MY HOUSE IS TOO SMALL was a curatorial project by Julia Powles, formed in a West Melbourne apartment and involving 6 artists and writers. The following essay was developed as part of the project. The essay discusses thoughts about making a video work (by Matthew Berka).
As I look from our apartment window the current view is of a lustrous white grey sky across a vast industrial sprawl, full of light, and changing before my eyes. There are fixed and still forms, but the grey light, change and movement are most palpable within my thoughts. At times there’s so much happening that it’s difficult to take in. Sitting at my desk while I write I am conscious that what I write is simply a remembrance, a recollection of the experience of looking. I am reminded that we often envision reality, merging fiction into fact, ‘de-realizing’ what we know in order to form a parallel representation that is based on captured and compressed perceptions. I recollect the moment of staring through my apartment window in order to remember the impulse and sensation, recalling that it was like a type of looking beyond vision where there was a play between what was and what wasn’t noticed. I’m also mindful that meandering and locating, drifting, is probably related to the way that most ideas or undertakings commence and therefore wonder how each of the participants will approach their task.
Having people stay in our apartment, where they will make their artwork in response to our life and our various activities has been decisive for us. The first person is a young man whose video work is like a clear and piercing eye, slow, sharp and exploratory. Some of the others I am familiar with, and I imagine that I’ll feel easier towards them, although still, I detect an overall uneasiness about the entire guest visitation brooding within me. Julia has told me that making art can be a paranoid activity and therefore I wonder if the natural demeanor of the subject of an artwork is in turn equally one of mistrust and suspicion. The basis of this neurosis stems from my view that, while artworks are often formed habitually, they also develop through artificially fashioned and intentional observances that automatically elicit coloured and partisan viewpoints. Coupled with this expectancy I wonder about my capacity to sustain presence of mind and focus over the seemingly lengthy period of the young man’s stay, because I am preemptively conscious of my space as a place of displacement. But mainly I’m uneasy with the virtual scene that will develop from this, a digital déjà vu; a video work. I envision something that I have already experienced, that has been fashioned and fragmented, nuanced and interpreted into that which I will be seeing, formed with a sense of uncanny exteriority. And lastly, perhaps conversely (despite the fact that there may be no individual or person present within the final work), I reflect on my sense of self-importance, as I’m ever so vaguely and vainly concerned about the personal risk of not being included in the ensuing work.
Not entirely unlike Michael Snow’s narration of each impending photograph within Hollis Frampton’s Hapax Legomena I: Nostalgia, highlighting imagination and anticipation, I feel as though I am asynchronously foreshadowing or conjuring the visual trace of Matthew Berka’s potential experience with video in our apartment. Clearly I have no idea what will form, but knowing Matthew’s work I expect a spare structural clarity, a minimal and decisive action, some form of diegetic container from which Matthew’s experience will be expounded. I suppose I can only really reflect on the circumstance of video media inserted within the context of the apartment and how one might potentially approach this. Anyway, I begin like Snow’s narration, completely in the dark.
Video is a medium that implies a form of disembodied experience in the same way that sculpture conversely involves a physical encounter, so while I am anticipatory, I imagine Matthew’s presence as ‘light’ and intentionally non invasive, the work arriving through a type of integrated experience within the domestic environment. I’m conscious that most artists work with and through the character or qualities of their chosen mediums in order to shepherd something that is essentially an anticipatory, prefiguring projection, or more simply a hopeful and intuitive impulse. Through my own experiences I also know that there is a constant and inevitable assignation between failure and hopeful possibility, even when the work is based reassuringly in careful preparation and thoughts of probability. Still, a work is never really known until it is tangible and concrete, until it comes into being.
A video work is the transference from actuality to artificiality in the form of a living, or actual artwork. ‘The difference between the living and the artificial is exclusively a narrative difference. It cannot be observed but only told, only documented …’ and moving image documentation, unlike other forms of documentation is in its essence ‘… primarily narrative, and thus it evokes the unrepeatability of living time’1. And equally, in the form of art, video takes on the aura of its own actuality as is also the case within the convention of portraiture, which is far from documentation and is formed within the inherent tensions produced through the dialogue between the subject and other, meaning that '… the body is what others see but what the subject does not’2. The subject of a video, like the subject of portraiture is therefore formed through the blurred boundaries of the observer, the subject and the exteriority of the subject, within an unrepeatable actuality, mirroring life where identity is formed in mutability rather than stability.
Moving image in the form of video art offers the possibility of paradox: moving image provides us with opportunities to re-enter unique periods in time through footage, documentation. However video art, similarly to portraiture or genre art in painting and photography is far from documentation, as it evokes the same sense of aura that is contained within most original artworks. Therefore moving image in the form of video art connects us to a type of living thing through the authenticity that is commonly evoked through our experience of an artwork. Yet, through the repetition function of looping within video art, a video work has the capacity to simultaneously elicit ideas of endlessness, to suggest a place of non-time where a living unrepeatable and unique sequence of time can exist recurrently. And this enigma or contradiction is particularly the case within the video work that will be formed for this project, as the eventual video work shaped by Matthew will be situated within the space in which it was captured and conceived. The work will have been cast through living interaction, through processes of observing and locating, to finally be formed and, most significantly, embodied as a video installation within the space in which it was devised.
‘Art documentation … acquires through the installation an aura of the original, the living, the historical. In the installation the documentation gains a site – the here and the now of a historical event … [And along with this,] … (post) modernity enacts a complex play of … deterritorialization and reterritorialization, of removing aura and restoring aura … [as] … the modern age is constantly substituting the artificial, the technically produced, and the simulated for the real … no matter whether it ever becomes reality or forever remains a fantasy …’3.
Therefore, in the instance of Matthew’s work for this project opportunities exist to view ‘windows’ that frame comparative versions of actuality, reality and simulation. The form and location of the work will inevitably evoke a flow of time involving conflicting narrative assertions: the day-to-day actuality of the space, paired with Matthew’s video installation involving that space. And the counterpoising of these elements conceptually implies a nuanced tautological space marking a continuous modification of presence where actuality and the artwork co-exist in a coupled and fluctuating correlation as living and unsettled spaces. And to labour this point further through the contrast to writing (mindful of my exigent task), writing conversely forms as more of ‘… a rupture in presence, the 'death' or the possibility of the receiver inscribed in the structure of the mark.... What holds for the receiver holds also, for the same reasons, for the sender or producer’4. Whereas notably, ‘… each presentation of a digitalized image becomes a recreation of the image … [and is therefore generative rather than dead. The video art installation] … transforms a copy into an original’5.
I know that Matthew’s work will emerge through patient observation and speculation as in many ways his practice is aligned to the provisionality of drawing. At times it seems as if his work doesn’t care whether you’re there or not and it often seems to exist somehow beyond the disembodiment of moving image in a type of post-subjective or reasoned state. Unsurprisingly the apartment is a space in which memories and confidential or reserved scenes occur, and generally speaking moving images always transform the spaces they occupy. Matthew’s moving images will inextricably merge with the life of the space as a type of third, or ancillary remembrance.
Peter Westwood, August 2013
1. Groys, B., Art Power, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2008. p 56
2. Man, E K W, Reclaiming the Body: Francis Bacon's Fugitive Bodies and Confucian Aesthetics on Bodily Expression, Contemporary Aesthetics, vol. 2, 2004
3. Groys, B., Art Power, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2008. p 64
4. Derrida, J., ‘Signature, Event, Context’ in Glyph 1, trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1977. p 180
5. Groys, B., Art Power, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2008. p 91
An obvious problem
Discussing the work of Swedish artist Jan Svenungsson and German artist Katrin von Maltzahn for the dual exhibition project A Place on Earth & Tracking and Jorge Luis Borges visited Melbourne for 10 days; School of Art Gallery. RMIT University
For a period of time I lived in my car. Well not entirely, not like the man in the Volvo who I used to see in the park every morning cooking his breakfast and then meticulously cleaning the hotplate. I lived in my car because I lived between 'situations'. I had moved out of my home without a plan and I thought it would be easy to find some place to live. But it wasn't. And in this strange time of being rootless, but free, I found I routinely shifted in my mind between states, prompted by living in small but not always different circumstances. I lived in my car, I moved to a room where I struggled with the problem of a cat and a window that wouldn't shut, and most perversely I lived in a 'granny flat' at my mother's.
This was a time of short-lived moments where nothing certain was ever defined.
While it seemed to me that there was something depressive in recognising that I was on the edge of something that might never be securely reconciled, I was also acutely aware that it was a time distinguished by transience coupled with the possibility of imagined alternatives. The notable feature of this transient movement simply distinguished by 'small' markers of the experience, was an awareness of the converse: the desire for permanence and stability. I was aware of myself as transitory, my sense of actuality as only ever being rhetorical, simply supporting a primary impulse to identify and to locate. I recognised I was drifting, daydreaming really, thinking about imagined possibilities but never really being able to seize them. There are obvious problems in being within something and only ever being able to imagine what it is, or what it could be.
Swedish artist Jan Svenungsson and German artist Katrin von Maltzahn work with an awareness of the rhetorical nature of perception, perhaps considering this as a discourse that is hardly debatable. In their most recent parallel project A Place on Earth & Tracking (2007) and Jorge Luis Borges visited Melbourne for 10 days (2007), Svenungsson and von Maltzahn define corresponding states and imagined possibilities that may never be, may never end, may merge, or split in two.
In developing A Place on Earth & Tracking Jan Svenungsson sought, but was unable to achieve his desire to travel to Central Australia to establish connections with indigenous people and to encounter the landscape. He chose to develop a painting based on an aerial photograph of Central Australia, an image easily sourced on the internet through Google Earth. The photograph chosen by Svenungsson as the basis for the painting A Place on Earth marks a location that was at the beginning of the contemporary Aboriginal acrylic painting movement, carrying with it associations with an international awareness of the dynamic in indigenous Australian art that subsequently followed. Svenungsson chose this particular location because he recognised that it was historically significant to indigenous and to many non-indigenous Australians, consequently regarding the area depicted in A Place on Earth as representing a type of 'Centre of Australia'.
A Place on Earth & Tracking recognises the unavoidable perspective of a European legacy, replicating the quintessential European experience, Svenungsson deriving the work through a photographic and therefore mediated source, as a projection of desire that implicitly recognises the characteristic Western impulse for an engagement with authenticity and an encounter with cultural difference. A Place on Earth is a work that may just as easily have been made in Europe.
Svenungsson developed A Place on Earth working in inner city Melbourne, remaining and working at the periphery of the continent, acutely conscious that he was at the edge of something that he had been unable to genuinely encounter and that remained as an imagined possibility. Svenungsson has developed A Place on Earth as a potent sign of the residual legacy of desire, as recognition of the experience of arriving elsewhere but never being able to fundamentally engage. In gracefully rendering A Place on Earth, Svenungsson recognises and replicates the Romantic impulse, the yearning to locate desire for an authenticity as a tangible reality.
As a counterpoint to the painting A Place on Earth Svenungsson made Tracking, video footage captured through the process of running in a large circle through urban Melbourne with a hand held video camera, fleetingly documenting the experience as a shaky and disruptive urban tracing. Svenungsson's circular run echoes the circular tracks and roads that distinguish the terrain depicted in the aerial image within A Place on Earth. However Tracking is visually inaccessible, a jerky counterpoint to the desire underlying the more physically expansive and gracefully handmade painting. In juxtaposing the two media Svenungsson exploits painting for its authoritive stasis and video for its transitory movement. Tracking defines reality as immediate and transient where the impulse to perceive is disrupted and insecure. In juxtaposing A Place on Earth and Tracking, Svenungsson defines his work as residual, as tracings of possibility that may belie a futility in the overwhelming impulse to locate desire.
Truth is never 'plain' nor appearances 'genuine'. 1
Several notorious literary hoaxes significantly mark modern Australian cultural history, the most noted being the Ern O'Malley hoax. Representations of the intrigue and fondness for deception in Australian culture are found in the work of contemporary Australian writers, most notably Peter Carey and Richard Flanagan. As well, there has been an almost endemic cultural affection in Australia to the 'tall story', the verbal 'slight of hand', a dubious cultural distinction that may have grown from the desire for distraction from isolation and disconnection. 'Tall stories' in Australian culture may be as much about avoidance of facing the inaccessible as they are a recognition of the lack of restriction that comes from isolation and of being able to pose the question: 'why couldn't this have happened here?'
There is an 'impossibility' about living in Australia most often noted by its geographic location in relation to the rest of the world, but also by an awareness of the seemingly irreconcilable and concurrent consciousness that spans indigenous and modern culture, coupled with a sense of never really being able to 'pinpoint' a transient and primordial land. And conversely there is also a strong sense of possibility in Australia based on the recognition of being able to 'make it up as you go' alongside a more insecure and depressive desire to define a genuineness.
The day after she arrived in Australia Katrin von Maltzahn learnt that Jorge Luis Borges visited Melbourne for 10 days in 1938. Captivated by the idea that Borges had spent much of his time working under the dome of the State Library, a building situated across from the hotel where she was staying, von Maltzahn began to research the story. She learnt that it originated in a newspaper article published some years prior to her arrival but finally discovered the article had been a hoax.
Von Maltzahn developed Jorge Luis Borges visited Melbourne for 10 days as a series of works on paper. She developed the work as a type of deflected recording without consciously making reference to the writer, but implying through the imagery his descent into blindness with the wondrous and perhaps bemusing idea of Melbourne and the dome of the State Library as encompassing his last months of sight. She uses a quotation taken from the dome of the Library 'I who always thought of a library in form and shape as Paradise' to reflect the desire for possibility, as a yearning. Her recordings suggest the desire that motivates the displacement of reality with a fictional prospect.
Von Maltzahn states that for her the essence of artmaking lies in the gaining of knowledge. She chose to neither accept nor repudiate the story.
The dome of the Library under which Borges worked within this fiction is sentiently rendered on paper as a series of fragile but tangible forms depicting the geometry of the dome. Von Maltzahn's works rely on architectural geometry to imply the historical, social and political authority of the Library, a cultural institution representative of knowledge. However through the use of paper, watercolour and pencil each geometric form appears as a delicate and tentative, perhaps illusory rendering, where geometry proposes structure and order only to be undone through a playful, intuitive and irrational resolve.
Von Maltzahn's investigation suggests the issue that underpins the hoax, that an illusory and spurious reality may simply suggest longing – a searching for something more, something definitive and cogent. Von Maltzahn observes the moment between two views, ideas or times as something to comment on, particularly when there is a noticeable disjuncture that brings our sense of truth and our perception of reality into question.
‘It was a world that demanded reality imitate fiction, demanded that of us all. For a forger the possibilities momentarily seemed endless... ‘2
Peter Westwood, March 2007
1. Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon, Four Essays on Beauty, Art Issues Press Los Angeles, 1994.
2. Richard Flanagan, Gould's Book of Fish, Picador by Pan Macmillan Australia, 2001; pp 118.
The brain hand thing
Edited extract discussing the abstract paintings and drawings of David Palliser included in the catalogue 'Imagine' at Heide Museum of Modern Art, 2006
‘White is like an infinite space. There is a backlit quality to line drawn on white paper. This idea of the backlit is a model for the type of space that emerges in these paintings. Forms and shapes spring up into this void forming an image that’s also grounded in the plane.’
‘Painting is a feeling about alternative things … it’s almost that paintings are a separate reality and therefore somehow devoid in a way that the physical world is not. In some way the artist is separate, trying to get the sensation of body into the picture … somehow paint becomes flesh.’
‘Painting also has a kaleidoscopic aspect – where nothing’s grounded; it’s where valuing up is just as important as down.’1
Peter Westwood: When you’re making a painting do you always work from one drawing, or do you use a combination of drawings?
David Palliser: Each picture is usually made from one drawing, but sometimes I might work from separate drawings. (Pointing to a recent painting). That painting for instance has a few elements from a number of drawings. And some paintings are made with no model at all; improvised.
PW: Although you approach your work in various ways, I’ve noticed that the paintings have some of the qualities that groupings of your drawings on the studio wall seem to have when they’re placed together. When you work from different combinations of imagery is there a type of fusion of individual elements you know will come together? And how do you approach making the painting from the imagery in the drawings?
DP: Instinctively. I know that there are certain possibilities between various elements of imagery in the drawings, and in making the painting I just push to resolve the surface of the picture the way that paint allows you to relate one thing to the next. However, the formal concerns are paramount and the imagery becomes secondary. It’s like trying to get a whole thing of many parts to mesh, working out the logic. Yet the imagery remains ambiguous – so that you get a glance of the picture and think, ‘Oh, that’s a composed thing’ – and then look at it again and think, ‘Well, what the hell is it?!’
PW: So, in thinking about your use of imagery in both the drawing and painting, is it that the relationship between the various elements of imagery is in some way left hanging?
DP: Yes. It’s left in a state of flux, or some sort of state of equilibrium. The imagery is left to speak for itself, whatever it is.
PW: All the works seem to suggest the idea of possibility – they all hint at a fascination with the inherent possibilities of working responsively so that the final painting or drawing isn’t necessarily held as a complete entity but is more like a series of approaches. But, as you’ve suggested, it is complete in another way – as a painting – it’s formally resolved.
DP: Yes, I aim to establish a sense of inter-connectedness between disparate things.
PW: Do you think you’re somehow trying to find a space where the drawing and painting can sit in the same sort of territory?
DP: Yes. I try to make the paint have the vitality of the drawings. But I also try to find an envelope of space where they coexist, fusing elements from the drawings with the way I paint. The paintings are the moment of the drawings. They come from that moment the drawings existed in when they were made. For me painting is strung out through time – there is a strange phenomenon in a painting, where it finally presents itself over time and where you can feel the density of time through the two-dimensional surface. There’s a balancing act between quick and slow that connects drawing and painting.
PW: How do you approach making such immediate drawings?
DP: They’re just made. I think the drawings are somehow this simple, plain state and the paintings are complicated to work out. There’s a lot more brain-sweat with the paintings, and the drawings not so much.
PW: Yes, I respond to the drawings because they’re so fresh – but I also respond to the paintings because of the temporal qualities that you’ve indicated painting can have – where there is evidence of a type of struggle and the completed painting almost shows the way it’s been made.
DP: Yeah. Freshness in drawing can also be translated in another way in painting, there’s a quality in something that might exist in one medium that undergoes a metamorphosis through another medium. You could say that drawing is line and painting is mass, so the freshness that’s in drawing has to be translated in an entirely different way in a painting. But the paintings are much more difficult to do – they arrive through their process – and then there is also a nice thing about an awkward picture. I think it’s engaging; just looking at Ensor’s paintings [James Ensor] in America, there’s a weird difficulty about them. I think they’re great.
PW: In some ways your approach to painting might be thought of as a less immediate means of arriving at the point where you half recognise something, as well as a process of negotiating various phases or options. Those signs are there when I look at this work. How do you approach making the paintings?
DP: The paintings are more invested. They’re more considered. They start simply from a few marks or washes, but it depends. In some of them I’ll put in a wash of ‘turpsy’ colour to interlock things. Shapes and forms will bleed, lines will intercept. And then that often becomes a ground for working just straight up, making the picture from a raw canvas – a basis to work from. And then I’ll start wiping bits back and putting other marks down – and maybe feel frustrated and go for a walk. I’ll go home, come back, and the painting slowly builds, and then I’ll put something like one of those forms in somewhere and think, ‘that’s interesting’ and get carried away with that, and then probably scrub most of it out. There might be a fragment, an inch and a half square that stays, and it will stay for the whole picture. Then I’ll move my attention over to another part and try and make some relationship between the first part and the second part, and then it doesn’t work and I’ll do something else. The momentum of putting stuff down is often the only way things are ever going to be resolved; to add another element to it rather than to keep chiseling away at one spot. I’ll see something, some spatial thing, some quirky shape or something that is alive to me in my head, which is always just eluding me – and I try to chase this particular image, and often it will lead nowhere. But, in fact, the remnants of that stuff all come back and that’s kind of … the picture. And then it’s also the formal considerations. Well actually the whole thing is formal … and I also try to work to get a dynamic into the picture.2
Afterwards, when I walked away from Palliser’s studio and thought about his drawings, I reflected how appealing it was to see an artist’s work that didn’t merely address some chic criteria. There is a sensibility within the drawings developed from a sense of urgency. They are decidedly immediate – hand-built and conceptually hand-sketched – and not asphyxiated by some lengthy self-conscious process, or contrived manipulation. The drawings are awkward and kooky, and fused with an anxiety that derives from the task of putting something transitory to paper. But they also strike the self-assured pose of an artist having fun with a preposterous moment. And it’s this sense of absurdity and curiousness, an awareness of the awkwardness of something seen in the first instance, but never fully recognised, that carries across to his strongest paintings.
I also thought about the visual complexities within Pallier’s paintings and how they hovered somewhere between constant reinvention and accumulated technique. I thought about the difficulties of thinking about them in any one particular way and the work made me recall that as long as I can remember I have been suspicious of the word ‘reality’, knowing that everyone has their version.
The difficulties in seeing this as one thing
While David Palliser remains acutely intrigued by the reconciliation of the formal relations of scale, composition, the relating of forms and, particularly, colour, he seems overwhelmingly sentient to the historic legacies and ambiguities of the pictorial space. He often refers to the tense relationship he perceives between the backgrounds in his work and the imagery. He has remained intrigued by this perception for most of his working life. In referring to terms like image and background, he identifies an underlying sensitivity to a type of illusory space as a foundation in his work. Yet this may be as much a ‘projected’ or ‘backlit’ space as it is a deep space. The fusing of this aspect of space with abstract shapes, awkward and cartoon-style forms, and a classical sense of composition and technique prompts the initial uncertainty I always hold in looking at his work at first viewing – what is it?!
Greg Pryor has remarked on Palliser’s work: ‘If we were to transcribe this world into sound we would be treated to the most cacophonous barrage as well as tiny sounds which disappear slowly beyond audibility.’3
Palliser listens to a great deal of improvised music:
‘There’s a formal resolve about something that is almost chaotic, … a sense of progression, … of things transforming to other things. It’s almost like sums, … cells of improvised music joined together. So there is a sense of spontaneity, but also of a formal joining of parts.’4
While it’s difficult not to be aware of the individual eccentricity of the shapes and forms within Palliser’s work, there is always the accompanying feeling that they should exist together although little of his imagery is unambiguous. Palliser avoids confusion, and the possibility of nihilism, in his paintings by carefully managing the equilibrium of elemental aspects of painting: balance of colour, relative scale and composition. The world he presents is a strange environ, where perplexing imagery makes specific conclusions quite unreliable and even irrelevant. Yet Palliser’s work evokes trust: through the simple material substance of paint, its handling and ability to metamorphose.
Most artists search for an understanding of what it is that they work within, of how to think about their medium, and this in turn can contribute to the very character of their work. Phillip Guston worked ‘for a long stretch until a moment arrived when the … arbitrary vanished, and the paint fell into positions that felt destined’.5 ‘It’s like a gong sounding; it puts you in a state of reverberation … But painting is “impure”. It is the adjustment of impurities that forces painting’s continuity.’6 David Palliser sees painting as an accumulation of mistakes, an ordering of an essentially haphazard methodology. For Palliser painting is about trying to use the fullness of the inherent ambiguities within painting as an expressive potential.
There is an anxious and obsessive preoccupation in Palliser’s working methods as he constantly seeks ‘a sense of inter-connectedness to disparate things, working out the logic’.7 He relies on uncertain relations to serve his desire to glimpse other possibilities. He works with something impure to imply transcendence, possibly to propose moments of the Ideal, yet remains aware of the necessity of playing with ‘collapse’ to avoid didacticism and the banality of perfection. Essentially Palliser’s work proposes alternatives to what we understand and what we know, suggesting substitute models of a world rather than the reduced reality of the ‘known’ daily experience.
In thinking about the conundrum of ‘what is it?!’ these paintings require us to settle on more than one approach. One way of thinking about them is to work through an analysis of the perceptual language, to try to understand and enjoy the pictorial logic or the technical facility, but eventually having to confront the unreckonable challenge of the imagery, characterised by a strange otherness. Another way is to recognise through Palliser’s work a simple acceptance of all realities as indefinable and inexplicable. Palliser trusts the medium he works with to reinterpret reality. His paintings suggest reality in transition with its other versions or imagined alternatives; a world glimpsed through a confluence of multiple views, visions and possibilities.
‘There’s a general sense of disbelief about what a painting is or what you’re actually doing in the studio.’8
Peter Westwood, August 2006
1. David Palliser, in interview with the author, RMIT University, Melbourne, December, 2005.
2. Peter Westwood in interview with David Palliser at his Flinders Lane studio, Melbourne, 17 November, 2005.
3. Gregory Pryor, David Palliser, online essay March 2001,
4. David Palliser, op. cit., John McBride Collection.
5. Musa Mayer, Night Studio, A Memoir of Philip Guston, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1991, p. 63.
6. ibid., p. 141.
7. David Palliser, op. cit., John McBride Collection.
The personal thing
Catalogue essay accompanying the work of Melinda Harper, Julia Powles and Nyah Cornish, NKN Gallery, Melbourne
The thing about some painting, particular types of painting, is that it has the capacity to bring the world into an intimate space. In painting, ‘the world’ can be represented as an inner sensual experience, opened out in terms of ideas or associations but freed from the manoeuvrings of our day-to-day interpretations and understandings, transient and fluid while approximating the very real nature of what we know to be our actuality. Fundamentally this type of painting reveals a space or experience of being outside one’s self, but simultaneously where one is aware of one’s own singularity. This forms as an unstable or unsolidified awareness, where we search for solidity but equally seem to eschew it.
This is held within many forms of painting, but is very much present in non-representational painting, abstraction.
It’s to do with the substitution and breaking down of the painting object in one’s mind, where one instead mingles and circulates through a sense of larger things, a type of equivalence of being, embodied through the painting. Here, I’m suggesting that what we understand to be the nature of being is potentially un-shackled from any tangible or ideological precept, to rather be discovered in a felt experience, a coalescence of associations of thoughts and ideas, comparable to what we know of holding a presence ‘in the world’. In this way painting, abstract painting, provides a parallel or alternative ship within which to be.
Other forms of art have equal or various capacities to do this. However the idiom of painting generally carries with it the sense and history of being a ‘pictorialized body’, where paint and colour are experienced through sensations coupled with the desire to psychologically and emotionally be ‘within’ those perceptions of colour, and the attendant sensations associated with the effects of colour. Cultural theorist Elizabeth Grosz considers our experience of art as an impacting sensation rather than a cognitive understanding: ‘… a relation between fields, strata, and chaos.’ (Grosz 2008). This compulsion to be drawn into paintings affects a type of disembodied experience, something that also occurs in different ways in cinema and theatre.
This type of encounter within the idiom of painting is found in works across time and cultures. But painting equally presents in other ways, through the many insightful vantages that have been invariably explored in relation to ideas ‘about the world’, as well as a long-standing self-reflexivity that now seems inherent within the idiom.
In profoundly exploring abstraction over the past century, artists have formed a persistent and ever-changing discourse around what the idiom of painting is, resolute and full of single-minded signs, but shifting historically as a complex and disordered set of experiences. Abstract painting was the radical exemplar within the vanguard of much art of the past century, and it’s now difficult to imagine how one would have considered the world prior to abstraction coming in to being. Abstraction has formed so centrally to our idea of the world that we may have forgotten how it once disturbed our perception of reality.
‘Abstraction was not the inspiration of a solitary genius but the product of network thinking – of ideas moving through a nexus of artists and intellectuals...’ (Lowrey 2012) in many ways forming as a current, perhaps even precursory model to the many extraordinary societal developments during the past century. Therefore, perhaps one could consider that presently the notion of abstraction as a principle, as a word describing a conceptual process, an over-arching super-categorical noun, could be thought to be ubiquitous and pervasive in a world now condensed to fragments, to reduced and edited forms. Increasingly we’ve eschewed narrative interpretations of our realities and today most artists engage in a world of undisciplined contemporaneity, where within the bounds of knowledge there exists a borderless concept of art, art forms, and the role of art within society. Considering this, abstraction in painting may be apposite while the idiom of painting may hold a unique form of agency, notably historically mutable, marked by continuous systems that shape and develop within a perpetually changing sense of itself, and therefore perhaps most appropriate to our times.
‘… the work of the work of art is the activity of its materiality that yields the disordering effects of matter…Through these destabilizing effects, the work of art exercises its potential to expose heterogeneity and to provoke difference…it is the production of difference as divergence, a differentiating force aimed at interrupting the circular economies of representation’ (Barad 2003).
American feminist theorist Karen Barad and Elizabeth Grosz consider materiality to be unstable, that ‘things’ in the world constantly shape and reform with each other. This is the perpetual mutability of abstract painting and the network of thinking unendingly taking place in the circulatory idiom of painting.
I like to think that the act of making a painting could be seen as the making of a space, a pause, or an alternate shape, and that perhaps paintings function in this way for the producer of the painting, and perhaps also for the viewer (because the relationship between author and viewer is quite symbiotic). In some ways one exits the exteriority of ‘the world’ to look at a painting, and therefore the viewer has some agency of choice with this alternate space. In addition painting also involves duration and invention during production, rather than recording (as with media) and therefore it may be that painting signifies invention in opposition to the role of a contemporary passivity, providing a familiar encounter within an unknown space.
Peter Westwood, March 2015
Barad, K., 2003, ‘Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.
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