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Somewhat Abstract at Nottingham Contemporary: a review by Andy Parkinson , April 2014
The exhibition Somewhat Abstract, drawn from The Arts Council’s national collection, on view at Nottingham Contemporary until 29 June 2014, is abstract to varying degrees, and in a variety of ways. After all, both the following statements hold true: “all art is abstract” and “there is no such thing as abstract art”. Hence, the show’s curator, Alex Farquharson, can say of abstract art that it “is many things, if it can be said to exist at all”.
In the gallery notes we get an excellent discussion of the multiple relationships to the abstract characterised in the show (see fig 1), from work that is downright figurative but that either “verges on the abstract” or that “could not have been made without the knowledge of it” to the work of proponents of ‘pure’ abstraction like Kenneth Martin. There’s the suggestion that even the exemplars of abstraction like Anthony Caro, Bridget Riley and John Hoyland, are more connected to the ‘real world’ than we might once have allowed. I find this argument to be much more convincing in relation to Hepworth, Clough and Paolozzi than I do for Caro, Riley and Hoyland. The reference to landscape made for Hoyland’s magnificent Red Over Yellow, 18.9.73, seems somewhat spurious. The point being made is that the most abstract art may be more figurative than we think and that the old distinction between abstraction and figuration is no longer relevant. Certainly there’s a strong case for seeing ‘nature’ in the most abstract of works, if more in the sense of “the pattern that connects” to quote Gregory Bateson ; or in Bridget Riley’s own words: “I draw from nature, I work with nature, although in completely new terms. For me nature is not landscape, but the dynamism of visual forces – an event rather than an appearance”. So whilst there is a deep connection with nature, the work doesn’t become ‘figurative’, as Riley goes on to say: “These forces can only be tackled by treating colour and form as ultimate identities, freeing them from all descriptive or functional roles.”
The experience of looking becomes the experience of doubting my senses and then of starting to become conscious of my own process of ‘map making’, at the point just before my own linguistic abstractions start to come into play, which they do almost immediately and I get into a conversation with myself about what’s going on. At this second stage, I am a further step removed from direct experience, commenting upon it and adding meanings. These are my own processes of abstracting: the abstractions of thought.
This exhibition brings to awareness the many uses of the word ‘abstract’ in art, in thought and in life. It’s as visually interesting as its scope is ambitious, and I know I will be revisiting it many times.
Artists include Tomma Abts, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, David Batchelor, Karla Black, Peter Blake, Zarina Bhimji, Anthony Caro, Helen Chadwick, Prunella Clough, Richard Deacon, Jeremy Deller, Barry Flanagan, Elizabeth Frink, Gilbert and George, Barbara Hepworth, Yoko Ono, Eduardo Paolozzi, Bridget Riley, Walter Sickert, Wolfgang Tillmans, Mark Wallinger, Cathy Wilkes and Rachel Whiteread.
 From The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley, Collected Writings 1965 – 2009, edited by Robert Kudielka, p 110
 See Kenneth Martin: Construction from Within, in The Tradition of Constructivism, edited by Stephen Bann 1974, reprinted 1990
Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares, 1962. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London (c) Bridget Riley 2014. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London
My friend suggests that, with so many outstanding works here, it’s difficult to find
one that “stands out”. However, for me, the star of the show is Bridget Riley’s 1962
black and white painting, Movement in Squares. I keep coming back to it for another
look, and even back at home much later, I can’t get it out of my head (a non-
Daniel Sinsel, Untitled, 2012. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. (c) the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London
There’s a strange abstract/figurative relationship in Daniel Sinsel‘s beautifully
executed Untitled, where the more realistic the image the more abstract it appears.
Perhaps this is the result of the close harmony of form and content, a flattened
Alexis Harding, Untitled, 1995, oil and gloss on canvas. Image by courtesy of Mummery + Schnelle
The untitled painting here by Alexis Harding is also modest in scale, without quite
the intimacy of Abts, looks like it is in the process of decomposing. The impression
I have is that the materials have reacted with each other in an unstable way, the
abstract grid becoming wonky, out of control in the centre, now resembling a figurative,
Tomma Abts, Heit, 2011. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. Photo: Marcus Leith. Courtesy of greengrassi, London
The paintings of Tomma Abts, one of the new generation of abstract artists, recall
the constructivist tradition. The contemporary resurgence of abstraction in painting
and sculpture is acknowledged in the gallery notes, finding a distinct contrast between
the abstract art of the middle half of the twentieth century and that of today, the
Viewing Kenneth Martin’s Endless Configuration, 1964, oil on board. (My snapshot)
There are also works that specifically reference abstraction, a relatively new phenomenon
in my book, because whilst there have always been “paintings of paintings” and references
to art of the past, the paradoxical referencing of a class seems to me to be a postmodern
invention. Its power comes from a deliberate confusion of logical types. Abstract
Perhaps this failure was reflected in the choice by artists such as Kenneth Martin,
of a specifically non-
Fig.1 Relationships to abstraction
©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock All rights reserved.