abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘The Black Country

Black Country at Lion and Lamb Gallery

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Traveling this weekend from the Black Country, that beloved place in the Midlands, famous for its industrial heritage and the regional dialect, where I really did hear someone say “how am ya?” and see a children’s colouring book on sale for £2.99 entitled Colouring the Black Country (Lets See How Colourful We Can Make It), to the Lion and Lamb Gallery exhibition Black Country, curated by Nancy Cogswell, seems an odd enough co-incidence to mention it. In the exhibition the term has a more psychological meaning to do with memory, uncertainty, the dark unconscious, the buried and the hidden.

Two paintings by Gillian Lawler seem to reference dystopian science-fiction terrains where one might imagine that mining has resulted in not just subsidence but actual fissures in the earth’s surface. It’s just conceivable that they could depict real landscapes, the naturalistic style suggests as much, rather in the manner of certain Surrealist painters. And something approaching an updated Surrealism is the effect that the paintings have. They elicit a sense of unease, they disconcert, but only slightly, which somehow makes them doubly disconcerting. In relation to anxiety I have the impression that “less is more” especially seems to apply. There is something unsettling in attempting to work out whether the scene portrayed is “real” or fictional, whether to relate to the image as something abstract or representational and then the difference between the two becomes conflated.

Then I discover that the title of one of these paintings Centralia is named after a mining town in the USA that the artist plans to visit in November. The town has been burning underground since the 70s, built over coal mining deposits, sinkholes have appeared, creating fissures with thick dark smoke. All the inhabitants were urged to leave and only a few people still live there.

Gillian Lawler, Centralia, 40 x 40 cm, oil on canvas, 2012. Image by courtesy of the artist

Gillian Lawler, Centralia, 40 x 40 cm, oil on canvas, 2012. Image by courtesy of the artist

Nancy Cogswell’s wonderful painting Dopellganger II is similarly “both abstract and figurative”. I know that’s true of any painting (the famous Maurice Denis quote immediately springs to mind: “It should be remembered that a picture—before being a warhorse, a nude, or an anecdote of some sort—is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order”) but I have a heightened sense of it here. The horizontal bands of bright colour makes it highly reminiscent of an abstract painting somewhere between colour field painting and hard edge abstraction, and the precision of the representational drawing is close to being undermined by the paint drips and runs that become visible on close inspection.  This uncertainty at the formal level is mirrored in the content. Is it just me, or is there something eerie about a partially opened drawer, especially when you can’t see into it? C S Lewis seemed to be onto this in the children’s classic story The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Narnia could be accessed only if the wardrobe door was left ajar. As a child I remember finding this truly frightening. But what to make of two drawers open in mirror opposition? Some form of communication seems to be taking place, but thwarted if ever it had been possible in the first place. I get the sense of hidden content that remains hidden even in the attempt to communicate it to another.

Doppelganger II

Nancy Cogswell, Doppelganger II, 2012, mixed media on linen, 145x120cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Julia Hamilton’s paintings here also have an eerie quality. Both are black and white pictures of objects, one is a jar with a lid, a ginger jar perhaps, and the other is a jug or a chamber pot that has the blurred look a photographed object would have if it was shaken on exposure. And there is an analogue-photographic feel to them, one showing more evidence of paintwork, drips etc than the other. I am particular impressed by the way the image seems to form out of nothing or nowhere, as if it had been latent, in the canvas, and somehow ‘developed’ using paint.


Julia Hamilton, Ajar 2012, oil on canvas, 70 x 50 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

And that development could be seen as almost magical, a revealing of whats beneath, much as the surrealists attempted with automatic writing, painting as communication with the unconscious.

Julia Hamilton, Séance 2012, oil on canvas, 70 x 50 cm

Julia Hamilton, Séance 2012, oil on canvas, 70 x 50 cm

Chris Hanlon’s paintings are enigmatic, engendering a sense of something lost or forgotten, or covered over. Untitled, a picture of a curtain drawn around an object, looks funereal, like it might be hiding a coffin, or maybe only a theatre stage. It is familiar enough to be recognised as a curtain, yet unfamiliar, mysterious because we cannot access what might be covered. But then that’s what curtains do, they obscure. Here we have painting as a window on an obscured reality. We wait for it to draw back to enlighten, but it remains closed.

Cave, is a beautifully precise rendering of a fragment of cloth or paper, a crumpled surface that may once have ‘housed’ something else, a gift perhaps, but the thing it covered has now gone, so peering beneath it reveals nothing.

Christopher Hanlon, Cave, 2011

Christopher Hanlon, Cave 2011, oil on canvas laid over board, 40x25cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Richard Hoey’s Rent covers and reveals at the same time. Behind a slit in glitter encrusted fabric, is a photo of a crucifix, a combination of sexual and religious symbolism, opposing the sacred to the profane as well as questioning that opposition, whereas Reece Jones process driven, dark drawings of places reminiscent of cinematic locations carry an intense and absorbing psychological charge.

Rob Brown examines the way virtual reality penetrates the ‘real’. In Aldeburgh Arch and Chrome Limbo high colour abstract forms are combined with the hyper-real to create places that look plausible as illusionistic spaces, but that could only exist in painting, imagination or in digital media. They are artificial environments built on a sub structure of the natural, that for me act like metaphors for what in Chomsky’s terminology we might call “surface structure” and “deep structure”, abstractions in the sense of (continuing with the Chomskian language) generalisations, deletions and distortions, that serve to conceal the “deep structure” of directly sensed information. For Brown this is “akin to our relationship with dreams and the slippage that occurs when rationalising the unattainable and uninhabitable”.

aldeburgh arch

Robert Brown, Aldeburgh Arch, Acrylic on MDF, 40x38cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

What’s beneath the surface might be unpalatable “truth”, what’s on the surface is glossy and artificial. Painting here reveals its own propensity to decorate, to gloss over, to construct falsehoods. Indeed the children’s colouring book title may be apposite  after all: in colouring the black country, let’s see how colourful we can make it!

Black Country, is showing at The Lion and Lamb Gallery, Fanshaw Street, London until 5 October 2013.

The Public: Owamya?

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In the Black Country “How are you?” is “How am you?” or rather “Owamya?”


We took our son Joel to The Black Country, to Sandwell General Hospital West Bromwich, for an A.C.L. operation, and waiting, we visited The Public. (It was famous in the UK when it was built, for being late and way over budget.  No Public city is bad Public city, we’d heard of it and sought it out.)

It’s an art space and not an art space. they call it ” a creative, community, cultural and business space in the heart of West Bromwich…Sandwell – today one of the most deprived areas in the UK but with a long history of creativity, innovation and community pride which changed the world.”

There are exhibitions as well as interactive galleries:

My interactive drawing on a touch screen

my wife Dawn's interactive drawing

Judith, one of the staff (she’s wonderful) showed us some of the exhibits, and explained some Black Country slang, using one of the interactive pieces (a fridge magnet type activity – all the interactive things reminded me of games and that reminded me of how much game and play is part of what ‘creativity’ means).

Judith explains that 'fust' is 'first' in Black Country lingo

“Fust” is first and “bist” is been: “hows he bin?” “he bist fine” (?)

When I saw one of the words I couldn’t resist an homage to Barnett Newman (I continue to want to see abstract painting in art spaces)

vir heroicis sublimis (not)

Sorry, corny I know.

The exhibitions included Out of this Universe, featuring models, costumes and props from Dr Who, Star Wars, etc


In the Best Light: Maurice Broomfield, industrial  photographs


and, The Art of Invention: From the Frank Cohen Collection, contemporary art including some paintings! (No abstract paintings though. Is it that because there are none in the Frank Cohen Collection? Perhaps it is because they are thought to be less relevant than figurative work? In the ‘about’ section of their website I read: “The Public also has a role in making the arts more accessible to a community which traditionally has low participation in the creative industries”. I would argue that abstraction is particularly relevant and accessible in this industrial context.)

The industrial photographs were magnificent. To me, they seemed to capture the hope and excitement of industry at the same time as its monotony and false promise. The images somehow looked both modern and dated at the same time. My pictures here don’t do the setting justice. Whilst the whole downstairs does have this pink colour pervading everything, here I didn’t perceive it the way the digital camera does. In fact, there was lots of daylight and the photographs looked great. These were also the nearest thing to abstract paintings.

The work from the Frank Cohen collection included some interesting sculpture

Patrick O'Reilly, Quiet Desperation 1996

Patrick O'Reilly The Leader Speaks, 1995

The Patrick O’Reilly sculptures were witty and spoke to my feelings of alienation in a (post-)industrial world, but visually rather unsatisfying. I felt similarly about the Till Gerhard painting

Till Gerhard, Wochenendhaus, 2004, Acrylic on canvas

It was interesting (not witty) and I looked at it a lot. I got that the painterly marks could be sinister and associated the red with blood and the pink shapes with internal organs, possibly the wire from the boy’s microphone resembling intestines, or certainly something unpleasant. I felt like I should be able to work out why the eyes were obscured with an unpleasant red mark, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure if the fir-tree was growing or cut, a Christmas tree and maybe the coloured marks suggested that it was decorated. Lots to look at yet, in the end, I felt unsatisfied, like I wanted to find something in the paint to enjoy but found my enjoyment was repeatedly barred. I felt slightly sick. Perhaps that was intended. I didn’t like that experience very much. Though I did go back to the work again before we left… and I don’t always do that!

Another painting I didn’t like:

Steve Canaday, Double Death Honk, 2002, Acrylic on canvas

though again, I have been thinking about it since, so it must have done something.  What I have found myself remembering is the bland grey ground on which the painted objects are placed, and working out how he achieved that with acrylic paint. The exhibition notes tell me that Canaday’s work is an example of the LA based practice called “Bad Painting“. What I thought was most bad (I mean it in a bad sense) was that again any enjoyment of the paint I may have hoped to experience was thwarted. I also had the impression that the artist gained no enjoyment in painting it.

Even though my wish to see abstract painting was unmet (painting has become a marginal activity it seems, and abstract painting even more so) I am glad I saw this work.

The Public is well worth a visit, even the cafe is reasonably priced, most unusual.

On leaving, we missed out on the tea-dance, mostly because we didn’t have our dance shoes with us (Joel was ages yet in recovery). Apparently as many as 100 people turn up to dance every other Wednesday afternoon, and being keen ballroom, latin and  sequence dancers ourselves we would have enjoyed that too!

Written by Andy Parkinson

May 13, 2011 at 6:55 am