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

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Both Sides of the Line: The ‘Otherness’ of Other Rooms

Derek Horton | January 2016

This essay will be included  in a publication (due in April 2016) to raise funds for events at Basement Arts Project.

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Other Rooms, in January 2015, was an exhibition of work at Basement Arts Project by a group of formally reductive, geometric and systems artists working in the UK: Hanz Hancock, Patrick Morrissey, Charley Peters, Giulia Ricci, Sarah Sparkes, Walker Hill, Andy Wicks, Ben Woodeson, and John Workman. It was curated by Hancock and Morrissey under the auspices of Saturation Point, their critical forum and curatorial platform for just such work.  The visibility of this kind of practice has increased exponentially in recent years in conjunction with the resurgence in current curatorial fashion for painting and other work that at its best critically examines, although at its worst merely stylistically apes, certain earlier kinds of formalist modernism.

It is obvious but still often missed that when, where and how an art object is presented is as important to appreciating or understanding it as the object itself. The genres and histories of art making to which many of the artists in Other Rooms relate most closely – Constructivism, Minimalism and post-painterly abstraction, for example, have traditionally been associated with the alleged ‘purity’ of white cube gallery spaces and their contemplative ‘silence’. (Silence in this context can refer to an absence of visual interference – ‘visual noise’ – as much as the absence of sound.) Here they were shown against the raw, unpainted brick and cracked plaster walls of the basement of a small, family-occupied, terraced house in an economically deprived area of inner-city Leeds. This immediately reveals on the part of the curators a willingness to create a space of tension and dialogue between competing readings of minimally abstract and non-objective artworks in what would be perceived by some to be an inappropriate environment for such work. It reminds us that Constructivism and DeStijl had roots in Russian revolutionary fervour as much as theosophy, that the Bauhaus was as much to do with ideals of domestic living as it was about ascetic aesthetics, and that neither ‘truth-to-materials’ nor rigorous formalism can ever really exist separately from the multifarious cultural, economic and environmental chaos that surrounds us.

As an aside, it is worth remembering that New York’s Guggenheim Museum, housed since 1959 in Frank Lloyd Wright’s purpose-built and iconic architectural flagship, began life as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in a former car showroom and then moved temporarily to a townhouse before it became the white concrete temple to modernist aesthetics it is today. Also, the earliest exhibitions of Malevich’s Suprematist works and Russian Constructivism such as Tatlin’s Corner Reliefs presented them in very different and more cluttered surroundings than we are now used to seeing them in modern art museums.

Much of the work shown in Other Rooms is based in the kind of geometrical compositional principles that are often seen to exist outside of and distinct from the messiness, disorder and accidental nature of everyday objects in the world. The traditions of such art making often derive from a search for an austere stability and rigid perfection that real things can never have. In this context, the room in which the work was shown for this exhibition was truly ‘other’.

As I have suggested already though, minimal and geometric abstraction is not all – or as little as – it might be assumed to be in terms of the detachment of art from social conditions advocated by formalist critics such as Clement Greenberg. Josef Albers, for example, believed his art could impel us to discover “which of certain art problems are related to our own life”. (Quoted by Eva Diaz in The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College, 2014, University of Chicago Press.) This was a founding principle of the Bauhaus. and a similar claim could be made for Malevich or Mondrian. or others who saw geometric abstraction as an experiment in perception opening outwards to environmental design as a means of social transformation.

Locating abstraction in a context of social reality rather than isolating it from it, at least metaphorically, might be seen to involve an exchange between the abstractness of ideas and the concrete presence of materials; by keeping their use of materials simple and clear, based in geometric structure or rational processes, such art works present materials in a state of potential, of openness. The works that were shown in Other Rooms don’t necessarily reflect too much concern with either the desire to achieve some rational mastery of the intellectual world or the need to beautify the material world. Rather, they aspire to an understanding of the relationship between the conceptual and the material as a space of richly productive aesthetic potential, where shapes, patterns, intervals and lines can be put into conceptual play, with each other and with the wider world they inhabit.

The juxtaposition of structured and highly formalist artworks with the contingencies and multi-layered disorder of ageing domestic architecture poses enigmatic questions of the material world, questions that have the speculative potential to open up new meanings and new experiences of both the artworks and the world they inhabit. As a curatorial strategy it reflects human engagement with the world without seeking any essential, universal qualities in its materials. It opens up the possibility of perceptions based not on established principles, whether aesthetic, philosophical, or material, but rather unfolding and emerging in ways that challenge understandings of the phenomenal world. The material world can only be experienced, and continuously rediscovered, in the subtle surprises, differences, and possibilities of materiality as it is both rationally constructed and haphazardly evolved, and in the way these two aspects of materiality coincide.

In its small, appropriately domestic way, Other Rooms demonstrated some of the nuances inherent in just such a coincidence. Materiality and geometry as the generative force behind the artworks provided the means by which the imperfections and contingencies of the surfaces and spaces against which they were set could be emphasised. Each were inextricably linked and in tension with one another.

This made for an exhibition in which the viewing experience was about reactions. Either reacting to architectural elements of the space, or within more contained works, reacting to elements already present in the materials and emphasised by the artists’ processing of them. Discovering such works in an unaccustomed environment had the potential to prompt a totally new reaction to them, unlikely to have occurred in a more conventional gallery display. In this way Other Rooms was an acknowledgment of the chaos we know surrounds us even as we focus on ordered objects of contemplation. The relationship between order and chaos, between art and the world it inhabits with us, between quiet contemplation and daily life, is fundamental to human perception and experience.