Pristine, precise, poignant, poetic – they tell of human consciousness meticulously coding imaginative power of colour.Which one, where, how much, at what angle – those are favourites of hard edge painting on billboard scale, a reading book scale involves a shift in perception from profane to sacred. Imagine these small paintings forming a Book of Hours – like those of Duc du Berry. The medieval assembly followed a prescribed narrative. Shaw hides his, sometimes in established codes, like marine alphabet, sometimes in disciplined geometry, and in this temporary assembly on shelves, he takes a chance to emulate a move from dark to light. It may be not intentional, but it works, coping with those that escape the strict order. So white with two black is higher up than yellow with three whites, nevertheless the lower two sets are lighter than the two above.
The world of geometry enchants some other contemporary exhibitions like this one at Alhr Gallery in Jeddah.
The curator calls it Language of Human Consciousness. The Arabic art shares with Shaw the confidence in the retina to register not only each pattern, however beautiful and intricate it may be. The values of hues are not to describe something else in a mimetic manner, rather like M. Rothko, they are holding essence of being, in a way a chord in music does. This painting by Garry Shaw deals with something else, horror vacui.
“…the Germans share this horror vacui, but there is always a marked spatial curiosity in their ornament ” remarked Nikolaus Pevsner – inspiring a search for the bits Shaw painted in the lighter hue. Once adopted, it gave the meaning of a ground to the yellow hue. Although this reading oscillates in some areas – I fail to switch to see the rich red as a ground. Rationally it should be possible, as shapes mirror each other quite busily.
Filling the entire area of an artwork with pattern or detail has rich history. Chinese potters added small animals all over the vessels, Book of Kells, Islamic art, Persian carpets, indigenous painting, including the Dreaming of Aboriginal painters of Australia(Shaw’s family still live there) – all developed a virtuoso balance between empty and full fields in a pattern. Chinese bronzes favour the horror vacui with a vivacious gusto.
The vitality of this tradition in visual art is admirable – as well for its gentle humour.
The installation represented different use of geometry in Shaw painting practice, but by no means all.
The blue November’s colour field flirts with Minimalism by repeating letter N in the marine signal code which opens that meaning only to those who know the code. I don’t, and respond to the subtle changes of tonality and the rhythm of sameness that soothing the senses similarly as Minimalist music does. ( Enrico Einaudi).
Garry Shaw is fond of that code, it appears here as two composite paintings based on reading Greenberg on modernism. Their look presents severe disruption from the words coded in shapes and colours. They look like cut outs from Yinka Shonibare’s materials:
Gary Shaw: Formalism (on the left), Neo-Plasticism (on the right),2006, oil on canvas, 125.5 x 91 cm
The complete ease with repetition of pattern is reminiscent of the trust revealed by Dreaming – the Aboriginal painting Shaw could have seen when living in Australia.
The largest of Shaw’s exhibits shares sophistication with fractals and waves and…intriguing appearance of layered space.Vibrant warm hues stay near the white mesh while the blues and earth colours wander elsewhere in an interlocked world. Others may use similar idea, with different results. The inventive Farah Atassi equally calculates the pattern in relation to the depth emphasising clarity.
The subsequent absence of painterly character is felt like a loss.
Shaw holds his values high even in comparison with a hugely talented painter like Harriet Korman. Her sophistication is charmingly astonishing:
The olive greens and yellows have different tonality – thus disrupting the expected. She divides the composition around a strong centre, cherishing tiny deviations from the mirror symmetry.
Shaw disrupts expectations too – I think of Bach’s fugue. The relationship of geometry to image he keeps in similar way as composers treat their tools. Beethoven could not hear his music but he knew how it would sound. Shaw has limited recognition of hues – but look at the control of hue and tonality he achieves.
A small painting indicates a new emphasis on simplicity and clarity. Shaw tells me it is connected with his looking at a particular tradition in making quilts.
His freedom from ideologies, from servicing particular political and social issues foregrounds the retinal responses. I appreciate that freedom, for proximity of his paintings to the value sight has in our being in nature, attentive and reflecting.
The Ocular is a quietly brilliant exhibition.
Photographs of the installation Deirdre McKenna