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

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The Social Bases of Abstract Art, UpDown Gallery, Ramsgate

4 October – 15 November 2014

A review by Charley Peters

The artists in The Social Bases of Abstract Art were grouped thematically rather than through their formal or theoretical concerns, in order to emphasise the social bases of their creation. This provided a rich experience of aesthetic sensibilities, and much to debate throughout the exhibition. However, the Systems section felt more prescriptive, providing more of a historical survey of work by the Systems Group. This narrow focus was surprising, given the more flexible interpretation of the key themes in other sections. I felt that, in the wider context of the exhibition, an expanded definition of ‘systems’ might have suggested, for example, that a ‘systems aesthetic’ as defined by Jack Burnham has a different meaning to the systems employed rationally by the Systems Group. Despite my initial niggles over this conceptual narrowing, the Systems section included many great recent examples of work by Peter Lowe, including an untitled silkscreen from 2004 of dynamic overlapping geometric forms. Interestingly, Lowe has documented his decision to leave the Systems Group as being due to political disagreements, maintaining that his work was engaged in apolitical visual research, which was at odds with his colleagues’ views that all acts were political and that, therefore, art was a vehicle for ideology. This makes him an interesting choice for inclusion in this exhibition, perhaps again reinforcing an uncomfortable definition of ‘systems’ on aesthetic or historical terms.

Other works in the exhibition seemed less confident in their use of an abstract language; David Batchelor’s Urban Monochromes felt more like a disposable one-liner than part of a serious dialogue about abstraction.  Although fitting snugly into the Urban Environment section of the exhibition, they lacked the presence of Robyn Denny’s hard-edged Outline 1 or Cedric Christie’s You Have More Reason than Me, a sculptural construction of scaffolding poles resting awkwardly on the gallery floor like a fallen crucifix. Danny Rolph’s work presented a fragmented vision of urbanity and appeared in both the Urban Environment and Materials sections of The Social Bases of Abstract Art. I often find Rolph’s work exhausting; a layered amalgamation of colour, shape and pop culture references. It lacks the refinement of the well-paced collage works by John Bunker, whose seemingly disorganised surfaces and grimy collaged waste materials were subtly composed to re-present London street detritus as form.

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, 2011, Plate 38, Poor Monuments, http://worthsomewords.blogspotcom/2011/05 /photos-from-afghanistan.html, Work on paper, 24cm x 29cm

It feels like there is nothing new about seeing abstraction in art as a reaction to the radical transformations of the 20th century, from emerging technologies and advances in science and philosophy to new political theories, but Wiedel-Kaufmann, presumably considering abstract art in purely contemporary terms, sees it as remaining “an elusive and contradictory field prone to insular myth-making and obfuscation”. In order to illustrate the central proposition of the exhibition, it was organised into five broad themes: History, Materials, Urban Environment, Nature and Systems.

Robyn Denny, Out-line 1, 1962, oil on canvas, 152.4 x 121.9 cm

The Social Bases of Abstract Art was a thoughtful show,that in places raised more questions than it answered. Its ambitious proposition could have easily translated to a larger museum show; the graceful hang in UpDown Gallery did not really allow the inclusion of enough work to fully explore or illustrate the curator’s intention. Moreover, this feels like a timely step in the direction of looking at the role, form and conceptualisation of abstraction within a contemporary discourse,  post-Wars on Terror and in a (post)-internet age. As such, it is probably right that it lacks the fixed definitions of abstraction that we might be used to, exemplified by Wiedel-Kaufmann’s choices of work in which abstraction and figuration go in and out of focus in a fluid dialogue. I would recommend reading Wiedel-Kaufmann’s illuminating accompanying essay to the exhibition, to gain a greater appreciation of the project, which can be found here:

Jeffrey Steele, Sytagma Sg IV 96, 2003, ink and tempera on paper,12 x 16 ins

Curated by writer and art historian Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann, The Social Bases of Abstract Art presented what the press release described as an ‘unconventional’ look at British abstraction over the past 50 years. The fundamental thesis of this academic and reflective exhibition was to restate the presence of social referents in the conceptualisation of recent abstraction. Wiedel-Kaufmann’s fundamental proposition was derived from two essays, published in the 1930s, by art historian Meyer Schapiro: The Social Bases of Art (1936), and Nature of Abstract Art (1937). The exhibition re-imagined Shapiro’s methodology as a contemporary discourse, seemingly locating abstraction in a post-9/11, post-recession, post-internet position, and working away from what Schapiro describes as an abstraction of “internal, immanent process among the artists in favour of an abstract art that ‘bears within itself at almost every point the mark of the changing material and psychological conditions surrounding modern culture” (Meyer Shapiro, Nature of Abstract Art, 1937).

Peter Lowe, Untitled, 2004, From 25 per Paolo Minoli, Silkscreen

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

The remit of Saturation Point leads me to focus more specifically on work of a reductive, geometric or systems-based aesthetic methodology, so naturally some works in The Social Bases of Abstract Art seem more relevant to discuss than others. But despite these editorial considerations, I would state that the History section of the exhibition provided an excellent start to Wiedel-Kaufmann’s proposal. Providing a reading of the work of Gary Wragg, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, and Piers Secunda, in the context of a world existing post-‘wars on terror’, this opening section extended the lineage of abstraction’s relationship to war; from the Futurists’ love of the destructive technologies of war as a means to recreate the world, to Abstract Expressionism’s quest to reinvent the post-war world. I was reminded of the words of Barnett Newman: “After the monstrosity of the war, what do we do? What is there to paint? We have to start all over again.” So what if abstraction had to start all over again now. What would it look like and/or how would it be made? In Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s War Monuments, abstraction becomes a lack, or absence, of form and not a material object. Each print in the War Monuments series was taken from a 1930s book of photos and texts accumulated by Bertold Brecht, called the War Primer, in which Brecht assembled newspaper and magazine images with their original news titles underneath. Broomberg and Chanarin repeated this exercise but then overlaid and obscured a part of each War Primer print with a transparent red rectangle. The works’ titles relate to an image from the Iraq War, rather than the original Brecht WWII image shown, the Iraq War images being found by following the web links provided in the titles. Some of the works in The Social Bases of Abstract Art could be critiqued for not being ‘abstract’ enough, Broomberg and Chanarin’s amongst them. However, the inclusion of War Monuments, for me, felt like a serious attempt at looking at what abstraction could be today – not as a post-internet alternative to the materiality of painting and sculpture, but as a line of investigation that runs alongside it, acknowledging that we exist in a world where, more often than not, we see multiple virtual images of artworks (and similarly, historical events) without ever seeing the original source.

Jeffrey Steele’s presence is easier to understand, given his alignment to Marxist ideologies and his recent belief in a ‘deeper emancipatory social function for art’, and his 2003 ink and tempera drawing Sytagma Sg IV 96 is a brilliant example of a rational aesthetic played out through its flawless execution. Given the tightness of the definition of Systems - and the wholly elegant selection of work - in this section of the show, the only moment of slight curatorial clumsiness was the inclusion of Andrew Bick’s OGVDS-GW [again] WTF. Although Bick has a well-documented academic interest in the Systems Group, any systems employed in his own work remain hidden below a confusion of subjectively-applied layers of paints, pencil and plastics. As the only work in the thematic section generated outside the immediacy of the Systems Group members, Bick’s work felt rather ill at ease.