Category Archives: abstract painting

Brent Wadden, Alignment #53 (2015)


There’s a great warmth that comes from the ragged, woolly presence of Brent Wadden’s large (two by two and a half metres) woven work. You might even say its tactile qualities are cosy.

But the design is less comfortable: irregular, patched together in haste, an austere black and white. He doesn’t use much technology, but Wadden has borrowed the look of a glitchy piece of software.

Software and soft furnishings; weaving and, as has been often pointed out, coding. There is a correspondence between this ancient form of craft and the digital times we live in.

In the critical theory of weaving* we find this: “Freud believed weaving and plaiting to be the only technique ever invented by women (no small invention if it leads to computers).”

(Had Freud lived to see the arrival of abstract expressionism, he might have been agog to find, in thirtysomething Wadden, a male artist with such a feminine take on a macho genre.)

But as anyone could tell you, having seen the Viennese psychologist’s famous couch, Freud was not averse to making you comfy with a rug or two, a cushion or three.

There’s something about the welcome in his consulting room which finds an echo in the work under discussion. This dense piece of stitching allows the viewer to unravel a little.

Or at least to grow absorbed in the varying yarns and shades of the panels which make up the whole. This was at least as absorbing as a neurotic monologue about my mother might have been.

But unlikely as it seems, weaving is also widely political. Caroline Rooney’s theoretical essay on weaving also mentions The Statesman by Plato, where weaving is a metaphor for good government.

And so as s/he, “weaves the good and serviceable threads together to produce the unified, harmonious social fabric”, the ideal head of state is, of course, closer to a mill worker than a banker.

Brent Wadden: How Long is Now? can be seen at Pace, London, until 31 October 2015.

*Deconstruction and Weaving, Caroline Rooney, from Deconstructions: A User’s Guide, ed. Nicholas Royle

Interview: Glenn Ligon

Glenn Ligon, Malcolm X #1 (small version #2), 2003, © Glenn Ligon
Glenn Ligon, Malcolm X #1 (small version #2), 2003, © Glenn Ligon

As if to demonstrate the centre cannot hold, debates around canonical art have shaken down to the East Midlands from a point of origin in New York’s Bronx. Nottingham Contemporary hosts a curatorial project by US artist Glenn Ligon. Thanks to a creative hang, the regional gallery has set up dialogues between some of the masters of international art along with a range of forgotten voices.

Ligon agrees to meet me in the gallery café. He is a patient interviewee who sees the funny side of every other line he utters. He uses the verbal tic ‘you know’ with greater frequency than anyone I have ever met.

And with a chunky metal ring and equally bold cardigan buttons, he cuts a dandyish figure who might have got lost on his way to the capital. All the same, he soon tells me he is pleased to be here.

“I think Nottingham’s an interesting city,” says the artist. “It has this strong regional museum with adventurous programming. It’s not dumbed down programming for some imagined audience that needs to see certain things. So that was the draw.” Ligon also appreciates the local quota of 60,000 students and was pleased to see a youthful crowd at the opening of his show on April 3rd.

That exhibition continues to prove popular, thanks to a mix of big names from the world of abstract expressionism, a strong showing by African American artists, and edgy works that explore sexuality and gender along with race.

Sometimes, as in the nude wrestling on show in Steve McQueen’s film Bear, these works look at all three themes. Of his first encounter with Bear (1993), Ligon says: “I thought it was the most amazing thing ever. I thought it was incredible.”

His comment is a reminder that Encounters and Collisions is a show about the artist’s influences. Yet it is also a show about the universal appeal of art. With some of his choices, such as Kline, Pollock or Beuys and Boetti, Ligon couldn’t have gone far wrong.

But the dead white males have been dusted down and put into a vital dialogue with, say, the macabre animations of Kara Walker, or the knowing voyeurism of a group of Zoe Leonard photos.

Asked if he sees his many influences as reference points or rivals, the artist responds with one of his amused observations: “I think there’s a bit of both. I think you always want to kill the fathers, or the mothers, so there’s part of that.

“But for me it’s looking at an inquiry that was made by a certain artist and seeing where one can go with that, you know, seeing how it intersects with the things one is interested in”.

The show will travel to Tate Liverpool and an association with the UK’s biggest art museum franchise has proved handy for securing loans. But a show of this sort remains a feat of organisation.

“I’m not a curator, so a lot of heavy lifting around these things, I didn’t have to do,” says Ligon. Nevertheless, the exhibition grew out of a list of names which he supplied. The artist was also able to contact several of his peers directly and several of his letters appear in the gallery handout.

It is no surprise to find that Ligon has a way with words, although he doesn’t always choose his own. His most famous works are his text paintings, which employ quotations from literature and stand-up comedy.

The starting point for this show was a collection of his essays and interviews called Yourself in the World. And his facility for language has even survived a stint spent as a legal proof reader. “If that didn’t kill off an interest in language nothing would,” he jokes.

One of his own works in the show, of which there are several, contains a quote from writer and activist James Baldwin. But the text is buried in a monolithic black painted work with coal dust.

Abstract expressionism meets conceptualism, in a space shared with a portrait of Baldwin in oils, by the writer’s friend Beauford Delaney, plus a piece of black and white abstraction by Franz Kline. The show veers between abstraction and figuration throughout and, as Ligon says of this grouping: “I kind of forced those things together”.

An artist like Delaney can now be more visible than at any time since the 1950s: “I think the interesting thing that has happened now is a lot more work is available to be seen, because of the internet, because museums have realised that artists they’ve overlooked are important and those works come out of the storeroom.”

Ligon cites the reappearance of African American painter Benny Andrews at MoMA as an example. “It takes a younger generation of curators to come in and kind of revise the canon.”

But, as the artist points out, this needs to filter through. He tells me only three African Americans have had solo shows at the New York gallery, and only “a dozen, maybe two dozen” women.

Ligon claims the artworld only “feels” like an inclusive place, “because artists are so bizarre and come from such strange places, but it’s still part of our society and employs the same kind of mechanisms that keep people out of spaces in larger society separate to the art world”.

But when asked about the contemporary art landscape today, the New Yorker sees a resurgence of interest in these older forms.

“I think there has been a kind of a real interest in, particularly, abstract expressionism. But filtered through technology, filtered through the social ,” he says, before adding: “We have enough distance, I think, from that era to find abstraction vital again, but also do it in a different way, bring different things into it”.

Although Ligon remains a fan of ‘Ab Ex’, he has reservations about the monolithic status of the form and its practitioners.

“I love the Met in New York, but for years and years and years – probably decades – their selection of modern art never changed. The Pollock was always next to the de Kooning, which was round the corner from the Rothko.” As a Met fan, he still considers this a problem: “You never hear about the dialogues these artists were having with artists who were not the masters, or considered to be the masters”.

So it’s no surprise that the show in Nottingham is a playful, fresh arena and also a crowded one. Ligon jokes about this: “My ideal show would be one where all the pieces are touching, because that’s how they feel in my head. There are impossible combinations of things.”

He adds a rhetorical “You know?” to this observation. Visit this somewhat irreverent show and you can only agree.

Glenn Ligon: Encounters and Collisions can be seen at Nottingham Contemporary until 14 June 2015, then at Tate Liverpool between 20 June and 18 October 2015. Interview written for Culture24.

Jakob Dahlgren, Peinture abstraite (2001 – present)


Artists often go too far. Sometimes it can seem that any art worth its salt has to do just that, to show some form of excess, to do something inordinately repetitive, or of course skilled.

Jakob Dahlgren’s thirteen year-long durational project will have many scratching their heads, asking what is the point? But to provoke that very question seems to be the point.

The Swedish artist has worn a striped t-shirt every day since 2001. There’s not much more to it than that. Although, apparently, he invites people to ‘curate’ the wardrobe for him.

It might not sound too impressive. He has an archive of 1000s of numbered shirts. He has as many photos on an Instagram site. But the work’s very lack of gravity could indeed be his point.

Dahlgren calls the work Peinture Abstraite and that smattering of French is not putting on airs. It is rather puncturing the work of those who have been historically content to paint coloured stripes.

People are still painting stripes. In austerity Britain they are probably at it right now. And Dahlgren compares this no doubt serious endeavour with just so many sartorial decisions.

He wouldn’t name names, but the artist said he drew inspiration from a range of artists whose work he didn’t very much like. He doesn’t like them, but they engage him.

In turn, you might not like his t-shirt project. But if you are reading this, it is hoped that Peinture abstraite has engaged you in some way too. It fights fire with fire, decoration with decoration.

And the fact he has just gone too far with the t-shirt idea, sporting them at weddings and funerals alike, just makes me warm to this deceptively simple piece.

For the stripe painters out there, fear not. Dahlgren is not above picking up a brush, dusting off a worn t-shirt and painting what he sees. There’s no getting away from it.

Peinture Abstraite can be seen at Fabrica, Brighton, until 26 May 2014. Check out Dahlgren’s Instagram site for more images and see the artist’s website for more info on the project.

Sean Scully, Stare (1984)

Stare for blog

Is the title of this Sean Scully work an imperative? I only ask because gallery visitors can do little else when confronted with this three-panelled masterpiece from the 1980s.

So we stare . . . but whatever we seek, paint is all we might find. Bands of off-white and off-black, inspired by bleached bone and charred wood, line up like blinds or a grille against a window.

Like most of Scully’s work, Stare pulls you towards its own surface and apprehends you there. The only content or subject of the work being colour in horizontal and vertical brushstrokes

It has been suggested that Stare has a gaze of its own. Given the year of its production, the title hints at Orwellian surveillance, but this is in all probability a red herring, nothing to do with abstract art.

So here, rather than Big Bro’, it is the artist who looks at us. And as is quite often said of written texts, this painting allows Scully to read the viewer, rather than vice versa.

(This idea was touted around by Derrida. Although in a recent Q&A with the artist at Pallant, Scully said he read just enough about deconstruction to know he didn’t need to read any more. Well…)

Here’s how the painting reads this viewer. The Long Island beach, said to have thrown up this palette, also makes me think of winter sunlight seen from polluted city streets.

And yet even a darkening sky can give you a sense of infinity; so the same might be said of these arresting brush strokes. Why? Because art, like ourselves, is infinitely expressive.

That’s not to say a proverbial three year old could have made this work. Unless they belong to you in some way, children are much less interesting than artists. Despite what Picasso said.

No, the irresistible appeal of Stare must be the promise that, by complying with its intention, you could share a visionary experience with a gifted artist. But NB: all experiences will be your own.

Sean Scully: Triptychs can be seen at Pallant House, Chichester, UK until  26 January  2014

Bill Henderson, Funky Black and Catch Me, 1978

This painting reaches back through the years to a teenage in the 80s. This spiky pattern would have bowled me over and indeed still does. Perhaps I once had a duvet cover like it.

What makes Henderson’s painting, dare it be said, boyish are the preponderance of dynamic angles and bold colours, complete with moody blacks and cool greys.

But while its colour scheme is striking, its composition is absorbing. There’s a picture-book level of detail, with fifty discrete banded painted studies within this one large scale canvas.

Talking about another of his paintings, Henderson describes the way he builds an extensive series of ‘activities’ into a single all-consuming work.

“The ‘activities’ within the paintings can be seen as a constantly shifting series of events, each one a more or less separate entity, but perhaps sometimes related,” he has said.

The blurred edges give his plentiful bands a near holographic presence and together they hold the same fascination as an encyclopaedia page full of, say, flags (Pre-Wikipedia.)

On the left they create effortless depth, and assemble into three dimensions. This is a psychedelic take on what could be a form by Caro or a trippy, possibly illegal, bit of constructivism.

But the right is a repository of materials, a supply of colours and combinations which appears inexhaustible. If you read the painting from left to right, there’s no way out of this jam.

To be sure, regression leads you nowhere, and indeed this probably wasn’t Henderson’s intention in making the work. But if in 1978 he was just predicting the decade to come, he got it fairly spot on.

This painting can be seen in New Possibilities: Abstract Paintings from the Seventies at The Piper
Gallery, London, until December 21 2012.

John Cage, River Rocks and Smoke 4/11/90 No.1

John Cage, River Rocks and Smoke. Courtesy The John Cage Trust

The universe, it seems, has good taste. Here is a painting it did. Or rather, here is a painting John Cage allowed to happen, letting the I-Ching direct his brushstrokes if true to form.

Observe the wispy sfmuato effect, created by students with burning straw. Look at that delicate use of colour and the almost Assyrian shapes, each one traced round the edge of a stone.

You could hang this on a wall and feel a deep oneness. Or you could marvel at the process involved, the radical shift towards egolessness.

Either way, it is great in theory. You don’t even need Cage for this. You could leave a sketchbook out in the rain or scatter blossom on an adhesive canvas. That too would be pretty.

Of course, Cage is pushing at the boundaries. Perhaps he is saying we don’t even need artists, in the same way it seems he once said we don’t need composers. Perhaps we don’t.

But surely life is not a zen garden. It seems more like a game of chess. Chance dictates which side we are on and then we need to attack and defend. Aimlessness is not often the best approach.

Cage apparently loved chess, but he wasn’t the world’s best player. It is said friend Marcel Duchamp was known to lose all patience with him for making silly mistakes.

Of course, the I-Ching paintings may have been an ! move in chess terms, threatening bishops and laying siege to kings. Except Cage is so light-handed, he hardly touches his pieces.

John Cage: Every Day is a Good Day is at De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, until June 5 2011. See gallery website for more details. Read my review of the show at Culture24.