“STRANGE ATTRACTORS” – Paintings by EC

AbCrit.org gallery, London

5 June to 3 July 2022

abcrit.org gallery

“This work does not conduct itself with grand gestures. The best of these paintings make themselves felt intuitively and structurally by measures quite human. They progress carefully, in challenging jumps and starts. They are full of free and varied thought, without self-importance, working towards new and distinct states of abstract reality.” (Robin Greenwood, AbCrit website)

After seven previous shows this is the first exhibition in the newly extended abcrit.org gallery in Bell Yard Mews near the White Cube gallery, showing paintings by EC. There are 24 works on display ranging in size from 30x20cm to 122x92cm, with various permutations in between. Five are square and others portrait or landscape format. For such a range of disparity in dimension this collection literally hangs together in unison. There is a sense of the ‘series’ about the selection, yet every work has an independent status and can be viewed as a discrete piece.

The various titles are intriguing too. They read like a list of poems. For example:“Your Exquisite Manners (Frankly)”; “Unforbidden Pleasure Seeker”; “It Takes Patience to Make a Disaster”; “Yellow Swing Yellow Swing”; and “All Trajectories are Unstable”. Although “PUNK JAZZ”, the only work titled in capital letters, pays homage to a Weather Report track from ‘Mr Gone’ (1978) in which, at the start of the composition, Jaco Pastorius launches his bass guitar expertly into an unforgettable percussive jazz fusion frenzy that is, nonetheless, totally controlled. Rather like EC’s works.

EC – ‘Strange Attractors’ (90x75cm) 2014-22

These mixed media collages, that we can call paintings, are typically busy, boldly delivering overlapping patchworks of fragmented physical elements, purposefully destroyed then re-worked, but never distraught. Painterly fragments (as if) from the studio floor or bin, or from managed intentions to destroy previously made compositions, are sensuously positioned over the surface of supporting canvases. There is a visceral sense of chaos controlled, or rather, accommodated as the natural order of things prevails. Asymmetric balances and compositional nous bring these paintings into the current period of abstraction as a breath of fresh air. For this is serious stuff. Not content with employing pretty colours, punchy but vacuous vistas or harmonious and undemanding safe passages of expressive playfulness arranged for decorating an interior space, EC’s project engages with hard-earned visuality and an inherent depth of thought. The works truly engage and demand attention so honestly that you can detect joy and frustration combined. EC is one of those artists who are not distracted by the whims of fashion, socio-political issues, political correctness or commercial endeavour. This makes her work all the more engaging, as it constitutes a somewhat precarious road to travel upon that does not seek a ready-formed market position for safety.

EC – ‘Bias Interruptor’ 2022 (122x92cm)

Is EC’s project Dada-esque in spirit? Not so much anti-art (which Dada never was, of course) but anti-comfort: deploying the punk impulse to rock the boat (before it was integrated into the mainstream) when challenges are required to wake us from our stupor. From a first impression the viewer might wonder if this is a chaotic mess – though even chaos has a hidden pattern and logic. After all, why not explore and present ‘mess’? Chaos eventually controlled or simply halted at a stage of completion that is subjectively felt, has lead to these captivating and provocative works in “Strange Attractors”. Yet in a painting such as ‘Bias Interruptor’, or ‘Sanity Project (Radical Will)’, by giving some time for the paint smears and splatters seemingly applied by chance some careful looking, the open distribution in the former or the painterly concentration in the latter, actually read as carefully placed and subtly balanced compositions that reveal an expert eye and an adeptness for composure. There’s the punk irony, which hooks the viewer with clattering surprise but cares passionately after all.

EC – ‘Yellow Swing Yellow Swing’ (31x25cm) 2018-22
and ‘Swelter’ (40x30cm) 2019-21

Notably, the colour black appears in all of these works, holding things together akin to the lead scaffolding in stained glass windows. A disparate framework unevenly dispensed at times gives structure to hold the roving eye. Amalgamated into and alongside relief patchworks, dynamic structures, colour-as-paint (and vice-versa), these seemingly accidental and fortuitous juxtapositions make for engaging visual judgements that are anything but flaccid or disorganised. In the previously mentioned ‘Sanity Project (‘Radical Will’)’, a fragment of black (ink) text appears unexpectedly. Maybe it is an oblique clue of sorts. The title page from an edition of ‘Styles of Radical Will’, a collection of essays by Susan Sontag has possibly been torn up, discarded and disclaimed. I want to doubt it somehow (show some respect!): but here it is, peeping through the collaged detritus close to the centre of the composition as a potential manifesto statement.

EC – ‘Sanity Project (Radical Will)’ detail

In Sontag’s essay, ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’ she writes:

“… art comes to be considered something to be overthrown. A new element enters the individual artwork and becomes constitutive of it: the appeal (tacit or overt) for its own abolition – and, ultimately, for the abolition of art itself.”

The text and the concept have taken visual arts aside far too much and must be subsumed within the work itself, not held part in judgement. I wonder if EC’s mission is to toy with this radical notion that favours a changing resolution of “the human situation” (Sontag) as a form or manifestation of “spirituality” (Sontag, again) as an ironically playful project in itself, creating (or finding) some sort of order in chaos. Do these works employ the abstract absurdity of consciousness and self; notions of reality and worth vis-à-vis the creative impulse – and the concrete materiality that is abstract art? It all adds up to everything and nothing. But it’s something most refreshing and attractive.

EC – ‘Unforbidden Pleasure Seeker’ (30x30cm) 2019-21

Notes:

abcrit.org – Block K, 13 Bell Yard Mews, 175 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UW

Visit by prior appointment. Text your name and requested date and time to 07866 583629, for return. The entrance to Bell Yard Mews is opposite White Cube.

Links:

Instagram: @ec_ismyname and @abcritgallery

Susan Sontag – Styles of Radical Will

http://www.susansontag.com/SusanSontag/books/stylesOfRadicalWillExerpt.shtml

MICHELLE COBBIN: ‘I’d Be Enlightened Now If It Wasn’t For You’

Window Gallery, Phoenix Art Space

2 to 24 April 2022

Phoenix Art Space, Brighton

The Window Gallery at Phoenix Art Space in Brighton offers studio members an exhibition opportunity close to home and the latest show celebrates the abstract paintings of Michelle Cobbin. After an email exchange of questions and answers in anticipation of the exhibition I had the pleasure of helping her to hang the show and so literally saw the work very close up. I mention this, as a viewer would normally step back to view the larger works. But despite the apparent visual simplicity of many of her canvases the colourfield experience really does pull the viewer up to the surface and into an atmospheric, non-objective, realm. The weave of the canvas, however, reminded me that I was not floating in some sort of meditative dreamland but was experiencing concrete reality.

Michelle Cobbin – ‘Atmosphere’ acrylic on canvas (130 x 130cm)

I have often thought that abstraction in painting without overt reference to a particular narrative, scenario or specific space lends itself to a notion of timelessness, or of historical time collapsed into simply the experience of looking at and experiencing a work of art – something one might unashamedly describe as the aesthetic experience. This notion of the material here and now counterpoised by a more expanded sense of place is philosophically, as well as artistically, intriguing. Such an experience is not exclusive to abstract painting of course, as might paradoxically be seen in still-life painting (I am thinking of works by Giorgio Morandi and Peter Dreher) that both acknowledges a social reality and a particular time and place yet exudes a sense of ongoing visual engagement irrespective of the date on the back of the canvas. A kind of meta-reality embedded in paint and its various qualities.

Michelle Cobbin – ‘Atmosphere’ (detail)

In Cobbin’s oeuvre you will find that the landscape is implicit but not essential to identify and in this selection of six works the viewer will travel across the colour spectrum and from dark to light. The titles are generally broad and non-specific, although ‘Bridge’ and ‘In The Top Field’ keep our feet on the ground alongside ‘Atmosphere’, ‘Lament’, ‘Phosphorescence’ and ‘Hidden’.

To start the discussion with Michelle Cobbin I borrowed John Bunker’s first question for Peter Lamb from the new series of ‘Abstraction in the Now’ interviews from Instantloveland“Can you remember the first abstract painting to make a real impression on you?” is a brilliantly simple gambit to open up a deeper conversation that delves into the past to relate to the present, and implicitly the future, in one’s practice.

Michelle Cobbin – ‘Hidden’

Interview with Michelle Cobbin (February/March) 2022

Geoff Hands – Can you remember the first abstract painting to make a real impression on you?

Michelle Cobbin – The first would be Tibetan Mandalas and Thankas that I saw whilst travelling in Nepal in the early 1990s.  If you want a western fine art example it would be the Rothko room of Seagram murals at what we now call Tate Britain in the mid 1990s. I was struck by how much presence they had, how they made me feel melancholic and introspective.

GH – That’s interesting. I recall looking at reproductions of Mandalas in my studio on my degree course (late ‘70s) and being dissuaded by my tutor from doing so as I could not possibly relate to them. He would have been okay with Rothko of course. Your paintings invite a long slow look. A meditative state may not be necessary but I assume that you would like the viewer to take time to contemplate the imagery.

MC – I am interested in how people respond to colour and abstract imagery – I’m interested in how it makes them feel. So this could be an instant instinctual response. But yes, with contemplation the viewer may drop into their body and feel their response more fully. 

Aside from contemplating an image in a meditative way I’m also interested in how abstract imagery and colour has been used to divine insight. For example Rorschach’s Inkblot tests, the Lüscher Colour Test and the Aura Soma system. 

I title my paintings which may lead the viewer to see them in a particular way, but people read images based on their own experiences, likes and dislikes, which goes back to sensory responses again.

GH – You have made and continue to develop several series of paintings, which is a fairly common way of grouping paintings for artists today. Your website is well illustrated with examples from these various series where a viewer can see ‘Transitions’, ‘Gaia’ and ‘Terra Verde’ which relate to landscape experiences, or ‘The Breath’, ‘Semblance’ and ‘Sumptuous Contentment’ which are more specifically yoga and meditation related. I am particularly fascinated, but for different reasons, by the ‘Inscape’ series that summons up memories from East Anglia, with a minimalist Zen Haiku guiding principle, and ‘Kenshō’ which is more programmatically ‘abstract’, with a clear reference to Zen calligraphy. The sense of family history and landscape related impressions from childhood in the former and a more formalist expression of abstract mark making in the latter gives rise to quite stark imagery.

But I wonder if the notion that, if I can reference Neil Young, these “are all one song”, by which I mean that the series titles and subjects might fall away to reveal a process of expression and communication that ties everything together as a record of one voice – in your case a visual and intuitive, feeling sensibility that manifests itself as abstract painting?

MC – Yes, of course my work is ‘all one song’ in some respects. I am interested in keeping things simple both in how the work looks and in making things clear. I know that abstract painting can be difficult to relate to and I think by working in series and titling paintings it goes some way to bridging that difficulty. 

Working in series also gives me boundaries to work within – that might be a particular palette, mood, or conceptual idea. It helps me to focus, but no I’m not suddenly going to start painting people or objects as that would deviate from the message or ‘song’ that I want to convey.  

As you mentioned, I grew up in East Anglia, near the Fens. The ‘Inscape’ series was my internalised and perhaps nostalgic impression of that landscape. It was the first series where I began using a horizon line in my work. I was hesitant about this – blocky colours with a straight-ish line, I was concerned it would scream “Rothko!” Of course his work has been hugely influential upon me. I included lots of little scribbles in the ‘Inscape’ series to begin with, to make the paintings less ‘empty’. It took me a while to have the confidence and to find my way into accepting I’m influenced by but not deriving my work from anyone else.

My forthcoming show, ‘I’d Be Enlightened Now If It Wasn’t For You’, at the Window Gallery, Phoenix Art Space is, if we keep with your musical reference, going to be a Greatest Hits show. I will be selecting works from various series. The criteria will be size. It is such a great window – literally – into Phoenix, and out into Brighton. Personally, I want to use this opportunity to survey how my large canvases sit together and show how, to quote Bob Dylan, I “keep on keeping on…”

GH – I expect that such a selection would work well in a linear type space that necessitates hanging most of the works in a straight line. Not necessarily in a chronological sense but in taking the viewer on a short but visually loaded journey from period to period.

The experiential link to a particular landscape is, to some degree, an historically “English’ trait too. Perhaps, for many painters and viewers the landscape is a way into abstraction?

MC – Yes the show could be a short visual journey. That could be an inward journey provoking an emotional response. I like the idea of colour bathing: standing close to large swathes of colour and noticing what you feel. The arts are a gateway to our emotional life and a way of connecting to other humans. In my case, I do this through paint. I hope viewers are drawn in, intrigued, and perhaps, as you say, the landscape nature of some of the paintings might be a way into abstraction. 

I think that being linked to a landscape experientially is universal. I took a course with psychologist Sharon Blackie on finding and creating myths in one’s contemporary and ancestral landscapes. It has certainly helped me to relate differently to the little bit of downland near to where I live as well as to draw comparisons with the chalk land of East Anglia where I have traced my roots as far back as 1600. None of my ancestors moved outside of a 30-mile radius. This research will underpin my next series of paintings.

GH – Thank you Michelle, there is clearly so much more to contemplate from your broad body of work and I look forward to seeing and experiencing your mini-retrospective at the Phoenix in April, and, at some future date, the following series.

Michelle Cobbin – ‘In the Top Field’ exhibition installation shot (early evening)

Michele Cobbin – ‘Phosphorescence’ in the Canvas Coffee Co. bar at Phoenix Art Space

Links:

Michelle Cobbin – https://www.michellecobbin.art/about-my-work

Instantloveland – https://instantloveland.com/wp/2022/02/10/4891/

Phoenix Art Space –

Peter Dreher – https://fineartruminations.com/2017/04/14/ce-nest-pas-un-verre/

Sharon Blackie – https://sharonblackie.net