HOW MANY ABSTRACT PAINTINGS DO WE NEED TO SEE IN THE WORLD, REALLY?

TESTING 1,2,1,2 UNIT 3 – A.S.C. Studios

(25 March – 2 April, 2017)

003 - Testing.JPG

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?

Testing - Stephen Lewis - Confluence 2017.JPG
Stephen Lewis – ‘Confluence’ (2017)

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.

Testing - Matt Hale - Oilscape.JPG
Matt Hale – ‘Oilscape’

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.

Testing - Nick Cash - Drumming (left).JPG
Nick Cash – ‘Drumming Part IV…’ and Charley Peters – ‘Hard Edge/Soft Focus’

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’.

Testing - Matt Dennis - Easy Tiger 2017.jpg
Matt Dennis – ‘Easy, Tiger’ (2017)
Testing - John Bunker - Umvelt 2017.JPG
John Bunker – ‘Umwelt’ (2017)

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.

Testing - EC - Brouhaha 2017.JPG
EC – ‘Brouhaha’ (2017)

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.

006 - Testing - Stephen Buckeridge 2017.JPG
Stephen Buckeridge – ‘We have expanded our space and intensified our time!’ (2017)

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.

Karl Bielik - Target.JPG
Karl Bielik – ‘Target’ (2017)

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.

Testing - Lisa Denyer - Sands 2017.JPG
Lisa Denyer – “Sands’ (2017)
Tony Smith - Magnitude.JPG
Tony Smith – “Magnitude’ (2017)

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.

Emyr Williams.jpg
Emir Williams – RATS’ (207)

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.

Simon Pike - Untitled 2017.JPG
Simon Pike – Untitled’ (2017)

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.

IMG_8201.JPG
Charley Peters – ‘Hard Edge/Soft Focus’ (2017)

Note – Copyright of artwork is with the artists listed.

A QUICK ONE?

Catherine Lee: Ties That Blind

Onca Gallery, Brighton. (17-19 March 2017)

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 double entendre (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.

008 - Cath Lee - (Installation South wall).JPG
Catherine Lee – Installation shot with ‘Equality In The Workplace’ (left).

‘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.

012 - Cath Lee - Just Keep Praying.JPG
Catherine Lee – ‘Just Keep Praying’

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.

013 - Cath Lee - Tripping.JPG
Catherine Lee: ‘Tripping’

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.

Geoff Hands, March 2017