True to form: Exploring Somewhat Abstract at Nottingham Contemporary

Bridget Riley's Movement in Squares (1961).

Bridget Riley’s Movement in Squares.

Characterised by a departure from straightforward representations of reality and with an emphasis on formal attributes such as shapes, colour and dimensions, abstraction has arguably been the most dominant force in the art world for more than a century.

But of course there are varying degrees of abstraction and this idea is examined in Somewhat Abstract, an exhibition which opened at Nottingham Contemporary earlier this month. Drawn from the Art Council’s extensive collection, and spanning a period of 70 years, it showcases works by both modern masters such as Bridget Riley, Yoko Ono, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Gilbert and George, along with less well-known artists.

Chilldren's Games, Heygate Estate.

Chilldren’s Games, Heygate Estate.

For me, the highlight of this exhibition was a series of artworks displayed in Gallery 1. Walk into the room and you are soon greeted by Bridget Riley’s 1962 painting, Movement in Squares in which she creates an optical illusion of movement using her trademark black and white geometric shapes. But there is the suggestion of something more sinister; the painting is followed by a number of pieces which examine post-War housing, including Mark Lewis’ 2002 film, Children’s Games, Heygate [a now demolished 1970s housing estate in the Elephant and Castle area of London]. In this piece, a camera glides almost hypnotically along the walkways and we see children playing against the backdrop of this concrete ghetto. The juxtaposition shows how the ideals of modernist art and functionalism, where architects designed ‘walkways in the skies’ to connect inhabitants living together harmoniously in perfectly planned communities, were never realised. Instead, the walkways, coupled with a lack of aesthetic beauty, created fractured communities which were blighted by crime and isolation: a far cry from the original utopian ideals.

Another remarkable piece in this exhibition is undoubtedly Francis Bacon’s Head VI. With echoes of Munch’s The Scream, the painting depicts a pope trapped inside a box with an agonised look on his face, evoking a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment. Yet while he is acutely aware of his circumstances, the children on the Heygate estate play on, seemingly unaware of their confinement inside this modern ghetto created by those in a position of power.

Somewhat Abstract is on at Nottingham Contemporary until 29th June. Entry is FREE. For further details, including information on talks, tours and other events, visit the website

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