Saturday, 10 November 2018

Tracer and Wedge

‘Tracer and Wedge’ is an exhibition spread through the L-shaped ground floor project space of Mirabel Studios (Manchester, UK) populated with wall based art work, all responding to 'painting' as a broad thematic.

All artists involved have a historical or active relationship with Manchester art, often going back decades, and this shows in the focus and refinement within their practices; a kind of radical conservatism which seems oddly refreshing.

The relatively small scale of the works exhibited demands an enforced intimacy between viewer and work. An intimacy unconcerned with the surrounding architecture; except as a vertical support for the isolated sparring between surface and eye.  

There is also an added complication, the works tend to allude to the act of using painting as a way of momentarily holding static the act of transcription between artistic forms.

As an introductory example, David Alker's 'The Seventeenth Century Landscape' sequence of five miniature paintings - most about 8 cm square - are transcriptions of photographs of a 1920s diorama of the construction of a large seventeenth century wooden ship. With titles sounding like chapters from Moby Dick ('The Hull', 'Capstan', The Ferry', etc) the horizontal line of representational paintings of the act of construction imply a narrative progression without a promise of chronological veracity.

Rick Copsey's 'Paintscapes' also uses a reduced scale - here all 20 cm square - in a horizontal display of stormy colour-tinted c-type prints of gothic seascapes. They are, in fact, microscopic photographs of paint palettes vastly enlarged. Another frustratingly layered act of transcription.

The relatively simple still life format of Rebecca Sitar's  slightly larger oil paintings 'Untitled (Grey In Pink)', 'Pods' and 'Kernel' momentarily trick a viewer with a stabilizing familiarity but quickly reveal themselves to be equally destabilizing in the readability stakes: 'Untitled (Grey In Pink)' could be a rocky island sat on top of a pale wash of pink over grey or a ragged shape cut in the surface wash. 'Pods' seem to be constructing themselves from the space around them and, best of all, 'Kernel' is an ill-defined shape sat in a seductively deep purple black.

In stylistic opposition are Nick Jordan's domestic scale oil paintings 'California Typewriter' and 'Documentary Sounds'.
Both have the strong graphic clarity of Pop Art; both appear to have been transplanted from a European art exhibition set some time in the 1960s. 

The most demandingly enigmatic pieces are Samantha Donnelly's framed c-type prints which look like collages with fragments of figures, studio shots and suggestive explanatory text - all indicating a magazine article about an artist and their work.

So within 'Tracer and Wedge' the containing rectangle of a picture surface can act as a platform for material play, an impossible spatial conundrum, or an idiosyncratic dissection and re-staging of historical models for fixing visual information.

So, microscopically small areas of paint palettes can transmute into gothic seascapes; severe formal signage allude to senses other than the optical; archaic dioramas can be unpicked and restaged as storyboarded narratives of the paintings own construction, whilst spartan still lifes start to drift away from a painterly and descriptive legibility.

However, edited from the chaos of the real world, all act as a temporary congealing of the movement of thought into a stubbornly solid object event; all allude to actions and forces which escape the controlling stamp of visibility.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

'And Breathe...' : Art and Mindfulness

Certain words and associated concepts are forever linked to a particular moment in our collective history. It is hard to think of a more suitable candidate for a 2018 buzzword than 'mindfulness.' 

It appears to have started out as a well-intentioned proposal that everyone should find a period of mental calm from the stress and bullying demands of the everyday. 

Unfortunately, it has morphed into something altogether different; a kind of zen indifference to reality and a social-bonding session for middle-managers in denial about any personal ethical responsibility for their actions.

The 'And Breathe...' exhibition currently wedged into a room at Manchester Galleries (Manchester, UK) tries the unenviably difficult job of cello-taping a relentlessly positive interpretation of 'mindfulness' to selected paintings and images from the galleries collection. 

Predictably the repetitive slap and curl of rolling waves are insinuated in a number of works referencing that holiday-makers favourite anaesthetic the sea. 

Ben Nicholson's 'St Ives Bay, Sea With Boats' (1931) oil and pencil scene of distant sailboats bobbing on a watery green sea has the unnerving charm of a child's painting. The fleshy pinks of a foregrounded rock, the organizing of the view by the framing white window-frame and window sill along with the suggestion of a reflected cloud and bulbous land mass make it a slightly disturbing rather than a becalming experience.

Henry Moore's 'Mounts Bay: Early Morning - Summer" (1886) dispenses with anything but horizon-line, sky and sculpturally heavy ridges of dark sea. 

Similarly weighty J.D. Innes oil painting  'Bala Lake' (1911) is a dark blue, purple and mauve bay with a sickly green-yellow sky, a weird gothic Fauvism. It's ornately elaborate frame makes the whole thing look like an indigestible pastry, but an intriguingly odd one. It is a style of painting which tends to attract the description 'brooding.' The connection to any notion of calming 'mindfulness' is again questionable.

In Tristram Hillier's 'Le Havre De Grace' (1939) parts of a large disassembled ship have been left like enigmatic chess pieces cluttering a dockside. The result seems like a De Chirico seaside scene.

Albert Irvin's abstract oil and acrylic 'Untitled' (1973) shows a wash of Naples yellow, a hazy caramel tissue, anchored at the top and bottom of the slightly bowing stretcher by large daubs of watery paint. The colours of these are uncomfortably muddied as though the paint brushes had not been properly washed.

Catherine Yass's 'Split Sides' digital inkjet of distorted reflected images of skyscrapers is fairly underwhelming and blandly decorative.

The piece which accidentally hits the critical mark by noting humans actual inability to completely edit the badgering tangle of accumulated worries carried around by our grey matter is Marcus Coates 'Sea Mammal' (2003). 

A suited character in front of a cold slate grey sea has its head encased in a tangle of primary coloured sausage shaped balloons. The comic befuddlement radiating from the work combined with its visually seductive simplicity at last begins to address the contrary impulses which co-exist in the 'mindfulness' industries.

Saturday, 28 July 2018

David Pugh: Breaking The Surface

Out in leafy Lancashire, Todmorden’s ‘Studio 2’ gallery continues its welcome run of exhibitions of artwork made by individuals sticking with obdurate, solid stuff intended to hang on a wall or sit on the floor, i.e. paintings, drawings and sculptures.

Not that previous shows haven’t toyed with historical references, the mental gymnastics of ‘art’ theory, or self-reflexive chin-rubbing. All, however, have, to varying degrees, seemed to have an investment in material solidity and old-school concerns with aesthetic principles.

David Pugh’s recent exhibition of paintings, ‘Breaking The Surface’, appeared to organically continue on from these concerns but proposed a very different perspective on the function of a paintings surface; Pugh’s works play with surface as a point of display and as a ghostly restaging of nonrepresentational paintings muted keening for meaningfulness.

The exhibition related text noted that ‘...through this body of work (Pugh) explores the process of pushing paint to perform in ways that bring the surface of the canvas alive.’

However, although all three-dimensional objects occupy the same kind of space - a universal three-dimensionality central to all forms of ‘objectness’ - flatness can either be absolutely aligned with surface, appear to hover in front of its grounding vertical plane or even seem to retreat slightly to a point just behind the touchable material supporting it. Pugh’s works may obsess over surface qualities visual impact but they exhibit a technician’s curiousity with this potential misalignment between surface apprehended and surface as concrete fact.

With ‘Closed 1’ and ‘Closed 2’ two domestic scale square canvases seemed to have decided to operate as a diptych. Both showed a vegetable chaos of marks of varying black-greys punctuated by small areas of white canvas ground. ‘Closed 1’ carried the disruptive overlay of a large blue circle of acrylic, ‘Closed 2’ a black vertical band. The juxtaposition of the two canvases strengthened the works, the space between them acting as a further simple negative space which complicated the spatial relationships of bold simple forms and twitchy surface marks.

Something like a convoluted snaking intestine of broad brushmarks sat within the flat surface of the larger ‘Happy.’ Like ‘Closed 1’, a large raised area of light blue acrylic sat on the surface of the wandering, deceptively flat, gothic spaghetti of grey-black brushmarks. 

The other larger painting ‘Black Flower’ had a similar but slightly more angular swoop of brush traces but, bringing to mind the perforations bordering old strips of photographic film, horizontal lines of regularly distanced black circles travelled across the top and bottom of the painting. 

A triptych of smaller square canvases, ‘Inwoods 1’, ‘2’ and ‘3,’ all bordered by thick blankly black frames, were washed by singular dominant colours - red, muted blue and a grassy green - which visually suppressed the complex of sliding brushstrokes busying their entire surface. Isolated raised circles of colour dotted each one bringing to mind another cinema reference, the flash of an editors cue-dots.

Pugh is old enough to have experienced at least a couple of the noisy announcements of the death of painting, its stumbling resurrection and the theoretical back-peddling to begin again the inevitable reassessment of its viability as a contemporary practice.

The acrylic paint covering these works tended to colonize and fill the full area of the canvas but as a flat immaterial suggestion of something more physically substantial. Pugh’s paintings act as a record of dogmatic process as a kind of embodied sarcasm; self-doubting painting events - executed presumably at speed to maintain a tonal uniformity - which have become seduced by their own material playfulness. These are objects assigned the job of performing the role of being paintings which have fallen in love with their own performance.

All the works had a dour attractiveness about them and although they seemed to radiate a degree of resignation - a resignation that non-representational painting has declined into a genre of refined decoration - this was mixed with a strangely positive acknowledgement that the aspirations of yesteryear will always haunt potentially cynical ‘decor’ with the ghost of meaningfulness. 

Sunday, 11 February 2018

John Stezaker

The most confident and playful exhibition on display in Manchester (UK) at the moment is the relatively simple twenty or so collages by John Stezaker at the Whitworth.

Often the collages are grouped according to formal or spatial consistencies in the end results. In one grouping anatomical studies are spliced, juxtaposed and cojoined into hybrid creatures of the front and back of torsos. More frequently his raw materials are an archival accumulation of studio portraits of B-movie actors, old postcards and promotional film stills, the outdatedness of the source material immediately giving an otherworldliness to the pieces adding to their pictorial strangeness.

So profile shots and full on portraits (both male and female) are cut and jigsawed into almost feasibly coherent wholes deformed by spatial inconsistencies. Rectangular areas of nature or geological illustrations cover areas of faces but horizon lines or the sinuous line of a tree follows the features of the face. These act as a window into an alternative reality but seem to echo the dynamics of the portraits formal construction and the relations between figures.

Stezaker’s considered cuts and excisions are not merely second-hand techniques and devices lifted from early Cubist collages and Surrealists games, although these influences are clearly present. They allow images to telescope into layered depths and for shadows to be sandwiched into static forms.

The drag and flow of suggested cinematic narratives are held static for a forensic looping by the viewers eye literally through and into the image’s component parts. And although a simple collages construction takes very little time this stands in stark opposition to the time needed to conceptually digest the static implications of these spatial games.

The pieces actually work as physical statements of a stubborn refusal of the badgering directive and authoritarian flow of meaning in contemporary visual media, the didactic nature of that which claims to be a democratisation of communicative potentials. 

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Cecily Brown: Shipwreck Drawings

Cecily Brown has become a significant presence in contemporary painting. 
Her large paintings often balance De Kooning’s pale patches of paint with echoes of the pastoral washes of English watercolours and Bacon and Freud’s meaty applications. A loose allusion of faux-gestural marks and a disciplined car-crash of organic forms building into a sliding accumulation of vegetable chaos straining to indicate an animal, a figure or a torso.
The twitchy sliding layers of almost-imagery can become strangely claustrophobic. Often the paintings suggest a flighty grabbing of subjects, themes, historical models, of types of representation.
She smears the chaotic minutae of Bosch’s Garden Of Earthly Deights into near abstraction with the unreliability of memory and the necessity of images to still the erosive movement of time a constant in the paintings.
With Brown’s work it feels as though there is a suspicion and disdain for the seductive properties of matter tempered by a resigned love for the stuff - seduction, penetration, pleasure and pain all alluded to. 
As a counterpoint to this play with the substantial substance of paint, Brown currently has an exhibition of ‘Shipwreck Drawings’ at Manchester (UK) Whitworth Galleries. 
The display shows two groupings of nine drawings, one of eight, along with a more conventional horizontal hang of three drawings and two isolated smaller ones.
The wall text / promotional blurb notes that all drawings are reworkings of areas from four paintings of post-shipwreck survivors; three by Eugene Delacroix, ‘Christ Asleep During The Tempest’ (1853) and an accompanying preparatory study and ‘The Shipwreck Of The Don Juan’ (1840), as well as Theodore Gericault’s seminal ‘The Raft Of The Medusa’ (1818 -19)
Often they have large areas of muted primary coloured washes, occasionally supplemented with a grassy green, overdrawn with grey-black charcoal and pencil line drawings of groupings and clusters of bodies. These primary washes tend to move the eye around the picture space in opposition to the suggested movement of the linear complexity of the studies. 
Heads, torsos,and bodies seem almost compressed into vagually triangular scrambles of shapes. They seem chaotically restricted rather than huddled which is fairly reasonable for images culled from images of shipwreck survivors on a fragile raft of wood.
And yet the theatrical pile and tangle of suggested imagery lacks the gravity of the physical bulk and sweat of human bodies. 
A strong reminder that Brown’s enterprise is very much a restaging of earlier compositions and images and an indicator of her practice as an offshoot of the 1980s artworld appropriationist bent.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Ellsworth Kelly: Liverpool Tate

                                                             'Broadway' (1958)

Liverpool UK has a number of high profile galleries, not least the Liverpool incarnation of the Tate gallery franchise. 

Settled in the relatively small, but not inconsiderable, ground floor gallery is an excellent mini-retrospective of prints and paintings by American artist Ellsworth Kelly. 

Kelly’s work is an exercise in high-quality wrongness, each distortion of the flat, coloured and rectangular seems retrospectively obvious. Obvious in the same way a successful melody seems contained and complete, even prior to being heard. 

The elegant incorrectness of Kelly’s best work demands sustained attention. Its refined variance from the strictures imposed by High Modernisms simplification to colour and surface is a continual pleasure.

As somatic deformations of an architectural purity, traps for the eye, Kelly’s paintings loop the experience of the graphically attractive back to the act of reading the design. Looking becomes thinking about looking whilst simultaneously enjoying the activity. 

As a return for time spent in front of any object it is hard to know how that can be improved on.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Steve Hunt: UNITY - Memories Of A Free Festival

Hunched and scowling on a corner on the outskirts of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, ‘The Crown And Kettle’ pub eyes suspiciously the city’s self-professed ‘cultural quarter’ and its mercantile infighting. 

The walls of the pub are currently home to Steve Hunt’s photographs communally entitled ‘UNITY: Memories Of A Free Festival’. 

The pictures are belatedly printed black and white ‘documentary’ photographs of small groupings of attendees at an anti-racism UNITY festival staged in Chorlton in Manchester in 1994. 

Hunt has a good eye for spotting if not moments of disunity then points of apparent individual introversion within a crowd. Even if this interpretation of the images is very much imposed by the viewer, Hunt’s cumulative compilation of moments which suggest this reading have a destabilizing effect on the festivals theme of joyous UNITY. 

Not, to be fair, a dismissive undermining of the festivals good intentions, more a suggestion of questioning uncertainty.

1994 was roughly the point at which digital photography began its rise to dominance, a form of image construction which dispenses with the lick of reality implied by older printed photos.

In reality photos were always things which acquired value through their different potential uses. Whereas a mediated flow of images is controlled information, instructions pretending to be one-side of a conversation, the photographic print is a record of a process of fixing an image and can have a number of functions at one-and-the-same time - memory enhancer, a record of an incident, a form of surveillance, and so on.

As photographs are objects divorced from one simple function, solid material facts as much as congealed movement peeled from reality, their immobile indifference to the viewers demands makes them alien artifacts from somewhere else. Even if that somewhere is our own pasts.

In this way, the passive irresponsibility of older photographs-as-things, their refusal to be easily defined, there stubborn mute there-ness, stands in opposition to the deadening economy of images, the contemporary digitized world of an excess of images; here today and largely gone today.

However, like a hazy memory or a half-seen event, all photographs nag at us, demand interpretation.

These pictures now sit at an almost distant moment in time. With all such photographs there is a temptation to indulge the viewer in the warming certainties of nostalgia. 

But these prints willingly embrace the entropy of their physical decay, the fact of old processes slipping from use, the imperfections of their production processes controlled by the artist, all suggesting a less clear framing of historical events, both culturally and privately.

The inevitable end-point for the medium, its moment of disappearance, is being used as a new user function. One we still have yet to fully understand.