I imagine there might be a few grumbles amongst the sculpture fraternity that Sean Scully is showing sculpture (with paintings, prints, drawings and photographs) up at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.After all his reputation rests mainly on his body of paintings made over the past half century.But its quite a coup for the place nonetheless as Scully is surely one of the biggest beasts to have shown there over the years.Its well worth a visit as it is showing concurrently with Giuseppe Penone, another ‘big beast’ of the Arte Povera group making YSP quite a classy destination at present.
And it gave me pause for thought that – by and large – the work as a whole showed off Scully’s talents and clear sighted approach to great effect.Its the latter characteristic that got me thinking.Right from the get go Scully has gone after his objective of making relevant abstract paintings for our time.His early work utilised grids at a time when they were much in vogue, but drawing upon observations and feelings of things seen in the world, progressed to a more closed, indeed sealed in, disposition whilst billeted (for the most part) in late seventies NYC before breaking out into an art that is abstract but routed so firmly in the emotional and geophysical that he can rightly claim that they are not abstract at all.Like most of us of pensionable age he is now in a furious race against time with so much to do aesthetically and inevitably a closing door in which to do it!The sculptures have come along in recent years and, as he was at pains to point out in his lecture, have been conceived and executed with the same lucidity as his other work.They are in effect paintings in three dimensions with the materiality being the main spring of their presence in the world.He also stressed the vital importance of truth to material in these works – that also got me thinking.Take Moor Shadow Stack – my pal Paul (who knows a thing or two about installing big works!) and myself were speculating earlier in the day that the piece must have been constructed of carefully engineered hollow slabs but his talk made such a play of the material quality being informed by its solidity that I’m now convinced that all the sculptures on show were solid objects (either that or he’s damn clever at convincing me!).
If I have minor concerns (and they are so) then it is firstly in the sighting of Crate Of Air, a monumental piece, that I felt was a little cramped in its placing.Ideally it would dominate the lower lawn facing the lake in my opinion.Mind that would have involved relocating the Caro that I suspect the heroic installation team might have cavilled at given the scale of the undertaking. My other niggle is the surface quality of the paintings.Like most I’ve seen in the past five or ten years they are made on sheet aluminium using (what I think) is a proprietary aluminium primer that allows the luscious quality of the oil to sit on top.This gives the work in some light (particularly pale grey Yorkshire autumn light) rather a pasty sheen that I’m not so sure about.
However these are very minor issues (for me, let alone anyone else) and the paintings looked wonderful in the big open space of the Longside Gallery.Several of those on show I’m fairly sure had come from his 2015 and 2017 Chaim & Read shows (that by good fortune I happened to see) – the big multi panel painting Blue Note certainly was central to the Wall Of Light Cubed exhibition.The opportunity to see it alongside other works and set against the sculptural works in a generous space (everything being a bit cramped in Chelsea) was a real treat!
This is (the first part) of a text I started writing ahead of the symposium at The Herbert Gallery. Coventry organised by Matthew Macaulay, but continued after the event to incorporate some thoughts about it.Given my active engagement in the subject and experiences of the period (I spent that decade working in the subsidised Visual Arts sector and often visiting both London & elsewhere always endeavouring to take in any shows I could) naturally I was keen to go along. As it happens quite a few of those things I had already written about came up on the day…though quite a few others didn’t so here goes…
Where does one start in a discussion about this subject?Is it even a valid subject at all? For a start what constitutes “British’ in these Brexit times, or even more so back in the 1980’s.At the start of the decade the Royal Academy was still a quarter of a century from electing its first Black artist (Frank Bowling in 2005) but had fully embraced European emigres such as Freud and Auerbach. Identity politics, around Feminism and gender as well as race, were all impacting on the art of the time although the official organs of distribution were still, certainly at the beginning of the decade, indifferent if not ignorant of them.Two speakers on the day (Rebecca Fortnum & Maggie Ayliffe) spoke at length to issues around Feminism and its impact on abstract painting, though in passing its worth noting that much of their eloquent testimony revolved around paintings, and especially exhibitions, from the early nineties rather than the eighties. Perhaps a more blatant omission was any testimony to racial politics and the absence of any people of colour at the event (I’m fairly sure of this though I apologise if I’m wrong) and but a passing visual reference to only one British artist of colour on the day (Frank Bowling again) in a decade when the emergence of the “Black Art’ movement (admittedly short on ‘abstract’ painters) was a key feature of what was taking place.
Moving on, as we all know, the term “Abstract’ is fraught with difficulties too numerous to detain us in this lifetime (and certainly within this text) but the notion of boundaries between that which is properly abstract, that which is ‘abstracted’ and figuration, however loosely defined played quite a part in the decade in question.This was raised a couple of times in the day but never really teased out.As it happens most of those painters referenced were ‘abstract’ in that they abstracted from reality (of some sort!, more qualification!) and notions of landscape was a shadowy presence for nearly all of them.There was little mention of painters who might more readily be accepted as truly non-representational (accepting that some of them might allude to ‘real world’ influences anyway) other than in Daniel Sturgis‘s text on Alan Uglow though even here we were teased with the references to football pitch layouts that Uglow enjoyed alluding to.
Painting as a term we might all understand a little better but even so by the 1980’s even this had reached myriad points of debate. A good deal of the boundary shifting in painting was taking place in the USA and at the event David Ryan in his opening paper drew a good deal of attention to what was happening there as well as what happened here, including some of those artists engaged in that very practice.
And beyond all the foregoing history is, of course, written primarily by the ‘winners’ although we now live in dramatically revisionist times that suggest that, as in previous centuries, time will have a profound say on what shakes out over the long run (the ‘re-discovery’ of Uglow championed by Bob Nickas may or may not prove to be an example). Although, as is inevitable with an open call for papers, the day was full of disjointed and disparate texts there was much to reflect on and the show Matthew had brought together that was the end point of proceedings is well worth a visit. Part 2 to follow!
and rediscovery too… I’ve been absent from this site for over a month I realise, making use of quite a bit of the good summer weather and being (unusually) at home to drag work out of the basement. I have stored older work down in the dark recesses over the years despite knowing full well that the fetid conditions rapidly rot canvasses away. Those that survive often require some restoration but its those that never got properly resolved, or where I lost interest that are most interesting. Some remain intractable but I have found myself increasingly interested in resolving and completing others.
I’m looking at these two from the Conversation Pieces (part two) series. And have decided that part of their resolution will be to join forces as a diptych where two conversations get crossed wires. Part of the process for me is re-imagining it as I did when first working on them…around six or seven years back. Mostly I don’t work with tapes preferring to paint to the pencil line but just occasionally with these I chose to tape up a block to get that crisp, slightly raised line.
Another interesting thing for me is rediscovering old pictures I’ve quite forgotten about. This one comes from a series made in the mid 1990’s and was the only one of a group of a dozen or so in landscape. It never quite fit with the rest, stylistically as well as format, but only now do I realise it was a precursor of the large series of paintings that began in the late nineties through to 2004/5 and formed the backbone of a solo show at Derby Museum ‘Nothing But Mirrors & Tides’
It’s been quite a while since my last post…more pressing matters plus a short holiday has meant scant opportunity to do so. But I’m also increasingly aware that finding anything worthwhile (to me at least) to say gets harder over time especially as, several years back now, I decided that only painting matters would be discussed here (and I’ve managed to mostly stick to that). So here’s the thing…does time away in other environments affect the outturn of works initially influenced by other impulses and locations? Here’s a Wonky Geo picture (No. 47, if you’re keeping count) that, as regular readers will know, comes from an enormous stack of them that have been on the go, on & off, for several years now. But I just decided it complete, with additions of the past few days since a week in Italy…?
Trucking’ On…Time passes, and seems to do so with increasing rapidity as one ages. It seems only a few weeks back that it was Christmas and we are rapidly approaching the longest day of the year after which, as my dear old mother was fond of saying, the nights will start drawing in. I often feel that I don’t get much work made in a year but perhaps thats simply because I dither about making pieces (like the one above) that take for ever to get to a point that I’m (more or less) happy with. This is the final outcome of the three banners that were to have gone to Honfleur (see previous posts). Whether or not they may be able to be shown in the return leg exhibition is a moot point as space will likely be at a premium. In the end I titled them after the three major churches of the town of Honfleur that I viewed one morning from the town’s best vantage point, Mont Jolie.
And today I’m even more aware of time passing as its ten years since Esjborn Svensson died, tragically in an accident. E.S.T. were always one of my favourite bands since I first came across them in the early 1990’s and his death was a sad reminder of tempus fugit. All the more so a decade on. Yesterday I played the above discs as I worked but today the maudlin’ might be a tad too much. So let’s just keep truckin’ on…
A current article in Hyperallergic on the marvellous Joe Overstreet, reminded me a little of the paintings I was making late in 1971 and into 72…where I was exploring the possibilities of unstretched form and colour having been dissuaded from the proscenium arch paintings that had preceded them. Tracerie, above, was not the largest of them but is the only one I have a decent image of. Below are details of the biggest, Pinky Free, an over thirty feet expanse of 12 oz. cotton duck the width of the bolt (I guess 78 inches) – Let us pause to give thanks for free higher education where a poor working class Devonian lad could explore his most ridiculous creative impulses wherever he wanted to take them!
The whole contraption was propped up on an assortment of photo light and music stands ‘borrowed’ from the relevant departments for a few days (at least until the lecturers responsible realised). Pinky was the last of this run of loose canvas pieces that I then began pulling back into more formal arrangements, pushing and pressing oil paint into the canvas weave to give it a little more structure and solidity.
Here I’m installing one of these Oilcloth pieces in the studios for the second year interim exhibition. I’d also abandoned the riot of colour in favour of more muted earthy tones, even then I was already heavily into the idea of pushing work far out in one direction only to wrench it back wildly in the other. It may seem implausible in the world of instant information via social media but back then most of those few who saw this work were completely mystified by it and thought it pretty crazy. It was quite some years before I began realise that, contrary to what everyone thought, on the other side of the Atlantic, in the lower Eastside of Manhattan and down in Washington DC (and I guess quite a few other places, including one or two in the East End of London) others were exploring similar ideas of how far painting could be pushed. At the time I felt quite isolated and exposed in the far west of Cornwall!
I watched Picasso’s Last Stand the other evening…he never got up in the mornings they said. Me I don’t sleep so well nowadays so now the days are longer I rather enjoy the early start. As it happens too I’m now using a wall that gets the early morning sun. Add in listening to A Rainbow In Curved Air (on my original vinyl copy) and it doesn’t get much better. And it helps with the productivity – in the past two days I finished up three more of the L’Histoire De L’Eau gang. Here’s Ditties For Her Majesty…referencing the first Elizabeth rather than the current one…