Energy, Movement, Life, Interaction!

VICTOR PASMORE, TOWARDS A NEW REALITY, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, from Saturday, 11 March

BRITISH CONSTRUCTIVISM: THE CATHERINE PETITGAS COLLECTION, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, from Saturday, 11 March

If you want to change the world, first you have to change art. Big statement, big idea. What does it have to do with Victor Pasmore?

Victor Pasmore in his own words, from ‘Abstract, Concrete and Subjective art’: “an abstract painting differs from its representational counterpart, in so far as it is real and actual in itself”. An abstract painting isn’t a painting of something, it is something. It is an object in it’s own right, not tied to something else, neither its subject, whatever that might be, or its creator, its artist. The art is separate from the person who made it. The artist has taken themselves out of the equation. The success or otherwise of the painting, construction, sculpture depends entirely on the object itself. What does it do? Does it do it well?

I think Pasmore’s abstract paintings and constructions do do something very well. (Do do, voodoo - what’s that 1950s song?) What the pieces do is express how things, shapes, bits of wood, perspex, paint, board etc, work together. Everything he created has energy, movement, life, interaction. Each element works with every other element. Every single work screams: ‘Think! Look again! Look! The answer is right in front of you, in what you see. It doesn’t mean anything but what it is.’ 

Yet, as a way of seeing and thinking that’s maybe a bit difficult to get your head around, especially as we aren’t used to looking at images, or art, in this way. Pictures, images have become ubiquitous in our culture. In the 1960s, the Situationists, an outpost of the French avant-garde, proposed that in the future (now) we would experience life vicariously, via images. They felt this was a danger, that a life not lived directly was a life wasted. Today, not only do we experience life via images, we even use photos to communicate, pace Facebook, Snapchat etc.

An image, in popular culture, stands for something beyond itself. It isn’t, as Victor Pasmore asserts, an object in its own right. An image today is just another form of self-expression. An image expresses me. It is a picture of my inner life.

Since that moment in time when Pasmore began to create purely abstract art, that moment between the war and the 1960s, when everyone seemed to agree that it made sense to work together to make things better (and sure there was a hell of a lot that needed improving - women’s rights for one), art (and life) has veered off on a very different path.

As much as a focus on the individual was a transgressive, political act in the 1960s, by the 1980s, Thatcher and the Big Bang, the removal of regulatory (and moral) controls on the financial markets in the City of London, personal actualisation became big business. Me, me, me was the cry and the artists of Cool Britannia (for example) were up to the challenge.

Art wasn’t about something which worked in its own terms. Art was about fame, celebrity, self-expression. The art didn’t matter, so much rotting shark and masses of dead butterflies, what mattered was the artist. Galleries weren’t selling paintings, they were selling fame and fortune. If you wanted to get into that game, you had to keep paddling like crazy. You were only as good as your last television appearance, your most recent newspaper article.

So now we have Damian Hurst, celebrity clown as artist, Boris Johnson, celebrity clown as Foreign Secretary, Donald Trump, celebrity clown as President; art is at the bottom, at the beginning, of everything.

What is more galling still, is that artists who profess to be opposed to Trump, Lena Dunham, for example, creator and star of Girls, the television phenomenon, will create characters and storylines based entirely on the concept of personal expression, personal actualisation, personal dramatisation. The four girls, as much as they are satirical, send-up versions of the glossy incarnations of Sex and the City, are all about self. They never act together to actually achieve anything concrete, each episode simply an amalgam of individual vignettes, fundamentally about feeling. Success is a function of extreme self-revelation, not entirely dissimilar to Graham Norton’s big red chair, a competition of sorts concerning who can relate the most embarrassing and revealing personal anecdote about themselves.

The crazier, the more unacceptable, the more transgressive the action, the more embarrassing, the more fundamentally unpleasant, the better, because that is taken to be genuinely revelatory, to be true, to be authentic, honest and thus successful, self-expression. Nothing succeeds like an excess of self. Honesty to yourself trumps (to coin a phrase) all other moral considerations.

In other words, Damian Hurst, Lena Dunham and Donald Trump are all in exactly the same business, the art of the self.

So something has to change.

For those searching for inspiration, for a new kind of art, which is about something other than self, other than the frantic search for attention, which is maybe about something beyond ourselves, about how to work together, to find creative energy in the most unlikely materials, these two connected exhibitions would be a great place to start.

Pasmore is an incredibly exciting artist, and the leap into the unknown of purely abstract art must have taken a lot of courage, not to mention sheer stubbornness in the face of doubt and misunderstanding. (His sometime patron, Kenneth Clark wrote: “Do you know he is scrawling spirals all over his pictures. Really, he is the most eccentric man.” (From an essay by Malcolm Cormack, Victor Pasmore, Yale Centre for British Art, 1988.)

It’s a rare treat too, to see work by Kenneth and Mary Martin, and others, in the collection of Catherine Petitgas, these delightful examples of the constructivist aesthetic.

Victor Pasmore sums up, in his own artistic journey, the constant struggle with the paradox of artistic expression, that the best art exists beyond its creator, that it is simultaneously an object and a social interaction, a personal vision and a shared experience, a creative act and an expression of the way we interact and think as a wider society.

Paul Corcoran