In Balance: The Art of Kenneth Dingwall.
For the exhibition Kenneth Dingwall: Paintings and Drawings 1990-96.
The Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh; Pier Arts Centre, Orkney; Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, U.S.A.
Published by Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh, 1996.
Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness . . .
T S Eliot, Burnt Norton
‘A picture’, ‘to picture’ – in English the words immediately conjure the idea of representation. A picture, we feel, is necessarily a picture of something, a depiction. The word in its origins comes from the Latin verb ‘pingere’ that describes the physical act of laying on paint with a brush, not the mental act of representation. But ‘pictura’ meaning representation is already how Horace uses the word in his dictum, ut pictura poesis.
His famous analogy between painting and poetry reflects on the capacity for representation in both arts. He saw painting as primary in this, a model for poetry. Yet we could also read it in reverse. For in poetry, we all recognise without difficulty the importance of the forms of language. It is its rhythms and symmetries that give us metre and rhyme. However much language may serve to represent the world to us, we know by these things how it is abstract, a set of signs that it is only by convention we endow with meaning. By expression, we can further endorse them with feeling, but in themselves they are arbitrary forms, arrangements of sound.
Because of its age-old association with representation, with depiction in fact, we have been less ready to accept that painting, just like poetry, is also simply a set of abstract signs, but of course it is. Thus if we do reverse Horace’s epigram, we can say that the effect of painting, like that of poetry, depends on the abstract nature of the signs we use. And this is the starting point for Kenneth Dingwall’s art.
Few visitors to this exhibition will have difficulty in seeing how in this it belongs in a tradition that stretches back to Malevich and Mondrian, by way of Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt and other great artists of the mid-century. They will recognise, too, the affinities that Dingwall’s art has in particular with the work of other painters, successors to these, who, as he did, came of age in the sixties or early seventies and who are known generically as Minimalists. The term covers a wide range of approaches, but in general this kind of work is characterised by use of a low key and relatively simple overall structure. It is a quietist approach to painting. It whispers and never shouts, but is all the more effective for its concentration on means.
In Dingwall’s art this approach allows us to see the image as a construct of all sorts of subtle interaction. The rhythm of the brush for instance is sustained and regular, making overall patterns out of brushmarks. These then interact with close variations in tone, hue and temperature, building up a subtle and complex unity that that is undoubtedly a painting with all its strengths and beauties, but if it is not a picture, it is all the more highly focused for that reason.
To explain this, let us return to verbal language for a moment. If words are conventional, they are not passive. As the medium of thought, inevitably language has the power not just to colour its expression, but to form it. Much modern discussion has been devoted to the investigation of the way in which, as the mould into which all our thoughts and feelings are poured, language shapes them. This is of course equally true of painting, and not just in its imagery. In Eliot’s words it is ‘form and pattern that reach the stillness’, and as he goes on to say, this is the stillness of beauty exemplified by a Chinese jar. In painting this form and pattern is the detail of the surface, its textures, its rhythms and its resonances. In language their beauty and energy are the stuff poetry, so too in painting. To command them is alike the trade of the painter and the poet.
Poets have always rejoiced in the abstract qualities of language. Here we have a painter who does just that. His painting is alive with his sense of touch, his feeling for the energy that the painter’s language can command. In language, these same energies and rhythms are, too, the essence of much religious and magical invocation. In many religions, chanted words compliment the abstractions of music and have a similar and equally mysterious power. Dingwall captures that analogy in the rhythms of the brush that build up webs of surface often laid one over the other. The complexity that he thus gives to the simple compositional motifs that he uses is like that of polyphony and counterpoint, musical forms that have been adapted with such conspicuous success to spiritual expression.
Focusing on its language in this way in order to free it from the distracting burden of representation has of course been a central theme of twentieth century art. But it is far older than that, and if in the ambition and general character of his painting, Kenneth Dingwall can be aligned with this central tradition in western art, he has always been very much his own man. As with any painter of integrity, it is a personal story which has led him to where his is now. His art is a product of his convictions. And looking at this story, in order to understand it, it is important to know that though he has worked in the US for a decade, his art was shaped in Scotland.
Early in his career he found inspiration in the most ancient forms of abstraction. Growing up in Scotland, indeed, he had little access to contemporary abstract art. But among the things that were available to him in the museums in Edinburgh, he found himself drawn to those things that were mysterious and beautiful because they were abstract as well as being immensely ancient: Neolithic spiral carvings, for instance, the enigmatic symbols on Pictish stones, runic inscriptions. When he was still at school, too, conscious of how the Protestant tradition in which he was brought up seemed to be inimical to art, how because of it, the black shadow of iconoclasm lay over the history of art in Scotland, he found to his astonishment that in the Muslim countries in the eighth century iconoclasm had produced, not barren joylessness, but complex and marvellous abstraction. This impression was reinforced later by visits to Turkey and North Africa and laid the foundations of an ambition to find forms of art that could do the same in Scotland, could reverse old prejudices to create a visual art that would still be at home in the austerity of the Scots tradition.
Unconsciously, therefore, and for his own motives, as a young man Dingwall was already aligning himself with the modern tradition in Western art. This began at the end of the last century in France. In parallel poets like Mallarmé began consciously to explore the abstract qualities of language in and for itself: to see words, not as only transparent, a medium through which other things are transmitted, but as distinct and marvellous. They turned to make poetry out of the way that words and the structures of language that they make have an existence, a forceful presence, that is quite independent of the meaning that they carry.
And they did so. It is no coincidence that these poets were closely allied to the painters who took similar steps in painting. Apollinaire, for instance, was not only a pioneer of abstract, or concrete poetry. He was also spokesman and apologist for the Cubism of his painter friends Picasso and Braque. So in the move to liberate poesis from pictura, painters and poets were in partnership from the start.
Since that time, the way in which this has shaped western art is a story too familiar to need recounting here. But for whatever reason, in the first half of the twentieth century, in spite of their knowledge of moves elsewhere to claim the autonomous language of painting, Scottish artists tended to continue to hold on to the relationship to some kind of reflection of the concrete world in their art. This was not just backwardness. Charles Rennie Mackintosh was exploring the idea of a new, universal abstract language of art at the very beginning of this century, and calling it Modernism. And the painter J D Fergusson was really the only British artist who was present and participating when all this was happening in Paris around 1910.
Their reluctance to move into pure abstraction may reflect a complex attitude on the part of these older Scots, therefore. But, in addition, when Scottish artists did turn to the abstract language of painting as William Johnstone did, or after him Alan Davie, they tended to treat it as a directly expressive thing. They left to one side the exploration of the ideal of a purely abstract language that preoccupied artists like Kandinsky and Miró – artists who from an early age inspired Dingwall with the imaginative potential of this kind of art – or like Malevich who hoped it would become the revolutionary language of a new, universal culture, freed from the burdens of controlled convention, an aspiration that Dingwall still shares.
But Dingwall’s art is still rooted in the Scottish tradition, nonetheless. He studied at Edinburgh College of Art in the 1950s. The head of painting then was the late William Gillies who went on the become Principal, still holding that office when Dingwall himself became a teacher in the College. Gillies was above all remarkable as a landscape painter, but in his best work the integrity and simplicity of his approach is transparent. It is these qualities that Dingwall remembers now with affection as characteristic of Gillies and also of Gillies’s close friend and colleague, John Maxwell.
These two stood out for their passionate commitment to painting and to the supreme importance in its discipline of purely visual values. This is certainly where Dingwall’s own convictions were formed, and even if at one level the evolution of his own painting clearly led him to reject any attempt at a literal transcription of experience, it is not fanciful to see some analogy between his work and the work of Gillies when he is at his most austere – when in black and white for instance Gillies captures the balance between severity and intimacy in the winter landscape of the Moorfoot Hills near Edinburgh.
Although neither Gillies nor Maxwell was ever an abstract painter, they were both acutely conscious of the detailed syntax of painting. Their art is distinguished by their interest in and the inventiveness of their use of the different kinds of mark that are the elements of that syntax. Perhaps Gillies was especially resourceful in this, particularly in watercolour. Whether it be the sharp line of the pen, or its feathered edge as it bleeds into an area of wash, or the liquid boundaries of dilute washes keeping their own pattern as they dry, his work is instantly recognisable by the variety of the marks he makes and the importance of the part they play in the image that results.
With both men this is almost a handwriting – and notably Dingwall has himself often used actual handwriting in his art. Many of the succeeding generation imitated their imagery, but he stood apart in the way that he understood and learnt from their sophisticated grasp of this language of signs, and, too, from the originality of the balance that they struck between its discipline and its expressive potential, a balance that became a central aspiration for his own art, for he sees how it is the same balance that we strive for in our daily lives, the balance of the dance: the beauty that lies between the joy of freedom and the necessary order by which we live: a beauty born of constant struggle in painting just as it is in life, and that when it is captured echoes the rhythms of life itself.
Dingwall himself tells how when he was a student he first became aware of these things expressed in painting; how he went on to marvel at the way the old masters commanded them, to wonder at the way they achieved this balance between freedom of execution and the formal order of composition. This is present in his work now, not only in the manner of its realisation, but as an image in the symmetrical, balanced division that is such a feature of his composition.
Of course as you learn from an older generation, you are also likely to react against it. If Gillies and Maxwell and one or two others stood out for their integrity, there were other Scottish painters whose work was much slacker and more self-indulgent, especially in their use of colour. Dingwall’s own closely focused use of colour and his determination to extract the maximum impact from the minimum means also looks like a reaction against this kind of thing.
Indeed in Scotland, Dingwall was one of the first to react decisively against this kind of indulgence towards something deliberately disciplined and austere and in this he has an important place in the recent history of Scottish art. But his austerity was never simply laconic and inexpressive. In his early works an intense red often breaks through a layer of graphite, or of dark paint intensively worked. This psychological balance, the tension between constraint and strong feeling, still makes the work intensely personal.
And as it has evolved, even as it has become lighter and more open as it has in the work in the present exhibition, it has these qualities. It is still frequently layered so that the eventual surface refract through it something underlying, ostensibly concealed and quite different in character. It is in the nature of fine poetry to reveal layers of meaning, depths of feeling contained in an apparently simple form. Here in the extracts from his notebooks printed in this catalogue, the artist himself hints at how his painting, though perfectly abstract, is still a vehicle for feeling; and as in poetry and music, by form and pattern it reaches beyond into the stillness.