Exhibition: Pioneering Abstract Artists

The exhibition Surface Work (11 April – 16 June 2018 at the Victoria Miro, Mayfair) was a rich feast, with abstract work by more than 50 artists, all women, from five continents, spanning every decade between 1918 and 2018.

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I knew of some of the artists who have “shaped and transformed, and continue to influence and expand, the language and definition of abstract painting”: Helen Frankenthaler, Yayoi Kusama, Lee Krasner, Agnes Martin, Mira Schendel, Gillian Ayres to name a few, but the majority were new to me, and it was revelatory to ‘discover’ so many artists who had been there for years, producing fantastic work in obscurity.

The exhibition gave me the opportunity to see work I had only seen small reproductions of in books such as one of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets.  Kusama began painting the Nets in the early sixties shortly after she moved to New York, living in poverty until she began to sell work through a dealer. I love the intensity and repetition of the repeating loops that seem to expand and contract like a murmuration. There is a tension between a random and systematic aesthetic. Apparently, Kusama would paint the Nets for uninterrupted sessions of 40 to 50 hours as a way to channel and contain her mania. She has repeatedly revisited and expanded this body of work throughout her career.

 

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Infinity Net (HNBKY) made in 2012

 

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 Kusama with early ‘Infinity Net’ paintings in her New York studio, 1961

 

Also immersed in the tradition of the sublime is Loie Hollowell’s work. Link Lingam (yellow, green, blue, purple, pink) 2018, has an intriguing undulating surface that folds into the design giving it a sculptural element.

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Jessica Warboys’ large canvases are ‘painted’ by the sea shifting and scattering mineral pigments into them. The coast and landscape are a source of inspiration and influence for Warboys, who draws upon pagan history and folklore in her films and performances. She had a solo exhibition at Tate St Ives recently that included Hill of Dreams, a film that draws from Welsh fantasy writer Arthur Machen’s book of the same name.

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See here for the online catalogue with overview of every artist.

 

 

Natural Abstracts

Some stunning paintings made in response to two stories from Africa today on the Children’s Art and Storytelling course that I am running at Llanover Hall Arts Centre. ‘Why the Sun and Moon Live in the Sky’ – a Nigerian folktale, and ‘The Lion’s Whisker’ – an Ethiopian Folktale.

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Elements by Jim age 9

 

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African landscape by Paddy, age 9

 

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Camouflaged Lion by Iolo, age 6

 

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Sun by Paddy, age 9

 

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Witch Doctor by George, age 7

 

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Witch Doctor Dance by Jim, age 9

 

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Elements II by Jim age 9

 

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African Landscape By George, age 7

Preliminary Drawings:

Lion, by George; Winged Lion with Horn by Paddy, Mask by Paddy, Compound of Sun and Moon for the Water by George, Sun and Water by Iolo.

Seeking Transparency

For our Saturday afternoon drop-in session to experiment with cyanotype, or sun prints, participants brought along an assortment of things to try out on the photo-sensitive paper. Beads and seeds, feathers and flowers fresh from the garden were laid out and placed under the UV light bed for exposure.

Creating compositions using a variety of materials.

The most effective were often the most transparent or delicate items. Mary brought along a tracing on acetate of grasses she had made for a lino cut, and this worked beautifully, with small skeins of wool for clouds. Experimenting with double-exposure techniques added depth and interest: netting placed over the exposed grasses gave the effect of light rippling through them.

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Rosalind, who is a wonderful illustrator, began to draw her designs on tracing paper, adding photogram items such as glass beads to enhance the composition. The tracing paper also adds varying tones.

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Glass bottles from a flea market became ghostly alchemist’s wares. Sally’s double exposure using feathers and dried hydrangea flowers was also magical.

 

 

 

Making a Mark: The Art of Automatism

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Automatic drawing or painting can be described as “expressing the subconscious” using any technique that eliminates conscious control and replaces it with chance. The basic techniques originate from spiritualism, practiced by artists such as Georgiana Houghton and Hilma Af Klint, both of whom have recently had their work exhibited in a revival of interest and appreciation of automatism and early abstraction.

Surrealists such as Andre Breton and Andre Masson, were keen to experiment with automatic drawing and promoted it as an art movement. By this time, of course, psychologists of the unconscious had dismissed the idea of spirits speaking through the artist: it was the subliminal self that could express itself in ways that could lead to the development of real artistic genius. The new interpretive framework was now wholly secular and based on the insights of psychoanalysis, but the basic techniques were adopted from spiritualism.

Whichever way you wish to interpret it, drawing randomly without rational control is a good way to avoid inihibitions that freeze the flow of creativity. It is a way to bypass the ‘I can’t draw’ mentality a lot of people develop when the natural artistic confidence of childhood is abandoned.

Making simple marks and considering the relationships between them bypasses jugement by the logical brain about what is  “good” or “accurate.” It opens the doorway to the intuition, allows the emotions to be engaged, and allows enjoyment of the pure physical experience of artmaking.

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One of Georgiana Houghton’s spirit drawings – The Eye of the Lord (1 Sept 1870), and  Joan Miro – Preparations for Birds, detail, 1963.

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Automatic Drawing

 

 

Homage to Hannelore Baron

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There is something raw and deeply absorbing about Hannelore Baron’s multi-layered work. Found materials are combined with enigmatic text and abstract figures in her collages and box constructions.

The work suggests both the condition of entrapment and the possibility of release, no doubt informed by her early traumatic experiences of war in Germany in the 1930s. Unlike Joseph Cornell, her box assemblages are not wrapped — or trapped — in the air of poetic-romantic longing. Baron’s boxes and notations insist that the human spirit can persevere, however damaged.

 

 

 

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Hannelore Baron website: http://www.hannelorebaron.net/

Illustrating the Inner: The work of Anna Zemánková

“If we make one criterion for defining the artist… the impulse to make something new… — a kind of divine discontent with all that has gone before, however good — then we can find such artists at every level of human culture, even when performing acts of great simplicity.” – Margaret Mead

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Following the threads of curiosity deeper into the realms of mediumistic art, and through my delvings into Outsider art , I came across  Anna Zemánková, a remarkable artist of organic, abstract compositions.

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