In 1826, the eccentric French writer and lawyer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, “tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are”. Almost 200 years later, the sentiment that what one consumes has a direct effect on what one produces is still an integral facet of the human existence. It is particularly relevant to contemporary creative practice today, given the global, hyper-remixed nature of the contemporary landscape. Who we are surrounded by and with, the materials available to us, what we choose to use and in what context has a profound impact on the freedoms and limitations of a creative practice.
|What's Happening Here? installation view. Pictured: Eleanor Louise Butt (left) |
and Jahnne Pasco-White (right). Photography by Christian Capurro.
Today, painting is one of many creative practices with widespread usage and is responded to by artists as anything from a binding agent, a sculptural form, installation, a means of mark-making and a tangible medium for exploring colour. Melbourne has an incredibly rich history of abstract painting, from the many local geometric works included in the NGV’s landmark The Field exhibition in 1968 to the dynamic, loud, figurative abstraction of Fitzroy’s ROAR group founded in 1982.
Abstraction, despite its non-figurative appearance, has direct and immediate connections with the context of its production. Interested in interrogating ideas of process, experimentation, and construction through play, the painters featured in What’s Happening Here? share a similarity in their choice to use the physicality of the canvas and the materiality of paint to depict multiple planes, memories, spaces and objects. They experiment and oscillate between calculated reason and the flexibility of intuition to create work which is lively, playful, and multi-dimensional.
American abstract painter Amy Sillman speaks of the difficulties of wrangling with paint, particularly oil paint. Artists, “embrace the vicissitudes of this toxic, expensive and unpredictable substance while trying to keep it looking fresh, maintaining the illusion that it is effortless”[i]. Made by mixing pure pigment with a solvent, oils are highly versatile in nature and have a certain depth, immediacy and luminosity when applied to a surface. In these paintings, oils and pigment are painstakingly mixed both on canvas and one’s palette until the right mix is achieved. Eleanor Butt’s oil-based paintings are derived from drawings made with small, ashy logs from her Dandenong Ranges backyard, with which the artist creates whirling, dimensional shapes, a selection of which are transformed into floating silhouettes on her canvases in brown, black and entrancing primary-yellow. In Merryn Lloyd’s work, beeswax is mixed with pure pigment while heated, creating a malleable medium that hardens very quickly and which is relatively unmovable, challenging the form of oil paint as flexible and slow-drying. In Anthea Kemp’s work, oil paint is mixed from tubes and then gradually thinned to a light, watery substance which can be spread across the length of her boards with relative ease.
The idea of destruction and its potential for illuminating and disguising segments of a painting is pervasive across the works of all eight painters. Destruction as deconstruction can mean, as in Nyah Cornish’s work, covering a surface with many layers of paint which is marbled, splattered, rubbed and poured and then edited into dominant sections connected by lines and shape. Pasco-White’s canvases are scraped, soaked, lacquered and rolled with oil paint and varnish; a precarious ecosystem which flexes and bends to the weight added and subtracted from its landscape. Works are unending and a large-scale painting often goes through many transformations – from painting to cylindrical sculpture and back again. In Minna Gilligan’s series of five paintings, a layer of rainbow spray paint – a rather impermanent medium - is added to a primed canvas as the base layer, partially obscured by further layers of acrylic. This kind of intentional vandalism reflects ideas of permanence versus impermanence, control and letting go, high and low art.
|What's Happening Here? installation view. Pictured: Nyah Cornish (left) |
and Minna Gilligan (right). Photography by Christian Capurro.
These eight artists share a certain sense of complicity with the decorative nature of their works, embracing notions of the decorative and exploring the purpose and style of decoration. The word itself has certain associations of domesticity and the built environment – the replicability and sameness of muted abstract canvases in hotel rooms; the obnoxious, dominating wallpapers of the 1970s. Laura Skerlj’s small-scale works included appear ambiguously pattern-like yet simultaneously cosmic as if a 1980s synthetic dress pattern were catapulted into space, fragmented, and pieced back together in a more sparse form. Multiple objects and ideas are abbreviated and simplified simultaneously via a process of quick sketching in the permanent medium of ink – drawing as a form of painting. Butt’s work is ambiguous in the sense that representationally, the viewer is presented with shapes that could be impressions of themselves, shadows or reflections. It is both static and spinning, flat and floating. This is a kind of intentional ambiguity. Further, these seemingly ambiguous compositions are rarely as simple as mindless application of colour or paint onto a surface, but rather a summation of ideas and interests in particular places and memories of the artists. "In short, there is no plausible case against ambiguity. But ambiguity is not a characteristic that just approaches artworks. It is not available or given; instead, it must be produced"[ii].
Regional identity and a fascination with the cosmos and ideas of flux and environment is a common link between many of the artists. McCleary, Butt and Kemp all grew up in regional areas of Victoria, their formative years spent in quiet areas surrounded with a varying degree of natural landscape surrounding their home. This influence has been something the artists continue to carry with them. Observations of landscape, colour, form and the human footprint on landscape during this formative period remains a continual source of reflection and inspiration for these artists. Butt’s use of linen as her painted surface harks back to memories of running her hands along the hessian walls of her Grandmother’s home in the country where she was fascinated and enthralled by the bizarre texture of the walls as a small child. Kemp’s painted works float between depiction of an abstracted landscape and a reflection on the division of canvas through colour and line, continually exploring mountainous landscapes, shadow and muted colour. McCleary’s upbringing in borderland Mildura remains a great influence on her work as she monumentalises locations with large brushstrokes and constantly-evolving colour, adding abstracted fragments of stories and recalled imagery, objects and dreams.
|What's Happening Here? installation view. Pictured: Elyss McCleary. Photography by Christian Capurro.|
What’s Happening Here? presents the audience with work exploring the limitations and potential of abstract painting in a contemporary context where the genre is spread across a multiplicity of artforms. It shows us that painting is versatile. It is both final product and the beginning of a journey. It is mixed, muddled and contorted onto surfaces – layered, precarious and endlessly evolving. It exists with and without the assistance of colour – a kind of neutral building block from which shapes and fragments spawn. Most of all, painting is there is certain universality to the appreciation of painting; “the pleasure of experiencing beauty does not depend on empirical conditions, but upon the swinging into harmony of the mind’s faculties of understanding, reason, and imagination – faculties possessed by everyone”[iii].
Brigid Hansen is a Melbourne-based emerging freelance art writer and curator.
[i] Sillman, A. (2016). On Colour. In Painting beyond Itself: The Medium in the Post-medium Condition (pp.103-116). New York, NY: Sternberg Press.
[ii] Geimer, P. (2012). Painting and Atrocity: The Tuymans Strategy. In Thinking through Painting: Reflexivity and Agency beyond the Canvas (pp. 15-37). New York, NY: Sternberg Press.
[iii] Johnson, H. (2015) Painting Is A Critical Form. Sydney, NSW: 3-ply.