the ground creating after images that reverberate with the overall rhythm. Here, the associations are with music and dance, despite Scott’s denial that the blues of the title made any reference to “The Blues” explaining that it was named after the blue paint he discovered whilst in Berlin.

In this room and throughout the exhibition, the serial aspect of Scott’s method shows through, too much improvisation and imperfection to be systematic  but certainly series, according to Scott every one of his paintings was related to the one before either as a “continuation of a previous painting or… a reaction against it” and I get a strong sense of that here at the Hepworth. It is a wonderful exhibition and a timely reminder of the brilliance of Scott’s oeuvre.

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Icons and Salt at Ikon Birmingham

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The photo-realist paintings of John Salt have something approaching the miraculous about them. Could they really be paintings? Pictures of photographs of cars, made with airbrush, they look untouched by human hands.

Tree 2001

Tree 2001, Casin on linen, 109 x 166 cm, Tellenbach Collection, Switzerland, Image courtesy of Ikon gallery

In the Greek Orthodox tradition isn’t acheiropoieta the name given to icons not made by human hands? They were allegedly painted by saints, or they appeared miraculously like Veronica’s Veil or the Turin shroud. Maybe the images were made of the salt from Jesus’ sweat.

But these are no icons, though my eye was conned from time to time into thinking that I was looking at very large photographs rather than paintings. In some senses they are not even images, the matter of fact way in which they are produced and presented, renders them artless, real, objects, to be viewed but not worshipped. And in that they are also images, they are images of images, the subject matter of which is artless, found, material as opposed to image in the sense of advertisement, shiny gleaming mirror. Other photo-realists seem more interested in images of this kind.

Ikon Gallery Birmingham is showing work by John Salt until 17 July 2011. I wandered through the two rooms of paintings, 18 in all, spanning 42 years of Salt’s artistic output. Not wishing to be impressed (my mission, you may remember, is to view abstract paintings outside of London), I found myself confronted by a body of work that I was hugely impressed by.

I lingered longest on the 2001 painting Tree, a solitary vehicle, parked outside a disused store, next to a weedy self-seeded tree, the long shadows suggesting evening or morning.

Tree 2001

Tree 2001, Casin on linen, 109 x 166 cm, Tellenbach Collection, Switzerland, Image courtesy of Ikon gallery

I feel it should be evening symbolically, but seeing how the windscreen is condensed it looks like it may be morning. The shadows emphasise the whereabouts of the cables running up the side of the building and bring attention to the puny tree, projecting  a larger than life image of it onto the façade of the building, rather like the projected image of a photograph onto a large canvas, the standard technique for drawing in photo-realist art. The car and the store are a similar colour, terracotta, or rust. Knowing even a little about this kind of work I think it highly unlikely that Salt is interested in the symbolic or metaphoric elements in the piece, and maybe these also are projections, but I find it difficult not to see in the terracotta, a symbol of rust and decay, also hinted at in the parked or abandoned car.  And I find it difficult not to see in the tree at least a gesture of hope, however futile. I feel sure that this is not the content of the picture as far as the artist is concerned. However, I think the NLP mantra ‘the meaning of a communication is the response you receive rather than the intention you had for it’ applies here.

I found I could also interpret the painting in abstract ‘colour-field‘ terms, enjoying the large expanse of orange, framed above by the light blue band of sky, and below by the darker blue/grey of the tarmac. Then becoming aware of the lemon yellow rectangle on the right hand edge, echoed by the adjacent dark grey or black rectangle of the door, within which is a cut-out of white. At the opposite side, there are similar rectangles in almost complementary colours of blue and lilac. In this reading of the painting the car plays almost no role at all. I realise that here I may have been compensating for the abstract paintings I did not find!

Another reading might concentrate more on the signs. I have already mentioned the index sign of the rust colour and the long shadows: signs of decay and death, the icon sign: the painting of the photograph, and there are also the symbol signs represented in the photograph itself: “No Parking Any Time” and “Store for Rent”.

Well, I had parked myself in front of it for long enough and there were other paintings to see, and work to do.  So I left, hoping I would get chance for another viewing before 17 July.