Outer space is right here, right now. It’s in front of us and in us, one and all – for there’s an inner space too. In terms of individual consciousness the two may as well be the same. When we think, we travel too, even if we remain physically still. When there is nowhere left to go, when we are trapped, marooned or sheltering from the storm we can rely on mental space. Still, but adrift in time, when memory kicks in to take us out of ourselves there is a palpable sense of space as an extension of self. Such are the conditions of splendid isolation, afforded most recently during the early months of the global pandemic.
Kiki Stickl clearly made the most of her own experiences of her family’s six months spent in countryside near Munich during the first lockdown in 2020 when she produced her ‘Breath in Breath out’ series of drawings, several of which appear in Drift. Here she encountered ideal conditions for creativity: time and space, duration and environment – and possibly sound as well – especially when the world is hushed. In fact, as I awoke on the morning after seeing Drift being installed at the Phoenix Art Space a couple of days before the opening I was semiconsciously thinking of Stickl’s drawings as visual soundworks. Not necessarily apropos Cage’s 4’ 33”, but literally, and deafeningly, silent. Stickl’s drawings suggest small arenas of silent sound consisting of visual counterpoints, full of emptiness inviting a form of meaningful mark making as an abstract response to recalling time and space. These are drawings made as an end result as they are not subservient to, or necessarily leading to painting as might traditionally be the case. Stickl conjures drawings from a meditation in the everyday physical realm of being that amount to sensory, environment-based studies. From a landscape environment to the literal sheet of paper that she works on, the drawings map out themselves. Sometimes she cuts the paper to reference, literally, a sense of layering as well as amalgamating marks on the paper surface as a form of recording what has been seen and remains to be seen: Cartesian, with Buddhist overtones.
Drift presents 19 works. One is a temporary wall drawing (employing paint); another is a painting (titled, ‘Lines of Disruption’); plus seventeen square format drawings on paper, simply but immaculately framed. The painting is placed in the adjoining coffee shop, but cannot be missed on the main show wall as a little taster of her painting practice. The wall-based work, ‘Drift’, at about two metres square, is the centrepiece in the long Window Gallery space. Composed as an essentially linear structure from two tones of grey paint on the white wall, with the addition of ground up glass beads applied to the lightest grey paint when it was still wet, the darker grey mass suggests a resting figure, perhaps in meditation pose. An ephemeral, time-based work such as this will disappear at the end of the exhibition later this month. This work, therefore, demands that we hold it in our memories, just as we may do from our personal experiences of places beyond the gallery.
The bulk of the show consists of the drawings that have been selected from a much larger body of works, the aforementioned ‘Breath in Breath out’ series. From drawing to drawing, as they are arranged in blocks and rows, there is great variety of imagery and mark making. Subtle use of colour is occasionally employed, although they still read as essentially monochrome iterations. In many, linear rhythms consisting of scribbles, dots and short or flowing lines are accumulated suggesting light and weather conditions. Forms are deconstructed to some extent, invoking that sense of recall that does not rest, preferring flux and instability as performative, shorthand approximations. Imagery that might be solid is no longer fixed as a conventional photograph might replicate for the viewer. The paper cut-out sections present voids and absences, shadow and light, useful contrasts and visual paradoxes. Implied shapes and lively line is reductive though essential as imaginative remnants of remembrance celebrated. These are motion pictures, mapping the psyche as much as the terrain.
Stickl is not so much taking a line for a walk (re: Paul Klee) as inventing and playing with accumulations, sometimes in counterpoint mode, un-egotistically presenting a notion of drift through time and space.
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.
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.
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.
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.