Remembering Abstract Art – Part 1

Remembering Abstract Art – Part 1 is the first of a series of personal reflections on abstract art.

I remember sitting in the living room one sunny morning, age 11, flicking through a book of Picasso’s late paintings, when I lingered on a colour print of a canvas from October 8, 1968 – Reclining Nude with Necklace. When I think about it now, I feel certain that it was a sunny day, until it occurs to me that, regardless of fact, my memory of those days is invariably sunny. My discovery of that painting also replays in memory as a moment of revelation, as the very sudden moment when abstract art began to make sense to me.

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Nude Woman with Necklace – Pablo Picasso 1881 – 1973, Tate, purchased 1983, Photo Credit: ©Tate, London, 2019.

The painting is, on the face of it, not abstract at all. It is entirely consistent with Picasso’s instinct towards figuration. It was painted at the height of the artist’s final period and is in many ways typical of the loose and large paintings he made in the last years of his life. Some might describe it as the carefree splashings of an artist who felt he had long since earned the right to forego any mediating anxiety about what he put on canvas or how he went about it. For one biographer the last decade of Picasso’s production was such an irrelevance that it was simply omitted. Picasso’s aesthetic instinct was solidly European, and despite the gestural excess of the painting, even at this late stage his hand could not make a single mark which did not in some way represent something. And in Reclining Nude with Necklace, every inch of the canvas is put to work to this end; down to the triangle of pinkish underpainting left exposed to serve as the woman’s supporting left arm, the flecks of impasto which tell us the necklace is reflecting light, or the accumulation of pinkish white here and there denoting highlights across the body. The painting has numerous painterly tricks of the trade which help us conjure a person, a divan, a light source, and a necklace to pick up that light as it falls from left to right.

It is the intensity of Picasso’s disinhibited paintwork however that makes this painting so interesting. Seen from this perspective, the entire canvas in fact works against the artist’s impulse to depict. The woman’s hair, matted against the leaning arm, is an abstract tangle abruptly cut off by the dense blue mass of the background. The crimson wedge of impasto paint representing the shadow between buttock and breast is of equal visual value within the whole to the opaque expanse of the red divan on which the figure rests. The woman’s face is etched with frantic scrawls little different from the ones which identify the upper left-hand side of the canvas and the raised right leg. Despite the sheer excess there is an overall levelling of tonal and spatial values across the canvas. At a certain point the subject disappears and the paint, and nothing but the paint itself, commands our attention. The revelation, to me, was that Picasso’s woman appeared to fluctuate between two states; of being the reclining woman and of being paint pure and simple.

Another more recent and reliable memory – and one which occasionally admits cloud – is from a trip I took to New York in 1999. By that stage I had developed a committed preoccupation with the question of what exactly constitutes an abstraction, and I was constantly on the lookout for what I saw as fine examples of it. My introduction to the Picasso painting had taken root in my memory as a moment in which I had become a believer in abstract art. From then on, I saw abstraction as a condition of perception which could in some way be pinned down and described, and believed that if there was an abstract art, there must consequently be a territory which marked the boundary between that which we perceived as abstract and that which was not.

On a clammy April day in New York, the sky as I now remember it threatening to collapse slowly into the streets from the weight of its greyness, I climbed the stairs to the rooms of Brooke Alexander to see the Helmut Dorner exhibition – Broken Knee. Now my memory records another moment of silent personal revelation as I walk excitedly from painting to painting.

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Helmut Dorner – ddd / From the 1999 exhibition Broken Knee at Brooke Alexander / Image courtesy of Brooke Alexander Editions, New York

If Picasso’s Reclining Woman with Necklace had seemed to me to be an abstract painting despite the evidence, Helmut Dorner’s paintings struck me as the closest thing I had seen to the very definition of abstraction. Where Picasso stumbled from figuration into the territory of what was then still recent American abstract painting through sheer brazenness of paintwork, everything about Dorner’s paintings worked to produce deliberate abstraction.

Best appreciated in the flesh, these paintings have a unique presence which is the result of a combination of details. They are relatively shallow Perspex boxes, mounted on the wall like any canvas. There are sparsely distributed paint marks, blobs, and dribbles – some oil paint, some pigmented resin. The Perspex boxes – in every other way performing a very convincing substitution for the traditional canvas – are missing a side here and there. Through the transparent face of each ‘canvas’ we can see the screws at the top corners on which the piece has been hung. Through the surface also, we can see subtle shadows of the paint marks against the wall, the shadows being duplicated by gallery spotlights and daylight.

Where the Reclining Woman gives the effect of paint mischievously playing around with our impulse to see a figure on a divan, the image constantly breaking down amongst the jostling paint marks, Dorner’s paintings are dedicated spaces within which any single mark floats with its presence uncorrupted by our imaging instinct. So independent are these paint marks that they cast shadows! The Perspex ‘canvas’ is a straight substitute for surfaces such as cotton, linen or wood panel – the kinds of surfaces on which paint has always traditionally laid. But by virtue of its transparency, the Perspex support suggests that painting is nothing more nor less than a conjuring trick – a series of movements choreographed to make us believe something has happened when it hasn’t. And by removing a section of the Perspex at the side here and there, the artist is inviting us to look behind an already transparent surface, as though in anticipation of the familiar question asked of painting across the centuries – ‘How was it done?’.

I’m not sure how long I spent examining those paintings, but I left the gallery floating as loose and happy as the shadow of paint, as I remember.

Alice Peillon

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Alice Peillon – Untitled Collage, mixed media, © 2018. Image courtesy of the artist

If we think of collage as a language of disparate, often delicate elements coming together in taut and balanced interactions, then Alice Peillon has achieved over time no small degree of mastery of its vocabulary and grammar. And if we can agree that a language at its most effective can express both the banal and the profound in a single breath, then we can see evidence in Alice’s work of the artist making the same demands of her medium; collage.

Whilst not precisely minimal, Alice’s collages do manage to express a certain expansiveness which hints at things unsaid within the measurements of the surface. This sense of a sparsely occupied space is all the more surprising on such a small scale. Alice’s experience as a painter contributes to the life of these works. Where paint or ink has been applied in her collages it is like the hint of a larger gesture – one which we can imagine continuing beyond the edges of the artwork. Painted marks are so reduced in these works that, where they appear, brushstrokes could be thought of as potential rather than fully formed. Pigment holds a subtle but powerful presence over these delicate surfaces, like the implied consequence of an unrealized act.

Through her unhurried experiments with paper, ink, fragments of photographic images, and painted gestures Alice is adding to the depth of findings by other exponents of the medium, artists such as Anne Ryan and Lyubov Popova.

This text was produced for the artist’s website – www.alicepeillon.com

Alice’s work is currently on show at Winns Gallery, London – artrabbit.com-winnsgallery

200 words #24 / Josephine Halvorson

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Josephine Halvorson / Night Window, February 11-12, 2015, 2015, Oil on linen, 31 x 22 inches, 79 x 56 cm © Josephine Halvorson, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Representational painting demands that we take it on faith that a subject exists as depicted. Josephine Halvorson paints her subjects on-site and within real-time constraints such as available hours of daylight – or in the case of the series Night Window, which the artist painted during a residency at the French Academy in Rome and which shows the same window on multiple nights – available hours of darkness. Her subjects fill the canvas and convince with every brushstroke.

Peering into the darkness and imagining the world we knew in daylight still there is also an act of faith. The unyielding opacity of Halvorson’s darkened window, with its implied depth, heightens our impulse to catch sight of that world. Looking from painting to painting in the series for traces of difference, we see more discernible depth and detail in the window frame than the endless night beyond.

Halvorson’s subtly different night scenes give the lie to any idea that we register a painted subject solely through the evidence of what is clearly depicted. Just as we can imagine the flaking paintwork on the window frame implied by the artist’s brushwork, so too can we hear the sounds from the darkness outside.

Night Window series on the artist’s website

ART21 / Youtube video of Josephine Halvorson making a painting

Josephine Halvorson at Sikkema Jenkins

Works from the series currently on view – The Lure of the Dark at MASS MoCA

 

 

Erika Verzutti – Ex Gurus @ Andrew Kreps Gallery / March 3 to 31, 2018

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Erika Verzutti – Homeopatia, 2018 Bronze, oil and acrylic paint 40 3/16 x 32 11/16 x 2 3/4 in (102 x 83 x 7 cm) Unique edition of 3. Image courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, Photo: Everton Ballardin

When I wrote the very first article for this website in December 2015, about Brazilian artist Erica Verzutti’s show at Alison Jacques London, I felt more inclined to refer to her as a painter than a sculptor. (Click here for the 2015 article) At the time I was struck by Verzutti’s use of bronze to create deceptively simple panels, any one of which could quite possibly have been produced with less effort in less permanent material. Added to the pleasant surprise of discovering that these panels were bronze was the willful irreverence the artist had shown towards that very medium by adding patches of acrylic paint here and there. The cheapening plastic dullness of acrylic served in this case only to strengthen the effect of bronze being used in such an unusual context, as a kind of surrogate for canvas. Verzutti’s confident handling of material, no small measure of humour, plus a gift for distilling complex questions of perception to produce irresistible objects of beauty, combined to deliver what I considered to be one of the best exhibitions of painting I had seen in recent years. And the question of whether Verzutti’s work is more painting than sculpture remains as delightfully infuriating in the artist’s most recent show – Ex Gurus – at Andrew Kreps as it was in her 2015 show in London.

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Erika Verzutti – Oblique Strategies, 2016 Papier-mâché and wax 21 1/16 x 26 x 3 1/2 in (53.5 x 66 x 9 cm) Image courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, Photo: Everton Ballardin

In Ex Gurus we see the same deft associations of material (bronze, paint, papier mâché, wax, clay, and stones) with subject matter – although the artist’s subject matter can often appear to operate in the service of the material. In Ex Gurus, as in Two Eyes Two Mouths – the title of her 2015 London show – I hesitate to refer to Verzutti’s conceptual material as subject matter but rather as a starting point. The concept is often a self-contained conceit on which the artist riffs with enviable ease with her physical material. One of the neatest examples from the 2015 show is a two-part painted bronze entitled The Dress. Two more or less identical bronze casts hang side by side, one gold, one black. The gold cast is streaked with white acrylic paint, the black cast streaked in its corresponding sections with blue. The identically distressed and chiselled surfaces of the bronzes mean that the streaks of paint look like a rubbing is being taken from two rocks. For anyone who remembers the visual paradox which was trending on social media at the time about a dress which appeared to two groups of viewers as alternately white and gold or black and blue, the spark of recognition and humour is immediate.

While the artist tells us that the subject matter of Ex Gurus is more personal – taking ideas from various “…immaterial things: astrology, homeopathy, feng shui, positive thinking.” and that the body of work in the exhibition “…started as a digression on synaesthesia, on the translation between senses.” – she has managed to maintain the same tight control over subjects with such potentially rampant humorous possibilities and created a series of superbly balanced works.

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Erika Verzutti Pilates, 2018 Bronze, oil and acrylic paint 48 x 40 3/16 x 4 3/4 in (122 x 102 x 12 cm) Edition 1 of 3, with 2 APs. Image courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, Photo: Everton Ballardin

There is never too much attempted in any single piece. Where a bronze has been left unpainted, it is because to have added more to the surface would likely have suggested that the sculptural component of the work on its own was not strong enough. Conversely, where paint has been added, as in the neatly arranged depressions on the surface of Homeopatia, it is only because these brightly coloured additions sit in clear distinction to the base on which they rest. In this case the addition of painted elements is governed by the availability of areas on the bronze surface on which paint can rest without losing its essence as just that – paint.

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Installation view of Erika Verzutti – Ex Gurus. Image courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, 2018. Photo: Dawn Blackman

And yet almost every visible aspect of the work speaks of sculpture and rough manipulation of material. Surfaces are pockmarked, slashed, gouged, and essentially duffed up. So, what is it about these panels that identifies them more as paintings than sculptures? And if we want to see them as painting entirely, then is it the evidence of a kind of crudely-worked clay form which has been manipulated just prior to the memorializing bronze casting stage which keeps dragging our thoughts back to sculpture, or is it simply the shock of the bronze itself?

A clue to the oscillating effect between painting and sculpture in Verzutti’s work lies in the relative segregation of all the individual elements of the work and their casual, but never contaminating, interaction. One of Verzutti’s talents is to be able to take otherwise irreconcilable components and distil them down to their essence so as to enable them to operate together. Sculpture here is represented by bronze, just as painting is invoked more than explored through the artist’s spare application of paint. And the third, and no more or less significant component – the conceptual spark – likewise lingers over the work as it develops physically, in the end becoming an intangible participant in the whole.

Ex Gurus at Andrew Kreps, New York

Two Eyes Two Mouths at Alison Jacques, London

Paul Mosse / What’s with the Apocalypse? @ Visual, Carlow – from 16/09/17 to 12/01/18

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Installation view of Paul Mosse / What’s with the Apocalypse? at Visual, Carlow. Photograph credit: Ros Kavanagh.

When I first saw Paul Mosse’s work at the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin in 1996, I was struck by how unlike any other Irish art it looked. By this I mean that, at that time, the greater percentage of artists working on the island announced themselves as Irish artists first and foremost, and much of what was being produced struck me as either parochial or strenuously international. Mosse’s work managed effortlessly to be neither of these. With complex, layered surfaces, and an all-over, centreless distribution of abstract motif, his work* seemed to me either to be withholding its identity from the viewer, or perhaps more significantly, was not overly concerned with identity in any case. The works in the DHG were as formless and non-specific in provenance as it seemed possible to be within the conventions of a rectangular painting format. At the time it signaled to me the possibility of another path for an artist – one in which an artist could keep the politics of their identity in check, lest it consume and corrupt what they produce.

*(I am referring solely to Mosse’s wall-bound works, rather than dealing only in passing, within the restrictions of this short article, with the many significant sculptural pieces in the exhibition at Visual Carlow.)

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Paul Mosse / What’s with the Apocalypse? at Visual, Carlow. Photograph credit: Ros Kavanagh.

On the face of it, Mosse would appear to be a very Irish artist indeed; working in a rural area, and cleaving unglamorous abstractions from hefty blocks of layered construction timber like some labourer-artisan. It is also easy to imagine a direct pictorial link between the artist’s buckshot panels and, for example, the casual disorder of a country yard after a hard, damp winter. However, any impulse to form pictorial relations between the artist’s surroundings and the painted and heavily-worked panels themselves serves only to close off more productive avenues of interpretation, and reduces the work to the level of gift shop novelty. Mosse has not simply lifted what he sees beneath his feet and, in fixing it to the perpendicular, created an image of layered history and toil. If these panels (deceptively I believe) resemble gouged and drained soil, then as such, it would be appropriate to say that they had been purged of all romance and lazy sentimentality.

The subject of an artist’s location is at once important and immaterial – it is important how they respond to their location and the effect their environment has on the appearance of the resulting work. Nevertheless, it should be immaterial how they feel about it. Their surroundings may determine certain things such as colour, scale and treatment of surface, but ultimately, any engagement with one’s environment (and this is particularly true I believe of painters) becomes an engagement with the materials with which one represents the condition of being there.  Cezanne was repeatedly drawn to the same ragged hill in the South of France, and in the process of observing it and painting it, perhaps moved further and further from comprehending it and from providing a true depiction of it. For Cezanne, painting sur le motif was a way of wrestling with the very material of paint.

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Paul Mosse / What’s with the Apocalypse? at Visual, Carlow. Photograph credit: Ros Kavanagh.

In Mosse’s case a similar concern with materiality is hyper-evident. Compared with the more recent works which form part of the artist’s current survey exhibition at Visual Carlow, those in the 1996 show at DHG are practically flat surfaces. The distinction however is merely quantitative. In the artist’s latest work he has allowed certain elements of those earlier panels, such as nails and other forbidding accretions, to proliferate; but in the twenty years that separate these bodies of work many essential characteristics remain.

An inventory of these characteristics might include the following:

Pockmarked layers of wood and paper, from which innumerable segments have been cut, lending the surface the illusion of greater and greater density and complexity the closer it comes to becoming nothing.

The all-over balanced distribution of metal, timber, and glued components, interspersed with masterfully arranged painted marks.

The positioning of the work in the territory between sculpture and painting – a position in which a work’s condition as painting will always, in principle, win out simply by virtue of its placement on a wall.

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Paul Mosse / What’s with the Apocalypse? at Visual, Carlow. Photograph credit: Ros Kavanagh.

Because of Mosse’s consistency of approach, and the persistence of these essential characteristics, many of the pieces on show at Visual Carlow strike us very clearly as developments on a theme. With the exception of the entirely free-standing sculptural pieces, very little has changed in the wall bound pieces save for a jump in scale, deeper and more layered surfaces, and occasional attacks on the edges of the largely rectangular pictorial format. Despite being cut into and drastically eroded around the edges, these panels retain more of an essence as painting than as 3-D objects, regardless of how deeply layered and eroded they have been made to appear. The surfaces are almost incomprehensibly busy, but, as with the DHG panels, they never overwhelm, but instead lend themselves to intense contemplation.

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Paul Mosse / What’s with the Apocalypse? at Visual, Carlow. Photograph credit: Ros Kavanagh.

Mosse has been working for years within what might seem to be the same patch of abstract territory, with a calm, almost forensic attention to the minutiae of his materials. There is a physicality to the work which, should we decide to see it in this way, speaks of the untrimmed beauty of the landscape within which it was made. Any analogous particularities between the work and the surrounding landscape are incidental next to the depth of investigation Mosse affords to the various material that he uses, and the multitudinous forms he produces. And yet, despite the artist’s absorption in the process of accumulating and removing material, he never allows the work any overly dramatic shifts from one piece to the next. All development is incremental, the whole subtly shifting over time, through the moment to moment process of arrangement and rearrangement of each constituent element. It is much the same process as we might imagine Cezanne undertaking every day, as he lugged his easel up a gravel path to the hill.

 

200 words #21 / Louise Fishman

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Louise Fishman, A LITTLE RAMBLE  2017, Oil on linen, 70 x 90 inches, 177.8 x 228.6 centimeters. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

By the time Louise Fishman took her first painting class in 1956, the same year Jackson Pollock died, Abstract Expressionism was already in decline. Retrospectively, Fishman has been spoken of as belonging to this movement, if only by way of a spiritual affiliation rather than as having played a part in its formation. In fact, had Fishman been a true contemporary of the main players in Ab Ex, it is unlikely still that she would have engaged with them to any great extent. She has been, by her own admission, a loner when it has come to creating alliances and nurturing relationships within the artworld. For such a solitary activity as painting this is perhaps no disadvantage. 

Fishman’s canvases are packed tight with contemporary riffs on Ab Ex – the sweep and drag of the brush, or whatever other implement the artist employs, leaving on the canvas the unmediated imprint of a super-sized gesture. If this sounds unsubtle, then the effect within each of Fishman’s canvases is elegant and controlled. The artist’s stated intention “…always, was to not repeat a painting”. The implied grid in each painting however, upon which the painted marks proliferate, allows a remarkably consistent voice to emerge.

Louise Fishman at Cheim & Read, New York