Looking at Burri and Nott

by ljzoppi

There was a pleasant surprise waiting in St Ives recently. After going through all the ceremony of graduating; hats, gowns, awkward small talk. The rest of the day, I thought was best spent in St Ives. The Millenium Gallery was one of the first places to tick off the now almost habitual list of things to do there. The past couple of visits  have been a bit of a disappointment, paintings by Lisa Wright and Joy Wolfenden Brown don’t really leave me with much to say. But I love the space at the Millennium Gallery, so I always go. This time though I found an exhibition of Richard Nott’s work, which I was much more excited about, having seen his work previously, however only online. Which I have found is no way to view work like this.

Titled ‘Unearthed’ the exhibition was a surprise discovery. It’s been a trouble trying to find the right thing to focus on writing about. At first I wanted to bring together ‘Unearthed’, Richard Nott’s exhibition, with the exhibition a while back of Alberto Burri’s work ‘Form and Matter’ at the Estorick. The work of both artists sits somewhere between painting and sculpture, with their deep canvases and boards covered in thick layers of anonymous materials. It was an obvious link that I wanted to exploit, but the more I tried to talk about both the further apart they seemed to become.

It wasn’t until I listened to a talk by Alison Watt ‘Something Unseen’ three that I found the angle I wanted. Looking, that is what I really wanted to say about ‘Unearthed’ and Alberto Burri’s work, that I enjoyed looking at them. Overly simple thing to say in a review of two incredibly powerful exhibitions ‘I enjoyed looking at them’. But perhaps but it is true, and really, there is more to it. So here it is: Looking at Burri and Nott.

Alison Watt discussed her relationship with painting in terms of the act of looking. She began with her childhood, spent around the paintings stored and worked on in her father’s studio. Watt spoke about this time as if it was practice for looking, perfected later as an artist and painter herself. And it is a skill I think, looking. At least it is active, rather than something that just happens. It can be quite an effort at first to let go and just focus your attention on one space, a surface or canvas. The part of Alison Watt’s talk that tied itself to Richard Nott’s work in my head, was the thought that the surface of a painting, it’s texture felt under fingertips could tell you as much about the painting and the artist as the surface viewed from afar could. Here Alison Watt talks about touching the surface of another’s painting as if it was a now forbidden pleasure, something that you could be forgiven as a child but not as an adult. It was this thinking of a paintings surface in a tactile way that resonated in my mind with the very physical surfaces of both Burri and Nott. They are screaming out to be touched, but you musn’t, even though the rough, rock like faces of both artists work look as though they could take it. The laws of looking and not touching in the gallery space override this impulse.

Burri’s ‘Cretti’ series in particular where the cracks in the surface seemed so deep and enticing. They have the same pulling feeling that you get when standing on the edge of a cliff, the dark depths of the cracks are inciting, inviting you in. But knowing that this isn’t possible, looking alone works as another way to explore the works.

One reason I enjoy walking round the Millennium Gallery, whether the exhibition takes me or not, is that it is always the perfect place for a good look. There has only been one time, in the past few years that I have ever shared my time on the gallery floor with anyone else. Odd, as there is no reason why this gallery shouldn’t be popular, but selfishly I hope this doesn’t change too much. Looking at art, when I really want to take it all in, seems like such a fragile thing. Easily interrupted and broken by the presence of someone else. Perhaps I feel that looking leaves you in some way more vulnerable than usual, so focused on what is in front of you, not aware of what’s around you. It’s hard to place but there is something about the Millennium Gallery space that sets you up to feel at ease, ready to openly look at whatever hangs there. I a feeling I value greatly.

Alison Watt’s talk ‘Things Unseen’ focused mainly on her time at the National Gallery, where she was artist in residence for 4 years. Intending over her time there to look at each one of the 2000 works held at the gallery, Alison Watt gradually found that the way she looked at the paintings changed. From getting through several paintings in a day this process slowed down and became more intense until day after day she was looking at just one painting. Watt mentions how over time, what she saw in the painting changed. At first it would be the most obvious things about the painting, and gradually these thoughts lessened and what replaced them were thoughts around the painting, the feelings and emotions involved. The more she looked the more mysterious the paintings became. After thinking and seeing all the obvious, more questions arose about less tangible and visible aspects of the work.

These stages of looking, the different levels that you can see in a painting are the things that really get me with abstract work like Richard Nott’s and Alberto Burri’s. They are mysterious in a way to begin with, because all connections with the real world are left for you to determine. The artist refuses to guide you in this way.

In another talk with Alison Watt, the way that she has gradually removed the connections to reality in her own work is discussed. At first she painted with reference to real pieces of fabric, but now she rarely uses the tangible objects in this way, so are her paintings really of giant swathes of fabric anymore? or are they something else, more akin to the forms and textures created by Burri and Nott.

Firstly taking in the surface, the first stop in my journey of looking. What is it exactly?, what is it made of? My mind usually skips to the how’s first, wondering how what is in front of me came to be. Richard Nott’s work is brilliant in this way because they seem to have just happened. As if the textures could have one day bubbled up out of the face of the board and set. Yet there are hundreds of layers under there, piled up and then stripped back. Different chemicals bubbling together, and then burnt away.

I move on to imagine these processes being carried out, the white paint being pulled across the surface, the blow torch scorching away layers of varnish and grime. Maybe now I am not really looking at the paintings at all but in and around them, reinventing them and their histories in front of me.

In the interview that accompanies ‘Unearthed’ Nott describes how often, when a piece isn’t really working for him, he leaves it out in the wind and rain to develop alone, until he can return to it thinking that it can become something. Why the title ‘Unearthed’ is so fitting, half of the pieces have been created by chance, discovered and unearthed by Nott. In equal measure they are both discovered and created by Nott. There is a mixture of intention and accident in his paintings (if that is a fair label to give them) that ends in something very beautiful, neither overworked or careless. Part of the wonder is that a practice resulting in something seemingly so organic could be honed and perfected in the way that Richard Nott has clearly done.

What comes after, and Alison Watt mentioned this in her talk is that looking at the surface and process turns into looking at the feeling. There is an atmosphere given off by a painting, and great paintings give off the greatest atmospheres. The collection of paintings held together at ‘Unearthed’ in the top two rooms of the Millennium Gallery had an atmosphere all of their own. Rather than each different piece saying something different, each with their own voice, these works seem to speak together. Unlike ‘Form and Matter’ where Burri’s work spoke of a whole range of different feelings, emotions and atmospheres. The smooth pale ‘Cretti’ series set a different tone to ‘sacking and red’ for example. They evoke two very different emotions. Red, or a lot of red in art has always struck me quite hard. I love the colour red usually, and so I’m always drawn to the pieces from across the room, but when I get face to face with it, rather than seeing the warmth and passion I usually associate with the colour, often it feels aggressive, harsh and confronting. I’m waiting to see something in red that doesn’t push me away. ‘Sacking in Red’ comes close with it’s force softened by the brown folds of the hessian sacking. But again the work shown at ‘Form and Matter’ particularly the earlier pieces are hard to separate from the artists biography. Burri decided to become an artist whilst being held at as a prisoner of war. As a trained surgeon each rough stitch in his work looks like a suture stitch, hessian turns to skin and brown paint turns to trench mud.

Nott’s work had the opposite effect on me, the calm peaceful atmosphere they create is something I’d love to spend hours on end in. Even though they have been through equally as hard a process as Burri’s work, perhaps even more aggressively burnt, scored and drilled. Richard Nott’s work doesn’t give any of this away, all the noise of before has been absorbed into all the layers, and the work is calm.

Looking at it from a colour perspective they are predominantly made of creams and browns, some are a lot darker but nothing is definite white, or pure black. Minimalism I guess could be considered quiet as well in its own way, but the severity, which is no where to be seen in Nott’s work, I think destroys this. Minimalism screams quiet.

Looking around the paintings one by one seemed to gradually turn into the works quietly looking out at me, surrounding me at the edges of the room. It is similar to the feeling of standing in a very quiet wood, there is one near Mawnan on the coast path between Falmouth and Helford. It is a relatively small patch of trees balancing on the edge of a steep padded slope. As soon as you step into this wood the temperature drops a little and everything is oddly still, protected, buffered by the trees, it is this slightly buffered feeling that Nott’s work seems to have inside the Millennium Gallery.

Again another place I have found the same feeling is in the space that housed my friends degree show. Lillie Lockwood, unsurprisingly, first introduced me to Richard Nott’s work. And I enjoyed the fact that when I finally saw his work in person, it gave me the same feeling as her’s did. Peaceful company, work that invites you to sit and look as long as you wish. Don’t misinterpret this and think that the work I am talking about is pointless or easy. It is that the work doesn’t challenge you at every turn, it isn’t argumentative. It exists to be seen, and there it is, there is something very matter of fact. I know from listening to Lillie that it can be a struggle to convince people that your work really doesn’t need to mean anything. It is the process that is important, and once that is over it is the product that you are left with.

I feel quite a lot of contemporary art can confrontational like this, fighting against you as you try to look at it. Although it might challenge ideas and ‘make people think’, I’m not sure all art needs to do this. Sometimes what is needed is some escapism, not video game escapism, not cinematic escapism but visual escapism. Not having the luxury of the time that Alison Watt had to look at all of the paintings in the National Gallery, I am glad I had the time to really enjoy looking at all there was at the Millennium.