Sunday, 9 December 2018

Discreet Paintings: Sylvia Plimack Mangold and 70's Ambient (Part Three)


-continued from part 2

Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s most recent body of work perhaps skirts closest to boredom or misunderstanding, and one senses she is quite happy for that to be the case.
Her paintings of trees risk coming off as the work of a painter playing it safe in their dotage, yet they are bold and compelling in part precisely because of this risk.
In fact, they embrace and extend her earlier work- her interest in the array of close tones in the leaves that fill the frame, for example, stretches all the way back to the play of close tones in her stained floorboards from the late 1960’s. Indeed, Mangold sticks to her guns- the tree paintings absolutely continue her investigation of intent observation vs. what I’ve termed de-centred ‘ambience’. 

It’s an odd combination which is at once very 1970’s (again, with some ties to dead pan photography), but which also has precedent in two very singular painters working in the latter 18th century- Francis Towne and Thomas Jones.

The Welsh painter Thomas Jones had a modestly successful career for a time, painting conventional landscapes in the style of his tutor Richard Wilson, yet his reputation grew exponentially in the 20th century when small studies from his (six year) Italian painting trip were uncovered. Never intended for public exhibition, the small works (mostly oil on primed paper) are daringly progressive in their composition (they anticipate the effects of snapshot photography and their assimilation into painting by decades). Painted as Neo-Classicism was just segueing into Romanticism, they anticipate many artistic concerns of the next two centuries.

A perennial subject of Jones’ in this period is a blank façade- whether viewed daringly close to the ‘viewer’, as if from the window of a facing building, or simply filling the frame. They play with grids of rectangles, with abstract bands of wall and sky, with extreme cropping; they anticipate qualities in minimalism, surrealism, the Barbizon school, the ‘accidental’ compositions of Degas, even Baldessari’s Every building on Sunset Strip

And- with their ‘flat’ subject, their large, practically (for the time) featureless passages given the barest of contextualizing details, their disorientation of scale and elevation- they deal with many of the subjects and strategies that have continued through Mangold’s career. 

There is a distinctly de-centred quality to them, a sense that everything in the picture is as much the subject, that the totality of the picture and its conception of the world is the point, that all points of the picture are put forward for our attention (in A Wall in Naples, the three hanging rags recreate the elements of the composition in microcosm) which aligns it with the modernity that would lead to Eno’s objectively ambient composition. They bypass the picture-making conventions of the day by essentially eliminating (moral, spiritual, narrative) interest. What significance there is to be taken is only that which we can give, what we are free to give (how we might unravel the metaphorical significance of the blank windows, the weathered and ‘worked’ surfaces of the walls, for example). The painting of Virgil’s tomb from the introduction to this text excludes all reference to the place’s wider significance, and yet flips back on itself to find a subject within the objective facts; that a tomb is an absence around which the lives of the living go on turning; that the absence of death is experienced almost as a presence, a negative presence; that there is an unknowable hole at the centre of things; any or none of these things are explored in its curious state of late noon sunshine, that hovers between matter-of-factness and existential dread (Hitchcock’s Vertigo, also objective-yet woozy, has this atmosphere). It’s the same kind of reflexive selection-by-rejection approach to ‘meaning’ and significance that goes on in Mangold’s work- whereby an empty floor becomes something stared at, and, like the painting itself, is a helpfully ‘quiet’ screen on which to project. 

If Jones is ‘ambient’, by any stretch, it’s the more uneasy ambiance of Eno’s later Ambient 4: On Land- in which he explored a deep bed of dissonance and disturbance below the pastoral prettiness of the surface. Mangold certainly tends to keep the darker thoughts in the distance, but they are there if you go looking (certainly there are further implications to the obsessively clean floors, the compulsive taping and measuring.)

Returning to the introduction, our other painter is a less radical yet still interesting figure. Francis Towne, unlike Jones, does choose to include incidental ‘interest’ in his picture of the tomb- particularly the small figures of the tourists. Yet they remain distant, dwarfed by the surroundings. What’s perhaps more startling is the visual style- graphic to the point of being illustrational in a very 20th century way. Indeed, though he was relatively well-known in his time, Towne was rejected by the Royal Academy 11 times, was neglected for many years after his death, and was only ‘rediscovered’ by Paul Oppé in 1916, when claims were made about his having anticipating the ‘flatness’ and abstraction of the day.  

There’s ultimately little ‘meaning’ in Towne’s work- trained as a decorative coach painter, he often seems to be invested purely in pleasure and elegance as ends in themselves. They speak neither of intellectualism (classical ruins are just there, and pretty, rather than having any grander significance about the rise and fall of civilisations), nor do they really have any proto-romantic moodiness or emotional sweep. Rather, they have the same kind of blank, melancholic stillness of Peter Schmidt’s holiday watercolours- the peculiar objectivity of being within and floating outside of the world, the sense of travel through it providing moments of tranquil beauty, if not any greater sense of perspective.
Perhaps he was a great stylist in search of something more- or perhaps there was a consciousness on his part that the world just often is, and that there’s something to be said for merely putting a frame around it.  

The ‘look’ of Towne’s watercolours is also extremely 1970’s- they almost recall the fine-line artwork in the bandes dessinées comic books of artists like Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, or the prog-rock album covers of Roger Dean (though these examples lean more to the fantastical). Across Towne’s pictures are the same kinds of mood and atmosphere as we’ve seen in Mangold, Schmidt, Jones etc.- of looking out one’s room in the late noon, the early morning, the early evening; times of possibility, action or inaction, between waking and day-dreaming, passing the time. A sharp kind of lucid haziness.

Sylvia Mangold has always maintained a practice of making watercolours, yet the tree paintings in oil go some way towards having a kind of watercolour ‘look’, with their lightness and luminosity, their (well-hidden but crucial) provisionality. 
As much as it carries the notion of dilettantism, watercolour also has associations with other kinds of non-art image making. Mangold’s work also has connotations of 18th century landscape painting in which the activity was somewhat just as much aligned with pseudo-archaeological/topographical practices of recording and rendering as it was with notions of art or expression (Mangold’s trees include tiny notes of month and time of day- 08’, 5pm etc.). This kind of empirical aesthetic, of pseudo-scientific/mathematic fact-gathering, is also in the patterns of tiles, the rulers and tapes, but always with the further philosophical implications of trying to get at the structure of things, the philosophical implications of measuring, squaring up, of horizons and vanishing points (obvious ancestors to her trees are Cezanne, a very formative influence, and Mondrian).

There is something in the fusion of lightness and precision in her trees that just feels like 18th century tree studies. Never falling back on a convenient shorthand for ‘leaf, ‘branch’, ‘foliage’ they are quite hauntingly rendered in their totality and diversity.
The trees feel animated in the way that Towne’s watercolours can also look like stills from animation. There’s a sense in Towne’s flatness of shifting masses of colour, of interlocking units of light and shadow, that our understanding of the world is partial, that as grounded as everything can seem it can just as easily shift and reconfigure itself like a passing cloud (perhaps this is where the ‘meaning’ in his work is to be found).

There is something analytic to both Mangold and Towne, a sense that they are at a slight remove, trying to get at things and coming up against flatness, the look of things. Yet for Mangold it’s not a simple process of showing this flatness, but an attempt to reconcile it with our sense of volume, height, our position on the ground, our capacity or incapacity for processing complex systems and details and their relation to greater structures, zoom with wide angle (which is in turn our position towards the flat canvas).

Still pretty much ‘easel painting’ in their physical size, they have a grand sense of scale. Mangold varies the level of cropping into (pretty much) three groups- top half of tree (more or less sparse, particularly in winter), high mid-point of tree with confusion of branches and foliage, and close-up of leaves filling the canvas.

They often disguise how odd they can be. The group that looks more to the top of the tree are not in extreme perspective, as if from our position on the ground, but generate through their cropping the feeling of looking up (she has said she wants the painting to ‘whoosh up’) yet never being able to take in the whole thing. Painted from life on the ground, there is an imaginary leap up to the thick of the treetops. Mangold says ‘going to look HERE’- and we’re there. Like the floors they are samples, samples of our feeling of what tree-ness is, looped and reverberated. They internalize our sense of specific height, gravity, opacity and transparency- all the things that add up to our sense of trees as things. 

And, similarly to the floors, the trees are a discreet subject. Or they are made discreet by their ambient composition, the way they fill the frame (they bring to mind Constable sky studies). They are easy to pass by on a gallery wall- yet they combine cumulatively to something meditative, something powerfully open and committed, and strangely timeless (Mangold is 80).

The pictures mistrust, yet co-opt, the very idea of edges and limits. For Mangold, the knowability of the world is not to be measured out in rulers, but encountered as a centreless mass of interacting data (Hume’s ‘bundle of perceptions’) of which we are part and with which we must also, necessarily, interact. The world always spills over her edges, in paintings which assert their own limits while vaulting over them.

Even within the picture there is still a sense of incompleteness the longer one looks at them, despite their seeming very much finished on initial viewing. The trees are discreetly artificial, abstracted, all the more discreet because they seem so convincingly observed, objectively composed. The amount of air, un-fussiness, fussiness, busyness, un-busyness, simplification, complexification etc. in them is always surprising, always well hidden.

In these pictures of dense foliage or intersecting branches, she again comes back to that 70’s ambient approach towards interest/attention. Dense and yet dispersed, they skirt the edges of boredom while never becoming boring. One’s attention gets caught up in the slight shifts and angles (which avoid the mildly hectoring tone of Cezanne, who constantly asserts that this is what should be happening with one’s attention), a ‘looking’ that is capable of being intent while looping, floating, drifting. There is an ebb and flow of attention, a mark or hue changes its role or function across the play of the image- a shadow here becomes a recession there, a gathered ridge of white paint defines both the edge of a branch and the light poking through- in the way that ambient tape loops phase shift, with the eye/ear flexing from one focus to the other. What is foreground or background shifts, what is surface, subject, melody, support; what is happening in the object and what is happening to one’s ‘mood’...

In the tree pictures Mangold fills the frame with an over-profusion of detail. While minimalism in the visual arts was very literally about making minimal gestures and objects, what was termed ‘minimalism’ within music was often about intricate profusion, dizzying repetition and layering as a result of simple compositional procedures and systems (as we’ve noted before, it’s Mangold’s inputs and variables which are ‘minimal’, not necessarily her results).

Mangold’s simple setup- paint the tree, fill the picture with the tree- is made complex in the doing, having to paint from life, having to be receptive and reactive rather than rationally dictatorial (a mode of receptivity that carries through for the viewer). 
When Pauline Oliveros was criticised in the music press for apparently failing to ‘compose’ her pieces, it was to miss that she was part of a radical reassessment of what it might mean to ‘compose’ at all- to be a composer rather than an initiator, a reactor, an improvisor. A suggester. As she explained-

The design of how [the electronic pieces] would come into existence was what I mapped, not the content at all...It was a kind of performance architecture using tape machines and understanding certain operations in the circuitry which was non-linear...I didn’t have time to think about it in rational terms, but had to act in the moment.

For Mangold this is most evident in the tree paintings, her most overtly ‘painterly’ works, in which she is reactive to the haptic, the material, the physical things taking place within her ‘performance architecture’. She is alive to the shifting network of relations between the sub and superstructure of her pictures, hardwired into the circuitry of physical-material creative decision making (and so it’s a different kind of ‘composing’). It’s not so much that she’s painting from life that is unique- of course- more that she’s applying that technique to something all-encompassing, to the demanding structure of working right to the edges of the canvas without ending up inelegantly incomprehensible, that the picture doesn’t end up in visual din, that it remains ‘quiet’ but still absorbing, that it doesn’t suffocate. That she is ‘alive’ in this situation comes through in the picture and for the viewer, whose receptivity is similarly engaged (and who follows Mangold as the structure of the tree/picture emerges). 

It’s not the old hierarchy of composer-performer-audience (which Eno has said he wanted to dismantle), but a more flattened structure (or ecology) of co-exploration, in which the viewer’s attention and receptivity towards minimal, subtle, infinitely and infinitesimally variable differences within and between the works must necessarily mirror that of the maker. When such an approach works, or is made to resolve itself, both artist and audience are equally and pleasantly surprised and delighted by the results. 



With these notions of suggestion rather than assertion, of the flattened hierarchies of author and audience, I shall hold off making any final remarks. Instead please find the following set of open-ended instructions/suggestions from Eno and Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies deck- perhaps they will provide further means of approaching the oblique pictorial strategies employed by the ambient painter/re-shuffler Sylvia Plimack Mangold: 

Remember those quiet evenings

Define an area as 'safe' and use it as an anchor

Ask your body

Do nothing for as long as possible

Don't be frightened of cliches

Go slowly all the way round the outside

Is it finished?

Honour thy error as a hidden intention

Don't stress one thing more than another

Simple subtraction

Do something boring

Infinitesimal gradations

Make a blank valuable by putting it in an exquisite frame

Don't be frightened to display your talents

Remove ambiguities and convert to specifics

Make an exhaustive list of everything you might do and do the last thing on the list

Use filters

Repetition is a form of change
Idiot glee (?)

Question the heroic approach

Use fewer notes 

Don't be afraid of things because they're easy to do

Remove specifics and convert to ambiguities

The tape is now the music

Convert a melodic element into a rhythmic element

Use an old idea

Feed the recording back out of the medium

Trust in the you of now

Give the game away

Use an unacceptable colour

What is the reality of the situation?

Towards the insignificant

Don't stress *on* thing more than another

In total darkness, or in a very large room, very quietly

Fill every beat with something

Don't be frightened to display your talents

Work at a different speed

 From nothing to more than nothing

Go outside. Shut the door.