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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.