'Transforming Surfaces'

first published by Arthouse1 London, June 2018.

By Della Gooden

(i) Becoming 

Peter Joseph, Ochre, Light Purple, Deep Red, Sept 2014, acrylic on canvas, 117 x 97

Once fully formed and when it has flown the nest, a painting can do whatever it wants out in the world, but where does it begin? How does it ‘become’? A painting doesn’t just appear from nowhere, conjured up in the mind, free of any influence on the ground. The origin and formation of a painting is a matter of negotiation. The discriminating consciousness of the artist needs a collaborating world to produce something meaningful. How else can something come about?

 

Peter Joseph’s paintings originate on the desk of his studio in the form of small collages made from swatches of painted canvas. As he swaps and switches the colours and the shapes, the countryside stretches out before him through the large windows, and it is hard not to notice that the world is joining in. A confederacy of feeling, logic and invisible forces enact from within and without.

This critical structuring and restructuring is an arbitration of fragments and factions into something better. Alliances are forged, awkward positions abandoned in favour of better ones and compromises sought for the greater good. When everything is settled, when it is comfortable and just right, these small collages are made. Once made, they become the muse. They become the inspiration for a painting still to be made…. they beget another.

(ii) the [im]possibility of painting

G R Thomson, Anachromisms 32 (sea thrift, portrush), 2010-2017, acrylic on iinen, each part; 602 x 426 mm

Is a painting so different from other objects in the world, such as chairs and tables? My idea of a table expresses such common-sense functionality that most people, when asked to imagine it, would envisage something similar and I would accept their idea of a table as same enough to mine. But it wouldn’t work with a painting. Even if I listed the colours and explained the composition, it is certain that everyone would envisage something quite different.

 

Would anyone envisage anything the same? The shape, size and materials used could be conveyed reasonably well - but that is just ordinariness. It doesn’t help anyone know how two colours work next to each other or what the painting makes you feel.

 

Paintings are often compromised by the practical requirements for their presentation to the world and it isn’t unusual to sense a conflict of interest between the singular distinction of the work itself, and the comprehensible ordinariness of the structure on which it sits. What is unusual is if a painting sets out to win this conflict. G. R. Thomson’s paintings do just that.

 

‘Anachromisms 32 (sea thrift, Portrush)’ is an intriguing pair of paintings; hung so closely together that they might appear as one, and then equally, perhaps not one. By echoing the rectangular shape of their support structures, the paintings declare a difference from and independence of them. The main planes of colour reach to within a millimetre of the physical edge. They come close but crucially, not quite all the way. It’s a glorious tease. There is the tiniest, tiniest gap of bare canvas visible all the way around. The result is a seemly annexation of prime territory whilst the sides are left bare, unwanted and uninteresting in their nakedness. The paint, as substance, colludes too. It rejects the surface of the canvas by not sinking in, and it doesn’t break rank by bleeding out on its own perimeter.

 

All in all, it is a remarkable attempt by the paintings to exist autonomously of the structures they ironically depend on. It is an act of persuasion that I can’t help comparing to Antony’s eulogy to the Romans, where simple repeated statements of respect for Caesar’s assassin Brutus, cleverly elide into new inferred meanings of ridicule and mistrust – which we all know leads to a speedy and dramatic reversal of fortunes.

 

The achievement of ‘Anachromisms 32 (sea thrift, Portrush)’ is to recruit me as an accomplice. I’m won! Those planes of colour must be liberated. So, in the viewing, and after the ‘inter’ viewing, the work occupies a different place in my perception. I make myself blind to structure and real-world ordinariness. I only see smart, thinking paintings.

(iii)  over-lapping

Richard Bell, Palimpsest No 6 and 5,  2017, oil on linen, each part 80 x 80 cm

Why, when I am at an Art exhibition and when I am there with the full intention of looking at Art, do I walk straight past some of it? It doesn’t seem adequate enough to say, ‘because I don’t like it’. Conversely, why is it possible that at the same exhibition, I can cross the room and stand for ten minutes in silence, transfixed?

 

I suppose the gathering accumulation, that is my lived life, hasn’t yet fashioned the means by which it can notice the import of everything I encounter. I can’t engage with every painting in a room, but it is also true that some paintings do nothing to engage me. The incompatibility of inclinations and the ever-shifting conditions of time and space can mean that occasionally, an experience is just not to be had. In another moment, another place and using a different mix of wit and sensibilities, the work lights up. When this happens, there is a connection. You are plugged in.

 

Three weeks ago, I saw ‘Palimpsest No. 6 (Green-Blackness)’ by Richard Bell and it shot me. It was a double-barrelled load of generous green and sharp lime. The former, being expansive, sits astride the painting with unruffled confidence; the latter operates in the bottom half of the painting as an organising and controlling presence that has no respect for the dull buff brown that lives there too. This painting has some crazily attractive characters.

 

As I stood discerning the spatial and emotional relationships between shape and colour, I became aware of echoes of previous relationships lost in time and covered over with fresh intention. The surface of the painting is a place of historical interest, it is layered with past ‘happenings.

 

I figured at the time, that the dull buff brown must once have had the whole bottom half of the painting to itself before the sharp lime was let loose. Now I wonder if it was the other way round. Was the unfortunate dull buff brown given to the sharp lime as a plaything to keep it preoccupied, a sacrifice to keep the peace?

 

I am conscious that ‘Palimpsest No. 6 (Green-Blackness)’ first imprinted itself on a world that Bell had already recycled in the act of making, when he was plugged in. My gaze is delivered of a surface that contains transformations of that different place and time, that world. Whatever the painting shares, the imaginative and felt logic of my world, of my viewing, perceives truth and coherence.

(iv) body - world

David Saunders, August 2017, acrylic and Chinese ink on wood and gesso, 125 x 100 cm

Society controls day-to-day life perfectly well, thank you very much. Guided by the community, helped how to feel by friends and told how to think by institutions… explanations, instructions and advice abound. Most of the time I appreciate that the wheels need oiling in this way, but at times of terrible personal crisis all that can be heard is the well-meant clichés of civil reasoning. Structures that once granted advantage, become utterly unusable and what remains is unbearable…. but at least it feels like the truth. It feels real.

Getting back to nature feels real. Imagine a meadow on a sunny hillside where you can run in any direction, as fast as you want. Like Julie Andrews you can spin with your arms stretched out towards the distant mountains, with the air around you and the wind in your clothes. Can you think of anything more essential? What if, on that sunny hillside, instead of breathing the mountain air as you run, your lungs must take in fluid? Water is your habitat. It is all around you, going inside your body and back out again... and it’s part of you too; it is you! Of course, the body breathes and circulates air not water, but how intertwined with the world our existence feels, when our attention is pricked by metaphor!

If breathing is an act of assimilation, does the body assimilate the world, or does the world assimilate the body? And are questions of duality a feature of perception too? For example, do my eyes let the world in, or do they let me out, into the world? Is it reasonable to think of the (inside) body and the (outside) world as separate, unconnected realms?

‘August 2017’ by David Saunders, is an acute consequence of the artist assimilating the world and giving it back. An expression of mediation; its interior has asymmetrical cohesion tuned to a frequency shared with the physical inhabitation of the three-dimensional world. It’s a micro-world.

When I first viewed the painting, my eyes walked straight in. I ‘saw-felt-thought’ it instinctively and I moved inside the painting as effectively as I walk the Earth. One element led to another and that revealed more; an uncovering and exposing, whilst I could also see everything. The space between where I stood and where the painting began, was navigable; eye to mind, face to thought, place to place. I was on a bridge that merged the perceptual and the physical.

The experience of viewing ‘August 2017’ is difficult to analyse because it happened before thinking and without thinking. What I can say is there was no sense of sequence, as in a journey, or a narrative. It was more like envelopment. Saunders’ painting has prompted a note-to-self on my fridge: ‘reset reality gauge to primordial.’

(v) the substance of space

Morrissey and Hancock

Installation 'Chromatic 3' wood and mixed materials, 275 cm

Photo Morrissey and Hancock

Space separates objects, places and people and in so doing it creates what we call distance and provides an arena for movement. Consider crossing an untidy, furniture-cluttered room. The route is indirect and impossible to plan because there isn’t a clear view, or enough space to move freely. Squeeze past, bend to fit, breathe in, look about and plan another move, take big strides or small, where needed. It’s ‘sprung rhythm’, a natural calculation and progression of stops and starts.

 

I would suggest it quite normal to value the furniture in that room more than the space around it - which is, after all just air… basically nothing. We can’t see it or feel it - so why give it a second thought? Our everyday, instinctive use of space, in conjunction with time and movement to perform tasks and activities (dance, pack a suitcase, catch a ball, shake hands…) tends to see it relegated as a function of purpose. The creative act affords space a promotion.

 

When a piece of canvas is freshly cut, a painting’s maximum size is generally known; the edge is the furthest it can go. ‘Installation 'Chromatic 3' by Patrick Morrissey and Hanz Hancock has no such predetermined limitations. It can expand in space in any direction and at any time. The only boundary it knows is the size of the room, or the environment within which it is situated.

 

In the studio, as soon as I saw it, this piece impatiently relayed to me its alternative formal and spatial potential. The long thin slats of wood suspended to form a vertical field, are spaced at intervals and they hang with every intention of changing their mind. Each time I looked, I believed they wouldn’t stay that way for long. The black, white and silver camouflage-like ‘markings’ on each slat facilitate the fragmentation of solidity and encourage the air around it to participate. Space and form strive for mutual cohesion, for equality.

 

A small piece titled ‘Mourning in Yellow’ was on an adjacent wall. Its depth was shallow, and it occupied the same amount of space as a small painting, but I couldn’t see a flat, opaque surface as would be expected on a painting... instead, I perceived it as a container. I felt inclined to get closer… I wanted to tilt my head from side-to-side and peer in. The square frame was inset with multiple cylindrical volumes, each sending forth from their centres a bright vibrant yellow cone, pointing outwards. Compacted together in an regimental manner, shapes with graduated colours form complex geometric patterns. ‘Mourning in Yellow’ displays its contents like a box of beautiful chocolates.

 

Despite having no identifiable flat surface I could, none-the-less, sense that something was there. A slice of space reverberates like an invisible force field across the front, sealing everything in, acting like a transparent lid. The surface is implied - and the implication is compelling.

 

Space is not nothing... it is of substance.    

Photos courtesy Richard Bell

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Catalogue Essays © Della Gooden, 2020

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