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Soanyway Issue 15
Contents
Introduction
Introduction

Escaping the frame: conversations in paint

 

Given our interdisciplinary ethos, it is unusual for Soanyway to focus exclusively on one art form, but for this issue, painting is the theme. However, as “escaping the frame” implies, contemporary painting has become less fixed within its own physical and material limitations, so the contributions to this issue are expansive – bringing collage, photography, installation, digital media, textual critique, and poetic writing into dialogue with the practice of painting.

 

Painting is both verb and noun, activity and object. Many things have now become tools in the making of painting, or for interpreting the artefacts it produces. This continues to extend conventional understandings or previously assumed definitions of painting as an art form. For instance, architectural, environmental, and digital space constitute an expanded canvas, as painting extends beyond the flat surface of the picture plane and the constraining geometry of the rectilinear frame. And the predominance of the digital image in contemporary visual culture poses new questions about the significance of materiality and the relationship between painting and screen.

 

As usual, we begin this issue with two ‘exhibition features’, in this case both reflecting on recent exhibitions by artists of an older generation. They include reflections on painting’s connections and parallels with both music and theatre, in the work, respectively, of Basil Beattie and Maria Stangret. We also include a short feature on a recent academic symposium that brought together artists from the UK and Korea to consider painting in relation to digital reproduction.

 

Some of our contributors would specifically identify themselves as painters. They are variously concerned with facture and the materiality of paint and the painted surface, and the gestural, performative aspects of painting. Others work across media and disciplinary boundaries in ways that interrelate with painting; visually or linguistically through different forms of writing.

 

One of the reasons painting remains a viable and vital practice for 21st century artists is its capacity to remind us practically and intellectually of the materiality of our world and the sensual qualities of our engagement with it, in the face of technologies that increasingly tend to emphasise the immaterial. Through their direct engagement with painting, or their responses to it by other means, the contributors to this issue remind us that, whilst painting might not compete on equal terms with all the rich sensations of the rest of the world around us, it can afford us the contemplative space in which to reflect on the relationship between its formalised artificiality and our everyday experience of the physical and virtual world.

Basil Beattie
Basil Beattie - Recalling Echoes at Hales Gallery

Recalling Echoes is Basil Beattie's third solo show with Hales Gallery, London. It ran from 19th May – 1st July 2023.

 

It exhibits paintings and drawings made over the past decade, exploring Beattie's "unique system of visual codes and painterly language". Beattie's painting is performative in its self-conscious use of the material, the paint and the canvas beneath, and framing something of the process of painting. The exhibition displays works with repeated motifs of ladders, stairs, blocks and curving lines. Beattie comments on the 'poetic ring' to this exhibition's title, which for him also recalls the process of painting. This idea is fitting for the works' interrogation of the notion of painted objects as forms of metaphor.

Basil Beattie

Installation view of Basil Beattie, Recalling Echoes, Hales London

Beattie pays attention to edges. His canvases appear variously as their own framed spaces, keeping hold of the object and sensation they depict, a fleeting image, object or thought; or as parts of a larger whole, either pushed up against other canvases so as to literally expand the space, or left to bleed off the edge and let the imagination wander. The ladders never leave the space of the painting, they never go beyond the canvas edge.  

 

I have a list of words I wrote after the last occasion of viewing Beattie's works in person: soundscape, landscape, structures, improvisation, paint/cloth.

I think soundscapes is influenced by a studio visit last summer. Visiting Beattie's studio, there was the distant sound of Beethoven's Late String Quartets. Quiet as it was, it felt it came from my own head, and influenced how I viewed the paintings. These Late Quartets are filled with pockets of silence — they appear sometimes subtly, like a natural exhaling of breath, and sometimes abruptly, more like a shard interrupting the sound.

 

Listen, in the first instance, to String Quartet No. 12 (Op. 127)'s first movement. All instruments play in unison, at equal volume, before a sudden shift in volume into a quiet run of fast notes where first violin takes over. There is then a game of exchange, each part echoing another, growing with and over one another in their climbs upward, downward and both at once. The second movement has a slanted growth in volume and pitch, as the cello begins, then viola, followed by each of the violins. Here I picture the slanted objects, and growing layers of Beattie's paintings.

Basil Beattie, Recalling Echoes, Hales London. Titles in slideshow. Photos: Charlie Littlewood.

The structures are like parts of buildings, shapes initiating a design, like the grey blocks in front of the fierce colour in Steps over Fiery Waters, 2022. Colour plays an important role in gesturing towards a kind of structure, like that of juggling various voices within a narrative, instruments in an ensemble or characters on a stage. I'm thinking, for example of Beyond the Ladder, 2022, where each shape and colour takes on its own character, has its own space and form of interaction with the painting's other parts, and some appear more disciplined and others left to chance.

 

My note of improvisation, possibly opposing the idea of structures, comes from the playfulness of the paintings' parts. The unpredictability of the painting process, as Beattie describes it, that not everything can be planned, and he will often sit for a long time before the blank canvas wondering how to begin.

 

The images, the ladders within the frame, are not functional ladders, they do not intend to represent a ladder as a ladder. Instead, they are recognisable as ladders only so far as they may then be used to point towards their function: ascending, descending, diagonal, horizontal or vertical movement, connecting of spaces. Close to Beyond, 2014, has a looping line, contained within the almost square canvas, which reminds me of the interweaving of the line in Beethoven's String Quartet No. 12, the line's movement between parts being picked up by another instrument, never dropped.

 

This looping line of connection reminds me also of Jean Cocteau's comment about his own drawings which he said were like the lines of letters in cursive writing stretched out until they became just a looping line. This connection to the written word is interesting in the idea of metaphor; what a word represents, its role being to gesture at the thing it represents. The landscape of these paintings appears a place between object and idea; between ladder and what 'ladder' represents. The paintings frame something of the movement or process between these two things: the sign and signifier, the things and the suggestions these things might symbolise.

 

My note on paint/cloth refers to the self-conscious use of material, and paint also itself as a form of cloth, which is at times 'torn' by an inscribed line, where Beattie has created the mark, shapes and lines by taking away from the painted surface. Beattie describes it as a "veil of paint" covering the nakedness of the blank canvas, before being able to begin.

Basil Beattie

Installation view of Basil Beattie, Recalling Echoes, Hales London

Text by Gertrude Gibbons

Images courtesy the Artist and Hales Gallery. © Basil Beattie. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2023

Maria Stangret
Maria Stangret - Playing Places at CRICOTEKA

Maria Stangret: Playing Places (Gra w miejsca) is an exhibition curated by Magdalena Ujma in CRICOTEKA, Kraków, Poland, from 11 May – 10 December 2023. Playing Places "aims to discover the traces left by Maria Stangret in the places she called her own". Stangret (1929 – 2020) is most known as an prominent actress of her husband Tadeusz Kantor's Cricot 2 Theatre (an experimental avantgarde theatre company founded by Kantor in 1955 and based in Kraków). Stangret was also a painter, and considered herself first and foremost an artist, and her work incorporates a diversity of practice and influence appearing to playfully converse with one another, broadly encompassed by the term 'painting'.

Maria Stangret

Installation view of Maria Stangret: Playing Places at CRICOTEKA. Photo: Szymon Sokołowski.

Stangret studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków between 1955 and 1960, and her tutor Jan Świderski encouraged her to focus on painting. The exhibition notes how her style of painting transformed in the early 1970s, when she started using motifs of childhood games, school and an experimentation with scale.

 

The curation of the exhibition seems to play with ideas of categorisation, provoking questions as to how to label the diverse practice of Stangret. It explores this diversity: painting, sculpture, writing and acting, as well as incorporating the influence of the domestic space and her relationship with Kantor. Included in the exhibition are objects from their home, including photographs, small objects perhaps from the mantlepiece, a chair, blanket, library stairs and screen she painted for dividing the studio. The screen appears frozen in time, a cloth hanging over the top with two wooden puppets. It seems almost a theatrical prop, and suggests the inclusion of these objects from the home gesture not only at the domestic but also at the place of theatricality in her life and work.

 

Stangret was involved in almost all Kantor’s theatrical experiments, performing with Cricot 2 from the beginning, and her ability to implement his vision is noted. She played in all their productions of Witkiewicz’s plays and the exhibition captions state that she excelled in the roles for Cricot 2’s Theatre of Death, including in Dead Class (1975) and Wielopole, Wielopole (1980).

I can't help thinking of Dead Class with the display of two blank boards (black and white) with chalk beneath, as well as various other references to childhood and the classroom. There is a repetition of black and white, again making me think of many of the black and white photographs through which Dead Class in framed and documented. Like in viewing images of Dead Class, I feel an uncomfortable sensation of things being out of place, stillness and waiting with aching anticipation. Stangret's works here, however, appear waiting more as though something is about to begin, the start of a page, lesson, game, rather than the anticipation of something restarting that has been paused or already ended. 

Installation views of Maria Stangret: Playing Places at CRICOTEKA. Photo: Szymon Sokołowski.

The works play with space and direction, appearing to invite the viewer into their game. A giant chess piece sits away from the wall towards the viewer, while the board game is partly folded, backwards and forwards, towards and away from the wall, teasing the viewer in offering and retracting an invitation to play. Another work shows a ruled arrow above blank space of canvas. This gestures towards ideas of direction, movement and space: where is the viewer supposed to stand, how do they look at the painting? The arrow points to the right, reminiscent, perhaps, of the movement of reading from left to right. That the canvas is blank beneath makes this arrow appear the subject, along with the viewer's movement through space. While some of Stangret's paintings are hung on the white walls, others are propped suspended in the middle of the gallery on posts. This way, the viewer may also see the back of the canvas and wooden beam supports.

Direction is also at play in works where the subject seems to be leaving the canvas, like the measuring tape going beyond the edge of the frame, and the work which resembles a lined piece of paper rolled outwards into the three-dimensional at the bottom. The multiple painted references to lined paper may reflect Stangret's place as a writer, her interest in memoirs and journals and her claim that literature was her greatest inspiration. The furniture pieces complement the game with direction and space, as well as the involvement of the viewer, with the chair gesturing towards a movement between seating and standing, and the wooden steps between ascending and descending.

Playing Places reflects on Stangret's interplay of practices, and an open interpretation of the definition of painting. It reflects a theatricality towards painting and the viewer's involvement in them: like theatre, there is a move from the two-dimensional coming into the three-dimensional, the stationary into movement, towards the viewer or audience.

Text by Gertrude Gibbons

Photo credit: Szymon Sokołowski, courtesy CRICOTEKA.

Maria Stangret

Installation view of Maria Stangret: Playing Places at CRICOTEKA. Photo: Szymon Sokołowski.

Symposium
Symposium: Painting in the Age of Digital Reproduction, Seoul

Painting in the Age of Digital Reproduction was a symposium held at the Art Sonje Center in Seoul, Korea in May 2023, bringing together contributions from art historians, theorists, and artists, from the University of the Arts, London and from several Korean universities.* It considered the aesthetic and cultural implications of the ways in which the materiality of painting is transformed by being reproduced and viewed digitally, and also the impact of analysis and image generation through artificial intelligence and other computerised technologies on the material practice of painting.

Art Sonje Center

All participants of Symposium: Painting in the Age of Digital Reproduction. Courtesy Byungjin Choi and the Art Sonje Center. 

Throughout the 20th century, through photographs in books and magazines, paintings came to be seen by mass audiences more often in reproductions than as material artefacts. Now, there is an even greater step away from the materiality of the originals as images are so frequently seen online. Dominated as our daily experience and wider visual culture are by mobile phones and personal computers, paintings today are more often encountered through the light emanating from screens than they are through light reflected off or absorbed by the surfaces of the actual paintings themselves. Despite this significant difference in our optical experience, leaving aside considerations of size, scale or surroundings, we are conditioned to accept such digitised images of paintings as wholly accurate reproductions of the works they record.

 

Such dematerialised viewing, as well as diminishing our sensory experience of painting's material facture and its physical and textural qualities, also has an impact on our degree of attention. Studies have suggested that visitors to art galleries spend an average of eight seconds or less looking at each work, but now that we surf the internet, scrolling through images on our screens, this time might even have to be measured in fractions of seconds.

 

The symposium considered all of these phenomena critically, acknowledging that viewing painting in digital space is a new way of perceiving and understanding works, not a substitute for their physical existence and our multi-sensory experience of them. The impact of digital technologies is by no means all negative, and one consideration of the symposium was the possible benefits for art history of digital technology as a computational and analytical tool for the analysis, evaluation, and identification of artworks. For example, the potential for developing applications to associate specific paintings to a particular artist, or classifying a painting in relation to a particular art historical movement or time period. Such technological developments could bring benefits for the authentication, appraisal, and appreciation of artworks, and provide a new kind of mathematical data for research in art history.

 

There is always a feedback loop, of course, so many artists immersed in digital culture are increasingly finding ways to bring their experience of it to their painting practice, and the symposium considered some of the ways in which this might occur. Paintings can be envisaged and made referencing visual phenomena that are the product of screen based experience. New forms of temporal and haptic experience through the use of touchscreens, or visual phenomena such as pixellation, blurring, or magnification, can lead artists to find visual equivalents through the physical process of painting. The ‘analogue’ nature of physical paintings can be transformed and translated into new digital artworks, and in parallel, making painted reproductions of digital imagery might be seen as an inversion of the perceived inadequacies of the digital reproduction of painting.

 

* The contributors to the symposium were: Juan Bolivar, Ji-Hoon Gu, Minseo Kim, Im Sue Lee, Simon Morley, Anna Mossman, Jaeyeon Park, Daniel Sturgis, Ana Teles.

Text by Derek Horton

Further information on workshop-style exhibition TRANSFER exploring the digital documentation of painting preceding the symposium, from 24 February – 14 April, at the Korean Cultural Centre UK, here.  

Image courtesy of Byungjin Choi and the Art Sonje Center. 

Susan Phillips
Susan Phillips - Untitled No.15 - No.18

Approaching these works as a sculptor, and interested in the physical relief qualities of paint, Phillips considers the formal elements of line, material and process. Each painting is made by masking off an area with tape and then building up multiple layers applied with a palette knife. The painted line becomes raised in relief from the surface, but through its translucency retains its material connection to the paper.

Susan Phillips, Untitled No.15 - No.18, Acrylic on Arches 640 g/m, 31 x 41 cm

Grace White
Grace White - Outside of the Frame
Grace White
Robert Moon
Robert Moon - Maquette

These selected works, each titled 'Maquette', a word also used for a sculptor's initial model, consider the possibilities for painting, and the space created by the work, opening up or being concealed by additional layers.  

Robert Moon, Maquette 1-3, 2022

Tom Palin
Tom Palin - Edges and/in Painting

Palin's work considers the physical presence of paint and painting, its surface, frame and edges. The works, which play between abstraction and figuration, also resemble small wooden icons and, in series, side by side or close to each other, provoke consideration of the narrative possibilities within and between the works which push away from the wall, floor, surface. Included with images of his paintings is a text by Palin reflecting on the nature of edges in practice and discourse; the material, tangible, practical aspects and philosophical, metaphorical dimensions to this medium.

Tom Palin

Edges – surfaces,

delimiting, extended.

 

Edges push; form,

and are formed.

 

Edges touch,

and are touchable.

 

Edges move, to be crossed:

on the way in.

on the way out.

 

Edges have edges.

 

 

To speak of an edge, in painting, is to refer to a number of possible things, from the parameters of the supporting structure onto which paint is applied, to the separations that can be perceived to exist between shapes, marks, and forms. Then there are the adjacent edges of the painting’s facing surface; the demarcations between discrete layers of paint; and even the imagined underneathness of edged things unseen.

Tom Palin, 5 adjoined panels (oil on oak) 

Regarding edges within practice and discourse, hard-edged abstraction comes to mind, for the clarity and robustness of its delineations of bold colour from bold colour. The almost-contemporaneous Supports/Surfaces group fused a philosophical and practical interest in formalism and materialism, deconstructing paintings (and accompanying presumptions as to what might constitute a painting); dissolving and reconfiguring the components of works, which included a reconsideration of the external edges of paintings, to foreground what later came to be termed pictorial fact.

 

The interplay of dissimilar supports; juxtapositions of adjoined or to-be-adjoined panels; the exposing of a painted work’s component parts; the narrative possibilities of restaging content; and an encouraged oscillation between pictorial and/or illusionistic inferences and the tactile particularities of small painted objects permit me a freedom to play, and to defer overbearing impositions of oft-assumed completeness.

Tom Palin, selected works (oil on hardwood / oak)

Jeff Gibbons
Jeff Gibbons - Performativity of Paint

Gibbons explores the performativity of the act and process of painting, as well as within the encounter with painting, by the painter and the participating viewer. Within Gibbons' performance of paint, the characters at play are the elements: written and spoken language and sound, the physicality of paint, canvas, oil, earth and cloth. This is perhaps like some of Samuel Beckett's theatre TV plays in the 1980s, where instead of cast lists there are elements, lists consisting of labelled body parts, left hand, right hand, light, sound, colour (e.g. Quad, Nacht und Träume).

The painting e, è reflects on the nature of face-to-face communication, translation and exchange, with people, animals and paintings. The letters on painting, vowels that could be sung, but mean nothing specific in English, are significant parts of Italian speech, 'e' meaning 'and' and 'è' meaning '(he/she/it) is' coming from the fundamental verb 'essere' meaning 'to be'.

Jeff Gibbons

Jeff Gibbons, e è, 2019, oil on canvas, 37 x 42 cm

Some of Gibbons' paintings are left unstretched, unframed, and stapled or pinned to the wall; others are traditionally stretched canvases hanging on nails, or leaning on easels. Earlier works by Gibbons, a couple of which are included below, explore painting and canvas frames as sculptural, becoming inhabited paintings in the exhibition space as large installations imitating the form of a book, house or ladder, into which the viewer walks. The performance Impossible Possibility at the Vallo di Nera, Italy, in 2022, turns the installation process into a ritualistic procession, the artist like a leader in the manner of early religious processions, as well as a spectacle, of which the audience is inevitably part, in this case creating the accompanying sound too.

Jeff Gibbons, Impossible Possibility performance Vallo di Nera, Italy, 2022, video by Fabio Giorgi Alberti

Jeff Gibbons, selected works, oil on canvas

James Merrigan
James Merrigan - Painting: Quasi-Person

Paintings are as socially awkward as their makers. Paintings are human, not sentient; adolescent, not adult. Which might mean painting is a young person’s game, before self-awareness and the past kicks in. It’s not. It’s an innocent, dumb, ignorant person’s game, at its best. That’s what Gerard Richter meant when he said “Painting is dumb”, or Picasso called “innocence”, or Martin Amis “the wound”, or Jacques Lacan “the symptom”, all of which you have to be ignorant of in order to enact. We first experience paintings (and painters) from afar, then at an angle. They have no profile. Closer they become a mess of surface acne and grease, porous with loose hairs, a teratoma twin of ugly malformations. They are awkward. Adolescent again. Not much to “like” up close — the good ones anyway. They involve you in their shit like the worst narcissistic friend. They take you in, introject you, imbibe you to leave you empty. Paintings are nothing but need. From wet to dry, juicy grape to raisin death, sometimes they blink back. When Isabelle Graw calls paintings “quasi-persons” against the setting of the art market, I think of vampiric collectors trafficking and flipping, not just paintings, but the vitalism of the painter themselves measured in time, spit, sweat and a loose eyelash or two. What if Schrödinger put a painting in a box?

Lisa Denyer
Lisa Denyer - Chrysalis

In this piece, Denyer's deliberate choice of sandpaper as a painting substrate introduces an interplay of textures, as it facilitates and obstructs the application of paint. Denyer plays with a sense of balance and tension between the natural world and the artificial, urban environment and digital spaces. Everyday visuals from architecture, fashion and digital aesthetics infiltrate the work.

Lisa Denyer

Lisa Denyer, Chrysalis, 2023, acrylic on sandpaper, 28 x 23 cm

Dale Holmes
Dale Holmes - Painted Material Visual Genealogical Anecdotes

Holmes considers ideas of surface and the materiality of paint and canvas, the selected details of paintings included here are presented by the artist as a form of 'reverse archaeology':

 

"I think a lot about a very old term that applies to how a painting is made, it's got a relationship to ideas of style (in the way Nietzsche goes on about style) and surface look. Facture is the word for the particularity of the qualities of a painting’s execution; a way of talking about the handling of material and the resulting document of self-similarity.

 

These details are from very recent paintings I made on unstretched canvas lightly primed with clear gesso giving them the qualities of watercolour paper, working quickly with big brushes and loose paint. Any drip, splodge, splatter that occurs in the drawing of a line or the application of colour are kept, painted around, in some instances many times. I'm thinking of them as a kind of reverse archaeology of the surface in which the duration and genealogy of the process of making the painting is left visible, unobscured. This becomes a contingent process of abstraction leading to seminal or one-off shape events. They are painted material visual genealogical anecdotes told in a very particular accent of how the paintings are made. They don't mean much outside of the context of those painted surfaces, but in there they are important; this is the works facture, and in extension, if John Duns Scotus will allow it, the 'thisness' of them."

Dale Holmes, selected details, oil on canvas

Marianne Hendriks
Marianne Hendriks - ​All that is unknown

Hendriks' work considers dialogues between nature and human feeling, between thought and emotion, and the language of image and the written word. The writing takes the place of a leading narrator, exploring stories of nature, history and ancient mythology. As Hendriks notes, the "main subject is nature, and the meaning of love and thought. The style of writing has a sense of freeform and puzzle pieces that are part of the scenery."

 

The painting All that is unknown has words scratched into the paint, taking away from the surface, in cursive hand. It leaves a trace of the human hand on a blue and white sky, suggesting these words are as transient as the cloudy day, and will soon disappear into the paint, cloud, mind or air. Like words spoken aloud, they vanish into the air, leaving only a trace in the mind of the listener, who holds onto their meaning even after the sound has disappeared. Scratched into the surface, the words disrupt the cloud, as spoken words disrupt the air. The painting appears to frame a passing thought, captured in the movement of exchange. 

Marianne Hendriks, All that is unknown, 2023, 50 x 35 cm

Stella Baraklianou
Stella Baraklianou - Lessons in Modernism and All the museums of the world

Lessons in Modernism  

 

The taste of Wasabi

The arch of the porcelain chopstick holder

The splash of the soya sauce

Narrowly avoiding your shirt

Stains on a black dress won't

Show

Up

Show up

Up or down

In the channel crossing

September 23rd 1940 Pieter Mondriaan artist

Sets sail for New York

From Liverpool 

All the museums of the world  

 

Stedelijk

September 21st

Και ηρθες

οπως η ροδοδαχτυλη αυγη*

Willem de Kooning

Rosy – fingered dawn

Louise Point

1963

Iliad

The sea as unseen

Barbarians

Crowded her night time dreams

Nightmares. They called them

Dead people with black mouths and

No eye sockets

White paint

On the pony

No she did not see

The sea

Was laid bare in front of her

Iliad

Θαλαττα, θαλαττα*

They cried in awe

 

 

*you came, like the rosy-fingered dawn

*the sea, the sea

Phil Sawdon
Phil Sawdon - La souris est en dessous de la table

La souris est en dessous de la table is an ongoing set of ‘painted pages’. Included here are pages 19-22. This mixed media work, started in 2013, frames the sculptural painting via the page, presenting the work as theatrical, a stage discovered while the performance unfolds. 

Phil Sawdon

Page 19

Phil Sawdon

Page 20

Phil Sawdon

Page 21

Phil Sawdon

Page 22

Phil Sawdon, La souris est en dessous de la table, pages 19-22, Mixed Media, started in 2013 (ongoing).

David R Newton
David R Newton - The conceptual, the autobiographical, and the playful
text by Derek Horton

David R Newton, Science Fiction, Percolation of Formula Pink

Painting is a kind of thinking; ideas evolving and developing through the making process. Yet paintings appear to their viewers as fully formed. The gestation; the dead-ends; the abandoned compositions, reworked elements, and overpainted false-starts; all these are invisible in the final work as it is confronted by the painting’s viewers. But nothing is instantaneous; this illusion is part of the art.

 

Painting can also be seen as an act of translation, from a language of words and images formed in the artist’s mind into something materialised as an object in the world. In the mind there isn’t necessarily a temporal order: thoughts and ideas stack on top of one another and make either composite sense or tangled confusion. But painting demands that a compositional order is found, the elements orchestrated, the images combined, so that someone else might perhaps understand the thinking behind them. Crucially though, since looking can also be an act of translation, they might perhaps see in them thoughts and ideas of their own too.  

 

This, it seems to me, is the context in which David R Newton’s paintings function, but with the added complexity that, once a work is complete, the artist is also a viewer. So the process repeats endlessly as each painting is translated again into another, complicated by many more layers of translation, setting up constant references between new and existing works, reinterpreting ideas, objects or images in different ways, remaking works, making replica works, making objects to make paintings of them, taking images from paintings to make objects; all emphasising the constantly shifting but always present relationships between different elements within an entire body of work. This methodology creates an immersive, miniature, self-contained world where constantly everything references everything else. This is reflected in Newton’s strategies for showing the work as well as his strategies for making it: there is a theatricality in the composition of the individual works and also in the orchestration of them as individual components within the overall installation of an exhibition.

Newton himself describes this process as one of distilling conceptual ideas (whether triggered by historic paintings, childhood memories, or whatever else) into abstract schematic forms. Encrypted in these forms are aspects that become more pictorially or figuratively resolved in later paintings. Sometimes these can take on a 3-dimensional form, but then they are more like stage props than sculpture and could more accurately be described as solid paintings, which is how I view them. An example is Newton’s installation Return to Sender, one of many dramatic punctuations throughout his 2023 solo show Double Barrel. A life-size set of New York brownstone steps lead both ominously and comically to a floating lilac door, above which a trompe l’oeil replica of a restaurant sign near his studio reads, ‘Hong Kong’. Beyond this hand-painted assemblage (regardless of whether he is working in two or three dimensions, Newton always remains a painter!) renditions of the same steps subsequently reappear in paintings. Various versions of particular motifs recur frequently in his work, orchestrated in different ways and driven by different emotional responses. In characteristically self-deprecating fashion, he has described this process as, “essentially a kind of daydreaming”, in which, “things that stick around in the mind for long enough for some reason become folded into the work in the hope of finding some kind of lyrical synthesis of them”.

 

The ‘things that stick around in his mind’ cover a broad and deep range, including: the colours of milkshakes; the looped background aesthetics of Hanna-Barbera cartoons; the sun baked vernacular of movie backlots; the once pristine precincts and plazas of his suburban childhood and the brutalism of his teenage haunts like Birmingham’s Bull Ring; films by Powell and Pressburger, Mike Nichols, John Boorman, John Schlesinger, Robert Altman and David Lynch; the schlock TV of Quincy M E, Columbo and Crossroads; the interiors of working men’s clubs and dowdy pubs; early video games; Brutus shirts and Sta-Prest trousers; American muscle cars; contrasting styles of music from jazz to post-punk. But overlaid onto all this are literary references that range from Balzac to Thoreau and Charles Dickens, and from Henry Miller to Saul Bellow, Paul Auster, and Ian McEwan. He also has a deep knowledge of art history that informs what he describes as “riffing with influences” from Caravaggio, Vermeer and Victorian genre painting to Black Mountain College, and from Duchamp to Paul Thek, and “the three M’s” (as he respectfully calls them), Mike Kelley, Mike Nelson, and his friend Matt Crawley.

This by no means exclusive or complete list reveals a very culturally-specific and gendered perspective and focus. It’s one I identify easily with––we are a generation apart but both working-class Brummie lads who grew up in Birmingham’s hinterland with dreams of escape fed largely by American popular culture and eventually by art school. (Incidentally, I realise now, in a way I couldn’t have then, how particular the British experience of American popular culture is, or at least was for our generations, born in the 1950s and 60s. Americans of the same generation experienced it differently in just the way that their experience of and response to the Beatles or British movies were very different to ours.)  In this sense, Newton’s work can be seen to be highly context specific. If you are of the background and generation that immediately recognises its imagery, drawn from iconic fragments of proletarian popular culture, these are the hook you get caught on. But, as you get reeled in, you are pulled away from familiar waters by the new insights and connections that are prompted by the familiarity of the signs you recognise. To mix metaphors, these can then be the take-off point for a flight of lyrical imagination.

 

These specificities might suggest that Newton’s paintings are accessible only to a limited audience that share his cultural references, but their seductive materiality counteracts this. He speaks of “the rolling of the creative dice, requiring a leap of faith”. He means a faith that the specifics that trigger him will still communicate the general through the work to a viewer unaware of them. To put it another way, the thing that the work comes out of isn’t the thing that it’s ‘about’. There are many references in Newton’s work to facades and thresholds, their materiality, but also their artifice. They invite an exploration that at any given turn might be halted by dead ends that intrigue and redirect attention. So the reading of the work in a contemporary context and by a diverse audience isn’t necessarily dependent on knowledge of any of its specific references, even though the work itself is highly dependent on their presence in the mind of the artist in the act of making it. The idiosyncratic or autobiographical particulars don’t necessarily dominate. Rather, the engagingly immersive installation and combinations of works, the seductive qualities of their surfaces, which Newton refers to as his “primal, experiential joy in materiality”, and, perhaps most of all, the elevation of the mundane (“from the gutter to the stars”), all communicate to viewers in their reading of the work, even if the specifics aren’t necessarily recognisable from their own particular background, gender, or generation.

David R Newton, selected works, titles in slideshow

There are clues both to the importance of autobiography in Newton’s approach to painting, and to the reasons why the viewer need not be excluded by it, in this comment he makes about his uncertain relationship to his own history: “I feel uncertain about the ‘I’ in the work. I still feel like that 14 year-old, uncertain kid, I feel ignorant, but that’s why I still feel giddy and joyful. It’s a way of exploring things that are just hunches amongst a constant influx of feelings.” His hunches remain just that, without attempting to think them through into something fixed. Nothing in the work is definitive, the ‘hunches’ are materialised through constantly making new things, but they are always held in a shifting relationship to old things. Nothing is fixed, so there are always new relationships to be made, and therefore new works to be created. This fluid and organic process of remaking, repainting and reconstructing articulates the artist’s constant uncertainty as something positive and constructive. It is his way of negotiating and understanding the world.

 

In the comment quoted earlier, Newton equates uncertainty with ignorance, but this is inaccurate of course. His uncertainty is deeply rooted in knowledge; in understanding and thinking about how other artists have represented things. As he says, “there’s always a feedback loop between what you’re experiencing and what you know about.” But the work’s value is that it doesn’t use this knowledge to attempt definitive understandings. It concentrates on thinking through ideas, recognising that repeatedly questioning things is better than thinking hubristically that you understand them.

 

To look closely at David R. Newton’s paintings and to enter their self-contained world involves a willingness to engage with constantly shifting transitions between the conceptual, the autobiographical, and the playful. You are confronted by graphic and in-your-face imagery, punctuated often by surface qualities and sometimes entire paintings that are  fragile and delicate. Their deliberately clunky facture, cinematic influences, cartoonish trompe l’oeil, jokey or dumbly descriptive titling (Forlorn Sandwich, The Milk Powder Plot, Back of an American Till, for example), combine to create a disarmingly down-to-earth façade, behind which lurks both philosophical introspection and a world-view characterised by both wide-eyed curiosity and a sunny-side-up cynicism. My sense of Newton’s work and his approach to it resonates with these words of Henry Miller on his connection to living on the street: “It means to wander all your life, to be free. It means accident and incident, drama, movement. It means above all dream. A harmony of irrelevant facts which gives to your wandering a metaphysical certitude.”

 

I can think of no better way to encapsulate this than to conclude with two ‘origin stories’ concerning his paintings, one that Newton recounted directly to me, and another that he described in writing for his recent exhibition Double Barrel. Sitting in a train carriage, looking at a discarded Silk Cut cigarette package and a discarded Snickers chocolate bar wrapper on the table in front of him, a vaguely visible landscape seen through the dirty window behind them, he made a visual connection between this scene and Augustus Leopold Egg’s 1862 painting, The Travelling Companions. This became a painting, Schema of Faraway, which marked the start of the schematic approach described earlier in this text — a visual distillation of the components of the original source image, abstracted, reinterpreted, and resolved pictorially in more figuratively descriptive paintings. The same process occurs in reverse in Science Fiction, in which a still-life flower painting is repeated as a simple, schematic painting of its constituent colours and the two are exhibited together. As he wrote: “It’s a painting born of ignorance. I’m pretty ignorant about flowers and their physical constituents, so the painting depicts only a translation of what I observed. The flowers were pretty and fragrant, delicate and alien. Science and my physiological attributes helped me paint them, yet I largely have a fictitious understanding of them, and art is my pondering of the strangeness of my relationship to them.”

Images courtesy the artist. 

Adam Gillam
Adam Gillam - Paintings made through the camera

Paintings made through the camera is a series of mixed media works captured in photograph form. With a combination of various materials, printed, drawn and taped, and the part-obscured reflection of the artist and room, the works are playful, theatrical. Framed by the camera, they appear to invite the viewer, as though looking through a window, to connect the elements into some narrative, perhaps offered a clue via the suggestive titles. Gillam lists the elements:

"Medium format film, Mamiya RB67, painted paper and wood, string, fabric tape, photographs, rephotographed photographs, my hand, my arm, my head, me, paper, plastic water bottle, mirror, mirrored, marker pen, photocopies, screen, rubber glove, tent pole, knife, holes, woolly hat."

Adam Gillam, Paintings made through the camera series, titles in slideshow

Cora Weiss
Cora Weiss - BurnOut100: Grey Green Envisioning

Weiss' studio takes the form of a stage, a "sketchbook" as Weiss notes below, evoking the process before and during making, the mind at work, explosive and palimpsestuous. It suggests an intimacy, the offer of revealing a secret space before tidying away or presenting a finished piece. Weiss includes a selection of details of this space, parts of the whole captured as a viewer might have their attention grabbed by an image or word or combination of things. 

Cora Weiss, BurnOut100: Grey Green Envisioning

"The floodgates opened and the studio walls became akin to sketchbook pages. An expanded atlas dealing with the dual-edged blade of image-overload. These images document a release of paint, image and text. I wanted to show and make work out of everything that goes into the painting process, that is usually hidden or lost once the canvas is stretched and put into a white cube space. An immersive, world-building practice. Paint surrounds and covers photographs, and words sporadically punctuate swathes of colour and image. An urge to see everything at once: ‘BurnOut100_GreyGreenEnvisioning’."

 

Acrylic, emulsion, photographs, wallpaper paste, newsprint.

Cora Weiss, BurnOut100: Grey Green Envisioning (selected details)

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