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

Surprise cloaks disguise in two etchings made in 2008 by Kenneth Dingwall, as a historically line-driven technique relinquishes its contouring power to the liquid density of coloured screens. The thick, off-white paper seems made of textured light, deeply imprinted by saturated colour. Blocking out the light from behind, two opaquely coloured squares present an emblematic shape to the viewer as a solid object to be apprehended; a concrete form, paradoxically flat and impossible to see around, or through.

Passage I and Passage II share the presentation of this smooth-surfaced geometric solid. In Passage I a brilliant vermillion is pierced from top to bottom by a slender, hourglass-waisted column of brown. Red floods across the plane of space partitioned by the tanned rust of the vertical column standing back – or thrusting forwards? In Passage II the visual plane is coloured from top to bottom in deep brown indented at the sides by long triangled slivers of red. Brown shades over the red glimmering beneath and penetrating from the sides, with barely glimpsed margins of green suggesting an even deeper underlay. The layered colour threatens to thin the blocky forms into veils of coloured matter, streaming light or liquid. Whether concrete solid or permeable veil, our sight is hazed and the distance between things is no longer understood. The distinction between form and ground, once essential and secure, is dissolved, as the ground is raised and the forms recedes. [1]

The two prints are nominally related, their tilting pointing to the empirical resemblance between them in the shaped rhythm, raising and receding, of form and ground. It’s a deceptive similarity whose superficial appearance disguises a deep structure of reciprocity founded on difference as much as resemblance. In these two etchings, the receding-emergent form is apprehended in space less through an analogical resemblance to a column, curtained window or stage set, or recognised through their common identity in two versions, than through a foundational differentiation. Passage I and Passage II reiterate a subtle dynamic of difference and repetition in coloured form that is established as the grounding motivation for their making, and for the viewer’s perception over time.

This visual enunciation of repeated differentiation using a constitutive shape in an adaptive, serial modality, whether the medium is printmaking, sculpture, drawing or painting, is a long-standing impulse in Kenneth Dingwall’s work. It appeared in small wooden constructions in America in the early 1970s, where the desired shape provocatively emerged in a slow process described by Dingwall as ‘fumbling away’ with making a form, which over time reveals itself as same and different each time it appears. Information garnered from empirical perception – one might speak of Romanesque columns or again of curtained windows, a stage screened from the audience or seventeenth-century Scottish gravestones, but none of these ‘real world’ references suffice – is subsumed by an accumulated visual and tactile knowledge of colours, surfaces, materials and space, reiteratively structured by the artist’s practice until the imagined and visualised concept becomes an object. The potential for the process of bringing the shape into being to stultify into a static technique, whereupon the artworks present nothing more than general equivalence, is thwarted by the unforeseeable flux of studio experiment, where play, error and ‘failure’ leaven habit. The artwork which results takes it place within the series, asserting its non-exchangeable and singular status. It is a ‘series’ constructed over time in several different media and by diverse technical means, anchored by a common form.

With painting, the shape shivers into being; in the painted wood constructions and prints, the lines are harder, the surface less marked, and the subtleties of colour take time to observe. Catalysed by the invitation from Peacock Visual Arts, the Centre for Contemporary Art in Aberdeen, to create an edition of prints (thirty-two of each one, in two numbered sequences; 458 x 430mm in size), the sketch notebook filled with several pages of drawings, small visual tests roughing out the dimensions and shape of the form. Drawing here remains the bedrock of the artist’s working process, a ‘first investment of the surface’ (as it was for Mondrian) through which thinking takes on tangible form – or, as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein puts it, a process of ‘seeing-as’ where thinking and seeing become integral. [2] The notion of tangible form is far from purely optical; drawing operates as an instrument of tactile visualising for the artist as well as for the viewer. Both cannot help but respond to the integration of the haptic sense with optical perception. More recent drawings reiterating and renewing the same/singular form deploy ground graphite with an acrylic binder to make a paste, or sometimes wax and pastel, to build up and enhance the conscious recognition of texture that is disguised in the etchings. For the ancient lesson that visuality is nothing without its materialistic, tactile component is a little more difficult to discern in the prints; the evidence of the artist’s hand at work is obscured by the matt flow and soak of colour into the receptive surface of paper scraped free of its resistant covering.

In the colour layers and contrasts, out of which form is simultaneously revealed and concealed, raised and receded, Dingwall returns to the simplest possible primary phenomena – form and the mixing of light and dark to make colour – to engage us in ‘seeing-as’. Passage I and Passage II test our perceptual judgment over the time of viewing (as their titles prompt us into a transitional state) through colour. In Passage I a colour which in its pure intensity, vermillion red, could be volatile and disruptive if mishandled, becomes a generator of light and contrast. The artist subjects colour to a procedure of analysis and meditation; a process of surface form design which Henri Matisse says in a letter of 1940 contains many rebondissements (twists and turns) and requires great attention to laying bare the essential, to arriving at the abstract. [3] In Passage II a brown that certainly appeared to appear brown on first sight, after extended looking re-appears as red overlain by green. The luminous verdant green has been gently cannibalised by the intense red in a transaction which induces us to recognise colour’s relational aesthetics.

No prints had been made since Dingwall’s student days when lithographs required the intense labour of cleaning the stones and discouraged the spontaneity permitted by drawing and painting. Irritation with the constraints imposed by the incontrovertible, step-by-step method of etching was an impediment: scratching the ‘drawing’ into the resistant layer covering the metal plate, before bathing the plate in the acid and adjusting its bite; inking the plate and removing any excess; placing the plate into the press with the damp paper laid on top; passing it through the rollers of the press to imprint the colour onto the paper and removing the felt blankets protecting it to see the result. Nonetheless, commitment to the process established itself in a sequence of sketches, experiments with colour and several play-days of dummy runs and trial prints. Colours were determined: a permanent red firstly; followed by vermillion to give density and body; with green on top, mixing light green with ‘letterpress’ green; and no translucent gels.

As with almost all printmaking ventures for artists, the process is also a collaborative one. Dingwall was aided by the master printer at Peacock, Michael Waight, who with ‘marvellous tact’ enabled a realm of possibilities to open up the original, sought-after shape. This interaction between artist and printer resulted in a whole suite of playtime etchings exploiting different densities of inks, trying the blacks, producing ghost images – working evidence of a dynamic process of working-through the disconcerting flux of making something new while internally holding onto a sense of the form being striven for (illusory, perhaps, but no matter). Against the difficulty of establishing the form and within the forwards-backwards dialectic of creating it (as in life itself), the finalisation of the process – Passage I and Passage II – satisfies; ‘very much so’.

What could be called the ‘heterogeneous’ logic to the series, where we find a common theme or driving motive supporting and connecting a variety of elements within an artist’s practice, can be identified in Kenneth Dingwall’s work when the two etchings are placed in relationship to a wider field of sculptures, drawings and paintings. [4] In turn, Dingwall the artist is also part of a heterogeneous series that is recurrent and reiterative, as well as irreducibly singular in each of its parts; a series of artists who after around 1960 engaged in the re-evaluation of modernism’s powers and subjected them to strategies of compression. Here we might think of the work of an American artist like Richard Tuttle, whose small-sized works include prints and painted wood reliefs focused upon colour contrasts, dimensions, compositional issues and spatial relations. Such strategies of compression are matched by their capacity for expansion: within the artist series, as in the mural-sized paintings and sculptures of Ellsworth Kelly, or the heightened intensity gained from the repetitious strokes of white upon an endless number of canvases by Robert Ryman. So, we return to the example of an abstract artist working in Scotland, outside and within the confines of a national art tradition, where Kenneth Dingwall persists in pursuing the desired form, work by work. In doing so, the field of vision for the viewer is inexorably enlarged by following what the philosopher Martin Heidegger would call a ‘movement of showing’, such that well-worn habits of seeing become textured by surprise and discovery. [5]




[1] My understanding of form here is indebted to Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (1968), trans. Paul Patton (London, 1944), and to the generous conversations with Kenneth Dingwall in his studio which were essential to the writing of this essay.

[2] On Mondrian’s drawings as a ‘first Investment’, see Yve-Alain Bois, L’Atelier de Mondrian: recherches et dessin (Paris, 1980); for Wittgenstein on ‘seeing-as’, see M. W. Rowe, ‘Goethe and Wittgenstein’ Philosophy 66 (1991): 283 -303.

[3] Henri Matisse, Écrits et propos sur l’art, Edited by Dominique Fourcade (Paris, 1972).

[4] On the logic of the series, see Briony Fer, The Infinite Line: Re-making Art after Modernism (London, 2004).

[5] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (1927; trans. John McQuarrie and Edward Robinson, London, 1962); Stephen Mulhall, On Being in the World: Wittgenstein and Heidegger on Seeing Aspects (London, 1990): 106-22