Abstraction

When an Artist shares her Thoughts by Jeannine Cook

Reading Anne Truitt's Daybook; The Journal of an Artist underlines the subtle use of lines as a metaphor to depict how our lives evolve and change so imperceptibly.  The balance and intervals she uses in her drawings, such as her drawing, Remember No. 6 of 1999,  teach us all about the elegant possibilities of spareness in art.

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"Crossed Gazes" by Jeannine Cook

Obra Social "La Caixa", the cultural foundationbelonging to the Spanish bank, La Caixa, offers wonderful, often thought-provoking art exhibitions in its different venues throughout Spain.  In CaixaForum Palma, in the Balearic Islands, there is an interesting exhibition currently on display, "Crossed Gazes".

It is a selection of works owned by La Caixa Foundation and the MACBA Foundation from Barcelona. Realistic art from the 1950s and 60s is juxtaposed with abstract work from the 1980s and 90s. Theshow uses paintings, some sculpture and photographs to examine how artists saw the world during those decades and how they chose to express what they felt about their realities. There are works by artists as varied as Sigmund Polke and Anselm Kiefer, Joan Miro, Henri Michaux, Antoni Tapies or Philip Guston, Jean Dubuffet or Edouardo Chillida.Many photographs were included, often black and white (Brassai, Robert Frank or Xavier Miserachs for the earlier decades) and in colour, usually of huge format for the later decades (Andreas Gursky, Hiroshi Sugimoto or Thomas Struth amongst others).

I personally found the title of the exhibition a little ironic, as my reactions to the art, as I walked through the rooms, were those of someone with a personal set of "crossed gazes".  It so happened that the previous day, I had spent a magical day by myself in the countryside, working plein air, drawing and marvelling at the complex, expansive beauty of the countryside and the amazing abstractions within the natural world around me.  Abstractions of form in trees and their bark, the lay of the land, types of stones and their patterns – things which I found fascinating to observe.

Consequently, when I walked into the CaixaForum exhibition the following day and began to look hard at the works of art on display, I found myself getting almost claustrophobic.  The massive paintings of the  80s and 90s, the Kiefer, the Miquel Barcelo or the one by Juan Usle, bore down on me in a way I had not expected - they seemed airless and pretentious.  This surprised me as I usually find that particularly Barcelo's and Anselm Kiefer's work interest and often move me.  My reaction made me realise afresh that large paintings are not my favourite format - I relate far more comfortably to work of "human" size, works that are more intimate and draw one in to a closer look.  I think that we have been, and still are, living in an era when public spaces have required huge works of art, and somehow the intensity of such work is diluted and lost. My personal gaze finds that art on a smaller scale is often a far greater test of quality and veracity - bombast can cover a lot of sins, verbally or in art.

My disappointment - at myself especially - continued when I went on to the rooms covering the 50s and 60s.  There, the art was indeed of a more human scale, often quite small in size.  The photographs were full of impact, and also of historic interest, of course.  Nonetheless, the abstract art seemed a little disassociated from anything that I could relate to today; gone - thankfully - is the angst that the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War generated in artists who were striving to distance themselves from those particular awful realities.  There was, nonetheless, a feeling of almost desperate creativity in the work that seemed almost forced, a "we have got to do something totally different from anything done before" feeling.  In a way, that is always a sub-text of each decade in the art world - we all strive to be different and innovative.  However, the overall effect of my "crossed gazes" was somewhat depressing in that all these talented artists' works were just not "talking to me" that day!  

Philip Guston,  Untitled  (1968). and  Tower  (1968)

Philip Guston, Untitled (1968). and Tower (1968)

Philip Guston,

Yet there were truths in some of the work that resonate constantly.  One commentary, of three 1967 ink on paper drawings by Philip Guston - Mark, Edge and Horizon, interested me. They were very minimalist lines on paper, like the ones illustrated above, to some extent. However, the curator's commentary for them ran as follows (in Spanish and a mixture with my English translation):

La materia misma de la pintura - su pigmento y su espacio - se resiste mucho a la voluntad, se siente muy poco inclinado a reafirmar su plano y permanecer inmovil.  La pintura parece una imposibilidad, solamente con un signo de su propria luz de vez en cuando.  Lo cual seguramente se debe al estrecho pasaje entre el diagramar y ese otro estado, la corporeidad.  En este sentido, pintar es poseer, mas que imaginar.

The very essence of painting - its pigment and space - is so resistant to the will, so inclined to assert its plane and remain still.  Painting seems an impossibility, with only a sign now and then of its own light.  Which must be because of the short passage from being a diagram to that other state - taking physical shape. In this sense, to paint is to possess rather than to imagine. 

Concepts to ponder as I sort out my gaze from the "Crossed Gazes" of the exhibition.  Perhaps it means a return visit to the CaixaForum!

Approaching Paintings by Jeannine Cook

The Abstract Expressionist artist, Richard Poussette-Dart, once said, "Paintings are like people.  They must be approached, won friendship with, known and loved as people are, if they are to open up and reveal themselves."

When you look at his paintings, even in digital form, it is easy to understand why he said that.  His work is elegantly intellectual, each canvas well worth studying and embracing as a "friend".

Hieroglyph #2, Black   1974. (Image courtesy of The Estate of Richard Poussette-Dart.) 

Hieroglyph #2, Black  1974. (Image courtesy of The Estate of Richard Poussette-Dart.) 

This is just one image that caught my eye (since I seem to be attracted especially to work in black at present) - Hieroglyph #2, Black painted in 1974. I could imagine living very rewardingly with such a work.

The way we all approach paintings is conditioned on so many things, from our mood at the moment, to the time we have to look at a work of art, to our life experience and tastes and even the current fashions in art appreciation.  Nonetheless, I am sure that most people have rounded a corner in a gallery or museum and come face to face with a work which stops one short, calling out to come closer and look.  Just like catching sight of someone who attracts one's attention, pulling one out of the humdrum busy world, sending implicit messages that this person might be worth getting to know.  In truth, it does not even have to be an encounter with a work of art in a gallery: sometimes, on the Web or in a book, an image leaps out at one, saying that they are worthy of much closer attention and appreciation.

I was going back through the catalogue chapters prefacing an exhibition of Watercolours that I saw last year at Tate Britain, and suddenly saw a most beautiful reproduction of work by the British artist, Rebecca Salter. Again, her work demands a closer approach, to savour and learn of what each painting has to say, with its layers of allusion to Japanese art, light, texture, and our pared-down world.

Untitled AB4, 2010, mixed media on linen. Rebecca Salter (Image courtesy of teh artist)

Untitled AB4, 2010, mixed media on linen. Rebecca Salter (Image courtesy of teh artist)

In the same spirit of work on black, I chose this mixed media on linen painting from 2008, MM42, which talked to me (image courtesy of Rebecca Salter).  Its understated elegance attracts me enormously - and I am left regretful that I missed her show, Into the Light of Things 1981-2010", at the Yale Center for British Art last year.

The delight and interest of constantly acquiring "new friends" in works of art seem to one of the magical aspects of all art, of whatever period.  We are all potentially enriched when we open our eyes to art, in all forms - and in these times of angst, violence and division, I think we all need to concentrate on seeking new friends who can sustain and nourish our lives.

Abstract Organisation by Jeannine Cook

Thinking further about composition and the fact that the path to achieving a successful painting or drawing often takes one into abstraction reminded me of a quote that I had found by British painter, Royal Academician and art professor at St. Martins, Frederick Gore. He was writing about abstract art back in the mid-fifties, rather against the tide of art in England at the time. He remarked, "The meaning of a figurative work of art lies in its abstract organisation."

Late Evening Looking towards the Crau,  Frederick Gore (image courtesy of John Adams Fine Art Ltd.)

Late Evening Looking towards the Crau, Frederick Gore (image courtesy of John Adams Fine Art Ltd.)

During his long and productive life, Gore produced a huge body of work, often working en plein air, and frequently travelling to different parts of the Mediterranean region. It is interesting to look at examples of his work to see how he used abstract organisation to compose his paintings, and thus allow their meaning and impact to be strengthened.

Above, Late Evening Looking towards the Crau shows this abstract underpinning: wedge shapes are counterbalanced by thrusting mounds that echo each other through the painting, each shape linking in subtle fashion with the next.

Paysage du Luberon,  Frederick Gore, (image courtesy of Charlotte Bowskill Fine Art)

Paysage du Luberon, Frederick Gore, (image courtesy of Charlotte Bowskill Fine Art)

Paysage du Luberon, another painting done in France (image courtesy of Charlotte Bowskill Fine Art), shows the same strong abstract organisation. Gore used not only the different shapes to form an abstract pattern but he used colour to lead the eye through the picture. This painting is a wonderful example of what American watercolour artist and teacher, Edgar Whitney, always talked about, namely, that a strong shape in a painting is "irregular, unpredictable and oblique".

Puig Mayor from Fornalutx, near Soller,  1958, Frdereick Gore, (image courtesy of the British Government Art Collection)

Puig Mayor from Fornalutx, near Soller, 1958, Frdereick Gore, (image courtesy of the British Government Art Collection)

Another painting, done in Mallorca of Puig Mayor from Fornalutx, near Soller, uses the shapes of the olive trees to organise the painting, with the distant mountains echoing the clumps of trees. As a counterbalance, Gore used the wonderful orange-yellow-russet fields to pull one through the whole composition.

Landscape near Deya  1958, Frederick Gore,(image courtesy of the British Government Art Collection)

Landscape near Deya 1958, Frederick Gore,(image courtesy of the British Government Art Collection)

In an even more brilliant depiction of Mallorca, also done in 1958, Frederick Gore painted this Landscape near Deya. He organised the canvas into four main abstract forms and one smaller one, always a powerful way of dealing with a composition. The olive trees again lead one into and around the painting. The abstraction allows total coherency in what Gore was meaning to say about this hot, sunlit Mediterranean mountainside.

On a more personal note, I always love seeing how other artists respond to the landscapes of Mallorca, an island I know and love deeply. Despite the more than fifty years since these two paintings were done, this part of Mallorca is not that dramatically changed, something to be celebrated.

Frederick Gore certainly put into personal practice what he advocated. It is good to remind oneself of how to organise an eloquent, powerful work of art through abstraction.

Stumbling on Beauty by Jeannine Cook

Once in a while, in one of the art newsletters that I receive, I read something that really piques my interest. That happened today in a newsletter that I get periodically from Australia, ArtHIVES. There was an announcement about an artist now living in Brisbane who is short-listed for an art prize in Albany, Western Australia - Nicola Moss.

Looking at her website, and reading her comments about creating some of this beautiful art was rewarding. Not only does she create very sophisticated and compelling paintings, but her observations about the intricacies and fascinations of the natural world in which she works really resonate with me. Her concern for the viability of the natural environment in its tug of war with urban construction seems to underlie a lot of what she does. In her blog, "Layers of Life", she talks too of the time she spends working plein air. All artists seem to deal with the same elations and difficulties when working outdoors, no matter in what country. Nicola clearly has an eye for the small, subtle and elegant as she explores the amazing Australian biodiversity. Nonetheless, her resultant paintings are universal in their appeal.

It is worth going through the links to her website and clicking on the galleries to see her work. Nonetheless, thanks to Nicola Moss, I stumbled on a series of beautiful paintings today.

This Spring and the Next, Nicola Moss artist (Image courtesy of the artist)

This Spring and the Next, Nicola Moss artist (Image courtesy of the artist)

I walked along the water's edge – Magic happens here, Nicola Moss artist (Image courtesy of the artist)

I walked along the water's edge – Magic happens here, Nicola Moss artist (Image courtesy of the artist)

"Art – in every lane" by Jeannine Cook

It is always fascinating to discover the wellspring of artists' sources and inspiration. John Constable once remarked, "My limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge and in every lane, and therefore nobody thinks it worth picking up."

Plants by a Wall, 1825, John Constable  - Not even "under a hedge"!

Plants by a Wall, 1825, John Constable  - Not even "under a hedge"!

It is somewhat amazing to realise that he described his art as "limited and abstracted". If you look at a wide array of his paintings in oil and watercolour and his drawings, on a site such as John Constable.org , the overwhelming impression is his close, detailed attention to the flat, wide world of East Anglia and even beyond to the sea when he was staying at Brighton.  His studies, when working en plein air, are wonderful in their atmospheric evocation and detailed information.

Seascape Study with Rain Cloud, 1824, John Constable

Seascape Study with Rain Cloud, 1824, John Constable

Barges on the Stour, with Dedham Church in the Distance, 1811, John Constable

Barges on the Stour, with Dedham Church in the Distance, 1811, John Constable

Suffolk, where he was born and mostly lived, is open to the blustery winds off the North Sea, with clouds banks shadowing the wide fields, tree-lined lanes and stretches of water (such as the Water Meadows near Salisbury). Constable never forgot his rural surroundings, but he certainly did not show them to be limited. Abstracted, maybe, but not in the sense we tend to use "abstraction" today.

Water-meadows near Salisbury, Oil painting, 1820 or 1829 (Image courtesy of the V & A Museum, London)

Water-meadows near Salisbury, Oil painting, 1820 or 1829 (Image courtesy of the V & A Museum, London)

I find that it is indeed rewarding to go for a walk in our quiet neighbourhood along the riverside and by the marshes. Here too, there are always sources of ideas for drawings and paintings, and even though I know the area very well, the changes of season and light make everything fresh each time. And whilst it may be something that no one else notices, I find myself getting all excited about different things and views.

Along our sandy lane is an endless fascination for me: the remains of a cedar tree, clearly once a mighty seer, but now sinews and lace that become a myriad abstractions.

Cedar Remains, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Cedar Remains, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

I keep drawing different portions of it in silverpoint . At left is one version of my "art – in the lane" abstraction, "Cedar Remains". Below is a smaller drawing I have done from the same cedar skeleton of "Cedar Lace", also in silverpoint which I am donating to the Newhall Art Collection, at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, England, for their fund-raising auction in February-March. It should be up on their website in February.

Cedar Lace, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Cedar Lace, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Constable was indeed wise when he went seeking his art "under every hedge and in every lane". We have all benefited ever since.

Curiosity by Jeannine Cook

One of the aspects of the Telfair Museums' exhibition, Modern Masters. American Abstraction at Midcentury, that I found very stimulating was the quotes from each artist on the labels beside their paintings or sculpture. They were not only well-chosen, but in of themselves, they are thought-provoking and insightful.

An example of these quotes is one that accompanies the painting, Sea Image, by TheodorosStamos (1922-1997).

Sea Image , (Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum) by  TheodorosStamos

Sea Image, (Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum) by TheodorosStamos

This early Abstract Expressionist New Yorker wrote, "Nature is so vast, with so many moods and the ocean is so large and every wave is infinite. And as long as we have the curiosity of children (and sometimes we have to be children), discovery is not only possible, but indispensable".

The need for curiosity is, I am convinced, absolutely central to life for everyone, but especially for an artist. Not only is it rewarding to find out about how something works, or is put together, or what it is made of, how it smells and feels, but also, this knowledge gives depth and distance to everything in life. Such insights help us determine what we want to paint or draw, how we want to portray things (whether realistically, abstractly, in two or three dimensions, in film, paint, video, whatever...) and why we are moved to do so. Every single day - ideally - should bring new knowledge, fresh enrichment and stimulation, more possibilities for fun and fascination.

Two curious kittens sniff out a tortoise. I(mage courtesy of Life.com )

Two curious kittens sniff out a tortoise. I(mage courtesy of Life.com)

Watching a kitten explore its world is a perfect metaphor for this curiosity. Everything is new and worth investigating, exploring, evaluating. We artists can be as bright-eyed and curious as any feline. It pays off too!

 

"No duality, everything is nature" by Jeannine Cook

There is a wide-ranging and fascinating exhibition currently on show at Savannah's Telfair Museums, at the Jepson Center, entitled Modern Masters. American Abstraction at Midcentury". With works from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the explosive diversity of art made during the mid-20th century in America is celebrated with forty-three key paintings and sculptures. The exhibition is travelling the country for four years, and it will remain on display at the Jepson until February 6th, 2011.

It is a show worth visiting several times, because of its diversity and density. Not only are there canvases by stellar artists to contemplate and appreciate, but there are some fascinating sculptures that I found most arresting.

One of them, "Banquet", shown courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, stopped me in my tracks with its multi-layered knobbly forms and metal alloys that evoke stalagmites or primitive corals. It is by an artist with whom I was unfamiliar, Ibram Lassaw (1913-2003).

Ibram Lassaw,  Banquet , 1961, bronze, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Ibram Lassaw,  Banquet , 1961, bronze, Smithsonian American Art Museum,

Ibram Lassaw, Banquet, 1961, bronze, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Ibram Lassaw, Banquet, 1961, bronze, Smithsonian American Art Museum,

(As an aside, I find that being a permanent newcomer to every place I have lived in Europe and North America since I had to leave my home in East Africa, I am constantly having to "catch up" on art, law, history, society in general – It is a humbling but exhilarating situation!)

But back to Ibram Lassaw. He too was an immigrant, from Egypt, working in New York as an artist from the 1920s; he became an active participant in the avant-garde art world and was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists. He learned to weld while serving in the US Army during World War II, and continued experimenting with ideas and materials for the next two decades. He fused his ideas on art-making with concepts derived from extensive and catholic reading to reach a philosophy about the holistic nature of the universe and all that is contained therein. He suddenly had an artistic breakthrough in the 1950s, and began to create complex structures that evoked nature in many forms, cosmic and microcosmic.

He said that everything is nature, "every atom that makes me up is nature". He wrote, "I am constantly absorbed by things that are going on around me, the motion of people in the streets, the movement of clouds, the patterns of branches. There is no duality, everything is nature."

It was obvious from the work, "Banquet" that he was fusing ideas about many aspects of life and nature in this work, to achieve a delicate complex work that rewards with careful inspection and contemplation. What I found so interesting, however, was one of those delicious coincidences that occurs: soon afterwards, I saw a re-broadcast on PBS of Hunting the Hidden Dimension. The Most Famous Fractal about the late Benoit Mandelbrot's wonderful mathematical way of describing the "roughness" he saw all around him in nature. Before Mandelbrot, artists had indeed seen the "self-similarity" and "roughness" in nature, but mathematicians had considered these jagged, self-repeating shapes unmeasurable. Mandelbrot introduced fractals, the concept of another dimension, a fractal dimension, that lay between two and three dimensions. This dimension allows for mathematical measurements and thus, amongst other things, a deeper understanding of self-similarity - the endless repetition of stalks of broccoli, trunks to branches to twigs on a tree and its leaves.

As an example, the image below is that of a high voltage dielectric breakdown within a block of plexiglass - it creates a beautiful fractal pattern called a Lichtenberg figure. The branching discharges ultimately become hair-like but are thought to extend down to the molecular level. (Bert Hickman. http://www.teslamania.com/)

12" block - Captured Lightning scupture (Image courtesy of Theodore Gray)

12" block - Captured Lightning scupture (Image courtesy of Theodore Gray)

Lassaw's "Banquet", created in 1961, was in many ways an early evocation of the same wonderful complexity that nature offers, everywhere, all the time.

These happy coincidences are what I love about seeing an art exhibition. There is always some work of art that makes one more aware, more able to make connections and add new, rich dimensions to life. What fun!

Playing in art - revisited by Jeannine Cook

I talked in an earlier blog about the insights into the value of play in our daily lives and the role that play has in allowing artists to develop and create. I was reflecting again on the way artists can play in creating art, and realised that there is another aspect to this activity of play.

When I am drawing or painting, a private game that I play with myself is seeing how I can convey the essence of my perceived reality - be it landscape, flower, person - with the minimum of lines (in drawing) or colour (in painting). I try to distill the subject to the absolute minimum of detail which still allows the viewer to recognise (more or less!) what is being portrayed. Each work is an endlessly interesting challenge in this respect. Organising abstraction as visual elements that convey reality is really a game to see how best one can succeed in minimalist depiction of the subject matter. Artists have done this since time immemorial - think of the essence of bison galloping across the walls of Altamira or the aurochs of Lascaux. Dolphins cavorting across the frescoed walls of Minoan palaces and octupii reaching around their painted ceramic jars come to mind too. In all these cases, the imagery is distilled and organised almost to the point of abstraction, yet utter realism results - powerful, arresting and memorable.

Altamira Caves, rupestrian art

Altamira Caves, rupestrian art

Dolphin Fresco, Knossos, Late Minoan Period (ca. 1500 BC)

Dolphin Fresco, Knossos, Late Minoan Period (ca. 1500 BC)

Old Masters, from Renaissance times onwards, also skilfully selected and simplified design elements to make their compositions more successful and beautiful. They used the abstraction of closely related values joined together in massed forms, which allowed the viewer's eye to be led to the focal points which are depicted realistically. Abstraction was certainly not the "invention" of the 20th century. If you carefully study any good drawing or painting, of no matter what era, that is purportedly realistic, you can see all sorts of amazing elisions, squiggles, blobs and lines that seem to have nothing to do specifically with the subject being depicted. Yet, when looked at as a whole, the art is convincing. I am sure, too, that the artist was probably having fun and enjoying playing as the work progressed.