Geoff Hands

#105. Geoff Hands writes on Patrick Heron at Tate St. Ives

Tweet by Geoff Hands

Patrick Heron is at Tate St Ives, 19 May – 30 September 2018

If you owned a few Herons how would you display them in your house? If you had over forty in your dream collection, and a mansion sized amount of wall space, you might mix things up a bit. In a retrospective at a major, award winning, art gallery the conventional approach would lead to a chronological hang. Not so for Patrick Heron at Tate St. Ives.

I was both enthralled and fascinated with the display and tweeted that the show was “mind blowing”. Intuitively, I attached ‘1-3 September: 1996’. The Tate exhibition guide who had showed a group of us around told me later that she had initially found the display “disorientating”, but her enthusiasm for the work was unaffected nonetheless. She was completely relaxed about it now. My own habit for exhibition viewing is to follow the order from start to finish and then to return to somewhere near the beginning and pick out the works that commanded my attention the most. On the return leg there is a certain degree of arbitrary stopping and starting as individual works that I initially passed too quickly make their presence known.

In this situation I was immediately thrown into a third form of viewing behaviour that was alien to me. The experience was not so much mind-blowing (social media loves hyperbole) as invigorating. For a moment I was a child in a sweet shop wanting everything, such was the temptation to taste, and visually touch, it all. ‘Square Green with Orange, Violet and Lemon: 1969’, selected from Heron’s wobbly-hard edge period, has the colour-flavour of Jelly Babies and a surface excitement and frisson that transforms the senses of texture as indivisible from the visual.

Heron’s work is often distinguished by its example of colour-shape dexterity and glorious visuality and a chronological display may not have accommodated or extended the potential impact of his achievements. The visual dynamism of the paintings, from all phases of Heron’s career, contextualised the display. All was equal, big or small, early, mid or late career. But it is mixed in a carefully curated way, as none of the sequencing looked arbitrary, but evincing a sense of purpose – if only to revitalise the viewing experience. There was a sense of freedom in allowing oneself to travel in any direction, including from one end of a wall to examine a row of works, or to diagonally cross a space under the magnetic pull of another canvas.

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#104. Geoff Hands writes on “A Road Not Taken” at The Crypt, London

Installation view of “A Road Not Taken”

A Road Not Taken: Eleven abstract painters exploring painting and the metaphor of the journey is at the Crypt, St. Marylebone Parish Church, London, 16 June – 6 September 2018

A journey, even a short one, can be harrowing. The five-minute walk from Baker Street underground station to St. Marylebone Parish Church at the wrong time of day obliges a stop-start, half-gyrating weave through the throngs of tourists queuing (and not queuing) to get into Madame Tussauds™. So it was with relief that I arrived intact in the Crypt in the lower church. I half expected a musty, dark basement but was pleasantly surprised to find myself in a warm and bright environment. Ample lighting and white-painted walls created the ambience of the modern gallery, albeit with some additional Christian iconography displayed on pillars in the centre of the space. The quiet was not so surprising of course and this created a meditative space in which to consider the twenty paintings on display. Co-curator Stephen Buckeridge pitched the exhibition to Contemporary British Painting (a broad church) some two years ago and revived the idea with Terry Greene more recently. The support and infrastructure of this organisation is to be welcomed for many painters working on the periphery of the gallery system.

Some of the exhibitors in A Road Not Taken will be well known to Abcrit readers, others not so. The decision not to label the works obliges the viewer to consider the work in itself, without influence of favour based on personal interest or preference (though an illustrated list of works is available). In addition to their own work, the curators have selected paintings by nine others. Greene has written:

“The Road not Taken is a ‘journey’ of encounters that explores the idea that art offers us abstractions of experiences. By considering the physical act of painting in terms of a journey, the art object describes or embodies the inner territory through which the artists navigate. The art object functions as evidence for a ‘place’ visited, seen and experienced.”

This is a fascinating statement. The “inner territory” implicates notions of a metaphysical space and the paintings, I assume, act as outpourings from the ‘self’ (of the artist). The paintings also embody the notion of a map, much more than a diagram, of itself with no obvious or specific external reference points, places or personas. The ‘physical act’ is a given really, and we can see that the physical is constituted both in the medium specificity of the paint and from the process of application, in various ways, in the works on display. The paintings are also records of a certain kind of thought process, generally unplanned and improvised. Such practice is most likely supported by habit and pull of future projects, however tenuous.
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#93. Geoff Hands writes on H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G at Phoenix Brighton

Hardpainting at Phoenix Brighton – poster and exterior

H-A-R-D-P-A-I-N-T-I-N-G at Phoenix Brighton, 13 January to 11 February 2018.

https://www.phoenixbrighton.org

Spaces available to show contemporary art in Brighton are limited, but Phoenix Brighton is undergoing a public engagement transformation that will be further re-calibrated with a refurbished gallery space in 2019. The last significant painting shows here were ‘32 Paintings’ (2013) and ‘20 Painters’ (2014) that showcased a broad range of styles and interests from Sussex based artists and were co-curated by Patrick O’Donnell (with Nicholas Pace and June Frickleton, respectively). During the second exhibition a public discussion event took place with Peter Ashton Jones, co-founder of Turps Banana magazine and art historian Peter Seddon. A lingering memory of that evening was of a rather polite assembly of listeners who did not rise to the bait (if that was the intention) of having the range of work on display described as “Home Counties” painting (aka provincial?). Nevertheless, hopes for an ongoing debate about contemporary art (not just painting) were kindled by this initiative, and rightly so, for the gallery space, with or without a forum, is the most appropriate public arena for a meaningful debate to take place.

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#88. Geoff Hands writes on John Bunker at Unit 3, London

“Wraysrumble”. 2017. 60cmX53cm. Mixed media shaped collage

“LEAVE IT….” John Bunker: New Work was at Unit 3, ASC, Empson Street from 13th to 24th November 2017

“The title comes from something my teenage son tends to say if he feels pressurised into explaining his mood or feelings. You know when you can tell there’s something on your child’s mind? But you also know they maybe won’t or even can’t explain why they are distracted. But after saying all that I just like the sound of the phrase – it has brevity and depth…” (JB)

I didn’t visit John Bunker’s recent exhibition with a view to writing a review, but first impressions from seeing evidence of his developing assuredness in assembling and composing collage material have lingered long after the encounter. Walking around the studio sized space at Unit 3 to explore these latest works, of which 14 were shown, there was no pressure to think of anything that should be noted down. A freedom to indulge in just looking, with unspoken thoughts and without the obligation to describe, explain or ruminate for the benefit of others was a bonus I had enjoyed. But, as title of the show directed – I just could not Leave It.

A week later, I found myself jotting down thoughts in a notebook that ultimately insisted on further development. Still enamoured with a refinement that I do not normally associate with collage (although Francis Davison’s abstract compositions demonstrate great skills of placement and composition that remain exemplary) many of Bunker’s pieces were both impressive and memorable. The formal elements of line, colour, shape arrangement and distribution certainly fused into a sense of ’rightness’ and I was reminded that collage is not a substitute for painting. Collage is a broad and flexible medium and a process that lends itself to abstraction as equally as it does to the surreal juxtapositions explored within figurative realms.

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#86. Geoff Hands writes on Alan Gouk at Felix and Spear, London

A shop-window view of the Alan Gouk show at Felix and Spear, “Quercus” in the foreground

‘Alan Gouk: A retrospective, part one 1973-1989’ at Felix & Spear, Ealing, 4th November to 3rd December 2017

https://www.felixandspear.com/alan-gouk

 At Felix & Spear, fourteen paintings form a notional representation of what might be considered the artist’s first mature stage (Gouk was in his 30s and 40s). The works that might be sub-divided into two or three distinct periods are displayed on two floors with an adjoining stairwell. The arrangement of works takes account of the domestic size and scale and characteristics of the interior architecture of the gallery and the variously sized works have been appropriately placed. The domestic reference is applied positively here – and the visitor might imagine this was a version of Gouk’s living apartment c.1990. The homely and informal suggestion is intended as a positive too – for paintings have to be lived with after all. They have to be seen and experienced in differing ambient lighting situations and times of day; paintings might appear to evolve over time, as do the individual viewers, in their ever changing personal moods and within the various contexts of their lives. (A thought: Do the most interesting and original paintings have this organic quality – as if the ‘imagery’ is in a very slow state of flux and revelation?)

We also see these paintings in hindsight; in the context of nearly three more decades of Gouk’s vigorous commitment to abstract painting that have followed as abstraction has fallen in and out of favour in contemporary circles. Unaffected by medium denying conceptualism; the often announced ‘death of painting’ itself; and the so-called post-modern/multi-media innovations (for the sake of ‘contemporaneity’) that developed from the 1970s onwards – Gouk has continued to explore the endless scope of his particular form of abstract painting and unashamedly celebrates its ‘medium-specificity’.

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#77. Geoff Hands writes on Howard Hodgkin at the Hepworth, Wakefield

Poster for Howard Hodgkin: Painting India

Howard Hodgkin: Painting India is at the Hepworth, Wakefield, 1 July – 8 October 2017

http://www.hepworthwakefield.org/howard-hodgkin-painting-india/

We shall be rewarded, albeit poignantly, with no less than three exhibitions of Howard Hodgkin’s work in 2017. The NPG show, ‘Absent Friends’, has been and gone; ‘Painting India’ is currently on view in Wakefield; and the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath opens in mid-October with a display of works on paper, including prints.

For Hodgkin, Fate’s proverbial bus of arrival of events certainly came along this year. The first event, sadly, was the ultimate departure as we all mourned the artist’s death in March. Significant media coverage provided a fitting range of positive reviews of his career and of his achievements as a painter of emotions, with imagery often dominated by the impact of colour, permeating all commentary. The sometimes acerbic, but on this occasion generous Jonathan Jones in the Guardian proclaimed Hodgkin as “the finest colourist in painting since Mark Rothko”.

Utter nonsense, of course, but the attraction of Hodgkinesque colour usage has some credence, as combined with notions of colour as something powerful in and of itself there is an indefinable emotive appeal. Characterised by expressionistic painting gestures, the oil medium is applied in a way that becomes visually seductive and affective – though what those emotions are for the observer cannot replicate whatever they were for Hodgkin. Is ‘emotive’ the correct term to use here? ‘Emotional appeal’ sounds like a cop-out term for inadequate communicative terminology, but I am struggling to define and defend these clichéd words in relation to Hodgkin’s work. Best look at the paintings.

At The Hepworth Wakefield a selection of paintings from a period of 50 years of almost annual visits to India by Hodgkin are on display. Walking up the stairs to the main galleries a hand-knotted Persian yarn wall hanging (appropriately entitled, ‘Rug’) is displayed, but this medium does not prepare the visitor for how oil paint can deliver colour – so physically and so embedded in the materiality of paint.

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#73. Geoff Hands writes on “Terry Frost: A Book of Ideas” at Belgrave Gallery, St. Ives

Terry Frost installation

“Terry Frost: A Book of Ideas” at Belgrave Gallery, St. Ives, was at 19 June to 15 July 2017.

Gaining access to an artist’s sketchbook can be a rare opportunity. Even the artists you know personally might be reluctant to let you leaf through their, sometimes, intimate visual journals. Belgrave St Ives (with the Terry Frost Estate) have gone a stage further than merely displaying a book in a vitrine for this exhibition. A large format sketchbook (46.5 x 37.5 cm) of Frost’s has been dismantled and 30 out of 50 or so pages have been surface mounted and framed. The workbook covers much of the decade from the 1970s to 1981 and followers of Frost’s career will recognise several of the artist’s favourite subjects, for example ‘Suspended Forms’, the ‘Sun and Moon’ theme, and the ‘Lorca’ series.

Seeing the main body of this work (paintings and collages) almost simultaneously in the gallery allows a general sweep of all of the images, as well as more concentrated looking at individual pages. Some degree of comparison is also possible and the curators have carefully placed images alongside each other that have some sequential or common features that link them together thematically. In a few instances, double page spreads from the book had also been kept intact and the most bold and impressive of these were pages 104 and 105, a painted maquette for the subsequent woodcut, ‘Two Loves for Tredavoe’ (1999).

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#64. Geoff Hands writes on “Unnatural Vibers” at Unit 3 Project Space, ASC Studios, London

Peter Lamb, ‘A Slow Gaze Charged’, 2017;  John Bunker, ‘Frenhofer’, 2017.

“Unnatural Vibers” at Unit 3 Project Space, ASC Studios, London is open 2-5pm., on the 6, 7, 13, 14, 20, 21 of May 2017, or by appointment.

http://unit-3.tumblr.com/

Following the TESTING <1<2<1<2 group show at ASC studios a month or so ago, artist/curator John Bunker has devised another intriguing showcase to mix things up. This time he is co-curating with artist Michael Stubbs and together they selected painters who share a compulsion, not just for the construction or devising of the abstract image, but also for a generally speculative and performative rather than planned approach to image making.

Initially, Michael Stubbs, Dominic Beattie, Vicky Wright, Peter Lamb and Bunker himself may not seem like an obvious combination. But even a relatively small show of this kind (just nine pieces) provides a potpourri of sorts, and proves that diversity can gel successfully where a common thread of serious endeavor and an ability to formulate a primary visual impact, is paramount over associative, figurative narratives.

Their work shares a sense of questioning through a building process and of the construction of the pictorial image to act as a trigger for the viewer to adjudicate from. As the various constructional processes unfold, with collage and paint, traces of earlier decisions are superseded, but not entirely replaced or buried so as to preserve a sense of history or a past state that can still contribute to an evolving situation. A collage aesthetic, and means of realisation, enables past, present and future to combine or collide. The future, it could be argued, is present in the viewing of the image and the onlooker’s response.

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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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#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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