Hitting The Streets was a task set for the Foundation Diploma students from Northbrook Met (University Centre, Worthing) on a research visit to Brighton (May 2018). This also provided an opportunity for my own response to the theme.
Heather and John Corley developed Linden Hall Studio into a gallery space in 2014 and a visit to Transformations provides a good excuse to get out of the city and head for the Kent coast. Gazing out to sea from any location enhances our physical groundedness (literally) and we get a reinvigorated sense of that weird but ever-present phenomenon called ‘space’. Extended space is curious because of our own limited human dimensions, from which we perceptively judge all immediate senses of distance, size and scale. Distant space can be observed with some sense of safety, even if temporarily, as threats draw near. Looking to the distant horizon, especially when the sea has replaced the land, can evoke a mysterious sense of future times and places. Close space, within arms length, holds love and fear in equal measure.
Spatiality in visual art, especially painting, also provides an extending experience for the imagination, and the trickery of illusion (aided by the sophisticated perspectival inventions from Masaccio and Quattrocento painting onwards) has permeated the reception and reading of painting for a long, long time. Likewise, abstract painting engages with this experiential, psychological and forcefully visual engagement with notions of space. Colour and linearity, to varying degrees, are often a component part of this spatial scenario and Gary Wragg’s paintings have demonstrated this over several decades.
Sculpture is another matter, where form (involving volume, weight, mass and monumentality), rather than an abstract notion of spatiality, has dominated its production and development. Anthony Caro changed all that in the 1960s, with the fusion of material (typically steel) creating structure in space – as space. Robin Greenwood was a student of Caro’s at Saint Martin’s School of Art in the early ‘seventies and so a loosely woven School of Caro (from the New Generation and beyond) might still be discerned at times, despite the endemic plurality of late modernism/postmodernism that has created a mixed bag of avenues and cul-de-sacs for artists to explore.
Gary Wragg’s formative painting education was forged at Camberwell and the Slade Schools of Fine Art, respectively. Wragg’s abstract expressionist influences are clearly New York School (Jack Tworkov and Willem DeKooning spring to mind) but his paintings are unmistakably identifiable as ‘Gary Wraggs’ and reveal his personal relationship with the practice of drawing and Tai Chi.
Wragg and Greenwood have evolved from the same generation and the Transformations exhibition, curated by Sam Cornish, provides a welcome combination of contrasting yet complimentary works. At Linden Hall Studio, the two exhibition floors are filled with natural and artificial light throughout the day. This light (as if it were a medium of the architecture) illuminates so effectively and is a feature of the gallery that presents the works exceptionally well.
For a first impression, two of Wragg’s paintings have been placed in the front windows to give a taste of what will be inside the gallery. Above, on shelves, are six of John Corley’s glass ‘muffs’, or cylinders, of coloured glass. These are not part of the show but also hint at the colour and light that is a major feature of Wragg’s canvases. Entering through a double door, two of Greenwood’s sculptures have been placed to either side of this initial space and are bathed in natural light from windows above, where a mezzanine floor opens up the gallery space. Four of Wragg’s large canvasses (plus a tight configuration of eight small compositions on card that are from the same series as the works in the window) immediately create an impression of qualitative choice and arrangement. Although the building was originally a chapel, there is a comfortable domestic scale to the space and a staircase that takes visitors up to the first floor, with two more sculptures and over a dozen paintings, including three more large canvases, further hints at this homely aura.
There is much to see (39 works in total) and the surprisingly roomy walking area on each floor allows the viewer to stand back to find the correct viewing distance for each work. Except where paintings are purposely hung together (essentially the smaller compositions), the indicative relationship between paintings and sculptures in adjacent spaces are neither forced nor dependent upon each other. In addition to the obvious contrasts between painting and sculpture, Wragg’s colourful and light (in tone) paintings, and Greenwood’s dark and heavy (in weight) sculptures, creates a balance rather than a confrontation between very different works. The larger canvases relate to the sculptures particularly well as they occupy similar characteristics of size and presence, though any links will be circumstantial rather than programmatically devised.
But whether intentionally or not, questions were raised in Transformations: Do we look at and experience abstract sculptures the same way as abstract painting? And are our expectations different? From this pairing for the exhibition both forms of abstract art contain a sense of rhythm and flow within their respective linear configurations. Each artist appears to work intuitively and without strict expectation of the final outcome in a spirit of freedom for what might transpire in the creative process. Both work in series (which can falsely suggest predetermined forms) and there is also a tactile sense of materiality of the mediums (of paint and steel) that counters illusionism and figurative forms. Greenwood and Wragg are committed abstract artists who have never waivered in their personal quests to develop visually emboldened works within the field of abstraction.
One distinction, which equates the viewer with the work (as much as the artist’s intention), might be in the way the work is looked at or apprehended. Greenwood’s sculptures, which are made to be engaged with visually, and experienced in the round, can be viewed either standing still and in movement. Momentary compositions, made from pausing to take in and consider the work, are endless as even the slightest readjustment of positioning changes how a three dimensional form is seen. In Greenwood’s sculptures there is a mysterious, subtlety aggressive, ‘Gothic’ persona to the works. This latter designation may be rather superficially attached, but the metallic darkness, the sense of weight and the uncompromising nature of hard metal, pertains to the uncompromising nature of the works, especially those suspended from the ceiling. Looking up at ‘Kwoke 166’put the bundle of steel (with a little wood and plastic) into stark contrast with the spotlights on the ceiling and felt quite menacing.
Returning to notions of spatiality, with sculpture that is big enough, the viewer’s own physical space is encroached upon. Is this where sculpture can surprise or unnerve the viewer? Like another being before them that activates real space – not just headspace. And as the viewer moves around the forms, careful not to walk into or too dangerously underneath, the changing compositional framing of looking can never rest. With the sculptures there is the issue of gravity too – especially potent for Greenwood’s suspended forms. But also of weight, which in ‘Tree of Ornans’, lifts defiantly from the level of the floor with dexterous and agile movement that is surprisingly lyrical, as the fragmented industrial component parts become gestural branches suggesting arms and legs. It is balletic and poised.
Interestingly, Greenwood’s three suspended sculptures contrast with ‘Tree of Ornans’ more than with Wragg’s paintings. There is a tighter configuration, in the almost head-like suspended sculptures. The allusion to the head probably has more to do with their positioning off the ground/floor (131, 138 and 166cm). The viewer meets these pieces head-on, rather than at knee and chest level with the ‘Tree of Ornans’. The physicality of the sculptures fixes the implied bursts and movement of stilled implosion/explosion and rotation. By contrast, it is the viewer who must move around the works. The viewer becomes the kinetic component in a spatial performance.
With painting there is an obligation to stand still, rooted to the spot. The viewer’s eyes, and sometimes the head, will move as the gaze surveys and wanders. Abstract (visual) space will take the viewer in to its implied space, with the flat canvas surface as counterpoint. Wragg’s paintings, typified by his signature gestural calligraphy, instinctive and freeform colour combinations, and (almost) dangerously undone configurations of marks and shapes, are always expressively lyrical. The kinetic features are in the painting’s virtual space. The viewer is a little more physically passive.
‘PL5’, exhibited downstairs and ‘OTBDG, 2, Yellow’, shown upstairs, are two works of Wragg’s that could be juxtaposed with the sculptures as there seemed to enough air around the gestural configurations to describe forms in space. Behind and within a freeform dance of linear gestures, Wragg creates a sense of shallow space. But in each work various colour patches, splatters and gestural swirls sit on the surface of the visual field to deny the illusion of concrete, representational form.
I suspect that, by convention, the viewer does not look at abstract sculptures in quite the same way as abstract painting because expectations are different. Paintings suggest physical, geographical distances and ‘otherness’. Because of illusionistic functioning (‘picturing’) and inherent subject matter (“what/where is it?”), painting is somehow conjured from virtual realities. But sculptures are more overtly, formally, here and now – occupying the viewer’s own physical space. Does the viewer meet a sculpture – and observe a painting? Whatever conclusions can be made, Transformations poses questions that do not have to be answered with certainty, just as abstraction is far from over as a major genre in contemporary art.
This is an exhibition that cannot fail to intrigue. American artist, Brett Goodroad, has produced a major sequence of small ink drawings and they are displayed in various groupings in the largest room at the Phoenix Gallery for the Brighton Festival. Inevitably, the available space dictates a splitting up of so many works. One wall holds 15 drawings (or are they paintings?) and another presents ten works. There are also two drawings in one corner and a temporary wall with four on one side but just one on the reverse. Another dozen framed works adds up to a total of 44, so there is much to see.
The arrangement has some chronological sequencing but the adjustment to the exhibition environment prompts a reading of the works both as a sequential narrative structure and as individual scenarios to be considered. This, as it happens, is appropriate for Toe Buoy. The implied linearity of the series (as in A to B or left to right) is given an added dimension, as the viewer is obliged to peer closely at individual works and can allow the eye to be drawn into monochromatic depths of inferred space. This tonal aspect lends itself to creating a sense of envelopment and atmosphere: a sense of place, albeit with some degree of mystery.
Placed in Goodroad’s virtual environments, the viewer must bring his or her own interpretation of events – or just take it in without the need for clarity of message. It’s a poetics of space that is presented, where one must ‘be’, rather than judge or search for specific meaning.
But of course, there is a context beyond the images. The artist is resident in San Francisco and is developing a reputation as a painter of landscapes. He works on his colour dominated paintings in his garden, in a local landscape that is often damp and misty. Of his painting he has said: “I want to handle colour like Ingres and end up in the Nabis.” This reveals Goodroad’s knowledge of art history and places him in a Modernist context (the Nabis acknowledged flatness in painting long before Clement Greenberg made it a dictum for painting).
To broaden his creative portfolio, Goodroad is also a writer. The exhibition title, Toe Buoy, originates from a poem that the artist wrote in 2015. In the exhibition leaflet the author has explained that:
This poem is one of a set of poems I have written over the past five years surrounding the fictional characters Elm and Aleen. The poems work around a central image of Aleen floating in an ocean and a boundary: the seam of water, the line making her contour. We see her toes, her skin drying in the air and the ocean taking it away from her.
The question is: Is Aleen about revery? Or of fish or mammals?
Aleen and Elm were painters who became sick because image and physical presence grew too much. She wrote: ‘when the world became oracular ecstasy left evening’.
A bowl of boiling
Or is Aleen about painting? About bringing things together: let things be air and water. How can one compose them to make them musical? Or their history, the raising colour: resting nude under a tree, a leafy wink.
‘Or, my lyrical elephant, carry a lover’.
Goodroad is clearly leaving his poetry open to interpretation, but a notion of reverie and submersion has dream-like connotations. Visual content in Goodroad’s writing appears to be Imagistic (revealing his interest in the Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker – an Objectivist, Imagist, Surrealist writer) and as might be expected translates into actual imagery in his primary role as a visual artist. In the quieter, visual medium of the painter, the unspoken but revealed can be as equally clear or obscure as the written or spoken word.
In Toe Buoy the painterly ink drawings have a sense of a state of becoming – rather like the process of under or over developing black and white photographic prints that were once produced in the darkroom before the advent of the digital medium. Some of the drawings even suggest multiple exposures, or the merging of normally disconnected events in a dream-state. This oblique coming together of imagery is relational in a cognitive and personal sense – but holds potential for notions of the collective unconscious that the Surrealist writers and artists explored in varying degrees.
From the natural world, through which Goodroad channels his depictions, his tonal use of ink shows that the surroundings are constantly in a state of flux and continuously evolving. Distilled from the artist’s imagination, these are not necessarily strange lands. The sense of place might be from Europe as well as North America. The first impression is of a disturbing Goyaesque ambience to the imagery. But these might be stills from a low-budget film noir genre movie rather than etchings from the studio of a European master some 200 years ago. The works also have an air of immediacy that is often characteristic of what is essentially a drawing process. Working with Japanese Sumi ink, a medium favoured by Manga illustrators, Goodroad is making imagery that harks back to the European tradition of narrative ‘in’ painting. The works suggest a roster of influences, from Tiepolo (especially his drawings) to Titian’s tonally adjusted chromatic range of chiaroscuro in figures and environments: or from Watteau to Surrealism via Constable and Romanticism to Frederick Edwin Church and the 19thcentury Hudson River School.
It may only be coincidental, but an intimate sense of the landscape – suggestive of Jean-Antoine Watteau, working a century before Goya, who produced fête galante canvases depicting outdoor entertainment and courtship, especially figures in wooded landscape – came to mind. But the Toe Buoy imagery is claustrophobic for the most part, especially when watery depths are depicted. In his introduction to the exhibition on the opening day, Goodroad said that ‘mold’ worked well as an analogy for the work. From this surprising off-the-cuff remark his organic approach to image making, in paint or ink, becomes apparent.
Sumi ink is a medium that dries matt, and on cold white Bristol board it lacks warmth. The imagery sinks in to the surface like they are secrets. Dark, indistinct and incongruous forms invite closer looking. In one particular image, initial obscurity reveals a naked figure in the gloomy shadow space. (An old friend once told me that he only dreamed in black and white – now I begin to understand the experience.) The unconscious is inferred where a poetic off-the-wall surrealism meets a narrative of the physical and the psychological: mixed with love and fear, homeland and wilderness. It’s all strangely perverse.
Some images give and have clarity. Others resist a reading or recognition. But not every image is located in the realm of the imagined. For example, one particular image referenced the Sun Dance Ceremony that the indigenous Plains Indians of North America once practiced. In this ceremony pain is tethered as an inducement to vision – and to healing.
In a 2015 interview with writer Claudia La Rocco, Goodroad acknowledged the curative potential of his painting practice:
“I make the paintings and see illness and religion. I see that I am trying to heal something through my process, and that the solving is a part of this.”
Perhaps this related to Aleen and Elm’s sickness as painters in Goodroad’s poem? This might sound fanciful, but if healing in all societies is necessary, perhaps we need the painters, or more broadly, the creative and imaginative outpourings of writers, performers and visual artists to counter our increasingly technological and digitally controlled and neutered society?
The sequence of poetic illustrations demands that the viewer takes part in the storytelling by prodding at their own imaginative faculties. If you visit the show take your time to look at the work with an open mind – the reward might not be immediately felt, but the imagery will linger long after, and you can invent your own narratives and acknowledge your own creative powers.