Abstract Critical

Julia Farrer: Helical Links

Written by Robert Vas Dias

Julia Farrer, A Knot of Time 1, 2013, acrylic on panel, 80 x 82cm

Julia Farrer, A Knot of Time 1, 2013, acrylic on panel, 80 x 82cm

To make a pattern, un dessein, an arrangement of shapes, is on one level a response to the fundamentals of life. The Egyptians had both a literal and figurative purpose in painting tables of food offerings and objects on the walls of tombs. Literally, the painting of food kept the Ka, or soul, nourished in the afterlife; figuratively the paintings were metaphors for the existence of the individual in perpetuity. Julia Farrer’s Twin-Twin Towers and floating Helical Knots, entwined helical rings, are both literal and figurative forms, literal in the sense that the DNA molecule formed of two intertwined helices is the building block of life, figurative as an embodiment of an ideal of beauty in function.

Julia Farrer, Random Knot of Helices I - III, 2012, acrylic on panel, each approx 43 x 38cm

Julia Farrer, Random Knot of Helices I – III, 2012, acrylic on panel, each approx 43 x 38cm

The helix is a shape that permeates our existence and our environment: regard the new buildings rising out of London’s Square Mile, the skyscrapers of the Arab Emirates and the Far East – designs prefigured by Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, 1919–20, which though it exists only as a model was meant by its creator as a modernist visionary structure symbolizing the power of collective effort, a spiral staircase to a socialist heaven-on-earth (and a propaganda instrument). The fact that it was never built does not obviate the strength of its visionary impulse: the idea exists in the present in the form of its geometric transformation.

Farrer, Ringed Space II, 2012,acrylic on panel, 58 x 52cm

Julia Farrer, Ringed Space II, 2012,acrylic on panel, 58 x 52cm

Farrer starts with a rough geometric idea developed in sketches which are transposed to the computer screen, manipulated and distorted, and which then take physical shape in the form of laminated ply, cut and routed and painted(in her hands, ply seems pliable as pigment): at every step the idea is played with, improvised: “Form changes in the making,” she says. Her pieces are realised visualizations; they display the imaginative fervour and the generative impulse of the visionary. This impulse is channelled into a disciplined drive, combined with the operation of chance, to bring out the potentials of the imagined shape in three-dimensional structures. The end result, for instance A Knot of Time (the title from García Lorca’s poem ‘Cada Canción’) and Random Knots, is the culmination of the imaginative expansion of a geometric image perceived at first as through a telescope: faint, mysterious, it’s gradually brought into focus, comes forward as a planet does, hovering in sky-ground, girdled by its rings and held in its moment of movement:

Each star

is time’s stillness

a knot of time

Bachelard wrote: “Poetry (the work of art)… can only be more than life by immobilizing life…. It’s in order to construct a complex instant, to bind numerous simultaneities onto this instant, that the artist destroys the simple continuity of time.”

Farrer, Rococo Variation II, 2012, acrylic on panel, 34 x 107cm

Julia Farrer, Rococo Variation II, 2012, acrylic on panel, 34 x 107cm

Farrer’s sinuous, helical abstracts comprise numerous simultaneities; fixing the instant, they enable us to perceive the simultaneous images of existence: her art represents both the ideal and the existential. Her panels are somewhere between sculpture and painting. Their colours are svelte, subtle and, though seemingly hard-edged, what strikes me is their softness: they are hard soft objects. They are carefully and deftly delineated; the colours flow imperceptibly into each other. Precise as they are, they exhibit a sense of mysteriousness, their whirling geometries spilling their energies from their open ends like spiral galaxies. They are linked coils of energy. The energy that went into making them is recapitulated by the energy potential of the images. If they’d been made a hundred years ago we might call them Vorticist, though they’re composed of curves rather than sharp lines and wedges of force. I’d say they share a kinship with Naum Gabo’s linear and spiral constructions: complex, economical, elegant.

With their ornate curves and twirls, the Rococo Variations present another dimension of the bundled energy motif. Here the shapes are stretched and elongated, become abstractions of the upright human figure or, in the case of the horizontal Variation II, the reclining figure, expressed in Arabic inspired calligraphic swirls. Just as handwriting, the Russian Cubo-Futurists proclaimed, is a component of the poetic impulse, so the stretched calligraphic signs of these Variations express the poetics of painting. I find in Julia Farrer’s work an intense poetic response to both the structural and human imagery of our lives.

Julia Farrer: Helical Links is on at the Eagle Gallery until the 31st of May. The above text is the exhibition’s catalogue introduction.

 

 

  1. Richard Price said…

    I just can’t agree with you Robin. I’ve gone over the text, and seen the exhibition, and I think you’re simply misreading the prose and making your own narrative about the art (which is fine, that has to be done, after all, but hardly with such categorical certainty). The prose is enthusiastic – it’s from the catalogue after all, and that’s no secret; it’s offering the author’s own aesthetic coordinates without suggesting that Farrer is a founding modernist or anything like that – Vas Dias is thinking aloud with the reader, and there’s something I like about that; it has a little reference to foreign words and foreign art (is that what you mean by pretentious?) but they are clear enough and not, I believe, there for the sake of posh positioning. Anyway, you can get too tied up with words-after-the-event, can’t you?, and the exhibition is lovely. I’d have expected a bit more in your response about Farrer’s earlier work – for instance how the ladder / musical frets in her previous work, which had a kind of architectural draughtsmanlike tone (if tone is the right word), have now been curved in, made more organic, an interesting change among others! Was glad (and also a little disappointed) to see that some of the works had already sold by the time I got there.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Richard,
      I’m not sure what narrative you think it is I’m fabricating – presumably the one about spring-washers? I would hope to be able to compose a better one, should it be warranted.

      In fact, it is the very idea that we can all compose our own personal narratives to art, and not be brought to account for those subjective interpretations, even when they are as inflated as Mr. Vas Dias’s – that is the very thing I object to. You say it has to be done; I say, on the contrary, strenuous efforts should be made to curb it. My criticism of the article is just such an attempt.

      • Richard Price said…

        I think we can indeed (and almost always do) compose our own personal narratives to art, though personal is always a mediation of the ‘non-personal’ with lots of ready-mades to use. “Brought to account” for subjective interpretations?! Oh dear, that categorical certainty again, that overdetermining of Judgement, that rush to (and assuming of) Authority – we will have to disagree about when and how that should happen.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        I can assure you I feel nothing but uncertainty about abstract art, and that is precisely because I do not rely upon or feel comfortable with my own subjective interpretations. Nor do I try to offload any and every spurious association that might come into my head as if it were some sort of emotional insight; nor attempt to tell people what they should feel about art when they look at it; nor cloud their own free judgement with a load of my own personal hang-ups. Leastways, that’s what I try not to do.

  2. Greg MacLaughlin said…

    Robin Greenwood fantastic take down of this article… this is abstract critical!

  3. Robin Greenwood said…

    I’ve been admonished for posting a rather curt and sarcastic comment to this article, which has now been withdrawn. I’d like to give a better explanation of myself and why the above article rankles. I have also seen the show now, but I’m afraid my expanded comments are going to be no more positive. If you think there is no place for such negativity, better stop reading now. There are plenty of other sites out there where ‘like’, ‘like’, ‘like’ is the order of the day. For my own part, most of the positive aspects of abstractcritical stem from a collective desire to unpick abstract art and the discourse that surrounds it, and examine it critically. If we can put some bits of it back together again, all well and good, but inevitably in such a pursuit some things end up broken on the floor. Such is the reality of making and talking about art.

    Which brings me to the unreality of the above piece of writing. We have not got out of the first paragraph before the epoch-making discoveries of James Watson and Francis Crick are invoked; hardly can we draw breath before we are on to the new architectures of the City of London and Dubai and plunging headlong into the idealistic socialism of Tatlin’s ‘Monument to the Third International’. On again to the poems of Lorca and a quote from Bachelard, before this gem arrives:

    ‘Farrer’s sinuous, helical abstracts comprise numerous simultaneities; fixing the instant, they enable us to perceive the simultaneous images of existence: her art represents both the ideal and the existential. Her panels are somewhere between sculpture and painting.’

    In my (cook)book, that’s hugely over-egging the pudding. The paintings in the show, to which I have far less objection than the writing that accompanies them, are modest hard-edge cut-outs, exceptional perhaps only in the extremes to which they go to disguise how on earth they are actually made, and seemingly unresponsive to the visual results of their own technical endeavours (see Alan Gouk’s brilliant take-down of Mondrian’s ‘scrupulous habits of craftsmanship … contradicted by the unruly perceptual ambiguities, the optical puzzles and accidents engendered by his adherence to strict ideas at odds with the sensual reality which his drivenness has created‘ in his Mondrian/Nicholson essay on this site.) Far from being ‘somewhere in between sculpture and painting’ (a mythical territory, invoked here for no good reason, since there is no actual three-dimensionality involved), these works are only barely in the territory of painting, with the shadows that the cut-outs cast onto the wall seeming more real than the illusions they contain. And far from putting me in mind of the double helix and the mysteries of life, the universe and everything, they rather put the notion in my head that they are some manner of supreme technical illustration of interwoven common-or-garden spring-washers. We are told that part of their genesis exists on computer; perhaps they might be better left there, perhaps with a program that manipulates and revolves them in cyberspace? Their occupancy of the real world of painting is to me rather tenuous.

    Far more tenuous, though, is any actual insight into abstract painting in general or Farrer’s work in particular in this essay by Mr. Vas Dias. In fact, this sort of writing, which seeks to jazz-up the work by spurious association (gratuitously in this case summoning testimonials from both science and art), is ubiquitous, particularly in the press releases of galleries. We are not entirely exempt from such obfuscation on this site, with essays by John Bunker and Dan Coombs rather guilty of exaggeration at times too, but in both their cases their generous humour and enthusiasm rather debunks (debunkers?) the pretentiousness. By contrast, Mr. Vas Dias’ swirling litany of profundities continues po-faced to the very end, spewing out like the very spiral galaxies he invokes.

    • John Bunker said…

      Oh Robin! You are awful….. But I do like you!

    • Robert Vas Dias said…

      It’s hard not to sympathise with Mr Greenwood’s breathlessness and consequent headlong plunge into the series of associations my essay begins with, which must cause him much discomfort, unused as he seemingly is to swimming in the swirl of metaphorical currents, and particularly in view of his not-so-thinly disguised hostility to Farrer’s work: “far from putting me in mind of the double helix and the mysteries of life, the universe and everything, they rather put the notion in my head that they are some manner of supreme technical illustration of interwoven common-or-garden spring-washers.” Hold on: that’s a clear example of a put-down in metaphorical terms and of course is subjective, which he so abhors, so perhaps he does have the ability to think metaphorically but is simply unwilling to admit it. His “spurious association” is my pertinent association, a matter of perception and in my case sympathy with the work. In talking about abstract art, associative and connotative implications as well as its materiality are well understood, which is why I also wrote briefly about the nature and handling of the material and Farrer’s way with colour. Perhaps I should also remind Mr Greenwood that my piece is a catalogue essay, as Richard Price implies, not a piece of art criticism.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Oh, but I can over-egg my pudding with the best of ‘em.

        I have to differ on the business of associative and connotative implications. Yours seem to diverge from the materiality with rather too much ease. I can’t say I like the split much anyway; one would like to think that meaning was somehow embodied deeper into the physical substance of the work than you suggest, being created (consciously or unconsciously) as content by the artist rather than summoned and superimposed willy-nilly by the observer. I think this might be especially pertinent to abstract art; but then perhaps this work is not abstract at all, since to me it looks like spring-washers and to you it looks like spiral galaxies etc.

        What about your references in the last paragraph to the human figure. Would you say that any roughly vertical arrangement of shapes is a metaphor for the standing figure, and all horizontal ones for the reclining figure? Bit vague, isn’t it? Admittedly you don’t hang around to press the point; you’re off again with Arabic calligraphy and Russian Cubo-futurism. I’m swirling off again…