Wednesday, 5 December 2018

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

Is there anything in a work that is not frame, actually?
                                                                  - A Year with Swollen Appendices: Brian Eno’s Diary

On the 24th March 1781, Francis Towne and Thomas Jones set out in the afternoon sun to paint the grotto at Posillipo (said to be the location of Virgil’s tomb). Their subject for the day is a distinct negative of a subject: the thin, dark cavity of the tunnel framed by the surrounding landscape, the passing clouds and shadows. They end up with paintings which revolve around an attention deflecting nothingness at their centre.


Time hasn’t been kind to the 1970’s, the flared, brown and orange rainbow decade, culturally schizophrenic, manic-depressive even- the 60’s gone off. 70’s painting particularly has often been neglected, perhaps because it’s quite hard to grasp; thought of, if at all, as a period of water treading. 

Sylvia Plimack Mangold is one of the many highly individual painters who sat at oblique angles to the decade. Despite undergoing a critical realignment more recently, her modestly successful career (compared to the relatively huge success of her husband, the minimalist Robert Mangold) has yet to be canonized within the history of important painters hitting maturity in the 70’s – a history strongly in need of revision.


From the late 60’s onwards Mangold’s career has been one of quiet subversion. She subverts the various canonical movements around her. She makes a more interesting version of 70’s photorealism, she makes a more interesting version of 60’s/70’s hard-edge minimalism, she makes a more interesting ‘return to observation’...


Plimack Mangold’s earliest mature works depict linoleum tiled or parquet floors.
They are heavily cropped, while their subject and composition both emphasize and frustrate perspective/horizon relationships; floors as infinite fractal landscapes, their tiled lines leading nowhere, or falling off the edge. They are literally painting starting from the ground up (hers’ is a 50-year career of slowly looking upwards, from ground, to horizon, and nowadays craning her neck to the treetops). They implicitly deal with the frame, the rectangle, the grid, subjects that fascinated minimalism, but find them in the complications of the everyday, the lived. Similarly, they retain minimalism’s fascination with light and space- but are unapologetically delighted by illusionary space and light rendered on dull, flat surfaces.

They are aware of the implications of photography, they engage with illusionism, the abstractions of (mundane) decoration, pattern. They embrace their own nature as decorated rectangles, prepared surfaces. 

Already, very early in her career, she wrings the formal possibilities from her subject- small shifts in scale, the density of lines and tiles, perspective, viewpoint, colour etc., which produce very different paintings, an endless variety of effect and specific character.

She often paints empty corners. 

Yet the corners are not inhospitable. Rather, an intimate space that can accommodate you and you alone (the particular relationship between painting and viewer, the you standing in front, suggests itself.). Again and again the viewer is made aware of their point of view: their point of view is the point of the painting, to a large extent. 

Mangold is obligingly helpful with leading a viewer in and out of their viewing. She wrote that she wanted to create ‘a space that invited you in and after a while escorted you out...the experience I want the viewer to have is to enter the painting, and then come back to the surface...The actual material. I don’t want the viewer to get stuck in there’.
As I’ll argue, one of the most consistent preoccupations of her practice throughout her career is attention- how it might be held (despite itself), directed, deflected, rewarded, extended, nurtured....but not demanded. 


Her floor-gazing painting is meditative. Attention is at once intent and yet unberthed, flipped. Centreless. There are often wooden or metal rulers supplied as anchors, or devices of orientation. They are just about images, but also just about not images. There is just about enough there to be a subject- but the floor is a quiet subject, a discreet subject for a painting.

Around the time these paintings where being made, there was a renewed interest in a form of music that might be described at ‘discreet’. John Cage’s 4’33 of silence was in part a response to Satie’s writing in the previous century that the modern world called for ‘furniture music’, a music that could blend in with the clatter of knives and forks at dinner, the sounds of living- a music that wouldn’t call attention to itself (or its composer), but which might exist discreetly within the environment. 

In the late 60’s-early 70’s Brian Eno would develop what became ‘ambient’ music – again, with the intention that a listener’s attention be engaged with in an oblique way.
Eno wrote in the sleeve notes of his 1975 album Discreet Music:

Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think... [it] must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.

This kind of play with attention, with centres of interest or their apparent lack, is exactly the kind of play with attention going on within Mangold’s paintings. And further, as with the difference between canned muzak and Eno’s conception of ambient music, Mangold avoids the banalities of going straight for ‘all-over’ painting, photorealist painting, late-period hard-edge minimalist or colour field painting’s negation of composition or subject. (Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. -  Eno).

Mangold always retains a sense of doubt (more on that later)- her paintings are complex in spite of themselves, rich and absorbing in spite of themselves.

Most importantly, in Eno’s Ambient Music and in Plimack Mangold’s discreet paintings, there is a space cleared for a listener/viewer to wander around at will, and to leave when they like. It is a very un-1970’s, and yet very 1970’s, appeal to surrendering one’s ego. (The obvious de/re-masculinization speaks for itself. Frank Sinatra’s ‘mood’ albums of the 1950’s, in some ways lateral pop ancestors to Eno’s ambient albums, had also significantly altered male notions of expression/vulnerability, as well as notions of what an ‘album’ could be).


Just as Mangold took something of a cue from the tail end of minimalism in the visual arts, Eno co-opted many techniques from the so-called minimalist composers working in the previous decade (Riley, Reich, La Monte Young), pursuing such generative systems and techniques as would allow for variation through minimal ‘authorial’ intervention.

Specifically, Eno would employ the looping tape delay system that produced the ‘phase shifting’ of Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain, in which two loops of tape running at different speeds diverge harmonically before re-uniting in infinitely variable compositions (depending only upon introducing minimal changes of speed/length to the tape). 

At about this time, in the mid-70’s, Plimack Mangold’s gaze would lift up and out the window, into the surrounding landscape. As with the constructional inclusion of the rulers in her floor paintings, she would include the masking tape used in their construction as part of the painted landscape.

Masking tape and magnetic recording tape are obviously entirely different materials- however it is significant that in both cases the ‘tape’, the thing usually seen as a utilitarian tool (and a minor, incidental one at that), is promoted to being seen as a compositional element within itself- that there is formal mileage within the most basic of materials, and with the most minimal of variable inputs (e.g. size/length of tape, how and how much they ‘overlap’ etc.). 

Where, how much, and how cleanly applied the masking tape is, can have a large impact on the character of each painting, and each depicted landscape it frames. It can be hesitant, flurried, editorial, ordered, elegant, with sometimes more and sometimes less of a visible landscape. It gives a notion of measured, sometimes methodical sometimes chaotic, decision making- without trumpeting those decisions. The feeling is of infinitely postponed preparation: of composition as drone, loop- as if the tape might go on and off unendingly- that the configurations arrived at are contingent, provisional, but one possibility among uncountable. 

They present an activity of making as permanently coming into being, emergent. 

For both Mangold and Eno constructive tool is employed as generative element, yet they also delight in process, in systems. Mangold varies the tape, but she also pushes the other variables- background colour, size of stretcher, scale of ‘image’ to frame, with simple changes generating wildly divergent results, complex gameplay through simple moves. 

Again, they do just enough to hold interest (all the artists mentioned in this text verge on boredom or inconsequentiality, but do just enough to avoid either). 

Could Mangold’s work then be described as ‘ambient’? The term is generally attributed to Eno, and as he has said the naming was important in understanding it as something distinct and specific. In other words, such naming is an appeal to notions of genre. Is the genre Mangold’s paintings belong to ‘Ambient’ then? In many ways, yes: they grew out of minimalism’s techniques and preoccupations, but in a more humane approach. They also, to an extent, recede into the environment; they are discreet, risk boredom and inconsequentiality, are not bombastically authorial; they leave most of their space for the viewer, who has to/may find interest in them, or doesn’t have to if they don’t want; they are ignorable paintings of sometimes ignorable things.

At its most basic, ‘ambient’ provides a space for one to think and to be.


-continued in part 2