THE PRESENCE OF PAINTING: ASPECTS OF BRITISH ABSTRACTION

Hatton Gallery, The University, Newcastle upon Tyne. Jan 28-March 12

THE EXPERIENCE OF PAINTING” 8 MODERN ARTISTS

Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne. Jan 27-March 19

These two exhibitions, both organised by The South Bank Centre, “The Presence” in association with Michael Tooby, Keeper of The Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield, and “The Experience” with The Laing Art Gallery, raised important questions for women artists and the public to whom they are offered. Both exhibitions are touring but unfortunately will not tour together after Newcastle.

The “Presence” is a large and ambitious venture whose stated aim is “to draw together particular strands within a 30 year period of abstract painting in Britain.” Forty-three artists are included of whom eight are women: Gillian Ayres, Jennifer Durrant, Vanessa Jackson, Tess Jaray, Edwina Leapman, Bridget Riley, Yuko Shiraishi and Eleanor Wood. This is not even a quarter. 1957 was chosen as the starting point since it is from this date that American Abstract Expressionism is said to have had an influence upon British art practice. The organisers stress, from the diversity-of the works shown, that this is no straightforward matter.

The exhibition is structured so that small groups of painters whose work is similar are shown together. Such selection cuts across the 30 year period, and so appears largely based upon style, the purely visual aspect of the paintings. The organisers say they have isolated “particular, painterly spheres of interest, such as the nature of the surface, the role of associative titles and attitudes to working processes.” It also attempts to show how the work of certain artists has developed over the period. So, for example, Gillian Ayres has two paintings, each in a different group, the heavily layered and textured jewel-coloured “Achnabreck” (1978), and the looser formed and more active painterly “Cwm” (1959).

Despite the modernist achievement of placing the presence of a painting above all other considerations there are problems. We are not told what the focus of each group of work is–what particular strand of abstract art is represented. What do Eleanor Wood’s pale floating grid structured watercolours on paper “Untitled” (1987) and Yuko Shiraishfs fuzzy edged block painted Vertical “Stream” (1988), have in common with the work which surrounds them? Giving us brief details of the participating artists, quoting from other writings (painting on a par with religious experience–Ben Nicholson Unit One London 1934) and Taoist masters (Lao Tzu’s philosophical work, The Tao Te Ching), is not enough. We need to know more precisely the shared concerns and affinities of the artists selected for this exhibition. To know this is to begin to challenge the inadequate representation of women and the definition of abstract painting itself.

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Another major problem is the lack of any accessible historical context. These paintings hang in the air, between 1957 and now. Our understanding of the variety of mid-to-late20th century British painting on show could have been enhanced. What kinds of abstraction were on offer in Britain before 1957? Where did the strands represented here come from? Out of what conditions of artistic practice and social context did abstract painting become acceptable within Britain, Europe and the U.S.A.? What connections do our ideas of freedom, democracy and the importance of the individual (mostly male) have with these? We need another exhibition to try to answer these questions in a clear and accessible way.

The “Experience” at The Laing is a different affair. For a start it’s welcoming; the organisers want us to enjoy the paintings. And we do. They’re big and bold, alternatively vibrant and colourful, then more peaceful and restrained. Eight modern abstract painters (one collagist) have been chosen “to give some idea of the extraordinary variety and vitality of recent non-representational painting.”

Bridget Riley’s work spans 1982-1988 and juxtaposes toned lines of colour in verticals and diagonals. “Isfahan” (1984) consists of thin vertical lines of turquoise, powder blue, pink, salmon, green, ochre, in different combinations, resonates energy. Edwina Leapman’s “Enharmonic Series” (1988) are fluid and sombre dark paintings (six acrylic on cotton, one on linen) which we can contemplate if we wish. She uses a faintly discernible grid-like structure which anchors the painting, yet they float and recede and move within their depths. Leapman builds up layers and layers of colours in thin transparent washes, which are there to negate each other. A green might be put on top of a red, then another red, and then perhaps a blue. So the colour of “Enharmonic Dark Blue and Red” (1988) is difficult to determine. She says this will depend upon the light, and upon the viewer’s familiarity, that the paintings need to be given time and be allowed to become what they are.

This is an exhibition where the artists speak. All are well represented in their own space and have written about their aims and working attitudes, their concerns of space, structure and scale, the nature of reality in their work, and light and colour. Gillian Ayres’s exuberant paint smeared “Fairest of Stars” (1984) shouts its colours and assaults the senses. To her art is an enjoyable thing and colour her vehicle to communicate her truth.

Based on the last year’s sale report of Artbywicks, Large canvas wall art still loved by art lovers, said by Dan wicks, the founder of Artbywicks.com who specialize in oversized canvas art. The sheer size of Jennifer Durrant’s paintings, spanning 1985 to 1988, are exciting, “There and Back” (1987) covering the wall at 216.6 cm x 335.2 cm. She uses staining techniques, then might tear pear shapes and cover parts of the canvas with shapes, or cover the canvas with paper and cut out stencils with a stanley-knife, and then re-stain exposed parts of the canvas, and so on.

A separate room has been set aside to give an insight into the artists’ working methods. Preparatory drawings, sketches, notes and postcards are displayed in conjunction with the artists’ statements about their work. Books on abstract art are available to read. A video of Bridget Riley at work highlights the deliberation, concentration and painstaking work of all the artists involved. Some historical context is provided–looking to old faithfuls, Turner, Braque, Mondrian–to shed light on later 20th century abstract painting. The links are sometimes tenuous. Why not include Helen Frankenthaler, the American painter who introduced her own novel technique–stain-and-soak–which had important repercussions for the development of colourfield painting, in terms of floating colour, flatness and ambiguous space.

One of the aims of this exhibition is to respond to requests from the public to provide information about artists’ working methods. This the organisers and painters have done in an illuminating way. The problem is that however interesting and informative the artists’ statements are (and all of these fall into that category) they are just that; and are conditioned by how artists see themselves and their role in late 20th century Britain. That sometimes their explanations about the nature of light and colour, truth and reality, become near impenetrable and verge on the spiritual, is to be expected. These paintings do stand in their own right, but it helps to have a fair amount of knowledge of the art of this century and the ideology of its creators. Unless this is supplied, the public will continue to be dismissive of abstract art.

The work of the women artists in this exhibition disputes the dominance of men in the field of abstract painting. Yesterday’s aggressive action men seem outplayed. As an option for art practice, non-representational painting has been a problem for feminists, upholding as it does the “tenets of modernism, with its primacy of the visual and the celebration of the artistic subject as source of meaning and reference for all art.”

Yet there may be possibilities in abstract art for those who wish to communicate and be part of the wider social world. Themes which arise from the work of these women artists are the importance of the intuitive; letting a painting develop and be; the process of discovery and the freedom to give form to the unknowable. Are there things here for us, saturated as we are by the patriarchal/social? Reverence for colour and light and providing quiet space are not incompatible with feminism. Then there is the power assigned to the viewer. Edwina Leapman acknowledges the role of the observer in giving a work its life and meaning. Jennifer Durrant believes that paintings are vehicles, taking the viewer “off to some place else, of your own imagining.” Is this de-centring of the artist and her product useful for feminists …?

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