Abstract Critical

Peter Hedegaard: 1970’s Gouaches

Written by Emyr Williams

Colour Sequence [yellow / orange], 1977, gouache on paper, 56 x 76cm © Peter Hedegaard / Courtesy Rocket Gallery, London

Colour Sequence [yellow / orange], 1977, gouache on paper, 56 x 76cm © Peter Hedegaard / Courtesy Rocket Gallery, London

Since the eighties, Art, Craft and Design have become progressively mushed together in the national curriculum. Wonderful pieces of equipment, such as lathes and potter’s wheels find themselves in skips or as items for sale from the more entrepreneurial of establishments. Fewer and fewer schools are able to deliver these subjects with the correct provision – time, space and budget dictate other priorities. Unfortunately being business-savvy is now part of the make-up of the modern state school. More’s the pity too. As we stumble in iPod oblivion to our digital nirvana, what will our children continue to make? What factures will they “manu.” The hand made (manus) is now synonymous with the luxury end of the market alone. The visual metaphor for work has changed from the spanner to the PC.

I preface this review with these thoughts about the nature of Art in our schools, because I could not help but notice that Hedegaard was a product of Charterhouse and Hertford College, Oxford. I wondered what he was taught and how significant his education was to his mature work. I had a two great formative Art teachers – one a painter, the other a printmaker. The latter (a former sergeant-major) made me think about temperature in colour, real mixing and how to put one colour on top of another. Anyone who considers this a straightforward task is insensitive to painting as an art form and will not be able to fully grasp the wonders it can excite in our eyes; the surprise of the unforeseen is what Art is uniquely equipped to deliver.

Graded Steps [yellow / green / blue], 1972, gouache on paper, 76 x 56cm © Peter Hedegaard / Courtesy Rocket Gallery, London

Graded Steps [yellow / green / blue], 1972, gouache on paper, 76 x 56cm © Peter Hedegaard / Courtesy Rocket Gallery, London

It is worth remembering the difference between Art and Design. Design must have a function – a purpose beyond its aesthetic form. Art need not do this. That is its virtue. Oh! So many people want it to perform in ways that are simply not in its DNA. Theories abound and numerous, highly educated discourses miss this fact. Frank Stella makes a couple of valid points in a recent, enjoyable article on Larry Poons. He lamented Art as having become increasingly about “displays” and went on to note the demise of the art student as a sensitive visual practitioner – plus he made a fun throwaway comment about studios: “surely anyone can see the best painting, and by extension the best art making activity of our time takes place on the surfaces other than those for which it was intended.”

Trapezium [blue / orange / red / purple], 1970, gouache on paper, 76 x 56cm © Peter Hedegaard / Courtesy Rocket Gallery, London

Trapezium [blue / orange / red / purple], 1970, gouache on paper, 76 x 56cm © Peter Hedegaard / Courtesy Rocket Gallery, London

I enjoy good design as much as the next person and despair as much as the next when it is bad – or worse, masquerades as Art. A point agreed with director Jonathan Stephenson at Rocket Gallery, whilst looking at the works in this exhibition.

How to appreciate these works then? They sit up in colour; sharp and sunny in a modest, welcoming space. Generously framed. It took me sometime to get a take on them: If Art were a “red” and Design were a “yellow,” this show has the gravitational pull of a vermillion. Indeed, it comes as no surprise to see them resplendent in the context of the cool pieces of Dutch and Scandinavian furniture in the adjacent room.

Square Sequence [red / blue / green / purple], 1972, gouache on paper, 55 x 55cm © Peter Hedegaard / Courtesy Rocket Gallery, London

Square Sequence [red / blue / green / purple], 1972, gouache on paper, 55 x 55cm © Peter Hedegaard / Courtesy Rocket Gallery, London

Clean divisions – usually the raw paper – often surround squares, rectangles and trapezoids, as pathways through regular mazes. Hedegaard favoured high key colour – primary and secondary with several harmonic tonal sequences: in another time and place they would operate much like a colour swatch in a Pantone Matching System book. The best work seemed at first glance to be “Square Sequence (red / blue / green / purple)” for all the linearity of these colours, the fact they suggested an alternate contrasting row movement afforded an unpredictability which was refreshing (from the handout it appeared pre-sold).

Graded Steps [blue / purple / red / orange], 1972, gouache on paper, 76 x 56cm © Peter Hedegaard / Courtesy Rocket Gallery, London

Graded Steps [blue / purple / red / orange], 1972, gouache on paper, 76 x 56cm © Peter Hedegaard / Courtesy Rocket Gallery, London

These gouaches are meticulously painted – tiny dots and erased lines reveal the pencilled method of measuring and demarking shapes to be literally coloured in. There are subtle shifts of rows across one 1cm, then 2, then 3. Imagine a row of tiled steps but without the added eye-line perspective, so they could easily be read as stepped volumes as much as looking like stacked shapes: shunting systematically and incrementally sideways. The fact that “Perspective ” is used as a title on one of the number that are divided with diagonals, which move in a single point perspectival logic, seems to imply the artist was fully aware of this illusion – intended it even, as a supposed gainsaid.

Nothing here is overpainted. Things are worked out and executed accordingly. There is a pervasive sense of proportion that is separate also to the making. The Golden Rectangle sprang to mind – as did Fibonacci. I could well be miles off, granted. The colour seems very carefully considered and there are tensions in the work that give it a spine which stops it drifting into visual Muzak.

Perspective [blue / green], 1971, gouache on paper, 76 x 56cm © Peter Hedegaard / Courtesy Rocket Gallery, London

Perspective [blue / green], 1971, gouache on paper, 76 x 56cm © Peter Hedegaard / Courtesy Rocket Gallery, London

The screen prints which were part of a previous exhibition and some of which were in evidence here take the gouache studies to their clinical conclusions. There are some well assembled colour “chords” in the prints – but the gouaches’ little irregularities are lost in the smack, bang, wallop of the squeegee’s precision. Differences become essential when surface is so even and unforgiving.

We are told that Hedegaard became disillusioned with the art world (queue forming) after an early success at the John Moores. Thence, turned inwards to explore colour in ever more exacting systems. I get a sense of unease when I hear about an artist working on the theory of colour  – images of bits of coloured paper pinned like lab rats to be analysed when presented with other bits of coloured paper. These are much more jolly affairs though. How can one not but nod at high key colours carefully, pedagogically arranged? There are no great dramas here and no emotional highs either. This is not in their ambition though.  They are pleasant, polite visual essays in colour; colours in relation to size and shape, colours as sequence, colours as rhythm: doomed to success, to be harsh.

Trapezium [blue / green / yellow], 1970, gouache on paper, 76 x 56cm © Peter Hedegaard / Courtesy Rocket Gallery, London

Trapezium [blue / green / yellow], 1970, gouache on paper, 76 x 56cm © Peter Hedegaard / Courtesy Rocket Gallery, London

I have pondered which medium best suits shape – shape as a definite delineated form – in any quasi polygonal state, and over this past year or so, have also wondered about the role of “shape/s” in a painting. Does collage or even screen printing do shape better than painting for example? (I do not mean that paintings should be “shapeless” or even not use shapes, as the edge determines the overall shape anyway.) I have used masking tape, but I have this nagging feeling that in doing so I was closing more doors than opening. It’s a feeling only, as I have no reductionist doctrines. It’s just that geometries feel better realised through collage and print than through painting. I am saying this through the experiences of making all three – and exploring shape explicitly too. Furthermore, having an area marked out and then colouring it in, seems to be – ironically – akin to a sort of pre-determinism that is related to figuration. Colouring in feels the same as “designing” something. Having it all worked out before the final making bit occurs.

Square sequence [blue / purple / red], 1972, gouache on paper, 56 x 76cm © Peter Hedegaard / Courtesy Rocket Gallery, London

Square sequence [blue / purple / red], 1972, gouache on paper, 56 x 76cm © Peter Hedegaard / Courtesy Rocket Gallery, London

In conclusion; although this is a show about shape, sequence and interval, I am not convinced it is actually about colour per se – which seems a heck of a thing to say when you look at the works. It’s as if the colour cancels itself out due to the overarching nature of the formats, or rather their design. These are colours, rather than colour. Colours are nice, colours are attractive and can serve an important function in design. Look at any Apple advert!  In Art though they need to become colour. Hedegaard had worked originally in design and this is clear in the attack of the works, which have that design orientated singularity of intent and a feel for colour which is systematic. If designers start from a base of a pyramid and work their way to the concluding point of the apex, honing until a single certainty is arrived at, then artists start from the precariousness of the point and open out possibilities whilst maintaining an uncertain, unforeseen balancing act – it could fall down or it could stay up. This show is less pyramidal, more… rectangular.

Peter Hedegaard: 1970s Gouaches is on at Rocket until the 15th of June. 

  1. Chantal Condron said…

    For more information about Peter Hedegaard’s work, you can read an interview with Isolde Hedegaard on his website http://www.peterhedegaard.co.uk/biography/interview.php/img