Brancaster Chronicle No. 45: Richard Ward Paintings
3rd June 2017, London.
Taking part: Anne Smart, Anthony Smart, John Pollard, Emyr Williams, Richard Ward, Alexandra Harley, Robin Greenwood, Sarah Greenwood, Charley Greenwood, Hilde Skilton, Mark Skilton, Noela James, Matt Dennis.
Terrific painting here, a terrific discussion. Looking at the work from a window at the New York Studio School (not in front of the actual paintings, in other words—and with all my “prejudices and preconceptions”), I’m thinking about two things: drawing and freedom.
There’s a drawing “lesson” I learned—or am still struggling with—at the Studio School. It was a “lesson” I associate with the “old” Studio School—maybe ultimately with Hofmann (many of teachers at the Studio School (at least until about 2000) were students of Hofmann). The “new” Studio School, shaped by the new students coming in every year, is much more about “freedom” than about “drawing”—or “lessons.” Anyway the “lesson” goes something like this. A blank sheet of paper—or a blank canvas—isn’t really flat. The edges of the paper or canvas are closer to the surface or picture plane than points around the center—though the exact center is right on the picture plane. The deepest point in space depends on where you’re looking from (up or down, left or right). As you mark up the paper or canvas things change, but there’s some sense in which you can’t get around these “facts” about this “picture plane” thing—no matter how “free” you want to be.
Even though Richard Ward and the rest of the Chronicle participants seem never to have received a proper Studio School education, this “drawing lesson,” these “facts,” seem to me to be very much “alive” in Richard’s paintings.
“Flake” and “Step” provoked lots of good talk. In “Step” maybe the deepest point is the little black triangle/sailboat just up and to the left of the center of the painting. Everything is organized around/ “moves” toward it. It’s just like Titian’s “Bacchanal of the Andrians” or de Kooning’s “Excavation.” It’s “familiar.” In “Flake” the deepest point seems to be close the edge in the middle left of the painting, that gray/white area above the patch of blue. I can think of other bits of the painting as deeper in space—and when I do the gray/white area on the left does come “up.” But then I say, No, it’s the gray/white area—and that’s a problem: the whole painting kind drains into that area. Maybe it’s not a problem. Maybe Richard’s onto something “new,” a new kind of “freedom.” It’s certainly unfamiliar.
I’ve probably got lots of things wrong about Richard’s paintings, and I bet I’m getting things wrong about Alan Gouk in what follows—but let’s pretend that when Alan Gouk first visited New York, he met with Clement Greenberg, NOT with Mercedes Matter (the founding dean of the Studio School). And, as a result, Alan thinks: the Impressionists ended drawing; Cubism is bunk; color is all that matters. Apologies for the over-simplification. Point is: you all seem (to me (I never met Greenberg, though he did speak at the Studio School once while I was there)) to have a different take on the importance of drawing in painting. That’s interesting to me—especially in the context of looking at Richard’s paintings. I don’t think I’m “right” about the drawing/color business, and you all are “wrong.” I’m still “thinking” about it. I’ll let you all know when I decide who’s right and who’s wrong.
And I’m re-re-re-reading some of Alan’s essays. It really is too bad he never met Mercedes! The “old” Studio Schoolers were so much “like” Alan. At the beginning of Alan’s Steel Sculpture essays he brings in Motherwell and Rilke. Alan tries to connect feeling and form. Alan’s very sharp about “technical”/“formal” things, about how you say whatever you have to say—but he never forgets that what you say matters too. Robin has concocted “abstract content” to deal with all his anxieties about what you have to say. Tony, interestingly, suggests (at least as I hear Tony) that Richard might be talking about “freedom.” These are all very much Studio School “anxieties”!
Thanks for your comments Jock.
There’s a sense in which I don’t really want there to be a deepest point in these paintings. What I want is for any part of the painting to rise to the surface when looked at directly and for the resulting optical pressure to be more or less constant throughout the work. The spatiality is then ambiguous or let’s say animated, though I do think that there always will (and maybe should) be favoured spatial Interpretations that stabilize the image, and maybe that’s where deepest points (and where they should be situated) come in.
I’m not sure if your interesting observations on the spatiality of an empty canvas get carried over into a full blown painting. My experience is that the edges have a tendency to recede, and that the bottom tends to come forward, and that both these tendencies have to be countered to produce a painting that (in the long term) isn’t irritating to look at.
As to what the paintings are “saying”, I think you just have to rely on that happening by itself. I’m happy to concentrate on fulfilling the formal requirements of the conventions that I have chosen to adopt (basically those of traditional colour painting) plus finding a sense of “rightness” – a recognition of something otherwise undefinable- in the finished work. It’s this second requirement that, for me, rules out thinking during the painting process. The sum of the formal requirements taken all together is a “look”, which, once it is sufficiently ingrained, also requires no thinking apart from that concerning minor adjustments once the image is already there.
Thank you, Richard, for reading my comments and for responding.
In many ways it’s ridiculous for me to be talking about your work—still, it’s “fun.” Often looking at the work of friends, standing right in front of it, I’m simply bewildered: I can’t say anything. Looking at JPEGs is in some ways “easier.” Maybe it’s just that the JPEGs are so small. I feel “bigger,” can pretend to be more of an “authority.”
Somewhere Alan Gouk says what I was trying to say about deep space and the “opposite” of deep space much more clearly than I did. Maybe it’s in that video where Alan and Robin talk about Alan’s paintings. But even what Alan says is just the beginning of endless “discussion” of pictorial structure. There’s no time for endless discussions. That’s why it’s “fun” to read your very specific comments.
You talk about edges receding. I believe that’s what you believe, but I have to question it. The mostly green (and some orange down the right) upper and right edges of “Flake” got a lot of attention in the Chronicle. I think they come a little too far forward. I can see you worrying about an idea about edges receding. I want to suggest your eyes might be playing tricks on you. You’re seeing something happening along the edges, but instead of resisting what’s actually happening you’re being carried along with it.
I see something similar happening in “Bord.” The dark brown patch close to the center is a little too deep for me. You’re not resisting, but being “carried along” by what I’m calling “facts” about rectangles.
I’m very happy to hear you say the bottom edge tends to come forward. The bottom edge it the “hardest part”! That’s where the floor is. What happens as you tip the floor up to the picture plane? Does everything spill out the bottom? We could start talking about Picasso and Braque (and a hundred other things), but I just want to say how happy I am to hear you’re to some extent “troubled” by bottom edges. You struggle with it. The struggle matters so much more than any kind of “correct” “solution.”
A quick question. How do you like working on square canvases? Squares drive me nuts. It’s so hard to break the plane! When you talk about an animated spatiality, are you talking about what I’m calling “breaking the plane”? When you talk about the optical pressure being constant, are you talking about “bringing things back to the plane”—“squaring the cube,” (to be tricky)? No need to answer these questions, to get hung up in my “language.” Your paintings already have answered the questions really. It’s just great/refreshing/exciting to look at work that “talks” to me!
As for what your paintings “say” when they start “talking”—I think Hilde said it best in the Chronicle. She said something along the lines of: Richard has put these paintings up on the wall; it’s up to me (Hilde AND Jock) to “adjust”—to change our lives (to bring in Rilke and his poem about that torso of Apollo). Still, while I agree it’s silly to think about a verbalizable “message,” I’m not sure you’re/we’re off the hook when it comes to “thinking.” Don’t ask me when we’re supposed to do this “thinking”! As we paint/sculpt? Before? After? Constantly? I just “think” there’s a danger in submitting too easily to “language”/to how you say what you have to say. Yves Bonnefoy insists on the “reality” outside of/separate from “language.” Does that sense of “rightness” you talk about (we all talk about this sense of “rightness”) leave you/us with a painting that is just “flat”/asleep/dead? (Needless to say, I don’t think a single painting you showed is “dead”!) Was it a sense of “rightness” driving Michelangelo? Or was it the “mismatch of form and content, a conflict between the formal motifs given cultural sanction and the expressive use to which they are put” (Alan’s words)?
Anyway, thanks again for your comments and for showing your work. Thanks to everybody participating in The Chronicles! Looking forward to more. . .
When I said your eyes were playing tricks on you, I should have said your color’s playing tricks on you.
I’m looking at your work through my narrow/drawing-centric “eyes.” I have a lot of trouble with color. (A lot of trouble with drawing too.) Anyway I understand your sense of edges receding when I think of the way your colors are often “advancing”/often in front of the picture plane. Wish I had some kind of “solution” for this. Picasso and Braque just ditched color (while they were strict “cubists”). Alan kind of ditches drawing. You’ve got interesting drawing and interesting color going on in your work. It’s very “interesting” watching them struggle with each other.
Yes, “breaking the plane” and “bringing things back to the plane” sounds about right. The difficult bit is combining the two!
I don’t think that rightness kills a painting. Maybe you’re thinking of “correctness”, in some academic sense. If I understand Alan’s words properly, Michelangelo was looking for his own rightness rather than the correctness required by his patrons.
Maybe it’s impossible (not just difficult) to break the plane and bring everything back to the plane—all because content gets in the way. At the same time unless you break the plane and bring everything back to the plane, you won’t have any “content.”
What Alan says about Michelangelo is “complicated.” One thing I might say is that I don’t think of Michelangelo as a searcher. Like Picasso, Michelangelo just “found” things. But then I have to say he was a guy who got royally pissed off when he couldn’t find what he was looking for. My words are always wrong—but I hope they “say” it’s been “inspiring”/“fun” looking at/thinking about your work. Looking forward to seeing more. . .