Geometric abstraction reconsidered at the City Gallery Prague


The City Gallery Prague's House at the Golden Ring, is currently featuring the works of thirteen British artists at an exhibition called: "Supernova, geometric abstraction reconsidered". The exhibition, which was prepared in cooperation with the British Council and runs until April 30th, shows how contemporary art develops through time. Hence the name Supernova, which (in very simple terms) is a star that explodes and produces so much energy that it can lead to the creation of new stars.

The author of the concept of this travelling exhibition is Caroline Douglas, who joins me now...if you could start off with a brief introduction:

"We're bringing a lot of very new art from Britain with this exhibition. The newest pieces are no more than eighteen months to two years old. So, it's always very exciting to be able to show people a real snapshot of some of the things that are going on in Britain today in the art world. However, our 'old master' is work by Gary Hume. The painting that we have here is called Dolphin Painting 1 and it dates from a period in 1991, when he was doing a large series of paintings based on doors. They are on panel, using household gloss paint. That in itself was quite noteworthy at the time, to be using a domestic material. The under-painting shows forms which are based on hospital doors - the round windows, the square hand plates, the kick plates at the bottom. It's a sort of an idea of a universally recognisable image."

There is some music in the background now...

"This is a film by Sarah Morris called Capital. I have elected to show the works relating to Washington; hence they are all called capital. The work is about networks of power. The grids in her paintings make one think of networks and the power of influence of, maybe, hidden networks. Particularly in political circles, there is always the idea of conspiracies. The Watergate complex features in this film as a kind of pointer to the kind of issues that she is addressing. The architecture that she chooses to represent in her paintings is not purely based on some sort of utopian ideology about making beautiful spaces for human beings to live in. There is none of that. It's architecture, which reflects an entirely commercial world. There are very shiny buildings that reflect you back at them and have been put up by corporations to house their offices."

This exhibition has a great variety of art - paintings, computer projections, films...

"Yes but these works that we are standing in front of here I'm very enthusiastic about. They are by an artist called Tony Swain, who is just starting to emerge. He is possibly the person with the shortest art CV. The work is very small scale and he typically works with newspaper and paints on top of it, with elements of collage as well."

Why the fascination with newspaper?

"It's very interesting. The way he has spoken to me about the work is that he is approaching newspaper as a medium and as support. He talks about it as a landscape...he moves across the printed page and responds to it in an almost unconscious way. So, he is not responding to whatever the articles are about. He may respond to the typography, though. In this piece, it actually says 'review' upside down and that's from the 'review' section of the Guardian newspaper. So, he's kind of playing with's sort of embedded in there but it's not really important...this is abstraction, this is a kind of formal play."

When visitors come to an exhibition such as this one on modern art, do you think that they need to spend more time on each exhibit? I saw this piece earlier but never realised that it spells "review" backwards...

"I'm pointing it out to you just to explain his use of materials and the way that he approaches it but everybody brings their own thoughts to the work on show..."

Walking through the exhibition, I observed a few visitors and this group was one of many that were desperately searching for the message that the author of a painting with a row of dots on a white background was trying to convey. Many of us have yet to warm up to abstract art. If it fails to clearly state what it is or requires a little more imagination than is usual, it gains little appreciation. But in many cases a little patience is all that's required. With me now is Paul Harrison, whose piece 66.86 is on show here - and you know what, I'll just let you explain what it's all about...

"The video projection shows a corner of a manufactured room. It's a room that we made within our studio space. The room is painted a kind of very light blue and when the video opens, you see a criss-crossing of the space with white ropes that run through a series of pulleys. Whereas on screen it looks like half a dozen ropes, it's actually just one piece of rope. As the video progresses, that length of rope - the 66.86 metres - is pulled through the space.

"Initially, the rope is just pure white and you gradually see black sections being pulled through the space. Over the course of three minutes, this whole piece of rope is pulled through and at the end, a drawing of the image of a chair is produced."

I didn't see that! Don't you think that you should have a sign here saying: "wait for three whole minutes in order to see the end product"?

"I think the amusing thing for me is that it's really all about the build-up to this final thing and then everything makes sense. It's great for me to watch people's faces when there is the element of surprise at the end and then it all kind of fits. I quite often watch people just see 20 seconds of it and then wander off and you want to tap them on the shoulder and tell them to watch it to the end. But I think it's a reward for people who have the patience to watch it."

But don't you think that modern (contemporary) artists would be more popular and appreciated if they were to explain their work a little more? Not everyone has that patience or that imagination that's needed sometimes...

"Well, I think the problem with explaining the work too much is that it becomes too one-dimensional. You don't allow the viewer then to bring their own interpretations or their own experience to the work - what it reminds them of and their own history. I really wouldn't want to control it any more. We view the viewer as an intelligent individual, who is capable of making their own decisions and interpretations of the work and I think if you try and explain it too much, it can end up becoming like a TV commercial that has a mission to sell or communicate a singular idea and I like the fact that this is much more open."

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