The first thing that strikes you, looking at Paul Dignan’s new series of paintings, Raised Ranch, is the eccentricity of the shapes. No familiar rectangles here, but rather complex polygons, all unexpected angles, as if a series of triangles has been fused together on the wall. Yet, for all their strangeness as shapes, twelve of the fourteen paintings that comprise the Raised Ranch series (at least as of this writing) are octagons, though none of them has the familiar, regular shape of a stop sign. The shapes are so different, in fact, that it is only after counting the sides that one sees the mathematical consistency of the forms.
The second is how they appear to shimmer, as if they are vibrating on a very low frequency, a bass hum that you can almost feel in your bones. These paintings are destabilizing, they make one feel off-kilter, as if the room is shifting. Then, finally, you settle on
the lines, on the virtual spaces in the paintings where the surface seems folded or bent: complex internal geometries reminiscent of origami, except for the gaps in logic, the places where the painting is just flat, juxtaposed with tonal areas that strongly suggest space — illusion next to fact next to illusion.
In 1884 Edwin Abbott wrote the satirical novella Flatland, a mathematical fancy (and biting social critique of the Victorian establishment) about a world that existed in just two dimensions. Visited by an inhabitant of a 3D world called “Sphere,” the protagonist, A Square, is forced to try to fathom what space might look like, how it might feel. The space in these paintings feels like an inhabitant of Flatland trying to imagine architecture. These works reduce to the role of A Square, trying to comprehend space as containing a mysterious “depth”as well as the familiar height and width.
As complex as Dignan’s paintings are, they are also very simple. Most of them feature two colours, with added white to create tints from the base colour. The lines are precise, the same width, and there is no varying: straight lines are the only formal element, no curves, no interruption of the formal logic of proceeding from point A to point B in the shortest possible time. Simplicity, the sculptor Constantin Brancusi maintained, is complexity resolved. The push and pull between simple and complex, between resolution and dissolution, is what creates that destabilizing feeling in these paintings — their logic, so precise and almost crystalline, always feels on the verge of slipping away. One wants, intensely, to see something in these works, to find an image where there is none. Resolution will not come that way.
That desire is understandable, of course. After all, we see by translating light into images; humans are hardwired to make sense. Perhaps that is why these works can feel so initially disorientating, and while, after prolonged, active, looking, they are so satisfying.
Because this is not random chaos, we do not need to make a conscious effort to find created order in these works, this is not some sort of Abstract Expressionist-inspired mess from which one has to make an effort to find sense. No, the underlying logic and internal consistency of these works are right out in front of us — they are ordered and disordered all at once. Deciphering the logic, following the intellectual pathway that Dignan has laid out (and inevitably stumbling into dead ends and having to start over again), is part of the pleasure of these works. And one can’t exhaust them — they remain visually engaging, challenging and surprising with every view. That, too, is a key factor in their visual richness, and yes, their beauty.
The underlying logic and sustained intellectualism in approach are hallmarks of Dignan’s paintings, and have been throughout his career. The work has always been rigorous, has always taken the act of painting and the act of looking as extremely serious business. These paintings were preceded by two other series, Waiting Room and Deck/Backsplit, and it is in looking at the two preceding series that one sees the inescapable logic in the development of his new work. In talking with Dignan in his studio, watching him pull out the earlier work and hang it on the wall, there was an “aha” moment; the works just clicked. All of this work is current, from 2015–16, and while each series is a distinct entity, fully capable of standing on its own (as evidenced by this current exhibition), nonetheless, seeing them together was deeply informative.
The Waiting Room series is made up of small panels, all the same size — 40 cm high and 30 cm wide — each based on one colour and grey. The twelve panels all feature a central figure made up of parallel lines of a colour (and a tone of that colour) and grey lines. In most of the works the upper right and lower left corner of the panels are cut out, showing just grey triangles. This leaves a complex central image, and most of them have eight sides. In writing about Raised Ranch on his blog, Dignan says, “when I was looking at the previous Deck or Backsplit paintings in the studio I was constantly imagining what they would look like with particular sections/areas removed.” Interestingly, it is the Deck and Backsplit paintings he cites, when the Waiting Room images visually already have sections “removed.” The Deck/Backsplit series are of two sizes: 122 by 91 cm, or 61 by 46 cm. Despite their being titled either “Deck” or “Backsplit,” there is no discernible difference (at least to me) between the two bodies of work. They each are made in both sizes, for instance; they each use two colours and two tones; and there is no longer any grey. They all are strictly rectangular. The space in these works is more complex, with sections appearing to float above others, figures and grounds switching places in the foreground and background as one’s eyes roam over the surface.
Raised Ranch is the culmination of the experiments and the thought that went into the two previous series, but it is not a replacement — like the architectural features he uses as his titles, they are another iteration of structure in space. As a viewer, you leave with a heightened sense of the space that you yourself occupy. Dignan’s imaginary spaces make the actual space we inhabit more palpable, as if he has made air visible. For us Flatlanders, he has made space make sense.
Ray Cronin, 2016
Ray Cronin is a writer and curator living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He worked at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia for nearly fifteen years, first as Curator (2001–07) and then as Director and CEO (2007–15). He is the founding Curator of the Sobey Art Award. He is the author of numerous catalogue essays, as well as articles for Canadian and American art magazines. In 2000 he received the Christina Sabat Award for Critical Review in the Arts. As a freelance writer he has published reviews and articles on art for several magazines over a twenty-five-year career. Cronin’s curatorial projects include retrospective exhibitions of the work of Nancy Edell, Rick Burns and Thierry Delva, as well as the nationally touring exhibitions Graeme Patterson: Woodrow and Arena: The Art of Hockey. He is the author of Marion Wagschal (Battat, Montreal 2010) and he has contributed essays to books on Mary Pratt, John Greer, David Askevold, Graeme Patterson, Colleen Wolstenholme, and Garry Neill Kennedy, among others.
In the 1960s Systems Theory, as developed by Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann, among others, found practical applications in the development of computer communication networks, corporate infrastructure, and what became known as “policy analyses” in government and “Systems Esthetics” in art. In simple terms, asystem is defined as a chain of related events within a defined boundary. The boundary establishes a frame between the system and the larger environment. For every system there is an interior and exterior; the inside is defined, the outside infinitely complex.
Systems can be both dynamic and static. An “open” system crosses boundaries and interacts with other systems; by doing so, each system is changed. “Closed” systems remain isolated and static. Jack Burnham’s influential essay “Systems Esthetics” appeared in Artforum in September of 1968. The Post-Minimal promise of Systems Esthetics was the dematerialization of the Modernist art object and the emergence of conceptual models using “new media” or systems as media: The specific function of modern didactic art has been to show that art does not reside in material entities, but in relations between people and between people and the components of their environment.1 Since 1968 new media has proven its ability to become old media and conceptual practice is no longer adverse to engagement with materials.
Though Systems Theory has become synonymous with the postformalist esthetics of the 1960s and 70s, another perspective reveals the influence of Systems Theory within object-based art. A critical shift accompanied the influence of Systems thinking on how art was made: a shift from the perception of painting as autonomous to viewing painting as an “open” system operating within and interacting with larger systems. This insight provided artists with a way to navigate through the fury and gestural abandon of Abstract Expressionism, through the high claims and limited possibilities within Post-Painterly Abstraction, and beyond the reflexive reductiveness of Process Painting into the expanded field that painting now inhabits.
In 1966, two years before Jack Burnham’s “Systems Esthetics” appeared in Artforum, the exhibition Systemic Painting, curated by Lawrence Alloway, opened in New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Among the artists featured in the exhibition were Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Kenneth Noland, and Robert Ryman. In the same year Lawrence Alloway coined the term “Systemic Art” to describe a “type of abstract art characterized by the use of very simple standardized forms, usually geometric in character, either in a single concentrated image or repeated in a system arranged according to a clearly visible principle of organization.”2 This definition, functional for the time and providing some insight, is not of much use in describing contemporary Systems Painting: organizing principles may or may not be obvious; forms are not always simple or standardized. However, when describing methodology rather than esthetics Alloway’s words become more pertinent: The end-state of the painting is known prior to completion (unlike the theory of Abstract Expressionism). This does not exclude empirical modifications of a work in progress, but it does focus them within a system.3 In this brief passage Alloway states the fundamental underpinnings of a Systems approach to painting, as useful today as it was then. One telling trait shared by the work Alloway featured in Systemic Painting and the work featured here in Systems Check is a deliberate downplay of the artist’s hand. In 1966 the suppression of gesture would have been viewed as a pointed departure from Abstract Expressionism and the Modernist belief in the imprint of the artist’s hand as an expression of the soul. Today, painterly codes are more nuanced. A brushstroke can be as cool and detached as geometry. The notion of ‘touch’ can be both material and analytic. The downplay of both gesture and material evidenced through a matter-of-fact approach to application is a common characteristic of Systems work and brings it into contrast with Process Painting.
The two share a common lineage that can be traced back through Minimalism to Jackson Pollock. Process Painting tends to hang on one well-crafted reflexive manoeuvre: a drip, a pour or the methodical spread of paint from one side of the canvas to other. Process Painting gives forum to Clement Greenberg’s Kantian-based belief in “the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to enrich it more firmly in its area of competence.”4 Greenberg believed painting could be rendered pure through self-examination, painting examined through painting — a “closed” system. Here, painting becomes an exercise in mnemonics, a report on the gestures involved in making the work. Process work strives to fulfill and maintain the certitude in Frank Stella’s line, “What you see is what you see.”
Today we live in a world where the factual is difficult to discern from the fictional. We live in a polytheistic, Photoshoped, global multi-plex. To believe “What you see” is “what you see” is naive at best. In both approaches each step in the making of the work carries significance and contributes to the content of the work. However, whereas Process Painting is ultimately reductive and concerned with material, measurement, and repetition, Systems Painting is nuanced and gregarious, focused on algorithms,
alignments and interpretation. Systems Painting and Process Painting may share some historical overlap and both are analytic. Yet Systems work operates within a more complex and open framework; the final work represents an “open” rather than a “closed” system.
Systems Painting has multiple histories, multiple points of origin. In France there was Support-Surface and later the BMPT group. In 1969 a number of English artists came together in an exhibition in Helsinki entitled Systeemi-Systems: an Exhibition of Syntactic Art from Britain. In Germany Gerhard Richter took a meta approach employing multiple systems. Richter’s first survey exhibition in North America was in 1988 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. The exhibition, curated by Roald Nasgaard, resonated with the work of Canadian artists such as Jaan Poldaas, Ric Evans, Ron Martin, David Craven, Eric Cameron, Arlene Stamp, Garry Neill Kennedy and the late Gerry Ferguson — artists who can be credited for creating a context for analytic approaches to Abstract painting in Canada.
The artists brought together in Systems Check — Paul Dignan, Angela Leach, Lowell Bradshaw, Ingrid Calame and Mathew Bushell have each developed unique methodologies that blend the objective and subjective, fact with fiction, chance with intention. Each artist has his or her own idiosyncratic approach for making work that resonates with the history of Abstraction while challenging expectations. This is not an age of manifestos or -isms. The title Systems Check is intentionally light. The demarcation lines being drawn are permeable. My intent is to highlight how Systematic approaches function within a diverse range of Abstract paintings from a diverse group of artists. The majority of the participants in this exhibition are mid-career, with the exception of Mathew Bushell who might be described as being on the cusp, having recently graduated from Yale with his MFA. No two artists in Systems Check are based in the same locale. Ingrid Calame lives and works in Los Angeles. Lowell Bradshaw is based in Toronto, having moved from Boston in 2004. Mathew Bushell now calls Brooklyn home after living in Vancouver and New Haven. Paul Dignan moved from Scotland to Canada in 2000 and is now based in Elmira, Ontario. Angela Leach lives and works in Scarborough, Ontario.
Abstract painting has survived ideological bottlenecks, the emergence of new technologies and the art world’s shift from singular to plural to inflationary multiverse. The weight of painting‘s history has not prevented it from being nimble and adaptable. The artists in Systems Check have avoided Post Modernism’s more cynical tendencies. Modernist missteps are often reenacted with winking faux-naivety or as a rearguard reactionary operation. These artists are not making straw dogs or taking painterly pratfalls. They are engaged with the world beyond their studios. This engagement informs the frameworks they work within; frameworks that provide structure while allowing for both invention and chance to
broaden the syntax and potential of contemporary Abstract painting.
Dignan’s work has taken dramatic shifts over the last two decades, all the while maintaining a high degree of chromatic complexity and technical prowess. One of Dignan’s strengths is his ability to defamilarize formal tropes with equal doses of wit, reverence and irony. I was a graduate student at the University of Guelph in the mid-90s when I first encountered Dignan’s work. He was then based in the UK and known for meticulously crafted, off-kilter stripe paintings. Stripe paintings with stripes within stripes, all with a slight lean to prevent the painting from being locked into the frame. After immigrating to Canada, Paul’s work took a turn towards what might best be described as “bio-engineered Pop.” There were no specific cultural references in these paintings, but they pulsed with a contemporary hyper-esthetic, at times cartoonish, glee. Dignan would sample and manipulate forms and fragments of images taken from the Internet. The resulting bursts, serifs, clouds and waves would fold, weave, collapse and sometimes collide with concussive abruptness. Dignan’s current work is born of a similar mix of order and disorder.
The grid is a central condition of modernity, and one of the fundamental geometric elements of Modernism. The grid exists as an ideal, as an organizing principle. It is so basic it becomes invisible, so pervasive it becomes real. The grid is both inherently concrete and abstract; duality is at its core. As Rosalind E. Krauss wrote in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, “The grid’s mythic power is that it makes us able to think we are dealing with materialism (or sometimes science, or logic) while at the same time it provides us with a release into belief (or illusion, or fiction).”5 Poststructuralist criticism aligns the grid with male dominance and political authoritarianism. Dignan is not afraid to take on a conflicted, sordid Modernist motif. Though the grid may be used to organize and measure, a look at Dignan’s recent work proves that the perception and meaning of the grid are not static.
At first glance the structure in Dignan’s paintings appears solid. The paintings vary in size but are always square in format and comprised of squares aligned in an even grid. The palette has shifted from highkeyed to weathered, each painting based on variations of just two colours. Sustained viewing challenges the viewer’s own perception as the solidity found in the first take dissolves. With razor sharp edges and seamless application Dignan subdivides the initial grid. Each square contains a different composition. At a certain moment, after prolonged engagement, the smaller sub-divisions begin to form their own patterns and the grid begins to break down; the initial organizing factor suddenly becomes secondary. Dignan adds another foil by complicating the grid’s sober embrace of the flatness of the picture planes. Using an air gun Dignan creates subtle tonal shifts resulting in tilting planes. The fracture and dissolve, the spatial contradiction between illusionistic depth and the flatness of the recurrent grid entrap the gaze. There is nothing reductive in this work. Within a limited and regular format Dignan creates endless shifting variation. Underlying Dignan’s obvious skill and intelligence is an appreciation of the absurd that adds a subversive angle to his hard edges.
Jordan Broadworth 2011
Jordan Broadworth was born in Esquesing, Ontario in 1968. He studied at the
School of The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Nova Scotia College of Art
& Design prior to graduating from the University of Guelph’s Master of Fine Arts
program. In 2010, The Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound, Ontario
organized a survey of Broadworth’s work, 1994–2010. Jordan Broadworth