Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

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Archie Gorky –  ‘Water of the Flowery Mill’, 1944. Oil on canvas, 107.3 x 123.8 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016. Digital image © 2016. The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

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.

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Ab Ex leaflet. (c) Royal Academy.

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.

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Clyfford Still – ‘PH-950’, 1950.Oil on canvas, 233.7 x 177.8 cm. Clyfford Still Museum, Denver © City and County of Denver / DACS 2016. Photo courtesy the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, CO

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.

Mark Rothko display in the Wohl Central Hall. Installation image (c) David Parry.

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.

Jackson Pollock – ‘Blue Poles’, 1952.               Installation image (c) David Parry.

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.

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Lee Krasner – ‘The Eye is the First Circle’, 1960.Oil on canvas, 235.6 x 487.4 cm. Private collection, courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

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.

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Willem De Kooning – ‘Woman II’, 1952.
Oil, enamel and charcoal on canvas, 149.9 x 109.3 cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller, 1995© 2016 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2016. Digital image © 2016. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.

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.”

Willem De Kooning – ‘Villa Borghese’, 1960. Installation image (c) David Parry.

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.

Less of Florence and more of Venice.


Tracks, Trails and Tarmac: Nick Bodimeade

St Anne’s Galleries, Lewes (15-30 October, 2016)

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‘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.

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Nick Bodimeade – ‘B133a’. Oil on canvas (35X40cm)

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


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Nick Bodimeade – ‘B108’. Oil on canvas (66X77cm)

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.

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Nick Bodimeade – ‘B129a’. Oil on canvas (35X40cm)

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.

Geoff Hands (October, 2016)


Marcelle Hanselaar, Rui Matsunaga, Nahem Shoa

At Jessica Carlisle, London

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.


Jeff Koons: Now – Newport Street Gallery, London

Hallucinating On The Surrealist’s Pillow

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.

Gallery 1 (1)_Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates, © Victor Mara Ltd, artwork © Jeff Koons

Gallery 1 – Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates, © Victor Mara Ltd. Artwork © Jeff Koons

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.

New Hoover Quik Broom, New Hoover Celebrity IV, 1980_© Jeff Koons.jpg

‘New Hoover Quik Broom, New Hoover Celebrity IV’, 1980. © Jeff Koons

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’ [1985] and ‘Snorkel (Dacor)’ [1985], 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.

Bowl with Eggs (Pink), 1994-2009_© Jeff Koons

‘Bowl with Eggs (Pink)’, 1994-2009. © Jeff Koons

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’ [1991], and ‘Ice – Jeff on Top Pulling Out’ [1991], 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)’ [1979], 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?

Gallery 6_Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates, © Victor Mara Ltd, artwork © Jeff Koons

Gallery 6 – Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates, © Victor Mara Ltd.

Artwork © Jeff Koons

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’ [2009], 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)’ [1985], 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.

DHC 5905.tif

‘Three Ball 50-50 Tank (Spalding Dr. JK Silver Series)’, 1985. © Jeff Koons

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.



‘Titi’, 2004-2009. © Jeff Koons


Newport Street Gallery:


Jefferson Airplane:


The Guardian:




02 - Katrina Blannin - Annodam - Jessica Carlisle.jpg

At Jessica Carlisle 4 Mandeville Place, London W1U 2BF

Jessica Carlisle

“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)

Ruminations: Introduction

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.”

(From the film ‘Gerhard Richter Painting’, 2011).

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.

Lady Madonna

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.

Blue Madonna.jpg
Katrina Blannin – ‘Blue Madonna’ 2016. Acrylic on flax. 30cmx30cm

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’.

Piero - madonna del parto.jpg
Piero della Francesca – ‘Madonna del Parto’ c.1455-60

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 curated exhibition 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)

Previously published on AbCrit

NOT NAFF IN THE GAFF: Hoyland & Bunker

John Hoyland: Power Stations – At Newport Street Gallery, Newport Street, London

TRIBE. New & recent collages by John Bunker – at Westminster Reference Library, 35 St Martin’s Street, London

Originally published on AbCrit


NPSG facade_© Victor Mara Ltd, Photo Prudence Cuming_1.jpg
Newport Street Gallery. © Victor Mara Ltd, Photo Prudence Cuming

Choosing to visit two exhibitions on the same day should always be considered with care, for one might critically overshadow the other. If you are fortunate the two will complement, or resonate with one another in some way. So, having spent the morning looking at the predominantly cinematic John Hoyland canvases in the inaugural ‘Power Stations’ exhibition at Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery (NSG), an afternoon session viewing John Bunker’s comparatively small collages at the Westminster Reference Library was a suitable combination and, by good chance, seen in the right order.

After the impressive, no-expense-spared, attraction of the curatorially upmarket Newport Street location (just a 15 minute walk from Tate Britain), the unassuming public library, almost surreptitiously skulking down a side street, but only a stone’s throw from the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, provided a haven of quiet consideration amongst the all-pervading commercial enterprises of central London. This scholarly location encouraged silent contemplation.

John Bunker, ‘Old Roan’, 2015, 70cmx85cm, mixed media

In a small but adequate space, eight of Bunker’s recent collages were arranged in linear fashion, encouraging the viewer to step up to each one to inspect the various elements. Something like double-portrait sized and displayed at head height, all but one of the collages were nailed to the wall – the odd one out was framed and a little superfluous. These islands of matter floating, though fixed, presented unassuming stuff from the urban world and, by association with the process of collage, the studio floor.

The collages were intimate, despite the attention of the spotlights, and fell silent in appropriate surroundings; whereas the high ceilinged, well-lit chambers, of Damian’s gaff in Newport Street created an uplifting sense of awe that could have elicited cries of “wow” from visitors. Not that a comparison between Hoyland’s paintings and Bunker’s collages is crucially relevant, or even fair, but the range of sizes and the visual impact of imagery in these works, posed questions of audience experience of the exhibition as spectacle – which can create a fulfilling encounter, large or small as the show might be.

Certainly, the aptly titled ‘Power Stations’ display would have impacted on the viewer for the sheer physical size of many of the canvases. And also, with an emphasis on visually explicit colour subject matter, and a celebratory exposition of the act of painting, the compelling experience of offering examples of a range of tour-de-force performances from the studio (a Rachmaninoff piano concerto perhaps – though with Hoyland there’s a New York city jazz twist) may not be too fanciful. It depends on the viewer’s preferences for painting, and music, I dare say.

Temperamentally, Hoyland was always an ‘action’ painter of sorts, at times not unrelated in fervour, to Jackson Pollock: but in nature (I want to say organically, but not sound naff) more European, like one of his esteemed seniors, Hans Hofmann. The show also provided a pointer to the hard to imagine optimism of the 1960s for young, and middling, generations of artists today might find disconcerting. A sub-theme might also reference the changed cultural and media specific, fine art, contexts from which the work was produced as the show is experienced now, in 2016.

On the subject of size, it should be noted that the dimensions of 28.10.65 (1965) by Hoyland (approximately 2.3X4.6m / HXW) is a little more than 10 metres square: translated into floor space this would provide a small studio in London right now – where prices are making both studio and gallery rental challenging. Is this comparison arbitrary? Not in the sense that available spaces, and materials, have always partly affected the possibilities and limits of what artists produce and, if London is to remain a centre of the international art community, there could be trouble ahead. Apparently, John Bunker’s studio in east London is twice the size of a Big Hoyland painting – a sobering thought.

But I digress.


Gallery 4 © Victor Mara Ltd, Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates.jpg
View of Gallery 4 © Victor Mara Ltd, Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates

Power Stations

Hoyland’s works, in Hirst’s 1964-1982 collection presented at the NSG, represented three distinct phases from the very early, post-figuration, years of Hoyland’s career. ‘Power Stations’ confirms Hoyland’s boundary-pushing attitude to embracing change and development in the history of modernist/abstract painting on a very personal level. Hoyland’s painterly, ‘expressionistically’ inclined, version of colour/shape abstraction steered clear of the sometimes aloof, emotionally reserved, minimalist aesthetic embraced by, say, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly or Kenneth Noland. The inherent, expressive, visual, physically challenging characteristics, “dependent upon the act of looking”, to quote Andrew Lambirth of The Spectator, placed Hoyland in the European wing of abstraction, despite his career enhancing links to the New York avant garde.

But Hoyland was never obliged to be non-European. He indisputably straddles both a European and a North American, transatlantic, fusion of interests in developing the scope and subject of painting. The ‘classic’ Hoyland’s of the mid to late ‘60s present a commitment to colour-shape monumentalism, although this super-sized intimacy, generally constructed from a few rectangular shapes, or colour-fields, of greys, reds, oranges, blues and greens, could be imagined as the achievements of a Giorgio Morandi on LSD, taking colour on a trip and expanding canvas sizes to almost literal, mind-blowing proportions.

John Hoyland_28.6.67 © The John Hoyland Estate, Photo Prudence Cuming Associates.jpg

John Hoyland_28.6.67 © The John Hoyland Estate, Photo Prudence Cuming Associates

Hoyland was truly ‘out there’, unafraid to push his engagement with the visual and psychological experience of colour. He was untainted by any additional figurative referencing – despite possible representationalist readings of doorways, skyscrapers, monoliths, perspectival planes, cosmic portals or other associations generated by the viewer (not the paintings). Attempting to define abstract imagery for anything other than what we are actually experiencing in front of our eyes is understandable – but worth avoiding.

In spite of needing to stand well back to view these paintings: e.g. 12.6.66 [1966] is approximately 2.6X3.6 metres; 28.6.67 (1967) is 3 metres in height and 9.11.68 [1968] is over 3.6metres wide – to fit the whole of these compositions into your field of vision, you also have the contrary option to get up close to experience the colour, the shapes, and the very physical, almost haptic, presence of visual space. (A quality echoed later at the Bunker exhibition.) But this is not a didactic quality of the works – it’s more of an invitation to experience something quite straightforward, and raw. Indeed, to coin a phrase from Stella, “what you see is what you see”.

John Hoyland_28.2.71 © The John Hoyland Estate, Photo Prudence Cuming Associates.jpg
John HoylandJohn Hoyland – 28.2.71 © The John Hoyland Estate, Photo Prudence Cuming Associates

Coincidentally, the American art critic Barry Schwabsky references Morandi’s still life paintings in relation to the “pale tones of earth and flesh” (in the ‘Out of The Trap’ essay in the ‘Power Stations’ catalogue) from Hoyland’s next series on display (from 1970/71). These may have been the more challenging paintings to take on board if, as is generally the case, strongly hued colours are often expected in non-figurative painting (a misnomer, of course). In the nine canvases displayed, the pastel and tertiary mixes of colour, enlivened by controlled, expressionistic, splashes might be interpreted as manifestations of an exceptionally brave move away from the colour palette that Hoyland typically used in the preceding stage of his career. Perhaps being away, albeit intermittently, from New York and London at his Market Lavington, Wiltshire, retreat influenced his decision to add so much white? In this chalk downland landscape, not far from Neolithic Stonehenge and the Avebury stone circle, it is conceivable that Hoyland unconsciously absorbed a naturalistic palette mediated by the external environment. A heresy to some back on the East Coast, where the sublime was to be found on the canvas, and not in nature anymore.By some oblique association, I was reminded of Tuscan architectural colours in Hoyland’s canvases from this intermezzo period: namely, the chalky, coloured stucco walls in representations of those stage-like props of interiors and exteriors in 13th and 14th century Italian painting. Duccio’s ‘Maestà Predella’ panels in the NG are a prime example. In such works there is an aura of simplicity in constructing layers, segments or passages of visual space on a two-dimensional surface, which is not quite yet subjugated by the doctrine of clever perspectival systems and sophisticated illusionism. But I digress, again.

Duccio - Annunciation from Maesta Predella.jpg
Duccio, active 1278; died 1319. ‘The Annunciation’ 1307/8-11. Egg tempera on wood, 44.5 x 45.8 cm. Part of the group: ‘Maestà Predella Panels’.  National Gallery, London

At some point an artist will simply experience a need for change. Was there a struggle with personal doubt in the loneliness of the studio? Or was Hoyland extending his boundaries, vigorously challenging where his painting could go next? There is always a sense of optimism in his work, despite the risk of being denounced as being reactionary, or nature inspired, about what was developing from a body of work, still unfettered by figurative imagery. Whatever the circumstances, Hoyland’s paint application loosens up. He becomes more gestural and splashy, but retains a strong flavour of his own developing visual language in which there would always be a Hoylandesque characteristic present, who or whatever, was influencing him.

In the third and final stage of the show (1978 to 1982) Hirst presents eleven of Hoyland’s canvases that are now identified with a named title, in addition to the dating system he had been using for many years. ‘Longspeak 18.4.79’ [1979], still quite large at a little over 2.4X2.1 metres, like other works from the 1970s and ‘80s, appears to connect with Patrick Heron’s ever developing achievements for abstraction in painting, as much as Hoffman’s example clearly reveals itself for both of these painters.

John Hoyland_Advance Town 29.3.80 © The John Hoyland Estate, Photo Prudence Cuming Associates.jpg
John Hoyland – Advance Town 29.3.80 © The John Hoyland Estate, Photo Prudence Cuming Associates

Replete with more pronounced diagonal content than before, Hoyland’s project now emphasizes flatness and abstract pictorial space even more expertly. Interestingly, Bunker, who is actively interested in Hoyland as, for example, he has commented at length about the ‘Power Stations’ show and his contribution to British abstract painting for ABCRIT, is critical of this period of Hoyland’s output, characterising it as a “burn out”, and is distracted by his “old Marxist teachers”. My advice here would be, trust your own eyes, and not someone else’s theories or political agenda.

Though admittedly, in the wider context, both political and cultural (let’s blame the Conceptualists, the Punks, Reaganites, Thatcherites, Critical Theorists, the Higher Education system, the new wave of curators espousing the ‘new media’ of film and video, the Arts Council with their new-fangled ‘inclusive’ policies, ‘bureaucratisation’, futuristic agendas, other publically funded organisations anywhere and everywhere, the zeitgeist, Uncle Tom Cobley…) art is never produced in a vacuum. But Hoyland did go on to make loads more vital work that is not represented in Hirst’s collection as it ends as the dominion of the YBA’s was on the horizon. But I digress into territory beyond the scope of this article.


John Bunker is a guest speaker at the Chelsea College of Arts (UAL) symposium – ‘Colour, Emotion, Non-Figuration: John Hoyland Revisited’ (March 2016), where “The day will explore Hoyland’s art and times, while opening his painting up to new perspectives and the peculiar pressures of the ‘expanded field’ in which art now operates.”

This expanded field for many painters has taken them into sculpture, often with an installation vibe. If this “pressure” still persists in questioning the relevance of painting today then, indeed, Hoyland might be a standard bearer for the ongoing interest in painting. Before Hoyland died in 2011 the ‘new media’ had started its transformation (more of a segue) into the digital realm, and subsequently, towards the post-Internet era that appropriates and references the phenomenon of the digital for the sake of modernity.

But that pesky painting and a ‘back to materials’ approach are not so unfashionable after all. For many young (ish), would-be-painters, it’s a form of ‘painterly-objecthood’ that the likes of Lydia Gifford, Helen Marten, Laura Owens; or Fiona Rae, Katharina Grosse and Pia Fries, (the latter, painters that appear to see paint as overtly medium specific), espouse in their work. And that’s just the girl-band. There you go lad, digressing again.

JB - 02.jpg

An aspect I found refreshing in this small exposé of Bunker’s collages in the Westminster Reference Library was in the materiality of the contents. Like all of those words and pictures reproduced in the books and periodicals (pre-Internet formats) under the same roof, you have to deal with the real. The collages, consisting of purposely fragmentary, torn and cut materials, we have all seen somewhere before in another form. Most especially if we are painters or collagists, these materials come back to confront us with a sense of redemption. The bits and pieces that litter our studio spaces, congeal in the Brownfield car park, or blow around in the alleyway, are materials with nine lives.

Bunker’s collages are disarmingly straight talking, pick ‘n’ mix patchworks of materials that have had other uses – maybe even as failed paintings, collages or out of date posters from advertising hoardings. Maybe as stuff ready-made for or from the bin or skip. Out of the discarded – and way beyond a corny aesthetic, school project, ‘up-cycling’ exercise, you can nail it to your wall without recourse to a designer trash Habitat readymade frame.

Additionally, looking like an arrow or a devil’s tail in one composition, the odd acrylic painted paper segment interjects like signs do in the metropolis outside might do. In the glass, metal, brick, asphalt and concrete jungle the colourful neon, stencilled or hand painted sign sometimes offers surprising visual delights.

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John Bunker

That we live, work, and play in a collage – a competing assemblage of forms, structures, colours, textures, fragments, attention grabbing commercial visual dross, graffiti, pealing paint, sounds and actions – combining old and new materials in transitory environments – might be a matter of opinion, perspective, or reveal a Dystopian state of mind. But Bunker’s collages have a vitality and freshness about them that I found surprisingly uplifting, because out of the abject sprouts an optimistic reconfiguration. Bunker re-presents real surfaces, colours and shapes that we may otherwise have overlooked. It’s all very Wabi-sabi – but not in a precious, pseudo-spiritual kind of way.

For these collages (except Widows Son, [2015] which is framed) there is no physical ground or support. We see skins of paper and other fibres; two-dimensional objects that are image and object combined. There is no actual, physical, subjectile (to loosely reference Antonin Artaud), for there is nothing under the surface. This feature suggests sculpture – though not overtly in an extended field context. But the artworks are surely subject and object (to very loosely reference Jacques Derrida) and situate the work in the historic direction, of Kurt Schwitters and Dada, Arte Povera and the NeoConcretists, as much as from the tradition of abstract art. For undoubtedly there are abstract tropes too: colour shapes, suggested geometry, gesture and the performative – offering visual-spatial readings, formality and expression, clarity and mystification.

So, are they wall-mounted sculptures? Does it matter? (Bunker also produces larger pieces that are better termed constructions – and perhaps owe something to Rauschenberg). I also wondered if these were collages produced by a painter – and admonished myself immediately with the retort that they do not need to be. Collage, like drawing, does not, is not, and cannot be subservient to painting. The language, like the medium, is similar, only different.

Rather like Hoyland, Bunker’s project is not programmatic. There is plenty of healthy individualism on display without any pretentious, self-expressive indulgence. Both exhibitions demonstrated a conviction to explore the endless realm of the visual in the concrete. Abstract or otherwise.



O SUPERMAN? – Lou Reed: Drones

Lou Reed Drones – UK Premiere.

The Spire (St Mark’s Chapel), Brighton. May 2016

 “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”

(Walter Pater, Fortnightly Review, 1877)

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Ray had travelled from South Wales for this gig. He had followed Lou Reed (1942-2013) around Europe for many years, as every concert was an event to enjoy and savour. Here he was, an hour early for the UK premiere of ‘Lou Reed – Drones’, part of the Brighton Festival programme devised by none other than Reed’s widow, Laurie Anderson. We got talking, as strangers who share an obsession do, about where we might have experienced the same concert as each other. For example, Ray had bought a ticket for the Reading Festival in the summer of 1975, but Reed had been too ill (according to his management company) to attend. So we shared the same non-event.

However, the date is significant, for this was the year of the release of ‘Metal Machine Music’ – an art-rock proto-masterpiece of industrial flavour that few were able to comprehend, let alone listen to. MMM might, derogatively, be considered as ‘noise music’ by some: but to aficionados of the Modernist avant-garde in the twentieth century, most likely informed by Dada associate, Kurt Schwitters’, ‘Ursonata’ (strictly speaking, a sound poem) and John Cage’s enticing and challenging ‘4’33”’, via Stockhausen and La Monte Young, ‘Sound Art’ was a manifestation of music that is as revered and imperative as Contemporary Art in any other form. Via his association with John Cale (co-conspirator in The Velvet Underground) and Andy Warhol, Lou Reed enabled Rock to overlap with the experimental urges of the visual art world.

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‘Lou Reed Drones’ presented the rare opportunity to hear (experience or endure, might be better phrases), a five-hour ‘concert’, created, with the instigation of Reed’s last guitar technician, Stewart Hurwood. Not that the visitor has to stay for the full duration, as this was a drop-in session requiring no more than a willingness to suspend judgements for a while and see (or hear) what happens. It’s a ‘happening’ for the imagination and, if another fine art related classification is required to frame the piece, ‘Drones’ is probably a Sound Sculpture.

To be a little more technical, the artwork is set up on a small stage as an installation of guitars, arranged in audio feedback mode with the amplified speakers. The 36 guitar strings are set in motion from the push and vibration of magnetically driven cones (or ‘woofers’, deriving from the English word for a dog’s bark), which amounts to 360 partial harmonics aurally crashing against each other. Each guitar/amp pairing individually loops sounds within the ensemble, with a variety of electronic reverberations; interweaving, connecting, and rising up in a relentless cacophony that, paradoxically, integrates in the most unexpected way. The encounter is both aural and physical.

08 - LRD

Of the audience, Hurwood has commented:

”I hope that they experience the gateway of their imagination to be opened! The Drones generate so many harmonics in the air that people hear different things within the drones; some hear birds, or horns, brass bands, others hear strings, or voices. In addition the sound waves hit the body perhaps penetrating and shaking internal organs, releasing endorphins etc. I like to think of it as a sonic massage!”

However, despite the sounds being generated by electronic means, a deep throated chanting is suggestively audible at times. Intriguing and strangely comforting associations from the evolving soundscape included hints of Gregorian chant – the guitars forming a sextet, with overlapping modes and electronic cadences that eschewed conclusions. And also, intimations of Buddhist incantations such as, “Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ”, for six guitars rather than syllables, are sensed. Then, at manic intervals when the imagination is pushed into scarier territory, we might have passed through Dante’s ‘Gates of Hell’ from Canto III of ‘The Divine Comedy: Inferno’, where Spirits wail somewhat inhumanely in deep pain. Then, as if the mind of the listener still searched for meaning, or an anchor of some kind, these sounds appeared to reverberate with the DNA of our ancestor’s voices: creating a primeval soundtrack that perhaps still lurks in the 40,000 year old ‘cortex’ – where the subconscious shares experiences with our forefathers. What a fanciful, even outrageous, notion. But the imagination, prompted so heavily by Drone’s gut-wrenching sonic assault, embodies this time shrinking possibility.

Still hurting from Lou Reed’s non-appearance back in the ‘70s, now over 40 years later, Ray gets to hear Lou Reed without the artist again.

The King is dead. Long live, Lou Reed.




As Such And In As Much As: TIM AYRES at PM/AM, until 4 April 2016

I wrote this painting sitting by my muse; Until it runs clear; Sad, I hadn’t realised that I’d died; The beautiful thud; I’ll wait for you here; I am not in love (no, no); Revealing certain softened forms; Sing then… These are titles of paintings not included in Tim Ayres’ exhibition of paintings at PM/AM, a very short walk south from Edgware Road tube station in the direction of Hyde Park.

Words are, exponentially it seems, everywhere. William S. Burroughs likened words (language) to a physical and viral infection. Words, as thoughts, scripts or as speech, occupy and filter through the inner and outer worlds we all inhabit. In verbal discourse, words can be whispered, delivered calmly, or bellowed ferociously. Often formed in print, and increasingly in digital form, words are virtually ubiquitous. Thinking about thoughts could drive you crazy. So, at arms length, on the page, the iPad or the Kindle, there’s a distance that enables the reader some objectivity. Likewise, words on canvas could similarly, at eyes length, offer some handy detachment.

Ayres’ painted words and phrases may have been sourced from overheard conversations, the radio, or, out of the blue, they just popped up in his mind in a seemingly casual way. In a recent email exchange to get the back story on As Such And In As Much As, Ayres referenced his profound love of music, lyrics and the influences of the recorded song: ‘I love the synthesis of music and song text. Music is the colour; the song text is the image. I keep thinking of the word ‘timbre’ – the timbre of an instrument, or a voice. It’s a timbre that I’m looking for in my work.’

Tim Ayres 'Linger' 2015
Tim Ayres – ‘Linger’, 2015

Historically, the visual lexicon of painting seldom requires words as formal, visual content. There are notable exceptions that become memorable of course, such as Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1636-8) in the National Gallery collection; or Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop masterpiece, Whaam! (1963), a visitors’ favourite at the Tate Modern. My impression is that text as image in contemporary art is increasing despite the notion that artists paint what cannot be expressed in words. But in Ayres’ paintings we can consider the words as formal, visual content in the same way that colours, marks, textures and shapes are. This work offers the viewer the intriguing combination of text as image, where words are concurrently literal and abstract. At first glance Ayres’ paintings appear visually uncomplicated, which in a way, they are. Images are created, either with words, in the Eurostile Extended 2 font, or constructed from a rigid, or collapsing, linear framework. The visual information invites a reading and interpretation beyond face value. We are purposely not being told everything and must bring or make our own interpretations from the typographic or linear image content in conjunction with the painted elements.

Culturally, we are so attuned to the image/text conjunctions that feature in advertising that initially I wondered if the word content in the range of paintings would capture a viewers’ attention more immediately than other aspects of the works on display, but in fact it was the colours that made the first visual hit. The colour impact in all of the paintings, especially the strong pinks, reds and various blues that Ayers has chosen, creates continuity in colour contrasts to hold the visual diversity of the whole show together.

The silvery orange in Dead Is Easy, (2015), applied with a wide flat brush in glazed layers, forming a skin over the canvas, is as luscious and sweet as the fruit itself. At 195X130cm the work felt like a commanding human presence in terms of its physical size. Another image with strength in colour and paint application is, I’m Pregnant, (2015), consisting of blue letters on a red foregrounded colour-field overlaid on a blue ground that emerges at the lower edge of the canvas. How do we read this? Were the words originally spoken or texted? It’s all in lower case – but there is no exclamation mark to suggest elation. Could this be a celebratory announcement or a moment of despair? Pregnancy testing kits show blue or pink indicators – so do the colour combinations reference chemical colour coding and the fateful outcome? It’s a fragmentary statement, as are the other word images. The various titles give little away and offer overheard or half-recalled quotations up to interpretation.

Tim Ayres 'Dead Is Easy' 2015
Tim Ayres – ‘Dead Is Easy’, 2015

There is no obvious context, which counterpoints a vacuum of sorts, and hence a possible dialectical reading of the work. A combination of the telematic (from the computer and contemporary) in relation to the haptic (related to hand-painted, gestural and evoking tradition) creates a tension. In what has been called Post-Internet Art (a term formulated by the artist Marisa Olson in 2009), many contemporary artists are appropriating images through or with digital technology in order to celebrate, undermine or exploit its presence. In the visual relationship between the modern Eurostyle typeface and the otherwise pre-Internet, painterly, faux-expressionistic surface I have a sense of an artist, with an instinctive, even Romantic, sensibility. The evidence for this is revealed through colour, albeit with a slightly reserved handling of paint. The paint treatment is successfully aligned to an anti-intellectualising decision making process that reveals itself in the almost offhand, witty or droll text casually, though carefully, integrated with the painterly backgrounds.

This text element is made from a vinyl-lettering stencil that is computer generated and machine made, but is not necessarily applied in contrast to the process of painting. Ayres has explained that: ‘Stencils have to be ordered and there’s an element of only getting one hit at it when it comes to it, so there’s a lot of mental preparation involved on the run in.’ This has changed my initial sense of the text content as imperatively mechanical, for even here there is the possibility of mishandling in applying the words during the painting process.

There is also a dominant visual and abstract sensibility in all of these works. They are non-figurative, non-perspectival, and concerned with the process of painting in addition to offering intriguing visual propositions. They stress surface and the materiality of the paint medium. Art historically, this approach to painting has antecedents in post war, New York School, Greenbergian, aesthetics. But in Ayres’ paintings there is a minimalist, detached, non-autographic presentation of the visual content: evidence of information (pictogram and digital text) for life in the new millennium?

All of the paintings in the show consist of forms, not only words, applied on top of layers of acrylic paint that opens them up for translation and meaning. Or no one meaning, but the potential of several? This is often a feature of poetry and songwriting, where improvisation or spontaneity, with a flow of words and sounds, is enough to create something persuasive, but with avoiding the obvious.

On a biographical note, Ayres had an inclination to be poet when he was much younger. Interestingly, two paintings at PM/AM feature the word poem: Poem (EPT), (2015) and another, smaller, mirror image: Poem (AK/AB), (2014), about a third smaller at 70X50cm. The larger work is coloured a hot, sexy, pink, whilst the other is dark grey. Both stress the double syllable of the word po-em, but the smaller work presents a mirror image of the word and has a sinister feel.

Tim Ayres 'Poem (EPT)' 2015
Tim Ayres – ‘Poem (EPT)’, 2015

Replying to a question about his early interest in being a poet, Ayres replied:

‘I’d like to avoid this question… but in all honesty, yes, I guess so. But it’s not fulfilment, it just transpires. It was never schematic or tactical. It’s an organic process, evolving as one moves through one’s self. Looking back, one sees key moments in one’s activity and can say ‘oh yes’ and ‘of course, that makes sense’ about one’s practice. But you can’t project that sense or understanding forward. I guess that’s half of the fun of it. That all said, I don’t consider myself a poet.’

Ayres, born in Hastings in 1965, now lives and works in Amsterdam. He was born into a generation adapting and developing to the post-industrial, information age. With the advent of digital technologies and the questioning of painting as a dominant fine art medium, to the post-modern artist, sound, words, images and even time/duration are tools, materials and mediums. A supposed equality was proclaimed between all media and disciplines and any ingredients were deemed available to reconfigure and present ideas in an interdisciplinary conjunction. For example, the choice to present, or toy with, an ironic disconnection with language and imagery is suggested in Ayres’ paintings. However, Ayres eschews an overriding theoretical basis to his practice and rejects labels such as Linguistic theory, Semiotics, Critical Theory – or even Post-Internet.

Commenting on his post-graduate experiences: ‘When I first arrived in Amsterdam at the Rijksakademie, at the end of the ‘80s, the place was abuzz with post-modern discussion and I dipped into that, probably as a reactionary move against what I’d been shown to see as the old fashioned modernism of my education in Britain. New clothes, a new wardrobe to wear, a shift in identity in a new environment.

‘You know, the artwork as a text, simulacrum, the end of the pursuit to be original and even, oh dear, that painting was dead… So this is what I mean about ‘concepts back when’. Clothes suit us and then, perhaps in time, they stop suiting us. So no, I don’t align myself to any theoretical or critical style or basis.’

I asked him if, from a technical or thematic point of view, how he starts a painting?

‘Technically? I’m using a glazing technique, so there’s a notion that the first layer is of equal importance to the last. So, a layer of paint (is applied) to step outwards with. That first layer will be crucial in the voice that I think I want the painting to have later. Maybe like a harmony that will perhaps be audible, if only barely, in the final mix.

‘Thematically? The painting starts itself when it sees itself in the mind’s eye, mostly long before the painting starts.’

Tim Ayres is a painter, not a poet, and what the artist chooses to communicate non-verbally, is delivered exclusively through the medium of paint, his primary and un-literal, material. This visual content includes a paradoxical sense of the word or phrase, which is as visual as it is literal when made the subject, or figure, in a painting. But these are not adumbrated poems, making haiku look long-winded. The imagination should be present, or invited to a painting (or a poem) otherwise there is little of value.

In the Tom Tom Club song, Wordyrappinghood (1981) ex-Talking Heads member, Tina Weymouth, sings:

  ‘Mots pressés, mots sensés,

  Mots qui disent la vérité, mots maudits, mots mentis,

  Mots qui manquent le fruit d’esprit’

Which translates as:

‘Hurried words, sensible words,

Words that tell the truth, cursed words, lying words,

Words that are missing the fruit of the mind’

The last line from this verse (the three lines rhyme better in its original French) suggests that any word, or expression, can possess a rich, even latent, potential.

Tim Ayres’ word paintings remind me that every remark may have poetic nuance, even from a non-literary, everyday utterance.

Tim Ayres 'Oh My Well God Fuck Yeah' 2015
Tim Ayres- ‘Oh My Well God Fuck Yeah’, 2015

PM/AM is at 259-269 Old Marylebone Road, London NW1 5RA:

PM/AM:  http://www.pmam.org

Video of Tim Ayres in his studio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iC5m_UT0ZT0

Word A Day: 2015

Throughout 2015 I wrote a word each day in a diary to form a poem:


Word a day: 2015

Disciplined thoughts cram,
Overlap, in staccato pulse

Slip function counters in beat,
Walking after all

Fly, sing,
Treasure the moment

Often change, seldom sleep
Collapse years to now

Always is beautiful for the blossom bloom
Raw, undefined by seasons

A flow that appears, appears.
A moment infinite

Returning inward, but
Instantly un-thought, superseded

Time travellers, constantly measuring,
Trace carefully, remember detail

For what increases,
Occludes self reflection

Denounces notions of progression
Living in a recurring disappearing

Solid and formed, detail pinpoints illusion
Not knowing, not empathy

Love benign:
Still but dynamic torque

Good turn away,
Interpret as cause without reflection

No understanding to intervene,
Finished somehow

Flying, apparently,
Doubt, push anything

Withdraw, submit
Anticipate the drive

Futuristic emptiness,
Potential that evades

Torn, fragmented, undercurrents
Time is nonsense tangled deep

Energies translated by necessity
Switch in unison


Reboot, go, repeat
Go, rest not fathom

Leave quickly,
Presuming changes

Inconspicuous and charlatan moments
Structure in deep

Flotsam gestures,
Voice particulars

Floating froth articulates chaos
Clearly, paradox instigates

So liquid: Time,
One mass

Dense with potential

Bleached future,
History never reached

But theory moves
Granted with ease

Stop soon, word is out.
Apply soon

Whispers engage thought,
The long is a whisper too

Elements of potential entertain repetition
In staccato

On conclusion, contradiction
Woven, assimilated

Base for another departure
Low view awe

Made to spike at least

Space spirit sliding
Switching sea sourced sensation

Change living

Cognitive defeat, only not mobile
Ask again

Speakers mute,
Love rain

Audio scratches
Blanket deep soundscape

Continuous redeeming fuses
Expertly guiding everything

Dream content on vacation

Stumped by waking
Purblind, gross, ineluctable and scrambled

Punishment avoided
Examined writings affect and indulge function mode

Erratum: image as mediator
Objective and composed seeks facture for now

Model of understanding
Critical birth

Organise the text
Divulge doubts

Bitter, crowded, disturbing
Yet purposeful labour

Apropos: trivial journeys
Safely negotiate

Where mindfully remembered
Negotiate surprise

Trawl and peer,
Sense what is structured

Visit with open arms.
Might there mostly develop a sensation nomad?

Constantly agitating
Weighing up patterns

Viral skeins
Exponential by design

Ordered chaos

Listen: sunlight blesses the shoreline
Where movement is

Where time distils connected events
Walking in line, immersed discipline(d).

Scan 1

“Are you still looking for a Cézanne?” Merge Visible: New Digital Paintings by Dennis Loesch

Merge Visible: New Digital Paintings by Dennis Loesch
PM/AM Gallery, 259-269 Old Marylebone Road, London

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Despite the variety of media and means available for artists to make their mark upon the world, or add another object to it, painting will not go away. In recent weeks, for the London-centric art viewer-visitor, ‘must see’ lists would surely have included the extremely painterly and mightily abstract, John Hoyland: Power Stations Paintings 1964-1982 (Newport Street Gallery) and the supreme and breathtaking Frank Auerbach (Tate Britain) exhibitions; and of course Frieze and Frieze Masters in Regent’s Park. Just before the recent spate of shows, the Sonia Delaunay and Agnes Martin exhibits at Tate Modern, in contrasting ways, would have revived (if needed) a battery re-charging of the potentials, and achievements, of abstract painting. With such major events filling the diary of necessary distractions (especially from the daily routines of studio practice, if you are an artist) smaller shows, or venues less well known, can be overlooked.

So, at the start of four days of consecutive gallery visiting, culminating at Frieze Masters, I headed for the mid-show breakfast event of Merge Visible: New Digital Paintings by Dennis Loesch at the PM/AM gallery, a newly renovated space located on the Old Marylebone Road, where the artist would be present. This venture, to introduce mostly German based artists to the UK, has been set up by Patrick Barstow (London) and Lee Colwill (Berlin), handily coinciding with many critics and collectors being in town for the Frieze events.

Berlin-based artist Dennis Loesch, who was trained in Interdisciplinary Fine Arts at the Städelschule in Frankfurt has not exhibited in the UK before and from the press release for Merge Visible we learn that Loesch’s imagery from this, and previous projects (not restricted to painting), present an engagement with “display management” and that he has a “fascination with the digital”. We also read that this recent work “Reveals a new discourse for the artist that investigates the interplay, temporal connections and history between digital imagery and classical painting technique”.

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The general nature of this introduction was no doubt useful for introducing Loesch’s recent work to interested parties, but, when I met him, he commented that he did not want the press release to explain his work in too much detail. Though highly articulate, Loesch purposely gave little away in conversation as he wanted the viewer to respond with what he called their “first view”: that is, to the work itself, with no prior explanation to frame or influence an interpretation or understanding. (He did acknowledge that all viewers would, of course, have varying degrees of art historical awareness to affect the experience of engaging with the work – and it seems to me that this would, further down the line, be crucial to a better contextualised reading of the work.)

Post Internet Art?
It’s worth saying that I was drawn to visit this show, via receiving the press release and seeing his work on-line (how else?), because the apparently abstract imagery is derived, to some significant degree, from digital sources: but I could not really connect with the work from digital reproductions and felt that I really did need to see the originals – a decision most useful as the paintings are made to be experienced ‘in the flesh’ and not in a purely digital environment as some ‘Post-Internet Art’ might be. In fact, I wonder if this work teasingly almost becomes a form of post-Internet art? Critic, Brian Droitcour’s definition as “art being made in the context of digital technology” (see ‘The Perils of Post-Internet Art’ in Art in America) would appear to consent to this. But Loesch’s approach, to producing paintings in this instance, might be more accurately defined as Conceptual and/or Post-Painterly. If there is an element of teasing (my interpretation), I mean it in an ironical sense of requiring the work to be experienced as materially painting (by various means), and as continuing the long tradition of painting as we understand it, but in relation to the non-material, digital environment.

This personal interest was also abetted after seeing the small but suitably differentiated survey display, ‘Painting After Technology’, at Tate Modern where I was especially fascinated by Wade Guyton, Sigmar Polke and Christopher Wool’s imagery and means of production. It could be that overt contemporaneity is essential for some painters in the sense that the new technologies in image manufacture, appearance and dissemination (Walter Benjamin’s, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, is of course a key text) are programmatically allowed to impact on their practice – though I would argue that Auerbach’s daily record of his interaction with painting his portraits and urban street views are as contemporaneous, and empirical, as you can get.

In Merge Visible (note: Merging Visible is a Photoshop term for an action to fuse together, as one layer, a number of visible, overlaid images which makes them inseparable) the digital sources, or references, are not so obvious – a conscious ploy I assume – as not even pixilation was mimicked that one might see in, say, Dan Hays’ ‘Colorado Series’ (where the pixilated rendering in oil paint is crucial of course). Loesch’s paintings are exquisitely made, with brush marks applied with precision, and ink-jet layers are added to each composition in a variety of configurations and colour schemes, part-covering the various ‘brush marked’ surfaces. For the digital printing to be applied perfectly the surfaces are carefully prepared and this attention to immaculate production is carried through to the final gallery display in smart, well engineered, aluminium frames. All, this might suggest, is mere surface – and digital depth is shallow, despite an approximation with traditional painting.

Dennis Loesch_Merge Visible_Instal_lo24.jpeg

My deeper reaction to the show, one that prompted questions that should be heeded but do not necessarily provide clear-cut answers; or reactions that are not definitively for or against, set me on a train of thought that I suspect will sustain me for some time yet. Synthetic, processed images (I’m trying to avoid the gendered term ‘man-made’) intervene and negotiate with the perception, representation and meaning of the physical and emotional world around us but, in this burgeoning era of digital technologies, many of us will quite possibly spend more time looking at and negotiating with a digital screen than in looking at original paintings, prints or photographs (that is, physical images, for even mass-consumption type pictures such as newspaper or magazine photographs are now virtual, or digital, too). One could expect therefore, for digital technologies to affect and influence contemporary painting in execution, form and content – for better or worse.

From the text provided by the Tate (curated by Mark Godfrey) for the aforementioned Painting After Technology display the explanation is given that: “Many of these artists are also concerned with working within or against the established traditions of abstraction… If gestures were usually assigned to an expressive artist, can a gesture be faked, or non-assignable? Artists also ask what other models of abstract painting can be retrieved, and look back over the history of painting to rediscover mark-making processes that may be associated with artists out of fashion…”

The referencing of abstraction is interesting here, as mark making and individual characteristics of gesture are questioned (post-De Kooning, I presume); and, secondly, a Post-Modernistic trait to revive, or appropriate, is referenced as a testimony to painters who have been superseded by the Minimalist/Pop generations (I speculate, again). In briefly discussing ‘Untitled (DIN)’, 2015 Loesch referenced what he termed the duktus that was so crucial an element in the realization of the work. The duktus, or touch, is a characteristic style, script or brush mark that traditionally might reveal the author of a work. Loesch employs a highly skilled assistant from his team to produce these literally backgrounded, non-figurative flourishes of loose pattern-like configurations, presenting flatly brushed, linear meanderings of colour. But rather than having a particularly expressive, individual characteristic, the hand painted simulacrums of abstract-like application possess a flat, undemonstrative, digital ‘touch’ that, paradoxically, might be anonymous, even when executed by brush and hand in the long-established ‘haptic’ sense.

Dennis Loesch_Merge Visible_Lime Window_2015_lo6.jpeg

In ‘Untitled (DIN)’, ‘Lime Window’ (2015), and other works by Loesch, the hand painted brush marks are subsequently located behind the various UV-inkjet printed, meandering weaves or geometric shapes of light blue, lime green or other colours, and modified by these virtual brush or stencil-like shapes that have been rendered with a mouse or pen on a drawing tablet in Photoshop (or some similar program). These painted areas are typically part obscured by the printed digital interventions applied on top (the literal foreground) that act as portals and semi-translucent or solid shrouds.

Despite the implications of the apparent digital-disconnect from the physicality of conventional painting tools, an actual, but somewhat removed, digital rendering tool, which never comes into contact with the actual canvas surface, has been legitimately employed. Thereafter, colour shapes are applied ‘by proxy’ by a digital printing machine having been created, earlier, by the intervention of the mouse mat or tablet. The so-called virtual/digital becomes real, materially – challenging definitions of authenticity and, paradoxically, creating the hyperreal.

Certainly, in the main series of works that dominated the display at PM/AM, one sees a kind of sampling of the gestural and abstract, creating pleasantly colourful, abstract-pop-paintings that are rendered as almost flat, referencing a reproduction aesthetic: The flat print of the ubiquitous imagery (say) of advertising, or the glassy smooth-screen digital interface, might suggest that a kind of degenerated image is the result, usurping and transforming the proto-image (the painting) to a state of bland nothingness or ‘mere’ digital decoration or re-framing. I wonder, too, if Loesch’s activity as a ‘painter’ approaches a situationist posture – critiquing traditions of easel painting and being fetishistic in sexing up, with seductive technique, the non-living, objectness of a painting? Or, is this post-painterly, cool? It’s almost (I’m not sure) emotionless – but I am affected by the visual frisson. Are these pseudo-paintings (made by a real-life artist, albeit with his technically expert assistants)? Are the works quotations of a sort – planned, rendered and delivered in a post-Rauschenbergian, anti-expressionist, neo-Pop-ness? Also, do I detect a certain wry humour? How have my various reactions been stage-managed? Are the painted marks truly, but tritely, meaningless?

However, there is a neat tastefulness about these paintings, which might signal a philosophical meditation on the relationship between analogue and digital. Digitally low-res information results in a degradation or subversion of the image (digital image files are not physical, concrete things like analogue negatives and prints) and the new arena for images seems a less secure environment (especially when your hard drive crashes and you have no back up); but the colourful digital screens and wavy cancellations are, superficially at least, more than satisfactory at that “first view” – perhaps because the eye can be mislead by initial appearances. Therefore, does Loesch’s juxtaposing of combined painted and printed surfaces question the nature of the engagement with paint to produce a dystopian vision for painting, where the digital introduces a veil of superficiality, despite the production of a beautifully crafted, lush, surface? Actually, nothing is really hidden as the final, merged, ‘image’ presents a self-reflective dichotomy in the real presentation of images of nothing.

Or, conversely, is there a positive revivalism, for abstract painting at play here? The works have a sophisticated and engaging visual impact that I find hard to dismiss. They look good on the wall. So, is the truth somewhere in between – in a state of limbo? Perhaps these sort of unanswered questions are what Loesch wanted his work to generate? In some circumstances, questions avoid answers – especially where the work might actually be provisional (to coin a phrase).

Some of my comments and reactions so far may have become overstated and I could be walking a tightrope above a chasm of ‘artspeak’ indulgence, but a selected example from Loesch’s Merge Visible series would certainly fit well with the premises of the ‘Painting After Technology’ exhibition at Tate Britain, and a larger survey in the future surely would have to include something from Loesch’s studio.

Whilst taking a break in the Reading Area at Frieze London, I picked up a copy of Art In America magazine (October 2015). This edition features Barbara Rose’s ‘More Is Less’ article published 50 years ago, an important art historical document for a definition of what became known as Minimalism. Rose proposed that “ABC art” was an attempt to define a zeitgeist that had given rise to expressions of “blank, neutral, mechanical impersonality” and that, “One might easily construe the new, reserved impersonality and self-effacing anonymity as a reaction against the self-indulgence of an unbridled subjectivity, just as one might see it in terms of a formal reaction to the excesses of painterliness.”

These words might be applied to many examples of, so-called, post-Internet art, although Loesch reacts to Minimalism’s desire to be rid of pictorial and traditional content by doing little more than morphologically referencing mark making (kind of), framing, and organized illusionism through pictorial or planar space. There is also a mechanical, perfunctory edge to the work, which perhaps questions authenticity in the age of digital media, where appropriation is endemic and the simulacrum is mistaken for the real.

As with many examples of abstract painting, rightly or wrongly, non-figurative manifestations will beg the question: What are we looking for/at/into – and why do we need to? I think Loesch’s work does this; and we may find many answers.

Post Script
If I might indulge in conjoining two comments I overheard in a conversation between two young, chic (female) collectors (or gallerists) at Frieze Masters, a few days after visiting the PM/AM gallery: “Planet Earth to Victoria: Are you still looking for a Cézanne?” I was reminded of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical essay on Paul Cézanne’s self-doubt, uncertainty and lack of self-confidence (‘Cézanne’s Doubt’). From the self-conscious sense of modernity formulated, unwittingly, by the ‘Father of Modern Art’, notwithstanding the legacy of Duchamp, perhaps all painters (abstract or otherwise) remain indebted to Cézanne’s revolutionary achievement for painting (and sculpture, film, literature…). This might help to frame what Loesch and the greater, extended, family of contemporary painters, still strives for:
“…Cézanne was always seeking to avoid the ready-made alternatives suggested to him: sensation versus judgment; the painter who sees against the painter who thinks; nature versus composition; primitivism as opposed to tradition… Rather than apply to his work dichotomies more appropriate to those who sustain traditions than to those… painters, who initiate these traditions, he preferred to search for the true meaning of painting, which is continually to question tradition.”

Certainly, the traditional is now challenged by the digital revolution that will shape the future of painting: and Loesch (and many others) are responding enthusiastically.

Geoff Hands (October 2015)

(All images should all be credited to Erik Saeter Joergensen)

This article was first published on: AbCrit

SERIAL THRILLER: Bridget Riley, The Curve Paintings 1961 – 2014 De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea

Bridget Riley-3

Bridget Riley, The Curve Paintings 1961-2014 installation at DLWP.

© Bridget Riley 2015. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London

Even an English flâneur may have imagined being on the Côte d’Azur in this heat, pausing on the Promenade des Anglais, to admire the view. On an outstandingly bright summer morning, if you looked south from the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on Sea towards France, the sea and brilliantly dazzling sky dissolved the field of vision, eschewing aerial perspective. Space had flattened; somehow, confirming the shifting nature of perception as optically realised and, therefore (or thereafter), re-conceptualised, re-seen, rather than diminished without the culturally acquired safety net of perspective.

Bridget Riley might be categorised as a ‘classic’ abstract/geometric painter, whose practice engages with image making that, autobiographically, encapsulates her perfectionist tendencies. Her methodological practice is invariably characterised by tightly controlled, sensuously schematic, repetitive and minimalist, optically demanding imagery. She’s a serial, visual, thriller – of the highest order.

I am here today, as part of a small posse of writers from the press, to look at a selection of paintings and prints that explore Riley’s fascination with the curve. Petite and agile, Bridget Riley, one of the internationally most acknowledged British artists of the twentieth century, generously and energetically informs and entertains. In what approximated a subtle balletic performance, she is self-assuredly poised, both physically and intellectually, to address those present with great enthusiasm and vitality. Her explanations are as exacting and precise as her imagery and her confidence is assured.

My sense is that behind this apparent coolness, regularity and control in her work an engagement with the world as it is experienced (hence the opening paragraph), both visually and physically, continues to inform her whole oeuvre. Readers of Riley’s collected writings, cleverly titled ‘The Eyes Mind’, will be aware of her early visual and tactile childhood memories of the sea and sun. Confirming the particularly visual contingency of her paintings and prints, the non-perspectival experience of the sea front panorama referenced above was echoed and confirmed in Bridget Riley’s own words: “Pictorial space has to be about something on a two-dimensional surface, in which pictorial space happens by pictorial thinking… perspective is by no means the only way.”

A sense of the closeness of France was also fortuitous: “French and early Modernist art was clearly about perception… a connection with that line of looking.” Engaging with the works on display in this retrospective collection, and turning to scan her audience frequently, to explain the practical, formative training that her particular form of abstraction partly derives from, she referenced her traditional art school training in drawing from the figure: “Drawing can develop your insights – drawing is a tool that can open up the world.” But Riley also explains that the history of art (especially the painting tradition) creates influences, and visual language systems, as essential as the daily practice of planning, and making, work. From considering the spatial investigations of Cézanne and her journey to abstraction, via an interest in Cubism, she references Bonnard and Matisse to illustrate her defining interest in line and colour. Art historical knowledge, and a constant meditation on the rich history that informs her concepts and her entire output are consistently made clear, for there are many: “Respected and admired artists from the past and we can learn from them… according to [our] temperament.”

In explaining her burgeoning practice, as a young, aspiring artist in 1960s London, she says: “It was a sort of statement… I learnt to draw when I went to art school… I was taught to make figure drawings… I was very interested in colour… basic colour relationships… I would look at Matisse… How would Matisse be able to make that? From tonal painting, colour lightened and darkened… there had been an immense adventure in modern art… I went to work for J. Walter Thompson and in the lunch hour I went down to the ICA and Cork Street to listen to lectures by David Sylvester, Laurence Alloway and [Roland] Penrose…”

Her audience is captivated by now; she continued: “The development of modern art was halted by the two wars… I went to look at an exhibition of Futurists… (Visits to the Venice Biennale and Milan are mentioned too) … there were important and interesting things in it… abstract thinking… I carried on with making my own abstract work… instead of abstracting from things seen out there in reality… Bonnard and Matisse could do much more than Mondrian had done… I started from a line, what a line can do, a square, a circle… when I altered, changed or distorted something that was familiar to people… I found ways of making things active…”

Riley’s ability to clearly elucidate her practice as an abstract artist par excellence, and her measured use of a precise language, to objectively explain and describe the carefully selected examples from her Curve paintings, provided a simple exegesis of practice that absorbed the audience. That she believes that painting is still relevant was clear: “Painting is an incredible discipline and a great art form.” And again she emphasised tradition: “All my experiences [with the] figurative is a huge help in knowing what a painting needs if it’s to develop.”

Riley’s articulateness matched the refinement of her paintings. She drew the meaning out of the works, confirming the evidence presented to the viewer’s attentive mind. But her work is not purely cerebral, as the physical engagement and geometric coordination within her work is truly embodied: and not only in the eye. The sense of flow in the paintings echoes the movement of the human form and the environment that we occupy. Most especially, lines and angles of orientation are designed to evoke pictorial space: “Vertical had to bear the stripe… lead to the plane… the painting is very transitive… Verticals allowed one to have a rhythm, to contrast it with the curves.”

But, there was a period of 17 years of an insistence on the horizontal in her prints and paintings (1980-1997). This revelation had to be re-visited. Of the return to the curve she states, “the curve is more open to amazing changes than the straight line.” Again, Riley confirms her appreciation of the line, learnt from life drawing as a student, and that “The contrapposto is like frozen movement… The curve is so elastic and changeable.”

In discussing ‘Lagoon 2’ (1997) she admits that she was: “Trying to get the curve back”. And paradox is readily admitted: “Contour suggests a flat volume…” This elegant painting (quite large at approximately 1.5 X 2 metres, but absorbing visually, and not at all imposing) has the feel of a dense forest of colour-shapes, which is neo-Cubistic: Cézanne through Matisse’s eyes. Or, as Riley discloses, is based on the notion of her idea of looking at Matisse looking at Cézanne.

Superficially, Riley’s own personality, and temperament, as a painter appears less sensual than Matisse. But a flattened painterliness, where autobiographical marks are repressed, still allows colour and line to dominate with the joie de vivre we associate with the French master. The surface quality in Riley’s paintings is typically one of relentless smoothness, but colour sensation is still paramount.

In ‘Rêve’ (1999) contrasts and harmonies work with and against each other with a colour scheme of blue/green and cream/yellow. In ‘Painting with Verticals 3’ (2006) and ‘Rajasthan’ (2012) there is a pronounced sense of purposeful movement across the surface. In the latter, Riley describes the “march of the greens”, as this organic colour comes alive amongst orange, red, grey and white.

Bridget Riley’s abstract art is clearly modernist, but notwithstanding her traditional training as a painter (she still produces cartoons for her paintings), her work successfully combines a strongly characteristic feature of line through disegno (drawing) with form as colore (colour) to attain a synoptic temporality: intimating a psychogeographic relationship with space through physical positioning and perception; and a sense of time and rhythm integrated in and through the intrinsic properties of the images. The association of colour and line, especially the curve, is sensuous at a visual and an intellectual level. If this interpretation is correct, it might suggest that a purely non-objective abstraction is a fanciful notion – because contingency is unavoidable, so long as human beings continue to make art.

Geoff Hands


De La Warr




Painters Table


A lasting impression after the show: Vivarini and Richter at Moretti Fine Art – Frieze Masters 2014

Santa Caterina d'AlessandriaVivarini – Santa Caterina d’Alessadria

It is sometimes said that there are too many images in the world, particularly in this great information age. Visiting both Frieze Art Fair and Frieze Masters in Regents Park, London this autumn certainly enabled us to indulge in mixing the past and the present in a particularly concentrated and carefully selected celebration of some of the highest quality and thought provoking examples of fine art from many countries, cultures and eras. Now, of course, we move on to more great venues and exhibitions that reveal the seemingly exponential nature of the visual arts. Despite the endless production of works of art, contemplating the many forms of practice from all ages confirms the universal, humanistic nature of the plastic arts that often combine mystery with a visualised clarity of thought.

As with all art fairs, something will linger in the memory for longer than the duration of the event. From Frieze Masters one of our abiding experiences that we are still recollecting and discussing was the fascinating triptych presentation by Moretti Fine Art of Antonio Vivarini’s, ‘Saint Catharine of Alexandria’ (‘Santa Caterina d’Alessandria’) hung between Gerhard Richter’s two slightly smaller abstract paintings (‘Abstract Bild’ 454-4 and 454-5). Moretti had shown this same combination at the Biennale des Antiqaires in Paris a few weeks ago and this was a decision well worth repeating for a new, and broader, audience.

The reading of painted, European, images made some 500 years apart will be oriented to a stylistic contrast for it is sometimes impossible to separate art historical knowledge from perception. When first confronting these three small paintings, we were compelled to look at and to read what was instantaneous: The iconography and well-known story line in Vivarini’s painting, and the medium-specific, painterly, abstract, materiality of Richter’s pair of canvases were immediately obvious, The clever, but simple, juxtaposition of these works on the Moretti stand immediately set up a figurative/abstract comparison that could, potentially, construe a dialectical opposition, whether this was intentional or not by the curators. However, we found that these immediate readings could be reversed, emphasizing the surface, materiality and non-narrative features in the Saint Catharine; and the framework of a metaphysical abstraction in the potential of a less formalistic, Greenbergian, reading of the non-figurative compositions.

To some extent the work of both painters are paradigmatic: Vivarini’s style provides an example of Venetian late Gothic, albeit with subtle elements of the ‘new’ perspective and anatomically conscious scientific knowledge shifting the visual language from flatness to roundedness and the space of the world inhabited by the viewer. For example, despite the typically two dimensional halo, there is, in her crown, a hint of perspective that, with the three-quarters view of the portrait, ‘modernises’ St Catherine as a fellow human-being rather than as a symbolic representation. Also, Vivarini has attempted, although not fully realised, to depict the hand as structurally convincing rather than as a flat approximation or template. However, the gothic elements are pervasive, as a monumental St Catharine is set against a blank background (a Florentine master, such as Botticelli, would by now have included an architectural space) and the image, probably part of an altarpiece, was made for a church rather than a palace.

Richter Abstraktes Bild 454-4Richter – Abstraktes Bild 454-4

Ricter Abstraktes Bild 454-6Richter – Abstraktes Bild 454-6

Richter knowingly, and perhaps in an act of appropriation of style, presents an example of 20th-century abstraction: in this case, of the painterly and expressive kind rather than hard-edged and overtly systematic. The colour scheme is essentially rich and fiery – which, when associated, and seen, with the Martyr Saint Catherine, could be interpreted as pertaining to the spiritual desire of her faith. Yet it is this simple, blank backdrop that makes the visual link to the Richter paintings and to a sense of the mystery, and metaphysical meaning, of colour. The Italian master applies tempera onto a gold ground panel through which an orange-red spiritual space is enhanced by the close proximity of the oils in Richter’s paintings. The visual influence is reciprocated as the subtle green and flat geometric forms in ‘Abstract Bild 454-6’, to the right, echo colours and shapes in the St. Catharine. We also perceive a correspondence between the broken spoke that suggests piercing, and perhaps crucifixion (martyrdom), and the yellow diagonal in the bottom left-hand quarter of Richter’s abstract composition. In either case, each painter’s work is seen afresh because of this presentation.

There will, doubtless, be many more ‘readings’ and connections, convincing or not, between these paintings and it might be more significant that paintings from very different eras in the fine arts are capable of generating interpretations and opportunities for co-existence than for any specific links we are constructing at the moment. This potentiality in contemporary curatorship, to align art works from all periods and cultures to produce holistic meanings or conflicting debates, can only be proof that a notion of community speaks across the ages, making notions of the ‘modern’ and of ‘progress’ questionable.

Geoff Hands (October 2014)


Maintaining integrity: Pippa Young and Helena Clews

Pippa Young at Coombe Gallery and Helena Clews at Brown Hill Arts, Dartmouth

Clews 2013_01_04
Helena Clews – ‘Pitch’ (2012) Oil on linen. (c) Helena Clews
comfortably swaddled copy
Pippa Young – ‘Comfortably Swaddled’ (c) Pippa Young

A visit to Dartmouth in Devon (south-west England), however brief, will inevitably draw visitors interested in painting to some of the significant number of small art galleries that are a feature of the town. Many of the galleries are typical of those found at other English holiday resorts where the subject matter of the majority of the images that fill the gallery walls belongs to the Marine genre. Inevitably, the standards on display will range from one end of the quality spectrum to the other. Much of the work can be easily dismissed and contemporary works that might be found in more cosmopolitan centres, such as Cork Street in London, are rarely found.

However, two galleries that we came across exhibited works that maintained an impressive personal artistic integrity, rather than slavishly following a formula to produce mediocre, but saleable, images for the marketplace. Coombe Gallery included a number of portrait works by Pippa Young. She is a highly skilful painter who creates portraits that are intriguing in terms of possible meanings, or readings, and appear to reference Italian and Dutch portraiture (the great Venetian Giovanni Bellini most especially sprang to mind). The visual language of her practice is confident and communicates a narrative that is not slavish to realism but creates a great possibility for what might be termed a ‘magical conversation’ (an implied reference to the sacra conversazione of the Quattrocento). This discussion of meaning for the viewer will prompt thoughts and discussions about the identity of these singular characters, situated in anonymous spaces that reveal little or nothing about context, but are augmented by gestures and artefacts (for example, a sheep’s skull or piece of red cord) to imply a possible psychological, or subjective, interpretation. As a counter-point to the near photo-realism of these portraits, Young’s figures typically have blank areas of canvas where there might otherwise be hair or a headpiece. Also, fabrics rendered as flat are juxtaposed with the traditional perspectival language of realism.

At Brown Hill Arts, Helena Clews exhibited abstract works that revealed her interest in exploring “…the possibilities of painting in the liminal space between abstraction and representation”; and alluding, “to something that is difficult to define or identify clearly as a particular thing in the world, whilst at the same time being recognisable aesthetically as an ‘abstract’ painting.” Interestingly, this is Clews’ own gallery project and she maintains her practice of abstraction (albeit from the world around her) in a market that is not necessarily favourable to non-figurative art. For this stance, she is to be congratulated. At this early stage of her career the dangers of succumbing to more commercial demands on style and subject matter can be difficult to resist, especially in the environment of the holiday resort where the pseudo-Marine subject matter will dominate what is on offer. We were particularly impressed with Clews’ fluid painting style and a self-assured use of colour, economically employed as gestural marks with allusions to objects, space and atmospheres.

In both artists’ work there is an interest in visual language and visual communication at a sophisticated level. This is a factor they share in common with other contemporary artists, who can choose to reference the past, question matters of language and meaning, yet strive to construct their own voice and originality as painters.

Geoff Hands





Writing: Introduction




Alongside my painting practice, I have regularly kept notebooks in the studio. Some time after completion of the MA programme in Creative Writing at Sussex University I decided to write about art exhibitions. The initial impetus was to use the writing experience to clarify and develop my own thoughts about the creative process.

A more public opportunity to communicate these responses to looking at art (especially painting) was offered to me by Stefano Pirovano at Conceptual Fine Arts (CFA) in 2014.

Ruminations: Exhibition Reviews will essentially be posting responses to a wide range of exhibitions. Additional material from my personal writing will also appear from time to time.

Some reviews for Abcrit appear here, but most will remain exclusive to that website. For this opportunity, I thank Robin Greenwood.

Reviews for CFA remain exclusive to the CFA website.

Instantloveland, instigated by John Bunker and Matthew Dennis (May 2018), will also feature my writing; as will Saturation Point with thanks to Patrick Morrissey and Hanz Hancock.