#61. Harry Hay writes on Brancaster Chronicles at the Heritage Gallery, Greenwich

Brancaster discussion in progress, 10th April 2017. Photo John Pollard. Film of the discussions will be made available to view on the Brancaster Chronicles website (Branchron.com) shortly.

Brancaster Chronicles at Greenwich, at the Heritage Gallery is open 11, 12, 13 and 18, 19, 20 April 2017, 10am-6pm. https://branchron.com/news/

I paid my first visit to Maritime Greenwich in 2010. I was in my first year of art school, aspiring towards figuration and rather disinclined to pay much attention to abstract art at all. Turner was my favourite artist, and so I was rather drawn towards seeing some of the world he depicted. The uniform that Nelson died in after his wounding at Trafalgar is particularly resonant in my mind. It is hard to reflect, almost impossible in some ways, on how we get to where we are. How many moments are there along the way that lead us to change course so drastically, for we hardly seem to notice it as it happens. Some may say that the divide between Turner and abstract art is not such a huge leap. Well it certainly feels so in reflection. If we fast forward seven years, my reason for returning to Greenwich couldn’t really feel more disparate.

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#60. Tim Scott writes on Recognition and Abstract Sculpture

Julio Gonzalez, “Dancer Posing as a Daisy”, 1937

Happily, there has been a marked increase in Abcrit commentary on sculpture, largely due to Alan’s review of Gili’s exhibition and the responses to it; thank you Alan. Quite a few of the comments are of a general nature, as well as those on Gili’s individual works which, mostly, engendered the general ones. Amongst these, I noticed a recurring theme, that of what exactly creates the differences (of intention and perception) between work which is deemed ‘abstract’, and that which is ‘figurative’, but with abstract ‘qualities’, or abstract with ‘figurative’ qualities? In other words, at what point does a sculpture, which departs from the norms of the representation of appearances, become abstract? Does the recognition of the ‘likeness’ of forms in a sculpture to forms in the known visual world disqualify it from ‘abstraction’?

If we take, for example, a sculpture (an early one) by Caro and we see various elements which we ‘recognise’ as being industrially manufactured elements; imitating industrial usage; but not being ‘used functionally’; but even that functionality can be said to exist in its holding up, joining etc.; does that recognition mean that the result is not truly abstract, i.e. not describing visually anything associated with the real world? Similarly, if we take, for example, a Gonzalez, the source of which clearly testifies to a beginning in figuration, but which manifests qualities of pure plastic invention in the handling and forming of the material, does that change the result to ‘abstraction’? In other words, there is a conundrum visually and as a consequence, perceptually, between the one sculpture, ‘figurative’ (recognisable elements), but reading as ‘abstraction’; and the other ‘abstract’, but reading as based on real recognisable elements.

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#59. Emyr Williams writes on Alan Gouk Recent Paintings at HSoA

“Mandalaysian Orchid”, 2016, 66″x100″, acrylic on canvas

Alan Gouk: New Abstract Colour Paintings  28 March – 12 May 2017, Hampstead School of Art, Penrose Gardens, London NW3 7BP www.hampstead-school-of-art.org

Elephints a-pilin’ teak

In the sludgy, squdgy creek,

Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!

On the road to Mandalay…

Rudyard Kipling: A Road to Mandalay (from his Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses, 1892)

Alan Gouk last exhibited at Hampstead School of Art in 2014: a series of gouache and acrylic on paper paintings marked by an overt fluidity of handling. Soups of primary and secondary colours were brushed, pushed and dragged into some of Gouk’s signature configurations: vertical gestures often animated with curves and leaning diagonals, set against supportive or disruptive horizontals. Working with this sort of liquidity and with this palette forces a painter to deal with brown; primaries end up there when all mixed – sometimes fatally, other times splendidly. This is the risk run and painting in this way is akin to driving on a cliff road – add speed into the equation and it can be quite a ride.

Hampstead School of Art has since moved into a stylish new bespoke building designed by architects Allies and Morrison and celebrates its 70th year. The modest café space providing the gallery walls. As a patron of this establishment, Gouk has reciprocated by moving his painting on too. After the recce of those gouaches, we can see the evidence of a more flowing “in the moment” attack. There were a couple of smaller works on show, but the main protagonists were five large, quite sumptuous paintings in newly adopted acrylics instead of the usual oil paint. Gouk coyly suggested the economy of acrylic was a deciding factor. (Having just purchased a post-Brexit order of acrylics at pre-Brexit prices before they go up 15% this month and finding myself eyeing up more and more lonely post offices in secluded locations, I am not entirely persuaded by that reasoning.) Acrylic flows over larger areas and there are a lot more surface variations that can be employed when compared to oil, especially with the addition of an ever-bewildering variety of facture-determining mediums.

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#58. Geoff Hands writes on “Testing <1<2<1<2," at ASC Studios, London

How Many Abstract Paintings Do We Need To See In The World, Really?

Testing <1<2<1<2 is open by appointment until Friday 31st March 2017 and then open to the public Sat and Sun 1st 2nd April 2017, 2-5pm

The argument over Abstraction in art (especially painting) still drags on. In Elephant magazine, issue 29 (Winter 2016/17), the prestigious American painter Kerry James Marshall makes some interesting, if debateable, comments on “Abstract picture making” as little more than an “academic mode”. He claims that: “The fundamental principle of art making is representation… There are quite enough problems to solve to keep you going for sometime. If you never succeed there, and you go to abstraction because it seems easier, you miss the philosophical and aesthetic questions involved. Besides, how many more abstract pictures do we need to see in the world, really?

Though tempting, it would be too easy, and crass, to say that there are also too many figurative paintings in the world. There are probably far too many bad paintings of any classification. But there can never be enough good ones – which is partly what drives an artist on, if that’s not too romantic a notion.

A strangely contrasting point-of-view was made more recently on the (highly recommended) Two Coats of Paint blog. Sharon Butler, reviewing ‘A New subjectivity: Figurative Painting after 2000’ at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery, makes the fascinating observation that, “In adopting imagery without direct reference to the objects that underlie them, the artists seem to be noting – indeed, demonstrating – the disconnected manner in which life is now lived. Fragmentation and detachment – a kind of existential abstraction – are the norm.”

Whether appropriated by some contemporary figurative painters or aligned with some sort of new figuration, where the painters “find everything to be a matter of images” (to quote Barry Schwabsky from the online catalogue for “A New Subjectivity’), Abstraction clearly and demonstratively engages with the problems of painting (and collage and sculpture) despite the surprising conservatism of Kerry James Marshall. Indeed, Schwabsky’s comment hits the proverbial nail on the head – for the result of Abstraction is always the image (2D or 3D) – which is, surely, the ‘thing’ we engage with in the gallery?

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#57. Robin Greenwood writes on the Disconnect of Meaning in Public Sculpture

Installation at the junction of Bermondsey Street and Tower Bridge Road, London SE1

The following is an extended version of a short talk given at the Royal College of Art on 23rd March 2017 on the occasion of the “What’s That Thing?” Awards, organised by @elliswoodman of the Architecture Foundation and @igortoronyi of the Spectator, with the winner announced by Stephen Bayley.

The Difference Between How a Thing Looks and What It Means.

I moved to Bermondsey Street, South London, about 22 years ago, when it was pretty much of a white working-class enclave and commercial area. These days it is a hipster hangout and restaurant destination, so it was a surprise when a couple of years ago this decidedly unhip installation appeared on a newly-laid bit of pavement at the junction of Bermondsey Street and Tower Bridge Road. Not being much of a fan of public sculpture, being as how it has such an appalling track record, I tried for a while to ignore it. I thought too that it would make a good candidate for Igor’s “What’s That Thing?” Awards; and it annoyed me. Why and what was this horrid thing at the end of my road, ruining the streetscape?

But it is in fact a war memorial, and you can’t say much against, or deny a place to, a war memorial, even if the execution is execrable – as in my opinion, this is.

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#56. David Sweet writes on “Undivided Attention: Getting around ‘aboutery’.”

Gillian Wearing, “Rock ‘n’ Roll 70 Wallpaper”.

This isn’t really a review of Art Rethought; the Social Practices of Art, by Nicholas Wolterstorff, a book by a philosopher about art, with no illustrations. To do that properly I would have to summarise its central arguments and insights, offering comments and analysis, pointing out its limits or achievements. I think I could write a review, because it isn’t that obscure, but I don’t want to. Yet I’ve read it, and did want to say something based on that reading, relating it to the problems of criticism in the area of abstraction that this site supports.

I want to start with a question the book does not raise; ‘Why make abstract paintings?’ This is a different question from, ‘Why make abstract paintings now?’ Pictorial abstraction is a genre with a long history and painters have had their reasons for choosing to work within its constraints. To justify this choice some have offered explanations as to what their work ‘means’, which varied from the theosophical, to the political, psychological, mythological, Kantian, etc. Abstract Expressionist paintings produced the heaviest concentration of meaning claims focussing on highly abstract concepts like the sublime or existentialism that seemed to fit with the ‘abstract’ pictorial structures and methodologies they devised. Then Frank Stella came along. He more or less said his painting didn’t mean anything. So escaping from meaning appears to be Stella’s reason for making abstract paintings. This might have seemed understandable in the period when Abstract Expressionism had lost its lustre, but it might also be a good reason for making abstract paintings now.

The central exhibit of a new show at the National Portrait Gallery is by Gillian Wearing and called Rock ‘n’ Roll 70 Wallpaper. It consists of a set of large photographs arranged in a grid containing images of the artist, who is in her fifties, digitally manipulated to depict her in various stages of ageing. No doubting what it ‘means’. Of course it’s about ‘exploring issues which affect us all…around ageing, memento mori, the transience of life,’ and ‘themes around gender, masquerade, performance and the idea of the self.’ But what if these sociological ‘meanings’ were deleted? With the images gone something that looked like a high modernist painting would remain, a large multi coloured grid, in which a certain amount of chromatic interplay was happening. We would still age, life would still be transient; we would still ponder the idea of the self. We knew about all that before we got to the gallery. What would be missing is the ‘aboutery’.

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#55. Robin Greenwood writes on Victor Pasmore at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

Victor Pasmore, “Model for the Apollo Pavillion”, Peterlee, 1967

Victor Pasmore: Towards a New Reality is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 11 June 2017 (and previously shown at the Djangoly Gallery, Nottingham Lakeside Arts).

http://pallant.org.uk/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/main-galleries/victor-pasmore/victor-pasmore

In 1861, the 80m tall spire and tower of Chichester Cathedral calamitously collapsed under its own weight from a structural failure of the piers, depositing as it did 6,000 tons of rubble into the nave below (6,000 tons! The Eiffel Tower, well over three times the height, weighs in at only 7,300 tons. You get a lot more height for your heft with steel – but I digress). You would think, to read the account of Victor Pasmore’s controversial conversion in 1948/9 from lyrical landscapist and Euston Road “Objective Realist” to abstract painter, collager and relief-builder, that the scale of disaster for the reactionary English art establishment who had thus far supported him was equally cataclysmic. Pasmore, prior to his apostasy, seems to have been the apple of many a well-connected eye, leading a rather charmed existence: working alongside William Coldstream and Claude Rogers to set up the Euston Road School in 1937; being supported and patronised by the then director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark from 1935 up to 1948. Then, having gone abstract, gaining the support and encouragement of Ben Nicholson; showing regularly at the Redfern Gallery, through all phases of work, until taken up by Marlborough in 1960; and being appointed Master of Painting at King’s College, Durham/Newcastle , in 1954, where he taught alongside Lawrence Gowing. Throughout his life, he seems to have been well in with everyone that mattered.

In retrospect, the transition from figurative to abstract looks rather harmless and parochial. In this exemplary show at Pallant House Gallery, excellently and unobtrusively curated by Anne Goodchild of the Djangoly Gallery, Nottingham, Pasmore’s evolution is set out chronologically (I love chronology! How different from the Vanessa Bell show now at Dulwich, which destroys all semblance of developmental logic by its intrusive theming), from his first talented efforts as a gifted young painter, taking us coherently through all his wildly different phases, up until the late sixties and his excellent design for the Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee, 1967, which is where the show ends. After which, Pasmore retreated to his house in Malta for thirty or so years, producing the ubiquitous and rather repetitive biomorphic paintings and prints that you now see all over galleries and art fairs. He died in Malta in 1998, aged 90.

So, what to make of this man who is described by Anne Goodchild in her catalogue essay as possibly “the patron saint of the committed Sunday painter”? Not a very flattering description, to say the least, but I think I know what she means. The exhibition moves very fast between the phases of his work, and as I walked around I jotted down the most visible and, to me, obvious of his influences, as follows: Cézanne; Vuillard; Degas; Manet; Corot; Matthew Smith; Morandi; de Staël; Klee; Schwitters; Seurat; Bruegel; Turner; Whistler; Mondrian; Gottlieb; van Gogh; Rodchenko/Tatlin constructivism; Nicholson; Le Corbusier; Miro; Arp. Bonnard and Kandinsky are also cited, but I couldn’t see them.

I repeat, these are just the obvious ones that I could point to. I have never been to Pallant House Gallery before; I have never been to Chichester before; and I’ve never known an artist to have such a long list of clear and present influences. Was the man really such a dilettante?

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#54. John Bunker writes on “Painting & Structure” at the Kennington Residency, London

Sophia Starling, “Stack (Marble)”, marble dust and acrylic on linen. 190x170x15cm.

Painting & Structure was at the Kennington Residency, London from 9th to 24th February 2017

Have you watched Larry Poons on YouTube where he considers the luxurious drapery in a Velasquez and says ‘that’s what you want’? Did you hear the one about Kenneth Koch asking Willem de Kooning whether he had read Frank OHara’s poem called ‘Radio’ in which it is said…

Well, I have my beautiful de Kooning

to aspire to. I think it has an orange

bed in it.

Willem de Kooning is reported to have mentioned how he was interested in mattresses because they were pulled in at certain points and puffed out at others ‘like the earth’…

Or to put the histrionics on hold for the moment, let’s think about how our notions of ‘a future’ affect the present tense- or even ‘the past’. Maybe consider one of those old fashioned sci-fi stories where one exquisitely machined pill (a white and slightly over sized lozenge) takes the place of a hearty 3 course meal. All that messy business of yearning, gratification, ingestion and excretion done away with. Replace all that with a glass of water and a hard swallow followed by a swollen stomach and a tiny flurry of gas expelled on the march down those long dark corridors. The ones that connect the living quarters to the mines being dug under Mars’ new exploratory colony.

Hold those images in the mind for a moment… Close your eyes… Then open them again and find yourself at the Painting and Structure exhibition at the Kennington Residency on Kennington Lane in south London… This show brings together an interesting mix of painters who tend to ‘play’ with the tension between crafted excess and severe reduction. Excess can take different guises though. One might immediately think of impasto with gusto for instance. But what dominates here, is extremely fine tuned attention to details, to surfaces, to materials, to the history of the medium, to the throbbing gristle called culture in which it all stews… But what is finally distilled after all this excessive boiling down and fastidious reduction? Well, that is the question.

Whether it be an orange mattress or a white pill or a Pope’s skirt there are so many structures on which the painter can hang an idea, a starting point, a way in to something new. But I think it is the art historical notion of ‘the grid’ as ‘structure’ that is the ghost at the dinner party to a greater or lesser degree in the work of nearly all of the artists gathered here in Kennington.

Donald Judd was obsessed with ridding art of its connection to its decadent Old World European past. The Minimalists turned on the old concept of what happens in one part of the painting directly effecting what happens in another part and replaced it with the pragmatism of the grid. Marks, actions or colours are quietly and equally placed across the surface of the painting, er, or should I say ‘object’? This New World Puritanism was soon to be undermined though. Since the late 70s various artists have taken their turn to humiliate and ridicule the grid. Judd’s and many other’s minimalist works were referenced in the shelving units, vitrines and display cabinets (think Koons’ basketballs, Hirst’s ‘specimens’, Bickerton’s logo clad wall boxes) in the art of the 90s. In terms of abstract painting Peter Halley has suggested since the 80s that his work is based on a ‘strong mis-reading’ of Minimalism. Mark Bradford has said that he is attempting to inject subject matter back into Minimalism.

 So from this historical perspective the grid never went away so much as periodically being on the receiving end of a good kicking like every piece of well-worn visual rhetoric should. But it is the unstable correlation between this stoic, if macho, rationality of the grid and the skewing by ‘painterly’ or sculptural means going on in this show that creates interesting historical tensions and connections. But are these works strong enough visual experiences in their own right to go beyond their anchorage in the shifting sands of art history?

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#53. Matthew Dennis writes on Ian McKeever and “Faith and Doubt” in Painting

Ian McKeever, ‘Portrait of a Woman 5’, 2015, oil and acrylic on linen

Ian McKeever, ‘Portrait of a Woman 5’, 2015, oil and acrylic on linen

Faith and Doubt in Painting; or, Confessions of a (lapsed) McKeever Believer

Ian McKeever’s show of paintings at Galeri Susanne Ottesen, ‘Portrait of a Woman’, which I managed to catch during a recent 24-hour stopover in Copenhagen, gave me a great deal to think about. None of it, sadly, to do with finding all that much to celebrate in the works themselves – more about them in a moment – but rather, with the realisation that my views on abstract painting in general, and McKeever’s paintings in particular, have undergone a radical transformation in the last couple of years; to the point where I’m left feeling a little embarrassed at having spent so much time allowing myself to be carried along by the approving critical consensus, and overlooking what I now consider to be fundamental problems with the work. I wanted to like the new paintings, I really did; however, since any honest assessment I could make of them would be little better than a hatchet job (fun to write, but, I suspect, a lot less fun to read) I have opted to go further, and use McKeever’s work as a hook on which to hang various thoughts I’ve been having, about both abstraction, and abstractcritical/Abcrit.

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#52. Geoff Hands writes on Ian McKeever: “Against Architecture” at Matt’s Gallery

Ian McKeever, "Against Architecture" installation, Matt's Gallery, London

Ian McKeever, “Against Architecture” installation, Matt’s Gallery, London

Ian McKeever: “Against Architecture is at Matt’s Gallery until 19th March 2017.

https://www.mattsgallery.org/artists/mckeever/exhibition-3.php

During the summer of 2016 I visited Ian McKeever’s studio in Dorset. Already an admirer of his work for some 30 years or so, access to the studio to see works as yet unfinished or not exhibited before was much appreciated. This included work from his ‘Portrait of a Woman’ series, which was about to be sent to Galleri Susanne Ottesen in Copenhagen. It was intriguing to see that these apparently abstract paintings were linked, conceptually, to Italian portraiture from the 15th century. Hopefully, at some point in the future, this most recent series of paintings will be seen in the UK (although two were exhibited at the RA last summer).

Upon leaving the studio, some small works that seemed familiar from a catalogue in my collection, were propped against a wall and on a shelf; as nothing more than an impression, they suggested possibilities for sculpture, but I thought no more about it. These included some of the photo/painting panels, first exhibited in Copenhagen in 2014, which re-appear in Against Architecture at Matt’s Gallery.

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