The online editorial and curatorial project for reductive, geometric and systems artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

Charley Peters interviewed Andy Parkinson

October 2014

CP   You have cited the work of the visual cognition psychologists Christoph Redies and Lothar Spillman, notably neon colour-spread phenomena, as providing a model from which you generate work. Presumably, your work is not concerned with illustrating scientific theory, so how do you negotiate the relationship between your research into visual perception and making your paintings? How does this affect the role of the viewer in your work, especially the paintings where patterns, colours or other visual information is developed through the process of looking?

AP   I think it would be OK to illustrate scientific theory, but you’re right, that’s not what I am doing. I am appropriating a figure that these psychologists invented to conduct experiments in the field of visual cognition. I have adapted it only slightly as an element in a repeat pattern. When I use it in a painting I think I am re-presenting it to a different audience and saying: “What do you think of this?” Actually, I remind myself of that Paul Whitehouse character from The Fast Show who used to go around saying: “Isn’t this brilliant?!” I am particularly interested in colour-spread phenomena because here, colour is constructed by the viewer. I don’t think it is an illusion; it really exists, but subjectively. Scientists are interested in this because it provides insight into how we construct the world we see, and surely artists are interested in it for similar reasons. In fact, artists were here centuries before the scientists.

In my work I am very interested in the active role the viewer plays in constructing what is seen. I like to think of it as double constructivism, a collision of artistic and psychological constructivism.

CP   You are working on a series inspired by what you term ‘everyday abstraction’, informed by a series of ten decorative tiles along a Nottingham city centre street. Although the designs suggest modernist abstraction, they originate from a more decorative tradition. If we think about, for example, Islamic art, geometric and pattern-based art/design existed centuries before the movement in Europe, geometric patterns often being used to connect spirituality with science and art. Could you tell me more about your thinking behind ‘everyday abstraction’ and how you envisage your work in this area developing over time?

AP   I think I borrowed the term from Alex Farquharson’s exhibition, Somewhat Abstract, shown earlier this year at Nottingham Contemporary, but now I’m struggling to find the reference. I have in mind the way that abstraction has become part of everyday life and that new abstract works could in fact be representations because there is so much abstract art around us.    

The series you mention is indeed a re-presentation of something that already exists, this time a series of paving tiles along Long Row East in Nottingham. They do look quite a lot like modernist geometric abstraction, yet clearly they have a very different context. I wonder about the process of their design and realisation and whether head and hand were separated. Who made them? And were they thought of as “art”? Working on this project reminds me that abstraction is much older than modernism, and indeed, has a wide cultural heritage, including, as you say, Islamic art. In re-presenting the tiles I learn more about them - the way the pattern works, for example, and I think I discovered an error in one of them, or was it a deliberate pattern interruption? I like to think I am paying homage to the worker/artist who put them there.

I recall that when I visited an exhibition curated by Andrew Bick at Leeds Art Gallery, entitled Construction and its Shadow, I was surprised to note that abstraction was still quite shocking to many of the people viewing that day. Yet these decorative tiles are not at all shocking to the people who walk over them every day. In fact they hardly even notice them. When I was taking photographs, people would stop to look at what I was doing and say “Oh! I never saw them before”. I want to bring attention to them because I think they are quite beautiful. Once I have completed the initial re-presentation I hope I can further develop the pattern based on its inherent logic.  

As for spirituality, whilst taking an entirely materialist standpoint I note that Bateson’s formulation of mind - as the pattern which connects - can seem spiritual, in a similar sense to the way that quantum physics, for example, might appear spiritual. I like the idea that geometry might connect the everyday to the spiritual, but we’re no doubt on highly dodgy ground here.

CP Agreed…

Thank you, Andy Parkinson

Installation shot, About Painting group show at Castlefield Gallery, June 2014, curated by Lisa Denyer

CP   How would you describe your relationship with the materials and processes of painting?

AP I have a certain sense of commitment to painting that I don’t really understand, because the more geometric or linear the works become, the less it seems to matter whether they are paintings. Perhaps they would be better as collages, reliefs or digital works. Some of them are already more like drawings. Yet it matters to me that they are painted, that the description reads “acrylic on canvas” or “acrylic on board”, even when they are clearly not about, for example, the sumptuousness of paint. Also, I am definitely making images/objects rather than manipulating digital means. So the materials and processes of painting have to be important, even if the questions become technical ones like “how can I achieve a straighter line?” Or “how can I effectively cover this area?”

CP   Your work is concerned with a generative, systems, and geometric dynamic. To what extent would you situate your work within the traditions of abstraction?

AP   I situate my work entirely within the traditions of abstraction. I think the process/content distinction continues to be urgent and interesting, non-trivial if you will. ‘Geometric Abstraction’ can be used as a genre heading, and whilst the word ‘system’ is used to refer to different things (for example, in Jack Burnham’s ‘systems aesthetic’ the meaning is quite different to the way it is used by the ‘systems group’), the system takes the place of content. I think this is also true outside art, in, for example, Bertalanffy’s General System Theory. So ‘abstraction’ and ‘systems' seem to me to be very closely related realities.

Hexagon Colour-Spread, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 12" sides

CP   What are your main influences and how are they translated into your current practice?

AP   I returned to making paintings about five years ago, having previously felt unable to produce anything for years on end, and the inspiration that seemed to make this return possible came from the writings of systems thinker Gregory Bateson, whose interest in “the pattern which connects…” seemed contagious, and who proposed that good art integrates the conscious and unconscious minds. This integrative principle informs my practice as the goal I am constantly aiming for.

Artists that I hold in high esteem, and who also influenced my return, are Mali Morris and Estelle Thompson, whose paintings stopped me in my tracks, almost as if to demand an answer to the question: “Who are you?”  Like Ad Reinhardt’s famous cartoon, where the abstract painting demands of the viewer: “What do you represent?”

Whilst this doesn’t translate to the look or style of my work, it continues to influence, in terms of showing what’s possible.

Contracheck 3, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 20" sides

Long Row (East) 3, Essensuals, acrylic on MDF, 20" x 20"

CP   Andy, could you speak about how you start a piece of work?

AP   Once I have begun a series, new pieces generally come from previous ones, a variation or a permutation, and when that’s happening I hardly notice the starting point. Perhaps the beginning of a new series is more problematical. I daydream a lot, working out the rules. When I think I know what they might be I will start to draw or paint something on canvas or board in order to check them out. Sometimes I do a sketch first but usually not. I often halt for a time, to reflect, before deciding whether to carry on. It’s not unusual for me to abandon a series and then return to it after many months, sometimes more than a year later.   

CP   Systems art is a somewhat neglected form of British abstraction. What is your relationship with the archival context of systems art? Are you, for example, working in a historical tradition and continuing to explore the mathematical underpinnings and geometric patterns that concern of the work of Jeffrey Steele, Peter Lowe etc?

AP   I would be extremely flattered if someone related my work to this tradition. I don’t think I am continuing anything, i.e. taking it further; just approaching it would be an achievement. By the way, isn’t it amazing that we could have neglected such a rich seam of abstract art within our own shores? That North America became so much the centre of art after the war probably meant that artists situating themselves in relation to Abstract Expressionism were more prominent. Today, Constructivism seems to be undergoing a re-evaluation and many artists are finding alternative modernisms in its legacy. Natural, then, that the systems group should start to be much more appreciated. I think of myself as an appreciator.

CP   There may be a belief by some – which may account for some of systems art’s unpopularity - that employing a ‘rational aesthetic’ in art produces uninteresting or ascetic work. One of my favourite quotes from Mary Martin, when defending this position, is: ‘In the mechanics of art precision is essential to expressiveness. I mean precision of choice not dry academic precision… experience shows that, in many things, precision is the property of the hand rather than the machine.’  Could you say something about the use of the rational, and if relevant, the accidental in your work?

Long Row (East) 2, Anne Summers, 2014, acrylic on MDF, 20" x 20"

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

AP   That’s a wonderful quote. I love its own precision, as well as its paradoxes. In the latter half of the 20th century, insisting on rationality suddenly seemed irrational. But now we have witnessed such a pendulum swing towards the irrational, I don’t know about you, I’m craving rationality.

Yes, the accidental has to be relevant, in the philosophical sense of the necessary vs. the accidental. Alfred Korzybski (who had a big influence on Charles Biederman) made a distinction between two kinds of abstraction. In natural language abstraction gets us further away from ‘reality’; particulars are left out of any description, however accurately made, whereas in a mathematical abstraction all particulars are included, because they have no physical existence. However, the moment we attempt to realize a mathematical abstraction the accidental comes into play. When I draw a hexagon I no longer have a hexagon; new characteristics appear that were not in the mathematical definition. Then there’s the interaction with the surface and/or what’s already there. In fact, this relationship between the necessary and the accidental has become a key theme in my work. My series of chequer patterns were specifically about this relationship, as I attempted to cover existing designs with the black and white checks.  

By definition, any system has properties above and beyond its parts, known as ‘emergent properties’. These are often unpredictable and surprising, even in the very simple systems that I tend to work with. These emergent properties, whilst being strictly a function of the system, entirely ‘rational’, also seem very strongly to equate to the ‘accidental’ because of the surprise they engender.