Organising Chaos – a review of the recent Design by Accident exhibition

The recent exhibition at Wivenhoe Printworks featured the work of three visual artists working in three discrete media: clay, printmaking and glass. The theme of the show alludes to the ability of an artist to use their imagination and materials to respond very directly to the visual world, not seeking to impose order onto it but rather to recognise the living patterns freely available and somehow make them permanent.

The artists involved were: master potter and ceramicist Richard Baxter from Leigh-on-Sea, painter and printmaker Jean McNeil from Wivenhoe, and glass artist/photographer Andy Brooke, also from Wivenhoe.

The artists worked towards the theme from their own perspectives, creating work which was only fully realised as a complete whole – following the gestalt concept of the sum being greater than the parts. The arrangement of the show allowed for comparisons and connections between all the works to extend this principle in the viewers’ minds.

Design by Accident exhibition, Wivenhoe Printworks, April 2019
Ceramic works by Richard Baxter

Each artist wrote a statement explaining their own understanding of the theme and visual approach to it. For Richard Baxter, his artform is best summed up by the art critic Herbert Read in the 1930s: “Pottery is at once the simplest and the most difficult of the arts. It is simplest because it is the most elemental; it is the most difficult because it is the most abstract.”

He continues by explaining “I am interested in what happens after the throwing session in terms of applying texture, resolving the form by turning the base, adding glaze to change the colour. The black vessels were made for this show by visiting Wivenhoe and taking impressions of textures found near the waterfront using pieces of my porcelain clay. When dry, these became stamps to impress into both inside and outside of the forms and leave an abstracted surface unachievable otherwise. I have chosen a shiny black glaze to give as much reflection and change to the original source as possible. Onto the dry glaze is added a further layer of metal oxide pigment giving the effect of rusting as well as running due to gravity during the firing at high temperature. Most of the found textures were from rusty or degraded cogs, chains, bolts and from pebbles. Repetition, similarity and difference are all important to me.”

Black (Wivenhoe) vessels by Richard Baxter

A point of inspiration for the exhibition was the 1968 classic art book Design by Accident by James F O’Brien. The aim here was to discover creative designs in the accidental effects of elemental forces at work on various humble art materials (or non-art materials). The key is to be aware of when you are looking at something worth seeing – to see the order in the chaos. This seems to be the crux of the whole show.

For Andy Brooke the connection to accidental design comes from mark-making on sheets of glass which then have light projected through onto photographic paper in an enlarger. The analogue darkroom process visually amplifies the marks made in iron oxide and fired onto the surface of the glass, producing designs through enlargement and cropping.

Various painted sheets of glass which have been projected through an enlarger

“I was interested in two main concepts: a) The idea of enlargement and questioning whether I am making something bigger or merely narrowing the frame of view. b) The materiality of the image – making and finding new ways to connect hand marks on glass with the analogue process of darkroom photography to explore the mark itself.

“Framing is a way of imposing such order onto seeming random marks, and with it the sense of scale becomes more important as micro marks made with a brush are made into macro gestures on a monumental scale. By removing visual references and familiar codes of size I hope to convey the physical sense of movement and materiality, how the paint has been dragged and scraped across the textured glass surface…

Cliche verre – image made directly from an image on glass

“One of my inspirations for this set of images was the exhibition at Tate Modern last year – Shape of Light – which re-examined photography’s relation to abstract art in exciting ways. I see my work connecting with the formalist/abstract tradition of photography, with such photographers as Aaron Siskind, always inspiring with his personal vision of the external world. “

According to artist Jean McNeil, “many artists have used the accidental mark, either as a stimulus for their imagination or as an end in itself.  Leonardo remarked that a form found accidentally in nature could be used to create from, but only if the artist possessed the necessary graphic skills to take it further: he was contemptuous of Botticelli’s landscapes created by throwing paint at the picture.

“Artists are now more accepting of the accident; we transpose, invert, select, incorporate and even just frame our blots.  The three artists showing here are familiar with the accidental:  what happens when you open the kiln, pull the print or develop the photograph is often a surprise and sometimes a revelation.

Abstract prints juxtaposed with abstract cliche verres

“I have recently been experimenting with monoprints: a plastic plate is painted, rolled over with ink, sprayed, scratched or wiped, and a single impression is taken from it.  I found that my landscapes rendered in this way often looked as though they had been done by someone else, new forms and textures appeared, the image, reversed, created a different feeling.  I started with responses to land and seascapes, which had been my stock in trade, and then zoomed in or smaller forms such as grasses.  I found that the marks were beginning to take on a life of their own, often leaving only a vestige of the original form.”

Monoprints by Jean McNeil

In such a time as we live (indeed at any time), we are earnestly looking for order and meaning or even just a logical pattern of behaviour to base our lives on. This show finds satisfying order in unexpected places by being open to possibilities which are in front of our eyes, not contrived by manipulation of evidence. That’s pretty refreshing and important right now.

Postscript – the 5 Gestalt Principles applied to design: Similarity, Continuity, Figure/ground, Proximity, Closure

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