Friday, 7 December 2018

Discreet Paintings: Sylvia Plimack Mangold and 1970’s Ambient (Part Two)

  -continued from part one

Having studied fine art, Eno took an active approach to the visual material accompanying his album releases- LP covers, inner sleeves, inserts, labels etc. – which essentially complimented the kind of atmosphere his audio work was aiming for.
His key visual collaborator at this time was the now sadly neglected artist Peter Schmidt (with whom Eno would develop the famous Oblique Strategies box of cards, wherein a user would pick a card from the deck and interpret the given oblique instruction to overcome a creative block). Schmidt, who is practically known today only because of his collaborations with Eno, had been a sometime performative/installational artist and educator, but became focused in the 1970’s on watercolour painting. 

I’ll quote at length an introduction Eno wrote for a small exhibition catalogue of Schmidt’s paintings in 1978- 

...During the past two years, Peter Schmidt has restricted his work almost exclusively to water colours, that curious medium which seems to stand on the borderline between 'Sunday painting' and 'serious painting'. I believe that this ambiguity itself has been a major reason for his continued use of the medium, for it allows pictorial events which can be light-hearted and ephemeral, and at the same time brooding and mysterious. The medium does not stipulate a particular emotional range, and presents itself to a perceiver in a kind of innocent and understated way – as if with a lowered voice. It seems that at a time when the currency of the day is to engage in productions that are in some way epic – be it in terms of scale, loudness or detail – that which is simple and quiet suddenly becomes relevant. It is talking in a new way...

Watercolour ducks seriousness while occasionally being employed by very serious people; it has painting on canvas’s automatic ‘art’ switch dialled down to 1, and so risks coming off as illustrational. Similarly the ‘Sunday painter’ connotation is one of amateurism, but also that the painter is engaged with pleasure, delight in the doing, and with the slightly more desperate notion that one is painting on the Sunday as a refuge from the week (Raoul de Keyser would co-opt some of these notions in the same decade: not merely commemorating nor strictly satirizing The Good Life, but also suggesting that the lower-middle-class working person is not entirely satisfied, has a frustrated imaginative life, has pretentions to exercise as well as the dogs. It’s a feeling that would continue in his deliberately parochial, back-room abstractions.). And of course, Sunday painting places emphasis on the activity of the activity ‘painting’. What Eno calls ‘tooling around’, pottering (usually more grandly referred to as ‘researching’).

The Sunday painting atmosphere appropriated by Eno and Schmidt is also present in Mangold’s work. But, as usual, it’s a better version of Sunday painting. ‘Sunday painting’ is not strictly accurate- it’s more a kind of desperately necessary, pragmatic utopianism in place of 60’s dreaminess, excess or theoretical bombast. 

Her taped landscapes suggest images pinned to the wall- drawings, paintings, prints, snaps; aspirational ideals, goals, decoration; useful images, domestic images (surely many sets of the 4 reproductions of Schmidt’s paintings given away with Eno’s Before and After Science would end up pinned to bedroom walls). 

Eno, Mangold and Schmidt want life to feel fresh, clean, uncluttered- that is the more desirable reality they want to curate. There is an appeal to alternative, stripped-back living, essentials- clean, functional interiors, plenty of light, no blinds- time for meditative thinking, time for getting well, but also rapture within the seemingly mundane or simple. Schmidt’s paintings highlight very similar spaces, places and times of day to those of Mangold- the times of day and types of space and place conducive to her work and to Eno’s music- the ambient points.

It’s also there in what sorts of floors she paints. Sometimes they feel institutional, in waiting-room lino (recalling Eno’s Music for Airports)- or like new parquet in an empty room, just moved into, where the walls have perhaps just been painted, the protective sheets lifted away from the floorboards. There is a mixture of distractedness and yearning, of starting anew, or wanting to. Maybe even making plans. And like Eno’s records they try to make this state of temporary inertia as soothing and enabling as it can be. 

Eno called sates such as these ‘Idiot Glee’- the feeling of being alarmingly positive after severe melancholy. It is a dominant note in both their approaches; the feeling of clouds lifting, morning breaking, or a bad day ending; summer rains breaking or ice thawing. It is soothing for one’s attention to be absorbed within such centreless, floating, open works- generous works which work by the discreet generosity of not giving too much.

It is seeing, or beginning to see, the world again, as if after a long depression.

What is more difficult to describe is how these works are all so unmistakably (compellingly, even) 1970’s. In a sense they wear the decade without the decade wearing them- they are implicitly, definitively 1970’s in the way David Bowie said he wanted to be almost aggressively 1970’s (with all that might mean, and by what bits of the past might be relevant to the 70’s). Yet they remain current, fresh, perhaps because they are also deeply concerned with very old painting concerns and continuities as much as they are frankly about the continuities of life and living. They embrace their time (without aching to be seen to be demonstrably ‘of the moment’) while also thinking it anew. They internalize contemporaneous movements within art without flaunting their own relevance.

Of the painters that share this unabashed (redeemably) 70’s look is the British painter Adrian Morris. Morris is also a canonical misfit, with the biggest moment of exposure during his career being the 1978 annual art show at the Hayward Gallery (he was one of the few male artists included by the all-female selection panel in what’s become remembered as the ‘feminist’ Hayward show, but has also had a couple of well-received retrospectives in recent years, including one at Glasgow’s 42 Carlton Place). 

Morris could arguably also fall under the discreet/ambient genre: his often elevated views out from small apertures across practically featureless desert terrain, echo many of the formal strategies in Mangold’s (and to an extent, Eno’s) work- his slits of pale sky are like Mangold’s skirting boards by other means.  

Again, it’s not easy to say quite what it is that makes them so 70’s- it’s practically just in them. As with Schmidt, it’s something in the timbre, the (almost) pastel-y desaturated vs. highly-saturated palette; the viewpoint, the pre-occupation with aerial views, and somehow air travel; the world being opened up, large and yet small, soaring and yet mundane, anxiety and ennui; framed by curved, aeroplane/tv screen rectangles. There is a slightly sci-fi, illustrational quality, like the desaturated aesthetics of many album covers in the decade, or the animation of la Planete Sauvage. Morris, Mangold and Schmidt carry the visual colloquialisms of the time.

But Morris is just as quietly connected to the wider field of concerns in the 1970’s, particularly land art and ecology (and Ballardian post-futures). The paintings depict views from vehicles, outposts, perhaps desert hospitals. While the outside is hostile, blue skies and what might be irrigation channels and reservoirs suggest a slow healing might be taking place, an ecological convalescence, with the speed of life reduced to a practical standstill.   

Perhaps the historical notion that the 70’s was a period of waiting around for something to happen is in some sense correct. The artists mentioned above, however, arguably make a virtue of that feeling. They are unhurried, methodical, working across long periods- Mangold’s oeuvre can be divided up into roughly 3 distinct bodies of work (floors, taped landscapes, trees- with sub-divisions and hybrids within those bodies), each lasting around 15-20 years. It’s a different pace of work (Robert Mangold is often to be heard wondering what’s taking her so long to paint a tree). It’s a pace one feels in the work, and leads to further associations- waiting to leave the house, waiting for someone to arrive, waiting to catch a plane, waiting for the weather to change. Or even the time spent waiting to grow up, or for the next bit of life to start.

With her long stares at the floor, the constant overtures of her masking-tape preparations, Mangold suggests we spend most of our lives wishing them away, or in infinite deferral, putting things off, packing our bags, always poised for the next thing, or for something, anything, else- staring blankly at the present, while paradoxically enraptured by it, enveloped in it. Our state as conscious beings living in a present physical moment, capable of intensive action and inaction, is for her by turns an enigma and a plain fact.

It’s as potent an existential standpoint as any in literature. In its precise structure, its preoccupation with process and systems, it’s of a piece with works such as Gorges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manuel, which structures itself mathematically around the grid of an apartment block, and the lives of the people within its rooms (published 1978, the year of Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports, and Adrian Morris’ Hayward show).    


In his last years (the late 70’s) Peter Schmidt mostly painted views seen while on holiday in Iceland or the Scottish Highlands. They are filled with the same sense of being in and out of the world as in his and Mangold’s interiors- the feeling that if one leaves one’s room, the room goes with you. It’s all out there, but its all in here as well. 


Importantly the seeds Mangold planted early in her floor paintings have been allowed, through due care, attention and maintenance, to grow and flourish as sustained enquiries, variations and recapitulations across her long career. Each work speaks to the other in what amounts to an ecological culture as much as a practice. Eno would similarly refer to his work as being less that of a composer, more a kind of non-hierarchical ecology. 


And yet there is still the question of the fame- and how the frame in turn establishes and questions hierarchies and limits, what is and is not material for our attention.

 A frame calls attention to that which is framed- is, ordinarily, not there to call attention to itself. Appeals to Plimack Mangold’s place in feminist discourse, which were mostly established by male critics writing at the time of her floor paintings, tend to focus on her domesticity (that she paints from the point of view of a housewife stuck indoors) missing the countless ways in which she attends to the overlooked and plays with that which is conventionally excluded from being the main event, the main story. That ‘framing’ as such, and as a device within painting, is a potential feminist tool (as is the idea of ‘composition’ itself, organizing the internal hierarches of an image) is a simple enough example amongst the many that I hope have been implicit as I’ve been going along, and again shows her oblique position towards the aesthetic/theoretical/ideological concerns of her time. (Mangold's works find echoes in Carol Rhodes' aerial/elevated-viewpoint landscapes, thier flattening of visual hierarchies and pictorial/social organizations, or in the Lucy McKenzie's trompe l'oeil explorations of two-dimensionalality and subcultural ephemera).  

 There are several obvious reasons photography and performance, as well as art that focused on the body, have been the dominant narrative of feminist art in the 70’s, but artists like Mangold show the story to go deeper and wider in its subjects and forms. Mangold also brings to mind the work of Pauline Oliveros, an early pioneer of electronic music whose ‘deep listening’ projects, theories and teaching methods- which synthesize elements of meditation, martial arts and feminist sociology as well as ideas of ‘healing’- anticipate many of Enos aims and methods.

In her 1977 essay Software for People, Oliveros wrote about how electronic process sound/music allowed her to expand her sonic attention, to find an attention that is ‘diffuse, open and non-judgmental as compared to focused, selective attention which is narrow, clear and discriminatory but limited in capacity.’ There is something of the same attention in Mangold’s embracing of the peripheral, the empty, the ‘sample’, objective portions of larger totalities (sections of floors, edges of images, portions of depicted landscapes, all stressing their own partiality and limits and thus to an extent exceeding those limits. Like the mirror, a recurring subject, which frames and yet extends space). 

... hearing is not listening. Listening might be hearing plus attention – but then we need to understand the process of attention. I think there is more and that such a definition is incomplete at best. As far as I am concerned, listening is mysterious and may be what we call or recognise as consciousness.

 If we replace the word ‘hearing’ with ‘seeing’, ‘listening’ with ‘looking’ (I think for Oliveros ‘listening’ is a term that might include all the senses in due proportion to attention) in this statement, it seems equally like something Mangold could have written- about looking as ‘seeing + attention’. For Mangold, as objective as her pictures are, there is always a point of view, a consciousness implicit and anticipated in the looking. Yet images, unlike sounds and regardless of appeals to ‘diffuse’ attention, always have edges, frames. How, then, does Mangold reconcile ambient attention with the unavoidably selective nature of images, how does she embrace/reject the edges of things?     

Framing and negativity are of crucial importance to Mangold (and to Eno).
The title of her Anatomy of a Painting might seem today like a one-liner- but the work amounts to a real philosophical investigation into what a painting is, what it might or might not contain, how it might behave, when it might be ‘done’ (it has affinities with the work of Robert Ryman, a painter whom she is collected by, but also the dead-pan photography of John Baldessari). 

In another painting, Exact and Diminishing, she tests the true to life scale of the ruler at the canvas’s edge with the receding (equally ‘true’) scale of the ruler bent by the diminishing perspective. Both are internally consistent- yet diametrically opposed- forms of realism. As with a frame, a ruler is a measure of limits and boundaries, it tells us, clearly, where something stops; and yet, with images such as this, such limits are simultaneously both clearly delineated and highly ambiguous. 

The ruler paintings measure out their own limits, only to find they’ve miscounted and have to start again- it’s illusionism chasing itself around, representation chasing its own tail (significantly Mangold builds up the paint to create the effect of the barely 3-dimensional masking tape, working at the edge of the noticeable, engaging the viewer’s visual and tactile intelligences).

As in a game of snakes and ladders, the viewer’s attention is chased round the numbered and chequered board of Mangold’s paintings, wherein all points seem to lead back to themselves (and finally back out of the game, when one is finished playing and the immersive field is once again a flat surface to be put away).

‘Is there anything in a work that is not frame, actually?’, Eno wondered in an unfinished diary entry.

Frames raise the issue of where a work begins and ends – problematic for ambient music’s desire to blend in with whatever activity or environment it happens to be accompanying. Indeed, Eno’s interest in what became ambient music was inspired by a period of bedridden convalescence following an accident- a friend brought a recording of 17th century harp music, left without turning the volume up, and so he was left to listen to the sound of occasional notes rising through the noise of the rain outside- an ambience, or ‘tint’, the two elements of near-inaudible music and loud rainfall ‘framed’ together as one (Eno in bed is also within this frame). 

The ‘frame’ Eno came up with for his new music was partly to package the album along with this anecdote (in the sleeve notes, which also included a diagram of his tape looping system)- and so frames can also be instructions for use, means of approach. The frame asks, ‘where is it not art?’, ‘where does the art happen/stop?’- Eno and Mangold’s response is to reiterate that the art may begin with an object, but that the art begins and ends within a loop of experience between the object and viewer. 

A frame says, ‘consider this’- consider the painting, for example. But, Eno asks, does this not in some way go on infinitely within the work? 

Every part of the painting is saying, ‘what if I put it to you that I am, say, a ripple in calmed water, and that this other part over there is also asking to you to consider it as part of that ripple, and over there the reflection of the bank...’

Every incremental inch of the image is propositional (just as notes in a melody, in some sense, ask ‘consider this note next to this, and under this greater harmonic structure’) – framing, like framing a question, is propositional. Unique to Mangold and Eno is the particular way in which they each emphasize the questioning up-speak of their every statement, wherein every statement is a question (?).

Often Eno and Mangold’s minimalism is a minimalism that whispers ‘is this enough?’, ‘isn’t this enough?’, ‘what if this is enough?’. And thus, by putting it to the viewer/listener for their consideration, perhaps goes one better than the pure ‘this is enough’ statement of hard-line minimalism (Robert Mangold’s minimalism, to a degree, but more so his contemporaries).

We arrive back at Mangold and Eno’s notions of the centreless-ness of artworks- that they are ultimately systems. The ideas within Eno’s conception of ambient music, I would argue, provide one of the best ways to articulate what is distinct and compelling about Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s work, and her approach to pictorial systems of organization- as she often down-plays the cerebral complexities that clearly float ten to the dozen while she works. 
On a similar note, Mangold’s work has arguably more in common with Eno’s than the often- suggested link between ambient music and abstract expressionism. Yes abs-ex has a lack of central subject, narrative etc., yet it seems to declare its own transcendental, floating, far-out qualities- large in scale and voice, it tends to loudly declare its own quietness. And as much as one is supposedly free to enter its vast colour-spaces, they tend to envelop and engulf, force themselves upon a viewer and a space, rather than sitting quietly and inviting the viewer in.

The framing of Mangold’s nothingnesses or her minimal landscapes is important- it sets up the quietness, as framing is conventionally a fanfare for the framed, just as Eno, working in the pop album format (ostensibly), frames according to expectations- the expectation that such a gesture contains songs made of words and melody, rhythm etc. Frames suggest there will be an arresting image, but here the frame is the image. It’s probably enough.


Eno wrote a list of key words pertaining to his ambient project in a notebook containing sketches for future album covers: Calm. Drifting. Ambient. Soft. Tint. New Era. No Direction. Slow Moving. Continuous. Music For Healing. Autumn/Winter Music. Travelling. The relationship with Mangold’s work in the decade speaks for itself.