Peter Dreher at The Mayor Gallery, Cork Street, London
7 April – 2 June 2017
“What is abstraction? What is its purpose? Why does it not incorporate recognizable imagery? For two reasons. One is so it is neutral in its way. So it can be read equally… The second and even, especially now, more important is that it is a structure, a language that can be read out of context.” (Sean Scully, 2012)
En route to attending a reading of extracts from ‘Inner: The Collected Writings and Selected Interviews of Sean Scully’ at Waterstones in Piccadilly, I had time to visit the Peter Dreher exhibition that was opening later that evening at The Mayor Gallery in Cork Street. I previously only knew of Dreher’s work from acquiring a copy of, ‘Peter Dreher – Just Painting’, (published by MK Gallery with Occasional Papers, 2014). Even in reproduction, Dreher’s studies of an empty but heavy, leaden-looking drinking glass placed on a flat surface have an engaging attraction for their apparent simplicity and matter-of-factness. In this instance, the reproductions are small and the paper glossy – which suits the reflective qualities of the glass receptacle depicted. But of course the ‘real thing’ is always different – for paint cannot (yet) be reproduced as facsimile. In the flesh, the carefully applied oil paint is not only textured by the brush and skilfully nuanced; it is also perceptively manipulated by the human hand and coordinated by the eye and the mind.
At The Mayor Gallery, a small selection of Dreher’s 5000+ studies of the same drinking glass, typically painted in two sessions per day (since 1974), is presented on three walls. The sequence of 58 linen canvases are only interrupted by one barely noticeable corner break in the interior architecture, and the installation creates an integrated hang in a gallery space that is neither too large nor too small. The square format seating in the centre of the floor allows for contemplation of one wall at a time; but a slow, stop-start, walk along each horizontal expanse is ideal before the guests arrive for the Private View.
Initially, the observer might play at ‘spot-the difference’, but each painting is clearly unique. The sequencing is one of pairs; from the am/pm sessions that Dreher structures his typical painting day, providing a binary structure or mirroring of sorts; but in this arrangement you can look to left or right to make comparisons. At a stretch, you can compare any of the paintings, but each one pulls the viewer in to its own self-contained arena. A notion of non-identical twins, or an extended family portrait comes to mind, where the same faces will differ, despite a shared DNA. Or perhaps each image, an almost head sized 10X8 inches (25X20cm), is a self-portrait? But the inverted reflections in the glass do not reveal the artist’s face, although the evidence of his attentive gaze is clearly and astutely visible.
Each canvas could be considered a document of a visual manifestation of time, witnessing the lights and darks of both opaque and reflected surfaces in and around the glass, tabletop and backdrop wall. The surrounding but anonymous studio room, plus the external window view of a building, clouds and sky, adds a context or theme of the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’ volumes of space that sends the eye in macro or microscopic directions.
This is not photo-realist imagery (a painting made from a photographic print would look utterly different), but the pictures that appear to represent so many mundane moments have a snapshot quality. Thousands of observations within one sitting of several hours is not so much condensed, but expanded into the momentous grasp of a Cartesian endeavour to make an observed judgement reveal the complexity of the visual world. That Dreher admires Giorgio Morandi and Robert Ryman – and the serialist music of Philip Glass – is unsurprising. By comparison, Scully’s paintings might be too loud and vigorously constructed in comparison – though their works are similarly produced with reference to an inherently architectonic structure and the visual necessity of each unique image to travel beyond the literal.
In considering Morandi, Scully has written: “To see and to work. To paint in a way that was always virtually the same. Thus simultaneously to liberate the painting style which represented the subject without prejudice, as I would call it, and to read that subject as space, light, color and form.” (Sean Scully, 2005)
The same could be said of Dreher’s, ‘Every Day Is A Good Day’ paintings.
Though I have co-incidentally brought Scully into a consideration of Dreher’s realist paintings, their respective achievements as painters may represent two sides of the same coin: where true value lies in a total commitment to painting – as substance and image. Both artists make paintings work making – and worth seeing. Therefore any argument about categorisation is superficial – or limiting.
Delving back into the ‘Just Painting’ publication, from his 80th birthday interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2012, Dreher referenced abstraction in painting: “If someone finds the painting of the glass abstract, I don’t mind, for the painter simply sets down islands of colour next to each other, intent on reconciling the islands or letting them contrast with each other. He doesn’t think about producing the illusion of a glass, and is astonished when at the end, the illusion of a glass is there on the painting. Thus, an abstract painting has come into being, in which one can also see as glass… Paintings are – and always have been – abstractions, colour surfaces on surfaces.”
Aficionados of abstract painting should not miss this show.
The argument over Abstraction in art (especially painting) still drags on. In Elephant magazine, issue 29 (Winter 2016/17), the prestigious American painter Kerry James Marshall makes some interesting, if debateable, comments on “Abstract picture making” as little more than an “academic mode”. He claims that “The fundamental principle of art making is representation… There are quite enough problems to solve to keep you going for sometime. If you never succeed there, and you go to abstraction because it seems easier, you miss the philosophical and aesthetic questions involved. Besides, how many more abstract pictures do we need to see in the world, really?”
Though tempting, it would be too easy, and crass, to say that there are also too many figurative paintings in the world. There are probably far too many bad paintings of any classification. But there can never be enough good ones – which is partly what drives an artist on, if that’s not too romantic a notion.
A strangely contrasting point-of-view was made more recently on the (highly recommended) Two Coats of Paint blog. Sharon Butler, reviewing ‘A New subjectivity: Figurative Painting after 2000’ at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery, makes the fascinating observation that, “In adopting imagery without direct reference to the objects that underlie them, the artists seem to be noting – indeed, demonstrating – the disconnected manner in which life is now lived. Fragmentation and detachment – a kind of existential abstraction – are the norm.”
Whether appropriated by some contemporary figurative painters or aligned with some sort of new figuration, where the painters “find everything to be a matter of images” (to quote Barry Schwabsky from the online catalogue for ‘A New Subjectivity’), Abstraction clearly and demonstratively engages with the problems of painting (and collage and sculpture) despite the surprising conservatism of Kerry James Marshall. Indeed, Schwabsky’s comment hits the proverbial nail on the head – for the result of Abstraction is always the image (2D or 3D) – which is, surely, the ‘thing’ we engage with in the gallery?
Take the current, but brief, show in Unit 3’s gallery space. Conceived of by John Bunker, Testing 1,2,1,2 gives a little taster of the current scene in Abstraction as a snapshot experience for the viewer. The comfortable 3:2 dimensions of the gallery (about 14X22 feet) introduced an appropriate containment for the display. If there was a temptation to show more, or larger, examples the impulse was well controlled as the exhibitors had approximately adhered to similarly sized works.
Bunker’s personal, professional and critical enthusiasm for Abstraction (and a genuine, open-minded, belief in the value of complementary and contrasting relationships in the abstract community) is speculatively explored. In curatorial mode, John Bunker invited six artists to invite a peer to forward a piece for the show. Hence, fourteen works are on display. No doubt, had the show been more conventionally engineered there might have been a tighter mix of materially similar works – confined to collage and painting perhaps. But the open-minded mixed-media characteristic of the selection as a whole pushed boundaries to include Matt Hale’s , ‘Oilscape’ (oil on gesso on board with plastic tube, engine oil/grease and rubber stops) and Nick Cash’s, ‘Drumming Part IV. 9 mins 47 secs 2″ @15ips’, which was covered by sellotape.
Intriguingly, the lone sculpture (Stephen Lewis’, ‘Confluence’) and the framed collagraph (Georgina King’s, ‘Threshold’) sit comfortably amongst the other twelve works. In fact the presence of a sculpture opened an imaginative door for future combinations of a constructivist and additive type of forming of image and/or object that would sit easily with painting and collage.
This sense of a building and overlaying process was conveyed in particular by two collages which happened to be placed opposite one another: namely Matt Dennis’, ‘Easy, Tiger’, which offered a more geometric counterpart to Bunker’s organic and busy, “Umwelt’.
As he has been so pro-active, it is appropriate to say a little more about John Bunker’s contribution. There is an inherent passion and (positive) bloody-mindedness in Bunker’s wall-mounted collages that has benefitted from escaping the confines of the frame. This lends his work a sculptural/objectified sense of colour and shape as materialised imagery. His work presents, and holds, a chaotic frisson that is somehow controlled by the careful placement and juxtaposition of disparate elements of colour, shape and the revived materiality of potentially discardable ingredients. In ‘Umwelt’, a mixed media, shaped collage, a frame would be superfluous as the various sections visually hold together, whilst allowing the immediate environment of the gallery space to notionally ‘frame’ the work – if you should need it.
Also presenting a considered collision of fragments was ‘Brouhaha’ by EC (as she likes to be known professionally). Despite being the smallest piece in the show, this rectangular amalgamation of oil paint, acrylic paint, household paint, varnish and mixed media collage on canvas (then mounted on board) had that rare feeling of monumentality. ‘Brouhaha’ suggesting a maximalist indebtedness to the likes of Robert Motherwell: proving the point that bigger does not always mean better. As with Lewis’ sculpture, one wanted to see more from the enigmatic EC – and a combined show by these two artists would be fascinating to devise.
As already mentioned, half of the exhibitors had chosen a guest collaborator, but the works had not been programmatically paired up side-by-side, or opposite, one another on the four walls. There were however inevitable pairings to be made. Amongst the paintings there was a reflection of sorts between some images: for example, in Stephen Buckeridge’s, ‘We have expanded our space and intensified our time!’ and Karl Bielik’s ‘Target’, an affinity for a dissolving geometry and a shallow watery space, with some strong red visual punctuations in each, provided a kind of visual anchor (one of John Constable’s tricks of the trade) for entering each mini-environment.
Another correspondence, of painterly contrasts in this case, between Lisa Denyer’s, architectonic, ‘Sands’, and Tony Smith’s more organic, ‘Magnitude’, was proposed. Where the pixelated but dissolving grid surface and multicoloured cross in the former could have somehow fragmented and morphed into the looser rivulets of curved meandering lines in the latter: the qualities of one emphasising the features of the other as a binary contrast of sorts.
Where a characteristic, (and maybe temperamental?), visual language appeared autobiographical, though unconnected, there was a ‘mapping’ or terrain-like association between Emyr Williams’, ‘RATS’ and Simon Pike’s, ‘Untitled’. Williams’ canvas had that colourful, painterly exuberance (with some texture paste added) which is a well-established feature of his work – whereas Pike’s immaculately controlled painting skills referenced a surface grid or net, overlayered by ordnance-survey type contour lines. One painting may have been waving, or undulating, to the other.
Of course, there is no preordained or planned correspondence between any of these superficial pairings that I am making, but the conversations (of a sort) were made in a social context by the almost arbitrary coming together of a loose affiliation of like-minded people and their artworks. Old friends making new friends, as it were.
Ideally, some future version of Testing 1,2,1,2 should be seen in a more prestigious space – although the gallery amongst studios provides a rare treat. John Bunker’s conception for a communal form of presentation and collaboration has created a prototype for a larger show, which expands on several previous exhibitions, revealing the broad and multifaceted range of Abstract art. Examples would include ‘Slow Burn’ (from way back in 1998 at The Mead Gallery in Warwick – featuring Mali Morris who attended the opening of Testing); ‘The Indiscipline of Painting”, curated by Daniel Sturgis in 2012; ‘Ha Ha What Does This Represent?’ (curated by Katrina Blannin and Francesca Simon in 2012); and ‘From Centre’ (2015), a Slate & Saturation Point Project which included Charley Peters who showed ‘Hard Edge/Soft Focus’ in this show.
Good abstract art is far from easy to achieve – and this exhibition presents various deliberations, findings and conclusions that should be seen by a larger audience.
Note – Copyright of artwork is with the artists listed.
Phrases can be politically powerful and loaded – or just provide an effective shorthand of sorts in our daily lives. Trawling the media might provide a Phd student with pointers to the troubled collective unconscious in the current social climate – aided and abetted by consumer targeted song titles, advertising slogans, newspaper headlines and party political rhetoric (you know, all that Post-Truth truth). Good writers, and speechwriters especially, should avoid clichés of course – unless irony is intended. The doubleentendre (a British specialty) generally provides both mirth and sexual undertones: innocence is interchangeable with guilt; light becomes dark.
The titles of Cath Lee’s paintings exhibited in Ties That Blind at ONCA – “for one weekend only!” it has to be said, are loaded (or should I say, impregnated?) with various possibilities. Take the title of the show, (courtesy of listening to The Boss’ Ties That Bind) and look at some of the teasingly overt sexual imagery on display, and notions of forced role-play come to mind rather than positive familial and community ties that the Springsteen song eulogises. The culturally induced expectations, particularly of women, that render them as eye-candy for the male-gaze, provides an appropriate subject matter for a young female artist with an active feminist agenda to explore: but begs the question as to why audiences might need reminding of the pressures of appearance and behaviour that remain both insidiously and blatantly prevalent.
Notwithstanding the third-wave (post?) feminist view that might claim empowerment through the twerking exploits of Miley Cyrus or Nicki Minaj – who provide entertainment for men and women alike – there’s still an argument that contorting the image of the body (physically and visually) remains an exploitative and degrading expectation that society generally purports to challenge. Part of Cath Lee’s mission is to present such disquiet through her painting practice – particularly in the largest painting in the show, ‘Religion and Righteousness’ (a triptych) – and even more so in ‘Equality in the Workplace’, which is painfully difficult to look at if such a pose were imagined. Linked to human rights and enlightened by some common understanding of a fair society, the expression of ‘equality in the workplace’ is in danger of becoming a truism if it remains no more than a well meaning, but dull statement, and actions fail to speak louder than words. This graphic image is shocking for the right reasons.
‘A Woman’s Worth’ (Alicia Keys?); ‘Fight or Flight’; ‘Theft’ and ‘Whoopsie!’ are some of the other titles of the paintings in this early career show. Some of the imagery appears to have been appropriated from pornographic sources, but a wider net is cast by depicting unnervingly, child centred, imagery from the cartoon characters that incongruously appear in some of the paintings, to provide disturbing juxtapositions. For example, ‘Sweetie Pie’, depicts two Tweety Pie portraits, with their yellow bulbous heads illuminating a pink-bikini clad, buxom blonde, staring creepingly at her body. Perhaps it is the rendering in spray paint that lends a wide-eyed wickedness to their presence? Likewise, ‘Just Keep Praying’ includes a drooling Winnie The Pooh with three sad, grey figures holding empty vessels before them.
Also undermining an innocent reading of the infant(ile) imagery are a kissing pair of Smurfs, appearing in ‘True Blue Love’, presented against a painterly abstract-like background, displayed with half a dozen other canvases in the basement section of the show.
What the twenty paintings (there are also two drawings on display) also have in common – in addition to the figurative subject matter – is a predilection for the painterly brush marks and vivid colours of gestural abstraction. Here the influence of the work of Marlene Dumas, Cecily Brown and Willem De Kooning is clear. The use of the ubiquitous spray paint (Brighton is awash with self-centred name-tags and crudely rendered cartoon imagery to affront or please the eye) also intervenes in Lee’s developing style and working process and lends a suggestion of ‘street art’ subversiveness into the mix.
The most overt ‘abstract’ painting in the show is ‘Tripping’, wherein the near luminous psychedelic colour scheme dominates what appear to be graffiti-type body parts and three crudely rendered human faces. The dripping paint emphasizes the wall of colour on a surface that eschews visual perspective in favour of the abstract expressionist’s insistence on non-illusionistic imagery. As the drips flow in virtually all directions and the aforementioned heads are shown the right-way-up, diagonally placed and upside down, the steady gaze of the onlooker is also challenged.
Undoubtedly there is still work to do, with various avenues to explore on the blending of the imagery; with important decisions to be made whether to pursue the contrasting abstraction with the figurative imagery, or to drop one or the other; or to advance a knowing undermining of the tropes of abstraction (for example: autographic gesture, mark-making, colour and shape; formatted in to controlled aesthetic judgments and/or intuitive decision-making). But, as the opening comments reveal, there is much to be read into subject matter that remains current and vital – and will sustain a promising career.
This is just a fleeting show (less than three full days) but the now you see it – now you don’t format fortuitously suggests a peep into Cath Lee’s practice and leaves the viewer hungry for more.
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.