abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Winifred Nicholson

Painting past present

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There’s a wonderful exhibition at Laing Art Gallery, where eleven contemporary painters respond to paintings from the past in a visual dialogue. Some of the older paintings aren’t that old so it’s not always easy to tell which of the works are past and which are contemporary, after all paintings exist always in the present, and some of the ‘past’ painters in this show are still making new paintings today. Frank Auerbach’s Julia, painted as recently as 1987, hangs here alongside a delicious 2013 painting by Laura Lancaster, and there’s an untitled painting by Paul Huxley from 1974 alongside Sue Spark’s 2013 painting Drop Zone.

The oldest work is William Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil, chosen by Emma Talbot. I wonder whether its first viewers would have been as familiar with its story, based on the Keats poem, as say contemporary audiences might be with the storyline of a popular film. Perhaps the title would have been enough to cue recognition of Isobella clutching the basil pot containing, beneath the soil,  the head of her beloved. For me, I had to to read the notes in order to understand that beneath all the ornament and sumptuous decorative surfaces, just as beneath the soil in the pot, lies a narrative of violence and despair, almost as if the decor in the painting, and indeed the painting itself, were a kind of sublimation.

Carpet Painting (Isabella and The Pot of Basil), acrylic on canvas, 2013. Image by courtesy of the artist

Carpet Painting (Isabella and The Pot of Basil), acrylic on canvas, 2013. Image by courtesy of the artist

Talbot responds with her Carpet Painting (Isobella and the the Pot of Basil), contemporising the decorative and narrative elements, and adding some of Holman Hunt’s story, who had made the painting shortly after his wife died, and based the figure on her. Talbot inserts or overlays cartoon-like captions or graphics, onto a patterned carpet design, of colour similar to the Holman Hunt. Here the violent content is above rather than beneath the surface, up front rather than behind, almost projecting into the real space of the viewer.

The other 19th century painting here is Newcastle upon Tyne from the East, 1898, by Neils Møller Lund, a portrait of the city from a specific vantage point, generalised by the impressionistic rendering, yet by no means strictly representing light as it falls on the retina. This painting, less modern than an impressionist painting proper, less critical, seems to me to rather glory in the magnificence of the city not withstanding its squalor, in something approaching an evocation of empire.

Neils Møller Lund, Newcastle upon Tyne from the East, 1898, oil on canvas, image by courtesy of Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, (Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums)

Neils Møller Lund, Newcastle upon Tyne from the East, 1898, oil on canvas, image by courtesy of Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, (Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums)

Perhaps that’s what Helen Smith’s 2013 painting of the same title attempts to erase. I could imagine that she started out with Møller Lund’s picture and painted over it until all that remains is the record of its erasure, a violent act, though what’s left is this rather beautiful veil, not unlike a colour field painting.

Helen Smith, Newcastle from the East, 2013, oil on canvas. Image by courtesy of the artist

Helen Smith, Newcastle from the East, 2013, oil on canvas. Image by courtesy of the artist

Helen Baker‘s wonderful Blocks on Green with Shelf, has lots of resonance with William Brooker’s painting of objects on a table exhibited alongside it, but the balance of abstraction to representation possibly goes in opposite directions. Brooker’s still life could also be seen as an abstract painting, whereas Baker’s abstract painting with a literal shelf, might also be seen as a representation of objects on a table or even a landscape, a village green perhaps or a bowling green, rather than, abstractly, the colour green.

Helen Baker, Blocks on Green with Shelf, 2012, acrylic on linen with plywood shelf. Image by courtesy of the artist

Helen Baker, Blocks on Green with Shelf, 2012, acrylic on linen with plywood shelf. Image by courtesy of the artist

James Ryan also plays with the literal versus the non-literal in Grid 1, painted in acrylic on checked fabric that looks at first like a trompe loeil effect but turns out to be real patterned fabric. Floating in a space in front of it we see a transparent geometrical figure, or cluster of figures, that alternates between being flat and being three dimensional, the whole painting also seeming to undulate gently. John Piper’s Town from Water Meadows, shown alongside it, also has some of the same shifting of space and oscillation between solidity and transparency of forms.

James Ryan, Grid 1, 2013, acrylic on checked fabric. Image by courtesy of the artist

James Ryan, Grid 1, 2013, acrylic on checked fabric. Image by courtesy of the artist

It occurs to me that the dialogue taking place here between these artists, past and present, includes an element of positioning in relation to Modernism, itself a past for the contemporary painters shown here but present or future for the others. So we have the pre-modernism of Edmund Blair Leighton, pretending, as Eleanor Moreton points out in the Gallery notes, that his medium is not paint, and Holman Hunt’s proto-modernism (in Clement Greenberg‘s view at least), and the early modernism of Winifred Nicholson, whose painting Evening at Boothby, is chosen by Mali Morris and exhibited next to her Due North, 2013. If Modernism in painting engendered an essentialist approach, asking “what is painting?” or even “what could painting be?” and Post Modernism answered “anything goes”, Helen Baker seems interested in a slightly different question when, in the exhibition publication, she asks “what is this fine art craft about?” When I look at a painting by Mali Morris, as with others here, it’s not so much what painting is, nor even what it is about that comes to mind for me, it’s more what painting does or can do.

Mali Morris, Due North, 2013, acrylic on canvas. Image by courtesy of the artist

Mali Morris, Due North, 2013, acrylic on canvas. Image by courtesy of the artist

In her recent paintings, and Due North is a good example, the structuring grid, which in previous paintings may have been implicit, appears to have become explicit, which in turn seems to provide an opportunity to introduce rectangular ‘figures’ that interact with the now familiar circular forms, except they’re only figures when they become such, other times they are gaps, portals, windows, negative spaces in the grid. They become positive forms that push forward of the grid when figure and ground shift in relation to each other. But they don’t press as far forward as the discs that I sense would hover in real space were it not for the canvas edge that just about keeps them in place. It’s this ability of paint to suspend colour only long enough to let it go, as if it had a life of its own, that I think Morris exploits. And the colour creates space that is literally two dimensional but optically not just three, but four dimensional, the shifting of the space being experienced over time and alerting me again to my own subjectivity, my active participation in constructing the world I see. That the light “emanates from the painting and expands the space” is something that also happens in the Winifred Nicholson painting and Morris specifically refers to it in the gallery publication. I could imagine that if she had learned it from someone she could have learned it here, from Nicholson.

Painting Past Present: A Painters Craft, is on show at Laing Art Gallery until 09 February 2014 and includes paintings by Frank Auerbach, Laura Lancaster, William Brooker, Helen Baker, Derek Hirst, Narbi Price, William Holman Hunt, Emma Talbot, Paul Huxley, Sue Spark, Louis James, Paul Housley, Edmund Blair Leighton, Eleanor Moreton, Neils Moller Lund, Helen Smith, Winifred Nicholson, Mali Morris, Victore Pasmore, Ali Sharma, John Piper and James Ryan.


Patrick Heron at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

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At the moment the modern collection at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is in gallery 21. The Patrick Heron painting seems to dominate the room, as if it has a different aesthetic to all the other works on view. His use of colour in his “wobbly hard edge” paintings (his term) makes everything else in here look dull.

Having said that, the little Winifred Nicholson painting of flowers at a window is lovely and there is at least one good Ben Nicholson painting on show.

The two abstract paintings seem to present two quite different versions of modernist abstraction don’t they?

P.S. Sam Cornish on Twitter pointed out that these two are in fact quite similar, and he’s right isn’t he? both are stacked rectangles holding circles. My response was that as an identical twin I see differences where others see similarity. A bad excuse if ever I heard one. I guess what I really have in mind is to do with the colour. When I walked into this space the Patrick Heron painting dominated in a way that the Nicholson collage didn’t. The strong flat colours in the Heron made it the only one in the room that was absolutely other than a window on the world. Actually, it seemed totally out of place. I love the Nicholsons, but they didn’t seem different to all the others in quite the same way as the Heron. Both abstract, both circles and rectangles, maybe we could say the drawing is similar, yet they seem to be different versions of abstraction in that the Nicholson seems to be about line whereas the Heron seems to be about colour.

Mondrian and Nicholson

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At The Painting Space I found out about a very exciting exhibition planned for next year ( February to May 2012) at the Courtauld Gallery, London, exploring the relationship between two important early modernist, abstract painters  Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson.

The Painting Space post reminds us that in the 1930s they were leading forces of avant-garde art in Europe. Maybe a re-view of their work and the patterns that connect them will help us to think again about abstraction, its tradition and its continued relevance. In my opinion, the project that they started (non) represents a rich vein for current and future artists to tap.

One of the aspects of Ross Wolfe‘s recent guest post that I particularly appreciated was his celebration of the work of Mondrian, Malevich, Rodchenko and other early avant-garde artists. Ben Nicholson was clearly influenced by these artists and he contributed massively to a broadening of awareness of abstract art in the UK.  Earlier this year, seeing one of his paintings, as well as a Winifred Nicholson, a John Piper, and Barbara Hepworth‘s sculptures  alongside a magnificent Mondrian at the Hepworth in Context  display at the Hepworth, Wakefield, highlighted for me just how wonderful some of the abstract art of the 1930s could be.

The Hepworth Wakefield Installation shot, image by courtesy Hepworth, Wakefield

Written by Andy Parkinson

September 13, 2011 at 8:00 am

Make grey while the sun shines

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At  hyperalergenic, there’s a brief discussion about how grey can achieve optical effects that other colours cannot. And check out the commentary and pictures of work by Julie Shapiro and Stephanie McMahon. In the two paintings shown there, each quite different to the other, they both make use of grey to enliven the other colours.

Thinking of the use of grey in painting, I was reminded of a visit I made to The Hepworth, Wakefield where I saw that wonderful Winifred Nicholson painting.

Winifred Nicholson, Quarante Huit Quai d'Auteuil, 1935 Oil on board©Tate, London, 2011,©The Trustees of Winifred Nicholson, Courtesy of Hepworth Wakefield

Grey used here, elicits a muted sensation in the viewer. (I continue to be amazed that a painting can alter ones  ’emotional’ state so easily). The grey seems to mediate the contrast of the blue square and the yellow figure-eight shape at the top left, that I tend to read as a sun. In a way it is a very powerful painting. Slowing me down and provoking stillness takes a certain kind of power. And in another sense, it’s the opposite of powerful: unassuming, careful, tentative even.

Then I remembered a grey painting I saw by Mali Morris, entitled Marvell’s Mower,

Mali Morris, Marvell's Mower 1999, Acrylic on Canvas, 46 x 61 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist.

quite different in its character than Nicholson’s Quarante Huit Quai d’Auteuil, though it shares the main circle motif on a grey ground,grey on grey, and something of the blue/yellow contrast. (It’s likely that this ‘grey’ is in fact black and yellow). It is darker, and bolder, and the central circle shape looks as though it is moving, at speed, and then not. There’s more enjoyment of the paint, and the process of painting, in the Morris. It is almost as if Marvell’s Mower has action frozen in reflection, whereas Quarante Huit Quai d’Auteuil is entirely reflective

In both paintings grey is definitely a colour, not the kind of grey you get on a cloudy day, but the luminescent grey that you might see only when the sun is shining.

Written by Andy Parkinson

August 31, 2011 at 7:46 am

Quarante Huit Quai d’Auteil by Winifred Nicholson at the Hepworth, Wakefield

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When I visited The Hepworth, Wakefield recently I was particularly interested in three paintings in the Hepworth in Context gallery, all painted n 1936. They were Composition C (no.III) with Red, Yellow and Blue, by Piet Mondrian, Forms on a White Ground,by John Piper

and Quarante Huit Quai d’Auteil by Winifred Nicholson

Winifred Nicholson, Quarante Huit Quai d'Auteuil, 1935 Oil on board©Tate, London, 2011,©The Trustees of Winifred Nicholson, Courtesy of Hepworth Wakefield

The title refers to Winifred Nicholson’s address in Paris, where she lived from 1932-8. She went there specifically to learn about abstract art. There she befriended artists such as Piet Mondrian, Constantin Brancusi, Jean Arp and Jean Hélion.  Around this time she wrote in Circle that ‘[t]he nature of abstract colour is utter purity – but colours wish to fly, to merge, to change each other by their juxtapositions, to radiate, to shine, to withdraw deep within themselves.’ She claimed that the painting was about colour and the shapes could take whatever form they wished. This sounds like an approach to abstraction that I learned  from Mali Morris many years ago, where you place the colour and allow it to suggest its own form. This requires a ‘dialogue’ with the painting as it develops.

It seems now to relate to a metaphorical language pattern I have come to know from NLP, as a ‘selectional restriction violation’ where, for example, an inanimate object might be ascribed qualities that it could not logically have, e.g. “my bed is missing me”.  The painting is considered to have a life of its own, it suggests and leads, it converses with the painter. This process of projection, I suggest, induces a natural trance state in the artist as s/he works on the developing painting, and is part of the ‘content’ of the abstract work. The question I have is whether in viewing the painting (so long as we actually look at it rather than just walk by) do we enter a similar trance state?

Written by Andy Parkinson

July 12, 2011 at 7:04 am

Hepworth Wakefield!

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We had just under an hour to visit the Hepworth,

on Bank Holiday Monday…not enough time, especially as there was no parking (today only, I understand – though the parking at the site does look limited) and finding our way to the park & ride (good idea, but only provided for the first two weekends) delayed us further. We got the last bus of the day.

last bus

Park & Ride

Hepworth Wakefield

A magnificent building, I liked the outside, but the inside wow! A great space, in which the sculpture looked just right. In his blog, Tim Garratt says it’s “16000  square feet making it the largest exhibition space outside London”. I found that difficult to believe. It didn’t feel big. Perhaps that’s because each gallery made such good use of the space, it was uncluttered. Hence, viewing the work was a delight.

I was surprised by how many paintings were on view, and I particularly enjoyed the gallery exploring the context in which Hepworth worked. The Piet Mondrian painting was striking, as were the Ben Nicholsons, looking particularly good in this space. Two paintings that surprised me by their brilliance were Quarante Huit Quai d’Auteil by Winifred Nicholson and Forms on a White Ground by John Piper. I hate John Pipers architecture in landscape semi-abstract things, but this one really got me. He was a much better abstractionist than I had realised. The little paintings in this show had a monumentality way beyond their actual size – and whilst I know that’s such a cliché, it is how I experienced them. They absolutely deserve a second, third and fourth look.

In the Garden (misty wet with rain) there’s Heather and Ivan Morison’s The Black Cloud

black cloud

Black Cloud with photographers

I am yours

I am yours and Black Cloud

It is a magnificent space and I will be returning very soon.

hepworth purchase

No method, no guru, no catalogue, I hurriedly scribbled down the details of the paintings that had interested me the most

(Van Morrison fans will have noticed that the mention of Heather and Ivan got me remembering lines from In the Garden)