“Walking a fine line between chance and control…” On the narrative of abstract art

My friend Sharon Drew is showing two paintings in the 2016 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. I’ve watched Sharon’s art develop over many years. You don’t have to be an expert to spot the confidence and versatility of her work. At each annual Open Studio event I find a different style, and there is never anything tentative about the way she uses colour. More abstract work can need more thought, so we discussed parallels between the visual arts and writing, and between viewers and readers, and it’s helped me open up a world that I hope you will enjoy too. 

Reculver, Thanet 2015

Reculver, Thanet  2015 (Watercolour landscape study) size 15 x 25cm

Obviously the familiar “Old Masters” tell a story (eg the nativity), but do you think more modern, perhaps abstract paintings can do so as well?

SD: Abstract painting can make a direct connection with the emotions, like listening to classical or contemporary music.  It can create a mood, atmosphere or sensation and also transport one to another place and time.

Abstraction also has a place within the narrative of 20C history of art.  Modernism, in this case, focuses on process and materials and lack of recognisable imagery. This links with similar attitudes in architecture and design as well as literary and performing arts of the time.

JN: So the literary parallel here would be with writers such as Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Kafka, Faulkner, up to Beckett…where the “story” may be a different shape from a conventional narrative, but themes and forms emerge and words play with each other to make another kind of sense.

Do you think it’s important that viewers “understand” a painting straight away? Are you concerned about providing an approachable way in? Does it matter to you if their interpretation is different to yours?

Each person brings their own experience to the work – I cannot predict or control how others interpret my work – I like this! I’m often told that my paintings remind people of something they have seen or even a particular time in their life, which I could never have imagined. As far as I’m concerned this type of response enriches my experience as an artist. I also use fairly open titles such as Undercurrent or Conceal in order not to completely pin down the meaning.

Way Through 2web

Way Through(2)  2016 (acrylic on canvas) size 64 x 76cm

Some viewers are able to engage with abstract paintings without any introduction to the work, maybe in terms of colour and surface, others see an association or meaning. Some people need more background to the work to help make connections. Others may prefer figurative and representative imagery to suggest symbolism, scenario or narrative to satisfy their curiosity and analytical skills. Imagination and interpretation are key to viewing most artworks – (JN: just as they are for fiction, poetry and theatre).

Technical skill can be harder to identify compared to a realistic image and so abstract paintings can easily be dismissed, hence the comment … “my 4 year old could do that!”

Can you describe the process of getting ideas for a new canvas? How might a painter’s planning differ from or resemble that of a fiction writer?

There are many different approaches. For me it’s often a particular process, such as a decision to work with diluted paint or the gestural brush mark, that is the starting point. I usually work in a very intuitive way, walking a fine line between chance and control, deciding to intervene and making adjustments or just leaving things as they are.

I regularly travel to the North Kent and West Cornish coasts and make sketchbook drawings and paintings out in the landscape. On these occasions I am working from reality – sea, cliffs, clouds etc., and these studies record my observations, like a visual journal. Back in the studio I’m not aiming to reproduce these studies but perhaps the sketches and the sensation of being out there inform my paintings in terms of light, colour, space, and rhythm. JN: The writer’s notebook as used by the artist…

The Island, St Ives (2014)

The Island-St Ives  2014 Sketchbook (Watercolour)

As I am based in East London the urban landscape also feeds into my work creating, at times, a clash or fusion of the two contrasting environments.

JN: I also found on your website this quote which could just as well be about writing: Surprisingly perhaps creativity can come from regular daily practice. It’s no good just waiting around for a brilliant idea, it is much more likely to come through consistent work.

Do you know on starting a painting whether it will stand alone or be part of a series?

The best advice I was ever given was to work in a series. This helps to build up momentum and get into the flow and also to be my own critic as each work informs the other and assists in resolving problems. However ultimately I want each painting to be able to exist alone, unless it’s intended as part of a diptych or triptych.


There are no “characters” in your paintings as such – or are there?

The paintings do have different characteristics – i.e. strident, understated, brash, excitable, energetic, mellow etc., and so can directly affect the energy, atmosphere and mood of a space.

Clodgy Point(2) 2015

Clodgy Point, St Ives  2015 (oil on paper) size 17 x 23cm

Is there a narrative to how your work has developed? Does it have to be linear?

Definitely not linear! I follow my instincts and do not worry if a new process seems to be taking me in another direction, it is something I welcome and enjoy the difference. Having said that I do see that colour has been a constant presence in the work, and also my intermittent sketchbook drawings and paintings of the garden and coastal landscapes have been produced throughout.

Very early on I pulled away from representation into semi-abstract painting with abstract shapes, colours and textures with flower motifs. Then I became interested in more formal grid structures and bands of colours before breaking out into free-form flowing paintings made of highly diluted paint. During my MA at Central Saint Martins I made a departure to installation which I felt was a meeting point of painting, sculpture and installation. After this I went back to painting and for the past few years I’ve been particularly interested in light, colour, space, and rhythm and the use of the expressive, gestural painted brushstroke.

The two painters who have influenced me since my Art School days are American Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning and British colour abstractionist Patrick Heron, so in that sense I feel very rooted to this tradition of painting.

I know you were recently part of a narrative yourself, when your paintings were used as the work of an artist whose story was being told in a film, “Art Is…”.  Can you describe your feelings about having your work “fictionalised” and apparently painted by someone else?

Yes, a rather surreal situation of being simultaneously detached and intensely involved. To be surrounded by my paintings and the contents of my studio, but in the middle of a film set, the boundaries of art and life were constantly blurred. I also loved the way the different teams – lighting, sound, set – dressing, costume etc. – worked together with the Director to produce his vision for the final work. Such a contrast to my situation! One of the main things I remember is the sense of real time disappearing, especially as the film shoot is not made in chronological order, day and night get very mixed up.

Great also meeting Paul McGann, Gary Kemp and Emily Beecham … so lucky!

St Ives Boats(2) 2015

St Ives Boats (2)  2015 (oil on paper) size 15 x 21cm

There are glorious visuals in children’s books and I think adults need them too. Could you see yourself collaborating with a writer? I don’t want to use the word illustrate, as I’m thinking more in terms of two people telling the same story side by side but independently and with equal status. 

Always open to suggestions of collaboration!

Thank you so much, Sharon, for helping me to elucidate parallels which I always knew were there but had never managed to put into words. You can find out more at Sharon’s website, her Open Studio coming up on 25/26 June in London, and of course see those two paintings at the Royal Academy.

 

© Jessica Norrie 2016

Advertisements