Three leaves appear to rest on top of each other on a dark cable, stretched right across the gallery at an angle. This line, four metres up, is a carefully calculated and unexpected contribution to the exhibition. It appears almost aloof, ignoring the other works far below it. Given the title Song by its maker, Richard Rigg, it suggests other lines of direction than the rectilinear spaces of the gallery architecture, in something like the way power cables supported by pylons are disconnected from the field boundaries over which they are suspended. Song appears to liaise strongly with imagined spaces outside to which, however, you have no visual connection, as there are no windows in this room, just the door through which you entered. Where do leaves fall from? High above, from trees. But there is no tree, no view to the sky. The artist acknowledges his own trickery in naming the materials from which the work is made: ‘three leaves, black tubing, diaphragm pump’. The invisible pump is what is holding the three leaves by suction onto the stretched line. That line must now, contrary to first impressions, be acknowledged as a ‘tube’. You can just about hear the hiss of the pump.
Song is seemingly distant in its concerns from the approaches adopted by the other artists in the exhibition. The function it performs is, however, an important one. It dramatizes the conditions of the gallery space, and emphasizes the specially protected qualities of the gallery, where an effect of a chance fall of leaves has been engineered and calculated. It also forces you to look up. The lighting here is absolutely controlled, not changeable daylight, and it is diffused, perhaps confusingly, from panels set into the ceiling that imitate the effect of skylights. So the representational play of the empty space itself, before any works are brought into it, is acknowledged by Rigg’s gesture. The work also engages you in a puzzle about what sort of support system for an artist’s thinking a gallery is. At any point the power for the pump could fail, or an unexpectedly strong draft could send the leaves floating down to the floor. (If he were simply concerned with illusion, Rigg could have glued the leaves in place, rather than putting them in such an elaborate state of jeopardy.) In a perverse way, Song makes the whole space’s connection to the intuited space outside the gallery into a peculiar problem. How does the inside connect to the outside? Does the social world somehow disappear when we enter a gallery? Rigg’s intervention into the space of exhibition follows some of the many precedents identified by Brian O’Doherty. It is also allied to a modern genre of landscape; it borrows some of the drama and scale of outside spaces to insinuate a peculiar uncertainty about the intensely white space we are in. As such, it adds another layer of intrigue to the heightened self-awareness that is part of the condition of any viewing and perhaps especially of modern works where intention, judgment and design are revealed anew by procedures that countermand them.
Chance is enthroned by some of these modern procedures, as a sort of deus ex machina that can make the work, and in this lies a puzzle. The artists in Chance Finds Us are among many over the past century who have productively incorporated aspects of chance and indeterminacy; not just into artistic thinking but, at a deep level, into practice and procedure. And here is an immediate surprise, perhaps: chance is not, on the whole, set up as a supreme value in itself in this tradition, but as the agent of complex and emerging varieties of order. Marjorie Welish writes: ‘[S]ignificant histories of modernity other than the one that essentializes surface may be told. Among the most respected alternative histories of modernity are those of order and especially, among these, an order given to unpredictable outcomes or degrees of freedom within a system has come to define modernity in the artifact.’ She goes on to write that ‘Indeterminacy concerns the potential that realizes an order and so gives promise to surface. In an all-over order the indeterminate form is without center, constantly reorienting itself in sequential, if not serial, fashion. Whatever else can be said about the art of our century, nonhierarchical sequencing of marks has remained a commonplace of modernity’ (1).
Examples of non-hierarchical sequencing of marks can easily be found in Chance Finds Us, along with other commonplaces of modernity, such as the disconnection between the hand and the mark. Consider Alex Charrington’s Compass Drawing, which was made with a mechanical aid for drafting (one still perhaps, found in children’s pencil cases and on the drawing tables of design studios not given over to CAD). In this deliberate over-investment in technique and a testing of its limits he finds a peculiar intensity, in what might otherwise appear to be a reminiscence of 1960s constructive or permutational art, such as Mary Martin's. The limits of physical control here, in the variations of spacing and pressure, add a liveliness to the underlying strength of the conception, which is that of a grid sensed as not all-controlling in the face of other rhythms and movements. Charrington’s small work – just 60cm wide – has a powerful sense of latent content in its dialectical structure of grid and quadrant.
Sarah Bray’s two works, in contrast, seem to engage in an older tradition of composition in their complex feats of balancing and in their engagement with a phenomenological field of perception and encounter. The prepared linen is worked on by an additive process, whereby marks are drawn in Conté over a triangular grid, previously ruled in silverpoint, which forms a rectangle within the rectangle. Each addition has the character of an experiment which subsequent marks must take account of. So while there is a sense of an overall field of operation, and within that some sense of a point of origin – a fault or fold – around which the work has been built, the procedure is radically based on a strict sequencing of marks. Intuitive and embodied perceptions of verticality and horizontality, which the artist uses in order to develop the sense of a dynamic balance, are broken down into a sequence of separate decisions, each of which must take account of the whole perceptual field, including its peripheral aspects, density and implied movement. Each may cause a new unbalance that subsequent marks must strive to recalibrate. Rarely has the simple metaphor of a ‘field’ felt so persuasively open to its scientific usage and to its connotations of landscape, which are accepted and in no way limit Bray's ambition.
It’s a thrilling experience to stand before these mural-sized works. As a viewer, you begin to identify with the decision-making process, as you are educated (by looking) in what that must comprise. The surface of a landscape – the relief of a terrain – sometimes appears to be defined, but it is portrayed as being continuously remade by the act of perception, not permanently fixed or mapped. It is a brilliant aspect of the artist’s thinking and procedure that her deep concern with horizontality and verticality must be wrought from marks made over a dynamic, triangular grid. Bray’s art is not based on a reprise of romantic understandings of subjectivity, but on a modern, sequential procedure: an unfolding set of contingent relations. This is allowed to reach back into the exploration of embodied perception inaugurated by Cézanne, which is not regarded as being made invalid by the stylistic assumptions and limits that Bray accepts as the real, enabling conditions of her own time.
A commitment to procedure as an area of exploration may enable the latent content of experience – the things we feel but struggle to name – to emerge. A work by Peter J. Evans, Cartographies of Travelling Without Moving, 2011-, was displayed on a nearby wall to Sarah Bray’s Balance and Movement 4, and could not be more different from it in ambition and approach. But it takes a familiar form for contemporary art: it is a participatory work, consisting of drawings made in the moments when a plane takes off or lands. Participants were instructed to place a pencil on the surface of a sick bag (from the pocket in front of them) and to attempt to keep their hand still as the plane moved.
The resulting drawings, or traces of involuntary movement, vary in character, but the individuality with which each person’s marks are made, or the honorific definition of the results as drawings – some are signed – is hardly the point. The collection together makes a collective representation of a moment that, if you allow yourself to think about it, is perceptually and physiologically confusing. Strapped into a chair, you are intensely aware of banal worries: how much room there is between yourself and the stranger in front of or behind you; what items you may want at hand to distract yourself, and what bags or pockets they are stowed in; what items you may want to discard. The view, however interesting, seems and is sealed off. What you are unlikely to ponder directly is the deep shock involved in being restrained from movement as the plane itself accelerates or decelerates. ‘Travelling Without Moving’ says it: there is a deep shock, which we learn to suppress, at feeling immobile at these important transitions between being airborne or on land. By assembling physical recordings of that moment, Evans allows, in an open way, consideration of the significance of air travel – and also of our suppression of how deeply puzzling it is. There is no comment here on the emergence of patterns of commuting by air, or whether air travel should be rationed as a shared resource, given its disastrous effect on the atmosphere. Under the guise of a joke about what counts as an abstract drawing, this silent act of recording gets at something deeper about what air travel actually is.
The quasi-form of science here – the gathering of evidence, the display of findings, the pose of detachment – is a useful masquerade, but not a mode that Evans always uses. He is also quietly passionate about the underlying social patterns and assumptions that his work may reveal, and in other works, drawings included, uses mathematics and algorithms. The technical recasting of intention is also a feature of Nick Kennedy’s works, collectively titled as Timecasters, though his approach is less post-internet, more artisan. They are drawing machines, which use simple quartz clock mechanisms as the engine, and precious metals – silver, gold, or white gold – in the role of pencil lead. These kinetic devices make elaborately patterned graphic deposits on circular gesso panels. (In his materials, if nowhere else, Kennedy’s practice recalls that of a Renaissance artist’s workshop.) They were presented as a kind of domestic centrepiece and social focus of the exhibition, under glass domes like those used by Victorians for the display of butterflies and rarities of natural history. Drawing machines represent a consistent tendency through the last century; as an idea in art, they will not go away. But they do not all represent a joyful onslaught of absurdity. The particular qualities of Kennedy’s Timecasters are their delicacies of movement, here allied to clock-time. The drawing device itself is doubled: it is a precious metal wire, twisted so that its two ends will both touch the surface of the panel as the clock mechanism moves. As it dances skittishly and lightly, it is almost impossible to believe that its movements are not random. And yet, with a few rotations, you begin to see the regularities in the movement each device makes; and the emerging drawing, of course, helps you to see it. It remains impossible to see the act of deposition, which in each rotation must be only a few atoms of the soft metals selected. The results, varied by the distribution of weight and the idiosyncrasies of each clock’s movement, open up for the viewer a surprising question: that judgments about the interest of design are not superseded, even when the hand is.
Chance here operates with the strong guiding hand of the artist/inventor, who designs the experiment. Intention has been strangely and firmly recast, as has our idea of the artist: his ego is sublimated into and extended through the mechanical proxies he uses to make the work. But the works themselves succeed in escaping to some extent, and have qualities genuinely comparable to those of natural history. In this Kennedy follows a line extending not just from Sol Lewitt (‘The idea is the machine that makes the work’) but from artists such as Attila Csörgö – who operate in a territory that can’t be defined as science and whose works are marvels of light, engineering and, not least, perception.
In Rachael Clewlow’s work, as in some aspects of Peter Evans’s, the visual field that you see is determined by information. The declared content of her new diptych is travel. Her notebook is displayed alongside the paintings; for some years she has documented and timed her journeys in her very small handwriting, noting names of places passed, events and some surprises met on the way. As a form of recording it is extraordinarily detailed – reading these columns, you feel that you can reconstruct her route through the day – while in many respects it remains impersonal. Although thoroughly a part of her life it is already constructed, halfway to being art, despite the contingencies on which it is based. She treats her own life as peculiar evidence, and has integrated this activity without strain into her everyday behaviour. This material then becomes the source material for paintings, which employ abstract and graphic methods of representing the data. Hesitate, for a moment, over that word ‘represent’. Clewlow works with peculiar, deliberately difficult colours, which would appear to be part of a 'key', as on a map, to be part of a system of signification. But the key – the reasoning, if any, behind the choice of colour – is a part of the form of information that she plays with. It has taken this long in my account of her work to say that, while her work appears to function as a representation of travel, its latent content seems to be a deep disconnection between the highly finished panel paintings and their source: the little moments that any life is made of. Some of these remain as words and names in the paintings. In the recent diptych there is a column of evocatively named places, and a column of OS coordinates, used to plot the adjacent painting's arrangement of the same data: in this case, a series of nine planned walks from Middlesbrough. The enigmatic separation of the source data and its realization as visual artefact remains, however. The coding and structuring take a visually authoritative form: a set of horizontal stripes, a mapped set of superimposed discs in complementary colours; yet this makes it seem all the more difficult to share. What does it mean to understand another person: is it to be able to account for each little moment of their time, where they were according to a plotted coordinate? Beyond this, her work raises the question of how we know ourselves, given the availability of more and more digital traces and records that we leave inadvertently as we travel through time and space. Clewlow uses traditional media, and committed everyday practice, to register decidedly contemporary uncertainties.
Anne Vibeke Mou has a similar commitment to a working practice that is intensely demanding of her time and energy. Like Sarah Bray, her work is based on a sequential principle of mark-making, and an overall field, but her procedure and the minimum unit she uses are very different, as is the effect of the work, which in recent years has formed a series of numbered works called Illumination Working with a hard pencil, she begins at the top left corner of a sheet and works across, making each time a block or cell of an evenly shaded tone. She works across an area that is a metre square, and as she works, she becomes aware of inevitable variations of tone and strives to recognize and match them. A single, overall shape tends to emerge, frequently a lighter area with a rounded or approximately circular form; it appears to have dimension and depth, rather than existing in the plane, and might be compared to the circular illuminations found in late paintings by Turner. She is highly interested in using a dark medium to create a subtle sense of light, and it is perhaps relevant that she began her career working in glass (and like James Hugonin has completed a window for a private commission in Northumberland).
These works cannot be photographed; indeed, they remind you that we are mistaken in believing much or most art can be. When you look at them closely, there is a richness about their construction. The cells or patches, which are regular but added without any measurement, make a subtle tessellated structure within the overall grey sheen of graphite. This structure creates optical effects of visual interference and colour, pinks and greens. It is a contingent structure – each mark creates the conditions within which the tone of the next is decided – and yet, strangely, there seems to be a will to form at work, in that a similar shape emerges. This shape coexists with your wider sense of an overall structure of grey but intensely varied and colourful shimmering patches. It is the tension between the overall structure and the form that is compelling and which suggests, as in Brays's work, a possible connection back to post-impressionist painting or to Mondrian (before his final shift into abstraction). You are also aware that at each point in their methodical manufacture, in left to right strips, such works can be lost by a moment of inattention.
The tesselated, cell structure of Vibeke Mou's drawings (however vestigial it may be to the eye from a medium distance) connects with the paintings of James Hugonin, which are based on an explicit ruled structure of vertical cells, which are filled by a repeated, irregular pattern according to complex formulae – or, as the artist describes them, an equivalent of the graphic scores which composers such as Cage and Feldman began to experiment with, to give an open definition of the possibilities for performance. Among the artists in this exhibition, Hugonin has worked most consistently at a procedure that allows chance and indeterminacy to play a part in the construction of his paintings. To begin to comprehend how works such as Binary Rhythm IV and V achieve their strong and strange effects, it is necessary to go beyond a consideration of Hugonin's recent attempts to use 'difficult' colours, and to work with black as a colour, to understand a little more about the scores that he devises for each work. These run for several densely filled pages in a large notebook. It is not possible here to explain how, precisely, a score for a painting works, or how, for example, even the notation for colours is worked out, and translated into the painting itself. All I can make clear here is how genuinely unusual this working procedure is, and how it differs so deeply from more formulaic procedures based on the painting of a written instruction. The work Hugonin does when writing these pages and columns of figures and codes, all of which must be comprehensible not just to the artist but to the assistants he works with, is peculiar work. He makes a notation for the repetition of a small irregular 'figure' a group of six cells. Each of the position of these figures in one colour is repeated and plotted across the surface of the painting. Another colour follows, but where the figure (which is in any case not easily recognised, even when complete) overlays existing cells, only the vacant cells are painted. The paintings are built up through a repeated structure, through a sequence of colours until eventually, each cell is complete.
I admit there are mysteries for me in this process. How does Hugonin 'see' the effect of the finished painting from his columns of notation, and how much do we imagine he needs to? There must be some acceptance of unexpected effects, and also there are years of working experience that means he can indeed know some (though perhaps not all) of the effects of the painting, as he writes the score for it. Beyond these mysteries of the artist's workshop there is the dazzling impact of the paintings for us to consider. Morton Feldman became interested in working against memory in his later work, in challenging our ability to hear repeated structures, or even to know what counted as a 'variation', in his pursuit of musical experience of a different kind of concreteness and openness. Hugonin, who has been deeply influenced by Feldman, creates work which can genuinely be compared with it. When looking at the surface of a painting by Hugonin, which is so animated and complex, you do become aware of repetitions, regularities and changes. What you cannot easily do is to isolate them as 'figures'. Neither can you do this with the best designs of Turkish rugs, which Feldman was particularly influenced by. Marjorie Welish has a striking phrase here: her phrase is 'Carpet Within the Figure'.
Chance Finds Us makes, together, a serious impression beyond the impact of the individual artists – who are of different ages and interests, connected by friendship, work and region, and who touch each other's thinking in intense and dynamic ways. In the past much of this work would have been labelled 'abstract', but the term no longer seems to describe what may be at stake when an artist refrains from direct acts of picturing.
1. Marjorie Welish, ‘ContextualIsing “The Open Work”’ , in her Signifying Art: Essays on Art after 1960, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 276.