An Introduction to Andrew Farquhar
contemporary abstract painter
1994 - 2007
The following is an attempt to synthesise the thinking and technical development that has taken place in my work since 1994. Four key points have been highlighted to give structure to my thinking, but they are inter-related to make up a complete whole, so should not be seen in isolation. These key points have been formed around the eleven notes on 'Sensual painting' by Nachume Miller (Catalogue, E.M.Donahue Gallery, 1993). Ref on Miller:en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nachume_Miller
Much of this material focusses on the work from the last two years, but these works are only a stage in the progressive development of my career as a contemporary abstract painter.
Painting which expresses the complete balance of life forms to manifest life itself and is completed out of all human senses.
The emphasis is on painting which engages in a broad view of life as compared to an exclusive and elitist approach which responds primarily to isolated aspects of life. In expressing the complete balance of life forms painting is no longer strictly decorative nor does it specialise in refining a technique or craft innovation so that painting addresses the true issues of expression and content.
This refers to paintings which deal with contradictions and opposites of the forces of life and nature, chaos and order, the organic and geometrical, emotional and conceptional. Painting becomes a metaphor for life and not a commentary on what is banal, mundane and trivial.
Instead of exploiting metaphysical opposites such as centre/margin, inside/outside, work/frame a more differentiated approach is favoured in which supplemental elements such as surface and ground supplant the usual dominant Modernist paradigms, through endless slippage and deferral. In a sense they act as deconstruction of Modernist formalism. The use of opposites is achieved through a process of deferral, repetition and return.
The works play deliberately on fluid, and Neitzchean motifs such as becoming and eternal recurrence. The figure-ground relationship loses its role as a central anchor, and the equilibrium of the work as a whole constantly shifts as the viewer tries to align themselves with the parameters. There is a lot of mirroring or duality, this being the same as that, this repeated or not quite repeated. The work is not so much a return of the same, but instead a far more disorientating recurrence of difference: in short a becoming.
The concept of recurrence of difference achieves indefiniteness which if taken to an extreme leads to disintegration. This is attempted by dealing with surface or surfaces in opposition. The space is controlled by the frontal plane whereby the viewer must adopt a sequence of viewpoints to come to terms with the blurred focus of the work. Shifts in the frontal zone require only relatively small adjustments; adjustments that never take you outside the boundaries of the overall format, thus, reinforcing the surface of the plane. The angles of the viewers stance is attempting to jolt the dominance or governance of the single viewpoint; because the viewers cannot immerse themselves simply in contemplation they are propelled into the reciprocity at the core of interpretation.
By fore-grounding the process, which is based on the principle of addition and removal, again opposites, the final image is both a result and the effacement of its constituent parts. The painting is questioning the identity of the component parts; the underlying geometric grid and the differently orientated gestural markings and the contradictions that appear between the two surfaces in opposition.This produces an image whereby depth and flatness exist in equilibrium. There is another kind of relationship, that has a kind of equivalency, between the opacity of paint and the transparency of medium; the flat application of one, the tactile texture of the other. Somehow they attempt to coexist in the same plane, but they question and affirm each others identity and their relationship. The painting is about identity.
The lack of definition relates specifically to the materials used and to the physical process of repeating the application and its subsequent over-painting. This repetition serves to push the representation into a deeper space, fore-grounding the process required to produce it. The process is comparable to the working methods of archeologists who in order to reach the traces of earlier cultures have to excavate layer by layer. This is why the building and the removal of the surface is highlighted and appears bruised, unstable, gritty, seemingly damaged but all the more human for it. Paint and shapes left behind or out represents a kind of negative, leaving the vestiges of once what was a painted surface, creating a sense of loss.
What is sought is a technique that is fugitive and elusive that requires a slower more sensual consideration of the nuances of composition and the handling of paint. Even though these works are blatant figure ground relationships; look longer however and ambiguity starts to assert itself which leads ultimately to indefiniteness.
Painting which emphasise the constructive and the positive, not the ironic and negative and whose purpose is independent of 'art'. This presents painting that is truly free; free of politics, ideology, commercialism, triviality and 'art' as the expression of the banal.
The positive approach opposes work growing out of the liberal leftist ideology which is ironic, elitist and critical that points to the negative.The constructive approach offers a solution to this negativity by relying on respect for tradition as well as recognising what is unique in individual achievement. Post-Modernism abandoned the Nineteenth Century view of art as a form for the betterment of mankind and substituted the view with a distorted image of the true purpose of art: the 'cynical' and 'ironic' approach. Art growing out of this attitude smacks of journalism and politics. This descriptive type of art produces paintings whose characteristics are provocative but ultimately trivial.
Painting that is truly free refers to the detachment of modernism to the direct response to nature and its reduction to a reference of man-made signs and symbols called 'art'. So to be truly free painting needs to cut through 'art' as the mediator between the 'real' and the 'self' and go directly to nature. Painting therefore should and can only operate in its enclosed space which is the emotive and the sensuous. 'Art' has a broader domain than this and encompasses expressions that are calculated and lie outside the sensual.
Artists are servants of ideas. The principle to negate, reject or question everything heads towards an illusionary idea of autonomy. Negation is clearly the visible working through of inferences, misunderstandings, symbols and ideas to be criticised; autonomy is not possible, achievable or even satisfying in the long-term. The problem with conceptualists is that they live without spontaneity which is almost a dictionary definition of self-righteousness. Like true bores they've missed the sizzle of all of their supposed sources. Invariably they have stolen only surfaces and frequently badly, thus creating works constructed entirely of bad surfaces and signs. Ideas therefore are over-rated commodities, especially when you cannot understand them. Ideas are those things you read about perhaps, initially self-satisfied understand, yet later they fade from recollection. Additionally once the idea has been discovered and deciphered its purpose and function becomes redundant, often lacking the need to revisit it; often reducing the work to an appreciation of technique alone.
Modernism in 'art' uses modern mediums while painting does not. Painting is static and cannot evolve or progress beyond its unique and limited nature. Modernism is a dynamic and mutable phenomena, sensitive to fashion and style. When painting mimics 'art' and extends beyond its natural limits, it stops being free and loses its uniqueness which is timeless.
A distinction must be drawn between painting as a unique type of art which affects the sense of beauty, and 'art' which refers to the broader definition. This includes graphic, plastic and automated mediums effecting the totality of socially transmitted behaviour patterns, beliefs, symbols, intellect and thought which is called culture. Painting as it opposes the conviction to embrace the popular, shocking and the banal in the order to convey the conviction of our time reflect only a limited aspect of our existence and seldom touch upon the whole. In elevating popular culture as the prime icon which supposedly reflects ourselves and our culture, 'reality' is trivialised and the true purpose of painting is distorted. Since it is of a metaphorical nature painting is the purest art form which enables one to confront the complexities of life and nature. Painting invokes a direct sensation within the viewer, the experience of which enhances the awareness of ones spatial and emotional environment.
Accustomed as we have become in contemporary art to the quick take, to the aggressive and transgressive, we have forgotten about the quiet pleasures, some of what painting has always been about: a certain kind of slow-looking, a certain kind of seriousness, a certain kind of visual poetics with a silence at its heart. The quietude is pervasive, the ultimate source of its appeal. There is still a place for this kind of painting as it is something we used to believe in.
Ideas, therefore, as a framework never really take hold of you and can never sculpt the immediacy of paint; rather the reactions, emotions and feelings as you are observing are more tangible, often as personally vague and arbitrary as the type of day you are having. Where 'arts' primary purpose is concerned with content, painting comes from the intuitional process of working which is to show a truth.
Painting which observes the complete cultural and historical tradition of great individual achievement and is based on tradition and skill though the form is new and relevant to the present.
"Paint not the thing, but the effect it produces." MALLARM, Stephane (1842-1898)
Nineteenth-century French poet and critic
Historically one of the ways that early abstract painting clarified its images was by reducing everything to a zero- point; emptying naturalistic space to construct a new spatial order and logic with painterly devices. "One key element of Modernism has been the impulse to absorb, digest, and sometimes desecrate what has gone before in order to go further, to launch a more progressive, if linear, trajectory. This path resulted in a reductivist tendency toward "the quintessential painting," (as) a concept, Abstract Painting Once Removed, by Dana Friis-Hansen, The Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, 1998. That rich innovative period in the history of abstract painting opened up a wide variety of ideas, images and possibilities which can be pursued not only for improvisation and interpretation, but as a starting point to go into depth in an open-ended form of painting. It's not for his so-called realism that we admire Manet, nor for his borrowings from past art, which he used as a springboard for his own painterly pursuits. What commends him to us is his successful struggle to find a new mode of vision, a way of translating the immediate perception of the eye into pigment simply, directly, without embellishment or rhetoric. For him, the act of painting itself - and he is a gorgeous painter - counted for more than the subject. His ''revolution'' was to change the way artists regarded the canvas; no longer as the ''window'' on outside reality they had considered it from Renaissance days, but as a material surface for ''pure painting,'' a surface on which true reality was rendered by the strokes of the brush and the ''patches of color'' it laid down. Any mixture of forms could be welded into a painterly structure, Manet felt; what counted was, in his friend Mallarme's words, ''to paint not the thing, but the effect it produces.'' Ditching the precision and ''finish'' that the academicians loved, he saw a painting as ''a suitable arrangement of patches.'' And by concentrating attention on painting itself, the phyical substance of it and the colors it produced, he paved the way for Impressionism and for our modern concentration on art as form." MANET SHOW, A NEW VISION OF THE ARTIST, by Grace Glueck, New York Times, September 9, 1983
My point of departure in confronting spatial and expressive problems is based on the vocabulary and concepts I have inherited from considering modern painting. I have seen my purpose as a painter, like that of Nachume Miller before me, as simply putting things back into that zero-point. So I have taken solutions from a variety of approaches and styles, reevaluating their relevance to a new type of abstraction which is faithful to formalist principles. By using the established devices to build a new pictorial presence rather than merely abstraction of nature as was traditionally done. I believe painters have just scratched the surface of the rich possibilities of abstraction and the potential has yet to be fully realised. The problem is to utilise a multitude of sources in a coherent way, instead of dealing with separate aspects of abstraction such as geometrical, gestural, organic, numerical repetition etc. These schools of thought need to be seen as only parts of a complete whole that broadens the variety of sensual responses and enables me as a painter to attempt to expand the power of abstraction.
My work confronts the issue of painting by breaking down the tools to their most fundamental state in order to see the construction of a new pictorial reality that is relevant to the complexities of today. Conventional abstraction ultimately exhausted its possibility by using up its own device. My aim is to expand the potential by developing an independent logic, that is based on a structural formation which arrives to translate the sensual into the concrete. It is not about painting reacting to painting, nor about abstracting things. It requires consideration for the elements taken out and what can now be put back in. Presently the elements I am exploring are space, light, direction and the plane.
My consideration for these elements came from years of looking and considering painters. The following are some of the key figures in this development and the elements they utilised.
Initial development occurred with the discovery of Danish artist Per Kirkeby. A term phrased in one of his catalogues referred to the 'Kirkeby effect'. Essentially this was an avoidance of certain shallowness of response through an enjoyment in having knowledge and opinions about the work, than being moved by it. Similar to that feeling of having forgotten something important, so important that you can not bear for a moment to recall what it is. The effect is sombre, even sullen, but with patience there is a stirring in the depths, the beginning of grateful joy of discovery.
Kirkeby does not anticipate or manipulate the viewer. His work is non-narrative, non-conceptional, and non-ironic. Simultaneously it is non-abstract and non-figurative, unconcerned with avoiding or enforcing the illusions of presence and space. His compositional structures are 'architectones' or simply motifs; but in themselves the motifs are unimportant, functioning to start as synthetic memories to guide the painting process. The imagery, its presence or absence is being forced away or down into the painting, through the application of layer on layer, reducing the paintings to almost unrecognisable.
This was achieved through five simple devices:
Only parts of the imagery material are preserved, recognition becomes impeded. You apparently recognise but only partially.
A kind of staging effect, an image originally conceived in one context is transferred into another. You recognise but unexpectedly.
A veil or layer can be dragged over the imagery which remains visible, although blurred. You recognise but with difficulty.
More or less compact layers are imposed upon one another as in 'Modification' paintings. You recognise but you can not discern.
A few points of reference are offered, but not enough to allow for conclusions, not to be confounded with an associative technique. You recognise but only partially.
After Kirkeby, Terry Winters and Terence La Noue became influential. With Winters there is a continual play of opposites: between outer and inner worlds; between clarity and obscurity; and between traditional painterly expressiveness and post-modern strategies of appropriation and repetition.
Unflagging respect for craftsmanship, unabashed sensuality and attention to process, the gestures and the traces of the hand in the process give both Winters and La Noue work an undeniably tactile presence and presentness. Both painters fantastic and ambiguous imagery reaches down to the primitive and the primal and out to the frontiers of space. All of their illusion and allusion point back to the nature of art-making as a physical and mental process; and as a testimony to the on-going mutilation of the visible.
Brice Marden sought out an identity of paint and paint support with a restraint that approaches neutrality. His surfaces insisted on paintedness but his strokes have been subdued and erased to neutralise their individual identities in an attempt to punctuate the overall totality of the paintedness. Marden was beholden to Malevich's geometry and Rothko's opticality, which he blended into a radical reductiveness of monochromatic colour and primal planarity. His awareness of the effects of the slightest modification in the plane, whether obliquely calculated, dependent on chance, or produced by the variation of intuition, allowed his paintings to stand-up as unique entities.
Formal and metaphorical complexity metamorphasised through a subtle clarity that appeared 'so spatial and then so flat'. This was achieved through the limitation of colour to make its own light and space, that was independent of and dependent on its planar partner. His paintings are resolved and dissolve in the dynamics of shifting identities and organic unity: of light and space which is counter-pointed by the rational measured objectivity of the grid.
Finally, an article by Simon Morley, a British painter and critic, put a lot of my prior knowledge into perspective, and cemented my development that has occurred over the past two years. He utilised a phrase 'Light-as-Surface' from the title of an article by Max Kozloff, in January 1968 of Artforum, to draw a tendency in contemporary abstraction. Turner stood as the exponent of the painterly effect, but the impact of Mark Rothko appeared to rekindle the interest in critical discourse. Essentially it is based on the belief that art may evoke experiences and ultimately tied to the notion that images can help sustain religious beliefs.
'Light-as-Surface' as the term implies, aims above all to create an intense and disorienting experience of light. Such effects are achieved in order to juxtapose the finite object-hood of the work with a simultaneous and paradoxical sense of immateriality and transcendence. The artists practising in this mode today emphasise the physical states of their work through various technical strategies, but at the same time seek to supplement this by a powerful sense of dematerialisation. The result is instability, the slipping of the bounded into the boundless. It is a type of 'Mad-Max' abstraction that seeks autonomy and shuns connection. It is cold without being coy, distant without being unapproachable, difficult without being problematic. It builds upon the precepts of 80's 'appropriation' and 'simulation', but it is not so theory laden.
Often the process is painstakingly intricate, held together by nuances of marks, delicate use of colour, and compelling dualism: the finite intricacies of the grid and the pulsating deeply effective space. Neither state seems definitive and one senses movement and ambiguity as the finite and the infinite interplay.
All of these artists have reduced their painterly language to a minimal syntax and dwell upon the process of making. They are neither fully accounted for by formalist nor by expressionist theories. Their work suggests that the paintings power resides not in the conceptional, and therefore self-reflexive authority, but rather in a way in which seeing (the contemplative gaze) is interchangeable with revelation (the process of discovery); thereby producing an intensity of experience that is not to be articulated in intelligible language.
Painting which is triggered by emotion, beauty and truth and is guided by intuition and experience; which by evoking an aesthetic experience expresses meaning, vision and order. It should exist within its own parameter and character, not mimicking or imitating other mediums, therefore it is not descriptive but can stand on its own and speak for itself.
Rethinking of my present working process began initially six years ago with a series of abstract drawings; however I encountered difficulties in translating the momentum and vitality of the graphite and charcoal to paint. The emphasis was that to create pictorial excitement the shortest distance between two points is a perversely meandering system of lines that create competing but independent force fields: the result a precise disorder.
I have spent the last two years incising a painting surface on which many layers have been applied underneath. Thus the profusion of tremulous lines and elegant shapes have been excavated from beneath the surface of the painting. I do not so much draw a line or shape, as draw it out, investigating the nuances of pressure and application. The exuberant scrawls seek out the edges, double back, move forward, slip down, congregate and drift off. As the painter, my role is to create a frenzied surface like a deliberating poet, only one who thinks with his hands, with the specific purpose that the best way to represent something is not to state it but capture it by stating the two ends of the process and somehow imply everything in between. This is wonderfully reinforced by Strindberg's preface to a 'Dream Play':
"In this dream play the author has...attempted to imitate the inconsequent yet transparently logical shape of a dream. Everything can happen, everything is possible and probable. Time and place do not exist; on an insignificant basis of reality the imagination spins, weaving new patterns; a mixture of memories, experiences, free fancies, incongruities and improvisations. The characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, disperse, assemble." Ref: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Dream_Play
The relatively agitated marks are not isolated scrawls in a desolate field but instruments or characters for the beholders initiation into a landscape that is far more active and variegated than might first appear. The folds and loops are frenetically tangled and act as paradoxical elements to the predetermined painted surface; carved in so to act as a negative space. The control over the medium is a means to enfold substantiality and insubstantiality, by ways of the contingent, the planned and the unforeseen ebb and flow. The incised lines appear so utterly provisional, compared to the forthright muscularity of the plane.
Broken lines imply form but stop short of conjuring up specific images, preferring to allude obliquely to any recognisable configuration. Within the tangle of lines there is a horizontal thrust to reinforce this configuration. By utilising horizontal divisions it can shift the visual weight across the plane, reinforcing the definition of the surface and the limits of the plane. The horizontal divisions promote calm and relaxation in counterpoint to the frenetic agitated scrawls. The repetition of the horizontal lines serves to push the object-hood of the plane into a deeper space, fore-grounding the effort that is involved in reproducing it. As Swiss painter Rudolf De Crignis stated: "painting is simply manual labour creating depth from colour and process". The surface acts as a layered record of the decisions, processes and manipulations prone to fortuitous accidents, seeing slips, blurs, imprecise joins and erased paint that reinforce the human element.
The underlying painting forms a kind of disintegrated grid. It becomes a sort of an abyss, on which the atmospheric veil keeps the viewer at a remove yet entices them with a sense of promise and mystery. Tension exists: between the shapes and the ground above which they float yet appear to belong in co-existence; between the size and orientation of the plane; between the modulated grimly sensuous surface and the disintegrated geometry that emerges from it. The greatest tension exists between light and dark; the light that seems inherent in the dark, the dark that seems as a consequence of the light. The sense of a hidden presence lends an air of suspense or brooding anticipation. It makes the ironic spiritual point clear: the paradoxical fact that the value of God is increased by his absence, and that one experiences the deity only by yearning for his presence.
Super-imposing an entirely new plane over the grid is a way of changing the axis of the plane. The worked plane is going one way while the superimposed plane is going another. The overlaying of distinct strata of pictorial incident of the contained energy and boundaries of the grid explore diverse permutations of gesture and geometry.
If I could use the oxymoron Traditional Modernism to attempt to pigeonhole my work. The standard elements of this label is a palimsestic method; surfaces built up to various degrees of pigment incident; a painstakingly slow process requiring belief in the contemplative value of repeated encounters by painter and audience; there is a deliberate appreciation for tactility; an inner-glow that suggests spiritual harmonies; physicality asserts itself through the scribed shapes, lines and the dominance of the plane; as an underlying surface, the plane, defines a concealed structure within its own existence; balanced distribution of marks testifies to an inherent organising principle; the predetermined grid is a preparatory ground for what will emerge; the compositional structure is embedded in the format, not something done to its surface; the sense of movement from one surface to another is a metaphysical journey to find an equilibrium; contrasts of simplicity and complexity, refinement and coarseness take you on a journey that is suggestive, elusive and obsessive.
In conclusion, infinity is an extraordinary part of existence. Expansionist theory determines that the more we uncover the more we discover there is to uncover. Therefore my work are symbols and metaphors of the process of growth and becoming, as if the process is about a perpetual state of arrival. Return to read further articles