Some Notes on Contemporary British Abstract Painting

Some Notes on Contemporary British Abstract Painting 2017

“before the work conveys reality it must achieve its own reality, before it can be a symbol it must rejoice in being a fact, and the more it affirms its autonomous reality the more will it contain the possibility of returning us to the reality of life.” David Sylvester

When abstraction was first at the forefront of radical artistic modernity, in the earlier part of the 20th Century, the historical moment was not so unlike that of our own contemporary political moment. Global financial crisis and mass unemployment; rising nationalism; movement towards ultra right wing politics; leaps in scientific knowledge and technology are just some of the common features to both epochs. Those same issues informed the original modernist agenda which, while wavering between optimism and despair, was nevertheless convinced of the power of art and its ability to make sense of a rapidly changing world.

Artists today are uniquely placed to look back and assess the nature and development of British Abstract art since its flowering a little over a century ago. Recently a new generation of British artists seem increasingly inspired by the non-representational and are actively engaged in a re-appraisal of its merits. But whereas those earlier artists, underpinned by either spiritual beliefs or a socially utopian ideology, developed new forms of abstract art, today artists are able to encompass many of the most characteristic historical forms of abstraction.

Robert Motherwell wrote that “The function of the modern [his italics] artist is by definition the felt expression of modern reality.” And that “The past has bequeathed us great works of art; if they were wholly satisfying, we should not need new ones.” He goes on to expand, “From this past art, we accept what persists [as] eternally valuable….It is the eternal values that we accept in past art. By eternal values are meant those which, humanly speaking, persist in reality in any space-time, like those of aesthetic form, or the confronting of death.” (I)

Many contemporary artists are presently engaged in an exploration of the recovery of some themes and forms from the tradition of modern art. in an inquiry into their ‘values’ to better enable them to express the social, political, and spiritual experience of our own time. Contrary to a perceived sense of being based on a regressive, ‘nostalgic’ attitude, abstract painting is perhaps a unique ‘platform’ in offering such a direct means to ably acknowledge the co-existence, for example, of mathematical order with the bodily. It’s a combination we as a society are increasingly forced to encounter and is central to how our relationship with the world is increasingly changing.

In an article, from 2016, ‘When music can be made on a screen, we lose abstraction’, introducing a new app for the iPad, which enables anyone to make music on a touch screen by moving shapes around with their fingers, Russell Smith makes the following observation: ”this pretty technology can be seen as part of a larger tendency in our lives towards the graphic representation of everything. Very little is abstract any more. Sounds and words and numbers are all spinning and glowing, colourful three-dimensional objects in our minds, because that’s what they look like on our screens. When we check the weather forecast on our phones we see an image of a stormy sky or a sun. That hits us before the actual temperature does.” (II) We detect in Smith’s (online) article, which navigates a space between a review (of a new ‘product’) and a critique, this sense of a certain condition of loss being communicated. (Interestingly a loss of the abstract in the realm of the technological).

We perhaps all feel that there appears to be this generalised sense in our culture that something may have been lost, this power of the screen and the Internet, in this the ‘information age’, hovers over us. An ever present charged border between the human and the technological. And it is in perhaps meeting this challenge, of offering a site for negotiating a ‘mediated life-world’ is where contemporary abstract painting differs to previous incarnations.

As might be expected, the paintings of Contemporary British Abstract Painters are as rich and as varied as one would imagine. Any partial list of some of the features of Contemporary British Abstract paintings might include both geometric or biomorphic compositions, irregular grids, lattice and stripes. Some CBAP’s employ a large vocabulary of smudges, stains, spray paint, flecks, dribbles and painterly marks, in saturated colour – others employ almost-monochromatic fields. Gestural techniques are mobilised on the painting surface, perhaps re-enacting the conversation about control and freedom happening in the wider world. The expressive gesture, serving as reminder of the material domain of the human body – a visceral mode of abstractly figuring the bodily in and through the material of paint.

Contemporary British Abstract painting ably evokes a host of themes, from landscape to bodies and signs to architecture, and much more. At the level of reception we may feel the artists are tangentially exploring subjects: such as commodity culture, aspects of the social, personal, or art history. In some instances the process of painting is itself the content – or the content might be discovered, revealed through the very act of painting. “Its order as well as its subject-matter can be evolved in the act of painting, for the ultimate reality of painting lies in painting.” (III) David Sylvester

Some of the artists produce work which deliberately resembles something coarse, inelegant and provisional. Others are deftly executed or cerebral. When someone chooses to make a surface, that painting will largely refer to that surface. When they choose to include a form or an outside reference in a painting, they are knowingly opening it up to another world of possibilities. In some instances artists works offer up their graphic field to be taken in at once. Seeing it and getting it fast as – an intentional acknowledgement of todays reality of the endless distribution of digitised images and viewing on all manner of digital devices.

Contemporary abstract paintings re-emergence appears to answer deep cultural concerns at this time, aiding us, as I believe that it does, to begin to make sense of our digital, screencentric experience today. There’s little need (or will) for any binary position to be taken, it’s clear that artists don’t have to choose between the computer and the hand. But rather, it’s in an ongoing conversation between the two that I believe has given painting its latest surge in vitality.

Terry Greene, 2017

(I) Robert Motherwell, The Modern Painter’s World, Written in 1944 and presented as a lecture at a conference at the Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts

(II) The app is called Rotor, which enables anyone to make music on a touch screen, and record it and alter it, by moving shapes around with their fingers. Published Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016, in the Globe and Mail, article by Russell Smith, a Canadian writer and culture columnist.

(III) David Sylvester, English Abstract art, 1957, From his collected writings: About Modern Art, Critical Essays 1948-97, published by Pimlico, 1997.

The above  was my contribution to the exhibition catalogue for the touring show: Contemporary Masters from Britain: 80 British Painters of the 21st Century.

Contemporary Masters from Britain: 80 British Painters of the 21st Century. An exhibition catalogue for a touring show visiting Yantai Art Museum, Yantai, Jiangsu Arts and Crafts Museum, and Jiangsu Art Museum, Nanjing, Peoples Republic of China in 2017, curated by Robert Priseman,with essays by Dr Judith Tucker, Terry Greene and Matthew Krishanu. Featured artists include: David Ainley, Iain Andrews, Amanda Ansell, Louis Appleby, Richard Baker, Karl Bielik, Claudia Böse, Day Bowman, John Brennan, Julian Brown, Simon Burton, Marco Cali, Ruth Calland, Emma Cameron, Simon Carter, Jules Clarke, Ben Cove, Lucy Cox, Andrew Crane, Pen Dalton, Jeffrey Dennis, Lisa Denyer, Sam Douglas, Annabel Dover, Natalie Dowse, Fiona Eastwood, Nathan Eastwood, Wendy Elia, Tracey Emin, Lucian Freud, Paul Galyer, Pippa Gatty, Terry Greene, Susan Gunn, Susie Hamilton, Alex Hanna, David Hockney, Marguerite Horner, Barbara Howey, Linda Ingham, Silvie Jacobi, Matthew Krishanu, Bryan Lavelle, Laura Leahy, Andrew Litten, Cathy Lomax, Clementine McGaw, Paula MacArthur, Lee Maelzer, David Manley, Enzo Marra, Monica Metsers, Nicholas Middleton, Andrew Munoz, Keith Murdoch, Paul Newman, Stephen Newton, Gideon Pain, Andrew Parkinson, Mandy Payne, Charley Peters, Ruth Philo, Barbara Pierson, Alison Pilkington, Robert Priseman, Freya Purdue, James Quin, Greg Rook, Katherine Russell, Wendy Saunders, Stephen Snoddy, David Sullivan, Harvey Taylor, Delia Tournay-Godfrey, Judith Tucker, Julie Umerle, Mary Webb, Rhonda Whitehead, Sean Williams, Fionn Wilson 

Diary of a painting – Jai Llewellyn

Diary of a painting

Acid House Party Disco

‘Acid House Party Disco’
Oil on found wooden box, 50x35cm
December 23, 2017- March 20, 2017

The support for this painting had obviously enjoyed some life before I found on the way to a Jim Lambie show at the Modern Institute, in Glasgow, propped up against a lamppost. It caught my eye, I could see it had a hand made pine frame topped with a sheet of ply. It was pretty crudely put together with screws sticking out in the wrong places and the ply was badly cut. On the underside there was some childish graffiti, doodles and choice phrases such as, Acid house party disco, from where I took the title. I picked it up and fell in love with it immediately, I felt that it has some life in it. That will be a painting one-day, I said to Gill.

The Lambie show was ok, some interesting painted iron grids and pastel coloured washing machines. I found a nice book of Matt Connors paintings but the whole time I was thinking about the box and what it might become.

It was an odd size for me, more of a landscape format than I usually go for, I knew it would give me a bit of a headache. This proved to be the case, it took me a relatively long time to arrive at the finished composition. Before I could start to think about painting I had to fix it up a bit. I took out the dodgy screws, planed and sanded the ply and lightly skimmed the whole surface with a household filler. Once I had fixed and squared up the box I gave it a few coats of gesso. I was beginning to feel a physical connection to it as an object, something that is important in my work.

Progress was slow as I had several other pieces on the go at same time. I would put some washes down, a few marks, some pencil lines, trying to get a feel for the proportions. Early colours were washed out lemon yellows and greys, then teal, blue/green and turquoise. Nothing decisive was happening, it was all surface play and flat. I made a strong vertical divide and decided it was going to be portrait. Despite its length, I wanted to get away from the obvious landscape reference.
After about a month the painting came to some kind of a conclusion with two intersecting L shapes that were tonally very close. There were some things happening that I liked but I felt it was too tight and came too easily. The structure needed to be broken, compromised in some way, it was too polite and didn’t reflect the reality of the desired experience.
I started to use the paint much thicker and with bolder colour choices, intuitively putting anything down. Blocks of true colour in close proximity with edges caressing each other. The whole surface was activated but the colour combinations were confused and chaotic.

I knew it had to change but was content with the stage it was at and thought I could work with it. A week or two of drying time went by before I would work on it again. An off white grid was overlaid which separated the forms and allowed each colour to hold its own space. The resulting composition was slightly irregular and off kilter, colours were highly saturated, Sap Green, Cerulean, Naples yellow, Cadmium red and black, all straight out of the tube. Another week or so of drying…

The final stage of the painting happened very quickly, an hour or two and it was done. I knew I wanted to keep the previous stage visible, to lie beneath but to be disjointed and not quite connected to what lay on top. The paint had to be thin again and every move traceable to keep its vitality, allowing things to happen rather than just being, a tension between the labored and apparent freedom of creation.

Listening to Radio 4 and 6 music

Reading an interview with Thorton Willis
Watching Sean Scully on you tube
Jim Lambie, Modern institute, Glasgow
Joseph Beuys, Modern Art, Edinburgh
Joseph Albers, David Zwirner, London
Terry Frost, Beaux Arts, London
Sandra Blow, Fine Arts Society, London
Kentridge & Koorland, Fruitmarket, Edinburgh

Jai Llewellyn