Alison Turnbull | Cloud Diagram

September 23 - November 25, 2016 Curator: Maria Stathi
Alison Turnbull, 'Cloud Diagram' solo exhibition, general view, ground floor

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Art Seen was delighted to present the solo exhibition ‘Cloud Diagram’ by Alison Turnbull.

Ed Krcma, Lecturer in Art History at the University of East Anglia, was commissioned to write a text on Turnbull’s new works.

A crucial and consistent aspect of Alison Turnbull’s work is the use of found materials as starting points for the production of abstract paintings and drawings. This sounds straightforward, but Turnbull’s work ends up putting significant pressure on a number of the terms involved here: what exactly do we mean by the idea of ‘abstraction’ in art? What constitutes an artistic material? And what is – or might be – the relationship between drawing and painting today? Further questions emerge too, especially concerning the relationship between Turnbull’s work and the history of abstract art, and concerning the friction and reciprocity between the source materials and the finished pictures.

The found materials Turnbull uses are of specific and fairly delimited kinds. Her drawings are made upon various types of ruled and gridded printed papers, which derive from different cities throughout the world. Most often these are pages from exercise books, but Turnbull also uses other kinds of ledgers, tables, and diary pages. On each she draws a repetitive pattern involving colours and forms that take their cue from details in the found sheet itself, in a modest but powerful gesture of give and take.

To make her paintings, Turnbull translates printed maps, plans, diagrams, and charts, into abstract compositions. Such ‘readymade’ (and already pictorial) materials might be star charts, architectural plans, or classificatory schemata used in the botanical sciences, for example. Sometimes paintings are also made using the more universal form of the grid, or from mathematical sequences. These found sources, then, are themselves also already ‘abstractions’ – of natural phenomena, of space, or of buildings – and they often carry with them precise conceptual connotations. But while these materials provide the springboard, as Turnbull’s paintings develop and take on an independent aesthetic logic liberties can be taken with the sources, as the readymade and emergent pictorial systems bend towards each other.

Turnbull’s facture is very precise and controlled: she often uses rulers, templates and other drawing aids to produce marks that avoid expressive connotations and insist upon a certain ‘dry’ tone. However, it would be wrong to regard her work as eloquent only of strictness, rigour and discipline, or as avoiding pleasure and unruliness. Indeed, the aspect of technical control tends instead to draw attention to the surprise of a striking colour relationship, or the unpredictable logic of a series, or the ‘glitches’ produced by the human hand as it dedicates itself imperfectly to demanding and repetitious tasks.

The title of the current exhibition, Cloud Diagram, goes some way to suggesting the polarity at work here. A cloud is a dynamic formation, difficult to measure or delimit and without its own colour. Indeed, the cloud was that element which famously escaped the linear perspectival systems devised during the renaissance. The idea of the diagram speaks instead of a will to rationalize, order, and compress: a notation or figure that is usually a slight thing but which can expand exponentially in the mind. Making a ‘cloud diagram’ is also a way to gather together and visualize a cluster of related ideas; it often takes shape according to a logic of vague associations and resemblances rather than of discrete categorical distinctions. It is a helpful name for an exhibition, then, as here we are dealing not just with the construction of individual works but with their mode of relating. It will be useful to signal some of the ways in which Turnbull has proceeded in this case.

There were three ‘terms’ to begin with. Firstly, We Crossed the Minch, 2011, in which coloured circles were drawn onto an Ordnance Survey map of the Scottish island of Barra, was selected by curator and gallery director Maria Stathi. Turnbull herself added two paintings as starting points: Field Test (polychrome) and Old Street Dust (monochrome), both 2016. These two paintings had little in common, aside from their broadly geometric structure and their scale: the former is a small, square grid painting (35 x 35 cm) in which tiny circular blobs of red, yellow, white or grey/green enamel paint have been applied at the intersections of the orthogonal lines (the work’s title refers to an optical test); the latter is a work of graphite on canvas (51 x 35 cm) made after a photograph of a detail of the façade of a building on Old Street, London. Owing to the pollution in the city, those triangular or diamond-shaped surfaces facing upwards became darker, those facing away from the sun lighter.


These terms, then, set up certain formal, chromatic and thematic parameters, or at least centres of gravity, from which a series of works could spin out. A link between the paintings was first made by producing a polychrome version of Old Street Dust (35 x 51 cm), the colours of which rhyme with Field Test. A larger monochrome grid picture was then produced (Field Test, monochrome, 2016, 51 x 51 cm), which made the connection with Old Street Dust not only in scale, but also in its weighting of the number of enamel blobs to the lower third of the canvas, mimicking the fall of dust particles.

The diamond form of the Old Street Dust paintings recalled a work on paper from 2015, Quincunx (overlayed), which was then joined by a new Quincunx work, this time on canvas. (A quincunx is an arrangement of five points, four at the corners of a square or rectangle and one at the centre, and has been the object of commentary from Sir Thomas Browne to W. G. Sebald.) Quincunx patterns can be extended outwards indefinitely, as can the Fibonacci sequence, that famous mathematical series that has long fascinated mathematicians, natural scientists, artists, architects and musicians, amongst many others. This connection then provided a logic for including a number of the Fibonacci drawings that Turnbull had made in 2015, which are displayed in a custom-made drawing table.

We Crossed the Minch refers to locality quite specifically, using as it does a printed map as its ground. This relationship with place is more oblique in Old Street Dust, and re-emerges in Drawing Table VIII, in which about a dozen of the aforementioned drawings on exercise book and ledger pages are housed. Here an everyday (and throwaway) kind of object – such cheap printed papers are both standardized and remarkably various in their different manifestations across the globe – is held up for close attention. Responding to their colours and forms, Turnbull adds lines, circles, and coloured areas of her own. The facture is so careful and precise that sometimes it is difficult to tell what has been added by hand and what was already there. The subtlety and delicacy of the drawings is not just a question of the quality of their manual production, however, but also of their conceptual reach. They draw in the whole world (Beijing, Damascus, Nicosia, London, Athens, Tokyo and Limerick…), and point to singular differences while never attempting to represent or thematise national or local character, but they do serve to pose the question. They look beyond art but not away from it, and at the same time engage in conversations within the history of abstract painting and drawing.

In Turnbull’s practice, then, a commitment to abstraction as a formal mode of art making is married with the graphic structures devised to organise and classify the world and its patterns. Neither realm bows to the other and sensuous particularity is kept in play within a field of far-reaching conceptual systems.

Ed Krcma, September 2016


Alison Turnbull(b. 1956), Bogotá, Colombia

Alison Turnbull studied in Madrid at Academia Arjona (1975–1977); in Surrey at West Surrey College of Art and Design (1977–1978) and in Corsham at Bath Academy of Art (1978–1981). Since the 1980’s she has lived and worked in London.

Turnbull has had solo exhibitions at Shandy Hall, North Yorkshire (2014); De La Warr Pavilion, East Sussex (2013); Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh (2012); and Matt's Gallery, London (2010). She recently had an exhibition at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh to accompany the publication of her book Another Green World: Linn Botanic Gardens, Encounters with a Scottish Arcadia, Art/Books (2015).

Recent group exhibitions include Seeing Round Corners: the Art of the Circle Turner Contemporary, Margate (2016); Blackrock Lydney Park Estate, Gloucestershire (2016); Compression Ormston House Gallery, Limerick (2015); Multiplicities, Art Seen, Nicosia (2015); Colour on Paper, Galeria Leme, São Paolo (2014); Summer Exhibition Royal Academy of Art, London (2014); Universal Fragments: Conversations with Trevor Shearer, Large Glass, London (2013); Galápagos Centro de Arte Moderna (CAM), Lisbon (2013); The Bluecoat, Liverpool and The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (2012); The Russian Club Gallery, London (2011); On the Edge of the World, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, a British Council touring exhibition (2010) and Parallel Remix, Leonard Hutton Galleries, New York (2010).


She has held residencies at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden (2005); the Department of Entomology, Natural History Museum, London (2009); Cove Park in western Scotland (2011) and most recently in Chocó, Colombia with Más Arte Más Acción.

She has also undertaken architectural commissions and is currently working on a project for Peterhouse Technology Park in Cambridge, to be completed in 2017.

Her work is in major collections including Arts Council England; The British Council; Clifford Chance, London; Deutsche Bank AG, London; Government Art Collection, London; Imperial War Museum, London; Imperial College Health Care Trust, London and Southampton City Art Gallery.

Alison Turnbull is represented by Matt’s Gallery, London.


* The exhibition is supported using public funding by Arts Council England and British Council.

** Special thanks to the British Council Cyprus and British High Commission Nicosia.


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