Posts Tagged ‘systems art’
A recent show I wish I had been able to visit, unfortunately I never managed to get there, was Reflections, Natalie Dower, at Eagle Gallery. There’s a good review of it at Saturation Point in which James Campion discusses the selection of works, reflecting on some individual pieces, specifically the Spiral Track works (1984), Colour Spiral Track no.2 (19) and Jungle Sphere, (1988), and briefly considers Dower’s relationship to the tradition of Constructivist and Systems art.
The exhibition, drawing from Dower’s career of over 40 years, and presenting recent paintings hung in counterpoint to selected historic works, including a selection of intricate reliefs that have not been exhibited since exhibitions at the Curwen Gallery, would have been an invitation to reflect on the connections between works from the eighties up to the present day. Even without a visit, in surveying material available online (the Saturation Point review, an Eagle Gallery website summary, the catalogue with images of the work and an essay by Laurence Noga), I am immediately impressed by Dower’s constancy of purpose along with the way that the relatively simple numerical systems she employs have the power to generate their own forms, almost even without the input of an artist. However, there is an artist here, constantly making choices, experimenting, offering feedback, thus contributing to that larger system, of which each work is a part, a meta-system if you will.
Not actually visiting, I can imagine seeing the work, and I can also remember other works by Dower that I have seen before, like the one I saw here once at the Eagle Gallery, and where, in a conversation with the gallery owner Emma Hill, she noted the beautiful, subtly “faulted” quality of the painted surface. It wasn’t the charming oil on wood Hybrid from this show, but it so easily could have been. I now know enough about Dower’s paintings to guess that they share similar qualities. To really experience them however, does mean getting up close and seeing them first-hand.
In the excellent publication Natalie Dower Line of Enquiry Alan Fowler summarizes the distinctive features of Dower’s work, in comparison with other systems artists, as displaying “a greater lyricism, a more varied use of colour” as well as “a freedom from the strictly orthogonal imagery that characterized the work of many earlier constructivist artists”. I think the “faulted-ness”, specifically in the paintings, is part of what might be included in the idea of the lyricism of Dower’s style.
Some think of the slippage between concept and execution, especially when very slight, as in Dower’s paintings, as a particularly human trait (see comments by Richard Guest on a previous blog post, though referring to quite different content). I think they are right. However, isn’t pure abstract thought also entirely human? (Cogito ergo sum).
For too much of my life I considered “mental arithmetic” as an enemy, a bully to be avoided, because I knew I couldn’t subdue it in open conflict. I put it down to the method of rote learning that disagreed with me as a child, and to the threat of punishment for getting my multiplication tables wrong. That beauty could reside here was unthinkable. That was until I started to notice the pleasurable rhythm of “seven sevens are forty nine” or “six sixes are thirty six” (I may never know why “six fours are twenty four” and in fact most of the other lines of the poem, didn’t have quite the same swing and therefore weren’t as memorable). Then one day one of the clever girls in my class showed me a real table (I mean a matrix not furniture) that she had drawn and coloured-in rather attractively, numbering 1 to 12 along the top and down the side and displaying plain as day the multiplication tables, even making it possible to follow a line say from 4 along the top and 6 along the side and find in the cell where they joined the number 24. It was magic, and it was beautiful: epistemology and aesthetics combined!
I am in no way comparing this visual table with the look of Dower’s paintings, nor suggesting that her work is a demonstration of numerical or arithmetic processes, simply that the sudden discovery of the beauty of number, via the visible chart has some resonance with my experience of beauty in Dower’s art.
Is there in each painting and construction a physical manifestation of thought: logic apprehended by the senses, not so much “word made flesh” as perhaps number made material? I have written before about the highly pleasurable experience of attempting to recover the numerical system that spawned a particular painting or relief, and only sometimes thinking I may have succeeded. I do think this is an important aspect of viewing work of this kind, though it is by no means the only thing.
It’s Dower’s work that has me reflecting on the beauty of say a root 2 rectangle, or even a double square, and that’s when I am viewing a specific piece, and also when I am thinking about a work that I once viewed. The numerical system, now communicated, becomes available to my thought independently of the artwork, as if there were such a thing as a “realm of pure thought”. Now what had become material becomes immaterial, non physical, abstract thought.
Dower has said “I want the image to be able to attract and hold the attention of the viewer” her objects/images long since attracted my attention, and continue to hold it beyond the physical viewing of artworks. Nevertheless I do wish I had actually seen the show!
On the final day of the Generator exhibition, Duncan Brennan from Kaleidoscope Gallery, posed a few questions for discussion by the artists. Here is an attempt at recovering some of the conversation from notes. I wasn’t actually there. Think of it as an exercise in constructed memory. I have also taken the liberty of adding some thoughts of my own. I think that the questions alone are generative enough to be worth a post.
DB: How would you define the type of work in this exhibition?
HH: It is work that is created by using a mathematical or logical system
CP (from the exhibition introduction): artwork that is by nature ‘generative’, created once an artist cedes control to an external system or set of rules. The artwork thus results not from the wholly instinctive decisions of the artist, but is formed by objective rules or logical instructions that shape its process or material outcome.
DB: Can you talk about some of the defining characteristics of generative work?
AP: In his 2010 paper Program, be Programmed or Fade Away: Computers and the Death of Constructivist Art, Richard Wright summarises Kenneth Martin’s division of systematic work into three types : 1) the completely predefined system which once set in motion can generate work independently of any further input from the artist. 2) a system that may be initially predefined but is then constantly altered through feedback, bringing into contact with other systems, the ‘program’ thereby being written in conjunction with the work itself. 3) the system which builds up from a primary act without any previous planning, like a self propelled aggregation of logical steps. The works in Generator may be closest to the first of these three definitions.
DB: What makes this different to other forms of abstraction, such as constructivism?
AP: I think it is situated within the Constructivist tradition, though that historical moment has passed. British Constructionist and Systems Group artists saw the need to abandon its utopianism and showed how art could be generated by a numerical or mathematical system. It is different from expressionism, which has been another strand within abstraction.
HH: Constructivism was /is a more political form of creation. Generative art has its own roots, the methodology and interpretatons are unique to the individual
DB: Would you agree that rules need to be constructive rather than restrictive?
HH: Everything in the world is generated by rules. Painting a landscape has rules that govern the outcome of what will be a recognisable presentation. Working in the constraints of rules or systems allows the artist to interpret data and input in many ways. I use a system at work which plots the movement of the railways in graphic representation. I use the variations in the programme to generate some of my own work, the patterns vary according to the input in spite of the fact that the system itself is governed or regulated by a computer.
DB Can a computer make art?
HH: A computer can make extremely complex patterns/can create algorithmic sequences , it cannot make emotional decisions as to what looks good. That is down to human preference. I/we make sequences based on numerical systems, something working within the grid. Patrick created several works that generated themselves: a module was sent into rotation within a grid, in a concentric spiral and each module had a graphic relationship or difference to the positioning of the the other. However, because of the repetitive nature of the system, repeating aggregations became apparent, appearing almost at random within the matrix, i.e. the formation of pattern. This could then be sampled and magnified into groups and in turn, work was made from tha , a sort of generative mechanism or device to generate pattern.
JI: Yes, computers can make art but humans make computers. The computer is just a tool. An algorithm, performed by a computer, is just a mirror of a set of processes condensed in time and space. It is in this compression that the art lies.
AP: Your question reminds me of a story told by that great systems thinker Gregory Bateson, of a computer programmer in the days of big mainframe computing, who wanted to know about mind in his private large computer. He asked it, “Do you compute that you will ever think like a human being?” The machine then set to work to analyse its own computational habits. Finally, the machine printed the answer ticker tape style, as such machines used to do. The programmer ran to get the answer and found, neatly typed, the words: THAT REMINDS ME OF A STORY”.
DB: Has the computer changed the focus of generative art? Is the computer to generative art what the camera was to representational art?
JI: Good question and there’s probably the same analogue relationship between the computer and generative work, and the camera’s photographic image. It’s not that simple though. Using the computer is just one way of working generatively. It isn’t definitive of generative art.
HH: Human beings create programs by which the computer will create images, but the camera can only record the image which can then be manipulated both outside of the camera and electronically inside. The human brain has always generated images and pattern forming/art. The computers is a tool not a focus, as is the camera for human imagination.
AP: I have my doubts about that little word “just”, as much as I do also about the idea of the computer as a tool. It seems to me that the computer, and indeed technology more generally, gets characterised as just a tool to make it seem smaller than us and in our control, like a spanner, a hammer or a paint brush, when in fact, as a system it obeys its own rules, and incorporates us into its usage. Nevertheless, in Generator it is the contemporary analogue, rather than digital, ‘programmatic’ that is being explored. The computer programme is often used as a metaphor for the human processes of thinking/doing, so we might wonder what the programme is for activities like walking, or breathing, or even attempt to codify neuro-linguistic programmes for performance excellence in any particularly field. In this exhibition the systems that generates the artwork are thought of as analogue programmes, which have clearly been around a lot longer than have computer programmes, but only now that we have the computer are we able to utilise the metaphor for thinking about thinking. I like the circularity of it.
DB: What characterises good generative art? Is it necessary to be either or both conceptually and aesthetically strong?
AP: I think Natalie Dower and Jeffrey Steele answer this best. Here’s Dower in an interview with Patrick Morrissey: “If the input that has generated the idea does not translate into valid visual terms I do not accept it. I have had intellectually interesting ideas that I have had to abandon for that reason”. And here’s Steele in an interview with Katrina Blannin: “…something has good Gestalt or bad Gestalt — has it got a clear shape to it? I can look at one of my paintings and see whether it has good Gestalt or bad, and this has happened occasionally. A clear process of abstract thinking should lead to a satisfying visual Gestalt. I don’t necessarily “reject” or stop working on a project when this is not happening, but it bothers me, and I want to know what is going wrong”.
DB: Are you looking to formalise the human aesthetic?
JI: A human aesthetic is wide reaching and all encompassing. Defining a human aesthetic as work that shows signs of ‘the hand’if that’s what the question suggests, is too limiting”
AP: Maybe formal logic and formal linguistics, abstract languages, like mathematics, all pertinent to computer programming, have close connections to the formal ‘language’ of abstract painting.
DB: Does any of your work explore any of the hypotheses, the rules and processes of the scientist? Do you think generative art work like this can inform scientific study?
AP: I was going to say that whilst likely to have been informed by scientific study, the relationship is unlikely to be reciprocal, but then I remembered that some of the truly fascinating discoveries made in the last few decades in the science of visual cognition was discovered by map makers in the seventeenth century, so I guess you never know!
A detour on my way home from a day’s work brings me once again to that wonderful informal space The Lion and Lamb Gallery, in the back room of a London pub, where I get to see System Painting Construction Archive, curated by Andrew Bick.
Pint in hand, I view works by Andrew Bick, Stuart Elliot, Robert Holyhead, Clare Kenny, Maria Lalic, Karim Noureldin, David Rhodes, Cullinan Richards, Brandon Taylor, exhibited alongside a ‘museum’ of printed matter related to British Construction and Systems Art. In the gallery notes Bick explains that the artists were invited to “place their work alongside”, rather than respond directly to the archive.
Bick’s OGV (grid GW), does directly reference a Gillian Wise image shown in one of the vitrines, and acknowledged in the ‘GW’ of the title.
Its presentation, straddling the corner of the room, less directly references the Russian Tradition via Malevich’s famous Black Square. That tradition clearly also having resonance for Maria Lalic who has been working with the monochrome for some time. Here in her Sevres Blue Landscape Painting (Le Chemin de Sevres. Corot. C1855 – 65), she reintroduces the horizon line, but it is made by the joining of two monochromes, a lower one in brown and an upper one in blue. The non-objective is simultaneously posited and negated: two monochromes entirely abstract, yet it is impossible not to make landscape associations.
Clare Kenny’s Snow Blind appears also to toy with the propositions of ‘concrete’ and ‘representational’ . I think it is collaged from photographs of windows with blinds, the abstract lines and colours occupying my attention along with blotches or painterly stains, which could be read as ‘errors’ in the printing process, or possibly photographed (‘real’) snow flakes through a window pane. I am reminded of that old notion of painting as ‘a window on the world’, this particular ‘window’ being also physically blind-like, in that the paper support is folded, creating a material object that could function as a blind, obscuring the window.
The work by Cullinan Richards also has obscured ‘subject matter’. The title Paula Radcliffe in Disappointing 4th Place is taken from a newspaper article just showing towards the bottom edge of the piece. Possibly the newspaper was used to rest the art work on whilst it was being made and, getting stuck to it, it became an integral part by the end of the production process, almost as if the article became accidental content even whilst what was being constructed was rooted in the universal ‘content’ of the geometric.
Brandon Taylor’s Painting for CB is a construction with coloured wood pieces stuck to a painted grey ground on canvas that reads like a painting. I have the impression that the composition follows a rational formula but I can’t actually work it out. I find that I am counting the pieces, checking whether they are similar in shape and size and how many times each colour is repeated.
I am in a similar mode when looking at the paintings by David Rhodes and Stuart Elliot, attempting for example to work out in what order the lines in Rhodes’ 2.5.2013 (1) were masked and painted on the raw cotton duck. It’s an impressive painting that could have been executed in three sections, and even if it wasn’t I perceive it as comprising three informal ‘panels’, each with black and off-white lines in alternating directions, resulting in an overall “N” shape. It packs a punch, yet there is softness in the lines as a result of the way the paint has gently bled through the masking tape, and a richness of colour that is hidden by the description “black and white”. Likewise with Stuart Elliot’s Untitled (73), where blackboard paint has been applied to primed canvas before being stretched and the image, in so far as there is an image, looks to have been constructed by scumbling the paint over the bars of a wooden stretcher, creating impressions of the stretcher, not only at the edges but through the centre of the canvas, in numerous directions. Again, to say it is black and white would deny the subtlety and warmth of the colours that are nearer to warm greys on ochre.
In Robert Holyhead’s Untitled (yellow), a variegated yellow ground is interrupted by two, flatly painted, white triangular shapes reading as cut-outs, accompanied by a vertical line of a different yellow, running along the right hand edge branching out at top and bottom into two triangles causing the yellow of the ground to recede, and creating a lively ambiguous space.
The two beautiful drawings by Karim Noureldin, Evo (09-11040) and Evo (07-11009), both pencil on paper, look like a geometric starting point is being empirically explored or unfolded through a series or sequence. One of them has a central mass that could be a sculptural object in a space, whereas the other has a vertical zig zag, more rhythm than object.
My attention alternates between wall and vitrine. I read texts on or by Jeffrey Steele, Gillian Wise, Charles Biederman, Anthony Hill, Kenneth Martin etc. and, wanting to turn the pages, I have the sense of a past that is locked, only partially accessible via faded documents, memory and influence, as if the works on the wall are familiarly connected to the archive material or they can be interpreted as having evolved from a “constructive context”, some more consciously connected to the base than others, like the system formula that eludes my attempt to discern it, or like Noureldin’s drawings wending their way through various permutations, continually repeating and changing, awareness of the past leading to an informed openness to an unknown future.
System.Painting. Construction. Archive is showing at Lion and Lamb Gallery until 15 June 2013, and there’s a talk on 8 June at 5pm.
I wish I was going to the opening of this show at the Lion and Lamb Gallery tonight.
I do hope to get along to see it before it closes on 15 June and, assuming I manage it, I will write about it.
In the opposite direction travel-wise there is also an interesting show starting up at the Hepworth, Wakefield this evening and I will be going along to that (it’s much closer to where I live. If there was nothing in it as far as travel and cost are concerned I would be in a dilemma as to which one to go to).
and I hope to write about this one too during the next few days.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.