Saturday, October 05, 2013

Hackney Seen in Clerkenwell

A couple of weeks ago we flagged up that chess-in-artist Tom Hackney had another exhibition in London, at the Breese Little Gallery in Clerkenwell, where a number of his chess-artworks could be seen. Having now visited the show, it is time to mull it over. Readers of these chess-in-art blogs will be familiar with Tom's willingness to discuss his work (see earlier posts linked at the end), and we've taken advantage of his generosity to give some of his comments below in response to our emails.

The show (which closes today) is called Tremors for reasons that will eventually become clear. It continues Tom's exploration of the chess, the art, and the chess/art commentaries of Marcel Duchamp. As well as this familiar vein the show takes off in an apparently new direction, which rather helpfully gives us the pretext for two posts - today and in a fortnight's time. Incidentally, although we'll discuss only a selection from the exhibition, all the works may be seen on-line, either at Breese Little or on Tom Hackney's own website.

Here, on the left, is a chess-artwork from the exhibition in Tom's now recognizable manner. The footprints of all the moves are overlaid, later ones on top of earlier which, as a consequence, are only faintly visible as they are progressively covered by veils of paint. We are looking backwards, from the end of the game.
Left: Chess Painting No. 28 - Duchamp vs. Frydman, Prague 1931. © Tom  Hackney
Right:  Tactics Test. How did 20. Rc1 in the game lose the exchange?  
From the chess point of view, the image on the left embodies a miserable outing for Duchamp on an off-day. After overlooking a neat combination he spent the rest of the short game regretting it from the confines of the first two or three ranks. In the final flourishes, Black dominates the board, which No.28 configures rather well. 

Those ghostly shadows of earlier moves, clearest on the a and h files, are a trace of what has gone before. It's a theme that may be seen to be at work in other parts of the exhibition, expressed as the frisson of nostalgia, perhaps, or a shiver at a recovered memory, or even regret. These could be the "Tremors" of the show's title. Could be: we'll see later - in part 2 - whether Tom agrees.

Here's another work from the exhibition (below left), in the apparently same manner, but this time with colour, and with a yet more crucial difference from the "Black/Whites" -  which we will come to after inspecting it, but I'll mention now that in 1920 Duchamp dreamt up the idea of a colour-coded chess set - with an eye to making some money. The rook is blue, the bishop is yellow, combined in power you get the queen, combined in colour you get green. "White's" pieces are brightly tinted, "Black's" are a deeper hue. So here is Tom laying in some colour on the left, and a re-creation of Duchamp's polychrome set on the right. The colours roughly correspond, and this of course is deliberate and the key to the work.

Left: Chess Painting No. 30 - Duchamp vs. Folkmann (Correspondence)  1933 © Tom Hackney
Right:  Re-creation of Duchamp's Colour-coded chess set. From toutfait (2005) reproduced with permission  
But try and forget the chess just for a moment and look at No. 30 as an abstract painting "pure and simple" (my suggestion, not Tom's). Is the colour an unwelcome addition? Does it upset the pristine binary simplicity and calm of the Black/White paintings, or does it animate the image and add dynamism? Tectonic plates or tremblement? FWIW I'll go with the former, though having said that the coloured energy field does seem to hold randomness and stability in equilibrium; it is not all unrestrained abandon.

Now let's hear from Tom about this work. He gave me a long and interesting reflection. It is, he says, one of many like this on which he is working.
"One important thing to say about the polychrome works in terms of chess is that they are painted backwards, in that, if viewed as a pile of brush strokes, the first moves of the game sit atop of the pile, as opposed to at it's base, as with the b/w works."  
So, chess painting No. 20 above is painted backwards, and it is looking forwards. It is about the opening: a Nimzo-Indian (a nice echo, as Duchamp studied, and translated parts of, My System). The footprints of the White pawn moves, in white, 1.d4 and 2.c4 are on "top of the pile" partly obscuring the subsequent 3. Nc3 (in bright red). Black's 1...Nf6 (darker red) can be seen, and 2....e6 (in black) is in front (on e7) of the next move 3...Bb4 (with the brown trajectory), which in turn hides, on c4, behind the white pawn track on move 2  - and so on! It might be worth adding that you can't see into the future, of course, and so the paint layers are opaque; compare that with the translucence of the paint in the B/Ws: you can, with the past by contrast, see what has gone before, if only partially.

Tom makes a point about how using colour makes these more "emphatically" like paintings, and how there may be a conflict, here and there, between the spatial effect of the colours (red, yellow seem closer than black and blue, which apparently recede - an effect regularly exploited in art, even abstract art) and the logic of the chess. But there is a further point beyond both the reflection on the work as art and the explanation of the work as chess. We've encountered this before with Tom, as we can get an articulation of the thinking that underpins his work and ties those two viewpoints together within a broader framework.
I was thinking about historical moves in painting in terms of games (where, say, Cubism is seen as the conclusion of the game of representational painting, or indeed the beginning of the game of abstraction?). Within this broad game analogy, the dynamics of the different phases of a game dictate to a large extent what 'moves' are available. Where an opening might be viewed in terms of quick developments, a middle game in terms of more marginal, attritional moves, and an endgame, the culmination of both previous phases, brought to a finality (before the whole process begins again!). Individually, I was thinking of the polychrome games in terms odynamic openings, as seen in the opening wave of abstraction in the first part of the 20th century.     
To give this my gloss: different phases of the game change what it is possible, and dictate the type of considerations that demand to be addressed; and art too changes terrain, and issues, at crucial junctures. Cubism at the beginning of the 20th century was a case in point. Within the discipline of the 8x8 grid, the addition of colour and the change of viewpoint (looking forward rather than back) embodies these ideas of "game-changing". Notice also the precise historical reference (the arrival of Cubism) cited above - which is another hallmark of how Tom thinks about his art.     
Let's look at another painting, and new set of issues; and for the moment I have withheld the title to help you see it as if you were a non-chesser. In the exhibition, by the way, the pictures were also hung without any titles alongside (but that's another debate, that we won't have here). 

What are we to make of this?
©Tom Hackney
Mesmerising. It looks like the blind movement of primitive creatures on a microscope slide or, at higher resolution, molecular attraction and repulsion in Brownian movement. You could also see them as signs of meaning rather than signs of life: they could be scratchings on a prison wall.  

To me this comparison is striking: 

                                               Right: 24th Century BCE Cuneiform tablet from here  
The rows of spare, taut, edgy marks are like an esoteric cuneiform script such as on the right. Suddenly the spaces, too, seem important: as significant even, as the marks themselves. Overall it must mean something; but can we crack the code? Can we read the message?

Indeed, Tom's painting is not of a bunch of mute, superficial, scrapes. For one thing they are deliberately arranged; and for another, they are rather more like Japanese ideograms in that they look a bit like what they depict, i.e. the "thing" they signify. They are chess moves. Each one is the track of a piece, and the total sequence represents, as if a chess score, a complete game: Maas vs. Duchamp, Nice, 1930 to be precise, and it is Chess Painting No.14.

I confess that I have now looked at this in three of Tom's exhibitions and the penny has just dropped. I eventually saw it for what it was intended to be: all 48 pairs of moves, white and black, of a game plotted on an implied grid 6 "boards" wide by 8 deep. Though you have to work hard to organise and see them as such, even when you've got it. The moves are: top left 1. c4 Nf6; then, moving to the right, 2. Nf3 and b6; then 3. g3 and Bb7 - you can work out the rest. Mass, A. J. - Duchamp, M. Nice, 1930, 0-1 in 48!

So it looks abstract, but is also, in its way, representational, and to refer to Tom again: there is tension in the work between the two. For an informative, external reference Tom directed me to the Dutch De Stijl artist Bart van der Leck, whose work also swings both ways. He was active between the wars with Mondrian. A work such as Stileven met wijnfles (Still life with wine bottle) of 1922 shows the ambiguity (or duplicity -  in its neutral sense) that Tom is referring to. It's a set of "abstract" marks that also looks like a wine bottle. That's a helpful reference, and it challenges us to do yet a bit more transformational thinking with No.14, which is a set of marks that one can construe as a set of chess moves - except that what the moves look like doesn't tell us what a game of chess is. It is what those moves signify that matters. They refer to something beyond themselves in a way that a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't wine bottle doesn't - and I think that's what Tom is asking us to consider (and if not - that's my fault).  

Chess Painting No 14 is an enigmatic and elegant work and it has grown on me. It indicates an elongated sequence of moves laid out as if a chess-score, and so takes us on from the superimposed pile-ups of Nos. 28 and 30 above. However, it only shows the moves played, not the set of un-played possibilities at each turn - the moves considered and rejected. This would be taking place in "the arena of the mind". Maybe that is where we are going next.        

©Tom Hackney

You've probably got your chess eye in by now, but if you could see this only as an array of dots and marks, you could, I think, discern a trend, a flow, from order and clarity top-left, to disorder and decay bottom-right. Paradoxically this is driven by the application of rationality - chess rationality. It is Chess Painting No. 31 and is a complete re-presentation of Michel vs. Duchamp, Strasbourg 1924 : a combination on Duchampian colour-coding from No. 30 and the move-tracking of No 14, set out sequentially as the following deconstruction demonstrates:

Chess Painting No.31 Michel vs Duchamp, Strasbourg, 1924
Left: Boards picked out in purple : each shows respective piece positions and moves.
Middle: Enlargement of "board 26" showing 26. Qxb3(?) Bxb3 ("White is just lost!" - Jennifer Shahade)
Right: The more conventional representation of moves 26.  
Phew! You have to admire the sheer application of an artist who does getting on for, what, 2,000 or so coloured dots to show a game of chess as, well, a game of chess. And it does make you want turn back to No.14 for a bit of peace and quiet. But by representing all the pieces on the board there is the implied question: why that move, and not this one? And we have to reach, grope even, beyond what we "see" - i.e. the moves played - towards what we might imagine:  the realm of possibilities. And now we have segued from the arena of the eye to the arena of the mind (to use Tom's felicitous phrase in full).      

However, it is a ferociously busy image, and I rather cheekily asked Tom what was the "added value" of all the labour, given that it seemed to me to more or less get out what was put in - in informational terms, anyway - i.e. a game of chess. He took it on the chin, and...  
"...I'm not sure there is any added value! I think that this variation is a visual representation of a script - much more decipherable than the others. It's difficult to go into great depth on this as I don't feel that this variation is resolved yet. Something to do with the balance of the information, form and abstraction needs to be worked through a bit further I think. I have been thinking that these script versions might work better on paper..."
Which is remarkably frank, and shows that artists (like chess players?!) have to work at it. It's true what they say: 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration.

Whether or not No 31 is successful, it is indeed thought provoking: and the same must be said of all the Tom's other works, and his theorising. And here, before we reach half-time and change ends, are a couple of thoughts that have occurred to me - and I speak as a chesser with an interest in art, not as an artist who seeks to re-present chess.  

Let's go back to that "arenas of the eye and mind" notion of Tom's, and the idea of "oscillation" between them. Indeed that is what we do when we play. We do that, and (it seems to me) we do more. We hunt between many modes of chess perception and chess cogitation: sight and "over-sight", pattern recognition, calculation, positional judgement, intuition, to name but a few. As Tom rightly says: the board is a "meditative and reflective space" (and so, incidentally, in his view, is art). It is also a perceptual one. The challenge is to find an artistic language to represent the richness of that seen and unseen activity in all its diversity and nuance.        

Here is a consequential: in so far as No.31 (and No 41 come to that) show us complete games laid out as they unfold in chess-time, they fall short in this sense: they only show moves as simultaneous pairs - they don't yet give us the "call and response" nature of moves that define themselves in oppositional relationship to each other, alternately, unfolding through time.  Chess moves are played with the intention of winning (or of not losing - another nuance).  And this points to the interpersonal nature of chess. It is not so much the arena of the mind, as the arena of two minds.    

Tom, to whom I have put these thoughts, has been unfailingly good-natured in response (it is a bit rich of his correspondent to presume to suggest what might have been), and may or may not take them on board, if you'll pardon the pun. This is a good place to stop. In two week's time we'll return to the theme of chess, alive with the electricity of personal encounter, carrying a competitive, even historical, charge (it is linked here).

Footnote. Two of the works in the exhibition's on-line catalogue weren't hung (though were viewable on request at the gallery): the third and fourth works discussed above. I've included them in this post because of their intrinsic interest, and because they reveal a fascinating sequence of development. If you visited the show in person you may, unfortunately, have missed them.

The Jennifer Shahade quote comes from her analysis of the Michel - Duchamp game in Marcel Duchamp: the Art of Chess by Francis M. Naumann and Bradley Bailey. readymade press, NewYork (2009). An article in toutfait (2005) by Mr Naumann was the source for the polychome chess set.    

Relevant previous posts.
Hackney in Clerkenwell
It's The Thought That Counts
Chess Art In Our Time
He Might Not Have Been Amused

Chess in Art Index

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