Brancaster Chronicle No. 51: Anne Smart Paintings
“Rush Light”, 2017, oil on board, 100x100cm
22nd July 2017, the artist’s studio near King’s Lynn.
Taking part: Anne Smart, Anthony Smart, Emyr Williams, John Pollard, Alexandra Harley, David Lendrum, Helga Joergens-Lendrum, Robin Greenwood, Sarah Greenwood, Hilde Skilton, Mark Skilton, Noela James.
“Some Awe”, 2017, oil on board, 100x100cm
“Some Light”, 2017, oil on canvas, 100x100cm
“Some Shade”, 2017, oil on board, 100x100cm
“Some Up”, 2017, oil on board, 100x100cm
“Super Massive Back Light”, 2017, oil on canvas, 100x100cm
“Super Massive Front Light”, 2017, oil on canvas, 100x100cm
I think the interesting and exciting thing about Anne Smart’s paintings is the way they successfully combine atmospheric depth with a very tangible physicality. This is an unusual combination – The only near contemporary who springs to mind is Gotthard Graubner, whose cushion-like “Farbraumkörper” (Colour-space-bodies) provide the physicality in a very different way and with very different results.
Relational colour is not important for this aspect of her (or Graubner’s) painting – as demonstrated by the near monochromatic “Super Massive Back Light” and “Super Massive Front Light”.
It seems to me that many of the effects remarked upon – the pulsing and rippling and changing of aspect with viewing distance – arise primarily from this strong duality of indefinite depth and strongly present, tactile surface.
From the discussions, it seems that the ambition is now to introduce a more pronounced relational “composition” into the paintings – pursuing more specificity and increased significance for each and every part without sacrificing any of the abstractness. No reasons are mentioned, but perhaps it is intended to strengthen the expressive aspect of the work (?).
I imagine that one possible accompaniment to this development (should the surface remain so tangible) might be a loss of depth, similar to that which Cézanne objected to in the Impressionists. Loss of abstractness might also become an issue. Overall atmospheric depth is a kind of sure-fire protection against figurative interpretation.
That said, “Rush Light” looks (from the jpeg) like it might be hitting the desired spot, while, for me, “Some Light” veers in places somewhat in the direction of specific, finite depth and starts to court impressionistic, figurative interpretations.
It is always a bonus to making Abstract art when some one takes extra time to have a good look at what could be going on.
Recently Tim remarked of Tony’s “look” at his paper sculptures that it is great when some body “gets it”
Retrospectively I find that Richard Is getting something of what I am trying to achieve.Written down so pragmatically it sounds great…..”combine atmospheric depth with tangible physicality”…yes, I think I try to do that. Or at least over the years I seem to have discovered a way to think of those two constructs in the application and removal of paint whilst involved in the making of a painting. In consequence that duality does sometimes occur.
Gotthard Graubner does appear to have a monopoly on atmosphere.I do not believe that atmosphere alone can deny figurative implications. In my case “pulsing” or “glowing ” as used to describe “Super Massive Front Light ” seems to associate with a general vagueness, something I would not be happy with if it were the main achievement of the painting.
I would aim for it to be the combination of that along with the surface/space thing and with an attention to detail with much more accuracy. This accuracy should be invented around the marks on the front surface and in the illusionary back space.Maybe with some sort of reference to an imagined “light”
But, hey ,I overestimated my ability to describe or explain in the film things which I do not understand myself.
So, thanks Richard for “getting” something here and sharing it.
For better or for worse, here are some thoughts on light.
I think that the capturing of light, especially in pre-Modern figurative painting, is probably the most direct and instant route through which a painting engages us and makes itself apparent. It is more instant than any recognition of the surface or realisation of the illusory depth. The light is what makes that depth appear at all. It is how I instantly tell a Hobbema from a Ruisdael. And it is not to confirm any sort of connoisseurship, but to attest to just how variable and how particular light is, that every painter defines it differently, and how strange it is that the particularities of their light will be maintained across so many paintings. However, this consistent feature does not necessarily have much to do in determining whether a painting is or isn’t successful. It would be strange to say that a work fails because the light is “bad”. Surely, the question goes to addressing the coherence, originality, expressivity, fluidity and all other things that the light “appears to” reveal or draw our attention to. But it is mysterious, because in saying that, there is also some sort of assumption that the light is “real” and maybe even separate from the painting, when it is in fact just the paint. An intriguing duality, but not at all conflicted or compromised in figurative art as it seems to be when it comes to something that aims to be abstract.
In abstract painting and Modern figurative painting to an extent, things get rather different when it comes to the way paintings instantly grab our attention. It is probably well understood that it is less through the effects of light, and more the uniqueness of line, and how line divides the two dimensional space. However, ‘line’ is just as likely, if not more so than light, to evoke outside points of reference. So in contrast to this, we see the development of a colourist approach to abstract painting where the light comes from the painting itself, generated by the relationships between colours and the way the paint is laid on to the support. The painting is self contained and self supporting, with apparently no speculation required. This is all very general and very obvious to some, but maybe it’s worth recapping.
I find myself leaning more and more towards a somewhat ‘hard line’ approach to abstract painting. By that I mean having a very clear and developed set of principles about what is and isn’t abstract, which are still open to change, as all things should be. I think that a hard line attitude by no means has to account for a hard line outcome, and could actually produce something that is rather open, possibly more so than if you go in with all options on the table. So in relation to the topic of light in abstract painting, the stricture I feel would have to have something to do with avoiding the painting becoming tonal and therefore setting up the potential for reading an external light source in it. Watching the video, I found Emyr’s explanation of a painting that ‘leaks’ to be very interesting and helpful, and made me feel very strongly that tonalism is something to steer clear of.
So what then, if you want to use a full palette? As Emyr also states, gradations of tone are an inevitability in that case, but one that doesn’t have to be the dominating factor, because you can have all these other possibilities that work to counter it. I don’t want to go down the road of speculating or trying to preconceive how light can be made abstract in a painting that uses a full palette with so many small transitions. It will lead to too much hypothesising and theorising that can only be contradicted when standing in front of a painting. This is probably why the beginning of the conversation was confusing, whilst being ambitious. I think that despite the confusion, this was probably one of the better chronicles, for Anne at least, and largely because these paintings are so diverse, setting up the potential for a conflict as all the paintings jostle for primacy. They do not seem like a series, but seven autonomous and individual paintings all making different contributions.
To attempt to bring this all back to where I began, I think that light, as splendid as it is, might indeed be a bit of a red herring, but perhaps for figurative painting as well. Just as it may be the thing that initially grabs our attention in a figurative painting, it is not necessarily the mechanism that undergoes the most scrutiny as we determine whether we think the painting is a good one. Is it so different for Anne? We recognise that there is a light, but trying to determine what it is could just be a dead end, whilst all the things that simultaneously generate that light and benefit from it are there to behold and available to question. The recent debate on Abcrit about Howard Hodgkin made it pretty clear to me that many abstract painters begin with light, and are attempting to paint the effects of light. It seems to me that for most part, the best paintings throughout history establish their particular light almost as a byproduct of all the other concerns that painter had, which may account for what I see as a consistency in how that light features across entire outputs, because it is almost incidental.
I don’t think Anne’s paintings look like she begins them with light in mind, and that is why they are so fascinating. She starts with a bunch of solid and tangible things which she tries to make sense of, and the question of light comes into it almost retrospectively. We are more connected to the past than it may often feel in this rapidly changing world.
Very thoughtful comment from Harry.
These paintings are just SO worthy of comment, not least because they are so originally different from anyone else’s. Anne’s approach is an extreme, and extremely personalised, kind of disinterestedness in pursuit of what is “more abstract” in painting. There has hardly been a day gone by since this talk when I haven’t thought about these paintings. I just don’t think you can look at them in the same way that you look at any other painting that I know of. I have not yet reconciled the difference between how they are made, their mindblowingly fabulous “embroidered” facture up close, which I really love, including the “precision” of it (though I don’t think of it as “tangible physicality”, it’s more than that), and the effects of how they are made on the visual content from distance, being described by Richard and accepted by Anne as “atmospheric depth”, which I don’t in all honesty like all that much. At one point in the talk, Tony asks whether it is a case of mentally putting the two together, the close-up view and the longer view. It might be, but not for me – not yet, anyway. In any case, I don’t need that even when looking at Tony’s sculpture, or anything else I can think of. So these paintings are either completely new in how you need to look at them and think about them, or there is a disconnect. I freely admit I haven’t yet “got them” like Richard has. But I’m also a bit surprised Anne has accepted Richard’s description of the “long view”, because it sounds quite figurative.
To underline the point about difference, I was looking at a really brilliant Matisse in the RA the other day and realised you just cannot look at Anne’s new work with anything like the same approach. For better or for worse, I just think that is a fact to deal with. And I think it separates Anne from everyone else, even the other Brancaster painters… Even Harry.
The business of space seems linked in this case to “light” in abstract painting. As I recall, this was discussed in three distinct ways (though in the discussion these were somewhat conflated). They were: Light appearing to come through from the back of the painting, an effect of emanation; secondly, illusionistic light in the painting, appearing to fall across the contents, from “offstage”, right or left (Dave Lendrum talked about this); and thirdly, actual light falling in different ways upon the facture of the paint, leading to different readings.
I cannot, despite trying very hard, get “abstract” out of any of these. The emanation of light from the inside or back of the painting is clearly the option that interests Anne most at the moment, but I cannot break the link in my mind between that outcome and a naturalistic effect, which is another way of saying “atmospheric depth”. So too with the “offstage” version. The third option seems quite literal and accidental and might just as equally apply to figurative painting, though it has been discussed previously as if it is important. Maybe.
And having said all that, the “naturalistic” outcome is completely denied by the facture, by which I mean that if the intentions were naturalistic or anything other than totally abstract, the paintings would not be made in the way they are made AT ALL. This is a compelling conundrum. They are compelling paintings. But I still don’t get them. I would remark in passing that they are for me a completely different experience from the paintings by Anne with a lot of white in from a couple years back and before, when paradoxically I didn’t have any notion of them being about light. I tend to agree with Harry that light is a “subtext” in good painting, but am happy to be proved wrong.
When Richard says “Overall atmospheric depth is a kind of sure-fire protection against figurative interpretation”, I am completely lost. I would have thought the exact opposite.
I’m taking atmospheric depth to be indefinite, potentially infinite depth. Any kind of figure would need a section of the painting to be located at more or less the same and therefore at a specific depth.
Of course, one could argue that overall atmospheric depth is a figurative painting of the sky, deep water, outer space etc. I think this is what it becomes when it is not combined, as in Anne’s paintings, with a strong sense of surface.
This strong sense of surface is precisely what atmospheric depth normally cannot provide, making it a fault in most painting, destroying the surface by creating holes.
That for me is the amazing thing about these paintings. I wouldn’t necessarily insist on the terminology, and there may be better ways of describing it, but I tend to look at painting in terms of depth and surface, so this is the explanation (of what we probably all agree is an astonishing visual experience) that works for me.
I think there is a fourth category of ‘light’ in Anne’s paintings and that is the light across the work which has been created by Anne’s choices of colour and placement of that colour. There is a great deal of skill in the manipulation of surface and handling of small passages and accents of paint all over these paintings.
Anne seems to have a great deal of control over what has been achieved without making work that looks laboured.
There does seem to be an element of tone but I don’t think that necessarily takes away from the abstractness, since it is quite subtle and not delineated.
Apropos Harry’s comment about light as a by-product. I think that may also be the lesson from Matisse:
Create space, say as little as possible about the illumination, and your space will fill with a clear, neutral light, as bright as the strongest contrast in your painting, even if the walls are black!
Matisse’s most radiant paintings are almost devoid of clues about lighting. Shadows are either absent or just token dark planes. Modeling is mostly confined to human skin, where it serves to create volume rather than light.
There’s a brilliant exhibition running now in Frankfurt, comparing Matisse with Bonnard. Bonnard creates a more compressed space in which even the air has substance, with hardly any room to let light come in by itself, and seems to be trying more actively to “paint” light, with very mixed and sometimes weird though always captivating results.
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I think atmospheric depth is a major issue for abstract paintings that combine the full spectrum of colours with an almost endless collection of small marks. There is a very high chance that you will create some sort of light flick or scumble that plunges a darker tone into hazy, ambiguous depth beneath it. This can leave things like the holes that Richard refers to, but also allows plenty of room for easy figurative readings… caves, pockets etc. So it is all the more impressive that this is not happening in Anne’s paintings, at least based on the photos and my recollections of the work in person. It looks like Anne leaves very little up to chance. The attention to detail and the results are indeed astonishing.
From what I can tell, the painting that most risks this sort of atmospheric plunge is “Some Awe”. That orange central area, as mentioned by Robin and John in the video, teeters on the edge. But that’s it, it teeters. It does not completely slip away. It returns, possibly as a result of the orange advancing, but also the scratches, just about scoring it onto the surface.
I think these paintings look very direct and very present, whereas atmospheric effects usually seem evasive and leave a feeling of absence. This directness of touch is perhaps unusual for such finely interwoven colour. I was very interested in what Robin had to say about the close view “confirming” the long view, rather than confounding it.
Yes, but I only said that about one of the paintings, and was pretty conflicted about the others. It sounded good at the time, about that particular one, but it’s not going very far. I’m still thinking about these bloody paintings! I asked Sarah’s honest opinion about them the other day, and she said “she’s lost me”. That’s how I feel. But I think it is a good “lost”. I have a hunch that if you think you have really “got” these paintings, you are probably wrong, or perhaps have only got a small measure of them. Either that, or you are ahead of everyone, including Anne. I’m not sure Anne has “got” them. Maybe I do her a disservice… I think maybe the “precision” thing gets closest. I think the “light” thing is a red herring, as is the spatial atmospherics.
The problem is that I think the discussion on the day, including my contribution, and also these comments, are quite conventional; whereas the implications of how these paintings are made are possibly the most radical thing we have seen. I think where the radical nature of the work is rooted is in the mindset of how they are made. I don’t think we understand it yet. I think Anne’s left-field attack on abstract painting, which has been going on for years, has led her instinctively to this point. I think the difference is really “big”, but we probably won’t sort it by more discussion in conventional mode. For example, I don’t think you can explain is as an aspect of facture. With facture, you get an almost literal demonstration of how the painting is made – brushstrokes, palette knife scrapings, etc. With these paintings at their most compelling, they give away nothing of how they are made. I like that.
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That last point is why I like the painting from Greenwich, “Some Light”, the least, because it is the most demonstrative, almost gestural. I also dislike “Super Massive Back Light”, but for different reasons – namely, the “light” thing. Neither of those dislikes is of much account, nor alters my admiration and perplexity in what I think is so good about the work as a whole. Were my perplexity to be resolved, they would be great paintings.