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Reinvigorating the arcane

Chris Reid, Ian Potter Museum, Painting

Brent Harris, Bloom No 1 Brent Harris, Bloom No 1
courtesy the artist
The Shorter Oxford Dictionary (1993) defines ‘arcane’ as something hidden, secret, mysterious, abstruse, and goes on to give examples, quoting B Mason: “Art was therefore something arcane: if not precisely forbidden then heavy with the possibility of discovery and guilt.”

Painting, the Arcane Technology, an exhibition by 12 prominent Australian artists, is based on the premise that painting is not only arcane but newly invigorated. Co-curators Natalie King and Bala Starr, in their extensive catalogue, acknowledge the resurgence of painting after the “1990s infatuation with installation art, object-making, photography and multimedia practices.” The variety and plasticity of paint as a medium is clear from this show. Painting can be representation, self-expression, commentary, decoration. It has materiality and objecthood, with conventions that can be upheld, contested, parodied or undermined. If you say ‘art’, the person-in-the-street hears ‘painting.’ Painters have a weighty tradition behind them. Some bear the burden uncomfortably, perhaps fearing viewers who judge by reference to a canon of great works.

Adam Cullen’s well known style—sloppy, sketchy, cartoon-like, line drawings and texts in paint—are partly a political message, and partly about paint itself, some dribbles going sideways. These works bluntly depict psychosocial dysfunction.

Hany Armanious, who has previously used installation and other forms, has painted small works on textured styrofoam panels. The paint is applied to the texture rather than giving rise to it, recalling heavy ‘classical’ impasto. The frames also are heavy, carved and classical, the overall effect redolent of the Academy. Figurative sketches only, of dreamy, fairytale themes, they mock academic painting. What is the aesthetic and monetary value of academic work?

Diena Georgetti’s small canvases depict simple, nearly figurative forms on plain grounds. Their titles are long and detailed, eg “this plan presents a graphic making—which must grasp the broad outlines of a false problem quickly.” The cryptic titles describe personal problems, separate from but complemented by the images. They suggest she is wrestling with the issue of mark-making as representation, but without clear figuration the works are neither evocative nor expressive. They’re like a muted form of Haiku, leaving the viewer wishing for more.

Nadine Christensen’s small, sparse paintings whimsically illustrate scientific research: subtle, careful, juxtaposing science with art itself.

Constanze Zikos’s work comprises three 10-part series of small-scale gouaches forming a sequence of scenes, as in a play. Each Icon depicts roughly outlined figures interacting but without detailing a plot. They’re like beautiful stained glass windows.

Brent Harris’ careful style blends graphic design, abstraction and surrealism. It would be hard to find a better medium than paint for such ideas. He makes fleshy, flat, graphic shapes that suggest juicy, carnal forms—human, animal and plant—in vivid tones, smoothly finished, both forbidding and jocular. Bloom No 1 comprises green leaves sprouting from a fleshy pink torso, suggesting something primeval.

Eve Sullivan’s arresting works are images of girls or women, some in seductive postures, rendered in expressive red tones. Their sensuousness is not straightforward, the works suggesting betrayal of the flesh rather than celebration. Our gaze is a guilty one. Sullivan’s use of form emphasises content.

Louise Hearman’s work is romantically expressionistic in its rendering, but surreal, apparently innocent settings contain a surprising object or idea, eg the upper half of a figure floating above a road. The expressive brushwork is in tension with the works’ naturalism. Hearman’s work speaks to us about art, art-making, art-history and its place in the world.

Anne Wallace’s colourful images depict instants from life, eg the female on view in mid-drama. In Curtain (1997) 2 women face a curtain, backs to the viewer, arms around each other’s waists. Drunk shows a table of glasses, bottles, a cocktail shaker etc, but painted to make the scene look blurry, as if our vision is distorted by alcohol. Wallace uses paint with clear purpose and solid technique. There is something unsettling in each image and also theatrical evoking, for example, the vulgarity and superficiality of TV-world human interaction. The somewhat naive rendering of Curtain supports the content. In Drunk the technique is modified—are our eyes deceiving us? A wry still life, ironically mocking our view of the genre. Wallace rejoices in her medium.

Gareth Sansom’s enigmatic shapes have an organic feel, like a doodle that evolves into a quirky, troubling form, perhaps springing from the subconscious. The oldest of the artists represented, Sansom’s practice matured in the late modernist era, and this work is imbued with long experience. It is about the gradual building of idea and texture, not in one series of images, but over many.

Matthys Gerber, also known for figuration and landscape, and for his extraordinary image of boxer Evander Holyfield, has included abstract work that stops short of resolving into the figurative. These are expressive and attractive, essentially feelgood works but with an underlying power and tension.

The catalogue essay acknowledges the influence of new media—cinema in the case of Wallace and Hearman, photography in the case of David Jolly. Jolly paints realistic, accessible images of banal, everyday subjects on the opposite side of sheets of glass. Reversed, they mask any painterliness, becoming illustration rather than still-life/landscape, parodying the photograph and the pomo world it depicts. The work is both about painting, as fugitive object, and the consumer world.

The powerful themes and florid tones of Hearman, Wallace, Jolly and Sullivan contrast with those of Georgetti, who has perhaps reached a reductive impasse. Zikos’ work evokes religious art; Christensen’s evokes science’s impotence. Gerber’s work has a joyous painterliness—he seems cognisant of his antecedents but unfazed. Harris’s work is naturally buoyant. Cullen’s is the most striking, with its strong, yet inconclusive messages exaggerated by manic rendering. Cullen uses just enough paint to establish an idea, the gestural line and dribbles tracing the processes of painting and artistic consideration. He uses the same technique in his portraiture—in last year’s Archibald Prize and in this year’s Doug Moran Prize—where the form carries a different weight. His sketch of a sitter is the barest representation, contradicting the genre’s traditions. Such a take on verisimilitude exposes our wish for representational accuracy and its inevitable failure.

Paint can’t be taken for granted as a medium. Wallace, Hearman and Sullivan use it primarily as a vehicle for powerful narratives, using familiar forms. Cullen and Jolly investigate society, its tensions and banality while also probing the material potential of paint. Armanious’s form and content diverge. Georgetti uses paint to dwell on form in a very personal way, while Christensen and Zikos address philosophical themes.

Here, art has stepped back from the possibilities of performance, conceptualism and installation to commodified, static 2D objects. These paintings are small to medium sized, framed, the bread and butter of the private gallery, the decor of suburban loungerooms and urban apartments. Each has potency in such locations. Perhaps now they’re the simulacra of art, even meta art—we see appropriation and parody, and the colliding of disparate languages. Painting adapts itself.

Instead of the appropriated object, the simulated environment of the installation, the performance, or the unretouched photo, which are kinds of lived realities, we return to the abstract image. All painting is an abstraction of sorts, an artist’s interpretation of a subject as a means of understanding and responding to it. Framing that image seems a natural and inevitable way of retaining it, encouraging viewers to look while preserving their anonymity and promoting a feeling of ownership of the (depicted) object. Paint in all its forms discloses the artist’s thoughts, feelings and abilities in a genuinely absorbing way.

Painting: an arcane technology, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, January 27-March 25

RealTime issue #42 April-May 2001 pg. 33

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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