patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Tess Jaray

From Centre at The Loud & Western Building

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From Centre, an exhibition of reductive abstract works, curated by Saturation Point and Slate Projects was on view at The Loud & Western Building, from 11 April to 26 April 2015 showing the following artists:
William Angus-Hughes, Rana Begum, Martin Church, Nathan Cohen, Rhys Coren, Natalie Dower, Judith Duquemin, Julia Farrer, Ben Gooding, Lothar Götz, Hanz Hancock, Tess Jaray, Silvia Lerin, Peter Lowe, Patrick Morrissey, Laurence Noga, Charley Peters, Richard Plank, Giulia Ricci, Carol Robertson, Robin Seir, Steve Sproates and Trevor Sutton.

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Installation shot, from left to right works by Laurence Noga, Patrick Morrissey and Martin Church. Image by courtesy of Slate Projects.

It’s an impressive line up, spanning several generations of artists, born in every decade from the 1930s to the 1980s, and making a convincing case for the growing relevance of abstract art in the UK.

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Installation shot, works from left to right by Natalie Dower, Martin Church, Julia Farrer, Rhys Coren, Laurence Noga. Image by courtesy of Slate Projects

Thinking about abstraction’s continued relevance may require me to at least mention Zombie Formalism, (“Formalism because this art involves a straightforward, reductive, essentialist method of making a painting and Zombie because it brings back to life the discarded aesthetics of Clement Greenberg”), if only to suggest that the term, coined by artist -critic Walter Robinson, quoted in brackets above, seems to refer more to the market than to the art and may appear more pertinent in the USA than in the UK where alternative modernisms have sometimes held more sway than the version associated with Greenberg and Fried. It is Constructivism I have in mind, its UK variant Constructionism and the Systems Group, which for the artists at From Centre are more central than Abstract Expressionism etc.

The reductive (but not necessarily essentialist or straightforward) works on view at From Centre seem to me to be a genuine attempt at continued participation in a living, though contested, tradition.

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Installation shot, works from left to right by Julia Farrer, Robin Seir, and Tess Jaray. Image by courtesy of Slate Projects

In Dower’s 2013 Painting Polymorph, a subtle pink rectangle is halved down the middle, from which the central point of a pale yellow circle is found, and within that circle a white rectangle beneath an irregular black triangle are positioned. Or maybe there is no “above” or “beneath”, a rectangle within a circle is divided into three different shaped triangles, two white and one black. Alternatively, we simply have a rectangle divided into nine other shapes. The figures and their relationships are not random but calculated mathematically, the parts being strictly determined by the whole, to my mind the most elegant definition of a system. The painting has subtlety, serenity, beauty and a little excitement too, with its alternating views and the slight after-imaging taking place.

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Natalie Dower, Polymorph, 2013, oil on canvas, 61 x 86.5 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist.

Other artists here who employ mathematical or numerical systems include Peter Lowe, a former member of the 1970s Systems Group founded by Malcolm Hughes and Jeffrey Steele. He defines systems in his work as “a way of communicating an intelligible idea in terms of shapes colours and forms, or an organisation principle that I predetermine and allow to run to see what the outcomes will be…” In his painting here, Triangles within a Dodecagon, he takes the regular twelve sided shape as its starting place and bases an equilateral triangle between two of the vertices, or along one of the sides. A second triangle is found by taking the base across three vertices, a third across four and a fourth across five. The fourth triangle being the last one that can be produced by following this process, is exactly central, each of its sides spanning four sides of the dodecagon. In the painting here the resultant figures are positioned on a square canvas, losing the surrounding dodecagon altogether. The colours, black, white and red create four planes: a white ‘background’, in front of which is a plane including the largest and smallest triangles in black, in front of which is the red triangle, in front of which is the white triangle. Of course they shift creating varying perceptual gestalts.

Installation shot, from left to right, works by Peter Lowe, Rana Begum and Nathan Cohen

Installation shot, from left to right, works by Peter Lowe, Rana Begum and Nathan Cohen. Image by courtesy of Slate Projects

There are shifting gestalts in Rana Begum’s painted relief, No. 317, the actual three-dimensionality of the piece, combined with the movement of the viewer results in multiple variations of form, whereas in Charley Peters’ fascinating painting Plexus we are presented with the illusion of flatness within an illusory three dimensional space.

In Giulia Ricci’s Order Disruption Painting there’s something strange going on spatially, the patterned repetition of a triangular motif creating something akin to a systemic field which breaks down in places as the pattern is interrupted, resulting in the appearance of wormholes or spatial anomalies that can also be interpreted as twisting forms caught in the net of the surface whilst at the same time forming that surface. For me, her work explicitly links system to visual pattern.

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Giulia Ricci, Order/Disruption Painting no.2, 2012, Laser engraved laminated board and acrylic paint, hand painted, 61 x 101 x1.8cm, Edition of 3. Image by courtesy of the artist

All the artists in this show, perhaps to varying degrees, share an interest in system and/or series. The two tend to go together when a numerical system is being explored. However Julia Farrer’s Knot in Time, seems more to be the product of an entirely empirical enquiry. In both approaches I think there is a search going on, not for the one definitive statement but rather for knowledge. The traditional notion of the masterpiece is challenged,  just as it seems totally out of step with our post-digital experience. With Farrer perhaps we have series but not necessarily system, with Laurence Noga I think we have both, but the system is more operational than mathematical.

Yet, each work in this exhibition does command attention as its own thing, perhaps the title of Carol Robertson’s painting Aura is suggestive of this. Whilst in the work different coloured bands surrounding a circle might be likened to an aura, I wonder if that famous Walter Benjamin opposition between mechanical reproduction and the aura of the single artwork is also being referenced. Paradoxically, the serial methodology both challenges and upholds the singularity of each individual piece: singular within series, one but not all.

There may exist differences in emphasis between the generations represented in this exhibition. Perhaps the older artists show more interest in structure in comparison to the younger ones who may appear as interested in the breakdown of order as in its establishment. Contrasting, say, the Trevor Sutton painting Christow with Giulia Ricci’s Order Disruption Painting, could reinforce this view, as might opposing the serene geometry of the Natalie Dower to the visual excitation of Patrick Morrissey’s work, or the stability of Sutton with the kinetic, off- balance effect of Morrissey (see image below), and I know I am going too far in contrasting the contained circularity of Farrer’s Knot in Time or Robertson’s Aura with the eccentricity of Martin Church’s Definitions (Study No. 3), because mostly what I am finding here is continuity.

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Installation shot, from left to right works by Trevor Sutton and Patrick Morrissey. Image by courtesy of Slate Projects

Without succumbing to the much too linear (non-systemic) notion of progress, I do want to suggest that these generationally diverse artists, in their shared commitment to an economy of means and a formal language, rooted in the tradition of constructivism and systems art, continue to develop this rich field of artistic activity.

Watch this space!


(There is an 
illustrated catalogue accompanying the exhibition, with excellent essays by Nathan Cohen and Laura Davidson and an introduction by Alex Meurice.)

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British Abstract Painting in the Seventies: Stagnation or New Possibilities?

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In the seventies abstract painting in Britain was in crisis. At least that’s how it seemed to some. If during the sixties it had become hegemonic that privileged position was on the wane. Peter Fuller would shortly declare American abstraction to be not much more than a CIA plot, within the discipline of painting figuration was in resurgence, whilst outside it performance art and conceptualism were fast becoming the dominant art forms, leading to the stagnation of abstract painting. The exhibition New Possibilities, Abstract Painting from the Seventies, a show of fourteen painters from the period (all still painting today), at the Piper Gallery counters this viewpoint, demonstrating that instead abstraction in this decade was vibrant and varied.

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Installation shot (right. Gary Wragg, Carnival, left Trevor Sutton That Swing.4.K). Image by courtesy of The Piper Gallery

In her gallery talk co curator Sandra Higgins introduces Gary Wragg‘s Carnival (1977-79) as the show’s opening statement, as if it were shouting “this is abstraction!” not a representation of the world, rather a celebration within in it, the gestures and colours resonant of graffiti and the detritus of building sites, brimming with the energy and excitement of the city, simultaneous with its squalor and vulnerability.

And if the opening statement is a shout, the next is almost a whisper: Trevor Sutton‘s That Swing.4.K (1979), five foot square, bisected by an off vertical line achieved by joining two canvases black to the left and blue to the right, with the green of the painted edge just showing as a narrow line down the (off) centre.

Turning to the Untitled (1973) geometric painting on paper by Patricia Poullain, Higgins tells the story of her continuing to paint every day in her summer-house, facing the countryside, whilst making ‘pure painting’, both “in nature” and “against nature” at the same time.

In Alice Sielle‘s 3D Blue and Gold Segments (1978), drawing, within a shallow illusionistic space is more prominent. Approaching Op Art, carefully rendered three-dimensional abstract objects (segments) combine together on a grey ground to make an image that is more than the sum of its parts, appearing to generate light as much as reflect it. Sandra Higgins recalls asking her how she managed to paint it with such precision, and receiving the answer “I don’t know”.

The one painting I came here specifically to see was Purple Heart (1979) by Mali Morris. If Carnival is a shout and That Swing.4.K is a whisper then this is a song.

Mali Morris, 'Purple Heart', 1979, Acrylic on canvas, 167 x 165.5 cm. Image courtesy of Piper Gallery

Mali Morris, Purple Heart, 1979, Acrylic on canvas, 167 x 165.5 cm, Image courtesy of Piper Gallery

The purple heart shape of the title takes up nearly half of the canvas, and around it smaller, colour/forms harmonize, mediating, for me, a set of binary oppositions like hard and soft, head and heart, colour and line, form and content, object and image, words and music.

In Graham Boyd‘s Descender (1976) the large canvas has undergone a process of masking and spray painting resulting in a series of subtly gradated narrow bands of rich colour creating an undulating optical space.

The earliest painting in the show, Albert Irvin‘s Glow (1971) has decorative colours that echo the lines of the support whilst also looking virtually formless, the liquid paint poured, sprayed, splattered and at times approaching the condition of a gas.

William Henderson‘s marvelous Funky Black and Catch Me (1978) is as much built as painted. Rainbow bands on a black ground multiplying from left to right, until at the right hand third the space is completely filled, and the space itself seems to bend and deepen towards that side. It is an exciting painting, the visual equivalent of jazz ( be-bop rather than cool). Looking at the painting with me he explains how he achieved the rainbow stripes by loading a brush with contrasting colours and drawing it across the canvas. Either it worked or it didn’t and he would have to do it again.

Perfectly situated at the end of the gallery so it can be seen from many distances is Barrie Cook‘s spray painted Blue, Red and Yellow Grid (1977). As I journey towards it I am unsure how much of what’s happening is optical and how much is physically there.

Installation image by courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Installation image by courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Black vertical stripes are flanked by blue and violet creating an optical central horizontal light blue line – I think.

There’s opticality even in Jeanne Masoero‘s Basis for Light, Series II, no. 7 (1977) the nearest work in the exhibition to ‘systems art’. Comprising built up layers of torn white paper and PVA glue in loosely alternating rectangles of horizontal and vertical lines and resembling ploughed fields seen from the air, the structure is both accentuated and denied by the way the light and shadow is distributed over the uneven surface. Momentarily, I feel sure I see colours on that surface …and then I’m less sure.

Tess Jaray‘s Petros (1979) indices a different kind of uncertainty, the muted colours at times only just distinguishing the repeated architecture based motifs from the ground on which they seem to hover.

Rush Green (1977) by Frank Bowling is arrived at through the pouring of paint, more gravitational than gestural, the flow of paint looking gentle and slow. The verticality of the image elicits figure associations, and the richness of colour leads me to relate to it as if it were a mummy or possibly even the Turin Shroud.

Frank Bowling, Rush Green, 1977, Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery, 1977,

Frank Bowling, Rush Green, 1977, Acrylic on canvas, 167.6 x 71.1 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery

Whilst Bowling achieves an ‘all-over’ anti-composition, by contrast C. Morey de Morand‘s masking tape rectangles in There is Always More (1978) are deliberately placed in four colour groups against a shifting red ground.

Finally, six Desmond Rayner gouaches offer yet another version of abstract painting: Art Deco inspired geometric patterns that could be mistaken for screen prints if it weren’t for the uniqueness of the colour mixes. Interested in invention rather than personal expression he sees the works as entertainment, encouraging us to “relax and enjoy (them) at surface level”.

Installation shot, Desmond Rayner Gouaches, Courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Installation shot, Desmond Rayner Gouaches, Courtesy of The Piper Gallery

Seeing the diversity of these works I find agree with Sam Cornish who, in the catalogue essay, argues that this exhibition shows that

The break up of the Modernist consensus and the rise of the expanded field did not result in abstraction stagnating but rather in a period of complex, even frenetic experimentation, of new possibilities.

But what of continuing relevance? In the same essay Cornish brings attention to Mali Morris’s “materiality and touch”, which reminds me of the recent article by David Sweet at Abstract Critical where, questioning the relevance of  “the kind of average lyrical abstraction of the late colour field period” and highlighting the importance of detail in the era of high-definition he partially equates touch with detail. Commenting on a 2012 painting by Morris he describes her intelligent handling of the “resolution that detail brings”.

And glancing up at my HD TV whilst writing this, I am distracted by a programme about the popular singer Tony Bennett, suggesting that his refusal to update his material was later interpreted by younger audiences as “cool” leading to his recent return to popularity. Could it be that Patricia Poullain also remains relevant but this time through her persistence, doggedly following her very specific, repetitive, line of enquiry?

Patricia Poullain, 'Untitled' 1973, Acrylic on paper, 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy The Piper Gallery

Patricia Poullain, Untitled 1973, Acrylic on paper, 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy of The Piper Gallery

In suggesting that Morris’s work stays relevant by updating itself and Poullain’s by staying the same I am no doubt having my cake and eating it, so let me suggest a third way in which these abstract painters may continue to be relevant. Advances in the field of cognitive science made since the seventies could make some of these paintings more contemporary now than they were then. Barrie Cook’s work for example has affinity with experimental findings made recently into how we construct colour, findings that challenge some of what we thought we knew from Sir Isaac Newton, the philosophical implications of which are explored by Donald D. Hoffman in his book Visual Intelligence, How We Create What We See.

Indulging in these closing speculations I find that I am making a claim not only for the vitality of abstract painting in the seventies but also for the new possibilities abstraction may yet have in store.

New Possibilities: Abstract Painting From The Seventies is on at The Piper Gallery, 18 Newman Street, London until 21 December 2012.