Abstract Critical

Brancaster Chronicle No. 1: Anne Smart Paintings

 

Pargety, 2013, oil on board, 102 x 84cm

Pargety, 2013, oil on board, 102 x 84cm

The Brancaster Chronicles are edited transcripts of recorded discussions made in direct response to exhibitions of abstract painting and sculpture. More information here.

No 1. ANNE SMART PAINTINGS

20th July 2013, the artist’s studio, near King’s Lynn.

Those present: Anne Smart, Anthony Smart, Mark Skilton, Hilde Skilton, Robin Greenwood, Sarah Greenwood, John Bunker, Emyr Williams, Simon Orman, Kim Earley, Joette Hayashigaw, Alexandra Harley, John Pluthero.

John Bunker: I was very impressed recently by an older painting I saw of yours… (Come Up, 2010). I found it very powerful, shapewise… it seemed to have a very complete identity as a painting, yet it was made of collaged elements. When I see that happening in a painting it always has an impact on me. So, to me, when I see these new paintings, in contrast, ‘painterly paintings’ is what comes to mind, though you bring a lot of baggage with you when you make a statement like that. With these paintings, there is something about the colour and arrangement and the strokes through, being led into the painting… it’s very striking. It may be something to do with the layering and maybe relates to your collage work?

Anne Smart: I think, for me, collage has been a big springboard to lots of things, not in the conventional way that we think about it, but when you look at the history of collage, and when you look at yours [John Bunker’s], it’s just a fabulous way of getting stuff down and getting on with it. But for me, I reached a point where it didn’t really cut it any more, so I wanted to have something which collage gives, but is done in paint; and that’s like a little problem that I set myself. How can I do that in paint? Can I keep on making them more painterly, but have something running on with all the other things that I’m interested in that has that immediacy or straightforwardness [of collage]?

John Bunker: It’s interesting that you get to a certain point in the language and then you start seeing the restrictions of it.

Anne Smart: It’s suddenly not quite enough; it’s a known thing, you sort of know what’s going to happen. But what I’m fascinated by often is the recklessness of being able to do collage; because often that occurs when you are deep into something and you have a lot of things you want to hang on to, but you are able to have that recklessness that collage gives you, because you can take it on again. That is very, very important for me, and I think there are elements of that in all of this work [despite there being no actual collage in them]. But I’m hoping to use it now as a part of my whole thing.

John Pluthero: So when you move away from more defined shapes and the obviousness of their relation to each other [spatially], what are the challenges of making the thing work?

Anne Smart: I think the knowledge of making those more fixed things [in previous paintings] and wanting the finality of those, but without the definition… is it possible to have an even stronger definition that works on a smaller scale, with a more mobile fluidity within the confines of the painting, which isn’t fixed?… but there is still a sense of an organisation…

Alexandra Harley: The thing that strikes me, they are very different than your things I’ve seen before, but they have an intensity, which is kind of slower burn than previously; but suddenly they open out and you are immersed in them, in a way that I was not expecting.

Pique Pique, 2013, oil on board, 102 x 84cm

Pique Pique, 2013, oil on board, 102 x 84cm

Emyr Williams: In terms of the colour, you can see evidence of the purer, darker saturated colour underneath the whiteness. At what point do you move into the pastel range of colour, the whiteness which is unifying all those different competing colour forces? You allow the colours to come through, so the white doesn’t obliterate, it seems to suck up the colour. Do you know you are going to get to that point, to use the white to tie it all in, and then work it to bring it up to a [be a] painting?

Anne Smart: I don’t know I’m going to get to that point, but I know I’m seeking to achieve something like that; but I hope my strength is to not try to achieve that in what would seem to be that way of putting the white on last. There is no way that the white isn’t started off right at the beginning, and some of the darks might come last, but you hope that none of that shows. So there is lots of movement of paint and building of the organisation; and the depths are different. I’m not attempting to get an all-over translucency or veiling, I’m trying to get a constant moving of those areas of looseness and density, surface and recession; opposites, so the blues you might think are going backwards are coming forwards. So there is a constant moving of all the colours and surface and textures and shapes, but as a whole thing. It’s like a hundred thousand things you are trying to achieve to get to that point, and most of them are answering those questions, but in the end you arrive at one answer.

Hilde Skilton: Were you specifically working consciously with a different tonal range?

Anne Smart: I can honestly say I didn’t realise; but I’ve always been interested in this kind of tonality, perhaps more than colour, but in the previous work it was perhaps a little bit unsophisticated.

Hilde Skilton: It’s not in-your-face contrasting colours, [like] orange against green, it’s very subtle, creating a tremendous sense of surface and movement, back and forwards. There are areas where you’ve smeared it more, and then sharper areas, and that really creates a tension over the whole surface.

Mark Skilton: You can’t actually analyse these paintings. Often in the past we’ve said that, for example, if you do something to that colour up there it would affect this colour down here… you can’t do that to these, you experience the whole thing. I find I have to move backwards and forwards, looking at it from back here is very different to looking at it from a metre away, where it fills my whole vision, then the space changes completely and starts undulating and moving around and the edges start to fold in. The surfaces are modelled, there is a range of activity in applying the paint…

John Bunker: …and removal as well…

Mark Skilton: Yes, those big scrapes at the bottom (Pique Pique) add bite to the whole thing… One thing that Hilde and I have talked about is how do you reinvent yourself as an artist? There are things about our own working practices that we would like to ‘bin’ and restart. The impression I get here is that this is what you’ve done; you’ve actually reinvented the whole way you think about painting. I’m extraordinarily impressed by the way you’ve done it.

Robin Greenwood: It has been suggested that this work is into a kind of ‘non-relational’ activity… Can you explain…?

Anne Smart: Yes… If you are, and know you are, a naturally intuitive painter – and I am – in the end it’s not enough to stay within your own ability; so I think it is important to take those intuitive things that you know about, and look at them properly. So I have spent some time looking at those and looking at why I can make certain things work, and looked at things that have worked completely intuitively, and tried to get that same feeling with a massive amount of concentrated organisation. I hope to get that same feeling as those intuitively achieved things, but it’s unsustainable to just keep doing intuitive things for me. So, along that road, I worked out that ‘relational’ was part of intuitiveness. So, you put something here, you put something there, you get to the position that something ‘just works’; so to go beyond that, that is just about at the cusp of where I’ve got to in my thinking… I have the ability to make something that looks good [in relational painting]… but it’s not enough…

Robin Greenwood: …are you saying there is now a much more conscious invention taking place?

Anne Smart: That sounds a bit pretentious; but I’m on this [the painting] every single centimetre, I’m on it and I’m not going to leave it alone until it works, but it’s not going to work because it’s relational. All the things in the painting cannot survive without each other but they are not dependent upon one another, so it’s not ‘relational’ in that sense. It’s a whole thing; it’s intricate but not decorative.

Too Too Tutu, 2013, oil on board, 129 x 124cm

Too Too Tutu, 2013, oil on board, 129 x 124cm

John Pluthero: You can take these pictures at any scale. The achievement here – and my jaw drops at the achievement – is that you can start anywhere, and the subtlety of the structure does allow that, in a way that a lot of paintings don’t, and you can go off in a hundred directions, and have little journeys, personal experiences through the painting, achieved by this [level of] extraordinary detail. Then you hit particular forms, then you are back into slightly larger structures; and I don’t think the structure is underneath, I think the structure is right out there [available]. Your concern when you first see these is whether that white overpainting is a trite way of pulling these things together; and you soon realise, absolutely not. Anne is very good at defying expectations. These paintings seem to be cranking up the exploitation of all the tools in the toolbox that the painter has, whether its surface, brushmarks, scrapings, pullings, colour. I find them relentlessly interesting.

Alexandra Harley: They are constructed very physically, aren’t they? The way that things are worked back into, so you quite literally get edges, not just drawn edges but cut edges of the paint.

John Pluthero: And what does that do for the flatness question; are these flat in a kind of ‘traditional’ modernist way?

Hilde Skilton: I think they have both surface and depth.

Alexandra Harley: Things are working alongside, over, underneath each other, still being integral elements and standing alone.

Anne Smart: Yes, it’s to do with integrating across the surface, in all ways, up and down and across, which can be done in all sorts of different ways. I think there is not a definite way of doing that. I would hope that it would be a variety of spatial-ness within, so it wouldn’t be a single sort of description of space. So there would be some short spaces and longer or quieter or faster spaces working that way [in and out], but across as well. I would hope the difference in the mark-making would add to the spatiality, the way things come forward and backward. So, for example, these marks here (Too Too Tutu), the difference between those marks and the ones right at the back, and how you can use that to exaggerate the spatiality, but never have a massive receding space…

Hilde Skilton: …what’s wrong with a massive receding space?

Anne Smart: For me, it’s not that there is anything wrong with a massively receding space, but it has for me a more figurative content. I want it to have space, but I’m rebelling again a ‘long-distance’ articulation. But I don’t know… It’s something I’m thinking about. It’s quite easy to put paint down and suddenly you’ve got these big spaces…

Hilde Skilton: …I think it’s difficult… [laughs]

Anthony Smart: Don’t you think, I mean I wouldn’t like to put a limit on where it is but roughly this bottom third of that (Too Too Tutu), in a sense feels like one big thing; but it’s made up of thousands of bits and bobs. It’s moving about in a really weird way. Maybe what you are looking for [big things in painting] is already here. Here’s another big thing (top right of Too Too Tutu), again, no limits, but somewhere in here is an area…

Kim Earley: …and in the centre there too…

Anthony Smart: …so you think are there three areas in this, or are there four or twenty…? …they’re on the move all the time… But then I think this one (Pique Pique) is right on the edge. I can remember when I didn’t like this, I couldn’t cope with it; it was quite a shock, you know. it’s very hard for me, but I do rather think I’m looking at the best painting… because I think exactly what we’ve just been talking about has gone out the window, and we have now got the whole thing. It’s like, fuck all this ‘that bit and that bit and that bit’, let’s just go for ‘it’, boff! And, let’s really play it down, just to see what happens… and the thing just comes forward, in one dirty great big dollop!

Robin Greenwood: And did that happen straight away?

Anthony Smart: No, no… (laughs)

Tutu Plush Dub, 2013, oil on board, 102 x69cm

Tutu Plush Dub, 2013, oil on board, 102 x69cm

Emyr Williams: If you have one dominant colour [white], how do you make it forceful?

Anne Smart: I think I was looking for what I didn’t want white to be, as much as what I wanted white to be. I’ve seen white, I’ve loved white, I’ve loved Manet’s white, the way he uses it; and I wanted to know what white could do and what it wouldn’t do. So, I’ve tried to use white in an unconventional way, and put it right at the back and bring it right through to every level, so it might appear to be dominant, but it’s just how it is at the moment.

Emyr Williams: I think I’m being misunderstood about what I mean as dominant. The white is in the fabric of it all, as you say… but it’s not a ‘white painting’.

Robin Greenwood: I’m having trouble looking between the paintings to sort out what is happening in individual paintings, so that (Too Too Tutu) is the one I am drawn to [at the moment] because I’ve seen more differentiation in it. And this (Pique Pique) is the one I’m least drawn to, at the moment, because it looks like an all-over thing to me, and that’s never something I feel drawn to. It’s not got beyond being a bit vague, that one, whereas this one, I can see very specific things happening. When the big thing across the bottom was talked about, I immediately got that; somebody else said there’s another big thing here, got that; got this thing up here, etc. So it has these ‘big things’…

John Pluthero: Do you think we’ve been habitualised into needing ‘big things’?

Robin Greenwood: But these are very different ‘big things’ from anything we’ve seen before, they’re not recognisable big things from the history of abstract painting, they are new big things… and where one big thing stops and another one starts is kind of endlessly fascinating. And you don’t end up with big things, you end up with one whole thing, which is what you want. But it seems to me, at the moment, that this (Too Too Tutu) is a more interesting way of getting to a whole thing than that is (Pique Pique).

Tutu Repousse, 2013, oil on board, 124 x 102cm

Tutu Repousse, 2013, oil on board, 124 x 102cm

Sarah Greenwood: In a figurative painting, you are not looking for relational bits, but you are looking for integration of all the bits to make the whole. Maybe this relational thing [in abstract art] has been a way of trying to get away from what happens in figurative painting. So you can do it in a different way – don’t worry about the detail, just look at the blocks of colour. So if you want to get away from figurative painting, you might start to think relationally.

Robin Greenwood: … you wouldn’t look at a Constable relationally… ever… but that is how we’ve been brainwashed to think about abstract painting, in terms of these relational bits and pieces, which, at its very worst comes down to a geometric divisionism.

Sarah Greenwood: …so what these paintings seem to say is that you can have an abstract painting with detail which is also a whole thing…

Robin Greenwood: …but what you are looking for in the end is content… the form, the space, whatever you want to call it…

John Pluthero: …but you know, there is a definition of abstraction which is that… there is a way the brain sees, and we understand a lot of the shortcuts the brain takes to recognise things, and for me one definition of abstraction is something that doesn’t give you any of those clues. We know one of the ways the brain works is it looks for silhouettes and edges. And you don’t get silhouettes and edges in these paintings. So you’ve taken away all the props we use to give you an instant recognition, and what you are left with is something… you have to create it for the first time [for yourself]. So each time [you see these again] you have to create it again for yourself…

Robin Greenwood: Do you think that is specifically an abstract thing?

John Pluthero: It’s abstract in the sense that you can say, there are still lives, landscapes, figures, all the things we know, and you can abstract from there to the point where you say, well, we know that bit of paint is in front of that bit of paint, that’s something the brain works on. This work seems to remove more of those shortcuts than anything I’m familiar with.

Robin Greenwood: …but Constable removes all those shortcuts too… absolutely…every time you look at a really good Constable, it’s a different painting…

John Pluthero: …but the forms are too known…

Robin Greenwood: …no, no…I don’t agree… and that can never be a justification for being abstract, that it does away with all these edges etc. And in those terms Constable is forever redefining his painting, and it’s as challenging a thing to look at as these. I don’t think these paintings are fundamentally different.

John Bunker: I think the definition of abstraction as the taking away of a set on conventions as such is still very interesting, because you are having to constantly rebuild your relationship with the painting… Maybe that happens with really good painting all the time.

Robin Greenwood: And this rebuilding means you are fully into the content…

Anthony Smart: But surely we can’t talk about Constable in the same terms as an abstract painter, on the grounds that he starts painting trees, water, skies, and an abstract painter must start with nothing. It has to be a complete invention, and it has to be completely original, or we are back with figuration. Abstract art is fundamentally different from figurative art, and I think it is wrong to think we can use it as a measure. We’ve got to use the efforts that we make as the measure. We have what we have…

Robin Greenwood: What’s your definition of abstract art then…?

John Pluthero: I’ll give you mine… It needs to look like nothing you’ve ever seen before…

John Bunker: …is there a connection with the paint itself, the material, the way it’s used, the way it’s really pushing at what the paint can do…? Is there something in abstract art that has really run with that, and pushed it and pushed it…?

Robin Greenwood: …to what end…?

John Bunker: …well,…

Robin Greenwood: Here’s the end; this is how far we’ve got…

  1. Larry Harrison said…

    Anne Smart’s recent work shown here has a maturity and completeness, even compared to that shown in the exhibition in the Poisson gallery of just a few years ago. There is no sense of it being in transition, but of having arrived.

  2. Emyr Williams said…

    The colour and surface “work” are generating structures that are found rather than obscured. I felt the white was /is an ideal unifier as it will keep the colour fresh and naturally facilitate paintings that succeed with higher success rates. Does deeper discovery entail higher risks though? I don’t think it is about needing “big things”, as that immediately indicates hierarchies which simply don’t exist. This is a relatively traditional use of paint which many people have employed , so it seems to be the structures that are being revealed that are new as mentioned? As such, perhaps some more clarity is needed to describe these further. If I have a reservation about this take, it is that it nods towards sculpture a bit. I have mentioned that some close up shots would be useful to see the mechanics of them in greater detail – screens are poor at doing justice as we all know. They are intended to work as wholes sure , but for people who can’t get to see them it really does help to gain a better experience to see a more detailed image.

    Larry Poons has made paintings which operate somewhat in this area of closer toned colour / surface – mainly the latter part of the 80′s and through in to the 90′s -, though on a huge heroic scale. His colour structures are complex and the aggregated – very strategically created – surfaces generated surprising and unforeseen scale changes. The works are a bit more overtly process driven if you excuse the slight vulgarity of using the term in this regard. At the time of their showings it was interesting to read of mathematicians finding them akin to fractals in their noting of the micro to macro incidents and passages that are worked up in them (any scales etc). I am not saying these works point towards Poons in this regard but his shadow does seem to loom somewhere in the vicinity, whether acknowledged or as it would seem, not – “Merton Eaves” or “Rum Boat” are just two examples that live in my memory. A comparison pining down differences would be enlightening maybe? One last thing, I can’t remember if anyone asked the question… “Where would you take them next?”

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      I’d be interested to hear how it nods toward sculpture…? Modelling?

      As for the Poons comparison, it has been suggested to me (I won’t say by whom unless they want to put their hand up) that certain Douglas Abercrombie paintings from the seventies/eighties, of a kind of ‘all-over’ pale colouring and diffused structure and hints of richer colour underneath, would be an interesting comparison with these. But then I suspect that Abercrombie was channelling Poons and other Americans at the time…

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Not sure this link will work… pic.twitter.com/0mEGurINoS

      • Emyr Williams said…

        Structure which implies an architectonic approach to space making as opposed to a colour driven space. I wonder if the former can be organised before a painting takes shape ? ( I am not referring to Anne’s paintings in this regard just this notion of structure as a general point ) A colour space cannot be choreographed in quite the same way. I am now more convinced than ever of the importance of a dividing line between figuration and abstract art too. This point sharpens it for me. To invent out of thin air something that has a form that is instantaneously new and yet familiar in its connection with a felt understanding of the principles of physical space. In painting, I cannot escape the feeling that colour and its relationship to surface is the best route forward. When structure is mentioned I think it needs to be very clearly defined in relation to painting and sculpture as separate disciplines. The structures you mentioned in Anne’s paintings seemed to be about physical architectures ( my interpretation granted ) that are arrived at in this case through discovered gesture and surface “agitation”, driven by colour adjustment with a pared down palette. Therefore any search for form , phrasing and relational tensions within this definition will seem to be rooted in spaces that are essentially tonal rather than colour created. Can you get surfaces that are painterly and yet create space through colour interaction? I hope so!

      • Sam said…

        Was me with the Abercrombie comment. Not made in relation to these paintings, but to a slightly earlier one, the only recent one I’ve seen in real-life. The manner in which paint is handled very different, but I think the basic structural principle is similar.

    • Scott Bennett said…

      Thank you for mentioning Poons here, because that was the first thing I thought when looking at the images of these paintings, besides that they were beautiful. There were many pictures in the 80′s where Larry used lots of white – all the color was blended with white to some degree and so the paintings took on an overall glowing light effect. I dont think they were process oriented at all ,..or any more process oriented than any painting is,. all artists have their process,..their way of getting the picture made. Thats all it is. Larry just happened to need to make very large paintings and he wanted the surfaces to be enlarged along with the scale, so he had to invent a way to do that. Typical easel painting methods would not cut it.So he did what he had to do. I agree with Robin Greenwood that looking at Constable, or any representational painting, and looking at non-objective painting – and that is the correct term here – not “abstract”, because ALL painting is abstract. Every representational or figurative painting is abstract because it is not the thing it represents: it is an abstraction of that thing,…are the same. You don’t change the way you look at them. You still have to use the same way of judging the work, – it comes in via your eyes and its visual and you process it as art. And along with that: Subject Matter and Content are not the same thing.

  3. Terry Ryall said…

    This is partly a response to John Bunker’s comments(on the Mapping the Abstract discussion)directed towards my thoughts on the opening discussion of the Brancaster Chronicles. In John’s opinion it would seem that I have perhaps placed too high an expectation on the work in the Chronicles and the related discussions, at least on the evidence of the first meeting.
    So John, I accept what you say about too high an expectation carrying some problems with it. The difficulty for me in accepting what you say as a criticism of my remarks is that I’m not the instigator of such an expectation, I’m simply trying to interpret the outcome of the exercise as evidenced by the transcript. Out of respect for Anne Smart’s paintings I was trying to probe a bit further to see how general the feeling might have been that there were aspects of her work that were in some way new ie not just new within her own history of working but new in a broader, and therefore more significant sense. Certainly other interesting and fruitful questions arose, particularly Robin’s suggestion that, fundamentally, looking at Anne’s abstract paintings was no different in principle to looking for example at a Constable but,good proposition though it is, it is hardly new. Thank-you and good-night!

  4. Robin Greenwood said…

    The notion of ‘non-relational’ painting mentioned here needs, to my mind, some considerable unpacking. I’m on record as saying that all good art, and especially good abstract art, is necessarily relational. I cannot see how it can be otherwise, since there exists in abstract art no reference to extrinsic meaning in either the parts or the whole, so meaning must derive from the relationships of its constituent parts, whether they be big, small, indeterminate or specific. As Anne Smart herself says, ‘all the things in the painting cannot survive without each other…’

    So I think what was meant in this discussion by ‘non-relational’ was the ‘Greenbergian’ (or is it ‘Friedian’?) formalist and ‘optical’ version of relational art; at least, that is what I took it as, and Anne can correct me if I’m mistaken; and the dismissal of this way of working carries the implication of a search for something more ‘connected’, more physical, a deeper kind of content in the relationships within a painting. After all, we’ve had plenty of non-relational painting before in the history of abstract art; all-over compositions of Pollock and many others; Minimalism; and, for example, lots of painting about ten years ago was making simple centre-focussed compositions and calling itself ‘non-relational’. I imagine Anne Smart would want to distance herself from some if not all of the previous manifestations of an ‘all-over’ way of working; but I’m second-guessing, since we did not get too far into that in this discussion. And there remains in my mind a question-mark over the kind of wholeness or ‘singularity’ implied in the discussion of some of her works, such as ‘Pique Pique’; is this a new thing, or have we been here before? At the time, it seemed to me a less interesting and more familiar way of achieving wholeness than that of other works by Anne such as ‘Too Too Tutu’, and I remain of that opinion.

    However, I do think Anne’s linking of ‘relational’ thinking in painting with an overtly intuitive way of working, and her desire to get beyond those limitations into something of perhaps more substance and control, is really interesting. And though I think it is unlikely that you can work that link in reverse – i.e., even though working in an exclusively intuitive fashion in abstract painting may lead inexorably to a kind of optical relational-ism, maybe even to a particularly shallow version of that relational-ism, you cannot say the reverse; that working relationally necessarily implies an exclusively intuitive mode of working – I think it nevertheless confirms Anne Smart’s broad intention is to break new ground.

    • Terry Ryall said…

      As Noela suggests it is often very difficult to contribute remarks/observations etc. about work if it has only been viewed on a computer screen and particularly so with Anne Smart’s paintings which were the focus of the discussion. Given that at least part of the objective of the Brancaster Chronicles is to address “new issues of abstract art” I wonder how successful the participants (and indeed others) feel this first studio discussion was. An opinion on this based on the transcript (which I understand is edited) is not easy to form with only Robin Greenwood getting close to expressing a sense that he was perhaps looking at something new (in the broad sense) in one particular work but, in my view, drawing back somewhat from that assessment with his subsequent post.
      As someone with a slightly hedonistic approach to making art I just wonder whether an earnest intention to break new ground could be so burdensome as to prove obstructive to such an objective.

  5. Noela said…

    Will these paintings be exhibited in London at all? They look like they need to be seen in the flesh to really appreciate what is going on.

    • anne smart said…

      Hi Noela. All the work in the Brancaster Chronicles across four separate venues can be seen by appointment with the artist concerned. Contact myself Anne Smart and I will provide details. Thanks.