Diary of a painting – Sarah McNulty



Acrylic, ink and dye on glass, 67x 76 cm, 2017

Recently I have been alternating between the studio and projects with large-scale window and wall paintings in relationship to various public spaces in Copenhagen. Back in the studio they shift between a series painted through dyeing processes (using sun-reactive photogram dyes, bleaches and inks) alongside more traditional painterly approaches, often on and over old paintings of mine and other unknown found surfaces. I set these modes of working together and try to figure something out from the tension between.

I found this pane of glass in an industrial recycling shop when looking for surfaces to test, the incomplete frame and format were just right. I wanted to see if dyes would adhere, how the colours would expose on the glass, and work on both sides of the surface, deal with a flat image in visible layers. The practical tests are perhaps a ruse to enter the painting from somewhere else than specific thoughts. The transparent surface slips and shifts just when you feel like you’ve arrived somewhere, and invites the environment into the image. A certain level of control is handed over to surroundings, as the surface will not remain stationary, adding durational elements. I recall thinking about lunar phases and perhaps Ballard’s short story on an experiment to free humans of the need to sleep. Also many hard, solid things, rock, clay, weight and then the gaps between symbol forms and how something actually appears from observation.

A reconstructed record Used / Heard / Saw / Read:

Mix of sun-reactive dyes, labelled navy and magenta but never quite what they say when reacting to the gray Danish sun. The deep dark dyes went soft and pale instead, tender Turner washes that were gratifying but incomplete. The dark solid form was the leftover of a fast blend of something close to Indigo and Burnt Umber, mixed up for recent screenprinting. It seemed to contain and transform the image. Indian Yellow, Titanium White, Terre Verte, Persian Red oils, but I think many ended up on the paintings being painted around. Unknown dirty tubes with illegible labels. Schminke and assorted concentrated inks.

Non-stop news (USA, GB, DK) & the alternatives, Schubert, Biber (the 17th C one), Tammy Wynette, Red Belly Black Snake, Synd og Skam, Dolly Parton, Kompjotr Eplektrika

Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel 2012), Punishment Park (Peter Watkins, 1971), Hamburg research: Max Klinger’s Ride on a Shark (1885), Emil Nolde ink paintings, WW2 Flak Towers, Ulla Von Brandenburg; Marie Søndergaard Lolk at Thorvaldsens Museum, Kiosk 7 projects in Copenhagen

JG Ballard’s The Complete Short Stories – Manhole 69, Cookie! Verwoert, Lerformning (Clay Modelling) Ursula Munch Pedersen, Replay De Keyser, Sten (a 1970’s catalogue of minerals, precious stones, etc), a book on viking petroglyphs and a catalogue of Guston’s drawings

Contemporary British Abstraction @ The SE9 Container Gallery


Public Viewing
11am to 3pm Saturdays
28 February – 11th April 2015

Private View
5th March 5.30pm to 8.30pm

Contemporary British Abstraction is a group show including thirty-five artists selected by artists Matthew Macaulay and Terry Greene.

Artists include:
David Ainley, Ralph Anderson, Chris Baker, Dominic Beattie, Andrew Bick, Katrina Blannin, Claudia Boese, Julian Brown, EC, Ben Cove, Clem Crosby, Pen Dalton, Lisa Denyer, Andrew Graves, Terry Greene, Susan Gunn, Alexis Harding, Sue Kennington, Sarah R Key, Phoebe Mitchell, Matthew Macaulay, Ellie MacGarry, Katrin Mäurich, Sarah McNulty, Mali Morris, Andrew Parkinson, Aimee Parrott, Marion Piper, Clare Price, Geoffrey Rigden, Gwennan Thomas, Trevor Sutton, David Webb, Mary Webb, Gary Wragg,

Why Abstraction Now?

Abstraction is no longer new. Abstract painters today are not doing what Malevich did a hundred years ago, things have changed, nor is theirs a stunned response to two world wars, so how is it that, when everything in abstraction has already been done, painters today continue in this tradition? Why abstraction now? The 35 artists in this exhibition might each offer a different answer, or their answers might naturally fall into numerous categories, at times overlapping and at other times contradicting each other.

For some, abstraction continues to be compelling simply because of its content-free status, in the same sense that mathematics or arithmetic is devoid of content. We don’t need apples, pears or other objects in order to add, subtract, multiply and divide. These operations are best carried out abstractly, just as in formal semantics or formal logic, removal of content allows concentration on structure and relata. Maths and logic aren’t new anymore, but people continue to contribute to them. Furthermore, these disciplines, like abstract art, are in a sense removed from our everyday lives yet at the same time intrinsic to them.

At the opposite extreme, some artists here will argue that the terms abstract and representational are misleading or irrelevant and will claim not to see themselves as abstract painters at all. Any representational painting is always also an abstraction and, non-representation seems impossible, so perhaps the distinction falls away.

For others, form is process that has halted or become ‘frozen’, so their key focus is the process of painting which itself becomes content or, alternatively, it is discovered as part of the process. There is often an element of ‘primitivism’ in this approach, as Craig Staff highlighted in his book Modernist Painting and Materiality, the paint is paint in the same way that in the writings of D H Lawrence flesh is flesh. Could it also be, that the static materiality of the painting offers a kind of antidote to the digital, screen-based experience that has come to characterise the technological? Painting here is a bit like jazz in that meaning or structure is the result of improvisation. Jazz may no longer be in vogue, but lots of good Jazz music continues to be made, and music that rightly deserves the tag contemporary.
Other abstract artists prefer to emphasise not so much the painters’ heroic quest for content as the part that the viewer plays in “reading in” their own meanings, or allowing associations to come to mind, perhaps specifically anticipated by the artist and perhaps not. Meaning is both invented and fluid, that’s our everyday lived experience, yet we hardly pay attention to it, as if meaning is readily supplied. Abstract art challenges us to engage in multiple acts of interpretation, and better still, at least potentially, to become aware of those interpretive actions.

Some artists working in this field, employ a methodology that, far from improvisation, is pre-planned, programmed, determined, by a preordained system or sequence. The results of such an approach cannot not relate to the determined-ness of contemporary experience. Without in any way attempting to depict or illustrate life within a technological system, their art is entirely congruent with such a life. Furthermore, that some element of free play is introduced may act as a metaphor exploring the extent to which such play within our everyday systems is possible, or not.
Many years ago Jacques Ellul, author of The Technological Society, argued that contemporary art is either an imitation of, or a compensation for, technology, seeing abstraction’s loss of the subject and its focus on means as technological phenomena. Much more recently, David Trotter coined the term techno-primitivism for a technologically-mediated primitivism, or that which “draws back from the technological only in order to get a better grasp upon it”. The two positions “drawing back from” and “getting a better grasp of” are contradictory or opposing poles, yet here they are held together. It’s the continuum that unites them and allows for overlap. Borrowing Ellul’s language it may be possible to both “imitate” and “compensate” for technology at the same time.

If there are perhaps as many answers to the question “why abstraction today?” as there are abstract artists, and their viewpoints may well be contradictory, in this exhibition we seek to hold some of these contradictions together in an attempt to get a better view. And this is a question better answered by viewing than by speculating, so we invite you to take a look at the multiple “answers” on view.

Text kindly written for the show by Andy Parkinson

The Exhibition Location

The SE9 Container Gallery
St Thomas More Catholic School
Footscray Road,