#128. Richard Ward writes about His Own Recent Paintings

All of these were done in the last couple of months and all in the same way – an old painting covered up with Payne´s grey, new paint applied/scraped with a palette knife, here and there disrupted with a brush.

Although none of them are intentionally one or the other, for me they range from obviously figurative to more or less abstract. For me again, the more spatial they are, the more figurative and the more figurative, the more spatial.

And the more spatial they are, the more engaging too – not because the figuration is in any way interesting (this is what I mean with “bland figuration”) but because the viewer´s projection of virtual space enables (or drags along) a simultaneous projection of subjective feeling, modulated by the surface shapes and colours. The more abstract, less spatial paintings tend to lack that element of “recognition”, not of figures but of some kind of subjective truth. Or that´s my thinking at the moment.

I think that the “presence” of a painting (as discussed in a previous thread by Emyr) is also determined by its spatiality, this time in combination with a strong awareness of surface. The crude psychology that I imagine to lie behind this is that our survival demands a much stronger response to things that move towards us than to things that recede. If a painting allows a to-and-fro between virtual space and material surface then the approach of the surface registers more strongly than the recession into space, leaving us with a semi-conscious impression that the painting is somehow pressing into the space in front of its material self.
On a screen, paintings lose most of their surface and thereby nearly all of their presence.

Resolution in the surface pattern and coherence of the virtual space are both important goals for me. The difference between modernism and postmodernism has been described (David Harvey in “The Condition of Postmodernity”) as modernity´s belief-in plus struggle-to-attain wholeness, truth, maturity, integration etc. in the face of fragmentation and alienation, whereas postmodernity embraces that fragmentation and alienation. In this sense (and maybe in others too) these are old-fashioned paintings.

I absolutely appreciate the arguments against figuration – that it “hijacks” the painting with illustration and narrative, that it places non-visual constraints on the artistic process, that it can tend to confirm rather than question our perceptions. On the other hand, I imagine any “new way” of seeing must include but transcend old ways of seeing in the same way that the physics of relativity includes but transcends Newtonian physics.
As to constraints, that is not my experience at all. The figuration in all of these paintings is discovered rather than worked-towards. Most have been turned several times in the search for an interesting and convincing virtual space. Almost all of the conscious, deliberate, local decisions have been about colour and surface.

Finally, I find that many of the criteria for what is figurative and what is abstract somewhat dogmatic and arbitrary. Just one example: Atmospheric / oceanic space is widely accepted as abstract where to my mind it is about as figurative as it gets (the clue is in the name).
I tend to see abstract painting as a process rather than a result.

 

juni20b 80 x 70 cm

 

juni20c 80 x 70 cm

 

juni20g 40 x 40 cm

 

juni20i 90 x 70 cm

 

juni20n 90 x 70 cm

 

mai20a 80 x 70 cm

 

mai20a 80 x 70 cm

 

mai20h 60 x 60 cm

 

mai20p 120 x 100 cm

 

31 comments

  1. Hi Richard, I have reread your text and am wondering which paintings you think have more ‘figuration’ and are therefore more spacial, and which you feel are more abstract and therefore less so.
    There seem to be some very rich textural passages in these works, which I like, especially Mai20h with its red and grey/blue accents.
    I also enjoy the movement and interrupted light areas in Juni20b, there is a flow to this painting which travels to the edges and back.

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  2. Hi Noela, I hope that these are all at least somewhat spatial. The most obviously figurative ones are juni20n and the second mai20a (wrong name) , which is actually 120×100 cm.
    But juni20b, juni20c, juni20g and juni20i all look figurative to me.
    I think it‘s a two way thing: the figuration creates the space and the space creates the figuration.

    The first mai20a and mai20p both look quite abstract to me but only have that rather familiar shallow space with parallel planes and an atmospheric background through the gaps that keeps you firmly on the outside.

    The painting right at the top would also fall into this category but I think that the stained-glass-window-look can kind of transport you into a church-like space, so yes, more spatial but also more figurative.

    mai20h can have that same „screen on an atmospheric background“ look but is more interesting when the white becomes a tabletop. This reverses the light, which now comes from outside the painting, and creates a „grabbable“ (and figurative) still-life space.

    Incidentally, some of the jpegs are too small for what WordPress wants to do with them on a large screen. If you click on them, they shrink back to their proper size and lose that woolly look.

    Lisa, thank you for the encouraging words.

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    1. I think I am going to go for ‘immaterial abstract space’ that I mentioned in a post in Tim’s last essay, and try and see your paintings in that context.
      I find sometimes when think I can I see a still life the ‘space’ can seem to shrink rather than expand.
      I feel your more ‘abstract’ paintings can convey a ‘fluid spaciality’, (also something Tim mentioned), which is a concept that works for me to a greater extent.
      I probably respond to colour and light more than spaciality though.
      Hope to see them in the flesh one day.
      I have been rewatching some Brancaster films and really getting a lot out of them again.

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  3. Hi Richard,
    It is good to see your recent work! I really appreciate the careful attention to the application of paint and colour at its most fundamental: its texture, shape and how it relates to the neighbouring application. This is done with modesty and dedication. It means that you do not get involved with the ambition and rhetoric of ‘style’ in a grander and self-conscious sense. ‘Style’ can be exciting and exhilarating, as the world is remade, and the artist’s ‘power’ displayed. But it is also a trap as it flatters and becomes a prison. Contemporary painting is dominated by the prison of ‘style’- endless self-conscious manipulations of ‘style’-mannerism. I really like the way you resist that.
    One has to slightly imagine what these paintings look like in reality. As you say the texture is lost to a significant extent.
    Sometimes it reminds me of early Cézanne. It can seem that you are insisting on the most brutal aspect of painting, coupled with an emotionally wrought darkness. It can seem almost gratuitously harsh-difficult to find a way into, or through, the tough surface. Art can become a vehicle for a self-denial which goes beyond the discipline of avoiding cliché or complaisance- a kind of negation cloaked in rigour.
    You use the palette knife to mostly make short cutting marks, or to produce a texture that breaks any following colour produced. The brush arrives to smear the surface and dirty the colour. Payne’s Grey is harsh and tends to kill other colours. It is controlling and suffocating. These are not easy to look at. The second begins to have depth and even charm in the richer and warmer colours- but that pleasure is undermined by its overtly highly casual organisation. Light is rare- reason is not evidenced.
    It seems to me that the least involving and rewarding are the smaller square images. The taller rectangles have much stronger sense of scale and thus a presence which goes beyond texture. I wonder what has happened to the references to nature or still life that gave a deeper life to your previous work? This is close to a record of meeting an interior wall in which little can live or register. Abstraction without any of the usual rewards: the intimacy of memory behind, the play of style, the pleasure in the medium or colour, the certainty of intuited meaning, the clarity of ideas… what is left?

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    1. Many thanks Edward for your time and effort in writing this, and for your courage in posting it.

      These are just the kinds of intimate thoughts concerning “human content” that go beyond the usual technical discussions here and elsewhere (I’m as guilty as anyone) but which it seems to me are more interesting and very much closer to what it is that art is “for”.

      Without the kinds of interaction of which art is perhaps the most direct and specific, we are all trapped in our separate consciousnesses, cut off by the impossibility of private language and reduced in the material world to units of production and consumption or to instrumentalising predators on everything around us.
      Art is (among other things but, for me, most importantly) that „expansion of our imaginative visual universe in the real world „ evoked by Robin in his brilliant „High Abstract“ essay, though I would extend that to our subjectivity in its entirety.

      This reticence to get intimate and subjective about art is, I think, misplaced. Susanne Langer writes that through the activity of making art the artist „discovers new possibilities of feeling, strange moods, perhaps greater concentrations of passion than his own temperament could ever produce, or that his fortunes have yet called forth.“ In other words, one needn’t be a murderer either to write or to gainfully read Macbeth.
      Art is very human but less personal than we maybe fear.

      I‘ve had to fetch out all these paintings again after reading your comments. If they are as dark as you find them, then I would hope that their resolution makes them a coming-to-terms with darkness rather than a spreading of negativity. If they are the latter, then I probably ought to stop painting.

      It’s true that I‘ve been very concerned with surface for a while now. Depth comes easily but surface seems to me the most difficult part of painting. And surface, of course, is the material/body/death aspect of a painting compared to the immaterial/soul/life aspect contained in illusory/transcendent depth.

      I do hope I‘ve not been neglecting depth. For me these are all spatial, some of them intensely so, but you’re not the only one who finds my current paintings flat. This is weird and a bit scary – I don’t want to find my work in some kind of inaccessible rabbit-hole.
      I‘ll put up a link to the original jpegs on Monday in case it is WordPress that is muddying them.
      I don’t see these as substantially different to the still-life paintings (to be seen here: http://www.gartenbedarf-versand.de/painting2 ) but maybe they evoke a different set of feelings. The act of painting feels the same – it’s mostly about seeking a resolution to the problem set by the first few marks. I expect that starting off with a very dark canvas has quite a influence on what happens though.
      Maybe I should lay off the Payne‘s!

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  4. Dear Edward,Thank you for that terrific response.You don’t know how important it is for artists who are Abstract Painters to know there are others out there ,that not only get the message ,but are involved in the struggle.I got a similarly sensitive response on Loveland from someone I had never met before.My friend Barrie Cook just died aged 91 ,and carried on going to his studio as long as he was able,well into his 80s.The general climate is one of philistinism and it makes me wonder why we bother,despite the obvious enjoyment of stretching yourself thro the activity. .However the UK is remarkable in this regard,that there is a group involvement in defining Abstraction ,which would be impossible in New York when I lived there.Witness the Brancasters,Poussin gallery,APT,this site,and Robins Survey show at Linden Hall,next month.I personally see this discussion,argument,however fierce, and general debate as critical to our democracy surviving Brexit and this dreadful government,let alone the pandemic. .I just don’t see us all trying to do the same thing at all.I have an instinctive grasp of what Tim and the sculptors are driving at ,however I am still involved in the pictorial. Very Best Patrick Jones

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    1. Thanks Patrick. I absolutely agree that inquiring art is central to any civilized society. Abstract/abstracted art is the most interesting for the different challenges it poses- and the potential rewards in finding adequate responses. However I am very wary of trying to define anything- especially anything as elusive and unpredictable as art. That seems both doomed to failure and, through perhaps stimulating to discussion, probably counter-productive. Though the artists here have many qualities in common- notably the dedication to find and explore abstract values in art- they also do so in many different ways. I am very sympathetic to Richard’s awareness of the ways in which the non-representational still has a relation to the most fundamental experiences of space and objects in the world, and even other living things. Personally I am happy to explore these aspects quite overtly and less abstractly in many paintings- others have no relation to particular objects in the world that I am aware of and I would call them abstract. It is an interesting line to keep moving across.
      I have enjoyed looking at your work through this site.
      Edward

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  5. Hello Richard
    Whatever is going on here … abstract or figurative … please do NOT stop painting
    Keep your love of painting alive.

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    1. Hi Robin. To answer for myself: 1 The line is very unclear anyway- so one cannot help but wander over it. 2 I find that zone very interesting in itself – ‘abstraction’ [not ‘the abstract’] is intellectually compelling and expressive. 3 For these reasons I have no overriding aim to produce ‘pure’ abstraction- as I find it a dubious concept- and as the creative cost would be too high. So I am not worried about the mud- in fact I think I rather like it….
      But that does not mean that I believe the project of creating paintings which do not refer to things in the world in any way is pointless- I do it myself sometimes. I have seen many works on this site which excited and stimulated. I am sure that the project and the ambition stimulates innovation. But ideals can also become prisons, vocabularies frozen, and energy can turn in the void.
      It would seem odd to expect a composer to only write purely formal music, and never songs or pieces related to places or events. As artists we respond to many different stimuli from many different sources- why should what we produce not have any relation to these sources? I am a pluralist- the world is various and complex- these are values shown in many works here too. I think you would agree that art must find a balance between that complexity and the unity of a synthesis- a conclusion. An ideal can reduce these by imposing limits or narrowing thought- it can be a premature conclusion.
      I guess you would answer that you are just presently working towards that conclusion, and that is why muddying is not helpful. So- is it an ideal that you are acting on- or is it a project which is just proceeding with due diligence but uncertain of its result?
      If the second then is it a purely disinterested inquiry, or do you hope for a great reward at the end? If the second what do you anticipate and why? I know these are very difficult questions to answer- art is close to faith in many ways….
      I guess I am too much of a skeptic to make the necessary sacrifices of all the other things about art which interest me to focus only on the ‘abstract’. Perhaps it is my loss….
      All best, Edward

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      1. I’m neither a formalist nor a purist or idealist – but I’m very much into the business of the slow expansion of painting and sculpture into new areas. If abstract painting falls back too much and too often into looking like figuration, then it is likely to lose its ability to open up new spaces. That is my guess, and I’ve yet to see it disproven. Personally, I try to avoid figuration.

        I cannot see any figuration in Richard’s work here, and I like it on the whole. But if I have a criticism, it is their familiarity. Maybe that is a result if the combination of his directions, with the uses of similar known areas.

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  6. That is a nicely deflationary response. You might be right about the ‘falling back’, but there is also the imprisoning aspect of seeking to define. It is that which troubles me most. How do you define a ‘new area’? I preferred it when such labels were applied to art retrospectively. The best work has always exceeded any such simple definition. How many types of cubism were there- as many as cubists. I also deeply skeptical of the necessary value of the ‘new’ – whether space or not. Of course, if you don’t try you won’t know- but perhaps that is where the faith lies.
    I do think that ‘abstraction’- the intermediate zone -has much still to offer. Most of the best abstract work from the 20thC comes from artists who were prepared to travel across genre boundaries when they felt it necessary.

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    1. Like who, do you think?

      As you have agreed (?), most of the “abstract art” is “abstraction” of figuration. That leave us maybe with only the beginnings of what might be “real abstract” art, in a world of its own, made on its own terms…

      Maybe. But true or not, I still don’t see a reason to go backwards and forwards.

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      1. Well I think Pollock and de Kooning did some of the best abstracts, and then changed direction. Picasso got very close and then went purely figurative, Kandinsky did his best work immediately just after going abstract- then got mannered. Klee, Michaux, Wols ignored the distinction. The point is that abstract art is stimulated by its relation to the world- figuration etc. I am not sure there is forward/backward. Each artist makes their own progress and abstract art is good when it comes from that movement- not from an external program.
        I meant ‘abstraction’ as abstracting from experience- subjective or objective- not from figuration. This is a normal mental process for the creation of concepts- but now we also do it for the visual realm.

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  7. I think the problem is virtual space, which is a projection and relies on the kinds of figurative clues that allow us to perceive space in the real world (the various kinds of perspective, background/foreground, atmospheric murkiness etc. etc.). An “abstract clue” to a completely unknown kind of “space” wouldn´t stimulate or enable any spatial projection and so wouldn´t be a clue at all.

    To my mind there is no non-flat abstract painting that doesn´t make a compromise with figuration in order to make virtual space. It looks to me like abstract painting is in denial about this and relies therefore on academic tropes and categories that “count” as abstract. I´ve argued this before.

    Painting might discover new kinds of clue to our perception of space, but these too would have to be taken from our experience of the real world and therefore ultimately be figurative.
    Incoherent space doesn´t escape figuration either. It just creates a kind of narrative – breaking the painting up into separate flat or spatial “episodes” like a cartoon.

    As I see it, there´s a continuum, where the clues get more and more subtle (and the space less and less pronounced) as mimesis becomes abstraction. But why should there be more originality or more human content (depending on what you´re looking for) right at the end of the continuum? Why not somewhere in the vastly more extensive middle? Yes, the middle´s been done but then so has the extremity, and there´s a lot more middle than end.

    I agree absolutely that abstract painting could use some more specificity and complexity but just imagine an abstract painting with the spatial complexity and specificity of a Tintoretto – it may look like nothing on earth but it will have objects and spatial boundaries and areas of unbounded space corresponding to the figures and architecture and sky in the Tintoretto or it won´t be specific, or it won´t be space.

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    1. Why would it of necessity correspond to figures and architecture? Why wouldn’t it correspond to painting – like the Tintoretto? And why would the extremity not be capable of more expansion?

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      1. That’s probably where we differ.
        You think that the manner of painting alone can make space, whereas I think that it’s little (or big) hints or elements of figuration that do it.
        For me, our eyes see a real-world possibility ( however wacky) in the painted marks and this stimulates a spatial illusion.
        For you painted marks can create a spatial illusion directly, without any intermediary. ??

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      2. Painting alone…? Well, I think so, in the case of new abstract painting, more or less (note my lack of purity!). As in new abstract sculpture, where things look different too; a new world, perhaps. In fact, if you don’t get what is happening in sculpture, then maybe you don’t see real “abstract-ness” in painting?

        Well, best of luck! I think this is good work and I can ignore our differences.

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  8. Sorry, forgot the link to the original jpegs. Makes a difference on a full-sized screen:
    http://www.gartenbedarf-versand.de/painting4

    Apropos my last remark in the introduction above. I DO think it makes a difference whether you are starting at the abstract end of the continuum or at the mimetic end. It may not be identifiable in the finished work but I think that abstraction-from something figurative and discovery-of something figurative entail very different thought processes.

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    1. I think your last comment is interesting. it is also possible to start at neither end- with the blank canvas but allow some level of figuration to survive if it seems vital and interesting- ie not to censor the figurative if it emerges from the painting process and has value. The problem is then to control and moderate it so that it does not negate the formal and painterly values. The challenge is to make them all work together.
      Bacon is a good example of how it can be done with a clear figurative subject but lots of form and paint working for itself. The more one abstracts the harder it is for the figurative trace not to jar. It is perhaps easier to be purely abstract- but hard to be purely abstract and compelling.

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      1. Yes, I agree with all of your first paragraph.

        Prefer Titian or Cézanne to Bacon though.

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  9. It is subject to debate, I suppose, as to whether the greatest art of, say, the last hundred years or so, was figurative, or abstract, or both ?
    Given the immense power of other media to convey the Human Condition in all its vicissitudes, I doubt very much that that will again be, or become, visual art’s role. One of the gross errors of Post Modernism has been to imagine that it could – in my opinion.
    What visual art CAN still do is to move the mind / eye deeply and profoundly on a visual aesthetic level. To achieve this there is, to my knowledge, no particular law as to whether it should be cast in a figurative or abstract mould, other than the law of experience.,
    As far as sculpture is concerned, I would surmise that it is extremely unlikely that a return to figuration, or even semi figuration or figuration in disguise, will provide any sort of originality in the making of new work. Hence all the previous lengthy comments as to how this can be achieved through the search for an ABSTRACT vision for it.
    I am assuming, of course, that we all agree that creating ORIGINAL work is the cardinal aim ?

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    1. I might be wrong, but I think it is unlikely – maybe impossible – that figurative painting will provide originality either. There is too much competition from the media for both figurative painting and sculpture to mean much. Whereas, fully abstract work has its own world.

      I’m not sure, though, Tim, that Richard or Edward think much of originality.

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  10. I await, with great interest, Richard’sand Edward’s response to that !

    In the mean time, I personally cannot see the point of NOT aiming for originality; i.e re-doing what has already been done.

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  11. Unfortunately, in this context, to claim to be uninterested in originality would be highly original-, and so a performative contradiction. Equally to claim to be interested in originality would be unoriginal- although worthy- and thus also a performative contradiction. So I can only keep quiet on the subject. But early Bacon is great.

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  12. I don’t think that originality is something to be aimed for as an end in itself.
    Isn’t that what “the artist as brand” is all about?

    I think it’s something that might happen if you’re persistent and if there is something (call it a vision, however undefined) that guides you in evaluating your own work.

    Tim – is aesthetic pleasure an irreducible sensation or might it not be a pleasure of recognition? Isn’t the spontaneous reaction on seeing something good an almost audible “yes!”?

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  13. Edward – Yes, of course, originality is not a category, to be stuck on work like a label. As the Jazz man said when asked for a definition : “if you have to ask you’ll never know.”

    Richard – I am not a psychologist or a physiologist, but I assume the brain has an area which deals with the recognition of what we call ‘aesthetic’ sensation ?
    I would have thought that the only justification (today) for art,is that the LEVEL of aesthetic pleasure it can give,(at its best), is far greater and more profound than merely ‘good’ or ‘yes’ (when a goal is scored) ? Or perhaps I am overstating the case ?

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