Saturday, June 14, 2014

Nette and Tom (and Diana Makes Three)

We've talked about Nette Robinson's chess art before on the blog, and now there's a bit more to say in view of her article in this June's Chess and her forthcoming exhibition, from 23 to 28 June at Art Galleries Europe, London W1S 1PL. It also gives us a chance to catch up on our other favourite chess-in-artist Tom Hackney (also discussed here, here and here). Both of them turn the moves on the board into art on the wall, and we can take this opportunity to compare and contrast - not so much how they look, but what's going on...that is to say, on their canvasses, and why. Tom, by the way, is on the short list for the John Moore's Painting Prize 2014, exhibiting at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, and we'll have a look at his entry below (and wish him luck). And there's a third chess-in-artist to check out as well: Diana Mihajlova.

What's so interesting about Nette's Chess article is that in it she shares her artistic thought processes - rather like a player annotating a game, or voicing-over The Master Game - and she confirms what we all should know about making art: it is not a flash of inspiration out of a clear blue sky (or an empty board): it is the slow burn of hard work, trial and error, and stubborn investigation. Here is her interpretation of the immortal game.

The Immortal Game (Anderssen-Kieseritsky 1851)
Nette Robinson (2013)
The active ingredient in Nette's work is her understanding of the themes of chess as played by decent players. So, we are not so much talking about - and therefore not seeing - individual moves but interactions, and combinations embedded in positional configurations: to borrow an art-critical term from another context, they display significant form: not just the dumb movement of the pieces. This is essential to the genesis of the work; and shapes the look of the final design.

She has worked out a visual code that traces the moves of the pieces with different marks: sometimes traversing squares, other times occupying them, coded for pieces and types of move. This is based on an immersion in the game as as player (she is well beyond the beginners stage), and enables her to edit, configure and express, in visual terms, the significant patterns of a game. It is of course by no means perfect, and you can't tell that those striking black diagonals evoking Black's grab of material on the first rank are a good way to lose. In this particular work she employs a subtle tactic: as Kieseritzky resigned before Anderssen could play his famous and picturesque mate those "virtual moves" are rendered in translucent colours (it looks like pale lavender at 21. Nxg7+ and 23.Be7#). Her aim, notwithstanding the chess, is that the pictures should " beautiful" (as Nette says in her Chess piece) and be able to stand alone, de-chessed for the un-chessed, and accessible to non-players. Ask your nearest and dearest whether she has suceeded.

Compare Tom's works: where all pieces are equal, and leave the same footprint across the grid, each square filled where the foot falls, overlaying and gradually effacing what has gone before, though the surface has a silky texture you just want to touch. Having had the pleasure of visiting Tom in his studio, and seeing his work-in-progress at close quarters, I can bear witness to the care and craft that he applies to the painting of these apparently simple squares - to which the reproduction of his John Moore's entry, below, does not do justice.

Chess Painting No 21 (Duchamp vs. Kostic, Nice, 1930)
Tom Hackney (2014)
In Nette's work the significant past, no matter how far back, is carried forward to the pictorial present, so earlier events may be overlaid, but they are not obscured. In Tom's principal method (as in Duchamp-Kostic 0-1, 46) in his corpus of works (all games of Duchamp), the present does progressively bury the past, which is eventually obliterated. Tom, by the way, shows here that, for all his conceptualism, he may not be completely oblivious to the de-chessed look: he has presented D v K "upside-down" with black playing up the board.

All this highlights a fundamental difference between the two: Nette's work aims to make manifest the chess ideas, and to show the chess themes. But in Tom's works the "rolling thought" (to borrow a felicitious phrase of his) is parallel to the moves on the board, and is somewhere else - at a remove from the work itself. He is not representing the facts of a game for the visual chessyness of it, but for the idea of it; and compared to Nette's analogue, indexical, indicative and colourful  language, he speaks with a simple binary tongue in black and white. His work is about the place of chess thought, Nette is about the play of chess thought. She is about chess psychology, Tom's is a kind of chess meta-psychology; almost a chess epistemology. Another allusion would be by way of their respective chess gurus: Nette and Nimzovitch (her "all-time favourite player"), the man of My System and chess positioning; Tom and Duchamp (also a Nimzo fan), the man of the readymades and, above all, re-positioning.

Both Nette and Tom bracingly embrace the mental aspects of chess with a methodological, and one must say, a conceptual, rigour. Next, by way of a contrast, is an example of the work of our third chess-in-artist, multi-talented  Diana Mihajlova, who has a no less thoughtful, but rather more emotionally inflected take. It's not the moves of the game, but the game itself that moves you.

Passion (2012)  
Diana Mihajlova aka Mitra
Same unrelenting grid here, but this time ablaze with fiery vermilion evoking the affective ferment provoked by chess - or demanded by the game in the hot-blooded crucible of competition. Grand passions inflamed. Shrinking violets singed. I've got no argument with the idea - indeed sometimes one feels that contemporary art can be a bit, well, bloodless - but the decorousness of her imagery isn't quite my cup of tea. Others, though, may warm to it, and find this and the others in Diana's suite, to their liking. And she does chess etchings (studies of individual pieces), too.

Thanks to Nette Robinson and Diana Mihajlova their co-operation with the use of their material in this post. I've tried to contact Tom Hackney without success, and perhaps he is in Bankok supervising his latest exhibition out there; but anyway knowing his generosity as we do, I'm sure he won't mind us showing his John Moore's entry on the blog.     
(& thanks to ejh for the Mihajlova tip.)

Chess in Art Index


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