Abstract Critical

Natalie Dower: Line of Enquiry

Below are extracts from Natalie Dower: Line of Enquiry, published by EMH Arts London, 2012, with a preface by Mel Gooding and a text by Alan Fowler. Here Gooding’s preface is followed by images from the book accompanied by notes by the artist. An exhibition of works by Dower runs at The Eagle Gallery until the 1st of June. More information can be found here.

Natalie Dower: Line of Enquiry

‘The senses deform; the mind forms.’ (Georges Braque)

Natalie Dower realised early in her career that her temperament and intellect alike demanded an art that was principled in its use of constraints. In this she followed the great constructivist non-figurative modernists, particularly those whose creative researches led them to forms of art based on geometric mathematics and colour theory. She quickly understood that a systematic idea, pursued with rigour and wit, might lead the artist into an aesthetic domain of utterly unpredictable relations of line and shape, colour and form, whose visual dynamics, rule-driven, would be a source of surprise and delight.

Her mentor and friend, Malcolm Hughes, had spoken of systems art as ‘based on an idea of order with endless variety.’ It was this observation that energised Dower’s imagination, bringing with it not only the potential of endless formal discovery, the challenge and satisfaction of creative play, but also the force of its metaphorical potential. Like her ‘Systems’ comrades, Dower has worked in the knowledge that all nature – from the spiralling mechanics of the galaxies to the growth of a snail’s shell and the branching of a plum tree – is governed by mathematical rules. Each thing, in its being and development, embodies axioms. She observes, as we all do, what is manifest in every phenomenal moment: that the outcomes of these rules are infinitely various, subject to chance, and constantly in flux. Every new arrangement ineluctably generates an infinite number of possible new configurations; every one in its living instant conforms to the rules.

Her art in its manner of construction and of operation enacts (as we might say) this process, and at the same time reflects, and reinforces, the natural human response of wonder at the endlessly unfolding order and diversity of the given world. It is here that the poetic enters in. To paraphrase an observation of Wallace Stevens, the great poet of ‘the idea of order’: ‘The precision of a precise image is a precision with respect to the structure of reality.’ Dower is concerned to make works that enthral the eye even as they provoke the mind. They are works which are, to adapt Stevens again, ‘deliciae of the spirit as distinguished from delectationes of the senses and this is so because one [finds] in them the labour of calculation, the appetite for perfection.’


Mel Gooding

Wallace Stevens is quoted from The Necessary Angel.
Faber and Faber, London 1960


Dodecagon: Eliminations 1995 oil on canvas 72 x 144cm

Dodecagon: Eliminations holds four dodecagons: surrounding the fully visible one in the centre are half dodecagons to each side, and above, two half dodecagons, which are completed by the other halves below.

As can be seen in the centre dodecagon, each facet generates a set of five rays. The twelve facets have a sequence of angles for the rays, four at 30º, four at 60º and four at 90º.

Unlike the earlier system where the width of the ray was dictated by the angle at which it left the perimeter, I wanted all the rays to be of the same width and calculated accordingly, but retaining the pattern of their departure from the perimeter track in the oscillating Fibonacci based rhythm of 1/1/2/3/2.

The track runs clockwise starting 2/3/2/1/1. This accounts for the pattern of the intervals, in the case of the last three rays, at 30º, they are contiguous.

I liked the idea of an enclosed universe, where what leaves the right-hand edge reappears on the left, and what leaves the bottom edge recommences from the top. (ND)

Octadecagon No.1 1995 oil on canvas 180 x 180cm

Sortie No.4 2002 oil on canvas 80 x 80cm

The Sortie series may look casual but is highly structured; nothing there is arbitrary. The choice of colours is free but their disposition is subject to rules. Underlying the configuration there is a grid of 324 (18 x 18) units. An intricate counting system determines the placing of the bars. (ND)

The artist’s studio, Space Studios, Vauxhall Street, 2010

Visual Shift No.6 2010 oil on wood 36 x 48cm

The Visual Shift series are so titled because as you contemplate them the areas of colour quietly re-arrange themselves in space – the brain offering, as it does with optical illusions, alternative readings. (ND)

Square Root Two No.3 Septet 2010 oil on canvas on wood 32 u 45cm

The title of the recent Square Root Two paintings refers to a rectangle whose halves have the same proportion as does the whole, or any further ‘halvings’. When I lived in Morocco an effect of the light that I found very beautiful was that things far away were as sharply defined as those nearby, but just reduced in scale. A predilection for extreme juxtapositions of scale has been present in a great deal of my work. (ND)

  1. Danila Rumold said…

    In response to Sam I too find it interesting that Kandinsky should be able to make such a statement before he was able to visualize that in his work. I believe that the intellectual knowing (thought) take time to integrate into experiential knowing (wisdom.) For the artist drawing provides an excellent way to explore such observations which then become fully “realized” in painting. This makes me curious to see if this process can be seen in Kandinsky’s drawings prior to his pure abstract paintings.

  2. Alan Fowler said…

    My particular interest in Natalie Dower’s work lies in her continuation of one aspect of the constructivist tradition which saw the process of producing the abstract image as the building of a meaningful whole from the assemblage of basic geometric elements, determined by a methematical/geoometric underpinning. The extraordinary Swiss painter, sculptor, architect and designer Max Bill can be seen as one of the principal earlier exponents of this approach. The result is what I described in an exhibition of systems art which I curated in 2008 at Southampton City Art Gallery as “a rational aesthetic” – imagery which rewards the eye for its beauty and clarity of line, form and colour; and the mind for the often subtle logic of its structure.

    Abstraction of this kind is sometimes linked with minimalism – a fundamental error, in my view. Minimalism involves a reductive process – what Kenneth Martin once described as “a reduction to simple form of the complex scene before us”. Abstraction of the kind so clearly articulated by Dower involves the opposite – the construction of an expressive whole from a basic vocabulary of sinple components.

    I find it fascinating that Dower – togther with, among others, Jeffrey Steele, Peter Lowe and Gillian Wise – continue to carry into the 21st century an approach to abstraction which was prefigured 100 years ago by Kandinskly when he wrote in 1912 that he foresaw a time when the relationship between elements in a painting could “be expressed in mathematical form”, and concluded that “the time was approaching “when the painter would be proud to declare his work constructive”.

    • Sam Cornish said…

      Not knowing very much at all about Kandinsky, I find it interesting that that statement was made a decade before his own work became ‘constructive’.