Despite rumours of a UFO incident in 1980, from the evidence of Kate Sherman’s recent paintings, Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk retains a human characteristic: albeit deadpan, but with a fascinating personality that is revealed subtlety if you look long enough. Sherman has worked on this ‘portrait of a forest’ project for two years and the results are impressive.
A quick scan of the display at the ONCA gallery, before a slower and more contemplative viewing, establishes the solemn, greenish-grey and essentially ordered nature of the modern forest site. Representative of this almost detached and nonchalant form of representation is, ‘Rendlesham 8’, which might remind us of John Constable’s, ‘Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ (1833-6) or Paul Cézanne’s, ‘Avenue at Chantilly’ (1888), both of which can be seen in the National Gallery, London. In Sherman’s painting, a manmade pathway wide enough for a Forestry Commission tractor, leads the eye to a fuzzy portal, where space is occluded just before mid-distance. Initially, the subject seems obscure.
But if Constable was paying homage to the first President of the Royal Academy; whilst Cézanne explored the possibilities of rendering a subjective experience of landscape, objectively on to a flat surface; Sherman, it seems, contrasts an arguably outmoded Romantic subject matter with an instantaneous, and digital, sampling of the countryside that we might be passing rather than entering.
This dialectical proposition signifies the economically efficient arcadia that society strives for, whilst encoding environmental concerns that grate with a sense of foreboding and loss. Or, as a statement on Sherman’s website explains: “This photographic source is important because the paintings capture a reflective notion of memory, of the emotional distance between a real landscape and a photograph, between experience and longing.”
The deliberate transcription from photographic sources is strongly maintained in this body of work, and emphasises a certain distance from a more personally adoring, singular and emotional interpretation of landscape. Presciently, in many of the images in the show, the original photographic source is cropped at the bottom edge, or the viewfinder is raised above the immediate foreground, to cut the base of the trees from the land. Also, referencing the photographic, or more pertinently today, the digital is significant to what we might accept as the interface with the way we record and view the ‘natural’ environment. On a day-trip to the countryside most of us will frame the view through our iPhone or some lesser equivalent – and this may be enough to satisfy the peculiar need to record places we may otherwise forget.
Kate Sherman, however, has taken the time to carefully select and render such views in paint, offering a far more reflective and substantial experience than the snapshot. In her paintings, the compositions, influenced via the framing devise (a Panasonic DMC-GF6 to be precise), are pervasively structured to repeat how the camera ‘sees’. The subject matter, a seemingly regimented typology of ‘nature’, consisting mostly of trees, appears to offer a dispassionate view. But this would be a misinterpretation.
The considered viewing of these paintings, extending the gallery glance even just for a few minutes for each one, facilitated an interpretation of Sherman’s project that revealed a genuinely engaged analysis of picturing. Posing questions of the relationship, emotional or otherwise, between the viewer and a view of woodland (a deliberately manufactured forest of pines), and about the propensity of the medium of paint to engage the eye that the pixel cannot, is achieved with skillful, controlled, restrained application of oil on panels. Whilst photographs are instantaneously created, these paintings slow and extend the quickly fixed moment, due to a studio practice that is concentrated, disciplined and patient.
In the majority of these images there is also a sense of a comfortable, viewer’s distance. As we might observe a painting in an art gallery, the convention is to stand back from the ‘real’ subject that is ‘viewed’ in nature. And, just as we may not touch a painting, the forest is an alien place we may not venture in to, except in our imaginations.
By contrast, it provided some respite to look at two small but quietly emphatic paintings that contrasted in mood with the monochromatic greens and the tree-bark, greyness of the majority. ‘Untitled (1)’ and ‘Untitled (2)’ were each especially atmospheric in the context of the selection on display and a specific colour mood evoked a sense of time – the end of the day perhaps? The colour extended the images’ impact beyond the cold facts of a photographed scene and added a poetic feel and an evocative intimacy. Although most of the paintings projected a sense of detachment, ‘Untitled (2)’ pulls the observer in to the dark grey/blue entanglement of tree branches and sky. Whilst other works deflected the viewer’s gaze, undermining reflection by throwing back rather than absorbing the imagination, and, by implication, mirroring so much indifference to the plight of the natural world – these two studies invited the viewer in.
We might be there, at twilight – connected and integrated with the natural world – as we recognise the changing light of day: lost momentarily in sublime reverie. Or, imagination suspended, we might be here, estranged from the ecosystem, awaiting environmental apocalypse.
Sadly, there is a self-defeating point of view that might think the planet a safer place without a human presence. In ‘Picnic Bench 4’ and ‘Rendlesham 9’, each include, in the bottom left hand corner, a typical wooden picnic table. (One of those badly designed benches that are challenging to get into, and harder still to extricate yourself from.) We can read this as a sign of conquered territory, but no one is there (except, by implication, the artist). In fact none of the paintings directly show any people at all. But visitors may be close by, as ‘Rendlesham 10’ includes a number of parked vehicles. They appear devoured by the light. Motionless and abandoned for a while, the cars are encamped forming a momentary settlement, as if the occupants were from the same nomadic tribe. Perhaps these anonymous visitors, natives from the metropolis, have ventured into the forest?
As viewers – cultured folk who visit art galleries – would we dare to join them? If we are romantics at heart we might be too afraid, as woodland myth dictates that fairies, sprites, pixies and goblins animate these sites. And there’s the dilemma: our rational minds know that Jack-the-Green has scarpered, and we might, paradoxically, fear that the inhabitants of ancient myth are not there anymore. Removed to a safer place by the UFOs.
The immaculately presented white walls of P420, invigorating the two generous, bright and voluminous spaces that might intimidate visitors and overpower any work installed in this arena, suitably acted to focus the gaze on Helene Appel’s recent work. Containing 13 paintings that conjoined somewhat disparate subject matters: shards of glass, a fishing net, pasta, sandy seashores, washing up water and images of raw meat, compelled close viewing of both image and surface qualities. In fact, such is the fiction and developing ubiquity of the digital screen, that, if you had first seen the images for Washing Up on the P420 website, you may have expected a form of photorealism. Fortunately, this was not so, for if a painted image eschews completely any of its painterly qualities, it may as well be something else entirely. In Appel’s images it is clearly paint media that we are observing. This matter-of-factness is emphasised by the simplicity of application, which often verges on minimal deliberation with the brush.
A sophisticated economy of practice is manifested in ‘Sink (2)’ (2016), where the outer framing device of the stainless steel form is almost crudely rendered – but the visual information is just enough to represent the domestic receptacle that holds the somewhat unpleasant state of the water that threatens to overflow beyond the sides of the canvas. The post-washing up debris that floats beneath the surface barely approaches the grandeur of, say, a Dutch still-life of the seventeenth century, and might prove disconcerting. But, like the Dutch genre painters’ predilection for representing everyday life, Appel’s selection of un-elevated imagery offers the viewer some threads of spaghetti, a little green vegetable, and a piece of salmon (perhaps) that might otherwise still be lodged between the diner’s teeth.
Undoubtedly, there is a certain degree of quiet discomfort in some of these images, including ‘Shards (3)’ (2016), which instinctively generates a sense of the trompe l’oeil that so often renders images vacuous, faux and trite. Intriguingly, ‘Shards’, as just one example, avoids the pitfalls of mere imitation, as the simple imagery acts as a trigger for interpretation, despite an initial assumption that the subject matter contains little of substance. ‘Shards’ not only reveals Appel’s fine painting skills, but also invites the viewer to pick up the pieces with their eyes as a haptic rather than reflective response. And also, despite depicting glass, the visual self is not reflected in these fragments, as by visual implication the inert subject matter has its own sense of being. There is an implication of the before and after of an event (the breaking of the glass) and so time is implied in an instant.
Illusionistic realism aside, a relationship between the hand made and the mechanically (and digitally) produced image is not the focus of debate in these paintings, but rather an implied dialogue between the cultural and experiential value of the depicted subject matter, and the qualities of painting, for promotion to the arena of the canvas.
There is also a sense of magnitude and substance of a particular cultural event generated by a very interesting curatorial decision to place relatively few paintings in such a privileged space. The juxtapositions of the images are neither arbitrary, nor overwhelmed, by the rarified gallery environment. Arguably, the most outrageous example of placement was made in the pairing of ‘Fishing Net’ (2016), a super-sized canvas at over two by four metres, situated alongside ‘Pasta’ (2016), a diminutive 6X2.5cm mini-work. Like an ill-matched pair of anything, it shouldn’t work. But it does. If there is a rulebook for the arrangement of paintings placed together, it breaks the rules splendidly.
The viewer is also aware of walking in and around the space, by approaching each canvas directly as a degree of detail pulls one in to inspect, after surveying from many steps back. For example, the two versions of ‘Seashore’ (2016), one vertical the other horizontal, and ‘WaterSpill’ (2014), also engage the viewer’s close scrutiny and a sense of surface as ‘real’ ground, whether it is sand or canvas. The actual linen transmits the fiction of the surface transformed from a visually experienced woven screen that is materially real to the illusionistic ground where space is occluded.
‘PillowCase’ (2014) is an intriguing composition, where the implied materiality of an actual pillowcase that would typically be constructed from woven material, though preferably cotton and not linen, adds an extra degree of object-ness to the image. The interrelationship between reality, allusion and illusion permeates the reading of the image. Suggestively, if it were not for the presence of the buttons, there is also a hint of Agnes Martin’s minimalist aesthetic in the linearity and light colouration of the canvas, which may not be so arbitrary a reference for Appel’s ability to quietly and meditatively connect with the viewer.
Helene Appel’s paintings prompt reflection on things and situations, in various states of transformation (a net hung up to dry; meat waiting to be cooked; broken glass not yet swept up; a slow moving, shallow wave) – but such scenarios are situated on the edges of our attentive states, as we carry on with our everyday tasks. Provocatively, the actual, or original, materials and forms (pasta, water, cloth, glass) are neither the subject nor the object when rendered as painting. The artist may have painted the images from life, eidetic memory or from reproductions (e.g. a photographic image). We do not know (without asking her) and have the option of constructing our own mini-histories for the making and becoming of the images. Surprisingly, this process magically transforms generally unremarkable content and consequently produces a reverse transubstantiation, where the substance of the body of materials; liquid or apparently solid, natural or artificial, reveals a transformation from painterly materiality to a subtle staging for visual ingestion that is simply, but gloriously, perceptual.
And so, ideally, the paintings force the viewer to look afresh, knowing that one views, and analyses, a proposition of particular forms (pasta, meat, water etc.) presented quite humbly on a surface. Here, the physical depth is shallow, even when the illusion is otherwise. The touch, or gesture, that applied the medium, constructs a fiction. But, nonetheless, Appel’s paintings make concrete propositions that invite interpretations that go beyond superficial appearances.
Interestingly, and somewhat provocatively, the exhibition promotional essay claims that the:
“ …painting is anti-capitalist, because it lingers in a space of authentic and original reflection, hovering where the eye would otherwise skim rapidly, without interest… The artist’s quotidian universe seems to be purified, cleansed by the pictorial gesture whose slow pace might be seen as obsolete in the speed of the contemporary world.”
Certainly, the viewer consumes in the act of looking, which of course is a mental/conceptual process of consciousness, rather than a negative materialistic act. But an ingestion of this imagery might be closer in spirit to the Japanese notion of wabi-sabi, in which the discarded and the peripheral is appreciated for its inherent beauty and character, rather than encompassing an implied political act of defiance.
But hey, let’s lighten up. Any item or scenario can be significant, however unremarkable, on a number of levels. This work grows on you, and if it is ultimately successful, nothing can ever look the same again because you will have learned to take more notice – and will be all the richer for the experience.
Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy of Arts, London
To mixed reviews, the eagerly awaited Abstract Expressionism show has opened at the Royal Academy. On AbCrit, a UK based blog dedicated to discussions on abstract painting and sculpture, artist and writer John Bunker had predicted, well in advance of the opening, that: “The RA blockbuster autumn extravaganza promises to seduce us with its knock-out line up of Abstract Expressionist paintings in its lofty neoclassical halls.”
So, I suspect it was with great anticipation that people visited the RA, where twelve galleries of mostly paintings, but also sculptures, works on paper and photographs clearly gave room for displaying the broad church that is Abstract Expressionism. As a display there were strong punctuations of sets of individual’s works – paintings from Gorky, Pollock, Still, De Kooning, Rothko, Newman, Kline, Reinhardt, plus David Smith’s sculptures. A carefully selected addition of other key players – most notably Gottlieb, Tobey, Francis, Guston and Motherwell – gave all visitors something they could treasure.
But the paucity of works by female artists, especially Krasner, Mitchell and Frankenthaler, was a probably disappointment for many. Perhaps the room of photos etc. could have been omitted to create extra wall space for these three? Arguably, the works on paper could have sufficed as catalogue content or, ideally, another show? Although the Robert Motherwell composition, ‘New York City Collage’ (1959), suggested the possibility for more collage works to be included in this section, or to form a more significant collage and print display within the show. A smaller work by Motherwell, ‘At Five in the Afternoon’ (1948-49), and Kline’s ‘Untitled’ (c.1951), an oil on paper, demonstrated that diminutive size can equate to large scale irrespective of format.
The essentially male ‘line-up’ was certainly impressive, with the RA promotions department highlighting the surnames of Still, Pollock, De Kooning, Rothko, Newman, Kline, Reinhardt, Mitchell and Smith on the advertising leaflet for the show. Just the one female featured on the list was enough to hint at the lack of works by women to be included. This was confirmed by the inclusion of just two of Joan Mitchell’s paintings; including, ‘Mandres’ of 1961-62, which particularly impressed – challenging and extending De Kooning’s gesture induced, painterly skeins towards an unashamed and indulgent painterly abstraction. Surprisingly, there was just the one Helen Frankenthaler (the pale, stained, ‘Europa’, from 1957), which must have left visitors wanting more. If you caught the ‘Making Painting: Helen Frankenthaler and J.M.W. Turner’ in Margate a couple of years back, you would have seen what a contribution her work would have made at the RA.
Taken together, so few canvases from some significant individuals diluted the much broader range of the show as the women are clearly underrepresented. This was despite David Anfam, co-curator, stating that, “… presenting Ab Ex as a male preserve is a clanger that should be silenced for good”. (Note: see the recent Huffington Post article on a dozen of Abstract Expressionism’s women.)
But I should not quibble too much, for we are treated to several small, but significant, one-man shows that overlap and segue accordingly. In fact, the Arshile Gorky display in Room 2 was a real and unexpected treat, and his name could have replaced Mitchell on the aforementioned promotional leaflet as he was so well represented.
And as for the ‘seduction’ that John Bunker promised, so it did – to some extent. But something niggles. No doubt every visitor will eyeball something that they find outstanding and exciting en route from start to finish. For me this was provided by the painterly dynamics of gestural compositions by Pollock, De Kooning and Mitchell; and with quiet reverence experienced from viewing Clifford Still’s understated, yet daring (or stubborn?), vertical patchworks of jagged colour shapes. Without a trip to the Clifford Still Museum in Denver, visitors would never have expected to see these canvases in London.
With relatively few Abstract Expressionist works in public collections in the UK, (although the Tate has six Pollocks and 13 Rothkos), the distant locations of much of this great body of work, added to romantic notions of the New York School (and California), might conflate a fascination for the post-war era as a Golden Age of sorts. The great canon of European painting (especially) had been extended across the Atlantic, supporting the development of an American art, albeit with promotional assistance from the CIA.
This may beg the question as to why Pollock, De Kooning and Rothko are seemingly as revered as many of the Old and Modern painting ‘masters’? Should they be added to a list including Fra Angelico, Jan van Eyck, Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Goya, Turner, Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Dali, Bacon? Add and subtract as you wish. (And why no women, or non-white artists?)
Or do we hold these three American masters in too high esteem? It seems to be a problem when looking at work by the ‘greats’. Arguably, objective seeing is impure, for we seek structures and contexts to formulate understanding; and we can be in danger of developing biased views that wrap tentacles around all we peruse. But already the gender argument has appeared in this discussion, and the cold-war political aspect lurks in the background too. Objectivity is a challenge if an unquestioned bias exists. But I am sure that visitors will more-or-less have received what they expected, most especially from Pollock, Rothko and De Kooning.
But, irrespective of personal art historical interests, and awareness of the wider social and political contexts looking at abstract images should ideally be about experiencing something of the essentially visual, leading to or from the conceptual. The very notion of abstraction (in art) offers the experience of seeing beyond the figurative reference, sign or symbol. Harold Rosenberg stated it much better in 1952 when he claimed that the Abstract Expressionist canvas is, “an arena in which to act… the canvas was not a picture but an event.”
This ‘event’ is the subject matter, perhaps a reflection of the ‘self’ at times: even if, for example, De Kooning’s ‘glimpses’ of realism might slip in, or be evoked, from time to time.
On other occasions, in other exhibitions, anticipation can lead to disappointment. Expectations, especially positive ones, can be thwarted by over enthusiastic presumption. But this was not the case. Which, paradoxically and perversely, is a shame. Very little was truly disappointing, as so much was on display. But, as with any large exhibition, trying to take everything in is impossible. This is a show that needs at least two, or even three, visits.
Actually, the Rothko room (not the one we all love in Tate Modern), but Room 7 at the RA, created a visual conundrum: selection and arrangement-wise. Despite being placed in the Wohl Central Hall, a Temple-like sanctum that added to the reverence afforded to Rothko, we were shown too much in too small a space. These various canvases would have been better presented in a white cube environment, with more empty space around them. This arrangement was too staged and claustrophobic.
Interestingly, Rothko is Pollock’s foil in a survey exhibition of this type. Commonalities and differences between the various artists can create a visual dynamic if selected and presented carefully. Rothko presents the quieter antithesis of Pollock’s more gestural engagement with the image. Not that Rothko’s floating islands of colour cannot suggest a deep and spiritual dimension – if you are so inclined – and can circumscribe clichéd readings.
With his less conventional use of the brush, Pollock’s use of tins of house paint appear to have liberated his process of image-making for the better, where chaos is avoided with dexterity and control. Pollock’s work really takes off when he flicks and pours, or puts down the brush. He could be quite ‘cack-handed’, with inappropriate (traditional) painting techniques for what he needed, or eventually found himself saying, with paint. For example, ‘Portrait of HM’ (1945) is a transitional work that renders stick-like figures that retain a graphic element of the symbol: but soon after, Pollock develops the all-overness of the non-easel image in ‘Phosphorescence’ (1947) and other prematurely late works. In his last decade he unleashes a less laboured process of painting and embarks on an all too short journey towards his tragic (and idiotic) death: but establishes his reputation forever. Or to offer another example of this transition, a marked curatorial highlight conjures the impressive, ‘Blue Poles’ (1952), opposite the important, but transitory, ‘Mural’ (1943). This pairing demonstrates Pollock’s rise to a higher level of accomplishment as the revolutionary American painter of the 20th century.
Another intriguing curatorial decision was made in selecting and placing Lee Krasner’s, ‘The Eye Is The First Circle’ (1960), on a dominant wall in Room 3. Within breathing distance of, and as if to confront her late husband’s final period, the massive ‘Eye’ takes pride of place. But Pollock’s ‘Number 7’ (1950), much smaller and painted a decade earlier, and in almost the same colour scheme, wins the argument. In ‘Number 7’, Pollock has carefully placed black and white arabesques against a graffiti-like background. The painting looks assured and orderly to imply a decorative intent.
As with the female painters already mentioned, I also wanted to see more of Hans Hofmann’s paintings – there were just two included. One of these, “In Sober Ecstasy’ (1965), stood out from the crowd and even dominates the catalogue if you flick through quickly. Hofmann was also pouring paint back in the early 1940s and, as with Mitchell and Frankenthaler, seemed to have been considered almost marginal with so little representation.
But, understandably, we do get a lot of De Kooning. From ‘Collage’ (1950), an interesting placement at the close of Gorky’s display in Room 2, to several women. This included the unforgettable, ‘Woman’ (1949-50), ‘Woman II’ (1952) and, ‘Woman as Landscape’ (1955). One of the curatorial highlights was the placing of, ‘Villa Borghese’ (1960) and ‘Untitled’ (1961) either side of an exit you could not pass through without spending time with this tremendous pairing. Typically, the paint wrestles on the surface and the painter continues to slip and slide fortuitously with aspects of figurative ‘reality’ – in this case a sense of landscape. This is better illustrated in De Kooning’s own words:
“You know, the real world, this so-called world, is just something you put up with like everybody else. I’m in my element when I’m a little bit out of this world: then I’m in the real world – I’m on the beam. Because when I’m falling, I’m doing alright. When I’m slipping, I say, ‘Hey, this is interesting.’ It’s when I’m standing upright that bothers me… As a matter of fact, I’m really slipping most of the time. I’m like a slipping glimpser.”
Another memorable feature of the exhibition was seeing David Smith’s sculptures arranged throughout the show on floor-bound plinths. Some Calder’s suspended from above would have been interesting from a curatorial point-of-view (though we have already been treated to the ‘Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture’ exhibition at Tate Modern earlier this year). Also, Pollock’s, ‘Summertime: Number 9A’ (1948), contained Gorky and Calderesque primary coloured organic shapes (predominantly blues and yellows, with a few crimson reds) and this invited the inclusion of a Calder in this particular location.
On reflection, whilst travelling home on the train back to Brighton in the evening, I wondered if my expectations of the great Abstract Expressionism show had been fulfilled by this selection? The ideal Ab Ex show is probably impossible to arrange given the challenges and great expense of loaning all of the works necessary. Pre-show enthusiasm had created that sense of waiting eagerly for the big event. But we probably cannot expect any shock of the new from Abstract Expressionism given the historical perspective, although the relevance of this ‘American-type painting’ (a la Greenberg, 1955) will still resonate for painters today who knowingly and programmatically engage with the medium specific characteristics of their trade. We also see what was considered as cutting edge painting just before conceptualism promoted the power of intellect, and irony, over the visual.
This me left thinking about the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ for some members of a British audience. Namely, an underlying disenchantment that the British artists of the same generation as the Americans now have less of an international standing. How would the likes of Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton, Bryan Wynter, Anthony Caro and John Hoyland (plus the post-painterly, Bridget Riley and maybe, Gillian Ayres) compare? A combined show would be more than interesting. After all who, apart from Rothko and Hoffman, could begin to compete with Heron’s claim and achievement, that – ‘Colour is both the subject and the means, the form and the content, the image and the meaning in my painting today.’ (Painter as Critic, 1998).
Yes, that’s it: even with the works already mentioned; the acres of Barnett Newman’s canvases on display and Sam Francis’ overtly colourful patchworks and drip-scapes, I probably wanted even more colorito and less disegno.
‘If you go down to the woods today’ with Nick Bodimeade… or rather, travel the highways and byways – the B roads and the dirt tracks of rural Sussex – you will not be troubled by any bears. At the various ‘cycle-rider-friendly times of the year, when inclement weather is not an issue, you will probably find what you expect: glimpses of green and yellow glades, clusters of leafy trees, vistas of blue skies punctuated by the odd telegraph pole or lamp post; plus undulating pathways of asphalt, briefly recording the fugitive chiaroscuro of shadow and light.
Presented in the homely setting of St Anne’s Galleries in Lewes, the vibrant and swooping mini-vistas of the quiet and intimate rural scenery immerses the visitor immediately. Initially this felt like curatorial overenthusiasm for an abundant body of work, but once fully enveloped by the blue/green/purple colour scheme it was clearly an appropriate way to set out the show.
Because the subject matter for the exhibition is so programmatically focused on a very particular aspect of the English countryside, one might sense a degree of repetition in this body of work. This is true to some extent, but after a while you start to notice variable characteristics in many of the paintings. It’s rather like a huge family portrait of one side of the family, where the various cousins are clearly related, but then the personalities (including their interesting oddities and idiosyncrasies) slowly emerge. For example, in ‘B133a’, a predominantly blue sky with fish-like vapour trails criss-crossing in a loose weave depicts a typical Sussex sky scene (thanks to the ever-present Gatwick and Heathrow pathways imprinting their presence on the earthbound sky-gazer). But on the left hand side of the composition, creating a diagonal intrusion from the bottom left hand corner, a thin sentinel-like figure intrudes. It’s just a street-lamp, but the dark visage seems to stare back at the onlooker. This may be a small reminder that the so-called landscape we generally think of as ‘natural’ is a constructed and technological space too. Or is this purely in the viewer’s imagination?
Interestingly, in an interview for his previous ‘B-Roads’ exhibition at the same gallery in 2013, Bodimeade spoke of the viewer’s role in completing the image. He wished, through the paintings, to meet the viewer, “on ground they are already familiar with”. In turn, we might interpret this position, as the landscape images are purposely un-romanticised, as encompassing a desire to present the world (or at least an aspect of it) without ideal or irony. For they are everyday scenes of the ‘countryside’, framed by our leisurely or impressionistic looking, and invariably linked to previous experiences of travel (especially by bus, bike or car – rather than train) where the localised features are encountered without surprise. A Romantic disposition, in art historical terms at least, might formally rearrange and overidealise from the tradition of Claude, via our inherited Constable or Turner-type cultural filters, to make something rather unnecessarily grand of such subject matter. But ‘Tracks, Trails and Tarmac’ simply presents the mundane and the ordinary – which, with a positive twist, achieves the opposite.
Certainly, to recognise the extraordinary in the commonplace is not uniquely Romantic or even surreal, and we all possess the ability to do this. To pitch a more redemptive note, these paintings might remind us of the opening lines of R.S.Thomas’ poem, ‘Bright Field’:
“I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it…”
From ‘Laboratories of the Spirit’, published by MacMillan
Alternatively, another example of the implicit extension from the taken-for-granted ‘everyday’ landscape view, to a more portentous or ominous presence was generated by, ‘B108’. The shadowy knot of entangled green forms virtually writhes on the canvas surface and a rich purple protuberance snakes across the unusually bright road. (Note to painters: try recording tarmac – it’s almost impossible.) The ‘snake’, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. And like all words applied to a form of abstraction, the personification or adaptation to the word for explanation is fundamentally flawed: these paintings demand to be consumed by the eye and felt by the body.
From the 28 paintings on view, the one that most immediately undermined any notion of unashamedly pretty landscape painting (for the subject is now dangerously clichéd) surreptitiously dominated the first room of the show. This was ‘B129a’. At a diminutive 35X40cm it could have been easily overlooked, as it was almost instantly located behind the viewer’s back when entering the gallery. The prospect of so many paintings pulled you into the colour-animated space.
The subdued light in B129a suggested the dawn or early evening; and a fellow viewer intriguingly described it as the Ur-landscape – by which he implied that it was the primitive, or original painting, for the show.
Whatever the implied time or place in any of the images, this may not matter, for we are looking at paintings, in the flesh, so-to-speak. The “dialogue with people” that Bodimeade seeks, transforms into a two-way process, or active meditation, on painting. So, although B129a might, at first glance, record a rain soaked or greasy strip of tarmac that reflects the colours from the sky, the medium of oil paint provides the true substance for our gaze. An apparent ease in applying the buttery medium reveals a painter of consummate skill, gained through the daily labour of the studio. The calligraphy of the handling is robust, but retains a vibrant, De Kooningesque freshness. The visual language teeters in that fascinating zone between the figurative and the abstract and so one might be attracted to either aspect. There is also a great intelligence and reflective questioning of the act (or task) of painting in an era that eschews the relevance of paint on canvas. This is answered by the celebratory impact of the paintings.
It would be perverse to be overtly expectant of paintings that clearly exude such confidence and a sense of arrival at a suitable outcome – but it will be interesting to see where this artist travels to next. The threshold into abstraction might provide the pull, or a reinforced figuration may prevail. Either way, we can look forward to the next stage of a long journey – where the arrival points are rendered en route – and not at some fictitious end.
Contemporary artists explore new media (doesn’t that sound dated) and expand (as in fields), or merge disciplines (post-medium): but the stubborn still choose painting. Not because they are bound to an anachronistic medium; but because paint, and the compulsion to imagine through the very process of painting, constructs a speculative relationship to the imagination.
On the northern edge of the burgeoning gallery district of Mayfair & St James’s, Jessica Carlisle continues to develop a fascinating and varied exhibition programme. The latest show at this venue, it’s only the fifth, presents recent paintings by three very different figurative painters: Marcelle Hanselaar, Rui Matsunaga and Nahem Shoa.
‘Hard Boiled Wonderland’, consists of relatively small-scale works, each drawing on an aspect of the Surrealist impulse to render the imagination visible. In this respect, these painters are linked conceptually rather than stylistically. Their particular differences (from the use of colour, incorporating drawing skills, to presenting varied subject matter scenarios) provide proof that imaginative ambition is relevant to any notion of contemporaneity.
The title of the show references Haruki Murakami’s surreal/sci-fi novel, ‘Hard Boiled Wonderland and The End of The World’, a double narrative tale of the imagination that explores notions of the ‘self’ and the necessity for memory and for history. Applied to this show, the depiction of our fellow humans, or spaces we might inhabit, connects us to the past and future in the present, or the presence, of the paintings.
There is a clear sense of historical tradition too, echoing back to the Symbolists and the Surrealists in particular. But Hanselaar, Matsunaga and Shoa demonstrate that artists continue in a particular role to be visual diviners and prophets for the 21st century and beyond. In these paintings, human relationships (personal and societal) are played out in the broader environment of endangered, or indifferent, nature. Without sentiment, a scenario of post-industrial breakdown, war on the streets and global conflict underlies much of the imagery. There is ample room for the imagination to make presumptions and assumptions – or to remain baffled but intrigued.
Marcelle Hanselaar is a London based, Dutch artist obsessed with drawing and has an established reputation as a printmaker. The paint application reveals her draughts(wo)manship bias as the medium is drawn on with the brush, or palette knifed just enough to just take the eye back to the surface of the support. The paint is generally thin and sparse – adding a visual frisson. The visual force of her work is Goyaesque in intensity and her imagery draws impressive parallels with the Portuguese/British artist Paula Rego. When we discussed the work recently, Hanselaar commented that she sees herself as a “straightforward painter” and that she wants her images to “rattle your cage”. And so she does.
She also acknowledges a feminist voice of dissent against the pressures forced on people, especially (though not exclusively) women, within a patriarchal society. In ‘Snake Charmer’ and ‘Sweet Nothings’ (both 2016) she presents two ‘busty’, but not so young, females – sexualised, as is their fate for the male gaze. Understandably, both are featured with dissatisfied expressions. In the former, the snake (or the serpent from the Garden?) is clutched at the neck, whilst two clown-like figures view her from a safe distance. In ‘Sweet Nothings’, another shapely female, dressed in athletic costume, indifferently holds a small monkey, suspended on a string or a lead. Perhaps the animal has untied or broken its tether? When asked about this painting she replied that, “my monkeys are like 17th century (Flemish) genre paintings, referring to lust etc. – but in this painting men/mankind. Often in paintings the monkey has a chain and is either chained to something or has escaped, for a bit at least.”
The most narratively loaded work in the show is undoubtedly, ‘Adoration in the Wilderness’ (2013), and she describes her process of composition as employing a “stream of consciousness” approach. ‘Adoration’ presents a small group of four figures that take part in a kind of psychodynamic ‘play for today’. They form a troubled band of commedia dell’arte performers – only the comedy presents a dark humour that clearly invites interpretation.
A naked woman, eyes closed, appears to kneel before a smoking chimney (bandaged as a limb would be) placed on a chair or stool. A tarpaulin, suggestive of a temporary shantytown feature (or a migrant shelter at Calais), is supported on four stakes, penetrated by the chimney. The adoration may be for a broken god of sorts and the viewer might interpret the Holocaust; a Freudian phallic symbol; a reference to Lautréamont’s surreal, “chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella”; or simply an absurd object that is no more than a chimney.
A figure to the left, (presumably a man) wears a rabbit mask and holds an ineffective whip – or a tail. To one side, and staring at the woman and various props in the centre, stands a black African boy – a child soldier – with two rifles tied to his upper body. But his arms are tied too, disabling any use of the weapons and enslaving him in a post-colonial war. In this instance, appropriated in part by Hanselaar from ‘Head of a Black Man’ (c.1640) by Govert Flinck (a pupil of Rembrandt), the link to her Dutch forbears is maintained.
Furthermore, in the distance, a factory-type building with a watchtower, reminds us of the proto-surreal atmosphere of De Chirico’s architectural settings. But the title of the composition focuses the mind and we see that not only the naked woman, but also the whole group, are arranged around the centrepiece as representatives of humankind. This, Hanselaar explained, creates an “adoration in togetherness (and) desires creating objects”. Therefore, her painted objects and figures act as signifiers, but the meanings are moveable and non-didactic.
If Hanselaar’s visceral imagery was hard-hitting, shocking and raw, the titles of Nahem Shoa’s images, including ‘Holy Family’, ‘New Dawn’, ‘Coke Head’ and ‘Drug Dealers’, might suggest an equally disturbing range of subject matter. But the stained patches of colour will draw you in seductively. Here the world is filtered through kaleidoscopic spectacles, but the characters are not so at ease, or they appear lost in thought.
The figures, and implied relationships between them, dominate but there is initially a pleasurable encounter with the backgrounds of greens, reds and blues. A symbolist feel, reminiscent of Paul Sérusier or Odilon Redon, is re-imagined into narratives that undermine simple aesthetic visual pleasures. There is some awkwardness in the depiction of the figures, but this potential flaw is overcome by the creation of immersive and vibrant atmospheres. This is especially so in, ‘Emerald Pool’ (2016), one of the more uplifting images on display, in which a yellow light filtered into a magical realism, lights up the sky. In the teal-blue pool a distant planet or star is reflected and glows with an aura. The lone observer reaches out as if about to embrace this otherworldly apparition.
Coming back to earth, ‘Brightly Coloured Birds of The Night’ (2016) appears to offer a surreal twist on the fateful encounters of individuals in dangerous places, such as the modern city. A central figure, a child, is lost in thought as a predator lurks from within a hedge and two other figures appear oblivious to any danger. With a poetic rather than a gritty sensibility, Shoa’s tantalisingly visionary images propose a social realism that eschews black and white starkness or the more obvious narratives of urban despair, and engages in pure joy with colour. This apparent contradiction heightens the visual impact.
Offering yet another set of characteristics to the semblance of another world – creepily related to our own, but distilled and disfigured by the imagination – Rui Matsunga, is developing a hybrid visual language from the background of her Japanese culture.
After graduating from the RA Schools in 2002, an inherent ‘hipness’ with hints of psychedelia and a pop cartoon scenario, her work has evolved more recently to acknowledge the more traditional Japanese aesthetic of a non-perspectival space. But the works on display here references an earthbound, physicality, albeit with spacious, empty backdrops that suggest we view the action from an elevated position.
These might be illustrations for fairy tales not yet written. The animated figures, slightly unhinged, enduring ritual, sleepy or playful, seem at home in their habitat. There is a painterly rendering amounting to a distinguished super-realism, demonstrating impressive technical skill, in Matsunga’s visual language. The great attention to detail makes her world convincing.
This invented landscape might be a place we could visit. Maybe it’s on the edge of town where the countryside begins; or perhaps this wonderland is ‘beyond the pale’, where we are no longer safe. Either way, it’s a strange, unknown domain. It’s a bit weird out there and scraps of cloth in some of the images indicate strong currents of air. There’s a lonesome kite too; plus numerous feathers, skulls (human and animal), live frogs and a lot of rabbits.
In ‘Chanting Chrysalis’ (2016) the frogs might be celebrating the end of the world and the beginning of a new dawn. Post apocalypse.
This time and place conundrum is perceptible in ‘Moonlight Muncher’ (2016) and ‘Traveller’s Track’ (2016), making a fascinating pairing. Skeletal remains represent the past and Matsunga’s own paintings are depicted on wall debris in an eerie futurescape. Again, the landscape is almost barren (as is Hanselaar’s), the trees indicate some semblance of a fecund nature, but are almost leafless.
Mother Nature got into trouble whilst were here. Though soon the animals will be free to do as they wish.
Matsunga’s strange scenarios add up to a believable fiction, which has the filmic quality of CBI animation meeting Hieronymus Bosch and Richard Dadd. It’s not-quite-Anime, but there’s a Japanese twist and the images are morphed into the future. These works, and her earlier series, make for an interesting hybrid that will be interesting to see in a future retrospective that charts a longer period of this artist’s nascent career.
Does this exhibition sound bleak? Not necessarily. This diverse, and at times perverse, range of imagery reinforces the characteristic of painting for making sense, and non-sense, of this world. Whatever other media are acquisitioned in the pursuit of having something to say; paint remains an option.
For painting works in its own unique realm and can impose unwavering conditions for apprehension. This includes duration, and paintings demand time to be comprehended (sometimes over decades). Paintings also rely very much on the viewer’s input and a willingness to suspend overreliance on the quotidian. We have to meet painting on its own terms, where any implied narrative is, first and foremost, purely visual and embodied in the medium itself – independent of verbal or written commentary. Which is not to say that criticality does not have a place, especially where the contemporary status of painting is concerned. But, if we thought that paintings were mute, in the literal sense, the images in Hard Boiled Wonderland might be setting off fireworks in the mind.
Everyone is in high spirits. This includes the young gallery attendant who approached voluntarily and engaged in conversation about the generosity of Damien Hirst’s venture into gallery provision (free entrance for all); the restaurant manageress (in Pharmacy 2) also started up a conversation readily and we soon got on to great music of the 1960s and ‘70s (she remembered it all, as she had not been there – but her father had); so too, the bearded hipster in the gallery shop, who also thought the catalogue was a bargain… What’s not to like at the Newport Street Gallery?
This selection of Hirst’s collection of Jeff Koons’ art has a retrospective feel, as examples from throughout a 35-year period are on display. An initial impression, on entering Gallery 1, is that everything has its space. There’s plenty of room to stand back; and a lack of barriers allows viewers to get up close (the security team are both vigilant and trustful), making for comfortable viewing. These virtually unrestricted conditions continue throughout the whole show, in a space that is light and airy and accommodates all sizes of work. Despite the gallery protocol of not touching (it’s in our DNA by now), you might be in a department store. But whether this is the Pound Shop of Anytown, or Asprey of London, you cannot be sure.
The very notion of display, visual punch and spectacle is an important aspect of Koons’ oeuvre. Images and objects exude a sense of saying, “look at me – I’m a Jeff Koons”. There’s a strong feel of the ‘kitsch’ on show, especially when the transformed inflatable toys, the Jim Beam bourbon (train set) containers, or the Statuary are encountered. But, to make an oblique reference to Clement Greenberg’s ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’ essay (written way back in 1939), the boundary-pushing, avant-garde, pose of much of Koons’ artwork is now comfortably neo-pop mainstream and highly revered by aficionados of ‘high culture’ (as in the most affluent of collectors). There’s certainly no more of what the late Robert Hughes termed ‘the shock of the new’. For a contemporary audience aware of the YBA phenomenon of the late 1980s and the dissolution of painting and sculpture into appropriated and the installed, Koons might be the American Godfather of Kitsch – especially for Hirst. Interestingly, this post-modern facet of the avant-garde is not detached from society at all (as Greenberg warned us). It’s poptastically Warholian more than Duchampian, in the sense that Duchamp was in critical discourse with his fellow artists, and the media-savvy Warhol engaged more widely with a broader, celebrity conscious, public (and collector fan-base). Koons’ neo-liberal (as opposed to socialist) vision implies the aura of a malformed shamanism – capitalism and materialism forming a disingenuous and avaricious spirit world in the increasingly globalised culture we constantly hear of.
Koons is certainly a controversial figure, and he has as many detractors as supporters in critical circles and the art press. But despite the initial garishness of much of his output, Koons presents his ideas to provoke or induce the viewer to think with and through these images and objects. There is an implied permission to engage in a celebration of living and to be ‘in the moment’. At least we are invited to do so: the choice is ours. It’s dangerously spiritual.
With their various associations (cultural and personal; adult and infantile), his mini-spectacles of fun, absurdity and digression intrigue and annoy in equal measure. So, how seriously should we take this artist? Koons’ language of communication is constructed by the appropriated images and the insistent impact of objects: re-made, re-imagined and reproduced, albeit with the involvement of teams of manufacturing specialists and technicians. The work appears equally celebratory and mocking of the subject matter – including the audience. There’s a certain respect for craftsmanship and material excellence in most of the works: but is this apparent visual and material refinement no more than superficial display? There is often great attention given to surface, with depth implied by reflection, but this does not mean that the work is shallow – far from it. From the first view of the various types of Hoover cleaners, via various pneumatic forms (painted, printed and in stainless steel or polyethylene), enlarged toys, enlarged Jeff… the viewer is invited to get pumped up and to enjoy, nay, celebrate this wonderful, material world. Again, what’s not to like?
Throughout the show, colour and form, dominate – whether the meaning of the work is grasped readily or not. Electric colour, curvaceous reflection, smooth, baby-bottom, surfaces leave a lasting impression. If you choose not to intellectualise the work, you can simply enjoy the spectacle – which might just be the point. But Koons dumbs-up, not down.
To take a stroll through the six galleries at Newport Street and pick out a small selection of the exhibits, the scope and homogeneity of Koons’ work is apparent. On the whole, it’s explicitly fun to look at, even if the meanings offer a dialectical paradigm of cultural questioning and interrogation; contrasted with a sense of celebrating alive-ness (being human) and of an acceptance of the often kitsch nature of commercialised, aspirational societies. There is no space for the abject.
That said, ‘Snorkel Vest’  and ‘Snorkel (Dacor)’ , both bronze casts of ‘readymades’, appear as the odd couple in the exhibition. Perhaps this is because of the use of a traditional material, or due to a disheartening sense of death, as these items are denied the necessary air required to operate correctly. On the other hand, this phallic and vaginal pairing might be some kind of joke that Koons is inflicting on the erudite viewer who is looking for some deeper meaning in the work. Gravitas is superseded by witty crassness.
‘Balloon Monkey (Blue)’ [2006-13], at almost four meters high and six metres in length, occupies a room by itself. The metallic, blue-wow factor hits the eyes immediately; “fantastic”, is the initial response heard from a Japanese tourist, who’s partner follows from behind, already preparing his camera for another shot. In fact, many of Koons’ pieces are overtly photogenic, and there are no restrictions on photography, apart from in the next gallery displaying two sexually explicit images, which ironically, would be effectively photogenic in a pornographic context.
Back in the ‘sixties, on the classic psychedelic-rock ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ album, Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane sang about a ‘plastic fantastic lover’ – well here was Koons’ reflective, inflatable monkey, with extended phallic tail, giving any itinerant Freudians a great day out. Manufactured from mirror-polished stainless steel with a transparent colour coating, this is a sculpture made to be seen ‘in the round’, inviting viewing from all angles, including from an upstairs balcony that this great space (in both senses of the word) enabled. But the inherent eroticism of ‘Balloon Monkey’ is countered by a sense of naive fun and the reference to innocent play.
As mentioned above, in Gallery 3 photography is forbidden. There is in fact no need to record the moment, as the two photo-silkscreened prints, ‘Exultation’ , and ‘Ice – Jeff on Top Pulling Out’ , will stick in the memory anyhow (and they are reproduced in the catalogue if you really must have the images). Incongruously, these two pictures appear after the initial confrontation with ‘Bowl with Eggs (Pink)’ [1994-2000], a polyethylene enlargement of a child’s toy that looks like it craves symbolic meaning. It may have been a calculated curatorial decision to juxtapose a child’s artefact with images of adult behaviour as a startling contrast, or as a form of visually blocking the explicit works. Or perhaps there is a closer connection between the sculpture and the prints. Whatever the intention, suggestion is often more potent than outright, ‘in your face’ imagery (literally for ex-wife Ilona Staller); and so the bowl of eggs might ultimately have more staying power than the photographs selected from the artist’s ‘Made in Heaven’ series. One could easily argue that a work of art that plants a seed of thought, for germination at a later date, has greater longevity than the type of image that provokes an immediate response.
But a Koons gets under (or into) your skin as, leaving the ground floor, the handrails of the ascending stairs are experienced as rounded off as the bowl and its eggs we have just been taking in. This satisfies a tactile urge established from viewing, ‘Inflatable Flowers (Short White, Tall Purple)’ , that chronologically opened the show, to most of the sculptures already seen and still to be viewed.
Interlude in italics
Now the hallucinogenic fun finally kicks in. Every visitor seems drawn to ‘Play-Doh’ [1994-2014], and spend time circling this megalithic monstrosity. Initially, it looks like the biggest multi-scooped mountain of ice cream you could ever wish for. But it’s not melting, it’s freeze-dried. This is a facsimile of Play-Doh. D’oh – it’s a Homer Simpson moment too as the colour is cartoon tinted. Nothing is real. Everything’s distorted and stupid; is this where the American Dream has taken us?
Monumentalism in sculpture does not always have to be realised as bigness. This work is not imposing and nor is it made for a permanent public space – it’s gallery fodder – but fucking big nonetheless.
Most of Koons’ work would be categorised as sculpture, but there are many examples of print and painting too. There is something more convincing about his sculptures (which might also be said of Hirst). At the NSG the three-dimensional works make the biggest impression (even when they are suspended from the wall – such as the Hoovers), which emphasizes the realisation that Koons is neither a painter nor a photographer really. Appropriated Nike posters are framed and displayed like they should be returned to the company boardroom from where Koons seems to have acquired them. There may be some social, racial and cultural commentary going on here – but any due credit for the images should surely go to the advertising agency that conceptualised and produced these adverts.
‘Girl with Dolphin and Monkey’ , is perhaps the most memorable painting on display. An oil on canvas, the image demands attention like an advertising hoarding (it’s 3.5 metres wide) and it’s colourful and brash. The imagery of the pin-up girl riding the dolphin, about to kiss the monkey (potentially with a ‘monkey kiss’), lacks any serious sensuality. She’s a tease. Two Hulk cartoon figures roar in the background. Is that a train carriage drawn in white paint? Whatever narrative can be discerned can be as simple or complex as you wish. The image is trite, but if you look close-up, you see that it is painted so expertly, that even the grain of the canvas pulls you in for inspection. Is the dolphin smirking or smiling?
One of Koons’ most well known works, ‘Three Ball 50/50 Tank (Spalding Dr. JK Silver Series)’ , provides a tantalising link to Hirst’s own work (e.g. the unforgettable tiger shark in the formaldehyde filled vitrine). Of course, artists have always influenced each other and Hirst’s devotion to one of his heroes has probably paid off well for both of these purveyors of good taste.
Koonsism raises issues: as appropriation hi-jacks anything and everything, with the context of fine art operating as a field of critical thought, albeit linked to the production of engaging objects. This is understandable if we accept that the artist is to be defined as director, or product manager. The giving over of the making process to others negates any necessity to learn the craft of making for the artist. This is an abdication of production that has ethical consequences and, effectively, leads to the end of the Artist as we traditionally envisage him/her. Just as the Novel has been pronounced dead at various times over the past 100 years or so (how slow can death be?), does the example of Koons (and Hirst et al) lead to the same conclusion? Do we blame or compliment technology for this? For, despite the sophistication of mechanical, and now digital, reproduction techniques, the gallery becomes a sort of Madame Taussauds showroom for visual art forms. Simulation replaces originality – but, damn, this is reality.In his Richard Hill memorial lecture in 2014 (an edited version appeared in the Guardian – and is still on-line for free, no printing necessary), Will Self proclaimed:
“I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse.” (Will Self, 2014)
Substitute novel for painting or sculpture and Self’s assertion might be applicable to the kinds of artwork that Koons’ work supercedes. Fine-arty seriousness becomes inverted; as new images are generated, produced and manufactured from a mass-media, design aesthetic.
Can you enjoy a show and yet feel deflated afterwards? Can you feel confused, yet certain? Much of the work oozes, and reflects, Koons’ self-confidence. The Guru Jeff spreads happiness. The Shaman of Appropriation is the smiling wise-guy and he invites His audience to swallow an entertaining elixir of joyful vulgarity, which is both gratuitous and excessive. This nightmare vision of our world might be a warning. And that’s why Jeff Koons is an artist not to dismiss too readily.
So, rest your head on Koons’ pillow and enjoy the Sleep of Reason.
“Paintings are there to be experienced, they are events. They are also to be meditated on and to be enjoyed by the senses; to be felt through the eye.”
John Hoyland (Serpentine Gallery, 1979)
Looking at works of art gets us thinking, producing reactions of approval, disinterest or dissatisfaction. Such reactions appear instantaneous. Thereafter, one can move on or get involved. Further pondering, or ‘rumination’, might result in seeing a different painting, print or sculpture etc. Time is key.
In the quotation extracted from John Hoyland’s catalogue statement (above), the active and eventful meditation alluded to, fuses emotion (that which is ‘felt’ and ‘enjoyed’) with a visually stimulated encounter (via the ‘senses’). Paintings and other art forms are empowered by being perceived by the viewer. To “see through the eye”, rather than with the mind, is a statement affirming a visual poetics that has a particular, though not exclusive, relationship to abstract painting. Conceptually, and ironically, it establishes an anti-conceptual position.
Like all first-rate researchers, I checked on Wikipedia and read that the term ‘rumination’ has a passive aspect and may reveal a compulsive and repetitive frame of mind. I have to admit that I thought the term was more active, with thoughts taking one on a reflective journey that could accommodate doubt and unknowing as much as certainty and ignorance; albeit with speculation, surprise, questioning, revelation and summarizing all jostling for position. In other words: thought as a creative act.
Undoubtedly there are both positive and negative modes of ruminating. Perhaps meditation would be a better term – but meditation per se suggests an emptying of the mind. The unconstructive aspect of ‘rumination’ sounds self-defeating and, I assume, engages in circular reasoning at best. But the affirmative mode of reflection holds creative possibilities that might be realised if one perseveres with the material to hand. For example, in looking at abstract, non-narrative, non-figurative imagery: especially paintings.
Returning to Hoyland’s comment (above), he appears to be speaking on behalf of the viewer as well as himself. However, purely from an artist’s point of view, Gerhard Richter offers an intriguing insight when he says:
“Painting has nothing to do with thinking, because in painting thinking is painting. Thinking is language – record-keeping – and has to take place before and after. Einstein did not think when he was calculating: he calculated – producing the next equation in reaction to the one that went before – just as in painting one form is a response to another, and so on.”
In some forms of abstract art at least, an aspect of open-ended, non-linear thinking is crucial in the making, or process, of production for many painters – but not all. A visual form of enquiry can, of course, involve mathematical planning and consciously ‘conceptualising’. Having looked so much at Hoyland’s work over the past couple of months, especially with the ‘Powers Stations’ show (and in re-reading Mel Gooding’s essential monograph, plus several catalogues from this and previous shows) I took a look at the more overtly geometric aspect of abstract painting by visiting ‘Annodam’, a solo show from Katrina Blannin at Jessica Carlisle.
Jessica Carlisle’s new gallery opened recently with an exhibition displaying a dozen or so of Katrina Blannin’s abstract/geometric paintings. The majority of the works were quite small, measuring 30X30cm, with three others at 100cm squared. All of the works are given ample space between them, despite the limitations of one room that has a domestic sense of size and scale about it. However, a modern, voluminous ‘white cube’ environment would have visually engulfed these works. So, even with the obligatory white walls, the hang invited intimate contemplation of each painting and, by extrapolation, mental space for rumination as active meditation.
I reference the ruminative aspect here because, despite the presence of a ‘packed house’ at the private view, where space was tight and the atmosphere was one of high spirits, I found myself attracted by a silent, meditative kind of engagement with the paintings: most especially the smaller ‘Blue Madonna’ (30X30cm), that calmly but insistently held my attention.
This typical first engagement with an exhibition, where all too frequently there is hurried and inadequate engagement with the art, and a disproportionate amount of time given to social chit-chat, hardly encouraged a fair viewing of the work as I eased around the throng. But, contrarily, I found that engagement with ‘Blue Madonna’ was unfazed by the party-like atmosphere and, rather like the attractive girl (or boy) at the party whom you first set eyes upon, you cannot avert your gaze.
Even a quick hello to Trevor Sutton and Carol Robertson, two of London’s most interesting abstract-painting practitioners, did not distract me from my task. Task? Hardly a chore, per-se, but a pleasure. And the nature of this gratification? Pick any from: uplifting, elevating and inspirational, visually intoxicating, nourishing, blissful or calming. But none of these terms will quite do. It was all and more. It’s difficult to pinpoint or summarize.
Can I, dare I, propose an aesthetic experience, without sounding oddball? Rationality and image ‘deconstruction’ has moved on, surely? Nor was I was privy to something deep and profound that only a specialist audience might be enabled to experience, despite the cultural context of an art gallery. But, the ‘aesthetic’, is a culturally loaded term. The phrase might refer to having ‘good taste’, or an ‘educated’ visual palate. These definitions are uncomfortable and implicitly hierarchical in cultural terms, but I suspect that the purely visual, affective, impression is as dominant as any other reading of an image (e.g. forefronting symbolic, narrative, theoretical or technological imperatives).
In Blannin’s work, especially in the Madonna paintings, there was a measured and minimalist kind of beauty, featuring a limited range of tonal colours, infilling structures of deliberate clarity and simplicity rendered with exquisite control. Like ‘sublime’ or ‘affective’, ‘beauty’ is another difficult term if only because discussing the visual is not referencing a literal language. (See Simon O’Sullivan’s ‘The Aesthetics of Affect’ for a more informed discussion.)
If I were to assume that we would share the same engaging response I can only gauge this by saying, “go and see it for yourself” and then engage in discussion. There’s no guarantee we would agree, of course. Some might find geometric abstraction dull, too inorganic, or empty of expressive content. But expression, like body language, is communicative as much by still poses as in gestures.
What was the explanation for this particular uplifting experience? Certainly there are contextual frameworks. This could include personal mood, which is ephemeral; or fashion (as in what’s ‘in’ or ‘out’), which is best avoided. Then there are personal histories shared by generations: for example, from an extensive art and design education. Educational contexts mold and influence us, even if we have to purposely react against them, for better or worse. The second art historical textbook I read at Shrewsbury School of Art in the 1970s (the first was E.H. Gombrich’s ‘Story of Art’) was Clive Bell’s ‘Art’ (1914), in which he proposes ‘significant form’ as a quality of objects (especially paintings) that rouse our aesthetic emotions. This was probably in conjunction with reading Roger Fry to introduce our specialist fine art group (this was a pre-degree Foundation Studies art course) to Modernism and notions of the avant-garde. Not bad, considering our main studio tutor, Anthony Vettise, was also an art historian with an interest in the Early Renaissance. Does this formative exposure to art history and theory act as my rose tinted art-spectacles? Maybe.
As an active viewer (‘active’ sounds more reciprocal than ‘observer’) there is an opportunity to both access already acquired art historical knowledge, but with the promise of more, of the unexpected, by adding personal analysis. This interpretive paradigm can result in an affective state that eschews a clearly rational, word-bound, explanation or exegesis. The ‘authorship’ of the work transfers to the viewer – the artist must ‘let go’.
The proviso that the viewer contributes his or her own interpretation is a relatively modern concept and the belief that the artist is offering an experience highly dependent on the viewer making an effort to engage, with eye and mind, has a democratic implication. The ‘space’ where the viewer meets the painting is therefore both political and physical. The viewer completes the triangulation of artist/artwork/observer. Can we believe that Abstract art, developing from Post-Impressionism, appears ideal for this potentially classless and uncensored role for painting? It’s a purist notion.
The title of the show, ‘Annodam’, spells Madonna reversed, and gives prominence to four particular canvases: ‘Blue Madonna’ (two versions), ‘Red Madonna’ and ‘Green Madonna’ (all 2016). Whether the viewer is Christian or not, the Madonna image, as a kind of universal Mother Goddess, will possess human relevance. The Madonna of Christianity has various roles to play in the history of European iconography (and beyond) – most especially in painting. If we take Blannin’s pre-disposition towards geometry and a sense of the abstract, metaphysical aura, of form and colour, then add the Madonna into the mix, it is, perhaps, no surprise that Blannin has transposed and transformed the visual essence of a Piero della Francesca fresco (specifically his, ‘Madonna del Parto’ c.1455-60) into a Constructivist-type, systematic composition. The visual scaffolding or architecture, in a controlled colour scheme, appears to echo Piero’s original in Blannin’s various ‘Madonnas’.
Would thoughts and reactions be different if we did not know about Piero’s Madonna in considering Blannin’s ‘Madonnas’? I think that we need to, even if it was realised after attending the show, when images, especially good ones, linger in the memory. And we ought to, for an expanded experience, because the curatedexhibition is always a conceptual event and the parts include ideas as well as paintings. But the bottom line of experience must be the physical paintings, even with an aura of mystery: metaphysical, spiritual or aesthetic.
Blannin’s images presented in ‘Annodam’; physically and visually, constituted by a support, flax and paint, are paramount to authentic, non-simulated and concrete, image realisations.
An antidote to the hyperreal.
I shall leave the last word to British artist, Ian McKeever:
“I think a painting that tells you everything has lost it, it’s revealed itself and it’s gone. Whilst I think really good paintings have this ability to draw you in but at the same time, at some point, to push you back out again.”
(Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2014. See Ian McKeever)