The curatorial and editorial project for systems, non-
Transforming Surfaces / trænsˈfɔːmɪŋ ˈsɜːfɪsɪz/ at ARTHOUSE1
Transcript of Artists in Conversation, an event held to coincide with the opening of the exhibition on 1 June 2018
The following transcription makes no claim to be verbatim.
While it remains true to the substance of the conversation, some of the contributions by
panellists and audience have been re-
Andrew Bick (AB) -
Richard Bell (RB), David Saunders (DS), G R Thomson, aka Ray Thomson (GRT) -
Apologies for absence: Peter Joseph (PJ), Hanz Hancock (HH) and Patrick Morrissey (PM)
Michael Parsons (MP) -
Speakers from the audience (A)
Welcome, introduction and opening remarks by Richard Bell
Transforming Surfaces evolved from an invitation by Saturation Point, in 2016, to organise an exhibition that built on the ‘Eye and Mind’ theme, initiated in 2014 by The Mercus Barn (TMB) project, Ariège, France.
As a critical development of this theme, Transforming Surfaces brings together a
number of artists who participated in that venture, with a view to sharing this work
This exhibition is just a moment in this process. It does not claim to be a grand
design that would end up saying anything incredibly profound. It’s more an opening
to the paintings and works we’re seeing and experiencing in the here-
And it’s as much a conversation between these works as between the artists and you, here in the audience.
I will now hand over to Andrew Bick, who has generously offered to facilitate proceedings.
GRT: Before Andrew speaks, I would like to propose a vote of thanks to Richard. (Applause.)
AB: I am hoping to do as little as possible, other than to make sure that all of us have a chance to continue the dialogue that has gone into this show, the essay and statements in the catalogue, and the work on the walls.
I think the interesting thing that I would want to start with, which comes from a
I think it was something you said, Richard, that this exhibition ‘is the work of a group of artists, but it is not a group exhibition’.
And, in a way, what animates the works of any kind is the way that people converse
about them. There are very particular dialogues going on in this exhibition, so I
would want to start with the idea of dialogue, where it takes us, and particularly
the relationship between what can be broadly considered as a systematic or pre-
So, perhaps we could start there.
RB: I think the main element that runs through the work here is a commonality in the use of a systematic method, which I believe to be diverse between the participating artists. From the installation by Patrick and Hanz, which makes use of a number of mathematical concepts as a means for planning the work, to the paintings of Peter Joseph, where there is no apparent mathematical methodology involved at all. In fact, he would say it is principally a process to do with feeling.
So, what we are all exploring here is a range of different approaches to a systematic method; where we are all starting from something known, but we do not know exactly what the visual outcome will be. The process is not planned to the extent that the artist knows where the exact end point for the painting/work will be. And I think this is true in various ways of all the works in this show.
Della has written a vignette in the catalogue called ‘becoming’ -
DS: Well, I was a systematic artist, and although I’m not that systematic now -
Where I now live, in France, are the prehistoric Magdalenian caves, which date back to some 20,000 years ago. I learnt from the scholars of these caves (who show you around) that this civilisation had sort of itinerant professors who knew exactly how things should be drawn, like the horns of a bison, for example. There was a formula for each type of images, and the professors went round to enforce these rules.
But the cave painters were also looking at the bumps and cracks in the walls which could interact with these rules. One of the caves near me that you can still go into is called the Grotte de Niaux.
You have to walk some 2 km into the mountain, and you come up against these paintings, which speak directly to you. I wanted to bring this into the discussion to illustrate the relationship between the need for very strict rules that provides a formula and the interaction of chance, which creates the painting.
Magdalenian cave painting of a bison, Altamira, Spain
AB: There is something I want to come back to, which we discussed in the interview
we did for ‘Abstract Critical’, which relates to the painting that you have called
August 2017. When I looked at it -
David Saunders, August 2017, acrylic and Chinese ink on wood and gesso, 125 x 100 cm
DS: Well, I have a method of building up a surface, but I don’t really want to share it because it is a bit mad.
AB: That’s fair enough. I have heard painters share their methods with others, and then tell them ‘please, do not share this with anyone’! So there is this element in it.
RB: The trouble with methods is that sometimes they are top secret.
DS: Well, Paul Cézanne was asked ‘What is the secret of your success?’ and he said ‘avoir une bonne formule’ (to have a good formula). And he did have a good formula, but it was dependent upon the interaction with nature, and the surface appears out of this.
AB: And, in a way, this relates to something that Richard said about visiting Peter Joseph, that it is the way the method or formula evolves over time which is important. I certainly think that over the time I have known your work, there have been some significant changes.
There is an interesting point that relates to this, which was the exhibition you did at Andrew Mummery Gallery, and the conversation you had with Peter Joseph at that time. I think there was a convergence between the works he was doing in a show I saw at Mummery Schnelle called What If It’s All True? What Then? and the works you are making now.
But I just want to turn to Ray now, because we were having a conversation about how the surface and edge work in these paintings of Ray’s and, perhaps, for him to say something about the relation between what is organised within these works, with what perhaps constitutes a form of ‘gesture’.
GRT: Well, I propose to ignore that invitation. (Laughter.)
Let me be clear. (More laughter.)
My interest in any of this stuff evolved from a brush, a rather unfortunate brush, as it turned out, with a number of artists who had been members of the ‘Systems Group’, and a developing interest in structure … which is a great curse for any visual artist, because people think of art as kind of intuitive, fun, entertainment industry perhaps, but don’t necessarily think of it as involving the question of structure. And, more than that, the question of mathematics, within the question of structure.
I began by thinking about the model of structure, which I think was deployed rather unthinkingly by some artists associated with the UK Systems phenomenon, and … I could find nothing in it which I could agree with. So, I began to look at other ways of thinking structure in terms of painting. I have to stress that I am speaking specifically of painting here, because I have not particularly worked in other mediums. For me, it’s always been painting.
I looked through structuralist theories, then poststructuralist theories, and ended
up with a kind of definition of painting as a form of non-
As Richard has been saying, the question of non-
I think it’s important to say that what lies at the bottom of all of this stuff is
something radically unknowable -
The genius of spoken English is that the words for totality (whole) and nothingness
(hole) sound exactly the same. The hole, in this sense, is radical nothingness. And
this nothingness is not a temporary state of affairs, something that can be picked
up and incorporated into structure at a later date, so that the whole-
It is important to bear in mind that these two orders, this whole order, this whole(some) order and this holely order, something with holes in it, sort of bounce off each other. And if I had to choose, wager (in Pascal’s sense), I would say the hole (nothingness) is the condition of thinking the holy grail of the whole (totality) rather than the other way round.
AB: David has just passed me a note, which relates to this, and to something we discussed
in the interview for ‘Abstract-
And this is something that I do want to come back to, on how colour activates within architecture, and I think this is what David described as a “new sensibility of colour modulation that could be both understood and felt, a form of systematisation, that was seen as a transgression by the ‘Stalinists’”.
David wanted to offer a defence of his position via a translation of his own from Baudelaire’s defence of Delacroix, in his critique of “The Salon of 1846”.
There is no such thing as chance in art any more than in a machine. A happy discovery is the simple consequence of good reasoning in which one sometimes skips intermediate calculations, just as a fault is the result of a false principle. A painting is a machine of which all the systems are intelligible to the practised eye; where everything has its raison d’être, if the picture is good; where one tone is intended to give value to another; where an occasional fault in drawing is sometimes necessary in order not to sacrifice something more important.
DG: Well, just to connect with what Richard said about the tension between what is known at the beginning and how a painting finishes up … as well as thinking about Ray’s comments on the purity of prediction within the ‘Systems Group’. I would agree that applying rules at the outset, which must be rigidly applied throughout, is definitely something the artists here have rejected outright, or have partly moved away from. However, they are all applying limitations and setting boundaries … adjusting the process this way, rather than that way and thereby creating potential. It’s inevitable.
Actually, I’m thinking that rules could be a liberating force, when you realise they
can still involve choice. If you take one path from the outset, which is to the exclusion
of all others -
You can, of course, start anywhere and proceed anyhow, and you can then conclude
successfully or not, but it seems to me there is a way of engaging with the process
that allows the freedom to go forward more acutely if things are excluded or rejected
DS: My friend, the composer Michael Parsons is here this evening. Michael is relevant to this discussion because he writes music with a lot of strict systematic thought, but his music and the way it is performed allow degrees of freedom for the performers to interpret the structure and make choices. I think we should invite Michael to join the discussion.
RB: I will just fill the space a bit whilst Michael takes his seat. It occurred to
me there was predominance, I would say pre-
I have referred in our catalogue to something the artist Jean Spencer said: ‘colour complexity supersedes geometrical complexity’. Although this is very aphoristic, it does encapsulate the thought that colour has complexities that do not require a mechanical engine to make it work.
And this takes us right back to Paul Cézanne and to Maurice Merleau-
In this way, I think, we can let the word feeling back into the discourse. Peter Joseph would say that ‘Feeling is all important to me’. I asked him about this, and he said it is the sensory experience of the painting, and how this resonates with us, or something to this effect. So, it is as much to do with our nervous systems, as with a cerebral response. It is about how we feel the work physically.
Left: Peter Joseph, Turquoise and Cobalt Blue, April 2016, acrylic on canvas, 47 x 38 cm
Right: Richard Bell, Palimpsest No. 6, 2017, oil on linen, 80 x 80 cm
AB: For those of you who do not know the artists Jean Spencer and Malcolm Hughes, please do look them up. Perhaps Michael would like to come in here.
DS: I would just like to say something about Ray’s painting first. Everyone will have noticed that there are no bright colours. The reason for that is that all the colours have a part to play, so that each colour is made up of a certain number of colours in a certain proportion to the other colours. And that’s why there are no bright colours, but they are very complex colours. The structure appears between all the different frequencies of colours that are combined in a single colour and are in relation to another set of combinations in the colours next to it. I believe that’s where the feeling comes from. It arises through the deployment of the particular means of painting interacting with the effort of the reader.
G R Thomson, Anachromisms 32 (sea thrift, Portrush) 2010-
GRT: I have to say that I don’t have a lot of time for feeling myself.
DS: Yes, but Baudelaire is saying that the feeling of the painting must get there without the artist being aware of it. So, you have got it, whether you like it or not.
GRT: I’m not entirely sure what this discourse on feeling is really about. One of
the many avenues Jean was exploring, before her untimely death, is how a painting
is fundamentally unfinished until it is read. And, if there is work to be done, it
is in the politics of reading otherwise, so that the practice of reading becomes
an open and productive process, rather than a thing where the respondent is positioned
as a passive consumer. So, if there are structures and feelings here that people
carelessly talk about, might it not be said that a lot of that is invested in the
work by the respondent? It’s not put there for the respondent to merely receive-
Rather, reading as an active process of co-
AB: This social aspect perhaps is a good way into the question about how this relates to music, and if there is necessarily the same social question.
MP: Yes, of course, it is social. Everything we do is social. Music is a good example
of collaboration between composers, performers and audiences. And so that is a good
model for what people have been describing. You need performers and audiences to
make their own responses. I would say this is so basic that we can almost take it
for granted. But indeterminacy brings something more specific to our work over the
DS: Well, there is of course a sort of metaphor, I suppose, about this meaning/feeling that is produced in the space between the work and the reader, listener or respondent.
MP: I don’t really like the word listener, it’s too exclusive; when you are listening to music, you are experiencing it visually as well.
DS: I quite like reader.
A?: Respondent’s pretty good.
MP: Respondent’s best for me.
GRT: … because when we talk about feeling, I don’t see it as being in the work. I see the feeling as being part of the response to the work …
DS: Yes, it’s not in the work but is produced in the space between it and the reader. When I was at a recent exhibition, I noticed all these people with their iPhones out, and I realised they were just collecting this stuff and not actually in the space between the work and themselves. It has to be an active participation.
AB: In everything you have talked about, there is a primacy to attentiveness by the
maker and the reader. It’s interesting; I was talking to Ray earlier about the work
here above the fireplace, which seems to re-
Left: Peter Joseph, Blue and Dark Grey, July 2015, acrylic on canvas 47 x 38 cm. Right: G R Thomson, Anachromisms 40, ‘canard’ for John McLaughlin, 2015 – 2018, acrylic on linen, each part: 602 x 426 mm
Left: Richard Bell, Palimpsest No. 8, 2017, oil on linen, 119 x 84 cm. Right: David Saunders, December 2017, acrylic and Chinese ink on wood and gesso, 125 x 100 cm
AB: Perhaps we can throw this open now to questions from the audience. (A)
A1 (Paula Waldron): Can I ask Della a bit more about the use of rules. I am interested in how this applies in different mediums such as in writing and poetry, for instance, where certain rules are used to make the poem work well, and some work less well, and this comes from experience and learning. It strikes me that, in the discussion on the use of structure in the artists’ earlier work, there has been a struggle to move away from more rigid systems. Do you see this as a struggle and is this change OK? I wondered if you have any views on this.
DG: I’m not sure if this answers your question, but I was just now thinking that we have been talking about moving away from a closed system, to something more like a dynamic or open system. A strictly closed system is probably more problematic to the creative process because it doesn’t allow for change, so I would say a move away from that might be a relief! Although, as Michael said just now, everything is social and I suppose everything could be described as a system of some sort!
To be more specific, what I mean is that we can have a plan that assumes the process will teach us nothing, that we know everything from the outset. Or we can have a plan that accommodates error, change, and chance. We can plan how to be surprised. A plan, or you could say rules, that assumes there is something still to be discovered, that gives movement, allows for progress and evolution.
RB: I think it is also a move away from simply the word ‘systems’ -
A2 (anon): Can I just ask a question? There is a story about Anthony Hill, the well-
DS: The interesting thing about Anthony Hill is that he produced art under two names.
He used another name called Redo, which was his alter ego and which allowed him to
make work in a Dada, anti-
A2: The other thing that struck me is that it seems to me you can predict the form of a structure, but you can’t predict the experience of it. And one of the reasons for the structure is to get the experience from it.
GRT: I think this relates to the kind of things I was questioning … It’s almost like
the myths of origin, if I could put it that way ... I don’t want to deny the idea
of systems – for me it’s very important. But what’s the shit that’s going on before
The System institutes itself, as-
A2: But isn’t that where the experience comes in? Experience is what nudges the thing off balance, slightly off balance and that’s where all the shit comes back?
GRT: Yes exactly, exactly. My objection to the systems phenomenon was its almost
invariable attempt to impose a closure on readings, on the genesis of work, where
it comes from etc., etc. In other words, to eliminate what I have described, rather
vaguely, as the hole, or the radically unknowable. If you start with the whole, holy
All this referential structure is not completely containable within an order of the
determinable. Nor is it completely indeterminable either. You always need two. That’s
why there are always two of these bloody things (indicating Anachromisms). Twoness
opens the prospect of making a whole, or a one, or a totality that is non-
A2: Sort of. I lost the track a bit.
GRT: Me too …
A1: But it does point to the fact that the works never quite get there.
GRT: Yes, incompleteness is essential to the work, because that opens a space in which the role of the respondent is more than that of a passive consumer.
RB: I think Della referenced this in the catalogue essay -
DG: Yes, exploring. The vignette ‘becoming’, in the catalogue, was an attempt at
understanding Peter Joseph’s process -
GRT: Yes, there are no privileged vantage points. It is the same as in science, which
doesn’t have a god’s eye view of the universe anymore. The subject of science -
Peter Joseph, Left: Ochre, Light Purple, Dark Red, Sept 2014. Right: Blue and Dark Grey, July 2015
Each painting: acrylic on canvas, 117 x 38 cm
RB: Michael, is there anything you want to say about how your music relates to this?
MP: I don’t want to talk in detail about my work in this context, as it is really about your work. However, in general, I am interested in the idea of openness and indeterminacy in English experimental music. This derives from the work of John Cage, Morton Feldman, David Tudor and others in New York in the 1950s and 1960s, which became known in England in the 1960s, largely through the work of Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury. The music is not fixed in advance; scores can allow performers and respondents a range of interpretations, so one performance is never exactly the same as another. Each is unique to its circumstances.
A3 (Laurence Noga): Richard, I wonder if you can say something about how you brought these works together and the kind of choices you made?
RB: It was sort of self-
I think it is also worth adding an important note about Peter Joseph, who, some years ago, I might not have thought to be a fellow traveller in an exhibition regarding structure and method. I now think he simply is. His work explores this tension between what can be loosely defined as the ineffable (that idea that we cannot rationally explain the outcome) and the working method. His method, which underpins the painting practice, is, I think, extremely rigorous. The small collage over there by Peter was made as recently as April this year.
And what I think people might assume is that this collage appears through a completely
random process of shapes as though they arrived by accident. But his process is to
construct a very specific situation from small swatches of colour and shapes until
he is happy with it. Once satisfied with the arrangement, he paints it on a larger
Peter Joseph, Collage, April 2018, painted canvas and card, 28cm x 23 cm
DS: It is actually stranger than that, I can tell you; he collects all the bits of card and colour tests on bits of canvas he has made over the years. There is a pile of hundreds of these scraps of canvas. Della wrote about this in the catalogue essay. This trying out of the relationships by cutting up these bits that he then assembles as a collage and then scales up by drawing this out as pencil lines that copy the cuts of the original collage edges on the large canvas. There is method in the madness.
A3 (LN): I would like to know if the show was hung intuitively in a way, or if there was a plan.
RB: The exhibition is a very deliberate ensemble, which, as it happens, has undergone a number of transformations along the way.
I believe the collaborative work of HH and PM engages with systems that are experienced
spatially in three and two dimensions, as well as temporally -
This installation is perhaps at one end of the exhibition spectrum, whilst Peter’s and David’s working methods, which are specific to painting, are probably at the other. All these works are hung to test these questions of spatial and temporal transformation, at once regulated and open to chance and change.
Patrick Morrissey and Hanz Hancock Installation: Chromatic 3, wood and mixed materials 225 x 171 cm (variable)
Hanz Hancock, Mourning in Yellow 2 and 4, mixed media, each: 25.4 x 25.4 cm
A4 (anon): I just wanted to go back to what you said about feeling, which seems to
be somewhat contentious. And I want to add in the word sensation -
DS: Well, I would like to talk about Malcolm again, here. He had a very interesting
GRT: If I might pick up on this a bit … I mean obviously in my work and in more mathematically
inclined work, there are always questions of repetition and difference. I have in
mind the emblematic image of modernism, the square divided by the regular orthogonal
grid … a method of organisation that was supposedly non-
I recall in the midst of reading a reproduction of a modular, serial painting by the Swiss concrete artist Richard Paul Lohse, one of the interesting things Jean [Spencer] pointed out was that, although the grid was completely regular … Obviously, there is a strong pictorial rhetoric going on, in which the spectrum colours making up the whole, appear equidistantly stepped: yellow; redder yellow; redder redder yellow, and so on … Suddenly, Jean said, ‘he cheats’, because one of the steps was not regular, not equidistant. It could only not be regular, a misstep, in order to make the pictorial rhetoric work. Jean’s seeming accusation of malpractice turned out to be a compliment from one painter to another.
That’s where, some decades ago, I started to think what I now call the double economy. Not one. There are always a minimum of two economies, regular and irregular, rhythmic and arrhythmic ... The extreme mathematising tradition tends to see only a single ‘underlying’ structural master economy and finds it difficult to think two orders, particularly orders that are often abrasively in contradiction, one with the other.
The double economy is perhaps one way of addressing a question posed earlier about
the difference between … Yes, what Lohse -
R P Lohse, Acht vertikale systematische Farbreihen, 1955 – 1969 (for illustration purposes)
A4: So you get the push-
GRT: Exactly … And these two ‘moments’ are quite often in tension.
DG: To get back to your addition of the word ‘sensation’ (acknowledging the questioner) ... I’d really need to know what you mean by that. For me there are so many other words that come along with ‘sensation’... such as ‘perception’ and ‘consciousness’. So I think it a bit restrictive to think about it in isolation ... as just the senses picking up on something ‘coming in’. Don’t get me wrong, it is very special, but it’s fleeting, it’s quick and sudden, and other things happen.
Immediately after a sensation, consciousness takes over and starts organising what ‘came in’. It decides what to do with it, considers how it can align it with anything we already know about. It does its best to box it up, repackage it. Basically, we get hold of a sensation and then corrupt it and, by the time we‘ve finished, the sensation is degraded. We’ve dropped the ball, something is lost.
Something that Husserl was interested in is how artists can perhaps wind back this kind of artifice. How the work of our consciousness, our need to organise and make ‘sense’ of things can be peeled away.
GRT: I agree with that. Other terms would be signal and noise, for example, and a desire to have pure signal minus the noise, which never works.
Left: Peter Joseph, Collage. Centre: David Saunders. December 2017. Right: PJ, Ochre, Light Purple, Dark Red
A5 (Justin Baron): There have been a number of companies recently that are creating new music technologies and intelligence, and demonstrating the importance of new IT applications. I was wondering if there are equivalent computer programmes that could produce works like these. Whether it is just the application that is important and the need for method and structure. If so, in the context of people who say ‘I don’t know about art but I know what I like’, would they need to know about the structures and methods to really get something out of it?
DS: Well, just a word on that. I was one of the founders of the ‘Systems Group’,
and I think there was a need at the time for the transparency of a system, so you
needed to know how it was done. I now actually think this was wrong. The idea of
RB: The physicality of the work is important. The physical and time aspect of the
painting practice in making the work, is, I think, a type of performance. You have
to perform the painting. And then, the second performance, which we have been talking
about in relation to Merleau-
Richard Bell, Palimpsest No. 5, oil on linen, 80 x 80 cm
There is a video installation in the other room by HH and PM, which, I think, is fascinating and is derived from algorithms. But it’s a different physical experience in this spectrum from what’s going on here.
I also just wanted to point out the relevance of the poems by the English metaphysical
poet John Donne (1573-
Vitrine: Notebooks, sketches, preliminary studies, colour trials and exhibition catalogues selected by the artists
DG: And choosing that poem was a very off-
RB: When we were talking about the poem, about why you thought it important to include
it, I think it was this paradox between the metaphysical aspects of Donne’s poetry,
and the physical nature of the work; and yet how, in the The Extasie, the meaning
is conveyed of how everything returns back to the body. And we felt that this really
chimes with Merleau-
Quality, light, colour, depth which are there before us, are only there because they awaken an echo in our bodies and because the body welcomes them. (Eye and Mind, 1964)
GRT: The only proviso I would make in response to the last question, is that no one
approaches these things without knowledges, devoid of experiences. Much as we may
desire to be empty subjects when we look at these things -
But no, it’s not essential, it may be desirable but it’s certainly not essential
to know about the theories, structures, whatever, first. I think, above all, these
paintings are designed with an eye to some form of aesthetic pleasure -
AB: Thank you all very much, and to the artists for making this exhibition possible.
AH1. facing south, L to R: Richard Bell, Peter Joseph, RB, vitrine, David Saunders, Richard Bell, G R Thomson
©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock All rights reserved.
AH1. facing north, L to R: Peter Joseph, G R Thomson, Richard Bell, G R Thomson
AH1. facing south-
My thanks to Rebecca Fairman, Della Gooden, Martine Lignon, Michael Parsons, David Saunders, G R Thomson, for their contributions and enthusiasm in making this transcription possible.
In particular, my thanks to G R Thomson and Martine Lignon for their vital involvement in the work of editing and proofing this document.
Photos by Richard Bell, Rebecca Fairman and G R Thomson
TS Transcript © Richard Bell, London 2018