The online editorial and curatorial project for systems, non-objective and reductive artists working in the UK

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Imperfect Reverse

Camberwell Space Projects, Wilson Road, London SE5 8LU

18 October – 18 November 2016

A review by Fiona Grady

‘Imperfect Reverse’ is a survey of geometric, reductive and systems art created by UK artists since the 1960s. It acknowledges the roots of the movement by including key figures such as Natalie Dower, Michael Kidner and Colin Cina, placing their work alongside that of younger contemporaries. The exhibition is a collaboration by artist and writer Laurence Noga with Saturation Point, and is inspired by the current movement celebrating and connecting artists working in this particular field. The resurgence in the appreciation of systems art is evidenced by the breadth of ideas, styles, and approaches in this starting point, demonstrating that over the past 50 years, the movement has managed to maintain a fresh and exciting approach. The groups of artists selected here expand on this concept, and the exhibition presents an exciting and forward-thinking series of works.

The title, Imperfect Reverse, is from a painting by Hanz Hancock, artist and co-founder of Saturation Point. Noga defines this term as something that “intimates a move towards a structural logic, a generative grammar, allowing an outside system or set of rules to drive the making of a series of works”. The majority of the artworks presented here are focused on geometric abstraction. They all have a similar internal logic, using hard lines to define space and stretch the planes of the paper, canvas or object. What the exhibition seeks to demonstrate is the variety of approaches that can enable a working process to be physically and intellectually experienced. Through the example of these artists, we can understand the broader spectrum of systems, geometric and reductive art, not simply as a set of rules, but as a generator that allows us to explore medium, colour, gesture and many more elements of the creative process.

Natalie Dower, Three Triangles Series 2, 2016, oil on canvas, 66 × 132 cm. Courtesy of Eagle Gallery

Many of the artworks explore the use of rules to define the appearance of a work, moving away from aesthetic concerns to let the process of painting take over. Natalie Dower is a true traditionalist; her painting Three Triangles Series 2 (2016) maintains the discipline which she established early in her career - to paint straight lines without the use of masking tape or ruler. Impressively accurate, her approach demonstrates the conflict between perfection and the artist’s hand; her technical ability is such that this trace is barely evident. Other artists, such as Marta Marcé, embrace the converse of this idea. Marcé’s Now & Ever series purposely allows the bleeding of masked lines to occur, testing the rigidity and limitations of her rules versus the flexibility of the medium of paint. While Charley Peters uses crisp masked lines to build up seductively-textured layers of rich paint, Chris Daniels’ rhomboids sit up on top of a flatter monochrome plane, challenging the depth of the painting. These pieces have a graphic element, referencing early computer games and retro graphics that Daniel Sturgis has also visualised in his checkerboard paintings, Newer Older, suggesting that a system can be playful too.

Marta Marcé, Now & Ever 38, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 40 × 40 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Ri­emaker Gallery

Jonathan Parsons, Chromaticity (3) 2016, oil on linen, 76 × 76 cm

Arrangement is key to both Sharon Hall and Estelle Thompson, who apply paint to create immaculate surfaces that allow the viewer to focus on the balance of colours and the relationships between forms. Jonathan Parsons’ Chromaticity (3) also plays with the balance of colour: instead of smooth perfection, his slippery lines of thinned paint reveal the brush strokes and the order of the various layers, setting into motion a feeling of movement on the surface. Andrew Bick explores this process further, scrapping away elements of the painting, then building up new elements in differing blocks of colour, to put in place an uneasy balance of forms. David Oates uses paints with a gentle touch in Kiss 29 (2015), teasing the reduction of a sphere; with each contact across the canvas, it shrinks to nothing and then regrows. The sphere also occurs in the painting by Carol Robertson, Star Time #4, in a precise form that is both abstract and symbolic; the use of colour alludes to a sense of the content lifting from the canvas.

David Oates, Kiss 29, 2015 oil on canvas, 120 × 114 cm

Carol Robertson, Star Time #4, 2015, oil on canvas, 45 × 45 cm. Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

The mathematical approach of ‘Imperfect Reverse’ is demonstrated in Equinox by Colin Cina; this work helps to ease the viewer into the exhibition. This ideological influence can also be seen in the works of Wendy Smith, Hanz Hancock and Patrick Morrissey, who all use systems relying on numerical rules to introduce order to their works. The delicacy of line can be seen in the Smith and Hancock drawings; they both use a formulaic grid, but interest lies in what is left out. By exploring the gaps or removed areas of the grid, the logic and movement of the drawings come into focus. Less tightly composed, Morrissey’s repetition of geometric forms uses the balance of contrasting colour to allow a strong shock of movement. Trevor Sutton also picks up on this use of ordered blocks to co-ordinate a series of colours; only his piece Daybreak (2015) uses a meditative series of colours, embracing the varied enlightening tones of white. In Sue Kennington’s work the use of colour is equally emotive, bringing to light memories associated with place. And Michael Kidner’s use of colour helps compound the sense of motion in the waves of his form, allowing the eyes to run across the contrasting tones of ordered chaos.

Patrick Morrissey, TQID series, 2016, acrylic on panel, 50 × 50 cm

Jane Bustin, Rose, 2015, oil, acrylic, polyurethane, copper, 30 × 42 cm

A common language occurs in many of these works; it is explored by Katrina Blannin, whose line paintings imply more than a twisting shape; they also demonstrate an underlying educated appreciation of composition, and seek to find an ideal balance of forms within a painting. Both Nathan Cohen and Julia Farrer take this idea of composition one step further - the movement and gesture of Farrer’s marks, and Cohen’s grid, are allowed to define the edges of the panels to escape the confinement of the traditional rectangle of canvas. The clever placement of Andrew Parkinson’s pair of paintings allows them to respond together, with one slipping slightly lower than the other, as if to question whether the grid is progressing. While Sylvia Lerin’s canvas Caterpillar 2 climbs over its wooden support, Finbar Ward’s narrow p-shaped canvases turn away from the wall. Both artists are literally allowing their works to take on the appearance of a physical movement against the conventions and placement of canvas painting. Kate Terry’s work makes no pretence to be anything other than a sculpture; although the bracket-like hexagon is attached to the wall by bright threads, the illusion of balance is held firmly in the form’s structure.

Finbar Ward, Untitled (In Waiting Series), 2016, oil and enamel on linen, 93 × 140 × 12 cm

Nathan Cohen, In Sight, 2005, pigment and casein on cut panel, 83.2 × 64 × 2.5 cm

Despite the reductive nature of these works, the real world does creep in. Laurence Noga’s collages, at first glance, are a sequence of coloured segments, but on closer inspection the viewer sees the details of the magazines from which they are made. The work suddenly becomes more figurative; the panoramic layout becomes spatial and indicative of interior situations. Ian Monroe’s Glyph Glyph is part painting, part sculpture; it follows a non-linear logic, referencing the complexities of technology and constructed reality. Tim Ellis also re-interprets collage by crumpling, folding and reshaping military posters, thereby re-formatting and contextualising the artefacts to distort their meaning. This approach is investigated further by Simon Callery, whose painting Punctured chromium oxide flat painting documents an excavation in North Wales; instead of reconstructing the site he presents an alternative form of mapping.

Laurence Noga, 6 works including So Orange Filtered Violet, 2016, acrylic collage on panel, 15 × 30 cm.

Simon Callery, Punctured Chromium Oxide Flat Painting 2014-15, distemper, canvas, wood, thread, pencil, aluminium, rail and bolts, 183 × 58 × 15 cm. Courtesy of Fold Gallery

Many of the ideas that exist within ‘Imperfect Reverse’ could equally well be regrouped, and a whole new set of relationships could be identified between the artworks. What is striking about the exhibition is that a simple set of rules can open up so many different possibilities. The project is testament to the imagination, technical abilities and variety of approaches that artists working around these conventions are exploring. The thoughtful curation demonstrates that systematic, reductive and geometric art is not a limited area of investigation. Essentially, a system or a rule is a starting point; it’s how the artist interprets and challenges it that creates the exciting outcomes evidenced in this exhibition. It would be great to see a similar exhibition staged in ten years’ time, to see how this line of thinking develops.

The exhibition continues at Ruskin Gallery, Cambridge, until 21 January.