Abstraction

September 17, 2011
Aida Tomescu, Welt II, 2005, mixed media and collage on paper

Among the unsolicited art emails that appear in my mail-box every week, one recent posting came from the Martos Gallery in New York, who were holding an exhibition called We Regret to Inform You There is Currently No Space or Place for Abstract Painting. The image that came with the email showed this sentence written in a spiral pattern on a black square.

The black square is an obvious reference to Kazimir Malevich, one of the founding fathers of Modernist abstraction, and probably the greatest idealist among the Russian revolutionary artists. However, the message from New York is very different from the deep spirituality that characterised Malevich’s vision. The tone is jokey, ironic; a challenge both to old-style ‘heroic’ abstraction and those who persist in seeing abstract art as content-free decoration.

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, c. 1913

The word painting, by Jules de Balincourt, is abstract insofar as it uses no recognisable imagery. Yet it communicates with the directness of a sign or headline. The work is a visual oxymoron, being abstract or not abstract depending on which way the viewer looks at it.

Jules de Balincourt, We Regret To Inform You There Is Currently No Space Or Place For Abstract Painting

This is clever, in a rather self-conscious way, and eerily reminiscent of the forms of ironic abstraction practiced during the heyday of Post-Modernism – the early 1980s. Some may remember the consummately shallow works of New Yorker, Peter Halley, who would paint a geometric abstraction resembling a Hard-Edged canvas of the 1960s, but call it Cell. He would then inform us it referred to Discipline and Punish, a study of prisons and power by Michel Foucault, celebrated French theorist and S & M fiend. Never before had such banal pictures carried so heavy a burden of meaning.

It would be terrible to think that Post-Modernism is making a comeback, although the people who write the NSW Higher School Certificate art course will be pleased. The HSC is the only place where Post-Modernism is still seen as a living force in art.

This is by way of introducing an exhibition called Abstraction, put together by Terence Maloon and Paul Selwood, for the Drill Hall Gallery in Canberra. Maloon was the curator of the Art Gallery of NSW’s Paths to Abstraction exhibition of last year. Selwood is a sculptor, and participant in the show, along with four other sculptors and five painters. The Drill Hall itself is one of Australia’s most original and underrated galleries. Over the past few years it has hosted surveys by abstract artists such as Aida Tomescu, Marion Borgelt and Geoffrey De Groen.

What is most striking about Abstraction is that it takes a completely opposite approach to the New York ironists. The ten artists: Michael Buzacott, Virginia Coventry, Paul Hopmeier, Roy Jackson, Jan King, Allan Mitelman, John Peart, James Rogers, Paul Selwood and Aida Tomescu, are true believers in an abstract art that derives from the early experiments of figures such as Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, Malevich and so on.

Maloon’s catalogue essay is a manifesto of sorts – a spirited call for greater recognition for artists who have produced work of exceptional quality over a long period. It is an index of how completely the art world has changed since Bernard Smith’s Antipodean Manifesto of 1959. Smith’s tract, and accompanying exhibition, was a defense of “the image” at a time when it seemed as though abstract artists would overrun their figurative rivals like a conquering army.

Now it is abstraction that has an air of neglect while video, installation, and forms of neo-conceptual art hold centre stage. The chief difference between 1959 and today is that Maloon has chosen not to attack any imaginary enemies, and has not tried to corral these artists into an ad hoc movement. Despite their shared aims, each painter or sculptor remains an individual, with their own aesthetic preoccupations. One could choose ten different artists and put together a show along similar lines.

If there is a single distinguishing feature that all hold in common, it is an unwillingness to be doctrinaire about abstract and figurative art. Visit Allan Mitelman’s studio and you will discover a scattered collection of post-cards, featuring images by old and modern masters. These are sources of inspiration for the most forbiddingly abstract of paintings made from thousands of dabs, smears and scratches. Behind Aida Tomescu’s imposing slabs of oil paint, lies an obsessive admiration for Titian.

Michael Buzacott’s impressive new works bear titles such as Tree and Large reclining nude, which is exactly what they represent. Buzacott, like King, Hopmeier, and even Tomescu, is also happy to flirt with mythological and art historical associations. Buzacott invokes the story of Ganymede, a beautiful youth carried off by Zeus in the form of an eagle; while King looks at Danae, whom Zeus approached in the form of a shower of gold. Hopmeier makes a small sculpture after a drawing by Albrecht Dürer, and recently produced a steel variation on an Egyptian tomb figure.

Paintings by John Peart and Roy Jackson have convincing associations with landscape, conveyed in the sense of a spirit of place, rather than through identifiable features. James Rogers’s work often retains intimations of the human figure, no matter how profound the transformations.

Apart from Mitelman, the two artists who seem most rigorously abstract are Paul Selwood and Virginia Coventry. One may discern vestiges of architecture or landscape in Selwood’s sculptures, but Coventry concentrates on geometrical arrangements of brilliant colour. She invites us to examine purely formal planar relationships, but even these paintings do not preclude an emotional response.

In Tomescu’s recent paintings, the vigorous graffiti-like marks from her drawings and prints have begun to invade her large canvases. Add a startling colour scheme of pink, yellow, white and red, in a painting called Sabine (after a Rubens painting of The Rape of the Sabine Women), and one has a work that seems simultaneously explosive and ecstatic. In comparison, the soft grid-like structures of Peart and Jackson read like mantras.

By bringing together works with underlying similarities, Maloon and Selwood have created a dialogue between artists. The pieces are not competing for attention but complementing each other. The show is not a crusade on behalf of a few able performers, but a model of what can be achieved when curators attend to the characteristics of specific works rather than a grand, overarching idea. If some of these artists have never received the recognition that is their due, it is not because of any deficiency of skill or imagination. It is almost criminal the way Hopmeier, for instance, has slipped under the institutional radar, but this is partly the price of concentrating on the work itself rather than one’s celebrity profile.

Regardless of the word from New York it seems there is still a place and space for abstract art. The Drill Hall exhibition presents the case that abstraction is not a particular style but a process: a way of working and thinking that does not pause to draw a line between form and content, material and image.

That argument is extended in Sydney this week by the show, 5 Easy Pieces at Defiance Gallery in Newtown. This is a reprise of an event first held in 1999, when Campbell Robertson-Swann had the idea of giving a group of artists five identical steel components, and seeing what they could make within the bounds of a set of rules. Nothing may be added or taken away, although welding, cutting and painting are permitted.

The 34 invited artists include four out of five sculptors from Abstraction, the exception being James Rogers. Some are instantly recognisable, but because the project takes the artists out of their comfort zones, it forces many of them to work in a completely unfamiliar manner. Jan King has abandoned abstraction altogether, to make a very stylish little bull, while Andy Townsend has managed to turn these pieces into a skull and arrow. Other sculptors are more in character, with stand-out performances from Bruce Radke, Kevin Norton, Mary Kaiser, Leslie Oliver and Dave Teer.

Although this show has the edginess of a contest, it feels a little unfair to play favourites with such a diverse body of work. If you’ve ever thought how remarkable it is that an endless stream of music has been generated from so few notes, you might like to ponder the question of how many sculptures may be created from five small pieces of metal. It’s a problem to baffle the mathematicians.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 17, 2011