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

Website: Chestnuts Design

PM  You have referred to the use of the Fibonacci system as a method you employ to kick-start a piece of work. Is this a trigger to making work that you employ unilaterally, or are there  other schemata at play in the consideration of a project? Does theory constitute a totally integrated component  in the progression of a work?

ND  Exploration is the use I make of any system I am working with. The most important one has been the Dudeney Dissection, which I encountered in Martin Gardner´s ´Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions´. This is the dissection of a square into four different shapes which, even hinged together, can be assembled as an equilateral triangle. I remember where I was, and the excitement of the exact moment when I realized the enormous range of possibilities that it offered. For the next decade every drawing, relief, sculpture and painting, ranging in scale from centimeters to metres, was generated from that. What I had seen was that I could use the squares, with their divisions, to compose a grid which would offer a huge range of configurations, either complex or simple, from which I could choose what I wanted, and which would serve for all of the above purposes.

My next  step would be drawings, or in the case of sculpture, paper maquettes, to see what I could find (as the title of my book says: a ´line of enquiry`). Another system that I have used is the well-known Fibonacci sequence: 1,1,2,3,5,8...  Since these would go right off the page if continued, it was practical to use them in an oscillating rhythm, or counterpoint.

A bad moment is when I feel that I have made as much use as I can of my current system and have to find another. Currently I am engaged with square roots.

PM Finally, on completion of a project, are you ever inclined  to say that it has had its final incarnation, or do you regard each work as having infinite possibilities for refinement, re-investigation and development? Can you give an example of where this has happened, i.e., a work that has led to a series  at a later stage  in its life, or something that you have returned to after a considerable time has elapsed?

ND    Whatever system I am working with, and researching, is predominant in my mind, and of the moment.  I don´t think, even if I saw something that I had not made use of in the Dudeney Dissection system, that I could return to it now. I have successfully retrieved an earlier painting that was not resolved, when I suddenly saw that all that was wrong was one colour, but that was a ´one off´event.

Thank you, Natalie Dower

Dudeney Oyster  1985  Sculpture. Oil paint on wood  11.5 ins. height

PM     Do you think it’s necessary, or relevant, to adopt categorization of  one’s practice,  to comply with art historical/ academic evaluation?

ND    `Adopt` has a manipulative ring. I would prefer ´accept´, if appropriate, and attempting to manage one’s historical/academic evaluation would indeed be an ambitious task. Yes, it does in the short term help to be seen as part of a recognized contemporary movement, but only with time can one’s work and its status be assessed.

PM   My colleague Andrew Parkinson, commenting on the works of Jeffrey Steele in the recent Marlow Moss show at &Model Gallery in Leeds, curated by Katrina Blannin and Andrew Bick, said:  

“I find the large black and white paintings by Jeffrey Steele here, entirely convincing. It occurs to me that even in two dimensions, prints or paintings, systems are never composed, always constructed. Hence no individual part has compositional preference over another, or over the whole, we have a lack of hierarchy, every part functioning according to the purpose of the system. Every part is ‘determined’, yet there is also a certain amount of ‘free’ play provided by the near infinite variety of permutations, as well as in the unpredictable phenomena of ‘emergence’. The paintings are radically abstract yet also completely related to my lived experience of determinism within a system. If ever I needed persuading of the power, not to mention the beauty, of this approach these works amply achieve criteria, though you probably guessed that I am already fully persuaded.”

Can work simultaneously be  intellectually interesting and visually successful, or does one generally preclude the other? What events lead to the correct balance within your own work?

ND  This is one point that I feel strongly about. If the input that has generated the idea does not translate into valid visual terms I do not accept it.  I have had intellectually interesting ideas that I have had to abandon for that reason.

Root 2 Rectangle No. 2 2010 Oil on canvas on wood 17 x 24 cm

PM   It is apparent that systems have a significant role to play in the production and appearance of your work. I understand that you were originally a figurative painter, but somehow felt that lacking. At what point, and how, did you come to realise that the use of systems and geometric language would be the means for you to develop your practice in a personally more meaningful way? Would you agree that historical or international developments were perhaps an influencing factor?

ND  As an art student at St Martins, Camberwell and the Slade, drawing was our daily activity. This I do not regret, but painting a nude model in a classroom seemed a strangely disconnected activity. I preferred still life, admiring the works of Chardin.

Whilst teaching in the figurative studio at the Bath Academy of Art, Corsham, I became interested in what was being taught by Malcolm Hughes and Michael Kidner in the Constructivist studio. Having a taste for logic and reasoning, this more intellectual approach was something that instantly appealed to me, and excited me, and Malcolm, a most generous friend and teacher, was my educator in that field. It is hard to overestimate the time lag that prevailed in post-war London art schools. At St Martins, my main memories are of drawing plaster casts of sections of Michaelangelo´s David, and instruction in the rules of perspective!

At Camberwell my pre-diploma course included `costume´, with the unforgettable detail that in the Middle Ages fur underwear was worn with the fur inward… Colour, never mentioned throughout the three years I spent there, seemed to be regarded as an immoral indulgence. Tone was of key importance; our attention was drawn to Sickert as an example.

Root 2 Rectangle No. 3.  Oil on canvas on wood  32 x 45 cm

Sortie no.4 2002 Oil on Canvas 80 x 80 cm

Patrick Morrissey interviewed Natalie Dower

July 2014

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

These were all quite dated references for a young artist growing up in the ‘90s, but I needed to find my roots in order to anchor myself to the tradition that felt really relevant to me, before I could progress and add more layers to it; I should add to this that, prior to doing my BA in fine art, at school I studied Classics so I had a very historical and academic mind-set, and an approach to art which was mostly self-taught, if we exclude what I had learnt about art in primary school!

On the other hand, at the same time there were a number of women artists, just a decade older than me, who were coming to the forefront of the Italian art scene and whose use of materials and time consuming processes had a great influence on me; these artists were also engaging the viewer on a level that was different from that of the artists of the ‘60s and I was intrigued, although somewhat confused and uncertain, about their use of relational aesthetics.

PM   Women in painting... In your experience, what is the significance of the women’s movement in art generally in this country? Has it influenced your attitudes as a painter, or do you ultimately believe that gender should not signify in the making and evaluation of systems-based work, or in fact any work that is not specifically political?  That, de facto, the work is ‘all ‘, regardless of gender assignment?

ND   It is my good fortune to be active at a time when I feel no prejudicial attitudes on that account - I have witnessed the change from that since I was a student. I am grateful to the women, more combative than myself, who have brought this about. I cannot say that I have at any time felt my sex to be relevant to my work, because that was not the material that I was interested in.

With the existence of categories of art, ranging from expressionism to minimalism, installation to performance, I do not see any need for specificity of sex to be rated as an art influence, though it might well be subject matter. The egalitarian nature of the creation of Constructivism seems to make that point, also the fact that, contrary to traditional opinion, systems and logic, supposedly male territory, have proved equally attractive to female artists.