Kenneth Dingwall’s Constructions 

For the exhibition Kenneth Dingwall: Contemporary Artists 1
Published by University of St. Andrews, 2012.

Since the early 1970s, Kenneth Dingwall has been producing works which he calls ‘constructions’, and he thinks of them principally as forms in wood that have been painted. Initially he started making them because he enjoyed the break they provided from the problems and issues involved in finishing the large-scale abstract paintings he was working on at the time. Refreshingly different challenges were raised by these smaller works. They evolved naturally, he explains, from his drawings, which he would work on late at night in his studio.[1] This makes it sound as though they have a somewhat subsidiary status, but over the course of the decades they have amounted to a substantial body of work, and acquired a significant reputation in their own right. Nowadays Dingwall regards them as central to his art, and he acknowledges that their output has been almost more consistent than his paintings. Intimate would probably be the best way to describe their proportions, although this does not mean that they are any less consequential in ambition or seriousness. Nor are they completed particularly rapidly. Sometimes Dingwall will leave one hanging in his studio for many months, or even years, before taking it down again, and figuring out a way in which it can be brought further towards a conclusion. He might add a colour and see how a sense of the overall shape changes, or he will shift the tone of the paint on one part, and then wait to see how he reacts to it.

Over time we can identify a range of interests to which he returns. Being, which Dingwall constructed in 2010, is generally representative of his more recent constructions. As a structure, it looks and feels as light as a model aeroplane: it is made from thin lengths of bass wood, a timber used by carvers and joiners for its even texture and straight grain. Here, the timber has been coated in a raw titanium acrylic wash, which gives the structure a creamy tint. Viewers probably register its smooth, fibrous surface before they take in anything else; up close we can make out where the strips have been fixed together, the joints carefully sanded over. If we attend to these aspects, the work certainly comes across as overtly three-dimensional and ‘constructed’; the sides are of equal proportions to the frontal plane, and appear to have been worked on just as meticulously.

That said, the visible woodwork in Being ought not to lead us to conclude that the ambitions of this work are particularly ‘sculptural’ in any self-evident fashion. In some ways, it is better seen as an elaborate frame, or casket, containing intense pockets of contrasting colours. The top quarter of the front surface is angled inwards, like a shutter ajar, revealing a rectangular interior that is saturated with a rich red hue. Occupying equal proportions directly beneath, on the right hand side, is another interior space, although here the shade is a contrasting, brilliant yellow. We can see this properly only by standing right up against the wall from which it hangs; at a three-quarters angle we glimpse only a warm blush emanating from somewhere within. Similarly, on the opposite, left-hand edge, lower down, is another segment of colour – this time a deep petrol blue. These yellow and blue painted components are not noticed right away, and this gives the whole work a slightly reserved quality, as if it is yielding up its intricacies only reticently. In fact, the whole structure seems designed to ensure that we perceive only one colour at a time, although, of course, our impression of any one is always shaded by each of the others. As it happens, there is another fourth section of paint, but this is positioned in a place that never could be seen when the work is displayed. It can only be sensed. It is on the back, the hidden side, and takes the form of an opening that occupies the bottom quarter. Perhaps appropriately, it is painted matte black. This is a work, then, that engages with the apprehension of coloured surfaces and the relationship between colours. For this reason we might conclude that Being is considerably nearer to the concerns of painting than it is to preoccupations that are typically associated with sculpture. Admittedly, most pictures are designed to have a single optimal viewpoint, a position from which the viewer can take them in all at once. Here, we might say, Dingwall is making a hybrid work that communicates in a painterly way, but which also requires that we view it from a range of angles, as we do with sculpture. We have to attend to each elongated plane in turn.

Dingwall was invited to make this particular work for a group exhibition of artists’ multiples at Cairn Gallery in Pittenweem in April 2010. He set himself the challenge of producing four identical versions of Being, an assignment he claims to have found extremely exacting. Given that all his constructions are hand-made, the temptation to have introduced minor variations must have been considerable. And we can appreciate even more how counter-intuitive it would have been for him once we remember how frequently he has made his constructions in sets, in which he openly explores minor modifications in structure and colour between related works. A very good example of his interest in modular, serial forms is the twelve-part piece RYB, from 2012. This work is presented in a grid-like structure and exhibits all the available permutations for stacking crosswise three rectangular blocks of MDF, painted in red, yellow and blue.

Other constructions by Dingwall explore rather more personal recollections and associations. A set of works in textured paint from the 1970s, for example, are called Protecting. A few inches tall, their title alludes to Dingwall’s observations of his young daughter, who would shield her drawing with her arm to keep her pictures a secret from her sibling while she was working on them. Clearly the prominent right angles, which are such a salient feature of these constructions, do not represent an elbow or a little forearm in any overtly figurative sense; instead they are a formal condensation of a particular bearing.

Sometimes, he will start out on a piece largely with a formal concern in mind, inspired perhaps by a particular material or shape, and only once the work is well under way will the resulting structure remind him of something in his lived experience. For instance, very recently Dingwall has been interested in accentuating the weight and inertness of black casein paint, by offsetting it with planes of burnished gold leaf. And only later did he appreciate that this particular colour combination was distant memory returning to him of church going while a boy. During the services his parents would permit him to draw in the margins of his shiny King James bible, with its gilt edges and leathery cover. He is particularly concerned with recording these chains of associations, triggered as they are by non-verbalized encounters with particular colours, textures and distances.

Indeed, a substantial proportion of Dingwall’s art is underpinned by a strong belief in the communicative forcefulness of abstraction. He does not regard abstract art as especially different from the ways in which we all make sense of our everyday surroundings. He points out that everybody learns from a very early age to interpret signs, which, if isolated, would undoubtedly be perceived as ‘abstract’ – be it the twitch of a muscle around the mouth, or the shade of the sky when we look out of the window first thing in the morning. A note that he once jotted down, and which he later reproduced in an exhibition catalogue, remarks that the ‘rhythms of walk or posture’ express ‘happiness, boredom, depression – even by just the angle of the shoulders’.[2]  That we can register these almost imperceptible nuances so instantaneously is one of the marvels of human cognition, and it is the versatility and subtlety of this faculty which Dingwall aims to activate, through shape, texture and colour, both in his constructions, and in his larger paintings.




[1] Dingwall wrote a particularly helpful statement about his constructions for an exhibition at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art in May 1997. In it he explains: ‘Sanding, gluing, and priming are calming while listening to tapes and night radio, an activity I don’t do when I’m painting. The constructions allow me to look at and think about on-going paintings in the studio, and grow as a conversation with them…. They are assembled and reassembled until they form an identity and are believable to me.’

[2] See  Kenneth Dingwall, exhibition catalogue, Peter Noser Gallery, Zurich, 1987, no page numbers. This particular catalogue consists entirely of such notes, which are interspersed with quotations from literature, art criticism, philosophy and anthropology. He has also included a similar set in his exhibition catalogue at the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, in 1996. See pp. 37-39.