Abstract Critical

William Scott, Garth Evans, Haroon Mirza, John Constable

Written by Robin Greenwood

Garth Evans: An Arts Council Collection exhibition selected by Richard Deacon, 23 March – 27 May 2013, Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park © Garth Evans 2013. Photo: Jonty Wilde

Garth Evans: An Arts Council Collection exhibition selected by Richard Deacon, 23 March – 27 May 2013, Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park © Garth Evans 2013. Photo: Jonty Wilde

I’ve just been to see the Garth Evans exhibition (now ended) at the Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, setting out his work from the sixties and seventies in a wide-ranging display. Aside from any considerations of the work, it is worth mentioning as an increasingly rare instance of exemplary curation, for which the selector, sculptor Richard Deacon, deserves full credit. All works were given ample space, interesting correspondences were made without being forced, and generally the curation was commendable for its complete invisibility, allowing the work to be seen to its best advantage without commentary.

The rest of my brief Yorkshire sojourn was not to follow suit. A weekend of intense irritation with the vagaries of contemporary curation began at Leeds Art Gallery, in the regular displays, attempting to look at paintings by Courbet and Corot that were hung two feet from the floor (honest!). This seemed to be inadvertent or at least done out of sheer ignorance. Much worse was to follow. There is upstairs in the same museum a new display with a whole jumbled wall of landscape paintings taken from the collection, hung seemingly at random, with a puzzle of a leaflet giving clues as to what was what; and again, with some works at ten feet high and some at two feet; but this time it is deliberate. This display is curated by the 2012 recipient of the Contemporary Art Society’s annual Starting Point Curatorial Fellowship for graduate curators, no less, and is part of some concept “exploring the revision of the landscape tradition in British art”. The fact that you couldn’t actually see some of the work properly didn’t seem to be a bar to their co-opting it for the purposes of furthering some dubious curatorial conceit, without, of course, the consent of the artists involved, since they were mostly dead.

Of course we do this all the time, put on shows of dead artists’ work, arranged in ways they would have neither understood nor proposed. Well, that’s true; but those artists would probably go along with the conceit so long as their art was well shown and in conducive company. If you are to press upon these works your curatorial self-importance at their expense, the least you can do is make sure they can be seen properly. Anything else is the height of discourtesy.

Haroon Mirza, Water, Electricity, Fire, 2013 (detail). Photo: Gabriel Szabo / Guzelian. Image courtesy of The Hepworth Wakefield

Haroon Mirza, Water, Electricity, Fire, 2013 (detail). Photo: Gabriel Szabo / Guzelian. Image courtesy of The Hepworth Wakefield

A fuss about nothing? Maybe; but things didn’t improve. Over at the Hepworth, Wakefield, the object of my visit, the William Scott retrospective, which I will get to shortly, is paired with an exhibition by Haroon Mirza. I’ll let the Hepworth explain:

“The first gallery space will feature bright auras of light that will illuminate a display featuring key works from The Hepworth Wakefield’s collection. Operating in sequence, the light will accentuate the sculptures and paintings, and the ways in which they are displayed.”

So basically this artist has appropriated the works of other artists from the Hepworth collection, presumably with the full connivance of Hepworth’s directors and curators, bunched a few together in anomalous and badly set-out groups on the floor, and surrounded them with flashing neon lights and mind-fucking noises, so you can’t really see them any more. OK, I admit this kind of thing is not my kind of thing, but I could have walked past without bothering, because you see this sort of unfocussed installation all the time (see Armleder elsewhere on this site); but the sheer wretched cheek of taking some other artist’s hard-worked piece and using them to make your own statement about something or other – probably about curation itself, I suppose – when in fact they might have had something far more important than you to say, had you given them the chance, is just beyond any redemption. I don’t really recall what the works were that Mirza had purloined (a blue funk having set in by this stage; but there was definitely a big Henry Moore wood-carving in there somewhere), but even if I absolutely hated someone’s artwork (like the Henry Moore) I would never ever, ever even consider dissing them to this extent. You just should not do this to another artist’s work.

William Scott, Still Life with Candlestick, 1949–50, private collection, © 2013 estate of William Scott

William Scott, Still Life with Candlestick, 1949–50, private collection, © 2013 estate of William Scott

And so we come to the William Scott – a little rankled by this time, and with curation itself in the forefront of my mind, which is exactly where it shouldn’t be; and attempting to turn a deaf ear to the horrid noises emanating from the Mirza display (which in itself is an offense in a visual art gallery). Happily, the Scott is well-curated. I might have asked for a few less works or an extra room or two (those occupied by Mirza would have done nicely), and perhaps a lessening in the label department. Oh, and a little more coherence in chronology would have helped, since the show started with a room of early work, then got a bit mixed between themes and timelines after that, so you had to jump around, guessing at development. But on the whole, reasonably well hung; though I’m not sure why they purposely excluded daylight. I think that’s all my quibbles…

William Scott, Still Life with Garlic, 1947. Presented to Fermanagh County Museum by the Earl of Belmore. © 2013 estate of William Scott

William Scott, Still Life with Garlic, 1947. Presented to Fermanagh County Museum by the Earl of Belmore. © 2013 estate of William Scott

So, what about the art? Well, for me, Scott is, and remains even after this show, disappointing. Such limited colour, such a dependency upon monochromatic tonal variation, and such a reliance on drawing – this almost in contradiction of the materiality of the paint, which is sometimes exquisite, sometimes unpleasant – does not make for great painting in my canon. It’s all too careful and too contrived, a slightly perverse variety of consciously brought-about inadvertency. The constant paring down of the image from complexity to simplicity seems wed to an overshadowing desire by the artist for everything to most definitely and irreversibly become art, a desire which not only jumps the gun, but is too generalised an ambition to make the construct of the space in any of the paintings specific enough. The paint’s materiality serves sometimes to squeeze the space out of the painting, flattening everything to line, the opposite of its potential. Three-dimensional space becomes two-dimensional interval. In Scott’s own words: “All kinds of pictures that I like in the world seem to be flat”. So that was his thing, to flatten everything. Unfortunately, it’s not my thing.

William Scott, The Harbour, 1952. Tate. © 2013 estate of William Scott

William Scott, The Harbour, 1952. Tate. © 2013 estate of William Scott

This flatness surely means that these works are perilously close at times to tasteful design, particularly the later paintings. When they are not, when they are at their best for me, they are at their most figurative, and displaying the influence, not of Bonnard (though he is certainly present in the net-like all-over structures of the table-top still-lives), certainly not of Matisse, not even of de Staël, who supposedly impressed him greatly in a London show in 1952, but mainly of Picasso. They are nowhere near as good, nowhere near as inventive, nowhere near as spatially manipulative as Picasso, but the best painting in the show I thought was Winter Still Life from 1956, which along with a few other works has a Picasso-esque strength to the awkwardness of the drawing. On the whole, I rather dislike Scott’s conflation of the human figure and the still-life or landscape, the suggestion that a saucepan handle can stretch like an arm, that a table top looks like a squared-off figure with legs, or that a harbour jetty is a thrusting phallic symbol; all of which are a conscious anthropomorphizing on his part. It’s an ambiguity or two too far for me, a gratuitous metaphor which in reverse is a slightly distasteful objectification of the female body.

William Scott, Still Life with Orange Note, 1970. Collection Ulster Museum, National Museums Northern Ireland. © 2013 estate of William Scott

William Scott, Still Life with Orange Note, 1970. Collection Ulster Museum, National Museums Northern Ireland. © 2013 estate of William Scott

I have begun to be cagey (just cagey, not dismissive) about shows of modern art where a group of similar or related works are shown together – installed – in such a way as to add up to more than the sum of their parts. I’m sure this attitude has developed out of my suspicion and dislike of the kind of overblown curatorial exercises that I’ve detailed above. But I couldn’t help but notice that a quick walk through the Scott to begin with made it look quite interesting and varied. A more thoughtful and lengthy appraisal of the paintings as individual artworks pretty much put paid to that view. I think the latter is a truer picture of the achievement on offer.

I felt even a little bit of this worry about the Garth Evans – that the show as a whole, so beautifully curated by Deacon, was interesting and varied, almost vivid, but the discrete pieces, for all their rigour and thoughtfulness, were a little too minimal to be individually forthcoming. This seems to me an ongoing dilemma of modernist art. And how many shows do we now see of abstract paintings set out as an array, rather than singularly (I can think of several recently; Mary Heilmann springs to mind); and I really do mistrust that. I have experienced firsthand many times my own desire to put together an exhibition that in and of itself looks good, regardless of the merits of individual pictures or sculptures and how those specific characteristics might best be brought out. This seems to me to be the acceptable thin end of a wedge that has now been driven a long way in. Somehow, the rise and rise of curation has played back into the art, a point made before on this site. Installation art is, after all, essentially curation. Perhaps we need to ask why exactly we are showing works together at all. If it is to reinforce and consolidate weaknesses in individual works (which is, in extremis, what happens in the Armleder Dairy show, for example) rather than to elicit, perhaps by contrast, the strengths and inherent qualities of individual works, then perhaps in viewing such exhibitions we should exercise some caution and take extra time to separate what it is the artist has constructed from what it is the curator has devised. Of course, seeing works side by side can have huge benefits, and many a comparison is beneficial to both works. But we should resist seeing the show as the artwork.

I must just mention the redeeming and abiding feature of my West Yorkshire weekend. In amongst those randomly hung landscape paintings at Leeds was a small Constable I had never seen before; in fact I’d never even taken notice of it in reproduction. “Stour Valley and Dedham Vale” pictures a couple of guys digging out a dunghill in the foreground, with a field sweeping down to a fair old distance on the right, a glimpse through trees of a road; then beyond the trees to the Suffolk landscape. It’s a really great example of what Patrick Heron here describes:

“Constable’s eye proved over and over again to be the most accurate eye in the history of painting for recording recession. Yet always the deep distances and horizons are perfectly accommodated to the picture surface. Never in Constable was profound spatial accuracy disruptive of the most delectably organised surface-design.”

Interesting to compare that to the previous statement about flatness by Heron’s mate, Scott. This Constable sung out from twenty meters, continued to convince from two meters, was accurate to the last two millimeters, held me captivated by the sheer particularity and physicality of the space the artist had brought into being, the deep recession of the land held and reinforced by the matching recession of the sky in a manner seemingly unknown to other landscape artists (for which insight I have to thank my wife), putting the rest of the thirty-odd paintings on the same wall to flight as “mere flat pictures of landscape” (wife again) rather than art with a telling sense of purpose; it also shamed the conceit of the curator, who had attempted to use it for their own ends, but whose game it would not play; and it left me buzzing throughout the weekend, able in spite of the worst excesses of curation encountered to keep in mind the intense individual reality of great art.

William Scott and Haroon Mirza are on at the Hepworth Wakefield until the 29th of September

Robin Greenwood 28/5/2013

  1. Rupert said…

    I don’t want to be seen as defending something that i haven’t seen and i suspect I wouldn’t like anyway, but surely the point of this type of curated show is to reassess and recontextualise the work curated in this way?

    I tent to like paintings hung on white walls in quiet galleries, but that is only one way of looking at things. And it is as unnatural and as curated as a show with flashing lights and bells on it where the work is clustered and grouped, even to the extent of blocked sightlines.

    Art works have to look after themselves in the world, like stories and poems. (I’m a writer and painter.) They have to be strong enough to deal with strange neighbours and readers/curators. I think disrespect is a very strange choice of word here.

    I agree with Alan about it being ok when shows work because of the sum of their parts rather than individual paintings.

    & I think the Scott St Ives show was due to change and grow as it tours. I was certainly most fascinated by the relationship between his drawing and what they became in the paintings; also by a long wall of work [in Tate St Ives] that showed how landscape and the harbour slowly simplified and changed into blocks of colour.

  2. Rupert said…

    Why choose to go and see shows curated in a way you can’t cope with, or why not get over it? The white box reverence format is just as annoying to other people as noise and sound is to others. Judgement based on ‘this kind of thing is not my kind of thing’ seems a little unthought through. I mean, I tend to agree with you on not wanting clusters of work with additional neon/noise, but in the end they’re just works of art waiting to be seen and perhaps discussed. Do we start with taste, or something a little more substantial?

    It would be more interesting to know how the Scott exhibition contrasts with the version [? or different show?] at Tate St Ives. Certainly, here, one of the most interesting parts of the exhibition was the relationship between exhibited drawings and how they changed to become pantings.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Well, firstly, I didn’t choose to see the Mirza, it kind of threw itself in my face (and ears) as I walked through to see the Scott. As for noise, I find it rather difficult to concentrate on painting or sculpture with that kind of distraction – maybe that’s my failing, but I do need to concentrate on what I’m looking at.

      You seem to have missed my point about the curation – perhaps you haven’t thought it through – that if you can’t actually see what you are looking at, then that is worse than pointless, and disrepectful to the artists..

      The Hepworth show is the same show as was at Tate St. Ives, though it may be tweaked a bit. There is another different Scott show at the Jerwood in Hastings.

  3. Alan Shipway said…

    I’ve seen good paintings by William Scott, though at the same time they’re few and far between – too many pots and pans, too much anthropomorphising. Almost invariably, the good ones are the most abstract – but Scott seemed to shy away from uncompromisingness, from pushing his art too hard in that direction.

    Isn’t there, though, an undeniable pleasure in seeing a group of work gathered together, even if you know it adds up to more than the sum of its parts?