Given the current Covid-19 lock-down gallery visits have been curtailed and so on-line presentations of exhibitions are a welcome substitute for the ‘real thing’. Or rather, a regular alternative as we are so used to viewing artworks on our mobile phones – perhaps even more than on the computer screen – that the ‘virtual’ experience of art during this pandemic constitutes a reinforced normality. But where this increased reliance on the tiny digital screen might prove salutary as we miss out on visiting the galleries is in emphasising the loss of the material reality of the work of art. We might need reminding that the physical impact, embracing surface qualities, visual weights and textures, the correct colour and the actual size of artworks in relation to the viewer is missing from the digital experience. In a curated space (let’s assume in one large room) we could view individual works close up and from afar, or consider one or more works in juxtaposition to others. We might be satisfied with the choice and arrangements of the artworks or critical of the curator’s decisions. Furthermore, we might be impatient and in a hurry, or ideally attuned to a slow contemplation that the best quality works inevitably deserve and demand. Either way, seeing and experiencing an object as curious as a work of art are beyond the capabilities of the digital, but creative and intriguing possibilities are still available to the medium.
It has been a few years since I last read the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, so a re-acquaintance with his works was timely when artist, curator and podcaster Lucy Cox invited me to contribute two images to her blog, ‘The Aura of Abstraction’. Presenting a recent translation of Rilke’s ‘I’m in a Window Mood’ (the original is in French) adds an intriguing dimension to the two-dozen images selected and presented by Cox. As arranged on the web page the poem serves as a thoughtful precursor to the images that follow, although the intention is clearly not to requisition them as illustrations, but perhaps to provide pointers and prompts to consider the works. Most usefully, a spoken recording of the poem is also provided with the text and you can read the poem as you listen, or close your eyes and truly experience the verse in your mind.
The 24 artworks that follow are, simply, to be looked at as no further commentary is added. Taking a prompt from Rilke’s poem, harmony will be perceived to varying degrees in the images, from the carefully arranged colour shape elements in Laurence Noga’s collages or EC’s more painterly conflations, in contrast to Ruth Philo’s or Johanna Melvin’s more pared down compositions.
Elements of a purposeful and positive inconsistency (compatible contrasts) characterise Karl Bielik’s, Lisa Denyer’s and Jeff Dellow’s works. If the image or idea of the window frames a ruminatory and framing perspective, then the shallow spaces of Kuai Lianhui’s and Andrea V. Wright’s works press on the viewer’s eye space to create a tight and compressed sensation. Lucy Cox’s pieces echo the loosely geometric disclosures and ambiguous spaces of Melvin, Noga and Denyer to hint at a future collaboration that would be well in tune with current trends in abstraction. Huang Jun’s two works initially surprised me by their inclusion as they fuse figurative imagery with a painterly and gestural application of paint, but each is very cleverly interspersed with images from Denyer and EC to play off the visual liveliness found in their works. Seeing my own pieces in similar proximity to Dellow and Lianhui appropriately emphasised the interplay inherent in visual language that has been pared down to essentials where much, hopefully, can be implicit in inferred understatement.
A rewarding and worthwhile poem, like its visual counterpart, is always open to translation shifting meaning for a variety of potential readers. During the reading/viewing time we consider parts within the whole as well as the totality of the work. Responding to and ingesting a phrase within the structure might focus solely on a part in a text or an image, but the overall configuration has still to be resolved by the producer and the audience alike. For example, is the ‘bird’ appearing in the middle stanza of Rilke’s poem a thought that unexpectedly appears, asking for or wanting (depending on the translation) attention? Of course, the contemplative poet or reader is not the object of the bird’s attention. The bird is not aware of any observer, just as an incident in a visual image (abstract or figurative) has arrived devoid of relevance until the observer is primed to take something from any given situation when the conditions are right – by design or circumstance. Consequently, the actual and the imaginary meet the abstract, non-verbal conditions of contemplation with the promise of the unexpected integration beyond the self in concrete reality, avoiding the alienation commonplace between notions of ‘self’ and ‘other’. This is what Rilke consummately achieves.
Potentially, I’m in a window mood, whereby the implied frame of the rectangular screen, printed page or artwork becomes a portal that comforts me in these strange and unaccustomed times.
Two slightly different translations of Rilke’s poem are presented here. I have added the italics in the Petermann version to link with my comments above.
I’m in a Window Mood
I’m in a window mood today –
life seems to consist of simply looking.
I’m surprised by all the harmony I see,
intelligence as great as in a book.
Each bird that reaches into my view
with its flight asks for my consent.
And I give it. Inconsistency
used to terrify, now it comforts me.
You might find me in the middle of the night
having spent probably the entire day
surrendering to the inexhaustible window,
trying to be the other half of the world.
Poem: Rilke, R.M. (2017) When I Go: Selected French Poems. Translated from French by S. Petermann. Cascade Books.
Today I’m in a window mood,
to live seems just to look,
astonished by the better taste
of all, the fuller insight of a book.
Every bird that flies within
my reach wants me to consent.
I consent. Such an inconstant
force doesn’t surprise me now, it soothes.
And when night falls, who knows
perhaps I’ll find I’ve spent all day
given to you, inexhaustible window,
to be the other half of the world.
Poem: Rilke, R.M. (2002) The Complete French Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. Translated from French by A. Poulin. Graywolf Press.
Opening Times: Wednesdays – Sundays 11:00 to 17:00
Part 2: Rana Begum, Ian Boutell, Philip Cole, Biggs & Collings, Deb Covell, Stig Evans, Jane Harris, Mali Morris, Jost Münster, Patrick O’Donnell, Carol Robertson and Daniel Sturgis.
“The title of this Painting exhibition does not dictate an aesthetic and it does not mean to imply a preference for one process or system of making work over another. It instead concerns itself with the elusive and critical nature of Contemporary Painting today; the complexities, the overlooked simplicities and the ‘wonder’ it can engender.”
(Curator’s statement in Press Release)
After writing about HardpaintingX2 (Part 1) and attending the recent mid-show Symposium at Phoenix Art Space I am still intrigued by what the term Hardpainting actually means. Would part 2 of this show clarify what, exactly, hardpainting is? For example, is ‘hardpainting’ an adjective or a verb? Or maybe it’s both, as doing and describing handily suggests theory and practice combined.
Or, imagine arriving late home from school on a Friday afternoon and mum asks what you’ve been up to in your art lesson today: “We’ve been displaying our Hardpainting exhibition in the school hall”, you reply with great enthusiasm.
Mum – Tell me all about it then.
It was great fun all week and we put up an exhibition at the end of the project. The usual teacher, Mr Wright, has been off sick so this young supply teacher, who only left University a couple of years ago, gave us the really good paints that the top class only get for their exams. She told us she was an ‘Installation Artist’ and went on for a while about the ‘expanded field of painting’ and also said that unpremeditated self-expression was an indulgence no longer fit for purpose in a post-digital era. I don’t have a clue what she was on about but she said that she had arranged for the 3-D workshops to be open for us as well.
We all felt a bit unprepared (except for Deb who loves to break rules) as it says ‘Self-Portrait Painting project’ on the timetable. This alternative project was called ‘Hardpainting’ and we had to find out what it was all about by making the work as a form of ‘research and exploration’, which was ‘planning in action’. There were no strict rules but her guidelines included exploring ‘colour, geometry and visuality’, and that ‘an application of making skills’ would be important elements to bear in mind. Anyhow, we like to be challenged and we were encouraged to produce work that was personal and so there would be similarities and differences in what we produced. She also said that we should avoid unnecessary figurative elements, as that’s what cameras are for these days. But we had to work neatly and with great care. The materials and processes of production should be regarded as important as any subject matter as well. Mr Wright would have choked on his cheroot if he had heard this! He says every picture should tell a story and that we should avoid that easy abstract nonsense that doesn’t get good grades in exams anyway.
Once the show was up I had a good look around. The Head Prefects, Jane and Mali, impressed everyone (as usual) with their equally skilful applications of thick and thin paint that embraced a painterly and methodical process, presenting decorative eyefuls of carefully placed brush marks and colour shapes. Both exploit great control in their paintings and explore colour, shape and configuration with astonishing expertise. Jane doesn’t use many colours in a composition, usually just three, and tonal nuances are created by the textures made by the brush, which uses natural light as a material of sorts. The imagery reminded me of flower heads or splashes in water, but that’s secondary to the constructive layering of the oil paint. The works display unbelievable confidence too, so she must be onto something.
Mali is obsessed with colour and she can put all of the colours, primaries and secondaries, together to create harmony. Mr Wright says that only one or two colours should dominate a picture, but Mali proves him wrong. Her works are also interestingly active, contrasting with the restfulness of Jane’s paintings. I think that they’re brave too, as she does not fuss about and lets the paint and colours interact as if truly separate from her ego. She must try really hard to not try hard.
Matthew and Emma were getting on well by themselves as usual, especially as Matt likes being told what to do. Em really knows about colour and is usually timetabled for Ceramics, but the kiln is broken this week and the clay order has not arrived. Matt’s own paintings are usually bit a more textured and patchworky but he can be very careful at applying the paint when he’s in the right mood. They both like the geometric and abstract so start off with a neutral grid system that, weirdly, by subdividing and introducing diagonal lines ends up suggesting sea and landscapes which are punctuated by beams of light and colour that look kind of perspectivey. With left to right mirror images, held in check by a central spine, a geometric abstract field of tile-like segments become strangely earthly and atmospheric as opposed to architectural and assembled. This must be the colour doing something magical. I wish there had been more than one canvas on display.
Rana spent half of the week in the metalwork workshop but she was back in the art room just in time to use up some of the colours that Carol had left over from making her big triangle pictures. I’ll come back to Rana later, because the boys say that Carol is always so hard-edged and ‘reductive’, like it’s a problem. But the subtly striated yellow and orange backgrounds in her two paintings in our show made the geometric forms float out into the foreground of the canvas. The colour combinations within the forms she typically depicts create a visual equivalence to softness, cajoling a sort of mellow lightness. (She does circles, arcs and squares too – if only her boyfriend Trevor was in our class as well.)
Stig was a bit dreamy as usual, his paintings I mean. They’re rather fuzzy looking, like a camera lens is out of focus. But if you look long enough the flat forms eventually feel quite solid, almost hard, which surprised me. They deserve a great big dollop of time to ingest – and it’s worth the effort. He’s obsessed with colour and pigments and I can see him working in a museum conservation department in the future.
I think that’s why he gets on really well with Phil who is the coolest pupil from the science department (if only more kids would study art and science – and by the way his tie collection is amazing). Phil has been into resin for ages, but his colour combinations prove that he’s so much more than a patient fabricator, for he’s a painter with a greatly intuitive eye. Also, the drippy edges of his paintings give an arty edge to his works that emphasises the materiality of his incredibly silky-smooth works.
Ian (the lads call him ’laughing boy’, but he has a really serious side) and his new best friend Patrick were taking the hard-edged thing really seriously. Ian found a box of sticky tape and Perspex, which meant he didn’t get covered in paint like the new boy Jost usually does. Ian applies his acrylics really carefully, sometimes using a spraying devise. The Perspex, which reminded me of putting glass over a painting, is both ground and foreground. There’s an architectural vibe going on here, though maybe the reference is unconsciously to ‘60s fashion (I’m thinking Mary Quant with a touch of Bridget Riley) if we consider clothing as a form of body architecture combining surface pattern with form as an equal partner – only it’s essentially flattened out form becoming shape, albeit in shallow relief.
There’s a more organic kind of building and framework to Jost’s two pieces that seem to play with the waste materials that might have been collected from the studio floor (recycling is good) that embodies light and shadow with literal overlapping. Jost is a more organic sort of collagist than Ian. Mind you, their new friend Dan said he wanted to make things look simple but to slightly place his grids off-kilter and to unsettle the viewer a bit. Like when he puts two different reds next to each other; it does my head in but I kind of like it. Dan’s work seems to immediately hook the viewer into some kind of visual activity, though calling this a game would not do the work justice, as it’s more serious than a game implies. I’m always niggled, a little perturbed, by his work – but this sustains my interest. It was good that he had his paintings displayed together, particularly as the biggest of the three canvases (‘Not Fixed I’, 2019) felt like one big composition that could also be viewed as four in one.
Patrick loves painting but he also spent some time in the woodwork room where he was sawing up sections of birch ply and making some small constructions that could get him into University on an interior architecture course – unless he still wants to make some cool tent-like constructions for the Glastonbury Festival next summer, or maybe a Pavilion in a city park. But seriously, these would be great enlarged and developed beyond maquettes – only of course they’re not models as their handleable size makes them ideal for plinth or shelf display in an interior. Just like Rana, he activates the forms and the immediate white walls with reflected colour, only his shadows play a significant role too especially when shelving becomes part of the sculptural/constructional formation of the artwork with the wall or floor.
Rana and Deb are like chalk and cheese but not so much by their characters (I don’t know them that well), but this is based on first impressions of their artwork. They each construct their works in a spirit of positively affecting a sterile space such as a white walled gallery environment. Rana keeps her colours uncomplicated but juxtaposes them in two and three-dimensional configurations that you could live with and look at forever. Our teacher got a bit philosophical when she explained that Rana’s two vertically dominant wall pieces offered ‘perceptual and phenomenological experiences’. I think this means you see and feel the work physically and that we are part and parcel of that space, not just detached observers.
Sometimes people think Deb is the odd one out; not odd, odd – more of an anarchist (which makes Matt a bit jealous) as she always challenges our usual art teacher to justify why paintings should be fixed to stretcher bars or have boring old frames put around them. She likes to make these 3-D models that she attaches on to the walls when the teacher is out of the room doing some photocopying (though we all know he’s sneaked off for a ciggy in the bike sheds!). I think she might be a bit ‘expanded field’ – so our student teacher loved her work, but explained that these labels are less important than the work itself.
The teacher would not tell us what Hardpainting really means and I wanted to tell her that I didn’t think she knew anyway, but the bell rang and it was time to go home.
Mum – Thank goodness for that. Now then, are you having fish fingers or fishcakes, it’s Friday.
HARDPAINTINGX2 has been curated by Deb Covell, Stig Evans, Philip Cole, Patrick O’Donnell and Ian Boutell.
Mr Wright is partly based on my Head Teacher from Junior School who was so highly critical of a drawing I made (I was aged 10) that I should probably seek therapy, even now. He did not teach art (thank goodness). I don’t think he smoked cheroots either. Otherwise, all of my art teachers were brilliant.
The reference to ‘abstract nonsense’ is another autobiographical anecdote as I failed my O’ Level in Art at age 16 with my timed examination piece being an abstract composition. In the re-take for the examination a year later I painted a ‘realistic’ picture of a townscape. I passed and was able to attend Art School. I don’t recall painting a building ever again.
Please understand that this review is a little tongue-in-cheek. I have written about HARDPAINTINGX2 Parts 1 & 2 for AbCrit. Link
Opening Times: Wednesdays – Sundays 11:00 to 17:00
Part 1: Richard Bell, Katrina Blannin, John Carter, Catherine Ferguson, Della Gooden, Richard Graville, Morrissey & Hancock, Tess Jaray, Jo McGonigal, Lars Wolter and Jessie Yates
It’s chaos out there. You may be heading east from the railway station or the city centre so you have to deftly negotiate the human throng of the iPhone generation of distracted texters, Google mappers and Spotify listeners commanding narrow lanes that will eventually lead to the Phoenix Art Space. Eager gallery-goers and psycho-geographers beware too; for en-route to the gallery you may trip on uneven pavements and become confused as you navigate some way of crossing the maze of roads and temporary pathways that otherwise create a fascinating collage of concrete, stone and tarmac surfaces. Use the eyes in the back of your head as you navigate this terrain and inadvertently trespass upon leaf-covered cycle-lanes. But it’s worth the hassle.
But even as Brighton city centre is regenerated the Phoenix is currently a haven for some degree of peace and tranquillity as it hosts H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G_X2. We were here two years ago (courtesy of AbCrit) for the inaugural H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G exhibition. This time there are five curators (Patrick O’Donnell, Stig Evans, Philip Cole and Ian Boutell are joined by Della Gooden) and they have assembled a 2-part mini-survey of current reductive, colour-conscious (when employed), object-oriented, minimalist, what-you-see-is-what-you-get, bespoke painting. Defining ‘Hardpainting’ is a fascinating challenge, but looking and experiencing must initially supersede theoretical advocacy – and I suspect that the curators have defined their terms more critically through the ongoing curatorial journey now undertaken.
Richard Graville – ‘Blushing Phantom’ and ‘Red Banded’ (both 2019)
Based on the evidence of this show (and the accompanying catalogue that reproduces images representing each contributor’s paintings from parts 1 and 2), this, it appears, is what Hardpainters do. In an ‘un-expressive’, non-gestural manner they eschew the pictorial and representational and make work that is as equally visual (almost gratuitously in some instances) as it is skilled in construction and application of medium. Even Richard Graville’s pair of canvases, ‘Blushing Phantom’ and ‘Red Banded’, that come the closest to accruing accusations of painterly abstraction, have an aura of careful, premeditated control. That they echo the similar stripes on the workforce vans outside the building is either unfortunate or reminds us that abstract art is everywhere.
Understandably there is an emphasis on the viewer as active participant to make whatever sense or reasoning they can. But any burgeoning definition will not exclusively intend to suggest an orderly visual terrain in every instance, as some works quickly engage the eye and disrupt the gaze more than others. For example Richard Graville’s painterly, ‘Blushing Phantom’ and Morrissey and Hancock’s flat, hard edged ‘TPIAR’ possess dynamic Vorticist qualities; whilst John Carter and Catherine Ferguson offer a more restful, contemplative experience for the viewer that mixes up the range of visual encounters on display.
In some instances there are works that could qualify as ‘Slow Art’, to coin a phrase from the late Arden Reed. For whilst many of the 24 works on display appear to strive for visual simplicity and understatement the requirement to settle in for concentrated looking will allow the works to stage various scenarios of narrative-free, abstract, experiences. Or is a scenario a narrative of sorts?
All too often the natural tendency to find referential, external meaning or metaphor can all too easily kick in whatever one is observing. Take for example the first encounter of the show with a pair of Tess Jaray canvases that command attention from the viewer immediately. This is partly due to the size and placement of the work but ‘One Hundred Years (Green)’ and ‘One Hundred Years (Purple)’ also possess a minimalist audacity: energised in each instance by a central rhythmic zip, or meeting edge, of alternating curves and straight, though angled, lines. This fissure is suggestive of the cut edge from a pair of sawtoothed pinking shears or a totemic form reduced to its linear essence, and is indicative of a mechanical or architectural feature.
Next, stepping further into the main gallery space, three gloriously reflective and colourful pieces from Lars Wolter attract the eye and dominate one of the larger walls. A pronounced sense of tactility is sensed in ‘Cut-Off (Altrosa); (Enzianblus) and (Goldgelb)’, which hang like engineered products on a showroom wall. If touching, indeed stroking, a brand new car bonnet feels out of bounds then controlling the desire to touch the glass-smooth glossy and matt surfaces of these works is almost a challenge too far. These are skilfully made works that emphasise their craft and precision as 3D visual objects – but to be looked and ingested rather than manhandled and serving functional purposes. Coated in polyurethane paint, MDF has never looked so interesting.
Even at this early stage of a first visit, the message was becoming clear that the Hardpainting theme does not constitute a narrow range of styles, materials or appearances. For example, two contrasting, non-matching combinations of the selection each involve Jessie Yates’ textile/fabric uses of paint on canvas, augmented with stitch as an integral linear ingredient. ‘Untitled 1’, a collaged patchwork of variegated parts, hangs alongside Katrina Blannin’s geometrical four piece ‘Sequence #2/4 (P)’; whilst in an adjoining space Morrissey and Hancock’s systems inspired, ‘Rotational Drawing’ and ‘Untitled’ are hung adjacent to Yates’ miniature and piecemeal ‘Canvas Studies’. This clever, or fortuitous, curatorial ruse emphasises a sense of individual journeys being undertaken without recourse to a strict program or manifesto. Hardpainting is not a School of painting or a ‘movement’: maybe it’s an attitude.
By my third or fourth visit to see the show, as I took breaks from my studio upstairs, an unexpected sense of connection between Morrissey and Hancock’s geometric, maze-like ‘Rotational Drawing’ and Yates’ organically structured and curvy-edged ‘Canvas Studies’ installation brought out the underlying geometric randomness and systematic essence of the 30+ canvas collages.
My first exposure to Katrina Blannin’s paintings were from seeing her impressive solo show, ‘Annodam’ at Jessica Carlisle in 2016, where she actively acknowledged and employed (via Piero della Francesca) a carefully formulated mathematical intelligence towards a streamlined abstract outcome. The inherent geometry and visual impact of colour as shape (and vice versa) as a systemic component of the design aspect of painting is explored by Blannin in these four distinct panels that motivate physically active looking from left to right and in and out of a shallow visual space. Yet here, in ‘Sequence #2/4 (P)’ the content partly derives from the throwaway cardboard discs from pizza packaging, rather than art historical material. Even without knowing this (see Della Gooden’s essay in the catalogue) the ergonomic discs, not too big, not too small for specific uses, possess a degree of visual comfort and functional association. Because of the afterimages from Blannin’s work, due to the colour/tone combination, the flat shadowy forms on the viewer’s eye then track around the gallery as you blink ready to refocus on another exhibit.
A commanding and exquisite group of three paintings by Catherine Ferguson ‘Cieco’; ‘L’arresto del Tempo’and ‘Fango’ were probably enough without ‘H&P’ on the same wall (which would, in this context, have been better placed with works by Richard Bell and John Carter). Ferguson’s works were possibly the most indicative of a Slow Art suitability as they appeared to be stripped down or reductive manifestations from more complex compositions. These are immaculately painted compositions that present great dexterity in paint handling and even contain a hint of painterliness that I had not expected see in this show.
A more deliberate or obvious pairing (with Carter’s ‘Chapitau Three Identical Shapes’ making a cohesive triangulation on the opposite wall) is made between ‘Tectonic Plates (For A.H.)’ and Richard Bell’s ‘Equivalences (2 part painting)’. Possibly a diptych, due to the title, Bell’s pair of canvases could hang alone and appear complete. Following an initial impression of highly controlled rendering a multi-coloured and schematic sub-division of the rectangle; on closer inspection ‘Equivalences’ appears to only allow one coat of paint per shape, which means that in places (e.g. the white on red and green on black in the left-hand canvas) the single layer does not totally cover the underpainting opaquely as might be expected. As if to subtly emphasise an understated painterly approach the canvas edges are not overpainted by the colour shapes that leave a millimetre of an almost imperceptible edge.
John Carter’s two pieces, though wall mounted, suggest a modernist/minimalist preoccupation with sculptural concerns or referencing the built environment. Giving ‘Chapiteau’ its own generous wall space was an inspired decision by the curatorial team emphasizing the observer’s full attention to this one example.
Looking back at ‘Tectonic Plates’ then revealed another relationship outside of this triplicate arrangement with Della Gooden’s ‘for’ and ‘against’ and ‘As’ creating a visual conversation across the gallery space. This suggested an invisible but active structure to the choreographed arrangements; a successful site-specificity that has been achieved after devoting several days to the installation.
Three interventions from Della Gooden add to the variety of approaches and intentions selected for HardpaintingX2. Two of the works, ‘for’ and ‘against’, might be easily missed on an initial tour of the exhibition, as these assemblages resemble doorbell chime covers and are placed on a pillar rather than a wall. ‘As’ physically intervenes in the space, although its placement on one of the larger walls enables a more conventional expectation. A hand-drawn graphite line is ejected out of the bottom left hand corner of the blue rectangle, which appears as a plane of semi-transparent colour that has temporarily found a space to occupy. Perhaps this is a portal of some sort as an ethereal feel prevails with the addition of a misty emanation of blue pigment to the right, although a square of wall or a thick wall tile is placed where it may or may not belong and brings one back to the solidity of the built environment. This tableau is applied to a larger white gesso background, which suggested an empty street shrine I had seen in Napoli some years ago. I cannot explain this last point as anything more than a peculiarly personal point of departure; or the sense of the blue as a reminder of a Gothic or Renaissance painter’s lapis lazuli for Mary’s cloak (even though it’s Prussian blue). There is something uncanny about this assemblage emanating from the gallery wall, for the artwork has a short life, as it will be painted out before Part 2 is installed.
If there is at least one curatorial surprise, or challenge to the audience in this show, ‘Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang’ by Jo McGonigal might be chosen. Perhaps this is the main Slow Art contender, as a narrative appears more likely in this painting-cum-sculpture. Is this yet another tableau of sorts (most pertinent to a form of Slow Art whereby a painting can be represented by real people dressed up as ‘fictive others’ and posing as constituents from a ‘real painting’) to link with the imaginative essence of Della Gooden’s ‘As’? Or is it a model of a theatrical, but virtual, stage set? Still searching for a context, a sense of the surreal bringing-together of unrelated components to create an alternative fiction, this work is anything but blandly minimal. Held aloft by two striding, leg-like forms a box-like, steel girder sort of construction makes a stage-set for various items including a balloon and a ball of putty. The suspended tangle of cord and its dim shadow or reflexion has a connection of some kind with the neon light that floats as a light gesture, or a whimsical cloud, to the left of the box. I am lost for finding meaning and understanding, but feel suitably challenged in an attempt to make sense of this absurd scenario.
Splitting the show into two parts is unfortunate to some extent, though curatorially useful for showing a wide range of works and avoiding over-congestion. As is typical of the white-cube aesthetic the context of the ‘art space’ as a neutral but active component to display the works, with full attention paid to the wall spaces between works, brings some coherence to a selection of artists who might not otherwise show together. Each work is indicatively related to every other, as an aura of focussed attention and control to the making and construction process permeates every artwork included here. This in turn invites inspection of each and every component part of the presence of each work.
Of course it might be that the exhibition title sets up the attentive and open-minded viewer to approach the show in a particular state of mind, for we can start the viewing with a proposition: that there is a varied field of abstraction that can be categorised under the umbrella term of ‘Hardpainting’. Here there is still enough of a mix to ensure that diversity within a particular aspect of abstraction, wherein the practice confirms an adamant attitude towards a certain quality of making and presentation. Nothing is superficial, slap dash or ‘expressive’; but an emphasis on visuality is paramount. This reminds me of a point made by Gillian Ayres (whose work I suspect would not be in this show as it is so instinctive and improvisatory), that in addition to any notion of painting as a visual phenomenon, it “is a physical and material project”.
Co-curator Ian Boutell summed this up succinctly when he stated in an interview for the Phoenix website that – “There are lots of ways of reading the show but for me the underlying theme is that it is about premeditation; careful forethought and high production value finishes.”
Hence an atmosphere of calm has been achieved in this carefully curated environment – in stark contrast to the developments outside of the building. Bring on part 2.
HARDPAINTINGX2 (Part 2) will present works by: Rana Begum, Ian Boutell, Philip Cole, Biggs & Collings, Deb Covell, Stig Evans, Jane Harris, Mali Morris, Jost Münster, Patrick O’Donnell, Carol Robertson and Daniel Sturgis.
‘Crowding the solitude’, ‘Ghost white path’, ‘Night’s first light’, ‘Silent reach’ and ‘Restless lane’ might be headings in a list of poems from a collection that constituted a volume of landscape inspired verse, but they are selected from the titles of drawings and prints from Tania Rutland’s exhibition at the Phoenix Art Space.
Another title, ‘Chip of flint – fragment of chalk’, makes reference to commonplace Sussex downland geological material that could have been gathered from her visits to Iron age Mount Caburn and Neolithic Cissbury Ring in East and West Sussex and is the intriguing title of this exhibition.
The very idea of a ‘chip’ or a ‘flint’ suggests the collection of a memento, a physical token from a walk, picked up to place on a shelf when home. Such an item might be revered as a memory of a time and place spent in solitude or with a partner or friends from a Sunday walk. The cultural pursuit of walking might be a form of escape from everyday life, most especially the ‘working week’. A leisurely stroll or demanding hike, especially in the countryside, can be rejuvenating and refreshing. It might also be consoling during a time of stress. A walk is healthy for both mind and body; and for a landscape artist a place for research, inspiration and hard work.
Though superficially a landscape exhibition, on reflexion, ‘Chip of flint – fragment of chalk’ is loaded with speculative and thought provoking possibilities enabling the visitor to take away the non-physical souvenir: not to be placed on the mantelpiece but constituted in the form of ideas to consider and discuss further and, ultimately, leading to environmentally focussed action.
From the very start of the corridor space Window Gallery, making a de facto antechamber, two wall-mounted assemblies of small, unframed, preparatory drawings make it clear that drawing is at the core of Rutland’s practice. As an introductory display, sufficient in itself as a stand-alone exhibition, the 28 studies make an implied proposition that drawing is still of paramount importance towards painting, especially in landscape art. Whilst an en plein air approach is also possible, the drawing in advance of the essential schema for a final painting, even without colour content, provides the opportunity for intense consideration of composition and content; and for revision of the essential rectangular format. Rutland’s methodical approach also develops the initial ‘sketch’ to a more ‘finished’ state and therefore requires a more prolonged period of execution. In this respect, the lengthening of time to make what might simply become no more than a preliminary part of production, adds to the inherent conceptual aspect of Rutland’s greater project, namely that of time and duration.
Annotated on half a dozen of these relatively intense drawings are more titles, including: ‘Ghost lines’, ‘Eroded slope’, ‘Frozen light’ and ‘Fatigue of early light’. Without mounts, but with clearly measured and demarcated perimeters for consequent development into paintings, these studies may have come straight from the studio wall in her Phoenix studio. This informality in presentation might have initially diminished an observer’s attentive reaction to these works, but throughout the opening evening many visitors could be seen both standing back to view each of the two groupings of drawings and then be observed stepping closer to scrutinise each image as if through a magnifying glass. In relation to time a second aspect, that of concentrated visual observation of various locations, loaded with evidence of human interaction in and on the land (and sea), also implied itself in the bigger project.
Continuing into the main display space the biggest piece in the show first greets the visitor in contrast to the small studies just encountered. The pencil and graphite ‘Ghost white path’ impresses not just by size alone (200x150cm), but also by a display of controlled elegance in mark making and an example of compositional skill in which the viewer might literally fall into this Downland vista. As a completed drawing, ‘Ghost white path’ is as consummate and exhaustive as a painting might be and therefore expands the notion of drawing as going beyond the supportive role that it often takes.
In this significant work the viewer will certainly gain a sense of the past and the present day in one hit. In the bright distance, where the intense light dissolves the sea from sight, the Rampion wind farm turbines that now dominate the view from the Sussex coast have been recorded. Whether these technological structures please the viewer or not, like the telegraph poles we may barely notice anymore, or the electricity masts that cannot always be buried beneath the ground, we will inevitably have to become accustomed to this burgeoning technology for generations to come.
The past and present (an ancient landscape and an off-shore development) combine in one monumental vista so that a viewer has to contemplate a challenging and controversial journey to the future in this era of climate change awareness and necessary proactive behaviour.
Four monochromatic etchings are displayed next, including ‘Mound duskily glowing’, a title merging topography with time and light, which again suggests a poetic counterpart (a haiku perhaps) that may one day be written. In ‘Silent reach’, telegraph poles located in a flattened mid-grey rhombus in the central area of the composition leads the eye from foreground to mid-distance. The poles could be traversing alongside a coastal area, or trace a communications route a few miles inland, leading to the next village or town. Very few regions of this relatively small island will be without such evidence of human habitation, as if such evidence of technology was as natural a phenomenon as the trees.
With a change of process and medium Rutland allows a weathered, washed-out look in the thinned ink layers transferred from the surface of the metal that she has etched with. For example, in ‘Selvedge edge’ the distant hills are visually subject to mist dissolving form, whilst rain falls as weather conditions change appearances. In the bottom section of the image fence posts create a small enclosure, a signifier of order and land ownership. A telegraph pole, like a crucifix, in middle ground, merges at its base into foliage. Dark parallel lines in the foreground, perhaps suggesting the selvedge edge of fabric for the title, foretell the flint seams in the set of the four ‘Flint Seam’ drawings that are to follow.
These more minimalist compositions, ‘Flint seam 1, 2, 3 and 4’, are placed at the centre of the show. They are undoubtedly complete in themselves but may well hold the prospect for further development as abstract paintings. Each is placed behind a clear acrylic sheet, rather than mounted in a conventional frame. Like its counterparts, ‘Flint seam 2’ is composed of a series of vertically placed horizontal bands of smudgy, burnished graphite drawn on to a gesso (i.e. chalky) coated, paper ground. Within these thin, dark, cloud-like strata are more defined linear marks suggesting a compressed handwriting with a slightly nervous, quivering organic edge.
These often flat and smooth, mark-like shadow shapes are found in split flint nodules originating from sedimentary chalk that litter the farmland in Sussex and have been used as building materials for walls and buildings since the Roman era. Further back in time flint was fashioned as a Stone Age tool. But way beyond any human presence on earth they are a literal compression of geological time and materiality that seems beyond comprehension and may well suggest a natural kind of drawing. Dark and wave-like, these markings made from the chalk seabed reveal fissures of implied energy. As a form of visual poetics, the past is metaphysically now in these teasingly simple, but thought provoking and elegant drawings.
At what appears to be the end of the display, a group of five framed drawings (including the title piece of the exhibition) are presented in suitably mounted and framed studies that, like the etchings, read as ‘finished’ works. They include ‘Crowding the solitude’ which is a similar composition to the aforementioned ‘White ghost path’. In the mid-ground the land builds steeply to two bulbous hills; to the right on the implied horizon are the perspectival rows of 14 vertical masts from the Wind farm out at sea. In the space between the hillocks, and particularly on the left hand feature, is a meandering configuration of chalky pathways. The closer foreground is patterned by a gentle arrangement of subtle tones that visually pock mark the paper surface. The notion of the landscape as corporeal and libidinous is difficult to deny.
The last of these five drawings is titled ‘Flint’. Initially it could be a drawing that goes unnoticed, such is the insistent or subtle presence of so many of the other works. One feature, however, hooks the gaze as one might head for the coffee bar and the prospect of seeing a painting from Tania Rutland. Within this rendering of what may be a recently ploughed and almost featureless field, a tiny but visually dominant grid-like structure interrupts the shallow curve of the land, just before the dark masses of a thicket of trees on the close horizon, revealed contre-jour, emphasising a sense of infinite space beyond. Its identity is a mystery: could it be a wooden or metal framework? From the bottom right-hand corner of the drawing a purposely trodden pathway leads to the unknown construction and it could be that the track across the field has been rendered into the surface by either animals or humans.
Outside of the Window Gallery, but in a suitable display space that extends all of the exhibitions, one of Rutland’s oil paintings, ‘Remote dwellings’ is presented on a dark grey wall. This provides an example for those who do not already know her work and is now interestingly and more than adequately informed from seeing the drawings and prints. One painting is probably just enough exposure in this context and holds out the prospect of seeing a future exhibition of Rutland’s paintings.
Significantly, this work in the more ecologically minded attitudes of society today is made more potent by its combined references to the past, present and future. The human conquest of the environment is, of course, aided and abetted by the genius of technologies, open to interpretation and revision. The drawings and prints presented in ‘Chip of flint – fragment of chalk’ not only record and reflect the history of particularly special locations, but provoke the observer to contemplate the future too.
“He came home from the war with a party in his head and an idea for a firework display.” (‘Swordfishtrombone’, Tom Waits)
One of the earliest Black Fireworks paintings (‘Black Firework Painting’ – not exhibited here) was produced on 20 January 2017. Nearly three years later Mike Edwards has created a distinctive body of work throughout September 2019 from which eleven of the 30 paintings form the centrepiece of this show, plus three associated works. A potential benefit of a gallery at a studio complex is for displays to reveal explorations of new ideas and work in progress from the incumbents, rather than just exhibitions of fully realised periods from an individual’s practice. Arguably, any distinctive period of an artist’s oeuvre is still, in some way, a selection of work in progress but ‘Black Fireworks’, provides a fascinating departure by Edwards from his ‘bread and butter’ works. The change is not wholesale as there are undoubtedly connections with his earlier works, but current preoccupations and future possibilities have been examined and explored in what could turn out to be a preliminary body of work.
Edwards completed his September 2019 series of ‘Black Fireworks’ barely three days before the show opened – with framing still to do. Such a move may have been foolhardy or brave: either way the transitional nature of the collection provides an insight into the creative process that might often be overlooked by an audience expecting ‘the best selection’ from a body of work from a sustained period of time. It also provides a spur to other artists to revive their practice by encompassing the risk factor that may have lain dormant from their formative student years. This is not to suggest that ‘Black Fireworks’ is in any way reminiscent of an undergraduate’s body of work. It’s too sophisticated for that as, for example, the seemingly random splatters of black paint (burst from a paint filled balloon that might double as a fist or a cushion for comfort) that are repeated in the paintings are likely to have been washed off and reinstated, or carefully adjusted throughout the month-long project. There is also a distinct possibility that one or two ‘failures’ or unresolved compositions have been allowed to remain in the series (one of my favourites, ‘Black Firework Painting 21.09.19’) – though it’s all quite subjective.
In some instances elements from older works resurface, most obviously the personal iconography of the skull and the energy inducing zigzag motif. Some, such as ‘Black Firework Painting 04.09.19’, have an additional graffiti-like rendering. In this work the word ‘Paris’ has been daubed onto the blue-grey ground before the black burst of acrylic paint was applied. The imagery is further enhanced, and completed, with a neon-like rendering of a primitive human skull, complete with cast shadow to visually push the skull into the viewer’s space. Purposely or not, the dot over the ‘i’ in Paris doubles as one eye for the skull. There is nothing slapdash or random about this painting as it combines a rendering of informal lexicography with abstract, mark making, intensity. Referencing Paris also gives the work a specific historical dimension after a year of protest in the French capital and beyond and is granted a little more particularity by the choice of yellow (from the gilets jaunes) for the two lines that constitute the street-art type skull. Edwards loosely appropriates, as visual metaphor, the skull for the mind that thinks about the world and what goes on in it. ‘Black Firework Painting 04.09.19’ is a visual morpheme, wherein differing language systems combine successfully to produce a coherent whole.
Frustrations at the way things are, or how others act, can irritate. We might literally hit out at others, shout out loud or scream inside. In painting, especially in an expressionist vein, one option to the artist is to throw the paint at the canvas, constituting a deliberate act of unbrushworthiness (sic). This ultimate and totemic symbol of pent up frustration may well be the splatter that smashes against the barrier between the inside and the outside: self and society, me and you, us and them. These Black Fireworks are sneakily contradictory as they appear as a personal (visual) attempt to be integrated into the ever developing body of the artist’s work, but as active participants with some impatience and informality in addition to the well established degree of control normally associated with his work. For example, the inclusion of ‘Magna Carta’ and ‘Thrills, Skills, Kills & Ills’ shows evidence of Edward’s highly disciplined painting abilities. So too does ‘Black Firework Painting September 2019’, a 60x60cm oil painting on canvas that is both completed and undermined by the particularly aggravating intrusion of a weighty black splatter over geometric zigzags and a sublimely dramatic cloudy sky as theatrical backdrop.
The smaller and more speculative acrylic on board ‘Black Fireworks’ (which at 40x30cm suggest the page of a sketchbook or preparatory study) are a productive response to external circumstances, proposing a painting surface that constitutes both a resistant skin and a site for testament beyond simple materiality. It’s the contradiction of the material and the mental that might be both engaging (for the viewer) and frustrating (for the producer). Even as personal exegesis to attempt to come to terms with current affairs, ‘Black Fireworks’ undoubtedly reflects contemporary events and potential states of mind (depending on your personal point of view, of course) at a time when the shift to extremes in politics and the burgeoning ecological crisis leave so many people feeling guilty, helpless or angry. The capricious and volatile scenes that the digital interface of the TV, iPhone or computer screen (perfect formats for the fictive) that can equally entertain and distress an audience, now creeps into lived daily experiences in many forms including the pernicious Brexit argument, poverty and homelessness, exaggerated weather conditions, constant surveillance and party-political turmoil, notwithstanding the acceptance of such conditions as perfectly acceptable from some sections of society and government. This compelling work has the hand mark and effect of the personal and provides evidence of a genuine sense of the visual artist who feels that he must respond/react in some way to the violence and unpredictability of the times in which we live. It’s a political act. That reaction may ultimately be fruitless or self-centred, even though shared and made public. But this provides the frisson of creative danger that hopefully results in a successful outcome. In his own way, as a popular and successful painter, Edwards makes a visual diary of sorts for the times we live in by using the metaphor of ‘black fireworks’, which paradoxically darken the sky, as oppose to illuminate it. These may not be paintings that sell as well as colourful and decorative popular-image-type paintings may often do – though here there is a contradictory polemic at work that is redolent of individual angst, but may well resonate more collectively and find space in personal collections that are more than superficial.
‘Black Fireworks’ may well constitute a period of transition – not necessarily to radically replace, but to refresh and invigorate an esteemed practice. These 30 little windows on to the world, including those not selected for the show due to space restrictions, through the non-digital medium of paint, initially stresses the handiwork of the individual who works with the seemingly chaotic explosive imprint of the painterly splash. Mediated by varying instances of additional images: the red lightening strike in ‘Black Firework Painting 19.09.19’, the scrawl that emerges from the black mess of ‘Black Firework Painting 29.09.19’, or the pin and balloon that remains in ‘Black Firework Painting 16.09.19’, indicate that this series clearly has plenty more mileage left to explore.
‘Black Fireworks’ are a History Painting of sorts, where facts vie with interpretation.
It’s a warm September evening and on the big screens in the lounge bar Arsenal are on their way to beating Eintracht Frankfurt by a comfortable three goals to nil in the Europa League. Concurrently, in the rear annex of The William the Fourth public house located at the Walthamstow end of High Road Leyton, the reopening of Terrace Gallery has also kicked off. Both contexts demanded close scrutiny of the action, resulting in much delight and satisfaction at the final outcome.
Painter, curator and singer, Karl Bielik has selected this mix of artists to re-boot Terrace Gallery with a clear interest in abstract painting. ‘A Tapered Teardrop’ is the first of three group shows and these initiatives are to be welcomed, particularly in a climate where the artist as curator has become paramount in disseminating contemporary practice alongside the sometimes inaccessible and exclusive domain of the ‘gallery system’. It’s also fascinating to encounter an exhibition in a non-exclusive type of social space where the punters can socialise with the added option of visiting the gallery. Jo and Adam, the management team, are keen to make the Terrace Gallery part of the pub and not a disconnected add on and it will be interesting to see how this initiative develops with future shows.
There are 19 exhibitors, which constitute a healthy maximum for the space that is essentially one large room. With so many paintings on show there was bound to be a wide variety of approaches to image making on display, from the improvisatory to the meticulously planned and executed. To some extent the policy of one piece per person results in a series of de facto ‘calling cards’ and all of the exhibitors are well known contributors, to a greater or lesser extent, on the London art scene. Certainly, a (loosely knit) group show always has the potential to send the visitor off to see more by any favoured participant.
Should you view the works in sequence, from the implied start of the display you might turn immediately left on entering the Terrace space. Here, with some humour, Max Wade’s ‘Metronome’ appears to be throwing off what remains of a frame and a stretcher fragment, as a painted wooden limb gestures nonchalantly but pointedly towards EC’s ‘BOOM BACK’. This particular example from Wade’s studio has a sense of provisionality if you compare it with subsequent works made for his recent show at Sid Motion Gallery. ‘Metronome’ offers an impression of the unfinished, unrefined or abandoned, instigating a somewhat contained but punk-like sensibility that comes and goes throughout the show. Raw energy vies with measured and carefully nuanced processes, as each of the 19 paintings has to hold its own assured presence.
Almost immediately I found myself mentally rearranging the hang, not because of any inadequacy, but because the possibilities for new relationships are a feature of an intelligently selected body of works, constituting a multitude of new connections and associations. By suspending a typical, orderly walk through, a scan around the space soon picks up the mix of geometric, hard-edged abstraction intermingled with more gestural, spontaneous, painterly compositions. The sequencing mixes up similarities and contrasts alike, and the more overtly geometric examples from Katrina Blannin, David Webb and Shaan Syed have to hold their own within a strongly gestural demographic. From this changed vantage point one might decide to mix up the order of engagement by flitting purposefully from one wall to another – seeking initial security in a sense of order and immediate connection between similar attitudes in the works. But (viewer beware) first impressions must be challenged too, for the sense of an inherent provisionality of some works was initially perceived (though none were overworked) but it was eventually evident that, say, Katrina Blannin’s ‘Piero 5 (P)’, or Gabrielle Herzog’s ‘Untitled (Offbeat)’ were offering more than the sum of their parts.
Another early reaction might be a desire to see more examples from any one particular exhibitor, depending on personal preference or familiarity with the various artists. In this instance I would have liked to have seen a larger example or two by John Bunker to break the monotony of a conventional, though efficient hang. (Although a solo show, ‘Faint Young Suns’ is opening at Unit 3 Projects space at ASC studios in November.) But on a more constructive note there is ample opportunity for experiencing the visual hit from all of the exhibits, including Bunker’s ‘Shady Hill Fugue’, which suggests a spatial constellation far beyond its 43.5x34cms. This busy and colourful composition takes collage (with its painted elements) on a physical as well as a visual journey almost as intensely as EC’s ‘BOOM BACK’ that might have been displayed alongside – but two boisterous children are best given space apart.
‘BOOM BACK’ is somewhat typical of EC’s oeuvre, although she typically takes it to the max from a visual engagement point of view where distribution and layering is always uncompromising. At 20x25cm this is one of the smaller works in the show (although nothing is particularly big) but the inner space is maximal and the eye can take an engaging and meandering staccato-esque, psychogeographic journey in a sequence of 90°, stop-start, urban perambulations in this painterly, collaged environment.
Blannin’s ‘Piero 5 (P)’ offers her usual impressive exactitude of application of medium and an immaculate geometric organisation of flat forms. As I studied this engaging work another viewer, visiting artist Will Stein, offered his observation that the image sinks rather satisfactorily into the patchy light and atmosphere of the space. It’s a feature of the installation of the whole show that the painted grey walls avoid the typical starkness of the white cube aesthetic and helps to integrate the works to provide some degree of consistency. This might partly explain why the neighbouring work by Karl Bielik lessens its contrasting juxtaposition with Blannin’s canvas. Bielik’s ‘Net’ might inadvertently be indicatively figurative as a stage-like scenario is occupied by two diamond-like forms that refer the observer back to the pairings of discs in ‘Piero 5 (P)’.
Bielik’s self-confessed unplanned approach to painting (as revealed in an interview for Abstract Critical in 2011) and his modus operandi of making paintings/images as a kind of performance, albeit on many canvases at one time, might be seen as a sort of magic act in which images are produced from a state of activity within the strict parameters of time spent exclusively in the studio. It’s certainly the case that the studio can be a lonely place where subjectivity can drown in introverted self-doubt or, conversely, emerge into the light from where, in a exhibition an audience can engage with the fruits of this curious labour. Indeed, the title of the show, ‘A Tapered Teardrop’ might constitute an unintended misnomer.
I asked Karl Bielik about the title and he explained that “the title is a collage of many thoughts and things going on, I’d been listening to ‘Trout Mask Replica’ by Captain Beefheart a lot at the time of coming up with a name for the show. ‘Tapered’ crept into my notes, so teardrop just sounded good and I view it like titling an album and it fitted. So some automatic writing, mixed with stuff going on, and that’s what got thrown up. Then after deciding on that as the title, the words began to take on a different meaning, kind of how we all somehow make our sadness fit and work for and against us – to like the sadness, a measured sadness, a tapered teardrop. I mean we are all painters, not the most functional creatures…”
Bielik’s comment reveals a shrewd understanding of the creative process. Whatever transpires in the studio, maybe the flipside to apparent “sadness” is a quiet and positive contemplation – Bielik’s “tapering”. The paradox of the (apparently) dysfunctional is that it can work in tandem with a dynamic creativity, especially for abstract art that is concretely and psychologically located ‘in the world’ of experience and honest endeavour.
Also, I would posit that the external, social world often informs and seeps into works alongside the personal. For example, David Webb’s ‘Galata (Blue)’ is, on one level, a quiet and meditative affair depicting one flat white form on top another but is undoubtedly informed by his keen eye and relationship to places (including Galata – a village in Cyprus) as titles of so many of his other paintings often reveal. The human sense of balance, poise, lightness and weight, plus symmetrical and asymmetrical interrelationships between forms (geometric and organic), crucially relies on visual perception in his overall project. ‘Galata (Blue)’ possesses a 2D design aesthetic that nevertheless hints at the mass and three dimensionality of architecture. I was also fascinated by an easily missed small smudge of the blue acrylic paint that had thinly leaked from close to the apex of the triangular white base on to the rectangular shape above, as if to remind the observer that this is painting and not graphics. It also reminded me that all perception and thought is as sophisticated in simplicity of realisation as in sometimes necessary complexity.
Shaan Syed’s ‘Untitled’ also posses an architectonic and environmental, ‘built environment’ characteristic, despite an enclosed colour scheme of blue, green and sunset orange that hints of nature and landscape. Yet I have a feeling that I could be way off the mark here. The perfectly flat white surface that accounts for the majority of the composition’s frontal area is made from a filler of some sort and hides a primer or hidden background that is revealed almost surreptitiously around the edges.
A more overtly figurative element however is strongly suggested in Sharon Drew’s ‘Flip & Curl 6’, where a wide, flat brush has formed a curly breaking wave from the seashore. Set against an orange/red loosely striped backdrop the resulting image foregrounds a more independent, organic graphic that, in her own words evokes “the sensation of light, colour, rhythm and movement in the landscape…”
But associations with external subject matter are not always necessary or desirable. Kes Richardson’s ‘Uncletomcobley’ presents an essentially rectangular but jigsaw-like configuration, balancing a thinly applied, wobbly edged patchwork of colours. Figure-ground shifts create a shallow sense of space. The grid-like geometry is organic in nature rather than strictly formulated or measured out and it sits comfortably next to the Caterina Lewis and Mali Morris canvases. It would also be interesting to see this work next to Blannin’s ‘Piero 5 (P)’ as I find myself counting and comparing discs and squares from a ‘systems art’ perspective. On viewing ‘Piero 5 (P)’ for a second or third time I noticed the incredibly subtle tonal existence of grey on grey discs that reveal what is in effect a grid arrangement of 25 circular forms.
Johanna Melvin’s ‘Slipstream Dream’ straddles both camps of gestural and hard edge abstraction, as perhaps do EC’s and John Bunker’s hybrid collage/paintings. Though visually ‘busy’, the relationship between solid, flat forms (two bars of green and cream in this instance) and a deliberative and paced execution in the making seems apparent. If you know Melvin’s work already you will be aware that solid, flat shapes comingle within painterly arenas as forms shift between the positive and negative notions of space as visual experience.
The interstitial characteristics of space, the betweens as well as the withins, inherent in Melvin’s work makes an interesting juxtaposition with the overtly painterly and rich colours in Stephen Buckeridge’s, ‘The Bringing Together of what has been Parted’. But Buckeridge’s powerful and efficacious composition, which contains an element of collage and forms a challenging contrast with David Webb’s ‘Galata (Blue)’ which hangs alongside, suggests expansive proportions of territoriality despite the small size. The paintings are so different that neither interferes or segues into the other, yet each work has a similar characteristic of uncompromising boldness.
To varying degrees Nicky Hodge, Clare Price, Caterina Lewis, Sharon Drew and Mali Morris’ works add a luscious visuality that brings forms into more blended configurations. Hodge’s ‘Bereft’ is a restrained miniature colour field that might have been wrecked with the addition of another colour: it’s a brave decision. Likewise, Caterina Lewis holds back on the colour and knows how to not get carried away with overt enthusiasm for slapping on the paint.
Intriguingly, one of Lewis’ fellow exhibitors in ‘Stairway To Heaven: Abstraction Now’ (at Watson, Farley & Williams, presented by Coombs Contemporary until 18 October) Philip Allen, displays‘deepdrippings (hyper sensitive nose for the next new thing)’, just about the largest work in the show at 50x45cms. But the oil paint encrusted surface, tonally light and delicately coloured in pastel hues and frothily dense, is anything but slapped on. Despite the varied topography of the surface, the tactile nature of the work dominates visually, through the touch of the eye as if to conjoin senses. This sense of the bodily and the physical is also implicated in Clare Price’s, ‘This gossamer meniscus bomb’. On her Instagram feed the artist has described this as a “Fragile little painting”, which is revealing. A sense of a capricious, shifting and labile mode of thought and physicality appears to be directed by the work in a subtle use of acrylic that could be mistaken for watercolour.
Despite a diminutive 18x24cms, Mali Morris’ ‘Under and Over’ (the smallest work in the show) feels like it could be mural sized, possibly because three relatively large horizontal strokes of equally occluding, veiling and semi-transparent brushstrokes, set against three or four vertical gestures, dominate the ‘field’. In each corner of the composition almost similar green, crimson, orange and purple capsule-like markers lend an anti-clockwise sense of animation and a subtle kinetic force. An orange fingertip, to the right of the top centre edge, pins the image down.
An apt grouping of canvases from Gabrielle Herzog, Henry Ward and Tony Antrobus emphasizes some similarities of a materialising structural integrity with a marked linear component, which suggests the potential of a future three-person show. It may be this drawing type component that gives these three canvases a sense of activity that has been stopped in its tracks. Herzog’s ‘Untitled (Offbeat)’ shares some affinity with Caterina Lewis’ reductive display of shorthand mark making that if it were a sound would be a whisper.
The slight heaviness of a black top edge to Herzog’s composition hints at the desire to fill the canvas that is often difficult to resist in making a painting, whilst the overpainted (formerly) black double triangle in the bottom half of the composition creates a counterpoint of deliberate negation to the black above. Despite its simplicity, the work increases in visuality the more time one gives it as a kind of ‘slow art’ component.
Ward’s ‘Weekend’ also has this element of unhidden overpainting, which contributes to a sense of drawn deliberation, which is particularly emphasized by a thicket of leggy stumps drawn with oil stick in the lower horizontal quarter of the composition. The colour range is closer to Mali Morris’ palette, which suggests yet another potential combination, although an edginess in the application of paint and pictorial character makes ‘Weekend’ a suitable partner for Tony Antrobus’ ‘Untitled’, wherein a loose repetition of three blacked out uncompromising lozenge-ish shields, that release tail-like drips down the bottom half of the canvas, provide an echo from Herzog’s less emphatic painting. Antrobus’ linear motifs dance almost (but not quite) frenziedly over a background that suggests a history of earlier decisions that refuse to disappear. As with everyone else, you just want to see more.
On another day I may have discussed these paintings in a very different order and made alternative connections of familiarity or contrast between them. If you can visit for yourself, more the better, for after such commitment in the studio the works deserve to be seen, enjoyed and debated. Like the football fans back in the bar, we observe with our own biased point of view, where objectivity is always compromised by personal preference as we tell our tales of what happened that night.