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Reflections  | Natalie Dower at Eagle Gallery | 26 November 2015 – 16 January 2016

A review by  James Campion

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

For this review I will look at the selection and curation of the works in the context of the artist’s career. I will then move on to analyse some particular works in the context of this show, and finally, with reference to the gallery-published texts, consider the artist in the wider context of Constructivist and Systems art.

Installation shot by James Campion

The exhibition contains twenty-one relatively small works by Dower, ranging in date from the early ’80s to the present day. There is considerable variation in their style, structure and media, but one can discern two distinct categories, and there are several pieces which do not fit into either group.

Square Root Spirals, Nine Moves, 2015

Square Root Spiral Invasion: Three Colours, 2015

The first category comprises six rectangular format, paintings on canvas which share compositional common ground and were all made in the last few years. Examples (above) are Square Root Spirals, Nine Moves, 2015 and Square Root Spiral Invasion: Three Colours, 2015. The second category consists of seven reliefs in painted wood, made between 1984 and 1989 and which themselves can be divided into two sub-categories one could describe as: ‘round-cropped’ such as Jungle Sphere, 1988 and ‘un-cropped’ such as Three Colour Spiral Track no.2, 1984 (below).

Jungle Sphere, 1988

Three Colour Spiral Track no.2, 1984

The eight other pieces appear at first to be anomalies, due to their material or stylistic uniqueness. However, having consulted the artist's website, and the gallery-published book Natalie Dower: Line of Enquiry, it is clear that some of the pieces that appear to be anomalies in the context of the show do fit into a series or sub-series of the artist’s overall practice. For example, One, Two, Three no.2, 2008, is ostensibly the odd one out, because it is the only work that has a clear perspex layer pinned on top of the canvas.

However, in the book we can see that this was a method that Dower explored over a period of several years, and we can presume that she produced many works of this type. At the same time, we have pieces in the show such as Hybrid no.2, 2007, which is genuinely unusual. As the title suggests, it is perhaps a synthesis of elements appropriated from separate series. In the composition there are some familiar geometric structures, but the way they are overlapped and isolated in the centre of the flat ground feels like a slightly eccentric focal point.

One, Two, Three no.2, 2008

Hybrid no.2, 2007

If we look at Dower's life's work, as recorded in the online and printed resources available, it is clear that the progression of the artist’s practice is a complicated flow from series to series, with blending between them and stylistic appropriation across them. She has explored working in two dimensions, three dimensions and the territory in between, and to do this she has employed a diverse set of materials and processes to make her work.

The set of works on display in this exhibition cannot, of course, fully cover this long journey of investigation. But the selected works do cover many of the important variations, and they have been sensitively arranged with that in mind. The structure of the installation activates a complex matrix of visual and psychological relationships based on features that are common or not-common, between the individual artworks. Pieces sometimes mimic their neighbours almost exactly; or alternatively, replicate one aspect of their neighbour whilst being totally different in another respect. Occasionally, a piece is placed to contrast vividly with another, but is then referenced in a nearby location.

Installation shot by James Campion

The first wall, for example, in the installation photograph directly above, contains five reliefs and one rectangular canvas. The canvas is clearly the initial point of focus, as it is the only thing distinctly of its own kind, relative to the reliefs. Despite this, the reliefs compete for attention because of the way in which the sub-types of relief have been positioned relative to each other. At the opposite end of the wall a cluster of three: Spiral Track no.1, no.2 and no.3, 1984 draw the eye on account of the repetition of almost identical objects. They emanate from the same two-dimensional plane of vertical, horizontal and diagonal guidelines, but each has had different sections of the base structure brought forward into three dimensions. Consequently they share an identical outline shape but the exact structure differs. The relief to their left, Three Colour Spiral Track no.2, is very similar but slightly larger, and is structured mainly from squares rather than triangles. It has been hung with a fitting degree of autonomy, given these subtle differences. The final relief: Jungle Sphere,1988, stands out, hung on its own to the left of the canvas. But rather than sitting awkwardly, it successfully balances the dominance of the reliefs on the right. Furthermore, although contrasting in some ways, it and the canvas sit comfortably as a pair, as the only two geometrically shaped supports on the wall.

In the first stage of this review I asked the question: to what extent is this show representative of Dower’s wider practice? The answer: it goes a good way towards representing the artist’s complex undulations. In the second stage I asked: what can we learn from comparing the examples of these undulations, as seen in the show, and how does the curation of the space influence this process? The answer: the structure of the installation inspires comparisons between works that helps one to understand the individual works in more detail. In summary: I have looked at the show in the context of the artist, followed by the work in the context of the show. This prompts the question: what other contextual relationship would it be useful to look at?

In Natalie Dower: Line of Enquiry, Alan Fowler's essay A Constructivist Artist in Context looks at Dower in relation to the wider world of Systems art. Notably, he refers to the debate about whether experiencing Systems art is about understanding the system, or whether the system is just the tool of the artist to create something to be experienced, without thinking about it too much? Or as Fowler summarises it: “ it important for the viewer to know about and understand the system?”  Dower herself is quoted, regarding her work, as saying: “if people take pleasure from reading the system then this is just a bonus... but my aim is to communicate and make a visual impact in visual terms”. Having experienced Dower’s work in this show, leaving aside any idea of whether we should or shouldn't be reading the systems in the work, what strikes me is that the extent to which we are able to do so varies tremendously. Square Root Spirals, Nine Moves, 2015 is relatively readable. Just standing in front of it, one can begin to discern the underlying structural lines and how their points of contact with the frame have logical relationships. But in contrast, when looking at works like Pentomino Cube, 1985 (the sculpture visible in the above installation shot), one wouldn't know where to begin in deciphering its structure.

All the works in the show sit on a spectrum of decipherability; Pentomino Cube, 1985 and Square Root Spirals, Nine Moves, 2015 sit at opposite ends of this spectrum. We can be quite clear about where all the other works sit. However, it is more difficult to judge the extent to which they each achieve the artist’s stated intention to “communicate and make an impact in visual terms”. I think it might be fruitful to evaluate each of Dower’s works in terms of her ‘management of decipherability’. One can think about how successfully the medley of decisions to do with colour, material, etc. works with the system being used. We could ask questions of any given work such as: does the use of a particular system with a particular material require a full revelation or a partial revelation of its logic? Or indeed, does a system presented in a particular state of decipherability demand a particular material?

James Campion, January 2016