Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy 24.08.2016-02.01.2017

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‘Interior’, Mark Rothko

Abstraction Expressionism as a term was coined by Robert Coates in 1946 to denote a new style of art, most prevalent in America. It refers to both the visual qualities of European abstraction and the emotional ones of German Expressionism. The breadth of this field is explored in the RA show where representational works such as Mark Rothko’s ‘Interior’ (1936) become more gestural through the practice of Jackson Pollock before evolving into geometrical planes with Barnett Newman.

Despite the volume of works in the exhibition the scale of many of the pieces remains as confrontational as when created; their monumental nature enabling them to be simultaneously animated, intense and spontaneous. The more stripped back works however, where one field of colour dictates the painting also borders the sublime. These contrasting ideals ensures that the viewer is promoted to having a more active role, what the work denotes or wants to instil not as apparent as in a more representational work.

 Abstract Expressionist painting has been previously split into two categories, action and colour field. This definition however does not take into account pieces which transcend this border; dynamic and physical works that are dictated by colour. Even the most ‘flat’ works have movement instilled as the production is often apparent and the tones layered. Rothko proposes that in the works ‘subject is crucial’, demonstrative of the human condition as much as any portrait. The subject however is not always apparent, the way one is encouraged to react with the work more important than what it contains.

Ulysses, 1952 - Barnett Newman

‘Ulysses’, Barnett Newman

Similar works were often paired however the close proximity between works in some rooms meant it was hard to separate out an individual painting without seeing the colour or lines reflected in opposing works. Though in some instances this worked in others the clarity of form was lost. This was particularly apparent in Barnett Newman’s works ‘Ulysses’ (1952) and ‘Midnight Blue’ (1970) where any sense of infinity was lost through the nearness of the pieces. Colour is separated by ‘zips’, thin vertical lines which variegate the colour field and define the spatial structure of the painting; simultaneously splitting and drawing together the composition. With the works positioned so closely however these zips referenced each other rather than creating a plane or establishing a focal zone within the individual work.

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‘Midnight Blue’, Barnett Newman

David Anfam, who helped to curate the show, proposes that Abstract Expressionism is not so much a movement but a phenomenon; the breadth of practices a response to a particular period rather than adherence to one style. This can be seen with Clyfford Still’s work, which aesthetically is far removed from other practices. Colour is employed to denote spatiality, the vast flaking areas of paint invoking a natural grandness, reminiscent of grand canyons, craggy planes or tempests. They appear to resonate with the uncontrollable forces of the natural world whilst retaining a layered artificiality which renders some solely as layers of colour.

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Clyfford Still

 Rothko on the other hand takes a more stripped back approach, using often singular colours to denote the breadth and ‘tragedy’ of human emotions. Rothko, Still and Newman however have all at some time or other been seen to be searching for and trying to encapsulate the sublime. The sublime as a quality denotes greatness whether in a physical, moral, aesthetic or intellectual form, beyond imitation or calculation and measurement. Rothko often referred to his paintings as facades, enabling them to denote both the figure, landscape and emotions. This definition only goes to enhance their enigmatic hypnotism so that they simultaneously conceal and reveal. The fading chromatic edges , seen in ‘No.15’ (1957), which have a sense of immediacy and reticence are a prime example of this, referring to the unseen whilst framing the image. This play between the seen and unseen is active throughout the exhibition, the layered colours and shapes prompting the view to interact with the works more closely.

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‘No.15’, Mark Rothko

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Emulsion on board, 200x30cm

Yi Fu Tuan in ‘Space and Place’ suggests that spatial dimensions are experiences known intimately to the body, mass, volume the vertical and the horizontal felt rather than analysed through one sense. This could go some way to explain the bland architecture of commercial centres and non-places, one’s experience taking precedent over site.

 There is also an intrinsic built in appreciation of size and scale, a building which dominates a large area, even if only a concrete box, held to higher esteem than a more intricate smaller complex. Tuan suggests that the layman’s appreciation of ‘thrust and repose’ goes back to the towering structures of Ancient Egypt, scale equating to grandeur even without any aesthetic pretension.

This has led to a swathe and influx of a vast landscape of characteristically featureless buildings and spaces where their use has taken precedent over visual gratification. I have been focusing on particular aspects of these places and reducing them to a bare abstracted form so that it is the space, often redundant, which again becomes the focus.

For this piece the area chosen is that of a travellator, often spanning barely 200m they encompass the idea of the consumer being only one product of a never ending conveyor belt.  This piece is more stretched than previous works to enhance the tunnel like nature of the space.

The work is painted in monochrome colours aside from two bright bands of blue which cut off the white section of space. Blue as the most artificial pigment has varying qualities, Egyptian Blue emits infrared radiation meaning it can be traced even when all visible colour has subsided, however it is links with technology that I am drawing on, non-places reliant upon all electronic forms.

An area to explore is the concept of extending out into the space more, as seen in the works of Wade Guyton who subtly shifts and alters the exhibition space itself. Guyton challenges ones understanding of images through his digital processes, an inkjet printer creating ‘canvases’, questioning where the digital ends and the material begins.

Though I am using paint to reference the buildings and spaces depicted I need to more consciously consider how the work is displayed so that it interacts with this exhibition space more. This could be through extended the paint off the board, painting directly onto the wall, obstructing the exhibition space with the work or referencing the size of screens, synonymous with non-places.

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Wade Guyton 

Back to Back

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Emulsion on board, 244x122cm

By abstracting a space or object each viewer deciphers what is depicted differently. In a world where identical shops sit not only side by side but are mirrored the other side of the world many diverse places share the same features. I am drawing on this in my work so that one interpretation of a non-place such as an airport could also reflect a local garage or supermarket. 

This is particularly apparent here as though I set out to reflect the seemingly endless lines of retail shelving in our capitalist culture, the work visually references a multitude of other imagery from lines of technology to a time lapse photograph of a road or rail network.

This broad ranging interpretation could be seen to partly reside in the addition of coloured edges or lines, the falsely iridescent hues more reminiscent of the digital than ‘real’ world. Though only bands of 3mm thickness they appear to dominate the space so that the focus is on line rather than form and therefore the notion of a conventional space is lost.

In previous works I have always tried to establish a notion of physical space however here abstraction could be seen to have removed this. As the piece is 2.44×1.22m however a different kind of space is constructed, a physical rather than representational one which alters its surroundings, one can imagine the lines continuing ad infinitum.

Abstract art is often seen as the most intimidating form of painting as it requires the viewer to take a more active role, an object, place or theory conceptualised rather than reproduced. The links between line segments analysed rather than the deciphering of a work from the bottom, the way one visually and mentally reconstructs an image in order to analyse it challenged.

Top down thinking is promoted over bottom up, ingrained mental processes and natural associations questioned. Though my work is not wholly abstract these are areas which I am exploring in my practice and I need to test further the level of abstraction I take the work to.

This is the largest painting I have made to date however the scale has not had as much of an effect on the final composition or interaction with the exhibition space as I expected. As the space depicted is so abstracted it is hard for the viewer to enter the space in the conventional sense and therefor the impact of the piece is no greater than that of smaller works.

This may be different if the work was more representational however Tomma Abts practice highlights the fact that intrigue is not linked to scale. Each of her compositions at 38x48cm draws the viewer in, depth artificially instilled in flat bocks of colour through the use of contrasting hues. She creates spaces without external references, compositions carefully layered and the eye drawn round each contrasting curve. Though I do want some notion of representational space in my pieces, working on a set smaller scale is an idea to explore.

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Tomma Abts

An idea I could test out in the sense of scale is making the pieces, whether on board, metal or Perspex, the same size as display, information or computer screens found throughout non-places and modern capitalist spaces. It has been suggested that some of the spaces depicted reference those of video games, areas which may exist but don’t wholly disorientate the viewer.

By referencing the screen size I could highlight the intrinsic reliance of these spaces on technology and the way in which technology itself is changing our analysis and understanding of real spaces, questioning where the artificial and factual fuse.

Untitled (Border)

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Emulsion on board, 92x61cm

Geometric abstraction is a term used to define abstract art constructed from varying geometric forms. It is commonly employed in the depiction of non-representational or illusionistic spaces. I have ordinarily used it as a technique in conjunction with representation so that the essence of a space is encapsulated but without any clearly discernible feature.

In my work I have been depicting sites which sit between the notion of space and place, the modern buildings which make up the contemporary urban landscape and the minimalistic concrete features often come through in the final composition. With this piece however I wanted to make a more abstract work so that structure rather than space was the focus.

The provenance of the painting is barely apparent, the image derived from crossing escalators seen through a gap in the stairs, however the shapes used to construct the piece still reference modern architectural features found in non-places.

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Justin Hibbs

Justin Hibbs uses additional lines in his paintings to refract the viewers focus and shift one’s spatial perception of the place (creating a space on a space) however I want to use them more to modulate and enhance the space of the painting itself. The use of colour adds to this as it highlights the contrast between the pre-existing monochrome hues whilst referencing the increasing reliance on technology in the spaces (stations, airports, supermarkets etc) depicted.

Edward W. Soja opens up the analysis of space by splitting it into three separate areas. He proposes that Firstspace is controlled by the real/material world, Secondspace the fictional representations of this space, whilst Thirdspace is the combination of the previous two. Soja suggests that modern society is now existing solely within Thirdspace and can therefore never be entirely pinned down. The internet could be seen to be a prime example of Secondspace however its intrinsic reliance upon Firstspace ensures that it adheres to the rules of Thirdspace alongside other non-places.

This definition of contemporary space has an abstract quality which I am trying to echo in my works by depicting spaces which though defined can never be pinned down as they are constantly fluctuating. The insertion of colour adds to this fluctuation as it references the innumerable movements in technology and contemporary spaces.

The overall feedback for this piece has been around the strength of its composition. I have found it hard to look at the work objectively as in all previous pieces there has been a reference of a tangible space and this is not apparent here. This could be seen to reference though the changing nature of many modern spaces whilst the use of the coloured bands add a depth left void by the composition.

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Egyptian Blue

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Emulsion on board, 92x61cm

Egyptian blue as a colour is now synonymous with technology and a capitalist consumer culture. It has a history however which dates back thousands of years from the early Egyptian dynasties. As the first synthetic pigment it has survived virtually unchanged over time and has an increasing relevance today in a synthetic world. In modern applications it has been found that the colour has an exceptionally high luminescence yield for a molecular-level infrared emitter and can penetrate a material further than any other colour.

It is not its use in biomedical application however which interests me but its frequent employment in branding by large corporations. Tantamount not only to the colour of computer and phone screens but the logos of companies such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkIn etc, Egyptian blue has the shortest wavelength and therefor small deviations in colour are less noticeable. Blue could be seen to have natural connotations however the advances of technology have enhanced its particularly synthetic appeal.

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It is its relevance as colour to contemporary society that has led me to include bands of it in this piece. My previous paintings of areas between space and place or non-places have been kept monochrome so that the precise location is not pinned down however here the colour works as an activation for a seemingly bare space whilst referencing the technological control of everyday places.   Contrary to what is expected to happen the insertion of colour also made the space more tangible drawing the viewers eye round the curve of the corridor more to the abutting wall.

The thin bands of colour also reference the early works of Jo Baer. I only realised this in retrospect though as I was more consciously considering Bridget Riley’s somewhat vibrant use of colour. Baer comments on perception in a cluttered architectural environment by restring or obscuring angles of viewing. It is her use of stripes of colour however which I want to explore further, the colour modulating the light and space of the otherwise simple image. It is as if the space is enhanced by irradiation, horizontal and vertical bands stimulated by sharp contrast and unlike the works of Mondrian these continue round the edge of the canvas.

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Jo Baer

I thought that the insertion of ‘unnatural’ colours into a space would flatten it and render it artificial however the opposite seems to occur, the contrast of colour offering a greater juxtaposition in light and shade creating simulated depth. I am going to gradually increase the number of colours added to works whilst ensuring that their artificiality reflects the nature of modern spaces.

Everyplace

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‘Everyplace’, Emulsion on board, 180x70cm

If places can be defined by their internal parameters, spaces can be explained by their limitless boarders. In a society increasingly governed by technology and reliant upon non-places, space as never been so fluctuating, the limits of the internet and commercial areas boundless.

Through painting I have been exploring areas between space and place or non-places, institutions ‘formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure)’ (Marc Augé). The content of these areas is both ‘social and spatial’ however the interactions fuelled are culturally devoid. This is reflected in the nature of the spaces themselves which hold little architectural significance and mirror one another almost exactly.

I have abstracted and reduced these spaces so that only a bare indication of the original framework remains whilst the space itself is still encapsulated so that the viewer can recognise what is depicted as part of the modern landscape. Monochrome colours on the other hand were used so that the identity of the space wasn’t restricted to one place.

Here the symmetry of an underground carpark is explored however the piece could equally be a slipway, tunnel or corridor in many non-places. The image is divided to represent the divisions within non-places and reflect the architecture of the space depicted. In an exhibition context I chose to display the work against a rough brick wall to heighten the contrast between the sections and the sharpness of the lines within the image, levitating the work away from the wall so that each section threw a connecting shadow.

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I received varying feedback from the piece however the main strengths identified were the finish of the work and lines alongside the way in which the white space drew the eye into the space and the level of abstraction chosen, a space clearly visible whilst the identity was ambiguous. Many commented however on the lack of colour and though people realised that this was so that the location of the space was not restricted many suggested that as the space itself was so geometrically abstracted the insertion of some colour would not detract from the work.

The way to approach this going forward will be the gradual insertion of colour into future pieces. I will start by adding thin bands around some sections to reflect the lines round the edge of digital screens, ever prevalent in non-places. In doing so I will also reference the practises of Bridget Riley, in colour choice, and Ian Monroe in structure.

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Bridget Riley, ‘Rattle’, 1973

By inserting thin boarders of colour to some areas I will also reflect Monroe’s notion on the importance of edges which can denote individual agendas or collective desires; where a boundary is drawn more important than what it contains. Cities and technologies are slaves to boundaries which control territories locally and universally whether self-established or imposed. Monroe defines the concept of a boundary as a ‘manipulated edge’ and by physically inserting an edge into my work I hope to move away from a brutalist aesthetic whilst further reflecting the limits and constraints of spaces in contemporary society, manipulated by voracious edges.

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Ian Monroe

‘Place and non-place are rather like opposed polarities: the first is never completely erased, the second never totally completed… But non-places are the real measure of our time’ (Marc Augé).

The ICA to Hauser & Wirth November 2016

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Lygia Pape, ‘Tteia 1C’, 2001/2016, Silver thread, wood, nails, light

There are pros and cons to visiting a dozen exhibitions in a few hours however it does ensure that, while some pieces’ slip into insignificance other specific works stand out as being particularly visually intriguing or conceptually challenging. From the Almine Rech Gallery to the ICA and the Gagosian in London it was Hauser & Wirth’s ability to construct a new and immersive exhibition space which stood out. With each new exhibition walls have been moved, surfaces altered and lighting adjusted to suit a particular artist’s work and this ensures that the viewer is confronted with a new gallery space with each visit, often the outside of the building the only indication of one’s whereabouts.

This contortion of the gallery space was particularly prevalent to Lygia Pape’s practice. The windows facing out onto the street has been tinted black so that only the ghostly impression of the occasional van broke the illusion that this was a completely separate space. Concrete art is a form of abstraction which excludes any reference to observational reality or symbolic meaning. This was a mainstay of Pape’s early practice and her geometric constructions however by following more of a neo-concrete movement in later works she was able to blur the border between art and everyday life. This led to the creation of pieces which transfigure and morph into different forms in front of the viewer to give a wholly sensory experience.

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Lygia Pape, ‘Desenho (Drawing)’, 1961, Ink on Japanese paper, 44.8x33cm 

There is a play between positive and negative in all of Pape’s works from the early ink drawings to the vast installation ‘Ttéia 1C’ (2001/2016), the viewer able to read a multitude of fluctuating ideas into the pieces from grids and building, to musical staves and voids. The viewer is actively engaged throughout however the works dictate one’s experience and this is particularly apparent in her geometric weave of silver threads which cut through the air. One is kept at a certain distance from the work, forced to walk round and round but without enough distance to gage the entire structure, each line dissecting your view. This delineation and control of space was explored in a different sense by James Richards at the ICA where sound rather than structure forced the viewer to interact with his piece ‘Crumb Mahogany’ (2016) in a certain way.

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James Richards, ‘Crumb Mahogany, 2016, Six-channel audio system

The six channel sound installation was arranged in a circuit and people interacted with this in different ways. Some walked round and round the outside of the speakers however others who had entered the periphery of the sound were seemingly trapped by the noise, one viewer sat for hours as if entranced by the space. Bombarded by a wide range of languages and musical genres it was hard to tune in to a particular noise, the incidental sounds drowned by a vocal trio. There was a cinematic nature to over-enthralling kaleidoscopic pieces as if there was some unknown order which dictated one’s sensory perceptions and interactions with the space.

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Ed Ruscha, ‘Galaxy-U.S.A.-Dot’, 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 182.9x315cm

Scale was explored in a different sense by Ed Ruscha in ‘Extremes and In-betweens’ at the Gagosian gallery where the macro and the micro converged in the interplay of word and their meanings. Spatial concepts are laid out in rows in ‘Galaxy’ as if the viewer is trying to read an outsized optical test card from Galaxy to dot, the larger given the precedence in scale but not meaning. There are references to the cinematic in his use of text, language and scale however throughout there is an ambiguity between language and the concept which is denoted, the transience in all aspects of the world highlighted. Rushca’s pieces however do not dictate the viewers experience of the space in the same way that Page and Richard’s pieces do. This is partly due to scale however it is predominantly the sensory experiences which they invoke and the way in which they divide the exhibition space and it is this latter area which I want to explore in my practice.

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Ed Ruscha, ‘Bio, Biology’, 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 182.9x315cm