Painting theory


‘Homage to the square’

Written in 1983

For a number of years now my work has been broadly related to the Constructivist tradition. However, since 1979 it has relied upon a simple principle, in which the work constructs itself from itself. Based upon a systematic re-orientation of parts of the square, this process suggests an infinite range of possibilities.

When one section of an obliquely divided square is cut off, inverted, and then recombined, the resultant shape presents a strikingly different appearance from the original square, although paradoxically the area is the same. Such re-formed shapes seem at first glance to be both illogical and unexpected.

Many of my latest works, arising as they do from this basic proposition, are subjected to more complex processes in the course of their development. Foremost among these are disciplines of a numerical or proportional nature. To this extent the works could be said to fall within the category of Systems art, although I would prefer to think of them as structural or topological experiments, or as examples of pure invention within closely prescribed limits.

The imposition of these limits comes as a reaction against an earlier hedonistic period of improvisatory abstraction. The discipline of these new procedures is a practical aid rather than a moral corrective. Constraints are, paradoxically, imposed to assist invention and as a means towards greater certainty in the structuring of plane surfaces. Such constraints should not be confused with reductivism, for the intention here has been to travel in precisely the opposite direction, namely to master the simple in order to proceed to the complex. For example, the whiteness of the reliefs is not a search for purity or even for a simplicity of statement. White permits the element of relief to show most readily, whereas the addition of colour to relief surfaces tends to obscure the three-dimensionality of the separate planes. It is for this reason alone that I have used white almost exclusively during the last four years.

To return to the processes of systematisation, the simplicity of the systems used means that the reliefs and paintings are in general accessible to the viewer. However, even if the system cannot be de-coded the internal logic of the work should communicate itself visually. The Platonic view, ascribing to mathematically constructed forms and shapes a certain beauty, has its place in my thinking, but judgement by eye still seems to me to be the final arbiter.

The majority of the paintings and reliefs pay ‘homage to the square’, a format selected initially in the interests of its non-associative properties, its mathematical simplicity, and its formal neutrality. Division of the square format is by fifths, quarters, thirds, halves, and so on, all of them proportions that are easily appreciated by the eye. In addition, various mathematical sequences and permutations have been employed,  including the well-known Fibonacci sequence, 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21, etc, each being the sum of the two numbers preceding it. This sequence, discovered by Leonardo of Pisa in thirteenth-century Italy, is familiar to most artists, architects and designers, and can indeed be found in science, in natural forms, and in the traditional Golden Section division of the rectangle.

The reliefs exploit cuts of the square that are both oblique and dynamic. The parts thus obtained are then subjected to a variety of procedures including inversion, reversal, hinging and overlapping, folding, shearing, and displacement both laterally and vertically. In some cases these reliefs develop into three-dimensional precursors of the paintings. Other reliefs and sgraffito drawings are sequential or serial, putting pictorial forms through their paces and exploring variations on a particular theme. In this respect they relate to musical structures.

In the paintings both tonality and temperature of colour are based upon a precise scale, but I have retained for myself some element of personal choice in the matter of the basic hues. There is also in the early stages of certain reliefs a period of trial and error, using a wide variety of shapes in order to extend the work. This random manipulation and juxtaposition of shapes may suggest a particular numerical or proportional structuring and development. The origin of such works is therefore initially empirical, and not conceptual.

As far as the actual execution of the works is concerned, once the basic theme or concept has been accepted, this is carried out by adhering strictly to the chosen system. There is no departure from what might be called “the rules of the game”. Indeed, the fundamental rule that applies to all of the works is that they are constructed from a single square, with nothing added and nothing taken away. The only material available is therefore that which is present at the outset, a discipline not so far removed from that of the limited palette in painting.

The argument in support of these constraints is that such limitations preserve the integrity of the original concept, avoiding those modifications of the image that are normally prompted by the process itself or by the vagaries of taste. In this sense the procedure, if not the end work, is non-aesthetic.

If the structure of the work is pre-planned, can the artist therefore visualise or picture the outcome? Experience shows that this is as unpredictable as that obtained by more spontaneous and empirical methods, and in some cases the result is more surprising.

In retrospect, the subconscious influences and preferences shown here for surfaces in low relief can be traced back to an early involvement with the frontal planar structures of Cubism and its concern with the manipulation of shallow space. Equally important perhaps has been a longstanding interest in the abstract qualities of the Italian architectural scene, with the geometry of facades, the low relief of pilasters and mouldings, and the dramatic and infinitely varied pattern of windows and other apertures. Beyond all this, however, lies a strong temperamental affinity for the work of art as a real object, as distinct from that other equally valid reality, the work of art as illusion.

FOOTNOTE: (found among notes for paintings intended for sale in Chicago, 1987) Although the principal preoccupation of the artist is of a constructivist nature, and concerned with the layering and overlapping of portions of the square, unconscious figurative references inevitably emerge, related to the artist’s life in West Cornwall.