Artists have re­dis­cov­ered joy in paint­ing but their work can still be ten­ta­tive, writes Se­bas­tian Smee

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

PAINT­ING is a rum busi­ness. Ap­ply logic to it and the con­clu­sion is in­escapable: there’s just no good rea­son to be do­ing it. In­tel­li­gent peo­ple have known this for eons. ‘‘ How vain paint­ing is, ex­cit­ing ad­mi­ra­tion by its re­sem­blance to things we do not even ad­mire in the orig­i­nal,’’ ex­claimed Blaise Pas­cal, a model of 17th- cen­tury san­ity.

Pas­cal, don’t for­get, was talk­ing 200 years be­fore the in­ven­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy. Af­ter that, go­ing to great lengths to make paint re­sem­ble dis­crete slices of the world be­gan to look even more ab­surd. Why bother?

Ab­stract art emerged in the 20th cen­tury as one so­lu­tion, quite a re­spectable one. But in the end a pic­ture of noth­ing can­not be said to pos­sess any in­her­ent ad­van­tage over a pic­ture of some­thing. In the silly stakes, it’s a tie at best. The prob­lem lies not with the noth­ing or with the some­thing but with the idea of mak­ing a pic­ture.

Dear reader, it’s not that I agree with what you have just been read­ing. It’s just that I want you to imag­ine what it may have been like to take up paint­ing in, say, the 1960s, which is when Dale Hickey took it up. Hickey, the sub­ject of a cere­bral but qui­etly com­pelling sur­vey show at the Ian Pot­ter Mu­seum in Melbourne, is an artist eas­ier to ad­mire than to love. Much of his work can look dry, over- de­lib­er­ate and, well, a lit­tle too right- an­gled. But give it time and his dis­ci­plined, end­lessly in­quis­i­tive art, forged in a pe­riod be­set by doubts, be­gins to look heroic.

We hear ev­ery other year about a cri­sis in paint­ing, but back in the late ’ 60s paint­ing re­ally was in cri­sis. Pho­tog­ra­phy and pho­to­graphic ways of see­ing — which is to say film, television, ad­ver­tis­ing — were not only ubiq­ui­tous, they mat­tered, in a way paint­ing had sim­ply ceased to.

Ab­strac­tion, af­ter its heroic flare- up in the post­war US, was fast los­ing cred­i­bil­ity. The rhetoric it in­spired had ca­reened out of con­trol; no mat­ter how big or how provoca­tively empty the can­vases be­came, they sim­ply couldn’t match the claims made for them. Tak­ing up paint­ing at this point be­gan to look like jump­ing vol­un­tar­ily into quick­sand. Sure, it had a glo­ri­ous past. But no one was en­tirely con­vinced it had a fu­ture. The so­lu­tion on all sides was to try to think one’s way out of the mire. For ev­ery di­ag­nosed prob­lem, there was a so­lu­tion.

If art was be­ing swamped by the mass me­dia, pop art emerged to iro­nise the sit­u­a­tion.

If mov­ing images were more in­ter­est­ing than still ones, video art promised to fix that.

If pic­ture- mak­ing was naively ro­man­tic and em­bar­rass­ingly sub­jec­tive, min­i­mal­ism came along and ban­ished not only il­lu­sion­ism but emo­tion, sto­ry­tellng, lyri­cism, the lot.

If the mar­ket had turned art into a pres­tige com­mod­ity, cor­don­ing it off from life and pol­i­tics, then con­cep­tu­al­ism turned images into ideas, which were ( at least in the­ory) un­saleable.

And so it went. The di­rec­tion one chose to tun­nel in de­pended on what one saw the prob­lem to be. But no one seemed to emerge into the light. Each so­lu­tion seemed par­tial, at best. Recog­nis­ing this, plenty of artists shrugged their shoul­ders, re­mem­bered the se­duc­tive if toxic aroma of oil paint, like for­mer smok­ers get­ting the old sniff of nico­tine, and re­verted to paint­ing.

Hickey was one of them. Trained in paint­ing, he had dab­bled in a kind of ver­nac­u­lar vari­ant of min­i­mal­ism ( he in­stalled three fences of slat­ted wood in three rooms of a Melbourne gallery in 1969) and con­cep­tual pho­tog­ra­phy ( he ex­hib­ited pho­to­graphs of 90 white walls). But paint­ing, fi­nally, proved ir­re­sistible.

The Ian Pot­ter Mu­seum show, or­gan­ised by Paul Zika, hangs paint­ings from dif­fer­ent eras along­side each other. What seems con­stant is Hickey’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the tricks of il­lu­sion­ism, and with how frag­ile and pro­vi­sional th­ese tricks can seem when mea­sured against the ob­sti­nate flat­ness of the can­vas.

An early mas­ter­piece, Un­ti­tled 1967- 68 , is all ab­stract. Yet slyly, sys­tem­at­i­cally, Hickey se­duces us with the sneaky plea­sures of spa­tial il­lu­sion­ism. The can­vas is di­vided into 36 squares. Pre­sup­pos­ing a light source from above and to the left, each one is shaded to cre­ate the il­lu­sion of shal­low re­lief ( like the slight swell of the keys on a lap­top key­board) or shal­low re­ces­sion. The de­sign is given com­plex­ity and a kind of de­li­cious op­ti­cal buzz by a grid­ded over­lay of blue dots. Yes, it was all math­e­mat­i­cal, for­mu­laic, but it was also sen­su­ous and chal­leng­ingly alive, like a rav­ish­ing polka dot dress.

In later works, Hickey treats the artist’s stu­dio as a kind of op­ti­cal lab­o­ra­tory. Grad­u­ally the sen­su­ous­ness drains away, re­placed by var­i­ous en­liven­ing forms of wit. The games Hickey plays have a coy, ex­per­i­men­tal as­pect to them. One mo­ment you’re look­ing at a three- di­men­sional ob­ject — a toy car, for in­stance, on a ta­ble — the next you’re look­ing at a mark that is purely graphic; it sits flat on the sur­face of the can­vas.

Ob­jects hover be­tween be­ing con­vinc­ingly ren­dered and re­duced to signs, like lo­gos. Can­vases sit­ting on easels and win­dows, for in­stance, are ren­dered in the same way: a rec­tan­gle di­vided in four by a cross. Which one can we see through? Which one re­flects our gaze? Which one re­mains opaque? The game takes on a meta­phys­i­cal as­pect of fer­tile un­cer­tainty, like the fic­tions of Italo Calvino.

Some­times the laws of per­spec­tive or the spa­tial prop­er­ties of colour are obeyed; other times they are flouted. But even when th­ese laws are ad­hered to, what is miss­ing from Hickey’s can­vases — quite de­lib­er­ately — is at­mos­phere, the qual­ity of re­al­ity painters have learned to in­tro­duce by means of touch, tex­ture, the blur­ring of edges, the blue­ing of dis­tances, op­ti­cal fuzzi­ness and so forth.

There are ex­cep­tions: the stu­dio works against black grounds from the mid-’ 80s, for in­stance, while ap­pear­ing adamantly flat, make great play with un­even edges, shift­ing de­grees of fin­ish, spo­radic out­breaks of splat­ter and glimpses of un­der­paint­ing. But, as a whole, Hickey’s paint­ings can seem wil­fully dis­con­nected from what

Ital­ian philoso­pher Mario Rossi called the great in­ter­ests of man: air and light, the joy of hav­ing a body, the volup­tuous­ness of look­ing’’. They can seem a lit­tle pinched. So pre­oc­cu­pied is Hickey with analysing the fun­da­men­tal con­di­tions of paint­ing that he seems to ig­nore any pos­si­bil­ity that paint may con­vey feel­ing.

Of course, in this he is cousin to hordes of painters of his gen­er­a­tion, all of whom re­acted to the cri­sis en­gulf­ing paint­ing in the 60s by ob­sess­ing over first prin­ci­ples.

Many painters to­day no longer seem so racked by doubt. Gra­ciously, they ac­cept that paint­ing is no longer as cen­tral to the cul­ture as it was in the court of Philip IV of Spain. They have learned to live with TV, DVDs and the art mar­ket with­out nec­es­sar­ily suc­cumb­ing to ex­is­ten­tial de­spair. The idea of con­nect­ing painted marks to var­i­ous emo­tions no longer in­duces quite the same level of sus­pi­cion.

How­ever, the re­turn to con­fi­dence pro­ceeds slowly. Much paint­ing to­day is still over­whelm­ingly ten­ta­tive, self- con­scious.

Con­sider, for in­stance, an artist such as David Ralph, show­ing at Melbourne’s Arc One Gallery. Along­side Hickey, Ralph looks like a healthy teenager lim­ber­ing up on a bas­ket­ball court. He is hav­ing fun with paint, com­bin­ing dif­fer­ent vis­ual reg­is­ters on the same can­vas, ab­stract­ing here, shad­ing to cre­ate vol­ume there, throw­ing in hints of trompe l’oeil and gen­er­ally hav­ing a ball. He uses squeegees and pal­ette knifes, poured turps, rags, brushes and com­puter- aided col­lage. He es­pe­cially de­lights in quot­ing other painters, es­pe­cially Ger­many’s Ger­hard Richter. Ralph’s paint­ings are at once stun­ningly beau­ti­ful and daz­zlingly clever. Look at a paint­ing such as The Lodge at Tate Moun­tain , with its dy­namic, spi­ralling com­po­si­tion, am­biva­lent space and thrilling painterly ef­fects. It’s bold stuff, bristling with con­fi­dence.

Yet I feel Ralph may be as un­con­vinced by his sub­ject mat­ter as I am. His mo­tifs — car­a­vans, tents and other frag­ments of shel­ter set against glass­ily smooth sem­blances of na­ture — hint du­ti­fully at the pre­car­i­ous­ness of our re­la­tion­ship with the nat­u­ral world.

But Ralph in­fuses this ap­pre­hen­sion with no grav­ity. Rather, his wisps of con­tent feel de­signed to pla­cate his con­cep­tu­ally in­clined ob­servers while he gets on with do­ing as he pleases with paint. A de­gree of con­vic­tion feels miss­ing. Form and con­tent may not yet have di­vorced but at times they seem to be sleep­ing in sep­a­rate beds.

A cer­tain what- the- hell at­ti­tude is needed if painters are once again to wield their brushes ( or squeegees) with con­vic­tion. It’s ex­actly this at­ti­tude — a by- prod­uct of pas­sion, pure and sim­ple — that I de­tect in Del Kathryn Bar­ton, whose latest work will be on show at Karen Wood­bury Gallery, Melbourne, from Wed­nes­day.

Bar­ton paints ema­ci­ated, an­drog­y­nous fe­males and small an­i­mals against lush back­drops of dec­o­ra­tive dots, flow­ers, birds and rib­bons. Her last show, at Kal­i­man Gallery in Syd­ney, was a knock­out. So many peo­ple were so im­pressed that col­lec­tors went crazy. Peo­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions will in­evitably slug it out with what the show ac­tu­ally de­liv­ers; Bar­ton is bound to come off worse.

I saw the show in ad­vance of the open­ing and re­gret­fully ad­mit I liked it less. One or two of the wa­ter­colours felt rote; a paint­ing called Gar­den of Eden was an ex­per­i­ment that fell flat and the main sculp­tural el­e­ment — glass ves­sels and soft, sewn- up ob­jects stacked in glass cab­i­nets — felt rather too safe.

Yet the show has two or three large- scaled paint­ings that are as wild and beau­ti­ful as any­thing Bar­ton has done. She has the kind of imag­i­na­tion — fevered, un­abashed, ec­static — that will not be held back. She may wres­tle with her own doubts from pic­ture to pic­ture, but you feel that, un­like painters of Hickey’s gen­er­a­tion, she is far too im­mersed in her medium to make ques­tion­ing it a con­spic­u­ous part of her approach.

Fi­nally, the most daz­zling show of the new gallery sea­son — 32- year- old Ben­jamin Arm­strong’s show of glass and wax sculp­tures and linocuts at the new To­larno Gal­leries in Melbourne — re­minds us that paint­ing has been only one among many op­tions for am­bi­tiously orig­i­nal artists. Arm­strong’s sculp­tures sit on the floor like empty, in­flated con­doms or gi­ant eye­balls. They are en­tranc­ing ob­jects, elic­it­ing phys­i­cal re­sponses that flicker be­tween dis­gust and sen­su­ous­ness.

Arm­strong plays with de­grees of trans­parency and opac­ity, etch­ing thin lines on the blown glass or lav­ishly wrap­ping it in tur­bans of gor­geously tex­tured white wax. The linocuts are al­most, but not quite, as im­pres­sive. Their rhyth­mic, lin­ear de­signs are printed in metal­lic pig­ment or black ink on hand- dyed pa­per.

The two sets of work — sculp­tures and prints — speak to each other, gen­er­at­ing lay­ers of in­trigue. But there’s no doubt that the sculp­tures are among the strangest, most be­guil­ing works of art pro­duced in Aus­tralia in the past 10 years.

Com­pelling: Dale Hickey’s Un­ti­tled ( Easel) ( 1986), op­po­site page; Are You Re­ceiv­ing Me? ( 2007), top, by David Ralph; Hollow Re­sis­tance ( 2007), above, blown glass and etch­ing, by Ben­jamin Arm­strong

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