Some time ago I was invited by Myles Corley, the gallery director of Linden Hall Studio in Deal, Kent, to curate an exhibition of new abstract painting, chosen from my own personal point of view. I thought it was a good chance to consider what did or did not qualify as “abstract”, and to examine the activities of painters whom I thought were moving forwards in original ways. It was intended to publish the short essay that follows as part of a catalogue for the show, along with reproductions of paintings by the ten chosen artists, all to coincide with the opening of the exhibition on 4th April 2020. Instead, due to the impact of the coronavirus outbreak, I’m publishing the essay and the ten reproductions here on Abcrit.
This essay was written before I had seen much of the work, and was not intended as an analysis of any of the content in the paintings to be hung. More than anything, it was aimed to demonstrate my own enthusiasms for differences and divergences ongoing in original abstract painting. I was genuinely excited by the prospect of seeing some of these very different works together for the first time. The exhibition will hopefully still take place before too long. In the meantime, perhaps we can begin here to discuss the differences, achievements and ambitions of this work, with an example from each of the artists. There will be thirty or so paintings that will get hung eventually in the actual exhibition, but for the time being, we are reproducing here one work each from the ten artists: Noela James Bewry; John Bunker; EC; myself; Harry Hay; Patrick Jones; Dean Piacentini; John Pollard; Hilde Skilton; and Stephen Walker.
I’m hoping the artists themselves are fit and well, and (in their current self-isolation) will contribute to a discussion of their work on-line, along with anyone else who might find it makes for an interesting dialogue. Reproductions are never as good as the real thing, but it’s a start.
With thanks to all the artists for their enthusiasm in putting together this show; and I look forward to the real thing in Deal, when it happens.
4th April 2020
Making Painting Abstract
Complexities and Clarifications
This short essay highlights differences between paintings that are thought of as “abstractions”, which have derived wholly or partially from existing structures and subject-matter; and the works in this exhibition, which, because of new approaches to the content of painting, may be called, more freely and simply, “abstract”. There are in these paintings active changes still in progress, and it is not always straight-forward to say whether what is new is therefore better. Nor is it easy to distinguish how these new properties differ clearly from “non-figurative” paintings from the last hundred years. Nevertheless, work viewed in the light of this new content can be experienced without reference to interpretations of external images, and be seen to operate with clarity within the complicated capacities of the work itself.
The common uses of those two similar words, “abstract” and “abstraction”, are a complexification. Both can be employed in different ways; but, in the context of painting and sculpture from the recent past, “abstraction” is the commonly used term seen as a characterisation of “simplification”. Such ways of working, especially in the organisation of paintings derived from two-dimensional geometries or compositions indicated by colour variations, have become over-familiar. The development of new abstract painting that is distinctly not related to the past artistic activities of abstracting “from something else” or “from nature” has introduced new excitement in painting. This work is invented wholly from scratch, and in most of the cases shown here, “abstract” often signifies the introduction of more complexity and a degree of original creative movement.
Making abstract painting involves a consideration of what is, in essence, “otherness”. The abstract experience of making and looking at abstract painting is not, after all, derived from anything that is predetermined. What is more, the abstract content of an abstract painting is not able to be replicated. Making abstract paintings that are therefore singularly different from both “figuration” and “abstraction” is a seriously ambitious undertaking, and means keeping engaged in an activity of correspondence that unites the twin endeavours of “thinking” and “making”. This is a tenet of new abstract painting. There is a need to continue thinking inventively about new content whilst concurrently looking at what is happening to that content on the painting’s surface – its visual dimensionality and our ability to perceive it in new operational activities. Our perception of new kinds of “substances” in painting is the discovery of our own new awarenesses, which will be the rewards of looking at this work.
There is a distinction worth mentioning here between developments in new abstract painting and new abstract sculpture. The altogether different kind of real three-dimensionality implicit and explicit in abstract sculpture points to work that forces itself completely free from a depiction or rendition of a posed body or bodies, or indeed, still life or natural landscape. Sculpture has worked to distance itself quite noticeably from any of those previous approaches. Yet it nevertheless began its modern-day development of abstraction by continuing to embrace frontality and semi-figurative objecthood. Now, sculpture is released from restrictions arising from Western art – or indeed, Indian, Chinese, African, South American art, etc. The tangible and important change that makes the difference in sculpture is the dismissal of the limiting circumstances of frontality, which conditioned both figuration and early abstraction in sculpture; and then the arrival of full, complex three-dimensionality, a requirement that in sculpture is central to what has to be fully “abstract”.
New abstract painting, with its at-least-partial two-dimensionality, cannot make the same unambiguous breakaway. Painting cannot reinvent itself in the same dislocating manner that abstract sculpture has done; painting is always going to be some kind of flat-ish object. Despite which, new painting can make the abstract content of its existence work in new ways that are decidedly unfigurative, deeply un-designed, and as little connected as possible with the customs and traditions of even very recent “abstraction”. Nor does it have to be in competition with the best figurative painting of the past. Rather, it can, like new sculpture, find its own independent way. These new abstract “conditions” are yet to be fully developed because they are not yet fully “seen”, but they are the best excitements of painting now; real things, not pictures. Making abstract painting and sculpture, because of their abstract-ness, can be remarkably more human than ever, could we but see beyond the narratives of established approaches in art and the common self-expressionism that closes down the abstract possibilities. The oncoming complexity of new abstract painting, in a confounding comparison with much that has gone before, requires further input of its very own distinctly impersonal clarifications.