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Norman Dilworth | Time and Tide at Redfern Gallery  

February 7 to March 2 2017

Review by John Stephens

There’s something really gratifying about looking at a well-conceived shape in art. The artist Ellsworth Kelly is a good example; his shaped canvases, often derived from found objects or sections of photographs, are refined so that they present the perfect shape to hold a specific colour.

Norman Dilworth’s Around and About (1984) is such a work, except, being monochrome white, it’s devoid of colour so has to depend on something else.  It’s a circular form made of wood painted white, with an asymmetric zigzag-edged shape cut out of it, and it’s intriguing for a different reason; one knows enough about Dilworth’s systems approach to know that there’s something to be fathomed here. What you come to realise is that the series of angles upon which the cut-out is based increase literally by degrees as your eye goes clockwise around the edge.  The system seems to divide the shape in half, with the more acute angles in the right-hand half and the fewer, more obtuse angles in the left-hand half.  There’s something unsettling about this, which becomes satisfying once you’ve solved the riddle.  

Around and About 1984 Wood painted white 122 x cm diameter  

Discussing this work as it appeared in an exhibition at the Musée Matisse in 2007, Serge Lemaine noted how Dilworth ‘takes the rigour of programmes and adds the thrill of discovery’.  And this pretty much sums up the different works, spanning almost six decades, in this Norman Dilworth survey show.

Four Cut Corners 3 (2010) is another piece that gets you thinking. It’s made of four rectangles of rusted corten steel panels, with the corners truncated by different amounts and at different angles.  They are organised together in a two-by-two arrangement, with the smallest truncations meeting in the middle to create a diamond-shaped cut-out. The implied triangles, missing at all four edges, give the whole a kind of angular quatrefoil shape. At first it seems that some of the corners have an equilateral triangle removed, with the two base angles being at 45 degrees, with others truncated more acutely.  But then you realise that the overall shape isn’t based on the removal of regular isosceles triangles, they’re irregular - and looking more carefully, you realise that the angles are more like 40 and 50 degrees.  And this then accounts for the shapes of the areas that have been cut out.  

Four Cut Corners 3 2010, Corten steel 144 x 144 cm

The notes in the catalogue accompanying the show (originally from the catalogue to Sculpture and Reliefs 1972 – 1980) allude to Dilworth’s education, which was biased towards mathematics and science, as well as his interest in architecture, which shaped his attitude to making art:

“In the sixties I took the properties and dimensions of the elements as the starting point, and the organisation of elements in simple growth series (as simple as 2,4,6,8) now determined the character of the work…(with) the process…seen to develop within one single structure or series of structures”.

This gives an insight into the two drawings Cut Corners 1 and Cut Corners 2 (2005).  In these works, Dilworth uses an angular variation of the truncations of a square to produce irregular octagonal shapes. In both drawings the asymmetric shapes have a beautiful sense of poise; their dense graphite shading lends each of them the quality of a solid form. It’s an excellent example of how a certain logic - in this case, using a particular choice of angles to truncate the corners of a rectangle - gives rise to a particular aesthetically engaging form. It makes the case for a relationship between logical conception and the aesthetic.  It’s a quality that can be found in all Dilworth’s work.

Cut Corners 1, Cut Corners 2  2005, Graphite on paper. Both 65 x 50 cm

Despite the eighteen years between them, Turning the Corner (2000), seems to have some kinship with Round and About.  It is made form the same corten steel pates arranged in a grid; this time three by three.  Each plate has an evenly truncated corner, which appears in a different orientation in each section of the grid.  The effect is to suggest a larger square of steel formed of four plates to the top right and having a small lozenge–shaped cut-out in the middle. It’s where all the truncations come together. It is flanked to the bottom and left by the other five plates whose truncations are more dispersed with two coming together at their apices.  You soon realise that the whole is the product of each plate being turned through 90 degrees to its predecessor.

Turning the Corner 2000, corten steel. 89 x 89 cm

I began to realise that my experience of this exhibition was that while I was being drawn in to the expression of an aesthetic, at the same time I was trying to work out the intrigue of the individual pieces.  And this was particularly true of the sculptures. Three Cubes  (2016) seems to me to be an example of how Dilworth has carried into three dimensions the logic he’s used in the wall pieces. This work stands like a totem pole, the three elements stacked, Brancusi-like, on top of one another.  But they’re not cubes. Although it’s clear to see that each element originated as a cube, with the corners truncated to form three fourteen-sided asymmetric solids, each corner is treated in a different way, although you realise that each element is probably identical. Some faces are of equal dimensions, so that they can interface with their adjacent elements to create a stack, without any part of the face protruding beyond that of its neighbour.  The effect is that from some points of view the whole is symmetrical, and from others it’s asymmetrical, and this changes gradually as you move around the piece.  You find yourself looking, and then looking again, just to make sure you’ve seen what you think you’ve seen.

Three Cubes 2016, Steel painted white. 90 x 40 x 40 cm

The same kind of engagement happens with 4, 21/2, 14 (2012) except that here the experience is of a rhythmic flow rather than an overall form.  Still, you find yourself trying to work out how it works, and essentially it works because the interfaces between a series of wood blocks, each based on a double cube, offer a number of permutations for the overall arrangement. Dilworth explains it as:

“Starting from the proportion of the material, by cutting and joining methodically the process generated new forms”.

4 x 2 1_2 14 2012, Wood stained black 27 x 44 x 27 cm

Another piece, Signs (1990), provides an opportunity to engage with another approach to Dilworth’s way of working; a way that is also evident in the series of gouache drawings Two Areas Overlap (1978).  Like the drawings, Signs is essentially linear but with planar implications.  It consists of a five-by-five grid of rectangular elements in which there are various permutations of horizontal and diagonal markings that vary in thickness, precisely drawn using the edges and the diagonal across the rectangle, and having the appearance of a type-face, or perhaps more pertinently, a code.  It suggests the need for some kind of solution and you realise that just as in a well-designed type face, the ‘voids’ are just as aesthetically important as the letter forms, so are the voids important here. Indeed, they play a more active role, and need to be seen as implied rectangular or triangular shapes so that the black markings can be seen as ‘the negative’ just as much as the white areas. In this they relate very much to the truncations of the wall pieces and the sculptures.

Signs  1990, Wood painted black. In 25 pieces, each piece 15 x 15 cm

The bonus of this survey show is that it allows us to become aware of the consistency with which Dilworth has applied the use of a system, or a logic, over six decades.  This is systems work at its best - the outcome is an eloquent and engaging aesthetic.  It’s an outcome derived from an uncompromisingly clear sense of logic, in which the system doesn’t become a formula but is an intelligently conceived key to understanding the aesthetic that proceeds from it.

John Stephens

March 2017