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Website: Chestnuts Design

Francesca Simon: Site Lines

Beardsmore Gallery, 13 November to 20 December 2014  

A review by Andy Parkinson

In his excellent book After Constructivism, Brandon Taylor includes a chapter entitled The Lure of Geometry, as if resisting its temptation were akin to preventing the reduction of art to mere calculation. Taylor points out that the Russian Constructivists were never particularly interested in it, in spite of their appreciation of the straight line. Geometry is concerned with the two-dimensional plane, and they had already become far more interested in the physical third dimension. They also saw it as potentially reactionary, leading back to the compositional art that they had fought so hard to repudiate. Yet its allure continues to hold sway for an art that seeks to construct rather than to represent, possibly because geometry is never really composed, always constructed. Furthermore, it holds the possibility of even acting as a guarantee against the backward slide into referential content. After all, geometry has a life of its own, it is a tautology, a pure fiction, having no objective existence, the type of abstraction in which, to quote Alfred Korzybski, “all particulars are included”. Taking, as Korzybski does, the example of a circle, we might note that it is defined as “the locus of all points in a plane at equal distance from the centre”. All particulars are included in this definition and whatever else we might learn about a mathematical circle, no new characteristics will ever appear.

However, the moment we attempt to draw an objective “circle” we discover that what we have drawn is not a mathematical circle at all. It is a physical ring, in which numerous new characteristics appear: colour, temperature, thickness of drawn line etc. (Lissitzky notwithstanding, the overlap of geometry and art is as “fatal” for geometry as ever it might have been for art.)

Francesca Simon, Double Girder Crane 3, 2014, acrylic on canvas on wood, 52 x 66cm. Image by courtesy of the artist and Beardsmore Gallery

The surfaces of Simon’s paintings have a texture built up of many layers of paint which is then sanded down, a double process of construction and excavation. There is also, in the lines that are marked out but not really used, evidence of decision-making, choices that were not followed through, disturbances in the field of pure abstract thought.

Then there is the contrast between the painted edge and the real edges in the diptychs, even though there is no such thing as an edge in three dimensions. Like geometry, an edge can only exist in a two-dimensional plane. And there’s movement here as well, both real and unreal. I have in mind the dynamism of the diagonals, suggesting movement that isn’t actual, and then the real movement of the exchanging gestalts as figure and ground swap place, like in False Construct 1, where the ribbon of triangulating shapes that concertinas across the middle of the painting, like a piece of folded paper, has mountain folds when perceived as figure, and valley folds when perceived as ground, in an alternating rhythm. The fourth dimension; real, experienced time, is needed to see these paintings. They cannot be seen in just one moment, an eternal ‘now’, because real succeeding moments are required in order to perceive the other gestalts.

Francesca Simon, Tunnel Vision 2, 2014 diptych acrylic on canvas on wood, each panel 122x93cm. Image by courtesy of the artist and Beardsmore Gallery

In Tunnel Vision 2, zigzags of triangles syncopate the surface on one plane whilst seeming to initiate a call-and-response with figures on another plane slightly in front spatially, the semi-transparency of the figures allowing this perception of “in front” and “behind”. An alternative reading finds grey triangles just behind a narrow wedge of black and white diagonals that seem to thrust downwards, interfering with the soft stillness of the light grey textured surface.

In Francesca Simon’s paintings the eternal precision of geometry is interrupted, made ambiguous, noisy even, and subject to change, in a collision with the impure “geometry” of the real world. When abstract thought is “real”-ised in painting, something other than pure geometry is made available to the senses, and that, for me, is what I am enjoying in Simon’s abstract art.

Francesca Simon, False Construct 3, 2014, acrylic on canvas on wood, 36 x 46. Image by courtesy of the artist and Beardsmore Gallery

Not that the paintings necessarily re-present the construction site directly, more that this very physical ‘geometry’ finds its way into Simon’s own geometrical constructions, as a parallel process, in the psychological sense. The excavating and constructing processes within the site are paralleled by the excavation and construction processes taking place in the paintings.       

“When I moved to this studio I had no idea that the Crossrail development would come to form such an important part of my life, but my daily routine came to include watching the movements of the double girder crane up to the very edge of my window and away again.  I felt as if I was on the building site myself and in time this turned out to have a transformative effect on my artistic work.”

The Double Girder Crane series appear to originate in pure geometry (Abstraction 1), yet the titles alert me to the non-geometric “source”, the tracks of this massive crane traversing back and forth over the gigantic chasm, changes in the crane’s position generating varieties of shapes, now seen in the paintings, as if echoing the varying relationship between crane and environment. Then there are the almost aggressive flashes of colour, the yellow of a skip perhaps and possibly the blue of the crane, colours and shapes taking place in the developing environment, finding their place here in these works (Abstraction 2). Again, in the Close Construction paintings, each one featuring a void upon which geometric elements are arranged, we get a hybrid, perhaps, of the two abstractions.

Francesca Simon, False Construct 1, 2014, acrylic on canvas on wood, 110 x 144 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist and Bearsdmore Gallery

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

The distinction between a mathematical circle and an objective “circle” or a physical ring, seems to parallel two types of abstraction, one that seeks to create from no-thing, from the purely abstract in the mathematical sense where all particulars are included, and another that “abstracts” from, withdraws from, or separates from, some physically existing subject matter. I would venture to name the former Abstraction 1 and the latter Abstraction 2. Abstraction 1 is, strictly speaking, impossible because as soon as it comes into existence it resembles Abstraction 2, where particulars are left out. Instead of geometry we have linguistic description, but only if we are very strict! With forms derived from geometry we have approximations of pure abstraction, whereas in abstractions from nature we have derivations from external content.

In Francesca Simons’ wonderful new paintings, at her solo exhibition, Site Lines, shown at Beardsmore Gallery in December 2014, I wonder if we find geometric form that exists somewhere between these two types of abstraction. Whilst we have geometry, and construction, in abundance, it is a geometry influenced by a real-world excavation and construction site, specifically London’s Crossrail project at Tottenham Court Road, evidenced by the massive chasm that opened up outside Simon’s Dean Street studio window, which was the building site between July 2012 and summer 2014.