Vigo Gallery and Robert Upstone Ltd are proud to present an exhibition of new paintings by Emma Biggs and Matthew Collings at The London Art Fair (15-20 January 2019).
Husband and wife team Biggs and Collings are remarkable and highly original artists. Their paintings are at first sight wholly abstract and yet they are based on the syncopated repeating patterns and forms that are all around us, both in nature and the built environment.
Colour tones are contained within a diamond grid that appears rigid and immutable, but which is then elaborated by a complex relation of colours to produce a wholly different structure. So on the basis of something visually simple, as the work is painted something builds up that in the end is visually fantastically complex.
The matrix of colours on the grid are placed intuitively and organically as the painting takes form. The colour relationships do not follow some rigid pattern or rule, as in formal Modernist abstraction. Instead they grow naturally, based upon how they sit one to another, creating distinct and multiple complex relationships, which fascinate both the eye and the brain.
Also notable is the touch of the artist’s brush - the distinct, individual character with which each colour sector is painted and the way in which paint is modulated differently. Some sectors’ brush strokes are graphically animated, others’ calmer and evener. Sometimes the brushed surface is deliberately made to seem translucent, sometimes grungy and tangible. It is often as much via the action of the brush as by the actual colour mix, that a colour is made to be more strongly saturated or less, or more intense or more pale. And in these new canvases there is a brushy rendering of certain surfaces so they offer a teasing illusion of three dimensionality with highlights and shadows.
Biggs and Collings have explained some of the practicalities and responsibilities of how they work together:
Each of us works intuitively. We never draw up charts or plans – the subtlety of the differences we work with would make it impossible. It’s a direct process. Collings paints; Biggs creates the colours, decides where to put them, and how to amend them. The discourse of ‘medium specificity’ is an intellectual talking shop full of ingenious possibilities. Somewhere in it is an idea about time as material. This has tangibility for us as we struggle with colour-leads we’ve set up but not yet adequately followed through. Biggs does all the colour idea work, and she agrees with Albers that experience is the basis, not theory.
This division of labour is reminiscent of a Renaissance workshop where one artist might paint the face and hands, another the drapery and a third the landscape or architecture. It represents a synthesis of practicality, creativity and intellectual theory. And in its collaborative, communal structure it is also democratic in character. One is reminded of the ideal political principles concerning labour that were advanced by William Morris and John Ruskin. The artist’s themselves have described the somewhat cubist angular structures of contrasting light and dark shapes, they create, as ‘click-clacking.’ And that strikes me as an aptly endearing term with textual resonances of both the chit chat of conversation and the reassuring syncopated rhythm of the weaver’s shuttle.
The Renaissance artists followed the principles of the Golden Section, a visual theory of intersecting planes and diagonals which was also a sort of sacred geometry that mapped out the world around us and our place within it, and our relation to the temporal and the divine.
In Biggs and Collings new paintings their previously fixed grid has become more elaborate. They explain:
The basic grid of diamonds we normally use is about the simplest set of divisions you can get. Recently we’ve been making the initial grid not more complicated exactly so much as a bit odder and harder to immediately ‘see.’ It has extra angles and shapes. It brings more tonal variety. At the same time we’ve been working with the usual simple diamond grid but now adding an element of playful tonal grading, so the flattish triangular colour areas offer a hint of something depicted in an old master painting. Fabrics maybe or clouds in the sky or a sunset.
The colours Biggs and Collings employ are a knowing combination of muted and more vibrant, sometimes having the appearance of tempera. The artists have noted perceptively and repeatedly how contemporary art so often neglects the importance of colour and sees it as almost wholly irrelevant, in a fracture with the past history of art. They themselves see colour as crucial, as did artists from the Renaissance onwards when colour held specific meaning and emotional resonance.
It was an idea taken further by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) in his seminal publication ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’ (1911). Kandinsky believed in the direct effect on the emotions of colour and the different sensibility that each possessed. He wrote:
Our hearing of colours is so precise ... Colour is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul. Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposely sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key. Thus it is clear that the harmony of colours can only be based upon the principle of purposefully touching the human soul.
Kandinsky also saw clear equivalence between colour and musical tone and harmony. It is difficult to look at Biggs and Collings’s paintings and not be reminded of an analogy with music - the syncopation and rhythm within the grid structure navigated by colours that set different harmonic and chordal combinations. They themselves have written:
Each colour is divided into light and dark and each recurs many times as a kind of set that is distributed at various points around the canvas so it creates a visual pulse. The final form consists of many such sets adjusted in relation to each other so there is an overall rhythmic pattern, like syncopation in music. When someone looks at it we hope they see something like the reflections on the surface of a river, unpredictable and changeable but always possessing a sense of believable order. The reason the colours are divided into different tones, and there is so much variety of colour as well as differences in handling (so surfaces can be transparent or opaque, busy or flat, scumbled, ruffled and distressed or filmy and sheer) is that we want the overall image to be restless, like life, hard to take in all in one go.
The analogy of shifting reflections on water is apt and beautiful, and one recalls Debussy’s aural rendering of the same phenomenon in his set of piano pieces titled ‘Images’ (1901-5/7). The relation between sight, sound and emotion was one explored by the Aesthetic Movement theorist Walter Pater (1839-94). In his 1877 essay on ‘The School of Giorgione' Pater proposed famously that ‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music’, by which he meant that painting sought to unify subject with form, and that music is the only art in which subject and form are seemingly one. This held great relevance for Aesthetic artists such as James Mc Neil Whistler whose paintings suppressed all narrative and instead sought only to evoke an abstract mood and sensibility of an intangible kind, bolstered by musical titles such as Nocturne, Symphony and Harmony. Whistler’s breakthrough in mid-Victorian London represented the beginnings of abstract art in Britain, where the direct aesthetic and emotional response to the artwork he had made was its only purpose, an agenda for which he gave the dictum ‘Art for Art’s Sake’.
Biggs and Collings have written in their Artists’ Statement of a related but nuanced approach to the making and meaning of their work and about how it is experienced:
Biggs and Collings are interested in something they have noticed by looking at art from the past. Art, as it used to be understood, has come to an end. But what strikes them is that old ideas and habits of mind are hard to shake off. Former ways of thinking constantly influence behaviour today. You could say that an example of this phenomenon is the way the aestheticisation of the art object has been replaced by the aestheticisation of the art experience. The thorny issue of how the past is present in what we, as a society, see and do, and the way in which it may differ from what we believe we say and do, is at the heart of Biggs’ and Collings’ work.
This is - in my opinion - one of the most thought provoking and profound descriptions of the different forces of conscious and unconscious experience when we look at art and, in a way, how the act of looking and the effect it has on us completes the creative circle, a fulfilment of aesthetic experience and creation.
“What makes the art Biggs produces with her husband so riveting is the unique combination of dynamics inherited from mosaic-making — pattern, colour, repetition — with pictorial ambitions that appear to reach back to the invention of abstract art: to Malevich, the futurists, Mondrian. Both Biggs and Collings bring something different to the crucible. When you mix them, they fuse gorgeously.”
“There is certainly something Islamic about the joyful repetitions. And Byzantine mosaics are a ghostly influence. Most of all, the beautiful grids look like something the Italian futurists might have created in the pioneering days of modernism, the days of hope. Except that what appears to be celebrated here isn’t electricity or the speed of the city, but the way light dances across a pond in the spring; the dappling of a sunbeam; the flitting of birds in the trees. As someone has already said before me, it’s landscape art without the landscapes.”
Sunday Times Culture magazine
9 May 2016