John Bunker

#110. Robin Greenwood writes about “The Art of the Real”, Then and Now

1968 MOMA installation of “The Art of the Real”

“Take a giant step…” as the great Taj Mahal once sang… or was it the Monkees: “Take a giant step outside you mind”?

In April 1969, as a young art student at Wimbledon School of Art in London, I went to see a big show of abstract art at Tate Gallery: “The Art of the Real; An Aspect of American Painting and Sculpture 1948 -1968”. This was very new and exciting to me back then, and in its way, as I will explain, it still is.

The show originated and was shown in 1968 in MOMA, New York, where it was devised and directed by E. C. Goossen, and subsequently presented with the help of the Arts Council of Great Britain to the Tate Gallery, London. Here is the opening to Goossen’s introduction:

“To propose that some art is more “real” than other art may be foolhardy. Yet many American artists over the last few years have made this proposal by the nature of their work. They have taken a stance that leaves little doubt about their desire to confront the experiences and objects we encounter every day with an exact equivalence in art. That they are shaping this equivalence by modifying forms inherited from the history of modern abstraction may or may not be an accident. Certainly there seems to be a growing distrust of idealism and its unfulfilled promises. The “real” of today as it is posited by this new art has nothing to do with metaphor, or symbolism, or any kind of metaphysics. It is not the ideal Hegelian essence that Hans Hofmann was invoking several decades ago in his essay, “The Search for the Real”. It does not wish to convey the notion that reality is somewhere else. Neither is it related to the symbolic reality Malevich thought he had discovered when, in 1913, he first isolated his black square on a white field. Malevich indeed had produced a real square, but he employed it as an element in the construction of a precariously balanced, ideal order with which he proposed to bring forth a “new world of feeling”. Today’s “real”, on the contrary, makes no direct appeal to the emotions, nor is it involved in uplift. Indeed, it seems to have no desire at all to justify itself, but instead offers itself for whatever its uniqueness is worth – in the form of the simple, irreducible, irrefutable object.”

The essay concludes five pages later, thus:

“The gradual divorce of the physical means of art from expressionistic associations has been accompanied by a distinct change in attitude towards what art should attempt. Expressionism, even at its most abstract, continued many aspects of representational art, and constructivism, despite its purist look, was basically nostalgic in its search for meaning through traditional methods of composition. The new attitude has been turning art inside out: instead of perceptual experience being accepted as the means to an end, it has become the end in itself. The Renaissance artist laboured over perspective in order to create an illusion of space within which he could make believable the religious and philosophical ideals of his time; the contemporary artist labours to make art itself believable. Consequently the very means of art have been isolated and exposed, forcing the spectator to perceive himself in the process of perception. The spectator is not given symbols, but facts, to make of them what he can. They do not direct his mind nor call up trusted cores of experience, but lead him to the point where he must evaluate his own peculiar responses. Thus, what was once concealed within art – the technical devices employed by the artist – is now overtly revealed; and what was once the outside – the meaning of its forms – has been turned inside. The new work of art is very much like a chunk of nature, a rock, a tree, a cloud, and possesses much the same hermetic “otherness”. Whether this kind of confrontation with the actual can be sustained, whether it can remain vital and satisfying, it is not yet possible to tell.”

E.C.G.

This, I think even in retrospect, was pretty good, and was the start of something important for me about how to make “abstract” art, and how to make it “real”. I had by then already abandoned any connections with figurative painting and sculpture of any kind.

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#100. Robin Greenwood writes on Katherine Gili at Felix and Spear; and Testing 1>2 at Empson Street

Installation of Katherine Gili show at Felix and Spear, “Kyanite” in the foreground

Katherine Gili: Discovered in the Making is at Felix and Spear, Ealing, 5 May -2 June 2018

https://www.felixandspear.com/

Five years ago I drafted an article for abstractcritical focussing on the works by Anthony Caro and Katherine Gili in the 2013 RA Summer Exhibition, neither of which I liked. The Gili, a sculpture of complicated forged parts that circulated a central void, with big alien feet and a prop to one side to steady it all, was called “Ripoll”. I had previously shown this work in Poussin Gallery in 2011, though I think Gili amended it slightly before it got to the RA, where it won the Jack Goldhill Award for Sculpture. In the essay I described it as having a banal configuration, to which Katherine took great exception (though I stand by it) and our previously close relations were, and remain, soured, despite my withdrawing the essay prior to publication.

Why bring this up now? In Robert Persey’s interesting catalogue essay for Katherine’s new show at Felix and Spear, which has work far superior to “Ripoll”, and which I will address shortly, he writes:

“Katherine’s ambition for her sculpture is predicated on a search for full three dimensionality, beyond the creation of a simple shape or form, beyond rotundity or intimidating spread across space.”

These sentiments I agree with completely, and they are obviously incompatible with banal configurations, and possibly with any configurations at all, though that’s up for discussion. Does the new sculpture match these ambitions? When I rewrote the said essay and expunged all reference to “Ripoll”, and indeed Gili, I concentrated on a critique of Caro. The revised version (published here: https://abstractcritical.com/article/anthony-caro-at-gagosian-some-problems-of-sculpture/index.html) started thus:

“Three-dimensionality is the elephant in the room marked “abstract” in the house of sculpture. It’s a difficult subject for discussion, and a difficult condition for sculptors to address. So why bother with it? Caro doesn’t worry; sometimes he uses it sparingly, sometimes not at all. I think it is the biggest issue in sculpture right now… because in directly addressing it the abstract artist is forced to abandon the narrow and dated (and admittedly often languidly beautiful) two-dimensional planar aesthetics of high modernism, whilst simultaneously rejecting the pratfalls of post-modernist subjective clap-trap. It provides potential and impetus for a new and true way forward. So important do I regard this issue that I frankly think there is no alternative other than to directly confront it – a notion for which I may well be considered narrow-minded. Yet, could we even begin to crack open this particular nut, I’m disposed to think that abstract art would broaden out considerably from its currently unambitious and unoriginal ruts and furrows. Almost anything that one can do that addresses this issue seems to point inexorably toward exciting uncharted waters.”

If anything, I now think that understates the case. But questions remain: What do we mean by three-dimensionality in sculpture? Do I mean the same as Robert Persey when we both write those words? And what does that “full” mean, before “three-dimensionality? All objects, sculptures or not, are three-dimensional, so are we both talking about something more than the quotidian three-dimensionality of any-thing and every-thing? And is work that references the figure/body able to achieve three-dimensionality in the fullest sense that we can now begin to comprehend it?

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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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#89. John Bunker writes on Gary Wragg at Paisnel Gallery, London

http://www.paisnelgallery.co.uk/exhibitions/view/302/gary_wragg_-_still_soaring_at_70

This mini retrospective just finished at Paisnel Gallery gives us some definitive snapshots from a 50 year career – a career that is so difficult to pin down to one particular mode or type of painting. Why is this so? There are some highly focused kinds of chaos and an ongoing drama of contrary painterly forces at work in Garry Wragg’s art. The hang reflected this irrepressible quality of exploration. Bringing smaller and larger works from different periods into close proximity highlighted a restless, energetic and searching approach to painting. There seems to be no fear of sudden shifts in focus. I think this suggests an openness to experience and a cooler painterly intelligence honed for ‘in the moment’ decision-making and the revelations that follow.

I’m not happy with my own use of terms like ‘chaos’ or ‘forces’. Maybe I could say that Wragg finds visual equivalents for a keen sensitivity to kinaesthestic sensation and energy in his work? Or maybe it’s all about ‘touch’? Paint can act as a conduit for all kinds of impulses. But these impulses are protean and constantly shape-shifting. Paint can catch, direct and release these energies. It can contain contrary inner and outer worlds, sensations and feeling. It can be the medium in which internal and external realities are able to meet – to fuse. Wragg’s art seems in some ways dedicated to this most complex interplay of objective and subjective experience and sensation.

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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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#84. John Bunker writes on “Sea of Data”, at Unit 3, London

Installation, “Sea of Data”

Some Thoughts on Sea of Data Just Finished at Unit 3 London.

Most abstract artists I know use a digital camera as an archiving tool. Then they jump between social media platforms and websites to upload and promote their decidedly ‘analogue’ endeavours in the fine arts. Some may make a wink or a nod to the digital realm in a title or a blurry right angle or hard edged Day-Glo vertical in an artwork. But what if one starts to put this fast developing epoch defining technology at the very core of the creative process? It is one thing to mimic the look of the screen etc. It is quite another to make the computer the generator of imagery, of colour, of line- and all the other qualities we associate with the realm of abstract ‘painting’.

Ever since the computer’s earliest developments our cultural landscape has been littered with imagery to do with them. In fact there are a welter of cliches that permeate mass culture and high art concerning circuit boards, control panels, surveillance tech and the supposedly numbing effects of our image saturated consumer culture. Of course, recently, we have seen artists work that involves relational aspects of data collection, performative interventions using Twitter or ordering loads of ‘stuff’ on Amazon and dumping it in high-end gallery spaces. But in the idiom of abstract painting and sculpture, what impact could the encroaching digital realm of experience be having upon the production of work and the culture that surrounds that production?

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#81. John Bunker writes on Jasper Johns at the RA

Jasper Johns, “Painting with Two Balls”, 1960, encaustic and collage on canvas with objects (three panels). 165.1 x 137.5 cm. Collection of the artist © Jasper Johns / VAGA, New York / DACS, London 2017. Photo: Jamie Stukenberg © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2017.

Some thoughts on Jasper Johns currently showing at the RA until 10 December 2017

https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/jasper-johns?gclid=CjwKCAjwmqHPBRBQEiwAOvbR88Sa4jxGkudrRyN933veJMQ0tgqisCHTVsDH76fYlpfgk3dEA6Vo5RoCvUQQAvD_BwE

The title of this show is ‘Something Resembling Truth’. These particular words have been hacked away from a longer ponderous statement by the artist and to get the ball of conundrums rolling in that all too familiar cold blooded Johnsian manner – you have to ask – what does that really mean? What ‘truth’ are we talking about here? A truth about painting? A truth about life? Surely all that ‘life’ business is just conjecture? And how do we go about ‘resembling truth’ or life or both? Is not this title just adding to an already monstrous scatter of ‘truisms’ and ever multiplying thick coffee table tomes full of puff? Just as a shaman scatters her bones, does not a twitter-feed sometimes appear a wreck of truisms, a random cast of signs and signals, warnings and affirmations, all back lit on our tablets with a tinge of desperation?

But the real shaman’s signs and emblems would have specific meanings. Interpretations of predicaments and predictions would then be based on such criteria as, where the chosen objects fell when they were thrown, in what combination: upside down, eschewed or perfectly aligned? Even the shadows they then cast could be ripe for interpretation by the initiated and knowing eye. And Johns gives us the continual recasting of reccurring motifs and signs upon the canvas – an apparent randomness of objects and images, some of which we all know and, in our own way, we have internalised. The paintings then seem to take on a sort of weight and seriousness of official insignia almost perfectly designed for the catch-all we call ‘Modern Art’, supplying it with its very own Johnsian coat of arms. Flag, target, crosshatch, skull, paintbrush and lightbulb for instance, in whatever combination is desired.

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#71. John Bunker writes on Richard Smith, Work of Five Decades at Flowers Gallery, London

Installation View, upper gallery, Richard Smith – Work of Five Decades, Flowers Gallery, © Richard Smith Foundation, courtesy Flowers Gallery London and New York

Richard Smith – Work of Five Decades is at Flowers Gallery, Cork Street, London until 15th July 2017

https://www.flowersgallery.com/exhibitions/view/richard-smith-5

Richard Smith – Work of Five Decades is as rich and tantalising a show as it is modest and partial. Well chosen combinations of work signal original and singular twists and turns across Smith’s career. It was a chance to get up close to some of the later more delicate and intricate works loosely coming under the rubric of the “Kite” paintings. But there were also the more robust deliberately awkward painterly works that play explicitly with the grid and illusions heightened by intense colour-play. These contrasts and continuities in approaches did not disappoint – but in ways totally unexpected.

The biggest surprise came on encountering Smith’s Snakes and Windows filling the whole of the ground floor (upper) gallery space. I was taken aback by my initial reactions to what is essentially an installation piece because I was instantly reminded of my first encounter with Matisse’s Memory of Oceania and The Snail brought together in Tate Modern’s Cut-Outs blockbuster in 2014. In a note I’d made at that time about them both I said:

“…and finally found myself perplexed but totally engaged by the slow-motion collapsing architecture of Memory of Oceania. The Snail, according to the received wisdom of art historical myth-making, takes us to the cusp of a new kind of visual drama, one of colour and shape devoid of subject-matter adhering only to the shape of the canvas itself. Was this the future that Matisse had in mind for his Cut-Outs?”

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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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#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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