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Order and Chaos

The tide between order and chaos – Andrew Conway-Hyde

IT’S astounding how much of modernism’s best art represents a victory over chaos. And how much of it wins out only in the final hour. Take Jackson Pollock’s “drip-and-blob” paintings, for example, or, for that matter, the passionate 1940s and ’50s canvases of Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, or Willem de Kooning. Anyone unaware of the history of Abstract Expressionism, or the contributions these artists made to post-World War II art, could easily mistake these works for the leftover dribblings of house painters, or the paint splashings of an exuberant four-year-olds.

They appear so mindless and chaotic that many cannot take them seriously as art, and yet they were made by artists of uncommon sophistication, and rank high among the most significant paintings produced during the past half-century.

Their secret lies in their frank, even blatant, painterliness, in their creators’ ability to give expression to the quality and resonances of life through paint, color, shape, texture, rhythm, emotion, and line alone, and in their total avoidance of any reference to the way things appear.
Even more so, they achieved the status of art in direct proportion to the success of the battles each of their artists fought between order and chaos, significance and self-indulgence, the beautiful and the merely pretty, true expression and the easy effect.

If this all sounds a bit like war, well, so indeed it was, but a war fought day in and day out within artists’ studios, in the depths of their creative being. Some battled harder than others. Some weakened over time and dropped out. As the movement began to catch on, more and more younger inexperienced artists tried to whip-up the necessary vision and enthusiasm to join in and most failed, or were forced to enter the ranks of the sideline hangers-on.

The successful victors, however, among them must also be counted Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Theodoros Stamos, and Adolph Gottlieb, went on to international acclaim. The United States, for the first time ever, dominated world art, thanks to them.

All this occurred over the period of 12 years. It ended around 1958 when Abstract Expressionism began to fade-out and Pop Art, with its emphasis on the popular and the banal, took over to become the leading art form.

For the next few decades, passionate art remained unfashionable. Then, in the late 1970s, word spread around the globe that a wild and woolly bunch of painters in West Germany and Italy were painting in a manner every bit as free-spirited and impassioned as that of the Expressionists of pre-World War I Germany or the Abstract Expressionists of post-World War II America.

These young painters, including such future internationally known artists as Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, Sandra Chia, and Francesco Clemente, held that art had been too “pure” and objective long enough, that it was time to let things rip and to permit uninhibited paint and color once again to determine the nature and course of art.

The Neo-Expressionists believed in passion and power, and in the same confrontational approach to creativity that had characterized such earlier painters as Pollock and de Kooning. Each approached their canvases as though it were his opponent in a duel and battle to the death, no holds barred, and with the outcome depending entirely on character, intuition, creativity, and imagination.

None battled harder and emerged victorious than Enzo Cucchi, a young Italian born in 1950. Starting out rather slowly, with a number of very large, garishly colored canvases that depended a bit too much on a primitive and highly personalized form of mythological imagery for their identity and impact. They were effective enough for Diane Waldman to include several in her important 1982 exhibition of new Italian art at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, the show that alerted America to the younger Italian artists work.

Remarkable things were about to happen, however. In 1983, Cucchi burst out with a series of huge, searing paintings that not only took the critics by surprise, but catapulted him to the top rung of art-world importance as well. And no wonder, for these canvases, the best of which depicted single flying roosters hurtling upward toward the sky from within restrictive enclosures or against bleak landscapes, were among the most exultant paintings to come out of Europe in several decades.

In time Abstract art didn’t actually disappear. Artists such as Cy Twombly, Richard Serra, Brice Marden and Bridget Riley continued their work, and yet there was definitely a time in the late 80s and 90s, when artists such as Hirst and Hatoum were engaging with the harsh realities of disease and death, that abstraction was overshadowed.

A decade ago it was figurative, not abstract, painting that was making an impact. Lucian Freud’s portraits and Jenny Saville’s feminist expressionist paintings apparently had more to say to people than, say, Bridget Riley’s later work.

There are prominent examples of young artists of the 90s whose promising efforts at abstract painting never quite grabbed Turner Prize juries: Callum Innes for example. The most glaring example of an artist considered not-quite-cutting-edge enough, despite painting rich and complex essays in abstraction, was Fiona Rae. Her work is championed by Tate Modern now.

Brice Marden is an example of a painter whose abstract art I personally found, a decade ago, less than urgent, however beautiful.

Abstraction seems so alive now is that we are assimilating the scale of these older artists’ achievements.

Yet surely the real reason for abstraction’s return lies in politics and history? 9/11, still lingering in people’s minds and the tragedy of the COVID crises, artists have rushed to predict a new seriousness in their art, having missed the point about art in the 90s.

Old emblems of mortality seem redundant now that global political corruption and COVID mortality stares back from every headline.

Abstract painting is not “escapist”. But it does take for granted that reality is strange and opaque, that art can only say something about the modern world if it too is difficult.

Thus Cy Twombly’s abstract art is the most powerful history painting of our time. Poetry is a better response to these times than propaganda.
Abstract art is needed now because it is a vessel of humanity and emotional sensitivity, which it shields from the political lies and violence of the age. Abstraction finds its roots in the artists ‘intuition’ and offers ‘freedom’ to them as well as for the viewer.

It is the capability of the artist to use their imagination to look beyond what we can physically see and translate intangible emotions onto their work. It is also the ability of the audience to then try to connect to the artist’s intention and free their own mind of visual restrictions. While realism pays attention to every tiny fold or wrinkle, abstraction gives the artist the freedom to trust their intuition to create art that is equally worthy of an audience.

In 2020 an unknown impressionist living on the Isle of Wight took the art of abstraction, colour field painting and abstract realism to another level. Andrew Conway-Hyde took the chaos out of abstraction. Presenting us with colours taken directly from nature and light itself. These large canvases almost mural in size, with smooth, waved surfaces, coloured pigment, blunt, sometimes brutal draftsmanship, and stark, emotional imagery, they yet pulsated with life and the kind of hope that impels itself as far as possible from despair and disorder.

Each and every canvas represents a victory, not only for art, the beauty of nature’s colours which proves once again its capacity for moral greatness, but for the artist as well.
By battling it out with his own demons in his studio, Andrew Conway-Hyde has managed somehow to find hope and assurance for himself in the midst of COVID chaos, political confusion, and despair, as well a visual evidence of that hope for us through his art taken directly from nature itself.

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