ABSTRACT art is difficult to write about. Artists rarely want to discuss their work, indeed, it seems to exist at one step removed from words and explanations.
Drawn Away Together
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Anthony Hatwell: Sculpture & Drawing
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Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh
It is more instinctive than that, more dynamic. It isn’t representational, conceptual or symbolic, it just is. Artists who work in abstraction can feel a bit short-changed in terms of art criticism. Art today habitually collects words around it. As artist Carl Andre says: “We live in a linguistic culture and everything has to be turned into language [and] people don’t understand anything until you’ve explained it.”
Drawn Away Together, curated by James Clegg at the Talbot Rice Gallery, brings together a group of Scottish-based abstract artists who want to question this assumpton. They span a range of ages and stages: one is an undergraduate, another has been exhibiting for more than 30 years. Without offering up heavy duty explanations, the show is their way of saying, yes, our work does have critical and theoretical weight, it is thought through, whilst at the same time being playful, contemplative, philosophical, experimental, all the various things which abstract art can be.
The definition of abstract art here is itself dynamic. Alan Shipway’s work is perhaps the closest to the classical definition, making marks and shapes on canvas which have a purity and economy, though they may be anything but simple. His paintings have titles like Unspoken, Unsaid, No Knowing, letting us know they will resist attempts to explain them in words, but are nonetheless serious paintings which repay time spent.
Kevin Henderson’s paintings aren’t abstract in the formal sense as they often contain or suggest images, but their sense of poetic logic could be said to be an abstract sensibility. Andrew Mackenzie is arguably not an abstract painter: he layers precise geometrical forms on top of exquisitely detailed paintings of rivers, rocks and trees, but he makes a valuable contribution to the argument of the show, and it is always a pleasure to see his work.
Jo Milne is interested in things which can’t be visually represented – an interesting proposition for a visual artist. Her subject here is string theory, her works intricate spirals cut from maps, materials which bring their own raft of history and connotations. Miranda Blennerhassett has created a mural based on the ornamental metal grille from a subway vent in New York, in turn drawing our attention more vividly to the patterns around us in the architecture of the gallery.
Eric Schumacher is a postmodern abstractionist whose playful sculptures make use of strong geometric shapes but work against the abstract instinct to reduce and purify by adding elements of the mass-produced and throw-away. He is a young name to watch, as is Rachel Barron, who has turned the Round Room into something between a design studio and a medieval astronomer’s laboratory. She has created bespoke machines for generating abstract prints, and arranged further shapes and geometrical tools on the walls.
She will add to her work during the exhibition, as will some of the other artists. This is a show about process, opening up discussions about ways of working which are usually private and mysterious. In that sense, perhaps abstraction itself is a process rather than a hard-edge definition. It’s a show to learn from, if you have the time to read, think, absorb and enter into its arguments. But, for the casual viewer, it does share the challenges of most abstract shows: a certain opaqueness which leaves one looking for a way in. This is, of course, the nature of the problem the show is discussing. As viewers, we must be prepared to find ways to engage which don’t involve multiple pages of explanation.
There is an interesting dialogue going on between Drawn Away Together and Anthony Hatwell: Sculpture and Drawings in the Talbot Rice’s Georgian Gallery. Hatwell studied under David Bomberg in the 1950s and exhibited in the London Group in the 1960s alongside the likes of David Hockney and Frank Auerbach. He was an influential teacher as Head of Sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art for over 20 years, but kept his own work intensely private. Incredibly, at the age of 82, this is his first solo show.
The exhibition is evidence of a lifelong process, a wrestling with questions with which many of the artists in Drawn Away Together would identify: how abstract does something have to be before it stops being representational? How does a work of art become a metaphor for something bigger? How does one push a form until it encapsulates the essence of a thing, not just its visible form but its inner nature?
Hatwell’s drawings and paint sketches are fluid, confident experiments pushing the traditional genres of art, such as the nude and the portrait, against the constraints of modernism. His sculptures are remarkable: blocks of wood hewn to make primitive heads, planks and spars fixed together to create dynamic figures, smaller works in bronze suggesting draped or reclining figures but moving closer to the abstracted form. The works have the abstractionist’s sense of economy: what is the smallest number of components needed to convey a head, or a dancing figure, or a girl tying her hair? And is it possible that such a form will convey the essence of the thing more effectively than something more complex and realistic? It is a fine body of work, all the more remarkable for having remained hidden for more than 40 years.
• Both shows run until 4 May