Public works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

Cof­fee Ta­ble, 1964, Queens­land Art Gallery, Bris­bane. Gift of James Mol­li­son AO through the Queens­land Art Gallery Foun­da­tion 2010. On dis­play un­til June 17.

IN 1964 Aus­tralian com­pany Laminex, fa­mous for its kitchen bench­tops, took the rather au­da­cious step of com­mis­sion­ing an artist to cre­ate a se­ries of cof­fee ta­bles fea­tur­ing its plas­tic sheet­ing. For the project, the com­pany chose Melbourne-based artist Janet Daw­son, who was known for her in­no­va­tive ap­proach to ab­strac­tion; she is of­ten cred­ited with help­ing in­tro­duce colour field paint­ing to Australia. Daw­son cre­ated a small se­ries of the ta­bles, which she called Liv­ing Art.

For the table­tops she used Laminex’s strong flat colours to echo con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can ab­strac­tion, such as Jasper Johns’s late 1950s Tar­get paint­ings and Frank Stella’s Pro­trac­tor se­ries of the 60s.

Once the ta­bles were com­pleted, they were ex­hib­ited at the in­flu­en­tial Gallery A in Melbourne. These days, how­ever, her ta­bles are rare and dif­fi­cult to find on public dis­play. But there is one on show at Bris­bane’s Queens­land Art Gallery, a gift to the gallery from James Mol­li­son, for­mer di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Gallery of Australia and the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria.

An­gela God­dard, cu­ra­tor of Aus­tralian art to 1975, says Mol­li­son reg­u­larly used Daw­son’s cof­fee ta­ble in his home.

‘‘ It has had a long and very well-loved life,’’ God­dard says. ‘‘ You can see the ev­i­dence of the way it has been used with cof­fee cups. But in this the ta­ble em­bod­ies the Bauhaus’s twinned prin­ci­ples of art and func­tion, in the sense that de­sign and ev­ery­day ob­jects that we use can be beau­ti­ful as well as be­ing func­tional.’’

God­dard ex­plains that the ta­ble demon­strates Daw­son’s in­no­va­tive think­ing and the cross­ing of dis­ci­plinary boundaries.

‘‘ While other artists were also in­ter­ested in the de­vel­op­ment of mass-pro­duced fur­ni­ture, Daw­son’s ta­bles are sin­gu­lar in Aus­tralian art: they os­cil­late be­tween de­sign and art, unit­ing func­tion and aes­thet­ics.

‘‘ In the form of cof­fee ta­bles, the table­tops be­come both ar­rest­ing ab­stract works as well as musings on the re­duc­tive method­ol­ogy of ab­strac­tion, in­deed even sug­gest­ing play­ful crit­i­cism of the use-value of ab­stract paint­ing. It is fas­ci­nat­ing as a do­mes­tic ob­ject and I just love it.’’

When Daw­son was com­mis­sioned to pro­duce the cof­fee ta­bles in 1964 she had just re­turned to Australia from study­ing and work­ing in Europe. At this time she had a strong com­mit­ment to ab­stract art, of­ten work­ing in acrylic paint and on shaped com­po­si­tion boards.

She also worked at Gallery A with dealer Max Hutchinson and artist Clement Mead­more. She co-or­di­nated a ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion on the Bauhaus and ran the gallery’s print work­shop, where artists such as Fred Wil­liams, Al­bert Tucker, John Brack and John Olsen pro­duced lith­o­graphs.

In 1968 Daw­son was one of only three women in­cluded in the pi­o­neer­ing ex­hi­bi­tion The Field at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria. But Daw­son’s in­ter­est in the colour field move­ment waned and she even­tu­ally found ab­strac­tion too lim­it­ing.

In 1973 she and her hus­band, writer and ac­tor Michael Boddy, moved to ru­ral NSW and this in­flu­enced her work. She be­came in­ter­ested in her im­me­di­ate land­scape and, as An­drew Say­ers, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Mu­seum of Australia, has said, she ‘‘ en­gaged with the qual­i­ties of the nat­u­ral world: not only the land­scape but the sheen of birds’ feathers, the shapes of grow­ing things, the end­less pic­to­rial pos­si­bil­i­ties of veg­eta­bles tended in the gar­den’’.

Also in 1973, Daw­son be­came one of the few women to win the Archibald Prize, with her por­trait Michael Boddy Read­ing.

Daw­son, who was born in 1935, lives and works near Bi­na­long, in the NSW south­ern table­lands. She will be ex­hibit­ing cur­rent work in a group show at Stella Downer Fine Art in Wa­ter­loo, Syd­ney, from Au­gust 21 to Septem­ber 15.

Laminex plas­tic sheet on com­po­si­tion board, me­tal legs. Base: 61cm x 61cm x 35.5cm. Top: 122cm x 3cm

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