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Jay McCauley BowsteadJay McCauley Bowstead2

Me Reading at Battersea

We launched ARK: Words and Images from the Royal College of Art Magazine 1950-1978 with a party at RCA Battersea including readings and presentations. The book is an anthology of articles from the original ARK magazine featuring new introductory essays and some beautiful and enticing imagery (including all the covers of the original magazine during its three decade run). You can find a version of my essay ARK Magazine from Cover to Cover – though sadly without the images – in a previous post.

Link to Book

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The Sea

Text: Jay McCauley Bowstead 2013

Sparkling, luminescent rhomboid reflections, systematised impressionism, deconstructed pointillism. Like atoms in crystalline formation melting into liquid they seem to swim – the lights of the city reflected on a skin of water – phthalo-green, oxide of chrome, raw sienna, then ochre, tints of scarlet and a litany of intense, transcendent blues: cobalt, cerulean, Prussian … bright and sombre hues, tertiary colours, tints and neutrals. The painting is Nataraja (1993) by Bridget Riley.

Bridget Riley’s paintings from the late 1960s onwards often seem to evoke the sea, most obviously in her frequent use of curvilinear motifs, but more importantly, in the effects of light and colour which she so meticulously constructs. In Coloured Greys 3 of 1972 one simultaneously has the impression of depth and of surface. The qualities of colour-tone are so exquisitely subtle in their transition from neutral-blue to grey-green to warm-grey, that the change is scarcely perceptible, giving one at first only the impression of shadowy movement.

ImageRiley’s works ostensibly possess a certain distance, a coolness, in their scrupulous precision. But there is an energy and dynamism to her painting which beneath its taut surface is endowed with a virile power. Unlike many of the artists she admires and with whom she shares an affinity – Klee, Cezanne, Matisse, and Monet – she rejects painterly technique, the evidence of the hand and brush that so obviously connect the viewer to the artist. Whereas these painters express an immediacy in their use of mark, stroke, and gesture, Riley’s works communicate their potency via tense composition, chromatic relationships that seem ready to explode or collapse and formal play creating undulating, swimming canvases. To describe Riley’s work as oceanic might at first glance seem counter-intuitive, diametrically opposed to the tricksy virtuosity of Turner’s more famously pelagic oeuvre. But while Turner’s immersive, elemental atmosphere is informed by an essentially Romantic sensibility, Riley evokes the natural world in a more 20th century mode: dynamic molecular structures and photons in flight. Accordingly, paintings such as Cateract (1967) and Entice (1974) compel not through immersion in a maritime scene, but instead, submerge us in the sea itself revealing the currents and forces that lie beneath its glittering surface.

The sea is a perfect object of contemplation for an abstract painter almost an abstract medium in itself, resistant to sign or motif. For this reason, the effort of representing the ocean is expended in capturing its movement, its opaque depth, reflective skin, and translucent glow. And while Riley’s work doesn’t represent nature, in the conventional pictorial sense, its presence is clearly felt in her treatment of colour, tone and plasticity of form. This sensitivity to landscape is evident in the vivid and thoughtful descriptions which characterise Riley’s own reflections on her life and work:

‘I spent most of my childhood in Cornwall … In many ways there wasn’t much to do, except walking on the cliffs and looking at the seas, the skies all around … although one may go the same way, it never looks the same. If you walk with the sun behind you all the colours are fully saturated the sky is solid blue’ (Riley 1999: 44)

The Sublime

Image

In Evoë (2003) animated waves of turquoise-green lap against tints of pink- violet, and ultramarine. Traveling rhythmically forward and back, a sinuous geometry of tessellating forms arranges itself in a dynamic play of light and colour. It is a work that transports me away from London’s sombre skies to a distant coast, the translucent sea reflecting a brilliant cerulean sky. More precisely, the painting replicates the feeling of freedom such a scene would create: analytical responses giving way to emotional and instinctive ones as if floating in buoyant water. Riley’s ability to stimulate intense sensory effects is integral to the power of her painting in which affective, aesthetic and formal elements are inextricably linked. As she describes herself:

‘My Paintings are, of course, concerned with generating visual sensations, but certainly not to the exclusion of emotion. One of my aims is that these two responses shall be experienced as one and the same.’ (Riley 1999: 79)

Certain works of art as divergent as the jewel-like stained glass in Sainte Chapelle, Monet’s paintings of Giverny, and Riley’s pulsating canvases provoke in their intense chromatic effects an overwhelmingly emotional response. This feeling of transcendence through art is one I associate most strongly with Paris and its wonderful galleries of late 19th Century and early 20th Century painting. For me, the most precise artistic comparison for the experience of viewing Riley’s work is found in Monet whose paintings often possess a similarly aquatic quality. Walking through Riley’s 2003 retrospective at the Tate, I was reminded of the large paintings of Monet’s garden exhibited at the Orangerie, whose fog of brushstrokes; blue, viridian, violet and magenta capture an aqueous, amphibious world. As with his huge curved canvases, Riley’s paintings seemed capable of swallowing me whole and transporting me elsewhere.

This notion of being overwhelmed by a superior force is my ideal of artistic appreciation, but in my desire for transcendence and catharsis I am at odds with a more Brechtian conception of art which privileges emotional distance as a prerequisite for intellectual engagement. I would argue, however, that this compartmentalisation of experience is problematic, implying that we can somehow absent our subjective selves from the experience of viewing a work of art. Worse, it seems to involve a denial of what it is to be fully human and to experience the full gamut of emotions. Why, after all, should an emotional response preclude an intellectual one?

In fact, the dynamic effects of Riley’s paintings exist within the context of a precise, highly informed, and even academic approach, their transporting effects the result of assiduous formal experimentation. In this way, it is possible to appreciate Riley’s work both analytically and instinctively: Her work is at once a meditation upon qualities of light, sea and landscape and a response to the history of modernist painting as practiced by Seurat, Cezanne, Matisse and the American abstract expressionists. Indeed, so much of the history of painting, is an attempt to capture light and colour – refracted particles of air and water – and through this process to reflect something of the transcendence of the natural world.

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The watery nature of Riley’s work seems to have received little attention but it hides very much in plain sight, her titles including Reef, Sea Cloud, Reflection, and Lagoon. If Riley’s sensibility was coloured by her childhood by the sea, I wonder if my own aesthetic feelings have a similar basis. I have a vivid memory of standing on one of the top floors of Eastham College where my Father taught, an amazing pink and turquoise sunset glowing over East London refracted in the dense particulate-laden air.

Reading Kant’s Critique of Judgement as a preparation for writing this piece, it struck me that my sense of aesthetics is based almost exclusively on a physical and emotional response to the world around me. As he suggests:

Beauty has purport and significance only for human beings, i.e. for beings at once animal and rational (but not merely for them as rational beings—as spirits for example—but only for them as both animal and rational)’ (Kant trans. Meredith 2007: 41)

It’s a statement that rings true; we feel beauty when we see it, not merely as an intellectual or cultural response but as a visceral emotion. But unlike Kant I’m unable to delineate the sublime, the transcendent, or the beautiful with any empirical confidence. Nor am I able to describe where such phenomena would lie, whether in my cognition, or in a quality inherent to the object of beauty. Nevertheless, there is something particular to the quality of light and colour in certain spaces and works of art that provides such an intense sensory experience that it transports me. To stand before one of Bridget Riley’s paintings is to allow oneself to be swept away, submerged in the aqueous nature of her curvilinear forms, dancing liquid hues, and sparkling vibrating geometry.

References:

Bridget Riley, The Eye’s Mind: Collected Writings 1965-1999 (Edited Robert Kudielka), Thames and Hudson, 1999, London.

Immanuel Kant, Translated By James Creed Meredith, Oxford University Press, 2007, Oxford.

This post discusses the exhibition Glorious Estate which deals with ideas around the built-environment, found objects, alternative ways of living, and the legacy of utopian architecture. First published by Allotrope Editions 2012.

A. C. StephensC. Wright

At Bruno Glint Gallery the visitor becomes an anthropologist. Entering the cobbled mews and climbing a rusty staircase, we come across a space transformed. Fetishes of some post-apocalyptic society cover the walls, a mysterious structure of unknown ritual-use stands in our midst. This is ‘Glorious Estate’, the gallery’s latest exhibition, in which artists Anna Chrystal Stephens, Keef Winter, and Carla Wright explore late-modernity through its physical detritus.

Keef Winter’s sculpture of plywood, pine, industrial insulation and black plastic film is a combination of precision and roughness. The piece is composed of three hinged panels, one of which features triangular facets forming an irregular, upturned pyramid. In contrast, the other panels of the sculpture are made up of dented industrial foam and ply. The resultant form, roughly L-shaped, is inscribed with stains and roughly painted here and there. It is at once a refined exploration of three-dimensions and a piece of chaotic maverick DIY.

Like Winter, Anna Chrystal Stephens adopts an expressive somewhat anarchistic approach to construction, and her wall-mounted assemblages are built from a variety of found materials. In ‘Survivalism’ patterned textiles are stretched over frames to form screens, the apparently haphazard combination of materials evoking the structures of refugee camps or new-age settlements. Attached to this, a pole supports a totem of tangled wire adorned with bright, synthetic-string. A length of silk draped over the totem partially obscures it, perhaps an act of deference to its mystic power. Stephens’ two other pieces also feature silk digitally-printed with images of twigs and plastic stacking boxes. There is a sense of subversion in the combination of a material associated with luxury and objects that are normally considered too mundane to be worthy of notice.

In Carla Wright’s works a certain clarity of form, geometry and use of materials (including safety glass and oak) combine in an unmistakeable reference to modernism. It is a particularly English type of mid-20th Century sentiment that brings to mind Eric Lyons’ ‘Span Housing’, Denys Lasdun, and Ercol furniture. The translation of these icons of utility into pure aesthetic objects could be read as an implicit critique of their practical value, although there is something simultaneously celebratory in the elegant lines of Wright’s sculptures notably in ‘Concerns of the living interacting with the dead stuff of buildings’.

Discarded materials are transformed into objects of veneration in an exhibition which at its core, is an exploration of ideology. The notion of planned modernity is evoked in references to the stark edifices of modernist architecture, while the utopianism of the commune is explored in the work of Anna Chrystal Stephens. But despite this optimism (or perhaps in reaction to it) the spectres of industrial decline haunt the show, a malevolent dystopian spirit amongst the fragile beauty of the art objects. In the dialectic of modernity versus anti-modernity, and industrially produced versus handmade, the exhibition explores the shifting ground of design practice in the 20th and 21st centuries. More than the art object in contemporary discourse, it is the contested nature of the design object and of industrial production which forms the basis of this show. In that sense, it is a ‘To the Finland Station’ (Wilson 1940) of visual culture, exploring the trajectory of progressive applied art, but pointing out the limitations, romanticism and ultimate naivety of the doctrines that prevailed.

Jay McCauley Bowstead, Allotrope 2012.

Link to publication

The Freud Museum’s current exhibition of video works by artists Mieke Bal and Michelle Williams Gamaker is entitled, rather cryptically, Saying It *. The exhibition features a range of video works displayed among the artefacts of the museum. Exploring themes of psychiatry, institutionalisation and (in my interpretation) the performance of gender, these pieces inhabit an ambiguous territory, at once reflecting and critiquing Freud’s seminal theories.

What is now the Freud Museum, a large but externally pretty ordinary suburban detached house in Hampstead, was the former home of Sigmund Freud and his immediate family*. It was the bolthole to which the Freuds fled in 1938 from Nazi annexed Austria. Despite their perilously late escape the Freuds were able to ship across the contents of the Vienna study, and so the ground-storey of the house (a corner of 1920s suburbia) is transformed incongruously into a fin de siècle, bohemian, Mitteleuropean milieu: Exotic ritual objects are sandwiched against heavy 19th century furnishings, chaises longues are draped in ornate tapestries; there are Ottoman and Persian brocades; endless urns, Egyptian statuettes and curios of every kind. Into this heady mix the video pieces of Mieke Bal and Michelle Williams Gamaker make their own curious interjection.

In my view, the installation of these video pieces was one of the strongest aspects of the show. Peeking from cupboards, between chair legs and beside the fabled couch, the flat-screens served as little interjections of modernity in their antiquated interiors. The action of the videos centred on the dramas of Sissi, a sufferer of schizophrenia with delusions of royal status, and a number of monitors explored distinct aspects of the patient’s identity: at times infantile and vulnerable, and at others condescending and supercilious. The pieces (shot in Dutch and subtitled) were performed in a rather melodramatic style by the actor playing Sissi, and in a somewhat more self-effacing manner by the psychiatrist/analyst character. For me, the exhibition added an additional resonance to the space, drawing out and somehow concretising the experiences of mental illness within the context of its analysis and theorisation. Nevertheless, I had some reservations: Were the clichéd nature of Sissi’s delusions a comment on the archetypes of madness or simply the result of laziness? What of the rather elaborate nature of her costume – was it a reflection on the performed nature of femininity, a critique of 19th Century bourgeois essentialism, or an aesthetic choice?

Perhaps, ultimately, the task of constructing a coherent artistic response to Freud’s theories is too great a work to complete within the modest terms of Bal and Williams-Gamaker’s exhibition. While it was an enjoyable, carefully curated, and skilfully made body of work, I was not always convinced by the credibility of the psychological narratives explored in Saying It. Nevertheless, the audacity and panache with which Bal and Williams-Gamaker approached their work is surely to be commended.

*The exhibition also includes works by the artist Renate Ferro, but as these are very different from the video works of Bal and Williams-Gamaker, and are relatively few, I have not included them in this discussion.

*Until 1982 Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter and an eminent child psychologist in her own right continued to live in the house.

Materials and Aesthetics are pretty core to most artworks, but sometimes these elements are relegated behind concept and subject. In this post I’m trying to think about why this might be and to define some of the less obvious ways in which visual aesthetics are important in fine art practice.

The open submission exhibition at The Whitechapel, The London Open, led me to think about the role and status of visual aesthetics in contemporary fine art. The exhibition was divided into two major spaces on the ground and first floor: the ground floor gallery featuring a range of installed film works, text, sound, installation and photographic works; while the first floor gallery featured predominantly sculpture, painting, objects and assemblages and image based works. However, while there were some interesting differences in media and form between the works exhibited in the two major spaces, what was much more notable were the stark differences in approach to material and aesthetics.

Whitechapel OpenWhitechapel Open

The curator’s notes suggested that the works in the first floor gallery had been grouped because the artists demonstrated interests in kitsch, folk and outsider art and, to an extent, these themes could be detected at least in some of the pieces. Much more obvious, and in my view more important, was that these artists engaged with the material and visual in an explicit way which could not be separated from the meaning and intention of their works. This was evident in pieces such as Zebra by Caroline Achaintre in which fibres had been woven into a tufted, carpet like, composition of intersecting lines; in the delicate pencil drawings of Mark Harris; in an installed animation by Shona Davies, Dave Monaghan and Jon Klein; and in the heavily textured paintings of Dale Carney. In all of these pieces, the evidence of the make process as well as use of colour, texture, composition and material interacted to create works with cogent visual identities. In the case of Davies, Monaghan and Klein’s macabre animation, for example, the choice of muted hues, hand made animated models and hand painted sets (the work was also displayed in a set) lent the work a poignancy and delicacy. The associations of animation with children’s television underscored the suicide narrative, adding a layer of complexity and dark humour to the piece. In this way, thematic, narrative and conceptual concerns were inextricably bound up in the materiality and form of the artistic work.

Whitechapel Open

In the text, installation, and video pieces of the ground floor gallery, aesthetics were much less explicitly prioritised as content of the work. Nevertheless, the aesthetic choices and values, of both artists and curators, could be detected. Whereas, the upstairs gallery had featured a rich variety of textures, colours and materials, here a palette of cool grey, white and black predominated. Videos were displayed on1990s matt black plastic monitors (shiny flat-screens would have hit the wrong note), slide machines clicked through images of the sky, a wall, apparently chosen to suggest at once the mundane and the profound. It struck me that the intended signifier for the anti-aesthetic aesthetic of these pieces was a kind of intellectual seriousness. It was as if in denying the allure of harmonising colour, the inviting tactility of texture, the expressive power of image making one could ascend to a realm of pure philosophical thought. This fine art Iconoclasm is one that I find particularly difficult, redolent as it is of Puritanism and a prioritisation of some kind of mysterious “content” which exists outside the form of the work.

There is certainly room in the art world for work which is meditative, idea based and not primarily concerned with the visual. But I would strongly argue that the communicative and associative power of aesthetics are important in framing even these works. Too often a failure to engage with visual aesthetics means falling back on a range of fine art clichés which not only risk alienating the viewer from the work, but also obscuring its core ideas