MISTY MEM­O­RIES

The Weekend Australian - Review - - VISUAL ARTS -

THE the­o­rists of mod­ernism, as we have seen be­fore, cre­ated a straw man ver­sion of ear­lier art, a fal­lacy of re­al­ism, against which to de­fine their own in­no­va­tions. And so pow­er­ful was this fal­lacy that it is still thought­lessly re­peated to­day: time and again we read or hear people say that some­thing they call tra­di­tional art sought to re­pro­duce the ex­act vis­ual ap­pear­ance of the world, like a pho­to­graph, and then pho­tog­ra­phy was con­ve­niently in­vented, lib­er­at­ing artists to pur­sue self-ex­pres­sion in­stead.

All per­sis­tent myths — even the sil­li­est or most dan­ger­ous — sur­vive be­cause they con­tain some grains of recog­nis­able truth but, as in other cases, ev­ery part of this myth is a car­i­ca­ture. Yes, the early mod­ern pe­riod was fas­ci­nated with per­spec­tive, with see­ing the world from the point of view of the hu­man eye, with mak­ing space, vol­ume, colour and tone as vivid as pos­si­ble, but does any Re­nais­sance or baroque artist re­motely re­sem­ble a pho­to­graph?

In­deed, it was only af­ter the in­ven­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy that cer­tain artists be­gan to con­ceive the am­bi­tion of ri­valling the cam­era, of beat­ing it at its own game; but the skill with which they pur­sued this aim re­vealed it as ul­ti­mately fu­tile, as well as fun­da­men­tally at odds with the spirit of the clas­sic early mod­ern tra­di­tion of art.

Aris­to­tle said lit­er­a­ture, paint­ing and other arts were based on mime­sis, but this word we trans­late as im­i­ta­tion meant more than sim­ply copy­ing. As Aus­tralian clas­si­cist Gil­bert Mur­ray long ago pointed out, there is some­thing be­fore mime­sis and that is poiesis, or mak­ing; a poet or a pain­ter is first of all a maker but, as dis­tinct from other mak­ers, they make with ref­er­ence to some­thing else. This process of ref­er­ence or im­i­ta­tion, in other words, is some­thing dif­fer­ent from what we may imag­ine. In im­i­tat­ing the world, the artist is also al­ways and in­evitably mak­ing some­thing com­pletely ar­ti­fi­cial.

To take a sim­ple ex­am­ple: say you are go­ing to make a pen­cil draw­ing of a still-life of a few bot­tles and other ob­jects ar­ranged on a ta­ble. You may start by mark­ing lightly where you think the main forms will sit on the page; you have al­ready be­gun to turn your vis­ual ex­pe­ri­ence of the mo­tif into an ar­ti­fi­cial ob­ject with its own for­mal or com­po­si­tional logic. You then lightly draw the con­tours of a bot­tle. Are you copy­ing re­al­ity? The bot­tle has no such out­lines: they rep­re­sent sim­ply, from your point of view, the boundary be­tween the mo­tif and the back­ground. As you progress with the draw­ing and model the forms of the ob­jects more fully, those first out­lines will dis­ap­pear and the form of the bot­tle may be demarcated only by the dif­fer­ent tone of its back­ground. Get­ting rid of ob­vi­ous con­tour lines is in one sense a closer ap­prox­i­ma­tion to vis­ual ex­pe­ri­ence, but in the end it makes the fun­da­men­tal ar­ti­fi­cial­ity of the tonal ren­der­ing of forms even more in­escapable. Colour has been ab­stracted into tones, and a hi­er­ar­chy of tonal dis­tinc­tions has been con­structed to make the im­age in­tel­li­gi­ble. An­ar­chist Fem­i­nist Poster Col­lec­tive,

(c. 1982-83), Flin­ders Univer­sity Art Mu­seum, Ade­laide. THERE are times when artists feel they have no op­tion but to take sides in po­lit­i­cal de­bates, when some sub­ject mat­ter can hardly be avoided, and when in­di­vid­ual ca­reers are eclipsed by the need for col­lec­tive ac­tion.

The pe­riod from the mid-1970s through to

June 28-29, 2014

is a poster made by one all-fe­male col­lec­tive group for an­other dur­ing these charged times. Women Against Nu­clear En­ergy was formed in Ade­laide in 1980. It com­mis­sioned the poster from a group known as the An­ar­chist Fem­i­nist Poster Col­lec­tive.

The poster is a col­laged screen print, jux­ta­pos­ing a nu­clear power plant with a demon­stra­tion by the nurses union against ura­nium min­ing and the nu­clear in­dus­try. It’s a piece of

Adding colour doesn’t make mat­ters any sim­pler for it is not pos­si­ble to achieve one-toone match­ing of colours (which are in­fin­itely vari­able ac­cord­ing to light con­di­tions) and pig­ments: what the artist does in­stead is to con­struct a set of rel­a­tiv­i­ties be­tween pig­ments and tones that is not a copy but an equiv­a­lent of sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ence. What is more, it is not the pic­ture that comes near­est to one-to-one match­ing that is the most aes­thet­i­cally sat­is­fy­ing but the one that achieves chro­matic and tonal in­tegrity in its ar­ti­fi­cial equiv­a­lent of the world.

Noth­ing il­lus­trates these prin­ci­ples as clearly as the paint­ing of ef­fects of light. We may as­sume that the so­lu­tion would lie in bright colours and plenty of white. How­ever, what seem like patches of rich lu­mi­nos­ity in paint­ings usu­ally turn out to be far from white: fre­quently they are muddy yel­low-brown­ish or green­ish patches that are read as bright be­cause of the care­ful build­ing of shadow all around them. Putting pure white in the same place on the can­vas would look as if you had spilled cor­rec­tion fluid on to the pic­ture; beginners are sur­prised how far they have to dull their high­lights for them to come into a cred­i­ble re­la­tion to ad­ja­cent tones and thus be­come part of the pic­ture.

In oil paint­ing, light is painted over dark, and high­lights are built up last. In wa­ter­colours — of which there are some fine ex­am­ples in this ex­hi­bi­tion in Bris­bane — the process is re­versed. Oil paint­ing, even with­out heavy im­pasto, has a dif­fer­ent kind of body, sit­ting on the sur­face rather than be­ing ab­sorbed into it. Wa­ter­colour, which soaks into the paper, lies flat on the sur­face, with veils of colour but no body of its own.

This means that paint­ing in wa­ter­colour in­volves a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing, in which the pain­ter starts with the light­est ar­eas, not the dark­est ones as in oil paint­ing. And the light­est ar­eas of all, the whites, will be rep­re­sented by the 80s saw oc­ca­sions when artists could hardly help but be politi­cised. Is­sues such as women’s rights, Amer­i­can im­pe­ri­al­ism, the war in Viet­nam, nu­clear power, en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion and Abo­rig­i­nal land rights were so much on the na­tional agenda that to ig­nore them was it­self to make a po­lit­i­cal state­ment. Many artists be­came ac­tivists, us­ing print me­dia to cre­ate im­ages char­ac­terised by a sense of ur­gency.

This is one mess we’re not go­ing to clean up the bare paper. At the same time, while oils can be over­painted or even scraped off to start again, wa­ter­colour can­not be changed. Some­times wa­ter­colourists have re­course to gouache, which is sim­ply an opaque ver­sion of their medium, if they want make a cor­rec­tion or give a pas­sage more sub­stance, but gen­er­ally speak­ing what­ever is put on the page is ir­re­versible.

The wa­ter­colourist, then, needs to plan the com­po­si­tion with care, and en­sure that any­thing that is to stay white is left un­painted. Then they can work on the light­est and bright­est pas­sages, where it is still the white paper show­ing through the trans­par­ent pig­ment that gives lu­mi­nos­ity, and fi­nally build up the shadow ar­eas.

Some idea of this process is in­dis­pens­able if one is to ap­pre­ci­ate an ex­hi­bi­tion such as this at the Queens­land Art Gallery be­cause the range of aes­thetic ex­pres­sion in any art form is in­sep­a­ra­ble from its spe­cific ma­te­rial form and the pro­cesses dic­tated by the ma­te­ri­als em­ployed. Cer­tain ef­fects are more eas­ily achieved than oth­ers in dif­fer­ent me­dia, and artists will be drawn to the medium that suits their vi­sion of the world, em­pha­sis­ing its ex­pres­sive po­ten­tial.

Here, the first thing vis­i­tors may no­tice is how of­ten wa­ter­colourists such as Wil­liam Bus­tard and Roy Parkin­son choose mo­tifs that of­fer them the chance to ex­ploit these large patches of pure white that are scarcely pos­si­ble in oil paints: clouds and the white caps of rolling surf are favourite sub­jects. Not that it is enough to leave a blank area of paper; just as a si­lence in dra­matic di­a­logue is made preg­nant by the speech that sur­rounds it, the white paper is an­i­mated and brought to life as a cloud or as sea­spray only by the dex­ter­ity with which ad­ja­cent tones and hues are built up, so that we are forced to read the white area as part of the pic­ture, not sim­ply as an in­ert la­cuna in its sur­face.

Among the works here, there is an early se- ag­it­prop that de­clares and in­cites the un­will­ing­ness of the so-called car­ing pro­fes­sions to “clean up” af­ter a nu­clear ac­ci­dent, as they are be­ing asked to do in the news­pa­per clip­ping at the top of the poster. Un­der “po­si­tions va­cant”, we’re

Plough­ing the Boundary ries of views by Con­rad Martens, un­for­tu­nately largely spoiled by ex­po­sure to light and mount­ing on acidic boards that have turned the paper deep brown. From about the same time, there are views of colo­nial life — a fam­ily sit­ting down to a for­mal break­fast in a rus­tic bush house — by Har­riet Jane Neville-Rolfe. They are not great works of art but they are lively documents of the time and they re­mind us that wa­ter­colour was pop­u­lar as a por­ta­ble medium ideal for record­ing things seen on voy­ages in the great age of travel. In fact wa­ter­colour came to be con­sid­ered part of a well-rounded ed­u­ca­tion in the late 18th and 19th cen­turies, so there were many skilled am­a­teur prac­ti­tion­ers of the medium, or semi-am­a­teur in the sense that an ar­chi­tect might make pic­tures for work and for plea­sure. Wa­ter­colour was a medium where the boundary be­tween am­a­teur and pro­fes­sional could be blurred, es­pe­cially com­pared with oil paint­ing, which was gen­er­ally prac­tised by pro­fes­sion­als.

Of the pro­fes­sional painters, the two most mem­o­rable are JJ Hilder and Kenneth Macqueen. The first of these, a strik­ing ex­am­ple of an artist com­pletely at­tuned to and think­ing through his medium, ex­ploits the flu­id­ity and wa­ter­i­ness of his pig­ments to cre­ate a misty dream­like en­vi­ron­ment around his sub­jects. In Hilder’s Land­scape Near Car­ling­ford (1910) he al­lows fore­ground and back­ground to dis­solve in his fo­cus on the main mo­tif yet, in the way that the sub­ject seems to float within a moody spa­tial con­tin­uum, the ef­fect is one of sub­jec­tive vi­sion rather than ob­jec­tive fac­tu­al­ity.

Macqueen’s pic­tures are not as sub­tle or as vir­tu­osic in their han­dling of the medium as Hilder, but they are in a cer­tain way more in­ter­est­ing and the­mat­i­cally am­bigu­ous. Macqueen was a farmer as well as an artist, work­ing the land and paint­ing it, a fairly un­usual com­bi­na­tion and one that in­volves en­gag­ing with the same en­vi­ron­ment in par­al­lel modes.

And this seems to be the sub­ject of his pic­tures. The best of them, the ones that make you stop with the sense of hav­ing glimpsed some­thing you haven’t seen be­fore, com­bine the evo­ca­tion of na­ture with ref­er­ences to work­ing the earth, as though he had a sense of the same in­tu­ition em­bod­ied in the myth of Cad­mus who slew the ser­pent and ploughed the earth for the first time, that this en­tailed a kind of vi­o­la­tion of the or­der of na­ture and would have im­por­tant con­se­quences, both good and evil, for mankind.

Thus in Har­vest­ing Scene (c. 1956), a cloud floats al­most threat­en­ingly to­wards the ma­chine that is cut­ting the wheat, while in Plough­ing the Boundary (1928) the plough­man with his horses carves into the land, which we can see to be swelling with an im­plic­itly ma­ter­nal life, and it is hard to re­sist the hint that there is some­thing trans­gres­sive about the ac­tions he per­forms al­most un­awares. Even stranger is The Tank (c. 1950), where a dam cut into the earth re­flects the sky and clouds: one feels that this must rep­re­sent an un­ex­pected vi­sion, per­haps when rid­ing out across the property to tend to the prac­ti­cal busi­ness of the farm, and then sud­denly be­ing sur­prised by this vi­sion of re­flected beauty where it was least ex­pected: in the mid­dle of an un­sightly hole gouged out of the earth, a glimpse of the tran­scen­dent. told that “fol­low­ing the ex­pan­sion of the Ura­nium Min­ing In­dus­try” in South Aus­tralia, po­si­tions have been cre­ated for nurs­ing staff, so­cial work­ers and psy­chol­o­gists.

The French sit­u­a­tion­ists had a word for this kind of re­use or re­de­ploy­ment of im­age or text in a con­text that sub­verts or ex­tends its orig­i­nal mean­ing: de­tourne­ment.

It was a favourite tech­nique of the many po­lit­i­cal printmakers and print­mak­ing co-op­er­a­tives that flour­ished across Aus­tralia at this time. For those in­volved in the An­ar­chist Fem­i­nist Poster Col­lec­tive be­tween 1979 and 1985, it was a neat way of tak­ing on the power of an im­age­world that seemed to mo­nop­o­lise the vis­ual field, es­pe­cially when it came to im­ages of women.

Flin­ders Univer­sity Art Mu­seum con­tains a num­ber of AFPC works. Those in this collection are on dis­play at the City Gallery un­til July 13.

Kenneth Macqueen

Seri­graph, ink on paper, 65.5cm x 44.8cm

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