Emyr Williams

#79. Emyr Williams writes on Space in Painting and Sculpture

Paul Cézanne, “The Garden at Les Lauves”, 1906

The qualities of abstract art – painting or sculpture –  are often pitted unfavourably against figurative art. Most art that I look at is indeed figurative. If I want to see great art, it will invariably mean going to see historical figurative painting. Of course I enjoy looking at abstract art and could not imagine making anything but abstract painting. Apart from the very occasional, idle foray into figuration – ‘sans le même désespoir’ – I have been at the abstract paint face, so to speak, for the best part of thirty years. I ponder the relationship between these two worlds frequently. What is it about Cézanne and Matisse, or Titian or Goya and so on that makes me continually return to their work – like going to a well for water?

There is clearly a chasm in time frames between abstract art and great historical figuration, which is able to call upon a massively larger canon of achievement, casting abstract art in the role of a veritable parvenu by comparison. I once wrote – as a throwaway really –  that abstract art must meet the challenges of figurative art on its own terms and not on those of figuration. I wasn’t exactly sure at the time what I meant by that!

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#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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#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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#19. Emyr Williams writes on John Hoyland at Newport Street Gallery

John Hoyland, 9.11.68, © The John Hoyland Estate, Courtesy Murderme Collection

John Hoyland, ‘9.11.68’, © The John Hoyland Estate, Courtesy Murderme Collection

John Hoyland, Power Stations, Paintings 1964-1982 is at Newport Street Gallery, London SE11, 8th October 2015 – 3rd April 2016

Damien Hirst’s new gallery is open for business and, surprisingly perhaps, he has chosen to showcase a particular period of the work of John Hoyland. Power Stations 1964-1982 launches the Newport Street Art Gallery in Vauxhall, London. Although Hirst has mentioned his deliberate challenge to those who say you can’t make and curate at the same time, I would have thought his way of making was very much in tune with the approaches of a curator. Get something interesting into a box, just on this occasion make it a bloody big box. Good for him to do this, though. I’m sure there is a sense of intrigue as to what will come next, but for now we can enjoy the wonderful spaces that this former scene-painting studio houses and get a meaty glimpse of the work of a significant British abstract painter to boot.

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#3. Emyr Williams: ‘Homage Limitations’

Helen Frankenthaler, 'For E.M.', 1981

Helen Frankenthaler, ‘For E.M.’, 1981, 71″x115″, acrylic on canvas.

Many years ago I was in a dinner party in California given by my cousin. She is an actor and producer and the company she invited was charming and witty and the conversation easy and friendly. I enjoyed it, and it exuded a slightly glamorous atmosphere too, being in a villa overlooking the Pacific Ocean. One comment though has stuck with me to this day: It was when I was asked “Where are you from?” I answered without thinking, “Wales.” One highly impressed person leaned over to me and in almost hushed tones said: “Wow, that is the spiritual centre of the universe.” Now, I am a proud Welshman and I am always pleased if another nationality knows that Wales exists, let alone passes any kind of familiar comment about it, yet this comment was something I did not see coming at all. I smiled and nodded and thought about this statement… we clearly had very different experiences and ideas of Wales. I assumed he pictured a group of Druids, solemnly striding around a circle of stones, in touch with the forces of nature and the general turning of the universe; whereas I suddenly thought of my home town on a Friday night, when a fellow I was in school with burst into one of the pubs and offloaded two blasts of his shotgun into the ceiling. I won’t name names for legal reasons, though I doubt if he is reading this (and that is a sentence with one word too many). You could say his action was the result of a completely different kind of spirituality.

Artists tend to love Art. We go to galleries, exhibitions and openings. When we are not making Art, we are looking at it or talking about it. We look for it online, we participate in forums, symposia and generally surround and busy ourselves with as much of it as we can. It is our visual food. Yet can our love of Art sometimes be our undoing? Clement Greenberg once said: “The superior artist knows how to be influenced.” The question raised is: influenced by whom and – more importantly – in what way?

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