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Website: Chestnuts Design

‘Gouaches 2005 - 2016’ by Trevor Clarke and '“ANACHROMISMS” 2007 - 2016’ by G R Thomson

13 May – 30 June 2016, Brighton

Review by John Stephens

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

The sparse domesticity, without any cluttering furniture, of an empty Georgian terraced house, a listed building in the East Laines of Brighton, with off-white painted walls, pale grey carpets throughout except for grey slate flooring in the basement, and with perfect natural lighting, was the setting for this exhibition: GR Thomson’s immaculate floating of thin layers of acrylic paint on bleached Irish portrait linen, stretched tightly on wood panels; and Trevor Clarke’s flatly-painted gouache on heavyweight hot-pressed watercolour paper.

Neither artist had titled their work, although Thomson refers to his collectively as ANACHROMISMS and regards them as being in ensembles.  Ensembles, so as to avoid any connotation with mathematics that collective nouns like group, series or set might have.  He talks about preferring terms such as blackness, whiteness, redness, greenness etc. as necessary descriptions of the colour he uses, rather than the usual black, white, red or green.  And within his word ANACHROMISM, the component ANA (Gr. without), for him, calls into question the power that’s assumed by the naming of colours, particularly as those he creates are at some distance from a clearly definable chroma.  Indeed for me, the intrigue of the paintings was in trying to make out what and where the colours were on what we know as the colour wheel, and trying to read their relationships with each other.

The paintings are not very large; in the order of 60 x 40 cm, giving a ratio of 3:2 height to width. The compositional devices are simple, consisting of a centrally placed rectangle (according to Thomson, one-eighth of the area of the painting itself), a size within this ratio that gives an even border around it. And, dependent on the tonality or level of hue of the inner rectangle in relation to its ground, it has either the semblance of a window or of a door, the one seeming to offer a space beyond the picture plane, the other suggesting something floating in front of it.  The paintings were arranged in portrait format in pairs, (the ensemble), with a gap of around 2 cm between them, allowing for a reading of the colour relationships within each painting and between each painting in the ensemble. Sometimes you’d read one as open and the other closed, sometimes both open and sometimes both closed.  

Trevor Clarke’s gouache paintings have in many ways a striking similarity with Thomson’s work, especially those using the device of a rectangle within a rectangle, and one might be forgiven for seeing them as possible studies for Thomson’s paintings.  Clearly they are not, but they do have a propositional quality about them, perhaps because they’re on paper and because the visual language, despite being of a similar pared-down nature, also leaves a sense of their being incomplete, a view encouraged by the use of a single colour with enclosed areas of white paper. That said, a pair of the gouaches were placed next to one another, with a motif of rectangle within rectangle placed centrally on the paper, thereby leaving a significant border of unpainted paper which militates against reading them as a pair, as is the case with Thomson’s pairings.  In these two, one has a black border surrounding a cobalt blue rectangle with two windows of white unpainted paper left symmetrically within the blue.  The other is similar, but with a vermilion red insert with white windows.   This has the effect of making the white work as a colour rather than just a void; the internal white areas are differentiated from the white border of the paper by their surrounding colours.  

In other pieces, notably a set of six gridded paintings placed in close proximity to each other, but similarly, seeming to work separately, each four-by-four grid, painted in subtly different tints of pale violet, has the effect of liberating the whiteness of the paper, allowing it to float in front of the grid.  They’re reminiscent of similarly organized paintings by Josef Albers, but different in that Albers uses his grids to play around with simultaneous contrasts. This prompts the idea that Clarke’s works could be seen as propositions for paintings, in which the problem of their completion is still to be addressed.  But this is perhaps unfair; it seems to ignore the freshness and the potential of the works.  And it’s their potential that allows them to assume a complementary role to Thomson’s more dense paintings.

Thomson has declared an interest in structuralist and post-structuralist philosophy, and this might perhaps vindicate a conceptual approach to looking at these paintings: one’s engagement is predominantly based on trying to understand the concepts of colour and of proportion, as his works offer only very simple visual articulations and clues.  

Based on proportions  derived, as he explained, from mathematics,  there’s also the colour to focus on. This is probably the key point: you find yourself looking for the colour and questioning it - is this a black or does it have a chromatic cast? Does this area of greenness relate to that bit of greenness? Is this slightly pink-grey on this black ground the same as the one on that black ground? It’s this that provides the intrigue.  There’s also something about the surfaces; it’s almost like looking at a Vermeer painting, you wonder how the paint got there. In one particular case Thomson plays a very subtle game with the surface reading; it’s one of the ensembles in which the proportions are slightly different and arranged in landscape format.  

GR Thomson, photo: John Stephens

GR Thomson, photo: John Stephens

Here, the left-hand panel with its inserted rectangle consists of two very subtly differentiated whites but with a hint of what might be seen as a skin colour; Thomson’s whiteness, with the inner rectangle lighter than the outer ’frame’. Its counterpart in the ensemble, the right-hand panel, is an articulation of blackness.  But when you look carefully at the ‘white‘ panel you realise that the fine bleached linen canvas has been layered over a painted surface underneath to give its particular skin tint; this is in contrast to the dense closed black of the adjacent panel. This for me was one the most arresting of the paintings, having both an intellectual as well as an emotional appeal.

I take in good faith what an artist tells me about their intentions, or the beliefs on which their work is founded, not least for reasons of providing an insight into it.  Insistent that his work has nothing to do with systems art or more specifically systems painting, Thomson’s detailed explanations to me about the way in which he works out the dimensions and proportions and internal articulations of the paintings, along with the methodology for mixing colour in order to achieve the desired chroma, nonetheless seem, to me, to suggest at the very least a systematic approach to making the work.

This is worth a little more examination; Systems Art, it seems, is a broad term. Perhaps what might be useful for such an examination is to refer to the show that Lawrence Alloway curated at the Guggenheim Museum in 1966, ‘Systemic Painting’, which included painters such as Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, Jo Baer and Ad Rinehardt among others; artists with whom I could see these two artists having an affinity.  Alloway’s rationale for the title of the show, which he took a long time deliberating, was that there were strong organisational principles at play in the art, “systems that could be quite human in the sense that they could involve a very idiosyncratic set of variables”(1). This idea seems to me to be applicable to Clarke and Thomson’s work in that ultimately, despite their fairly rigid sets of rules, one can respond to them in the way envisaged by Alloway.  I want to have a reading of them that is intriguing rather than purely logical, and the answer to the obvious question is unequivocally ‘yes’ - they do have a sense of intrigue, in the way that the works of Noland, Stella and Rinehardt had in 1966, when each new show by them was eagerly awaited to see what painterly innovation in terms of colour orchestration (especially in the case of Noland, or new pictorial structures in the case of Stella) might be revealed.

The lineage of the work of Thomson and Clarke stretches back beyond that of the key painters included in Alloway’s exhibition: Noland, Stella, Baer and Rinehardt. It goes back to the beginnings of abstract painting itself, to Malevich and Mondrian, through the Constructivists and particularly the work of the Bauhaus tutor Hans Albers.   Applied here, in the context of this review, the term ‘systemic art’ seems to me to be more suitable than ‘systems art’ because it alludes to a concept rather than a genre which might incorporate the work of Thomson and Clarke in an unsympathetic way.  And I want to use it, not with the intention of undermining Thomson and his explanations, but to provide myself with an explanation of the way in which the work affected me.  Alloway describes systemic art as using simple standardised forms, generally geometric, either as a single concentrated image or repeated in a system according to a clearly visible principle or organisation. It seems to me that such systems are visible both in the work of Thomson and of Clarke.  

The difference lies in the way that this current work has moved in a different direction. Taking the Noland and Stella as examples, there’s something in Noland’s use of colour - long bands of sensuously seductive pastel tints - and Rinehardt’s intriguingly nuanced deep-toned paintings - which Thomson and Clarke have tacitly acknowledged and moved beyond.  Thomson’s use of colour, for instance, is intellectually enticing, inviting you to ascertain what the colour is, how it relates to the adjacent colours or the colours of the proximally-placed painting.  How is the blackness made?  What is the chromatic identity of this colour placed on that ground? And there’s also something here that’s quite visceral.  

A statement by Michael Auping (1989) comes to mind, which invokes the minimalist idea that it’s “extreme simplicity that can capture the sublime representation in art(2)” and there is in my mind no doubt that there is a systematic approach to the making of Thomson’s paintings and Clarke’s gouaches, and it’s what facilitates that ‘something’, that sense of intrigue and enticement which is at play here. Even if Thomson wishes to distance himself from this notion, the results were manifestly to be seen in this ideal setting, in this quiet little protected house in Brighton.

 1. Alloway, Lawrence "Systemic Painting", in: Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, by Gregory Battcock (1995).

 2. Auping, Michael Abstraction, Geometry, Painting: Selected Geometric Abstract Painting, Albright-Knox Art Gallery (1989)

Installation shots: (L) G R Thomson, (R) Trevor Clarke. Photo:John Stephens

Trevor Clarke, photo: GR Thomson

Trevor Clarke, photo: GR Thomson