Vienna Series, 1992
Published by Glasgow Print Studio
It used to be, in the early days of Modernism, that abstract art was seen to be so radical that it broke all boundaries and admitted no precedent. The resonance of Jim Pattison’s work proves the opposite: that visual excitement and roots in earlier art are not incompatible concepts, however much we may want to overturn the past.
Those who know Pattison’s earlier work will already detect a change. There the artist expressed the Baroque spirit of laissez-faire. Tidal waves of colour flooded into the picture space, as if breaking upon a coolly airbrushed harbour wall. The dramatic clash between spontaneity and control has continued in this Vienna series, but each point of contact has been carefully isolated, particularly in the prints, and deposited onto a square bed of Japanese paper. An etched arch is erected over the centre, each of which has a subtle glaze harled over the surface. An architectural presence is clear in works such as Planes, Shadow and Frame. In Holder we can see clearly how formal and architectural forms interact. A sheaf of chopsticks, whose form echoes the patterned surface of the frame, lies beside an eastern dish. Continuing the Oriental feel, the way in which light is modulated through this barrier recalls domestic Japanese screens. Pattison moves masterly from centre to surface.
The ostensible genesis of this series lies in the period from June to September 1990, when Pattison worked in Vienna. Clearly, an abstract artist such as Pattison rejects any descriptive aim. These are evocations of a particular architectural and psychological space, based not on civic detail and demography, but memory and mood.
Psychology and memory surely underpin Pattison’s Vienna series, as they have done in much great art of the past. One of the most immediate characteristics discernable in this work is the presence of a dark, subtle form, throbbing deep within its enclosed box. One of Vienna’s most famous sons, Sigmund Freud, sought to probe the mysterious interior mind and free it from its impenetrable outer casing. Freud’s rigorous exploration of the interconnection between exterior and interior seem to find an echo in Pattison’s series.
The great Viennese psychoanalyst unearthed neurosis in a city which had long been the centre of Enlightenment, best exemplified in the elegantly resolved music of Mozart, the composer’s layers of chiaroscuro, counterpoint and vibration are in some ways a more immediate starting point for Pattison’s four-square quartets. The artist’s skill at controlling nuance, highlight and cadence in paint is one of his finest qualities and provide a sympathetic coda to Mozart’s music.
Mozart enjoyed combining different kinds of music – the high art of opera interspersed with the music hall, the comic set against the tragic. Pattison is similarly concerned with counterpointing languages – in this case, those of abstraction. His composite syntax is derived from many quarters, most particularly the Cubists, American Abstract Expressionists and the System painters of the sixties and seventies.
Looked at from a slightly different perspective, the transition from Pattison’s earlier work to the Vienna series might be seen as representing a move from the all-encompassing theatre of the Baroque to the more intimate stage of the Rococo. The savage energy of Rubens has given way to the more modest and modern vision of Watteau. This comparison is helpful in a way, as the Flemish/French master of the Rococo embarked on an analysis of the interface between nature and artifice, between intimacy and social intercourse, and took great delight in the nuances of the painted surface to evoke a persuasive, slightly dislocating mood. Far from frivolous, Watteau’s art displays a tremendous sensitivity to detail and real experience. These are all qualities in Pattison’s Vienna series, and perhaps not so unlikely, given Pattison’s interest in the roots of modern art, where even Watteau plays an introductory role.
Both artists have used theatre as a persistent metaphor. Theatricality certainly underlies the Vienna series: central shapes twist and turn below our spotlight gaze acting and interacting on a stage constructed by the artist. Heavy tiers and veils are pulled back revealing the performance within. Watteau often portrayed actors and musicians, caught too, in this twilight world: figures standing before us, poetic, melancholy, elusive and strange. However Pattison is not a Rococo artist but a modern one and his language uses abstraction, or at most, only hints of representation as in Bowl, Echo and Dish. Indeed Pattison has explicitly probed into the question of how far a contemporary artist can dispose of an explicit subject as such whilst still maintaining the mood of that subject. For artists of the past this problem did not exist, the artist aiming to unite the narrative impact with abstract variables at his or her control, such as light and colour. For the abstract artist today, the role of the subject is a vital issue. In Pattison’s art the subjects depicted behave just like reticent Watteau musicians, who, rather than communicate too openly, would turn their backs on us or run into the shadowlands. All we glimpse are delicate ellipses, subtle echoes, and terse twists – chinecolléd transfers captured from the hard world of non-abstraction. Pattison’s is a powerful art of discretion, yet more tough and wise than, at first, its seductive surface may imply.