Abstract Critical

Douglas Allsop interview with Nickolas Lambrianou

Douglas Allsop, Reflective Editor, Set of Four: Two Horizontal Rectangular Holes, Parallel Pattern, Horizontal Division, 2010, cast acrylic sheet, steel pins and polyester tubes, edition 1 of 3, 30 x 75 x 0.3 cm. Courtesy of Bartha Contemporary Ltd London

Douglas Allsop, Reflective Editor, Set of Four: Two Horizontal Rectangular Holes, Parallel Pattern, Horizontal Division, 2010, cast acrylic sheet, steel pins and polyester tubes, edition 1 of 3, 30 x 75 x 0.3 cm. Courtesy of Bartha Contemporary Ltd London

NL: I thought we could begin by talking about abstraction. On the one hand, your work is obviously abstract, but I know that like many artists you have reservations about the term. Perhaps you could talk about what you understand by ‘abstract’?

DA: Well I not really sure whether abstraction exists. I would like to think it would be possible to look at something and understand it in purely abstract terms, but I don’t think it is. I think we all bring a different way of thinking about things or forms to it. So if we see something we don’t recognise, we say ‘I don’t know what it is but I think it looks like something or other…’ and so on. There might be a moment when we think we understand something totally abstractly but I don’t really believe that’s true.

I think that is an idea of abstraction which I locate in Clement Greenberg’s writing for example but which in reality I don’t think exists.

NL: Why?

DA: Because the way the mind works. It always wants to place something and have a security about it – make a connection or make it readable. I think that connections are made to enable us to interpret and understand what we are seeing.

NL: You mention Greenberg – is there anything specifically in Greenberg’s argument that you find interesting about abstraction?

DA: Well the way I understand it, he used the term as a way of placing or identifying a certain type of artwork, painting specifically, but to me it is a non-term, a term I don’t use because I think it misrepresents the reasons for making the artwork.

NL: I think the issue of making is interesting. We often think about abstraction as a verb – a painter wants to make a particularly type of painting so they take an image and abstract it, transform it – like Kandinsky or the cubists for example – take something visual and then off on a path to abstraction but it still looks like the object a bit – Cossacks on horseback or a still life or whatever. However in your work, and I suppose in that minimalist tradition that you are related to, there is a different way of thinking about the making process. You are starting with something geometrical or non-representational which is already abstract, and this sets off the making process. And then if you end up with something that happens to resemble something, it doesn’t matter, not in the same way as it might to an abstract purist like Greenberg at least.

DA: Yes. I don’t try and avoid resemblance, but that is not the point. The point for me is that I set up a series of constraints or a system which I then exploit. There are a number of basic aspects to the system – direction, left to right, rotation, reversal etc – which are constant and inform the process.

For example in the pieces showing at Niklas von Bartha’s gallery [Reflective Editor: Set of Four: Two Horizontal Rectangular Holes, Parallel Pattern, Horizontal Division, 2010] they are ordered left to right then down to next line left to right – not a rotation but organised like language on a page – they start at top left and then end at bottom right hand corner.

NL: So you work in a series and they are often laid out in a purely linear manner, often in a typographic manner even. Is this true for the larger works? For example ones which may be orientated more to the gallery space, large works where the space is divided up in different ways?

DA: Yes. When I draw or design these objects I always think of a left to right movement. Larger pieces too are conceived in that way, left to right.

Douglas Allsop, ‘Reflective Editor, Set of Four: Two Horizontal Rectangular Holes, Parallel Pattern, Horizontal Division’, 2010, cast acrylic sheet, steel pins and polyester tubes, edition 1 of 3, 30 x 75 x 0.3 cm. Courtesy of Bartha Contemporary Ltd. London

Douglas Allsop, ‘Reflective Editor, Set of Four: Two Horizontal Rectangular Holes, Parallel Pattern, Horizontal Division’, 2010, cast acrylic sheet, steel pins and polyester tubes, edition 1 of 3, 30 x 75 x 0.3 cm. Courtesy of Bartha Contemporary Ltd. London

NL: To come back to Greenberg. He does seem pertinent here because there is an insistence in Greenberg’s argument on a certain type of abstraction which pervades our definition of it whether we agree with him or not. There is perhaps something like an anxiety about the role of art generally that Greenberg’s writings gives voice to I think, even if largely unconsciously. Perhaps this is because he is writing at a time when the traditional or classical certainties around art have been thrown into doubt. For example in Towards a Newer Laocoon (1940), and even the original essay by Lessing that he is echoing (Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, 1836). These are both texts written at a time where art and society are undergoing significant changes and related to this are broad and profound anxieties about art and its role. So this occurs both at the dawn of modernity (for Lessing) and at its highpoint (for Greenberg). In either case this change gives rise not only to a doubt about the role of art but also perhaps a profound sense of threat or anxiety about the possibility of art’s existence even. So the way that the arts must redefine and protect themselves from this threat is to renegotiate their identity, to carve out a new role for themselves. The way that they do this (again, for both Lessing and Greenberg) is by shedding away all that is extraneous, anything that doesn’t belong to the realm of pictorial (the literary, the allegorical, the spatial for example). And so abstraction to Greenberg is a sort of purity, a purity which is linked to the idea of identity of art, its very right to exist.

DA: Well it would be for me too, in that sense I agree with him. What I don’t really think happens, which I think he said or indicated, is the way purity or abstraction in that sense can expunge all sense of resemblance in the work. In fact, I take a more psychological way of thinking about the work and seeing in general. I think there is a human need to know where we are in relation to a perceived object and also give it a name or identify it. It is related to basic survival. So we may not be sure what it is we are looking at but it looks like this or that and that is to do with the security that is afforded through being able to identify something.

NL: Of course Greenberg would not couch his argument in terms of psychology or even in terms of a cultural anxiety around the status of the work of art that I am describing – although of course he has a profound anxiety about the threat to high art represented by kitsch. His argument around the development of modernist painting is also notoriously a sort of rewriting of history in light of what happened in surrealism and dada and how they threatened his narrative of high modernist, pure, art. But overall abstraction is a route to autonomy – and autonomy is this sober, pure, strength to be sought out in the art making process… a rigour and a logic.

DA: Yes I agree – and obviously I am beguiled by that.

Douglas Allsop, ‘From Here’, installation image. Courtesy of Bartha Contemporary Ltd. London

Douglas Allsop, ‘From Here’, installation image. Courtesy of Bartha Contemporary Ltd. London

NL: Ok – let’s talk about your more recent work and specifically what is showing at Niklas von Bartha’s gallery (“From Here”) – could you describe these works and any perhaps any new or recent concerns that appear in them?

DA: Yes. One of the key things is format. Over the last 15 years or more I have been working with this extended rectangle. It takes the proportion of a wide-angle cinema screen, specifically the Panavision ratio. I suppose this is partly to do with my personal history and interest in looking.

NL: So like Cinemascope or Vista-Vision? They are all slightly different I guess?

DA: To tell the truth it is not quite the Panavision ratio – these works are 1:2.5 – close to Panavision but not quite, my version if you like. This is a form or proportion that I find interesting because it is something that moves outside of one’s ability to measure it – I find that rather interesting – something starts to disappear.

NL: How do you mean?

DA: The edges of the shape spread out beyond your vision. I think the way we see is connected to the horizon, and thus ultimately reflects the nature of human eyesight and its connection to survival.

NL: So the relation to stereo vision is important?

DA: Yes absolutely – that is the reason I am concerned with the horizontal, even though they are usually not singular and are conceived as pairs or as a series. Though I have made vertical pieces, I am generally interested in horizontality and the relation to human vision.

I work in series because everything suggests something else, or something more. But you have to have a system, something that stops you. Earlier work was usually paired but I now have systems that complete themselves when there are four variations.

Douglas Allsop, Reflective Editor: One Horizontal Elliptical Hole, Parallel Pattern, 2013,Cast Acrylic sheet, steel pins and polyester tubes, 72 x 180 x 0.5 cm. Courtesy of Bartha Contemporary Ltd. London

Douglas Allsop, Reflective Editor: One Horizontal Elliptical Hole, Parallel Pattern, 2013,Cast Acrylic sheet, steel pins and polyester tubes, 72 x 180 x 0.5 cm. Courtesy of Bartha Contemporary Ltd. London

NL: Interesting – so whether using ovoids or rectangles, there is the same underlying system?

DA: Yes – there are proportional ratios. Either 1:5 or 1:10 – the vertical and horizontal measurements are divided up in such a way so that the ratio of negative space to the border fits that ratio.

NL: So if you want a ratio of 1:10, the border is 1 unit and the shape or negative space is 10 units. But you start from the overall dimensions and then the ratio dictates the actual measurement. So the border is standardised – there are 2 ratios in effect – the outer ‘Panavision’ one of 1:2.5 and then within that you are manipulating the shape to create the correct ratio of the cut-out shape to border. So the units are not standardised, they have to flex to fit the outer ratio. So there is a sort of differential.

DA: Yes

NL: So there is a consistency – always these ratios. But what is interesting about these new works is how thoroughly different they are to other works because of the ellipse.

DA: Yes, but the ellipse follows the same system of 1:5 and 1:10, ratio of borders to shape. The rectangle is implicitly there and dictates the edges of the ellipse.

Douglas Allsop, Reflective Editor: One Horizontal Elliptical Hole, Parallel Pattern, 2013,Cast Acrylic sheet, steel pins and polyester tubes, 72 x 180 x 0.5 cm. Courtesy of Bartha Contemporary Ltd. London

Douglas Allsop, Reflective Editor: One Horizontal Elliptical Hole, Parallel Pattern, 2013,Cast Acrylic sheet, steel pins and polyester tubes, 72 x 180 x 0.5 cm. Courtesy of Bartha Contemporary Ltd. London

NL: And they are still made of cast acrylic sheet, and still produced using a computer controlled router, embodying a sort of purely mechanical aesthetic? They are still ‘pure’ in that sense – no distortion or manipulation, just precisely what a machine does when told to.

DA: Yes of course. The play that I like is between the ‘blind’ internal form (the ellipse) and the reflective frame. This is a reversal of the usual picture and frame relationship – here the frame presents the picture or image, which of course is the wrong way round as it is a reflection. So I work with a number of opposites – the picture is not there, just a space. The frame is where the picture is, but it is reversed.

NL: But of course then the internal elements also have a relationship between themselves.

DA: Yes. What I am interested in is the relationship between the reflective surface which is the border and the hole, which is where the ‘image’ would usually be, in the centre. So what image there is is where the border would usually be, and is reversed, as it is a reflection.

I enjoy the reflective surface – though when I say enjoy, they are also quite disturbing. The image is always the other way around. We get used to looking at ourselves in the mirror but that is not how the world sees us. That aspect of looking at ourselves I find very intriguing but disturbing too. We never see ourselves as others see us.

NL: There is an interesting phenomenon on the iPhone, the self portrait mode. You can take self portraits and selfies with the camera facing you. But then when you press the shutter the image suddenly reverses it and shows you what the camera saw, i.e. not the mirror image but the image as the camera saw it. There is always a small shock… even though you know there is a mirror image it is still quite a shock when it flicks around.

DA: Yes that sort of visual disturbance or reversal interest me.

Douglas Allsop, Reflective Editor: One Horizontal Elliptical Hole, Parallel Pattern, 2013,Cast Acrylic sheet, steel pins and polyester tubes, 72 x 180 x 0.5 cm. Courtesy of Bartha Contemporary Ltd. London

Douglas Allsop, Reflective Editor: One Horizontal Elliptical Hole, Parallel Pattern, 2013,Cast Acrylic sheet, steel pins and polyester tubes, 72 x 180 x 0.5 cm. Courtesy of Bartha Contemporary Ltd. London

NL: My next question is about the use of space in your work. You describe very well the sort of paradox in the work, namely that where you are expecting the heart of the image to be there is a void, and the actual image is at the edges or the frame. What you have at the centre of your work is a hole – a real hole, framing a real space.

So we could consider the various understandings of space in your work. The primary one for me is this cut out space. Perhaps it emphasises a duality between the real space perceived through or between the material and the reflected image. But what does that real space mean for you? How is it conceived? It made me think for example, of Lucio Fontana. But also perhaps it is a very different concept of space than that which appears in Fontana’s ‘slashed’ works. In the 1950/60s he is making these grand metaphysical claims for the truth or reality of the world beyond the canvas, a space that is there if only we are confident enough to slash through the illusionary veil or skin of the canvas itself, the surface.

DA: Well I always enjoyed Fontana and I do find parallels between his work and what I do.

NL: Yes there are parallels, but also a crucial difference I think – Fontana has this melodramatic slashing, a sort of violence. I am not saying there is not a certain violence in your work, but I am not sure you would make the same grand metaphysical claims for what is on the other side of the canvas in that sense?

DA: Good question, I would not make those claims no. I think there is a blotting out, or a covering up – so you are allowed to look through, but at the same time as you are allowed to look through, you stop looking at what it is that you are supposed to looked. That play of ‘what are we supposed to be looking at’ interests me.

I am interested how the wall that we see through the work, that is framed by the work, is seen differently. It is divorced from the rest of the wall, and even though we know it is the same wall, it is different, and that difference intrigues me. Part of the wall has come about because of the framing. I’m not sure if that sounds metaphysical – “does the wall behind the reflective black surface exist?” It is a perceptual or philosophical question perhaps.

Douglas Allsop, Blind Screen. Courtesy of Bartha Contemporary Ltd. London

Douglas Allsop, Blind Screen. Courtesy of Bartha Contemporary Ltd. London

NL: Yes. An interesting result of your work – again to compare and contrast with Fontana – is precisely that if there is a violence in your work, it is the violence of discontinuity or dislocation. Taking a piece of the wall and giving it another meaning, another context. So the point about the use of space in your work, which is often an architectural space, is that in fact you exploit it, whether it is a piece of wall or a part of the room blocked off. But that exploitation is also a cancellation in a sense. You exploit architecture but also nullify it. You often indicate a space but block it off at the same time too – for example the Blind Screens where a portion of the room is physically screened off and people have to duck underneath to get to the other side of the room. And of course because it is blocked off it makes the other side even more compelling, people want to get to the other side to see what is there, or to see it from the other side.

DA: I think that is right and this is something I very consciously try to create at times. The titles are important. Reflective Editor for example: reflective can mean ‘to reflect’ or think but also the literal reflection as in a mirror… and there is also a form of reflection in the sense that these most recent pieces have a centre – there is a reflection from left to right, they are symmetrical. And ‘editing’ refers to the recontextualising of space.

NL: And symmetrical across horizontal and vertical axes, where some others are not…

DA: Yes the pieces with the rectangles are very different – what I enjoy about the piece that has been taken away – the missing bar – is that it causes this proportional matter, the bottom rectangle, to look thinner than the ones above… this bar of wall looks fatter than the others… It is a relationship that brings an element of doubt into what we are seeing, is it the same or not the same – these questions create a visual play that exists between the works, and also sometimes between the parts of the works.

NL: So do you conceive the series in terms of that type of visual effect that might be produced, or is there an element of serendipity involved where you design a series, get them fabricated and then these visual accidents occur? Which comes first?

DA: Good question. Well, they are the sort of things that I enjoy – they are connected to certain visual experiences, so that is a motivation in a way but it is not always conscious.

NL: The second type of space which I think occurs in your work is where you are knowingly playing with disorientation. So perhaps talking about these strange visual effects is relevant here. For example, the removal of a single perpendicular bar in one rectangle makes the negative space look fatter even though you know it is not true and the two rectangles are made to the same size. In addition, you constantly use this black material which emphasises the linear aspect, but then also acts as a mirror reflecting back the environment behind you, further adding to the sense of disorientation. This effect reminded me of a story you told at a lecture once, which is from a childhood memory (and it is also interesting that your work is not based on memories in any obvious way but you told this anecdote).

DA: Yes, it is a story I have often reflected on. I was about 8 or 10 years old I think. I will read it as written:

With my eyes closed I would lie in bed on my right side and face the wall which was to my right and only a few inches away… my aim was to convince myself that I was lying in the opposite direction. This meant I had also to convince myself that my head was at the foot of the bed as I felt that I could not simply pretend that I lay on my left instead of my right side (so I kept the material or bodily pressure the same, which means my whole body must reverse for the orientation to be different). Having convinced myself that I was facing towards the left hand wall and my head was at the foot of the bed, I would open my eyes and there, 3 or 4 inches away, was the right hand wall. In an instant I had returned through 180 degrees to my original position.

NL: So it is a childhood experience to do with space and orientation or perhaps the ability to imagine one has total control over space. You trick or convince yourself into imagining you are in another spatial position, and whether you really ever convince yourself or not, there is this great moment of shock when you open your eyes and the room is not where you expect it to be (though of course it is just where you left it!).

DA: Precisely. This kind of disorientation is what fascinates me. It takes me away from ideas of abstraction or purity – I don’t think any of this is abstract, I avoid the term. At a fundamental level it has to do with perception or defence, knowing where one is in relation to other things. A question of perception and the psychology of perception which is to do with defence mechanisms. You either defend yourself or run away.

NL: Interesting. So for you this experience reveals the fragility if you like of what we take to be a clear distinction between real and imagined space. So when we are lucid or conscious we imagine it is easy to distinguish between reality and imagination, or experienced and perceived space, but actually the ability to distinguish between the two is itself very fragile. As a child we discover we have the power to make the whole world rotate if we want it to (as long as we shut it off, close our eyes to it) to the point where it is a shock to discover that it hasn’t.

DA: Yes.

NL: Perhaps the relation to self-defence is that we learn from recognising how fragile the ‘reality’ of space is. We train ourselves to recognise this fragility so that we get better at realising when it may be upset or destroyed.

DA: Yes, for me that sounds true.

NL: So to return to these happy accidents of perception…

DA: I would not use the term. They are not happy accidents. They come about from grids or systems that are pre-ordained, and then I create my own proportional ratio which I then adhere to. I set up systems and I aim, though these proportional ratios, to create a kind of visual puzzle. But they are straightforward systematic permutations and systems.

NL: I know you have a background in typography – do you think maybe there is something in that that relates to this? Because a typographers job is to use systems and grids as a guide but there comes a point where you have to come off or push the grid to make it look right, but you do the opposite, you keep to the grid to the point where things look odd.

DA: Yes, good point. When I worked in typography I always found it very difficult to violate or come off the grid. People I worked with were aware that once I had decided on the grid, I was not willing to play with it, but others were much more ready to accept the need to play with it or use it, whereas I let it use me.

I am much more of systems person – or at least there is a struggle for me between the system and formal picture-making or compromise that entails. In typography for example, the visual compromise is there to make thing looks right – you come off the thing that is right (the grid) to make it look right to the reader. This is perhaps a perversion of mine…

Douglas Allsop, Meta Text - Reflective Editor, Suite of 4 diptychs, 2011-12, cast acrylic Sheet, hardened steel pin, polyester tube, edition 1 of 3, each 75 x 30 x 0.3 cm. Courtesy Bartha Contemporary Ltd. London

Douglas Allsop, Meta Text – Reflective Editor, Suite of 4 diptychs, 2011-12, cast acrylic Sheet, hardened steel pin, polyester tube, edition 1 of 3, each 75 x 30 x 0.3 cm. Courtesy Bartha Contemporary Ltd. London

NL: That leads neatly to my next question. The level of rigour in your work – it has been described as ruthless. The grid or system is set up, and then there is no attempt to beguile the viewer or create an aesthetic experience.

DA: No the work has to be taken on its own terms, that is true. But at the same time it is old fashioned perspective and the way we have tried – since the beginning of picture making – to make things looks three dimensional on a two dimensional surface – it is historical and I find myself continually absorbed by it.

I have always been interested in Hans Holbein for example, and particularly the anamorphic skull that appears in The Ambassadors. These recent elliptical works directly relate to that. It is also important to recognise that an ellipse is not a disc in perspective. These are ellipses seen straight on, so there is no distortion.

NL: They are not a circle seen from the side for example.

DA: Exactly. I have always found the picture of Holbein absolutely absorbing as he seems to dealing with the sorts of issues that I find compelling – the way it looks to me, when I stand to the side and look back at it, I see the skull but I am made aware of its appearance as a special event as it were. So from the front I cannot see the skull, and then when you move to the side, it leaps from the side and separates itself from the two subjects of the painting, and from the side you don’t see them but just the skull which springs into action, it becomes animate. Through distortion the skull is the thing that is alive.

NL: I see. So for you there are two very different visual realms in one work – perhaps incompatible visual realms – one on the surface, the image or shape you are looking at, and the other, the reflection, demanding a different way of seeing or attention. The two cannot be seen at the same time.

DA: Yes. Originally it was thought that the painting was set by a door. As described by Lacan, when you look back at the painting one last time, the skull leaps back out of the picture.

NL: It is a bodily position or a space that the image forces on the viewer.

DA: I don’t know the answer. Maybe it is both.

We have talked about the Reflective Editors and the Blind Screens – the choice of words is important to me. Blind means blind but also a blind like across a window, that you pull down, and that always interests me. When you use a blind you shut the light out and that of course is what enables us to see. So these are very simple things but fundamental to how to understand the world. And the idea of ‘screen’ for example – something that stands in front of you, perhaps a perforated screen so you can see through it but you are always aware that you cannot be seen.

I have always been interested in two way glass. In a sense the double sided video tape has something of that quality – difficult to describe but it does have this ‘double-sidedness’ to it – so two way mirror glass is interesting but it has to do with volumes of light too. Light on one side is greater so if you dim the lights people cannot look back in – ideas of people being able to see and others not being able to see.

NL: So yes in the Blind Screens if you are close to them you can look through the gaps, but people on the other side cannot see you necessarily, or at most only an outline.

DA: And the vertiginous quality of space to – as you know from working on them there is a strong sense of the vertiginous during the installation process, the material is so slight but working with these highly reflective strips disorientate our perceptions.

NL: That fragile sense of reality/perception and real or imagined space – these seems to be a theme which is as much there in the Blind Screens as it was when you were a child lying in your bed.

DA: Yes it is the same interest really. Interesting how things emerge in your practice and you become aware of how you were already fascinated by them when young.

New Cross, London 12 April 2014

  1. anthony seymour said…

    This work sounds compellingly rational, objective and consciously disciplined as a way of “survival” in the world.

    Perhaps its not arbitrary to connect an intensity or wonder of childhood perceptions to the sense of a conceptual framework as a mature artist and obviously Picasso springs immediately to mind, but its surprising nobody else has posted any comments or discussion here about Douglas’ work!

    Certainly it is difficult or sophisticated artwork and maybe a would-be audience have mis-perceived it as an intimidating body-of-work or negative-mindset, whereas actually there there is so much more here than a framework-of-emptiness, but rather richly metaphysical focus achieving a masterly simplicity!

    Good to look and read what Douglas is up to since I knew him as Director of Studies at Byam Shaw when I was a painting student in the mid-Nineties, so this is an inspiring and surprising article I have enjoyed!