Posts Tagged ‘Trevor Sutton’
It’s not the kind of work I might usually associate with Trevor Sutton, having become more familiar with his paintings on dual or grouped canvases in the seventies and his recent paintings on board, often including paper, which could possibly be thought of as collaged elements. And this might be the link to the works here. They are assemblages, but of deliberately manufactured, rather than found parts, in painted plywood. They have all of Sutton’s hallmark precision, I can hear people asking “how did he get those shapes and edges so precise?” Indeed, especially considering that these were made in 1981/2, before laser cutting was in general usage. But they also have a quirky informality, which I think is less characteristic of Suttons oeuvre.
The space here at Class Room, is informal and small. The works on view are sharp, and about the size of a human head, inviting portrait associations. These were Sutton’s first works on plywood, and some were exhibited in New Works of Contemporary Art and Music at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh and Assembly & Image Paintings at the Lisson Gallery in London, both in 1981. The artist said he wanted to make something that seemed sharper, more immediate, whilst also being intimate as if looking into a mirror, and that’s the feeling I get as I look at them here, my instinct is to get close and peer into them, whilst knowing that the action takes place at the surface, not really inside, as in a picture of something else.
Reading the gallery notes I learn that Sutton sent diagrams and drawings to the artist George Meyrick who cut the plywood into shapes for him. Sutton painted each plywood piece separately. When it came to assembly he playfully reconfigured the pieces rather than simply assembling them as in the working drawings. The perfect marriage of precision and immediacy is a direct result of the process.
As in earlier works drawing is achieved via construction, lines are real, the edges of joined or overlapping parts but the plywood gives the “drawing” more precision, more clarity when compared with lines created in earlier paintings by joining or grouping canvases, which are inherently softer. Somehow the unmodulated painted surfaces also look crisper when the paint is applied to plywood rather than canvas. Whilst the free-form shapes didn’t continue into later work the plywood, with the increase in sharpness it provided, did. So perhaps these assemblages could be seen as a bridge between Sutton’s earlier and later work.
Am I wrong to find some similarity to the wood reliefs of Jean (Hans) Arp? Colours in both have a low key quality, blues and greys with highlights in warmer or brighter hues. In both we get concrete forms creating an abstract figuration. Coloured shapes (geometric with Sutton and biomorphic with Arp) in wood, appear to have organised themselves into a coherent arrangement, with subtle spatial ambiguities (e.g. the bright blue square in Sutton’s Tight Tumble Tern recedes slightly in relation to the grey, yet is clearly in front of the grey physically) and referential associations. Sutton’s titles (though not Arp’s) seem to encourage associational content. However, I want to be clear that this is not the same as representation. That one thing calls to mind another is part of our experience of seeing, and arguably, this is even more present in abstract works than representational ones. What I think is presented here is that process of seeing, the double movement of observing and sense-making.
There’s no way of getting to “Beverley’s Little Car” from looking at the painted relief of that title, and any connection in the artist’s mind seems entirely idiosyncratic, but cartoon-like associations do come to mind for me and those circular shapes could easily suggest wheels. Even then, the artist probably had something quite different in mind. In my view, abstract artworks are better titled than simply numbered or left “untitled” if only to make them easy to distinguish and to recognise, like people’s names. These paintings have been likened to portraits, but if there is a connection it is not in their resemblances, but rather in the kind of close viewing that is elicited.
Trevor Sutton, Assembly and Image, is at Class Room until 6 April 2017, Tuesday and Saturday 11-5pm
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
“Before there was art, there was painting”, so says Barry Schwabsky in his essay Everyday Painting in the introduction to Vitamin P2. In the earlier book Vitamin P he explored the relationship between painting as art and painting as an art, a specific discipline. Throughout its history painters have questioned, explored and challenged the boundaries of that discipline. So much so that its definition has become somewhat unstable, to the extent that it might be better to think of it as an ‘indiscipline’ as Daniel Sturgis et al did in the exhibition The Indiscipline of Painting, that opened at Tate St Ives in October 2011 and toured to Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre in January 2012, presenting a “partial and partisan” survey of abstract painting from the 60’s until now.
David Manley makes a tongue in cheek reference to that show entitling the new exhibition at Harrington Mill Studios The Discipline of Painting, featuring a ‘control group’ of works: one by Manley from 1973 along with two owned by him, a Sean Scully painting on paper from 1980 and a recent drawing on paper by David Tremlett, alongside paintings by David Ainley, Katrina Blannin, Luke Frost, Lauri Hopkins, Dan Roach, Andy Parkinson, and Trevor Sutton.
It used to be common to divide the discipline of painting into sub-categories or genres, still life, landscape, history painting etc, and whereas there was a time when abstraction looked like it might transcend all those genres it now appears to have become a genre, or tradition, of its own. That tradition could itself be divided into two approaches one that looks “disciplined”, we might even say “austere”, as opposed to a looser more casualist approach, where “spontaneity” and “improvisation” are the watch words. According to the gallery notes, “The selection of works on display shows an abiding and durable commitment to a disciplined abstraction that foregrounds an aspect of colour and form and a certain ‘discipline’ in construction”. (A second exhibition will explore the other approach.)
Luke Frost’s paintings have been described as “austerely reductive, minimal and hard edged” whilst also being “curiously alluring”. For me there’s something paradoxical about them, that such asceticism can at the same time be so wantonly pleasurable, that pared-down emptiness can give rise to such rich fullness. Deep Brilliant Blue Volts and Tangerine Volts are highly coloured square monochrome canvases with a fine line frame, painted in a colour the complementary of the ground. This subtle intervention elicits heightened visual excitation. The space is transformed by the frame in much the same way as, in language, meaning is transformed by context or ones “frame of reference”. The colour within the frame is ‘objectively’ the same as the colour around the frame, yet I experience it as a different colour. The edge and the central colour occupies literally the same space or plane yet subjectively the outer edge is spatially nearer than the middle. It’s like looking through a window onto an infinite field of colour. Then, as I turn away fractionally the painting seems to shift, or shudder optically, as if calling my attention back to it. It doesn’t want to let me go, and I don’t want to stop looking at it. We are locked into an exchange, a deeply contemplative conversation. Yet there’s no pseudo-spirituality in this experience, reminded as I am of the artificiality of the colours, and the matter of fact-ness of their presentation, something along the lines of Frank Stella’s famous “what you see is what you see”. However, seeing is a truly remarkable experience always involving more than the strictly visual.
Katrina Blannin’s paintings are similarly more-than factual. The three on show here are ‘the same’ in size and in design, but look very different because of the differences in colour. I have the sense of holding the whole thing constant and changing just one thing, and everything changes, recalling how in any system a change to a part always has consequences for the whole. Tracking such changes requires a serial approach, so it is particularly helpful to get three in a row here. Two are darker paintings, in indefinable blue/black/green/greys, applied in glazes (hence the difficulty of identifying specific names for the colours), with highlights in yellows, and one is in greys much nearer to white with warmer hues, creating an experience quite different to the other two. In fact so different that I have to be reminded that the design employed is ‘the same’ as in the other two paintings. Manley has positioned the two darker paintings slightly closer to each other than to the third one, a strategy that seems to heighten the contrast, whilst also allowing the two darker works to be read as a pair, hinting at relationships between the two that Blannin sometimes makes explicit in her own diptychs. The diagonal arrangement of tones and colour sets up a subjective experience of shifting planes, never just “this” or just “that” but sometimes “this” and sometimes “that”, an experience that is fundamentally time dependant.
Trevor Sutton’s beautiful paintings here are separated in time by twenty years, Rue Jacob, a circular painting with a central two tone irregular hexad shape situated within a field of fluctuating brown/grey hues, being painted in 1992, and Raindance, a vertical rectangular grid with four columns and sixteen rows in reds, pinks, greys, browns and blacks, having been painted only last year. They testify to this artist’s disciplined commitment to the idea of abstraction and to its ongoing exploration. Remembering that I saw a remarkable painting by Sutton in a show last year, Abstract Painting in the Seventies, higher in colour than these at HMS, I make comparisons in my head and note the “continued vigour” of his oeuvre (borrowing a phrase from Manley).
At the other end of the scale as far as years of experience goes, Lauri Hopkins a recent graduate, shows the continued relevance of the tradition for younger artists. Her wonderful constructions made from combinations of different coloured book covers recall Albers and Rothko, in miniature. Strictly speaking they are collages, but they read like paintings.
Once again I am impressed by Dan Roach’s paintings. The two here are quite different, in scale and colour, yet similar in that they employ his now customary arrangements of semi-transparent cell-like structures, situated in an indefinite space. That it is now possible to present abstract paintings on an almost miniature scale seems to me to be something new in the tradition, and Roach’s paintings have contributed to this development.
The paintings by David Ainley are colour monochromes built up in layers of thick paint, forming a substantial surface into which Ainley scores lines, revealing parts of the underpainting, in a process that is similar to excavation or mining. I am interested in the systematicity of the process as well as in the resultant ‘image’, each one a subtly interrupted surface, eliciting a state-altering meditative response. I choose to prolong the experience of viewing. There’s opticality here that, for me, is always more than the “purely optical”, including a sensing of time, suspended, distorted, and also simply passing, and with it a metaphorical connection to ideas related to mining, and toil.
I am pleased to have one of my own paintings hung alongside Ainley’s works. I think there are some resonances, in the final look, an interrupted surface that I hope engages the eye/brain, and in the process, almost in reverse. In my painting Screen (Yellow Band) it is more the process of covering than excavating that interests me. Layers of colour are hidden or covered, without being entirely obliterated. A black and white diagonal chequer pattern inadequately hides what’s underneath, forcing colour to the edges of each individual rhombus shape, and in this painting also to the right hand edge of the support, where a yellow vertical band is allowed to remain.
The Discipline of Painting is on show at Harrington Mill Studios until 27 October with a viewing on Saturday 26 October, 2-5PM. The HMS Open Studios also takes place Saturday 26 October 2-5PM and Sunday 27 October, 11-4PM
Installation shots by courtesy of David Manley
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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?
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.