This is a new space for art exhibitions in Belfast. The highly regarded gallery owner, art dealer, curator, writer, publisher and philosopher, Jamshid Mirfenderesky found his fifth abode reminiscent of the one he had at the Upper Crescent decades ago. It is less of the proverbial white box as it is an ordinary living space on the first floor. A sort of piano nobile.
Its scale and windows imbue the interior with shy daylight evoking Vermeer’s rationing of enough daylight to read a letter. Ensuing soft association with privacy is supportive of the size of the exhibits that are neither the high modernist billboards nor anxious museum pieces demanding complex artificial lighting.
Ronnie Hughes offers 13 acrylic paintings, in three different sizes, seven carrying the date 2014, six 2015. The exhibition does not challenge the concept of painting as art or of the medium. Instead, it stimulates thoughts about the importance of the “immaterial” in painting. ( I borrowed the term from the exhibition Les Immateriaux at Centre George Pompidou curated by J F Lyotard in 1985).
The first aesthetic immaterial pointed to older art, namely still life paintings.. In particular, to the genius of the Dutch and Flemish painters of 17th C. They celebrated observation and abundance, they celebrated senses, life, the sensation of happiness. That “happy pantheistic relationship of confidence between man and the phenomena of the external world” have been classed as precondition “for the urge to empathy” ( Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy, Routledge Kegan, 1963:3-25, first publ as Abstraction and Einfuehlung, Munich 1908).
I visited Ronnie Hughes’s exhibition before opening, on my own, enjoying the privilege of silence and freedom of numerous uninterrupted viewing points. As expected, the display is thoughtful. Fenderesky gave each image a space that both singled it out and let it radiate towards some other. This, in turn, puts emphasis on autonomy of each image and on the painter’s unspoken resolve to soften the boundaries of obvious concepts, like modernism, nationality, and abstraction. The interaction between what is and what is not in each painting weaves a subtle and multifaceted integrity -not of the subject but of the subjectivity of beholder’s response. Take a space for example.
The almost daylight worked admirably for the hues creating an illusion of depth or not. As if illustrating the science view that “Our visual system is supposed to throw away information about the illuminant and extract information about the actual reflectance” (http://www.wired.com/2015/02/science-one-agrees-color-dress/ the yellow emanates light into the real space, finite space, while the black and whites oscillate between finite and infinite depth.
Shifting the yellow nearer to red, still over white and black repeated pattern defines a middle depth in front of which a rhythmical grid separates the silent layers from the visually noisy circles, each in different hue and same tonality. Strongly related to the concept of emanated light explored a century earlier by Matisse this painting shares with him also the association with music. I recognise presence of three characteristics of classical jazz: improvisation (choice of hues), poly-rhythm ( grid, circles, waves, contrast) and syncopation(the relationships between layers and inside each layer). The connection between this painting and my memory of jazz happened with powerful immediacy.
Any picture can dominate beholder’s consciousness and at the same time emanate series of reflections, dense and replete.
How a painting may crowd with diverse thoughts could be illustrated by a comparison of similar intentions. I even fail to associate it with a sound, more like a birthday party with festive coloured baloons – escaping into a grey misty camouflage. Its dancing rhythm is slower and the flow of space is sweetly measured.
Earlier I mentioned the multifaceted interaction between theory and practice. A comparison of two different application of similar concept should illustrate the difficulty to judge the quality.
There is an immediate material difference, as well as difference between “albertian window” and assemblage of panels. What interests me here, are the “immaterials” of hues and tones. Abstraction in both these paintings is given a task of translating sensual values of sight and touch into an order governed by geometry. Gibson chose radiation of rays from a stable point towards the boundaries of the panels. The hard edge abstraction is full of energy and associates with glass or reflectors – away from the sensation of silent touch evoked by the material – and forgotten. So the relationship is deliberately antagonistic, and capable of highlighting annihilation of one as neccessary condition for the other to thrive. The immaterial beauty is somewhat sacrificed.
Ronnie Hughes uses similar geometry, but not exclusively, he repeats its simple forms, triangles, related shapes, adjacent shapes. The level of energy is nearer to sleep than jazzy rhythm or explosive rays. There is an attention to detail, as if revoking the care a jeweller extends to a precious stone. However, soon, an illusion of voluminous egg shape animates as if breathing – a headless torso. This morphing is offered only from few viewpoints. The image represents more than one combination of what could be real – multifaceted jewel is one, the headless round torso is another…the top purple triangle would be the shirt visible between the lapels of a jacket. The next variant of the idea is simple and not capable of morphing into the unexpected.
This brings to the attention the proliferation of a concept. It is not just the diamond like faceting, it is the interest in braking a whole into a smaller irregular forms that do not agree about their place in the whole:some stick out as volume, others violate planes that belong to others. Clever use of hues to forge an illusion of volumes, a picture within a picture,while its neighbouring set of hues fails to do it -deliberately. Chaotic spatial intricacies still manage to keep up a jolly tenor of being in the world that disposes of regularity. The known universe is like that.
When a concept behaves like a multiverse – that is in encompasses many possible variations, must it be abstract? Hughes’s answer relates “immaterials” like cosmology and cognition,in that he chose mathematics and geometry. Good evidence to consider are three of the exhibits: Bundle I, Bundle II and Industrial.
Weaving comes to mind. And Plato Timaeus – when Demiurg is described as cutting, measuring, combining sameness and differences. Laboriously made, the three images share the search for harmony between repeat and difference. I think of Chardin claiming that he needs months to paint a small painting. Hughes’s discipline and eye for just enough of irreverent difference keep the image alive.
How refreshing then the freedom of painterly joy in a slightly humorous Tongued.
It is also something entirely different. The multicoloured veiled heads and necks (as in burka etc) look up to the yellow light as if above them – an Ascension like Riminaldi’s fresco inside the Pisa Duomo?
The possibility of the aesthetic imagination is realised by me, in a similar way a pianist relates to the composer.
Hughes paintings are culturally sophisticated, intelectually exacting, capable to evoke old beliefs or views. While the Warp (below) displays similarity to the jazzy Test Pattern ( shown earlier above), is tenor is different. Underlying its structure is an “immaterial”, i.e. a philosophical understanding that the universe’s core element is its mathematical structure.
It links easier to the dark matter of the unknown than to the syncopation of a musical force. Mondrian would have associated the colours with urban conditions, here, it is semi rural – the bright lights do not radiate light out. A conviciton that there is a mathematical basis for physical world has long history, to name jjust some: Ptolemy, Aristtole, Pythagoras – and Robert Grosseteste (1170 -1253) whose seminal text De Luce has been deeply influential in European thought. One of his ideas that applies to contemporary art is the proposition of free will as flexibility towards opposites.
Flare above and Within below are jolly images of the colour added over colour in the way melody is added above or below melody in the polyphony. Resulting harmonic realtionships allow each hue to retain individuality.
Images courtesy Ronnie Hughes.
Julia Karabenick accessible on http://www.blurb.com/books/5920604-a-few-conversations-about-color