Somewhat Abstract offers painting, sculpture and more visual 'crack' in Nottingham

By Mark Sheerin | 23 April 2014

Exhibition review: Somewhat Abstract, Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham, until June 29 2014

Installation view of a white walled gallery with photographs and a painting© Somewhat Abstract at Nottingham Contemporary. Photo Andy Keate
Has there ever been a work of art that was not somehow ‘somewhat abstract’? This broad selection criteria results in an extensive show of works from the Arts Council Collection. It is the biggest display of their wares since 2006. The work is, as the title suggests, more or less abstract, by turns embracing and rejecting non-representational art.

A work by John Hoyland from 1973 is shorthand for abstraction: a large red square above a yellow ground, as if he was a looser, craggier Rothko. You imagine this energizing work would be popular with the public institutions to which the Collection lends.

On a low plinth nearby is a sculpture by Caro. By default it looks (somewhat) like a plough, cutting through surrounding space. This, too, is the kind of work which comes to mind when you first think of abstraction. It is a wonderful embodiment of dynamism, but a woeful piece of social comment - of which more later.

The exhibition tours through five decades of British painting, from the obscure gloom of a 1906 Sickert interior to the rippling blacks and whites of a landsape by Bridget Riley. The best known piece here is the earliest screaming pope by Francis Bacon.

Dark toned oil painting of a woman© Walter Sickert painting in the Arts Council Collection. Image courtesy Nottingham Contemporary
But two works by Hepworth demonstrate that abstraction remains connected to the world, if only we can see its point of origin. In a painting from 1947 she depicts work in progress in an operating theatre. In 1966 she presents an ovoid sculpture with hallmark taut strings. The three-dimensional piece has a mint-coloured hollow echoing the cavity of the patient in the painting. In a show full of juxtapositions, this is the most emphatic.

Abstraction has its uses, and the show includes two works inspired by everyday pieces of working abstraction, namely maps. Land, by Kathy Prendergast, is a contoured tent rising from a grey sea. It demonstrates that colour, sandy yellows and pale greens can fix a concrete meaning to an abstract form.

Emma Kay, meanwhile, offers us The World From Memory no.3, a humorous attempt to draw a monumental map of the world with reference to neither theodolite nor atlas. Does memory, or rather forgetfulness, render all knowledge partly abstract? It seems so.

Even the most abstract works can be pinned down by a wall plaque. A white construction by Phillip Lai looks like a miniature gas reservoir. But we may deduce that the canisters are filled with pig blood and the work is called Trial of Former Leader. It takes little to relate a piece of abstraction to social realities.  

Social realities are never far from the work of Jeremy Deller, and his piece here quotes Marx: “In itself, money is abstract, a conventional sign that can serve as the equivalent to any commodity - but it has actual social and material consequences”.

So labour can be abstract. Creative work can be abstract. Here we can see exciting new vistas open up for abstract art.

A squat black bust, meanwhile, offers, for this viewer, the most resounding statement in the show. On closer inspection this is a bronze asthma inhaler dubbed a crack pipe by artist Keith Coventry. Thankfully it is accompanied by a quote which allows you to comprehend the full import of this piece

The contemporary artist reveals he was thinking about Morandi, an Italian artist making formal work in the years of fascism. He is reported to have been more interested in the relation between bottles: “I thought that was analagous to a crack addict who has no interest in events,” says Coventry.

Is purely abstract art crack for the mind? Or is there no such thing as pure abstraction? Both positions are suggested by this thoughtful and far reaching show.

  • Open 10am-7pm (6pm Saturday, 11am-5pm Sunday, closed Monday). Admission free. Follow the gallery at @Nottm_Contemp.

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Visit Mark Sheerin’s contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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