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Keith Richardson-Jones

At the Redfern Gallery

A review by Alan Fowler

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Following its excellent exhibition of the work of the past-Systems Group artist, Jean Spencer, at the end of last year, the Redfern Gallery has mounted a similarly intriguing show of works by Keith Richardson-Jones (1925 – 2005).  KRJ, as he was generally known, shared many interests and ideas with Spencer, such as the earlier  geometric and sequential colour paintings of Richard Paul Lohse, the music of Bach and Steve Reich, and the concept of seriality in the development of their own work. Although he never joined the Systems Group, KJR had a long working relationship with several of the group’s artists such as Malcolm Hughes and Jeffrey Steele. He occasionally exhibited with them, and can be seen, with them, as an artist dedicated to exploring the interaction, in constructive abstract art, between the cerebral mind and the aesthetic eye in the context of the self-imposed discipline of an art form, set within pre-determined geometric and numeric systems.

Unlike Spencer, who embarked on geometric abstraction at the age of 19, KJR was around 40 before he finally abandoned representational painting and began the 30 years of constructivist abstraction represented by the works in this exhibition. And although he had a solo exhibition at the Lisson Gallery in 1970 and was shown in several group exhibitions in the early 1970s, it was not until his inclusion in the Arts Council’s large 1978 show, Constructive Context, that he felt he had been fully recognised as a significant systems-oriented abstractionist. The Redfern exhibition includes a few of his earlier abstract works in colour which, while using simple numerical or geometric systems to determine their structure, do not carry the same strength of visual impact as the later mainly monochrome and black and white paintings and reliefs, which form the main part of his oeuvre. There is an impression that, unlike Spencer, he found difficulty in achieving a satisfactory integration of the subjective aesthetic of colour with the rationality of an arithmetically influenced structure. Where colour was used in later works it was limited to delineating separate elements – such as a red sequence of lines distinguishing this sequence from another in blue – or to emphasise differences in the size of a painting’s geometric forms; for example, by reducing the intensity of a single colour in line with reductions in the size of these forms.

He provided a succinct account of his own concepts and methods in the catalogue of the Constructive Context exhibition. Referring to van Doesburg’s idea of  “a vocabulary of geometric form” he wrote that he used a visual language which provided “a flexible framework for the examination of number systems in organising orders of forms within which other unpredictable relationships and dispositions of these same forms may occur”. He went on to describe how his paintings and shallow reliefs had, as their basic structural premise, dimensional progressions in which “ a consistent small difference is added at successive stages to produce a run of regular increases of interval” – and this is indeed the dominating feature throughout the works in this exhibition. It can be seen at its simplest in two screenprints titled simply System Studies 1 and 2, and in two related acrylics on black polystyrene labelled Series E.A –finite set of 2 members, all from 1988. Systems Study 1 and one of the E.A series consist of a square divided into four horizontal rows which diminish in width in the ratio of 4  3  2  1. The narrowest and top row is one long rectangle: the next row consists of two rectangles: the third row has three orthogonal forms and the bottom row has four – repeating the 4  3  2  1 arithmetic of the progression in the width of the rows. Systems Study 2 and the second of the E.A series vary only by the addition of a fifth row of five forms, which changes the 4  3  2  1 square to a 5  4  3  2  1 rectangle.

The use of some form of arithmetical progression to determine the diminishing (or expanding) size of a row or series of forms, or the size of spaces in intervals between lines, is common to many systems-based works by constructivist artists, though other artists have often used less simple numeric or geometric systems than KRJ.  Lohse, for example, used root rectangles, Anthony Hill used the size of intervals between runs of prime numbers and Natalie Dower and others have used Fibonacci sequences – e.g. 3  5  8  13  etc.. KRJ defended his use of the simpler arithmetical progression on the grounds that it met the need, as he saw it, for only gradual, small and equal changes. It is evident from this exhibition that this simpler structural approach has both strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side it makes the systematised structure of his works immediately visually evident, even to the viewer who is not well-acquainted with this form of abstraction. In this respect, it differs considerably from the work of an artist such as Jeffrey Steele whose 'syntagma' works have far more complex and less obvious structural logic. But this very clarity in KRJ’s work has the effect of reducing its subtlety – the viewer 'gets' the work within the first few seconds of looking at it. Within an exhibition, too, when one is seeing numerous works at the same time in the same space, there can be an element of sameness or repetition, which runs the risk of reducing the interest and impact of works which, if seen alone, could well provide more visual and mental stimulation.

That said, this exhibition is a very welcome contribution to the wider recognition in the UK of systematic constructive abstraction, and KRJ’s works fully merit the attention which a well-presented exhibition such as Redfern’s can encourage. He once spoke of his art as being a dialogue between what he wanted it to be and the outcome of its governing system, a view which highlighted the fact that working within the self-imposed constraints of a system – the cerebral element – can produce visual outcomes that were neither evident nor expected when the work was initially conceived.   He would, I think, have endorsed a comment once made by Peter Lowe: “I am driven by curiosity to see what something that does not already exist will look like”. Viewers of KRJ’s work can share both the satisfaction of this curiosity and his restless search for more and better forms of marrying mind and eye.

Alan Fowler

May 2015

Ribbon Mesh Sculpture 1969 Aluminium 50 x 66 cm

(L) Series Syzygy: micro intervals II 1985 Acrylic on cotton surfaced MDF 120.5 x 90 cm

(R) Series Syzygy: micro intervals I 1985 Acrylic on cotton surfaced MDF 120.5 x 90 cm

Series CMA 1979/80 Gouache on paper 61.5 x 61.5 cm

Interspaced Sequence: red/blue I 1974 Acrylic on canvas 91 x 122.3 cm

Redfern 08 Sequence 64