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Andrew Palmer
Group Editor
3:41 PM 17th May 2022
arts

Getting To Grips With The Abstract Karen Southworth

Gold Whisp 1 by Mali Morris
Gold Whisp 1 by Mali Morris
For a moment I was blinded by a psychedelic assortment of colours, a smorgasbord of textures, by shapes and sizes of canvasses. It was an experience I’ve not had for over two years.

It hit my sight and sensory organs immediately, because like many of us, I have not had the opportunity to visit a museum or art gallery for two years.

I must admit, when Karen Southworth at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate invited me, to observe - Celebration: British Abstract Painting - I was a little nervous.

A feeling that was not generated from any stereotypical perception of abstract art, but because my sensory capability for assessing what I was about to look at had been dulled and knocked out of kilter by lockdown.

Karen Southworth
Karen Southworth
My perception however soon adjusted, and I need not have worried because Karen immediately put me at ease acknowledging before I even had time to utter my concerns, how to approach the exhibition.

“Andrew, when you look round this exhibition don’t worry that you have not been able to visit a gallery since 2020. Approach it looking at the abstract pictures as you would listen to music.

“We don’t expect music to sound like birds in a tree, we give music more leeway to take us somewhere and reveal itself. It doesn't have to sound like anything discernible in the outside world. So instead of trying to compare abstract art to figurative art, they really are apples and pears, think of it in terms of something like music or watching dance.”

That was all I needed. Being the classical music reviewer for our titles I immediately thought of a chromatic scale in music, using all the tones and use of accidentals in an analogous way to show ‘chromatic’ can also refer to colour and its sensations.

I start to feel prepared as my equilibrium began to rebalance.

There are 60 paintings in Celebration - several on a heroic scale and Karen tells me “Painting is a visual language. You don’t need to understand it, you just need to be open to these loud, colourful canvases and allow yourself to engage.”

Ha! Ha! I think to myself, a bit of curator-think creeping in here, so I get straight to the point and challenge Karen on what she means.

“There’s been some research suggesting people look for between 8 and 30 seconds on average at an artwork, which means that all they are doing is just skimming and browsing.

“What the armchair is supposed to do is inspire. We have even gone quirky and put an egg timer on a small table next to the armchair.
“I was imagining there might be a more chequered reaction to the exhibition Andrew, but to be honest the experience hasn't borne that out. I was trying to pre-empt people just dismissing abstract art out of hand because they automatically reply it's not for them.

This is the kind of exhibition where, if you can let the art steal up on you by giving it a slightly longer time you can see how it works on the imagination.

Perceptions can reframe and things start to respond in your own memory.”

“On the Saturday we opened we had one of our highest visitor figures ever and people were thrilled, you could hear the conversations happening all over the gallery. People were engaging with the works and with each other.”

The altruistic collector, who has a passion for abstract art and has been collecting it since the 1980s, wanted to show his collection to a wider audience and was adamant he didn’t want it to be about him as a collector or his biography, so he let the Mercer Gallery get on with showing his abstract works.

Zoomin and Harvest by John Hoyland
Zoomin and Harvest by John Hoyland
“Over time he’s amassed some superb examples, so it was a lucky happenstance he was local to the area and approached the gallery to offer a wider viewing.
As curator, Karen wants people to come look round and hopefully have their senses reignited.

“What I'm finding is having spent a little time looking at these pictures that on my walk home I’m looking at things around me much more than over the past two years. It's a sort of wake up call to use my eyes to observe the world around me. I am noticing colours and shapes for example in different things and that my eyes are adjusting to different things. During lockdown we've just been going out for a quick walk or staying in looking at our four walls and for some walking along with our phones in our hands checking messages.

“So, I'm hoping that when visitors arrive here, they will take time to slow down and look around.”

And, for all those who might not necessarily think it's their cup of tea, Karen and the gallery team have put an armchair in a prominent position to encourage visitors to sit and stare and reflect for longer than they would do normally.

“There’s been some research suggesting people look for between 8 and 30 seconds on average at an artwork, which means that all they are doing is just skimming and browsing.

Paintings by Mali Morris and armchair to view art slowly
Paintings by Mali Morris and armchair to view art slowly
“What the armchair is supposed to do is inspire. We have even gone quirky and put an egg timer on a small table next to the armchair. Yes, a wee bit gimmicky, but it's to promote the idea that someone can allow themselves a little bit longer. What could be seen if two or five minutes were spent looking. What kind of response and feelings would it evoke?

“I am hoping it will create more considered responses than knee jerk reactions. We are not expecting people to fall in love with a piece just asking for a little bit of an engagement.”

Karen points out how the armchair is a success and the comments in the visitor book bear witness to the popularity of the exhibition.

“We have used a book for visitors to write down their thoughts and comments before which has worked especially well with figurative art. Some of the comments are pertinent as individuals have felt moved to write something about what they noticed.

Sometimes it's colours or the detail they have picked out. For others it's the memories that rise to the surface whilst someone is sitting here.

“I was thinking about using some of these observations in social media posts, anonymously of course, to generate more comment. I think it would be interesting to overlay the words on the pictures and hopefully tempt more people in.

Mention of figurative art moves us on to another discussion around prejudices and biases that sometimes we have when it comes to abstract art. The BBC broadcaster Matthew Collings has been to the show and has made a little film where he suggests instead of trying to compare abstract with something that isn’t, figurative for example, it would be better to compare abstract with abstract.

“What Matthew is suggesting is why not compare a John Hoyland with a Francis Davison and look at what they are doing differently,” Karen says.

“I can stand in front of a Rubens, Titian, Tintoretto, or a Gainsborough and what often moves and excites me is the paint, the life in the paint and the colour. I think about how the paint has been handled, and this is often what is exciting about pictures. So, what moves me when I look at a Titian for example, is not only the subject and composition but also the energy the artist had making those marks on a canvas. It speaks and it is not just exclusive to figurative art it applies to abstract as well.”

I can look at the back and sometimes the artists have written comments, there may be labels from different exhibitions, even marks from things that might have happened in the studio and sometime a painting may have been started and then the artists have turned the canvas over.
Looking round the gallery Karen and I agree that John Edwards and Francis Davison speak out. Big names in the 1970s and in way these fashions have disappeared.
I begin to get a feel for the excitement a curator has when organising an exhibition.

Karen tells me that despite her familiarity with catalogues and computer images via jpegs sent through before a work arrives, there is nothing as exciting as unwrapping a picture the day it lands at a gallery.

“As I unwrap them, I am confronted with the surfaces of the pictures, the scale and the texture and I am hooked. They are revelations and I need to learn more about them.

“My job as curator is fantastic. We do this process called condition checking where we look carefully at the state of a painting as it arrives in the gallery, often for monitoring.

The MErcer Gallery
The MErcer Gallery
“It’s a thrill as I look closely, and it is something that I don’t get when it is placed on a wall, when it is easy to take a step back and distance myself from it.
“When we are hanging an exhibition, it’s very much a hands on relationship with a picture for a moment of time it is personal to me.

“I can look at the back and sometimes the artists have written comments, there may be labels from different exhibitions, even marks from things that might have happened in the studio and sometime a painting may have been started and then the artists have turned the canvas over.

Think about what shapes are there. Are they all in their separate spaces or are they overlapping? Then look at the colours, what colours stand out? Are there are two colours that seem to butt against each other and is there an edge between’ those two colours?
“I see it as an object rather than an art work spot lit on a gallery wall.”

This is not just a romantic view I begin to sense how an artist speaks in different moments. If you’re not an artist, it is a way of understanding and getting close to the art and getting a perspective on how someone has invested time and thought about and made decisions. I get Karen’s point: once it is fixed on the wall it is a fait accompli.

The idea someone started out with a blank canvas and went through a whole series of decisions and processes and maybe time is fascinating. And, as Karen points out, when an artist has decided it is finished, that is it. A painting doesn’t just appear by magic on the canvas there are a whole load of thoughts and editing that goes on.

That’s why in collaboration with the collector and the Mercer Gallery team a debate took place about how to describe the paintings. It was agreed to let the artists speak in their own words rather than having curators’ notes and artists’ biographies.

Paintings by Douglas Abercrombie
Paintings by Douglas Abercrombie
Karen points out: “The collector was adamant he didn’t want the usual screeds of interpretation on the gallery wall because we curators really do like to guide people to what they should be looking and thinking about a painting. After a discussion, we decided that people do need some hooks to work with. but perhaps the artists’ own words would be more direct and powerful than the usual curator speak.”

Of course, one must be quite brave to ignore looking at a label but having some thoughts from the artist is a clever idea.

As we set about walking around these sentiments are more applicable especially as Karen starts to tell me to look at a way a picture is organised. The lesson proves to be invaluable.

“Think about what shapes are there. Are they all in their separate spaces or are they overlapping? Then look at the colours, what colours stand out? Are there are two colours that seem to butt against each other and is there an edge between’ those two colours? Is it a sharp distinct edge where the colours are clearly defined, or do they blend and meld into each other? Look for little dramas that may be playing out across the picture surface. If you look at the ingredients - how do they work together?

“From 6ft away you may see a big yellow blob on a black background but as you get closer you might see all kinds of things: underpainting or the artist might have used a very thin wash on a raw canvas, it might be paint squeezed straight from the tube like toothpaste across the picture surface.

“It is that kind of interest and intrigue in those different things that help guide your journey.”

It is a point Karen makes well as I start to look at the individual works. And there is no need to know too much about art history or Greek mythology, allegories or vanitas art; I don’t need to know any of that because I can be in the moment of time standing in front of a painting to see what’s going on and it’s quite simple in a way that is probably more democratic and universal than figurative art as Karen and I discuss.

On another, I see the vibrancy of what the artist is trying to convey with some earthy and strong colours. I dare to suggest that I can see coils that look like they are serpents to which Karen points out the subliminal messages the artist is creating.
It is the curating that sounds fascinating and understanding that shows how Karen sees a picture from many different angles. When she sees a picture and what she can get out of it, differs from the visitor and as she tells me one of the most magical moments is the excitement of unravelling a canvas. That is how I am going to approach looking at the different works from her eyes.

We start to move around the Mercer which was formerly the 200 year old Harrogate Promenade Rooms, in one of Harrogate’s first purpose built spa buildings. In the Georgian period, many visitors flocked to Harrogate to take the ‘Harrogate Cure’, drinking and bathing in the town’s mineral waters. Opening on 16 June 1806, the Promenade Rooms provided an indoor space where affluent visitors could socialise and be seen. In 1875 – 1900 the Rooms became a theatre hosting Victorian celebrities such as Lily Langtry, Sarah Bernhardt, and Oscar Wilde.

As we progress, I comment on a John Hoyland that it has vim and it looks like the paint has been applied straight out of the tube; I think Karen is pleased with what I have picked up from my quick lesson.
The pictures are joyous, happy and life affirming I tell her. They are teaming with life.

I comment on how shimmery a Patrick Jones looks with the use of acrylic and the way the light dances on certain pictures.

On another, I see the vibrancy of what the artist is trying to convey with some earthy and strong colours. I dare to suggest that I can see coils that look like they are serpents to which Karen points out the subliminal messages the artist is creating. In others there are human shapes. The more I look, the more I stare, and the more I think, so much begins to stand out.

I may have impressed with my critiques especially on how I start a discussion with how delicate with a translucent effect an artwork seems to be.

I think I am getting the hang of this!

It’s so good to finally be able to get out and appreciate art works again. As Sam Cornish says: the vitality and diversity of this selection makes a compelling case that a comprehensive survey of post-war British abstract painting is sorely needed.

Without doubt the exhibition will make an impact and I encourage a visit to feel the light, space and colour and the presence that each individual piece gives.
Let it work magic on you and as I leave, Karen suggests the last word should go to John Hoyland: “There is no place for cynicism, only joy, passion and wonderment, clarity and eagerness.”

Hear! Hear!

Celebration has been financially supported by Friends of the Mercer Art Gallery. It runs at Harrogate's Mercer Gallery until 4 September