Abstract Critical

Sol-Space and the Question of Integrity in Abstract Painting

Written by Ashley West

In Spring 2012, fellow artist Stephen Buckeridge and myself founded Sol-Space (www.sol-space.co.uk) to provide a space dedicated to abstract painting. This emerged after a protracted period bemoaning the lack of opportunity to show and discuss work in a satisfactory way, or perhaps, more accurately, the fact that opportunity tends to be dependent on it being bestowed or on being selected. Where opportunity materialises it is often less than ideal; one can find oneself in some very strange places and alongside even stranger bedfellows. It also arose out of a sense that in visiting shows one too seldomly comes across work that really strikes one for their quality, or ‘integrity’. Yes, there are many good jokes, novelties, acrobatics, decorations, relics and so on, but substance? Not that we were making grand claims of our own work, but we felt we were at least searching in that direction, and there does come a point after years of struggle, when there is a self assurance in one’s practice; you becomes less reliant on the approval of others, because you’ve passed through the tests and doubts in the paintings and come out the other side.

After visiting the Robert Motherwell exhibition at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery in 2009, we were struck by the directness and poignancy of Matthew Collings’ accompanying essay, which seemed to sum up aptly our thoughts and feelings around that time: “Motherwell stands for a time when there was less art going on than now but you could ask a lot more of it. What can we ask of painting today? That it has something of itself, of its own traditions, that it isn’t superficial but goes deep, that it offers structure, delight, unity, a play of forms, life, feeling, humanity, immediacy, and a take on reality that isn’t kitsch and doesn’t ironically celebrate despair and the triumph of money”.

This essay galvanised us into setting up Sol-Space. Selecting artists put our own sensibilities to the test. Ostensibly, we were interested in where the process of search was visible, through the brushwork, layering or juxtapositional shifts, and where this was used to arrive at a structural integrity that is beyond the ordinary.

Ashley West, ‘Painting with Upper Red Loops’ 2012

Stephen Buckeridge, ‘Prow’, 2012

For myself, such a process was exemplified by the Ocean Park series of paintings by Richard Diebenkorn, where, even though we have come to enjoy the nuances and palimpsest within such works for their own sake, for Diebenkorn they were a necessary questioning, testing, loosening, tightening, speculating, which enabled him to find a ‘rightness’ which he could not have known beforehand or achieved in any other way. For Stephen Buckeridge, artists such as De Kooning and Giacometti were inspirations regarding work ethic and the ‘hard won’ image. Beyond these were antecedents such as Cézanne, Bonnard and Degas. Paul Valery described Degas as being “like a writer striving to attain the utmost precision of form, drafting and redrafting, cancelling, advancing by endless recapitulation, never admitting that it has reached its final stage: from sheet to sheet, copy to copy, he continually revises his drawing, deepening, tightening, closing it up.” Closer to home, Peter Lanyon remarked that “The final state of the developing image ….has a look about it which in some cases is very personal and in others remote, but mostly there is an awkwardness and incompleteness such as I find in all human events. An openness representing nakedness is what I aim for because in this way I think of revelation…[This] simple statement is not all the truth because I am rarely capable of such a direct process, more usually there is a long period of struggle either in the painting or myself to clarify the essential image. There is a species of failure which drives the artist to the inevitable and the only mark his desperation will permit.”

However we also wanted to be open to artists who have a different take on that or who even challenge it. For example Ben Cove, one of the first to join Sol-Space, says of his work:recently I produced a series of paintings entitled ‘Regular Work’ which were made to a set of predetermined rules, one of which was that no erasure or overpainting was permitted. This meant that of thirty or so that were made, only ten were deemed worthy of exhibition. In this case, some could have been salvaged through reworking but in order to retain a formal freshness and an integrity to the working process laid out, they were discarded”. It could be said that the paintings were provisional up to the point of selection.

PictuBen Cove, Regular Work (4), 2008, David Webb, ‘Crucifix Lane’, 2009/10, Katrin Mäurich, Grey Shape II, 2008re 6

His, David Webb’s and  Katrin Mäurich’s work, are no less surprising for their directness and economy. They seem to call to mind the more directly unfolding images of Paul Klee, Milton Avery and Prunella Clough. It is the poetry in such work that holds one’s attention and intrigues. We felt that if work demanded that we keep coming back to it, then it was probably worthy of inclusion. William Stein’s and Robert Lang’s work have a similarly poetic quality but one that emerges through the labour of ‘lost and found’, and contains spaces that are at one moment substantial and the next ephemeral.

William Stein, ‘Shadows’, 2010; Robert Lang, ‘The Prospect’, 2012

Catherine Ferguson speaks of ‘a decision-making process directed by a sense of rhythm and repetition rather than by the perception of image and form’ and refers to this sense as being corporeal. For many abstract painters the sense of the body, the physicality of the medium and the movement that connects the two, are a touchstone for the emergence of authentic or significant form, and this certainly appears to be the case in the work of Stephen Buckeridge, Dragica Carlin and Jeff Dellow.

Catherine Ferguson, ‘Humpty Dumpty’, 2011

Dragica Carlin, ‘Blue, Orange and Brown’, 2012

Jeff Dellow, ‘Zone’ 2011

In Clare Wilson’s paintings the centre of gravity seems to be found in the interaction between materials and their visual qualities, suggesting analogies to natural occurrences within the landscape; she speaks of the chance encounters that interrupt and allow ‘the fragile and unfamiliar to emerge’. This phrase could be applied similarly to the displaced forms in Trevor Kiernander’s work, though he uses the word ‘disruption’ to describe the process by which ‘pseudo-landscapes and disconcerting scenarios’ arise. The interaction between these two processes, rhythm and rupture, seem to be a recurrent theme in most of the painters on Sol-Space, and indeed to many abstract painters today.

Clare Wilson, ‘Demon Host’, 2011; Trevor Kiernander, ‘Untitled’, 2010

Georgina Amos, ‘Open Lid’, 2010

Christine Stark refers to Roland Barthes’ claim that the essence of a pair of trousers is not that crisp and well pressed object to be found in department store racks’; the dragged skeins of colour in her paintings are certainly crisp and well pressed, but they are also ‘a broken down truth’, shored up by the incidental and jostled into position. There is a sense of unity to be found in such work, but it is a difficult one, arising from struggle of one sort or another – one that isn’t ‘ironed out’.

Then there are the paintings of Georgina Amos which seem to defy the imposition of any readily available reading, and remind one that the notion that the scope of painting is or could be exhausted is really only the result of limited vision and imagination. And I extend my apologies at this point to the artists on Sol-Space whose work I may have summed up in too facile a way.

Christine Stark,’ When d’you last think you saw It?’, 2006


The Question of Integrity

Once Sol-Space had been set up artists were invited to participate in a discussion ‘The Question of Integrity’. I won’t attempt here to summarise the discussion, but I will take up a few of the many threads worthy of exploration. The whole discussion can be viewed HERE.

Clare Wilson speaks of the ‘untruths’ that reveal themselves in the act of painting and that it is how one responds to these untruths or uncertainties as a painter that brings integrity to the work”. Stephen Buckeridge talks about ‘deception’ as being integral to the process and that integrity “is always there in the background, something that raises the consciousness – the internal struggle, the recognition of what is false or misleading”. Perhaps one of the reasons we baulk a little, at even the mention of ‘truth’ or ‘integrity’, is that our experience is most of the time characterised by a sense of ‘lack’, of one kind or another. When we begin a painting (and I am speaking less generally here, and more in relation to painters of the kind featured on Sol-Space), it is more or less, with a sense of being devoid of purpose, direction, rules, belief and so on – a kind of impossibility or inadequacy, which, while uncomfortable, is nevertheless a necessary preparation. One is laid bare, yet open to what unfolds before one.  What seems to be required more than anything else is a watchfulness through which one is able to discern ‘untruths’ as they arise. Diebenkorn said “I seem to have to do it elaborately wrong and with many conceits first. Then maybe I can attack my pomposity and arrive at something straight and simple.” This is interesting, because we are used to speaking about ‘things seen’ in a painting (visual qualities, relationships, perceptions) but here we are speaking about ‘seeing’ on a different level: observing the whole process, including ourselves (‘where we are coming from’) in relation to, and as revealed by, the act of painting.

Speaking about what works or doesn’t work in a painting, Dragica Carlin says “decisions are inspired by the discovery of something I connect to, sometimes in ways that I may not understand at first, logically, but it arouses intrigue, curiosity and imagination”. At the APT Open Studios recently, in a discussion with Catherine Ferguson we found ourselves speaking about the way a painting can emerge from a different intelligence, intuition, and sense of freedom (grounded in the physicality of the body), but also about the way judgements, fears, anticipations, and so on, can suddenly appear that usurp, belittle, or interrupt this process. It seemed to us that it was crucial that these two processes are clearly discerned and differentiated in the act of painting. Katrin Mäurich in her response discusses the way we integrate, or otherwise, the various wider aspects of our practise, such as our set of values, the context we choose to operate within, our personal and economic situation, relationship to the art market, and the way the integrity of our work can be ‘sabotaged’ and ‘downgraded’ by extraneous concerns. William Stein concludes that “it must surely be the integrity within a practice which will allow the work to move beyond fashion …to give the work longevity beyond the zeitgeist”.

Ben Cove remarks someone may have all the integrity in the world but this is certainly no guarantee of successful work”. What I would question is whether a work can have real significance without it. It may succeed on any number of levels, but true significance must surely be in relation to our deepest sense of who we are – our humanity, and if that is not questioned in the process of making a painting, then surely the work is bereft of true value and purpose. Whether such integrity is discernable to the viewer is dependent on a similar level of reflectivity on his or her part. What Barnett Newman said in an interview with David Sylvester must surely hold true: “A painting should give a man a sense of place, that he knows he’s there, that he’s aware of himself. In that sense he relates to me when I made the painting, because in that sense I was there. I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, a feeling of his totality …”


In the Studio

While the Sol-Space discussion was in process I took it upon myself to try, as an experiment, to explore this question of integrity during the making of a piece of work, in order to test its specificity. The following are extracts from studio notes                                                    

I don’t have any clear idea of what I’m going to do. Everything is in doubt, in question. Pieces may have worked in the past, but that was then – this is now. I put a polystyrene ellipse on the wall that was made a week ago. Not sure now why I made it, but it provides a starting point. In beginning to handle materials I’m called to attention and return to a sense of my own materiality. The characteristics and behaviour of the paint: liquid yellow entering into the pores of the polystyrene, noticing the point at which it runs (it’s like watching the weather). I don’t impose anything so much as follow inclinations. There’s an intimacy. Something relaxes. There’s an attention to everything in front of me, from everything inside, or as much as I can be in touch with, and a feeling of being more integrated. From this comes a humility and a seriousness – a personal kind of objectivity..

One is in front of this thing, with its potentiality, and behind is all that comes to bear on it – all of one’s experience and knowledge, in abeyance. I become a locality, a here and now, through which a question arises, and the more integrity, the more significant the proposition. The ellipse with its curved edge plays to the way we instinctively check out the edges of paintings to see how they are made. I try to be aware of the many associations that arise, and the different readings. It’s like a pill, or a sweet, a wall light, a sun. Gary Hume’s doors come to mind, and Max Ernst’s apocalyptic landscapes. I know what happens to a horizontal strip at the edge of a rectangular support, but what happens with an ellipse with a curved edge like this? I try to be direct, simple. Where do I find a strip? In a large dustbin bag full of detritus gathered from previous work.

I put things on, take them off, trying to be open and flexible. If I am free enough to let something go, I can also keep it. I try something, like the black dots and drips. It’s curious. I keep going with it to see what happens. But I don’t keep it just because I did it. The black is so visually striking that it detracts from the form of the ellipse. I put pink over it. I know the black isn’t quite dry. Am I being impatient? Well I don’t want to be too precious either. You don’t have much to lose. It’s interesting how it turned purple. At least it covers the black. But the yellow in the deeper pores show through. It’s tempting, when I step back to look at it, to start to get too tentative, and to start judging in the wrong way. I try to just focus on how it’s working, on what it’s doing, and the ‘what if…?’

Then it begins to have more substance, but in an unexpected way. A kind of correspondence begins between what is in front of me and something unknown or forgotten. I am reminded of something I read earlier in the day: Alain De Bois talking about Barnett Newman’s ‘Onement One’ not being an illustration of an idea but an idea emerging or remembered through the painting.

Another day, and the chance for a fresh view of the piece. The fragment of dried yellow paint is curious, like a scrawny bird astonished by the antenna-like form above (found stuck by some melted plastic to a folded piece of paper in a collection of similar scraps in the studio). What is it about such things? Prunella Clough whose work I saw a couple of weeks ago at Annely Juda was similarly interested in resurrecting discarded or disregarded forms. Maybe it’s catching something unawares, something that has an unlauded integrity – it is what it is. Maybe it’s purer than a contrivance. It brings in something that was hitherto beyond comprehension. This is the case even with Diebenkorn’s work. A rightness is discovered rather than created. I’m intrigued by the lyricism that the attachments in this piece bring. The bird, moon and constellation of orange dots remind me of Miro – poetic, and alluding to something beyond the purely formal. It’s sort of daring to go against ‘pure’ abstraction. And the ‘moon’ is something beyond the edge of the world of the ellipse, suggesting the idea of a piece not being a totally self contained, self referential thing, but something that can connect with something beyond its limits, like the dove, hand of god or angel in a Russian Icon or Persian miniature.

There’s something unfulfilling about the piece as it stands. It’s as if every part of it needs to be activated in a more dynamic way. I connect the orange points with white cotton. Such operations require a delicate touch, and attention to detail, a contrast to fast brushwork. Putting the veil of blue across the form (found already painted on a piece of plastic), I notice that a part of me wants it to work, and the wanting is too heavy handed. I try to return to simply watching how things work, without expectation, or desire, or impatience. This too is a delicate relationship. Richard Tuttle comes to mind. I feel an affinity with the dressmaker and the flower arranger – and Zen, which Motherwell spoke about. I had an idea earlier about pins or something sticking out from the edge, extensions of radii, but now they arise not only for visual effect but also to function as a way of holding the thick plastic folds in place. Folding the plastic around the polystyrene naturally creates straight tangents to the curve of the ellipse, a rather elegant reference back to the rectangle, especially as being translucent it’s only hinted at. These are examples of elegant solutions, things working on a practical, aesthetic and formal level at the same time. There’s an integrity in things being not just desirable but necessary. The left hand edge of the blue has a kind of crudeness about it – the way it cuts across, but sometimes it can be useful to leave something in that doesn’t sit comfortably. It sort of keeps me awake, and stirs up the piece, maybe stopping it from becoming complete too quickly or too easily. Diebenkorn encouraged such ‘crudities’ as an antidote to the temptation of the elegant. I put the piece on the floor and drip white emulsion on the plastic. I sort of ‘saw’ it in my mind’s eye. It seems to become more possible to do that with time. It was a case of working with indeterminacy in a controlled way. Most of the drops of paint I could work with, but some had to be wiped away or adjusted. In the end every mark counts.

All of a sudden I am in a very different place – tired and not sure where I am coming from. Maybe I should stop, rest, feed the cat or something. I could be getting over identified, caught up, and in danger of losing discernment. But I carry on. Is it possible to integrate tiredness or desperation?

The piece is getting busy, or bitty. Looking around the studio for a clue, I settle on a piece of plywood that a couple of years ago I cut a large hole in and attached two light bulbs to. I put the elliptical piece in the centre, so now the busyness is contrasted with a lot of space. I paint part of the plywood black, following geometric pencil lines that had already been drawn on it. I always enjoyed the constructions of Michael Kenny, and this looked a bit like that. So now the ellipse is related to the rectangle, but also the circle. The attachments on the ellipse which were ‘outside’ are now ‘inside’ in relation to the rectangle, and the outside, in relation to the plywood is now also inside, in the sense that the white wall shows through the hole. And the elliptical form is partly eclipsing the circle. The bulbs echo the orange dots on the ellipse (painted blu-tack on the end of pins). They’re like guardians overseeing what’s happening below. They appear too cold though, too located in the everyday world. I paint the left hand bulb pale yellow, and can see that the other needs to be light blue. They have symbolic connotations, but the sweetness of the colour brings them down a bit. They’re like colours you would see in a catalogue of house paints. Something more needs to happen at the top though.

There happen to be some strips of red insulation tape stuck to the wall. I’m intrigued by the pleats in one of them. Initially I thought a flat strip of the tape along the top might work, but ended up using the pleated strip as it was actually much more interesting. It was less inert, as if it were ‘moved’ or agitated by what was happening below. It needed still more activity up there and I could see that a horizontal band of thick white paint might give it what it needed. In previous paintings I’ve been drawn to the laying on of broad horizontal strokes of fluid paint. Maybe it suggests something about heavily laden atmosphere in the landscape. I knew I wanted it to ‘precipitate’ (drip) to give an indeterminate downward movement, but the repetition and variation of these drips had to be just right, which of course relates to the consistency of the paint and the way it’s applied. One is working with the integrity of materials. What causes the paint to hold together, and at what point does it lose its grip? How do the bristles of one brush differ from those of another in the way they flex and hold the paint? How does the paint respond to the plywood as opposed to canvas or paper? I have to observe every movement, every moment. Standing back there was a cautious sense that it had worked and that that could be it.

The next day – the most important part of the piece – knowing when to leave it. It seems to require utmost sincerity. No wishful thinking. No ulterior motive. It’s not that those things aren’t there – they are; but how to see through them? How to see the piece ‘objectively’. Which doesn’t mean devoid of myself. In fact it requires me to look at the piece as a whole, from the totality of myself. The piece proposes something. Is this proposition interesting, relevant, significant? I look at it and it’s as if it stares back. It encapsulates a whole bunch of concerns and questions, arouses curiosity, intrigues me. It invites reflection, invites me to linger, to allow something to sink in. I weigh it up, yet I am weighed up also, in the process. These questions are not explored in a formulaic way, not through justification, history, theory, but through being with it. Only in that way can falsehood be exposed. It doesn’t have to be great (a so called ‘masterpiece’). OK is good enough. If it sort of works, even in an awkward way, that’s a big thing. It isn’t that you know it or understand it fully. It’s a mystery and it invites you to participate in that.

  1. Ian David Baker said…

    Very interesting pieces, thanks for those.The word integrity was used by a friend when speaking of my paintings. He also scoffed at local art groups that consist of Happy Amateurs, saying they muddy the waters. I realized then that my work ethos came from a long path towards the discovery of my mature abstracts by not copying styles, though obviously aware of art history and influences. As abstract expressionism did not work for me I needed to start from a representational image, (having previously been an illustrator) originally Canal barges then slowly over the years distorting them and other observed images to become the hard edge abstracts 10 years later. So I feel my paintings have achieved a sincerity by stint of hard work and still discovering different ways of application.

  2. Ashley West said…

    I just want to correct the statement in my last comment ‘Where this experience of significance is shared by another or a wider group then one might say there is a greater degree of objectivity, and universality’. My apologies – I don’t know what I was thinking. A delusion can of course be shared by a wider group – that doesn’t make it truth – a fact yes, on a bigger scale. And a truth doesn’t become more true. So how is objectivity substantiated? By objectivity I mean an experience of objectivity (to do with consciousness) as opposed to deductions or arguments. We have to believe that at its best an artwork has the potential to embody that experience somehow, and evoke a similar experience to those who are open to it.

  3. John Holland said…

    I think this exchange is more or less a generational thing, and it’s about art education as much as anything.
    I sympathise with Ashley- Robin’s comments were pretty harsh- but I also think they were neither personal nor unfair. Ashley is trying to make art in (to coin an ugly phrase) a pre-post-modern way. That is, he’s trying to make painting that is essentially about form, about looking, about engaging seriously with your forebears. This means to work in a way outside the present hegemony, and against the way artists are now ‘educated’. The critical tools to do this have to be learnt, the ability to look has to be learnt, because I, and I suspect Ashley, was never taught them, never expected to engage with visuality in this sustained and rigourous way.

    For me, the pleasure of finding this site was of discovering a place where this type of discussion was happening. I started fumbling towards abstraction a few years ago when I began to realise that the imagery in my work was beside the point, a distraction from what was really going on in the art. But the fact is, the language for talking about the actual facts of looking at art is almost totally absent from contemporary ‘discourse’. There are, of course, endless reams of verbiage, often highly erudite and sophisticated, written about contemporary art, but it all misses one vital point; how is the intention, the idea, the philosophy, made present in the art? How do we make sense of the specific thing in front of us? The aesthetic theory, the nuts and bolts of how the putative idea might actually be conveyed and made manifest in a bit of paint, is utterly absent, and in its place is a kind of almost supernatural wish-fulfilment. Think of a ‘subject’, and hope that it is communicated directly into the mind of the observer.

    My point is that anyone born after Harold Wilson’s rise to power and is trying to find a path away from this sophistry has a steep learning curve. I was taught to ‘read’ Constable as a representative of the Romantic concern to idealise agricultural labour as much as anything- learning to actually LOOK at his paintings is actually quite a radical thing to do. The unique value of artist achievement- the dialogue between the objective and the subjective- is not part of the language of current theory.
    I admire Ashley’s bravery when he posts his working diary- it’s not something I could do (I am finding the creation of anything truly worth showing almost impossible these days, which is ok, there’s more than enough art in the galleries)- and I can understand his reaction to Robin’s rather brutally put critique of it. Most artistic discussion now is either quite impersonally post-structuralist, or self-help group style mutual support. The raw specifics of why this not that, of how, exactly, is this supposed to achieve what it claims, is alien to most young artists now. But then, personally, I also think Robin’s comments were valid, and it’s the value of a site like this to take honest criticism as valuable. There certainly seemed to be a lot of rather weak connection-forming going on, a feeling of arbitrariness going on that Ashley’s work on his website seems to avoid.

    I think it would be interesting for Robin to write here some time about his belief in the necessity, now, of abstraction. Why is it the valid path, when the glories of the past were figurative? I don’t have any great teleological ideas about where art should go, but I find the exclusion of imagery at this time the only way to avoid the delusion of ‘subject matter’ that plagues most art now, the only way of stripping things to the honest but intractable facts of visuallity and what it can mean. But I can’t manage the leap to ‘pure’ abstraction- there are still hints of the contingencies of the world- directional light, gravity, perspective. I’m not sure if this is a weakness or not, but if integrity does mean anything, I guess it means trying to honestly answer the questions which are the most important to you.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Wise words from Mr. Holland, as ever. I only take issue for the moment with: “how is the intention, the idea, the philosophy, made present in the art?”. I guess I’m working towards an opposite position, where you take the intention, the idea and the philosophy OUT of the art altogether, in order to discover a very abstract sense of purpose and meaning completely embedded within it. This is not even about formalism.

      As for writing about why I believe in an abstract future when all the best art is figurative – well, I’m working on that one!

      • jenny meehan said…

        Someone once said to me “In painting the idea is on the actual painting, not in it” and I keep this at the front of my own approach. It keeps me sane!

  4. Ashley West said…

    Thanks for your considered response Robin. I guess the reason there are so many blogs etc. and little debate is that painting is so difficult to discuss. More than that it’s difficult to know even how to negotiate a painting or sculpture for oneself, standing in front of it. One’s initial response is often one of being perplexed or simply vacant, so we can all too often be satisfied with ready made pigeon holes of our own or anothers creation. Or we make a remark about an aspect of it that catches the eye or has an association – “I like that colour…”, “that reminds me of…” (which may have entered into my piece, along the way, but not in the last analysis). This is made even more difficult by the plurality of stuff out there, produced in different ways and for different reasons. What actually goes on at the private view? How much looking? How much debate? If I think of discussion’s I’ve had with others in front of paintings, it’s always a struggle – almost embarrassing; it’s difficult to know what to say or how to say it. So it’s understandable that one nervously shifts to the way they are hung or something. In art education there’s understandably a lot of talk –crits, essays, etc. but the essentially personal and speculative activity of the student can be lost sight of. The essential activity of art making goes on in a place other than that occupied by the relatively small part of the mind that is usually involved in talking about it, no matter how cleverly.

    I don’t think it’s so much the scrutinisation of others that is important to the artist as ‘the confrontation with the self ‘– does a piece ‘hold together’ in front of that most ruthless of all tests? At its truest surely, art making involves a movement towards the co-emergence of both these aspects – the reality of the art work and the reality of the observer/maker (behind the observer) – the work lives in the space between the two (I think therefore that a painting does need you Robin – it only exists as an object when you’re not there, not as a living thing). A characteristic I think, of this self, is its desire for wholeness – a wish which cannot be compromised. Where an artwork is not about this search, then it is about something else, and I think where we agree is that abstract painting has become about all sorts of things yet often misses its true potential. This confrontation (or recognition) takes place through silence and stillness. It is only from that that everything can be seen – not only the workings of the piece’s visual form but all the associations and contextual conditions linked with it. I don’t think the idea of development can be disassociated from this – it is in the nature of the self to grow, to seek what it needs. And this doesn’t mean that a painting has to be reduced to an obvious easy wholeness (thinking about Thomas Nozkowski’s work for example). To judge the work of another would seem therefore to have to come from some ‘deeper’ place that can understand and appreciate where that piece has ‘come from’ and for what purpose. Such an understanding cannot be divorced surely from a respect for the nature of the endeavour. To try to approach it from a less worthy place in oneself is to demean the artist. Hence I suppose the understandably deferential (treading softly) attitude we often adopt in discussions with an artist in front of his work.

    How can I really talk therefore about the development of abstract painting in general terms? I can only experience what seems imperative to myself. If I truly experience a sense of significance in a piece, for myself, using the only measure I have, then I think there’s a degree of objectivity, which is no small thing. I might offer a couple of alternative pieces of my own here for which I have a particular fondness and which are particularly significant for me: ‘Painting with Converging Ellipses’ and ‘Beyond the Frontier’ (images 6 and 11 on my website http://www.ashleywest.co.uk). I don’t feel ‘beneath’ such painters as Motherwell or Diebenkorn in such works, on the contrary, I test my understanding of them, while forwarding an understanding of my own – they took as much critical observation as I could muster, and repeated dissatisfaction and reworking. But it’s never enough, and one continues to demand more of oneself. The comparison with Constable I don’t feel is relevant – he was about something very different surely. However when I was at the Phillip’s Collection in Washington a few weeks ago, looking at those Degas, Cezanne, Van Gogh and so on, it hit me, as if for the first time, just how exquisite the ‘touch’ of these painters was – you could only describe it as an extraordinary act of love. I’m not sure if I could have felt that were it not for the understanding given by my own practice.

    Where this experience of significance is shared by another or a wider group then one might say there is a greater degree of objectivity, and universality. Here we have the idea of relativity, without which, as one school of thought has it, nothing can be understood or given its place (incidentally my MA research paper ‘Relativity in Abstract painting: Self and World in Question’ explores this question and I include the link here: https://dl.dropbox.com/u/74974706/WimbResearch35.doc . I think this may also help to clear up one source of confusion concerning this ‘deeper place’. My assertions are based on the acceptance that ‘we are not always the same’ – in fact our usual state is far from what we would wish. If you assume that one automatically and always has such attributes as integrity, consciousness, objectivity, then you will miss my point.

    To me, it seems that the only way to pursue these questions about the quality or significance of abstract painting Robin, is therefore through the activity itself. Any debate of the kind we are engaged in here is a very different activity, which I would say is useful, so long as we remember its limitations, and that it can only serve the main activity, at best, not the other way round (which some art theorists and critics attempt to do through the most excrutiating contortions of language). The discussion which took place at the Andrew Mummery Gallery is a demonstration of how difficult it can be to come to agreed understandings, or even understandings about disagreements, not that it isn’t worthwhile to try.

    So I suppose my question that all this amounts to Robin, is, do you pose these questions in your own work? Could you give us an example? What do you come up with? Or can you offer an example of an abstract work that even begins to move in the right direction, and explain how and why? I sincerely hope you can, because if you can’t, it certainly won’t be found in any other way, will it?. Or maybe someone out there could help. Having said that, having just returned from the Diebenkorn show at the Corcoran, can I say that anything going on at the moment touches me to that extent? I’m struggling. But I guess I try to make the kind of work I want to see.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Having looked at your website, I’ve certainly done you a disservice. I think your Diebenkorn-ish paintings from a few years back are very strong-looking. But then, that too is a kind of criticism, in that they have a familiarity.

      I am certainly not going to offer examples of my work as the answer to anything. I may be on the wrong track altogether, and it’s not for me to say.

  5. Robin Greenwood said…

    I promise you I don’t disregard or belittle you or anyone else who is trying to make abstract art (or any kind of art, for that matter). That said, I reserve the right to be critical of anything I care to, and to criticise your art (but not you). I would defend your right to do the same.

    The first point to make is that, though there is a surprising amount of abstract stuff being made, I can find very little evidence on the internet of any critical engagement in abstract art. Indeed, all I can find is support networks and blogs amongst numerous abstract painters, all hitting the friendly ‘like’ buttons and moving on. I’m getting increasingly sick of it, and to me it is a complete waste of time. I don’t think abstract painting is in any way, shape or form improving because of it.

    Someone telling me they like my work is always pleasant, but useless, unless they tell me why. Even more useful would be to know what they don’t like, or think is a weakness, and why. This is difficult territory. If you think that this is not a constructive way of proceeding, that it is too negative, I can only urge you to reconsider, because the only way your art will get better (I am assuming that you are ambitious enough to want it to improve, and your statement about Sol-Space seems in parts to corroborate that) is by a process of rejecting the second-rate in your own work, over and over again. I think that I am very typical, in as much as I find it very difficult to make an objective assessment of my own work. I therefore rely on (certain) others to be as critical as possible about what I do. Of course, I don’t always accept their criticism in the end, but I actively (at the right times) seek it out. Sometimes it is difficult to swallow, but for the sake of the art, for the sake of making better abstract art, one’s personal hang-ups have to be set aside. I think you understand this, judging by some of what you have written, so forgive the mini-lecture.

    So then you come down to what works visually and what doesn’t, at which point I can only offer my honest opinion, as can we all, in order to try to get closer to an objective reality. My feeling is that what you are addressing, in the Sol-Space website discussion with other members, as well as in your painting process and the description of it you have given above, is almost entirely directed to things outside of the work (like the issue of ‘integrity’. I know what the word means, but what the hell does it mean to abstract painting? How would wanting ‘integrity’ make THIS particular painting better?). The issues of abstract painting and how it might proceed are, in my opinion, not helped by this approach very much. It is probably necessary to do some of this, but it’s beating round the bush; the discussion needs to then focus on the work and only the work. If that seems to de-humanise it, then I can only urge you to look to the ambitions of the artists you most admire and you will find a similar kind of relentlessness. To develop such disinterestedness helps a little, perhaps, in the task of not taking criticism too personally.

    I know it seems at times futile and pointless to define what is ‘abstract’ and what is not, but I do (at the moment) think it is really important to try and work out how to make art MORE abstract still. There will be lots of ways to do this, as many as there are good abstract artists, so I am not trying to force my opinion upon you about what you should do; only force upon you the idea that things must get better. I really do think that most abstract art around now is poor, and so I think there is a long way to go with it.

    I justify that ridiculous statement by saying exactly what you were saying (I think we agree about quite a lot), that if you look back to someone like Motherwell (or even better, Diebenkorn), what we are doing now is not as good. If you look even further back to someone like Constable, what we are doing now starts to look immeasurably pitiable. That said, the future for me is abstract, but there will not be a future unless more and more artists go to the absolute limits of ambition, and keep upping the stakes. One of the best tools for doing this is comparison. Do you think you are as good as Motherwell? Why not? Why not try to be better than Motherwell?

    In the end, I’m only saying that I think the artwork you illustrated and commented upon was a poor one, by any sustainable comparisons I can make. The parts are not actively engaged and they don’t make sense (to me). The process you describe and the picture’s stages you illustrate seem like a rather silly game of dipping in-and-out of some sort of sub-surrealist-association-thing. You need to find some better way of proceeding, a method of working that demands far more of you as a painter.

    You can make of that criticism something negative or something positive. And if Sol-Space can provide a network for genuine critical discussion of the work of its members, then it can be part of the solution; if not, then it is part of the problem. The same applies to abstractcritical.

  6. Ashley West said…

    Initially, looking at some of these comments I was shocked. A few things occurred to me. Try to be as discerning as you can (myself that is) – it’s all you can do, then trust your judgements. Is there something I’m not seeing? (last week I re-worked a painting that I thought was finished in 2005!) Looking hard at the piece again, it still works for me, the reproduction doesn’t do any favours though – you need to be in front of it to get the materiality, objectness, nuances. I’ve put a bigger image on my website, though I’m not sure it helps. I reflect on where this strand of work came from? Wimbledon I guess – my final show consisted of pieces like this, using everyday materials, crude DIY, rupture, challenging the edge. I’d taken the best from modernism (so to speak) and was trying to move things forward – I remember George Blacklock saying (as he encouraged the new work), “don’t forget, your understanding of Diebenkorn is gold-dust”, as if to say, you move on, but take that with you. Sometimes you take for granted the sensibilities that underpin your work. I wouldn’t say I’m influenced by Richard Tuttle, but I empathise strongly with his ‘seriously playful’, rather beautiful work and also his ‘transcendentalism’. His first retrospective got such bad press the curator lost her job – Hilton Kramer remarked that in this case ‘less is unmistakably less’ (rather than more). You will like that Robin! The term ‘abstract’ is the red herring surely. If you mean my piece isn’t just about what’s in front of you, well I don’t believe any abstract work can be. And I don’t think that’s the way to objectivity either. That would be to de-humanise it. I think it’s strangely self centred and misplaced to think that a work has to ‘do more’ simply to keep you interested Robin (thinking of what you said at the Andrew Mummery Gallery) and to disregard (even belittle) those artists who are struggling with the same issues. Sometimes one has to take responsibility for a lack in oneself. What I’m trying to do is watch and question the whole process: the decisions, observations, associations and so on, and in that way to open, hopefully, to the new. You may think you’ve seen it all before Robin, but maybe you’ve simply lost the ability to see things anew. Once you believe you know, you’re finished. How can the ‘stuff’ (in my piece) be unrelated? They exist – they have a relationship (what you say doesn’t say much for Duchamp and Surrealism). I’m trying to question the nature of relationship. Nothing can be related if you are not related (integrated / have integrity), and don’t accept that you are part of the equation. Integrity, Jane, is not something you just have or don’t have, it has to be worked for – to believe otherwise is delusion. How can you say the piece lacks significance for me? Or talk of ‘success’ in those terms? I’m trying to question the ‘terms’ in this piece, and put my own integrity into question too (it’s the only way to find it). It was an exercise – having embarked on it, it would have been disingenuous to disregard the outcome. I think with a bit more attention and less knee-jerk reaction more could be got out of this debate. I would hope also that the wider discussion of Sol-Space is not disregarded. Bless you all. Ashley.

  7. Katrina said…

    Hi Stephen and Ashley
    I was wondering why you set up the group? Is there more to the premise than ‘abstract’ painting? How do you choose who to invite and why? Is it your own personal ‘taste’? I am interested because I really like the idea of a supportive community in the painting world but worry about the dangers of exclusivity – unless there is a kind of intellectual common ground……manifesto…..which could be interesting but maybe not possible today?

    • Ashley West said…

      Well we simply thought we’d set up our own space that would show the sort of work we wanted to see, and work that shared our aims. We seemed to spend a lot of time complaining about the lack of quality, ambition, content and (I’ll say it again)integrity, in a lot that we saw, so we thought we would try to do something about that. As I’ve said in the article, we’re not claiming to meet those criteria, but we try to. I think many don’t even consider those things really. Everything else has taken over, to a great extent. We didn’t want it to be a collective in the purest sense (democratic), because we wanted to select artists based on our gut feeling about our ethos. We didn’t want something like axis which has an unlimited number of artists of every kind – that has a different function. We wanted to keep it small scale, focused and workable, like most galleries. But we don’t know how it will develop, and want to keep an open mind, so we’re interested in what people have to say. There’s nothing to stop others doing a similar thing. We’ve even thought of inviting others,abroad for example, to set up a similar group under the umbrella of Sol-Space. It’s just like inviting people to play a game of cricket, but there’s a limit to how many you have in a team, and if you want to play something with different rules then you go and set up a game of football or something. It’s early days. How can it be mutually supportive? We’re trying to work that out. It takes more than passively being a member. Hope that’s useful Katrina.

  8. Jane Boyer said…

    I think Jenny’s point of significance is a cogent one, a work must reflect a significance for the artist in order to convey a sense of integrity to the viewer. I also think integrity is one of those things that can’t be made to appear, it is or it isn’t. However, in rebuttal to Robin, is there a wrong and a right way to make abstract art? I think the flaw in this experiment, which is an interesting one, is on this occasion, the piece is not entirely successful and seems to lack a significance for Ashley. The process of working and questioning is valid and one I have experienced on many occasions. Pieces aren’t always successful, but sometimes they’re smashing. The point of this exercise to my mind, is the process of questioning each decision – that’s where the integrity lies in terms of work ethic, the integrity of the piece is in the significance of the work to the artist and the integrity of the artist lies in the decisions made for directing their career in relation to what is important to their work.

  9. Robin Greenwood said…

    Ashley’s descriptions of his working process in the studio, and the photos of the work, only make me think that this is a case of how not to make abstract art. From what I can see from the photos, and from what I gather from the commentary, decisions are subjective and arbitrary, and come with half-hearted associations, especially of other art; perhaps then not abstract at all. There is no attempt made to understand what one part is ‘doing’ with or to another, it’s just a collection of unrelated stuff. The ‘integrity’ angle is a red herring, surely?

    • jenny meehan said…

      No, I don’t think the integrity angle is a red herring. What I loved about this narrative was the play aspect, and I’m not bothered about the references to other works, I took them as whimsical thoughts with no great significance in the process. The stream of consciousness I enjoyed for itself, and found it delightful for itself. It didn’t make any claim to be anything more than an experiment.

      • Sam said…

        Though I wouldn’t want to speak for him, I’d imagine that ‘whimsical thoughts with no great significance’; ‘delightful for itself’; & lack of ‘claim to be anything more than than experiment’ are exactly the problems that RG found in Ashley West’s description. I think that perhaps the choice of work was unfortunate – the painting by him at the top seems to contain some of the quirks of the construction but more securely stated.

  10. jenny meehan said…

    Thanks for a great read! The “In The Studio” has been a joy to read, and I’ve lots to take away and let my thoughts bounce around on, which is good from time to time.

    “What I would question is whether a work can have real significance without it. It may succeed on any number of levels, but true significance must surely be in relation to our deepest sense of who we are – our humanity, and if that is not questioned in the process of making a painting, then surely the work is bereft of true value and purpose. Whether such integrity is discernable to the viewer is dependent on a similar level of reflectivity on his or her part.”

    I’m amazed how people “get” things about my paintings, I never take it for granted, it is always a pleasant surprise, and often from those I don’t preconceive will relate. I’m delighted to read of people thinking about truth to self in painting/integrity incarnate! I think we have so much surrounding us, that the real challenge with any creation is finding the substance of our own personal heart/desire and being able to convey that in a focused and articulate way, without words, but visually, and somehow, with power and impact, which is the more challenging aspect, especially in a culture where we are so saturated with imagery.

    In the end, it’s a strange combination of intimacy and distance, which keeps me hooked, as far as I understand it, or at least this is where I am in my thinking at the moment. The fascination of making contact with one’s central core and then running a mile to look at it from a distant mountain! Seeing if your call, or even an echo of it, resounds somewhere else! Sorry, getting a bit “Romantic” there!!!!

    Hope you enjoyed my ramble, I certainly enjoyed yours,
    will take a look at the links but want to remove myself from the wretched computer asap for now.