Comments on: Sol-Space and the Question of Integrity in Abstract Painting Abstract Critical is a not-for profit company aiming to establish a new critical context for all generations of artists involved with ambitious abstract art. Sun, 09 Nov 2014 17:23:33 +0000 hourly 1 By: Ian David Baker Wed, 12 Sep 2012 17:08:40 +0000 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.

By: jenny meehan Thu, 30 Aug 2012 18:52:57 +0000 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!

By: Ashley West Thu, 30 Aug 2012 10:06:44 +0000 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.

By: Robin Greenwood Wed, 29 Aug 2012 21:23:31 +0000 Ashley,
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.

By: Robin Greenwood Wed, 29 Aug 2012 18:49:09 +0000 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!

By: John Holland Wed, 29 Aug 2012 18:23:08 +0000 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.

By: Ashley West Wed, 29 Aug 2012 17:18:15 +0000 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 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: . 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.

By: Robin Greenwood Tue, 28 Aug 2012 18:49:16 +0000 Ashley,
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.

By: Ashley West Sun, 26 Aug 2012 15:16:09 +0000 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.

By: Ashley West Sun, 26 Aug 2012 14:40:01 +0000 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.