OPEN PATHWAYS: exhibition review

Jo Brown: Open Pathways

Crossley Gallery, Dean Clough, Halifax | October 8th 2014 – January 3rd 2015

Open Pathways is a suitably unrestrained title for this substantial show of abstract paintings by Jo Brown at Dean Clough. According the exhibition guide, the title was the last element to fall into place in the exhibition.

Let us think about ‘Open Pathways’, and what these words might mean in terms of painting. ‘Open Pathways’ seems to refer less to an end point but more to a complex meeting of potentialities: a multiple, metaphorical cross roads that embodies something of the sublime sense of freedom that is felt when one opens up the boundless field of possibilities contained in the act of abstract painting; when one starts to make a painting that, in John Fuller’s words “… is confined to a particular area of experience: the area of painting itself … you could say a painting about painting.” I am using the word sublime advisedly here – the term is often used as a watered down, interchangeable alternative for the word ‘beauty’, but it means so much more than that. In the sense of the romantic sublime it means an encounter with something awesome, with the unknowable, with the void at the edge of reason. Brown uses these words when describing her practice:

This ‘not knowing’ is very important to me,” she says “because of the improvisatory, intuitive way in which I work, which depends on being sensitive to what is happening as a painting unfolds. The natural world is always there somewhere in the background as I explore the feeling of landscape through colour. So, my use of colour is much more about feelings than figuration”.

‘Open Pathways’ also serves as the title for an eponymous large-scale painting that occupies centre place in the exhibition. It represents an excellent starting point for a consideration of abstract painting and drawing in general. This powerful and immersive painting is less a representation of something, more a collection of non-specific marks suggesting an intensified version of nature in terms of its general qualities – splashes, drips, brush marks, coagulated accretions, all build up suggesting elemental energies and intensities. A series of fluid ‘events’ dramatically stage-managed on the canvas: an abstraction ‘having an intellectual and affective artistic content that depends solely on intrinsic form rather than on narrative content or pictorial representation’.

This two syllable word ‘abstract’ is far to small to encompass such a slippery and protean concept, but ideas of abstraction lend themselves extremely well to the slippery medium of paint. Abstract painting uses a visual language of shape, form, color and line to create a composition that exists with a degree of independence, or autonomy, from visual references in the world. The term abstract has, in this context, become partially interchangeable with the words ‘nonfigurative’, ‘nonobjective’, and ‘nonrepresentational’ (take note of the negative prefix ‘non’ in these words). Abstraction indicates a departure from reality in the depiction of imagery in a painting or a work of art. This departure from ‘accurate’ representation can be slight, partial, or complete – abstraction exists along a continuum. Even art that aims for verisimilitude of the highest degree can be said to be abstract, at least theoretically, since perfect representation is likely to be exceedingly elusive. Painting that takes liberties (or acts freely to use a slightly less derogatory term), by altering colour or form in ways that are conspicuous, can be said to be partially abstract. Total abstraction bears no trace of any reference to anything recognisable – a situation that must, to some extent be recognised as an ‘ideal’ – occupying a philosophical position that dates back to Plato via Kant and Adorno. Geometrical abstraction and lyrical abstraction are often described as being totally abstract. Figurative art and total abstraction are therefore mutually exclusive. But figurative and representational (or realistic) art often contains partial abstraction … Brown seems to occupy a position somewhere around the lyrical section of this spectrum to me, but by using that term I would in no way wish to diminish the power of her painting. She clearly pays homage to artists such as Turner, Matisse, Heron, Hoyland, Wragg and Tonkin – a reassuring set of predecessors who’s varied and rich vocabularies and codes she draws from with knowledge and enthusiasm.

 

So far, so theoretical, but how does this help us to when considering Brown’s beautiful, sensual paintings with their complex, involving surfaces constructed from so many different ways of handling paint? How do we escape from the negative prefix when we consider the terms ‘nonfigurative’, ‘nonobjective’, and ‘nonrepresentational’ that might apply to these abstract paintings? Perhaps all we need to do is to ‘take liberties’ and approach her paintings in the same unselfconscious, disembarrassed spirit in which Brown creates them. “The challenge has been to retain a strong basic structure while painting freely and gesturally,” she says.

Paul Evans 2014
Paul Evans is an artist and writer based at Yorkshire Artspace in Sheffield.

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