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The Order of Things

The Wilson, Cheltenham, 28 Jan – 5 March 2017

Review by Andy Parkinson

"Between language and the theory of nature there exists therefore a relation that is of a critical type; to know nature is, in fact, to build upon the basis of language a true language, one that will reveal the conditions in which all language is possible and the limits within which it can have a domain of validity." Michel Foucault

In Foucault’s The Order of Things, from which this exhibition derives its title, we continuously encounter the paradox of self-reference, not least in the multiple levels of language about language that it contains. The book opens with a dizzying reflection on the painting Las Meninas by Velazquez in which the whole project of representation becomes the theme of this representational painting, and of the chapter. That the works in this exhibition are abstract leads me to wonder whether a similar pattern is being followed in relation to non-representation. In abstract or concrete art, signs have become the signified, ‘words’ have become ‘things’. But they are not without reference to other things or experiences ‘outside’ the artwork. Self-referring, they also other-refer; not to do so would be impossible.

Here, 13 international contemporary artists, whose approaches vary in relation to technique, medium and aesthetic, concern themselves with the codes, systems and relationships that order the world and our perception of it.

What’s real and how we know it is real seems to be a sub-theme, taking us as much into epistemology as into aesthetics, or maybe into an area where these two territories combine.

Installation view, Rana Begum, No 703, 2017, acrylic on MDF. Image by courtesy of the artist, photo copyright Andrew Bick

In Rana Begum’s No 703 (2017), 54 MDF rectangles are arranged in a 9 x 6 cell grid that appears to generate its own light. In each piece, two colours diagonally bisect the rectangle, creating three coloured triangles and a triangle of bare MDF. The statement is simple and precise. It could be said that “what you see is what you see”, yet ambiguities arise. My eye/brain links the repeated colour/tones across the grid, creating larger diagonal bands across the surface. I perceive them as shadows. However, the way that light catches the individual rectangles means that there are also real shadows. It’s difficult to differentiate between the two types of shadow. There are also optical grey ‘shadows’ in the interstices between each of the individual rectangles. I am seeing a lot more than simply what I see, as my own perceptual process comes into view.

Begum’s No 480 (2013) is made up of 20 painted aluminium bars in vertical orientation, forming what looks like a stripe painting constructed of real stripes. The front of each bar is painted black, but each side has part of a graduated design painted on it so that, when viewed from the left-hand side I see a red triangle, its base uppermost, against a black ground. However, from the right-hand side I see a green triangle with its point uppermost, divided into two green triangles and an orange rhombus, also against a black ground. From the front, the reflection of colours from the sides optically mixes with the black to create an indistinct and shifting array of shapes and colours. There are as many different images presented to the retina as there are micro-movements of the body in relation to the piece. Again, not only do I see “what is really out there” but I also ‘see’ my own ‘seeing’. Binocular vision itself becomes the subject.

Neil Zakiewicz, Onefold, 2016, paint on wood. Image by courtesy of the artist

I think there is something similar happening in the works here by Neil Zakiewicz. Both are made of spray-painted wood. In the tradition of the shaped support, OK Finger (2016) is in the form of a circle adjacent to, and cut off by, a parallelogram, and in Onefold (2016) two squares in promenade position resemble a pair of striped boxer shorts. (Am I wrong to think there is something pop-arty about these pieces?) In both, a series of vertical lines is super-imposed on the surface. The lines are real, i.e. in relief, and while I find this easy to perceive when looking at photographs of these works, actually seeing them here in the gallery I find it impossible to tell without getting almost level with the wall and peering from the side.

I test what I think I know by viewing from multiple positions, and by checking out my experience with someone else, who is also doing the same thing. She goes on to tell me that there is a painting upstairs that is situated high up on the wall so it is seen from the perspective of looking up, and that it’s such a beautiful painting everyone is talking about it. She is referring to the painting by A.K. Dolven, entitled Teenagers Lifting the Sky (2014), oil on aluminium, a grey expanse punctuated by marks that suggest they may have been made by a few people, perhaps simultaneously, jumping up and hitting the surface with their painted or dirty fingers.

Installation view, left: A K Dolven, Teenagers Lifting the Sky, 2014, Oil on Aluminium; right: Rana Begum, No 480, 2013, Paint on Powder-Coated Aluminium, photo copyright Andrew Bick

The white flag blowing in the wind against a backdrop of white cloud, in Edith Dekyndt’s video, doesn’t lift the sky; it struggles even to make its presence felt, like Malevich’s white on white. Once apprehended it exerts a calming, meditative influence. An imageless object, a flimsy ground upon which there is no figure, is itself a figure framed by the edges of the projection. Clearly located within the monochrome tradition, it is as much a nod to the drapery of classical painting as it is to the un-primed, un-stretched canvases of colour field painting, but more ‘everyday’, more ‘real-world’.

Swiss artist Daniel Robert Hunziker’s works are real-world objects. Patch (2014) is a knitted geometric patchwork bedspread, framed and presented as a wall-based artwork, and Kalk_16/1 (2016) is a wall-based constructed structure in powder-coated aluminium, real white lines and their shadows on the white of the gallery wall.

In the two paintings by Jonathan Parsons, the imagery is derived from the tradition of gestural abstraction, already translated into the real-world of the street. Faithfully reproducing found graffiti tags, the artist carefully transposes them back into the ‘high art’ of the gallery. They are beautifully executed so as to remove all trace of Parsons’ own handwriting or signature. He refers to them as “portraits of found marks”.

Installation view: Jonathan Parsons, One Forty, 2004, oil on linen. Image by courtesy of the artist, photo copyright Andrew Bick

The four two-part paintings by Maria Lalic are reductive landscapes. All we need, in order to perceive a two-dimensional object as a landscape, is a horizontal format and a horizon line. Lalic’s horizon line is real, the natural result of joining two coloured-monochrome canvases, one directly above the other. In these work references to the landscape tradition, to its colour and its language, are also stacked, metaphorically, one upon another. In French Ochre Landscape Painting. 2016 (The Petit Bras of the Seine at Argenteuil. Monet. 1872), for example, the dimensions are taken from Monet’s 1872 painting in the collection of the National Gallery, London. The upper panel is painted with French Ochre oil colour and the lower panel is painted with earth taken from Argenteuil bound with oil medium. The other paintings follow a similar procedure, the upper panels being painted with an oil colour named after a country; for example, Dutch Brown in Dutch Brown Landscape Painting, 2016 (A Country House on the Vliet near Delft. Heyden. 1660), and the lower panels with paint made from earth from the relevant site. I am reminded of Robert Smithson’s non-sites, in which objects such as stones, from a specific site, were incorporated into an artwork, rendering it both “more abstract than abstract expressionism” and at the same time “more directly and unquestionably referential than any representational art”. (1)

Installation view: paintings by Maria Lalic, photo copyright Andrew Bick

In Adam Gillam’s sculptural pieces, word and thing are whimsically united: “Oh, OK Then” is the title of the works as seen together in this space. It was Gillam’s verbal response to being invited to exhibit, and the assemblages themselves are fashioned after these same words in a literal sentence-come-object.

Guy Bigland plays with systems and codes, in his text works (digital prints and books) and paintings. In AA to ZZ (2014), all possible pairings of the letters of the alphabet are sequenced in grid format with AA in the top left hand corner and ZZ at bottom right, showing all 576 combinations. What ensues is visually stunning, revealing patterns that surprise me.

Installation view, Guy Bigland, Artists book: All the Paintings in the Museum, on AA to ZZ, photo copyright Andrew Bick

In his Solutions paintings, language, data and instructions are trans-formed into material, colour and gesture, possibly giving the impression that what we see is made up of information flows. “I have devised a system” the artist explains, “that translates numbers from the grids of Sudoku puzzle solutions published in daily newspapers into a code that dictates specifications for the paintings. The system decides the constituent elements - dimensions, support, composition, colour, paint application, hanging, titling and price”.

Solution Text (2014) provides the reader with instructions for making a solution painting. It is written as a stream of upper case text without punctuation. Reading it requires a continuous act of decoding, repeatedly bringing to attention my own interpretative strategies, in a way that includes humour, game and play.

There is something playful in Andrew Bick’s paintings and drawings that form an ongoing conversation with the British Constructionists and Systems Group of artists. Bick’s OGVDS-GW series is a response to a work by Gillian Wise (the GW in the title). Drawings from the series are shown above a set of prints by artists associated with the Systems Group: Rational Concepts, 7 English Artists (1977), a portfolio of seven screen prints by Norman Dilworth, Anthony Hill, Malcolm Hughes, Peter Lowe, Kenneth Martin, Jeffrey Steele and Gillian Wise. I say playful, because Bick’s series forms a loose system, more in the style of ‘variations on a theme’ than in strict adherence to mathematical formulae. In organisational (i.e. workplace) systems, externally prescribed rules prevent a system from incorporating variety. Bick’s works never become ‘rule-bound’; instead, they proceed with the openness of dialogue, conversation and argument. What’s at stake in this dialectic, more than making art about art, is something akin to an updated, secular version of “the communion of the saints”.

Installation view, Andrew Bick drawings and Rational Concepts set. Image by courtesy of Andrew Bick

John Wood and Paul Harrison’s 1993 video Board, in which the artists manoeuvre an 8’ by 4’ board across a white space, is like a dance routine, with a prop (albeit a rather uncompromising one), with the challenge of manipulating it emerging as the theme, along with the delight in sequence and repetition reminiscent of the permutations so beloved of systems artists.   

There’s a strange choreography in the paintings of Katie Pratt, whose dance is between chance and intention. Starting with a casual gesture or with the spilling of paint onto canvas, the artist then creates rules to develop the work, based on her observation of patterns within the apparently random event. She adheres to her rules almost mechanically, allowing the painting to be the result of a set of procedures combined with a few aesthetic choices made along the way. The gestural mark or paint spill is encircled or otherwise navigated via a series of embroidery-like dashes or by sets of lines perhaps forming a background, or linking sub-elements, as in Poole (2000-2016), where the ‘embroidered’ lines seem to organise random particles into a constellation. What emerges is something that approaches an autopoietic system, the rise of order out of chaos, or a reading of crystalline form into an amorphous solid, perhaps an archeology of knowledge as in Foucault’s subtitle for The Order of Things.

(1) See Non-Site Specificity, Medieval Modern, Art out of Time, by Alexander Nagel, Thames & Hudson, London, 2012, p118

Katie Pratt, Poole, 200- 2016, oil on linen, Image by courtesy of the artist, photo copyright Andrew Bick