Eva Hesse, No Title 1963

In the early 1990’s, while working in a part time job with the installation team at the NGV, an artwork by Eva Hesse, No Title 1963, struck me as being a successful echo of some of my own struggling artistic preoccupations. It was unlike anything I had encountered before. Or rather, it has elements of things I had encountered before but scrambled together in a way I hadn’t seen, at least in the flesh. The explosion of new unbridled painting in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, a lot of which can now seem dated and ego driven, had ended in a suspicion within the curatorial circles of the International and Melbourne art worlds of painting as a viable way to move forward. However with this explosion, the seeds had been sown.

Also at the time a small book of the work of the German artist Martin Kippenberger caught my eye in the NGV bookshop and I was instantly intrigued with this work that also scrambled styles, in a more brutal way than Hesse but with absurd humour and pointed intent. It seemed to be a way forward and at this time the Hesse picture, for me, joined the dots back in time to an idea of multiplicity and possibilities rather than the notion that an artist must choose a single branch in the great arc of art history.

Martin Kippenberger, Untitled (Krieg böse), 1991
© The Estate of Martin Kippenberger. Courtesy the Estate and Hauser & Wirth. https://ocula.com/artists/martin-kippenberger/

Eva Hesse’s No title 1963, gives me the feeling that the artist has decisively chosen to not choose and has preferred to combine the orthodoxies of the day – gestural abstraction and hard edge colour field. Both in danger of becoming clichés and each burdened with their tribes of patriots. Hesse could see, possibly subconsciously, that to break this binary would open again the doors of perception. She brought a voice of Dadaism into the mid-century and as a female artist in New York’s heavily competitive male dominated art scene there was a desperate need for new voices to challenge this status quo.

No title 1963 is painted with oil on canvas, The texture of the ground and paint surface is fresh and directly worked- almost like a large work on paper. To achieve this fresh aliveness demands sure direction and confidence, remarkable here as Hesse was apparently quite unsure of her painting abilities and became more renowned for her sculpture- a form less reliant on the sensitivity of touch in the moment of making that comes to the fore in this painting.

Eva Hesse, No title. (1963), oil on canvas,  183.2 × 152.8 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
© The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth 
https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/5356/

On close observation the gestural expanse is composed of rectangles of hand’s width sized marks resembling a scrawling handwriting in greys, ochres, whites and one rectangle in the lower right mainly in blues that pulls the eye down in a cascade from top to bottom. Squinting at the painting, similar to the Sansom painting I discussed last time, the stabbing black chunks punch holes in the surface and give tension and spatial definition to the murkier indistinct scrawling blather. With easy humour that challenges abstract expressionism’s claims to the sublime this dynamic gives articulation to something inchoate and absurd. The one element that completes and adds greater complexity to the chromatic and spatial world is the pinkish brushstroke running from top right to midway. This is echoed with a similar angled white line tucking behind a gestural moment and delving into a dark aperture. Directing this play of forces is the massive intrusion of hard edge wedges of industrial lemon yellow, white and warm ultramarine and cooler teal blues painted toughly yet with give at the top of the canvas. This is a wonderful play on one of the cornerstones of creating space in Western painting- the misty background of a Titian or the Mona Lisa cut over with a more sharply defined figure – here unsettled and topsy turvy.

Despite the vast history of artists pulling the language apart, the state of repose, or at least coherence, seems to be one of the most sought after qualities in art. It’s still really surprising to me that in No title 1963, the hot struggle to resolve the inconsistencies yet keep them living and breathing relaxes into such a natural repose. Contributing powerfully to this resolve is the way the division between the flat wedges and the looser paint below is essentially flat- the primacy of the surface, as the ruling critic of the day Clement Greenberg expounded, is insistent but sneakily there’s a blackish zone that appears to slip behind and under the leading edge of the white triangle.

Eva Hesse No title, 1964 Collage, gouache, watercolour, coloured pencil, and graphite on construction paper
45.9 x 32.4 cm,
Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Hauser & Wirth
https://ocula.com/artists/eva-hesse/artworks/

In writing about this work I’m surprised how I feel like I’m writing about a painting concerns of my own, however it’s now almost 60 years since Hesse painted it and realise it’s more productive to think about connections and shared ideas and sensations than the delusion of originality. Hesse was a great originator about how the grotesque, awkward and absurd, both visually and psychologically, can be incorporated into a materially rich art. Surrealism, Dadaism, Automatic drawing and writing, the idea of the unconscious and more had come before her but she managed in her short life to bring threads of the play of these forces into an agreement with the demands of the highly tuned modernist mid-century New York art world. She proved that the idea of a single way forward is mere convenience amidst the flux and flow of our contemporary lives.

Written by David Palliser.

Windows and Portals: Looking Beyond 2020

A portal in a dark forest. (Credit: Pixabay)

2020, as we all know, has been a particularly strange year for those associated with the arts. While some have struggled and withdrawn themselves, being unable to process the situation, others have identified opportunities and announced innovative projects.

As the year passed by, I saw an explosion of paintings on quarantine life—toilet rolls, sanitisers, accumulated food and drink in tins, packets, bottles, jars. There has been a lot of straightforward “representational” art, artists just documenting what has been around them/everyone during the lockdown. But there was another kind of creative expression that caught my attention more—a “metaphorical” one involving a passage, a separation…but also an opening—the possibility of a new vision and state of affairs, maybe a whole different world. The literary and visual poetry of portals, windows, doors.

In April, I read an article in the Financial Times by Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy (https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca) who saw the pandemic as a “portal”. I’d like to quote that paragraph:

Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Later, I encountered two artworks shared, not inadvertently, by Jack Shainman Gallery (New York City) on Instagram that touched upon similar themes—a painting, “The School (Door)” by Ottawa-born Montreal-based artist Pierre Dorion and a painting-sculpture titled “The Universe is on the Inside” by Germany-born New York-based artist Leslie Wayne. Both are simple and meditative.

The School (Door) by Pierre Dorion (Fair Use)

In Dorion’s minimal painting, mostly white and grey, the door is big and heavy-looking. It is tightly shut, and the viewer gets no intimation of what might lie behind it. Danger? Wonder? We do not know. The only certainty is that of division. And there is a suggestion that one might have to make a real effort to reach the other side. The title of the artwork is fitting, given all the realisation and learning that we have undergone during the pandemic.

The Universe is on the Inside by Leslie Wayne (Fair Use)

Wayne’s painting-sculpture captures the spirit of the time in other ways. The window refers to the manner in which we are living at home—seeing the world of chaos and unpredictability from a distance with a limited view. Interestingly, the title of the artwork runs opposite to the form of the artwork itself. The latter projects outwards into the cosmos, yet the former goes inwards into human soul. The universe is on the inside…does this mean we have everything we need at the moment within ourselves already? Could it imply that, ultimately, we will be rescued not by some external force but by the disciplining of our own willpower?

The artwork makes its appreciator travel in two directions simultaneously. Whatever is out—the good or the bad—it seems to communicate, comes from whatever is in. The terrifying physicality of the pandemic has been a result, in the end, of humankind’s interior thought processes and choices. And the external world that we will see outside the window tomorrow, too, will depend on our internal order or disorder today.

Temporally now we are before another passage, opening and threshold. The new year—2021. And it is difficult to imagine the course of events that will unfold. Allergic reactions to vaccines, mutated strains of the virus, new hotspots—the drama goes on. A big question mark still hovers over our social lives, our professional lives. In this phase of continued uncertainty, may we take a moment to meditate upon the divisions explored by the artworks above—between here and there, between us and the world—and arrive at our own precious existential answers.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Gareth Sansom – A Forensic Possibility 2010

Gareth Sansom A forensic possibility, 2010; Oil, enamel and collaged digital photographs on linen; 183 x 244 cm; enquire
Gareth Sanson, A forensic possibility, 2010
Source: Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery

From the dense and wonderful Gareth Sansom survey exhibition at the NGV in 2017, A Forensic Possibility was one of my favourite works. Gary is a friend, mentor, and adventurous spirit that I have had the pleasure and agony of knowing since I started post-grad studies at the VCA in 1983. For me this painting shows a coming together of Gary’s searching intelligence, wit, appropriation of worlds and styles, craziness, fluent painterly technique combining a huge vocabulary of ways of putting paint down and an encyclopaedic sense of the history of painting.

A Forensic Possibility is spatially multidimensional with all its excavations pushing constantly back up to the surface. If you half close your eyes it appears almost black and white with a few blue and orange blobs and a hard zap of yellow at the top. The purple vertical smeary triangle thing harmonises the yellows with the inky dark blues. One sensation is always challenged by something mocking or at odds with it, such as the intentionally clumsy naïve drawing on viscous white threatened by the ultra sharp shards around the perimeter in their corporate yellows and array of flat office greys . The sharp white fractures, themselves a pure white abyss, on the far left lean with superiority into the brick red smear with its decidedly hand drawn rectangles that then echo the clunky steps in cool blues- a rhythmic metamorphosis with sensations of sharp control , badly lit stairwells and fleshy paint.

Highly focused, odd and intense, wrong handed with intent- what more could you want? Perhaps the loopy sausage stairs traversing the canvas, up or down who knows? So much pleasure from not knowing. It is essential to realise that Gary uses the “casual” but this is not a casual painting. The elements gain drama and the essential tension through their interdependency. The bigger truth is that paintings can contain anything, high and low. The artist strives to establish relationships between the parts. This is where the art seems to seep in.

Image: Gareth Sansom: Transformer exhibition at NGV in 2017
Source: Broadsheet

In the flesh much of the paint is luscious, physical, energised to a variety of pitches. This picture enjoys its own wild ride. Compared to many other pictures of Gary’s this resists a central focus- my eye can wander at will. Apart from the steps there is no definite image to hold onto. I love the list of things I initially thought was an absurd shopping list but apparently derives from a film’s murder victim’s forensic report. Each word in the wonky stack forms a clear and simple image with a tactile resonance in the viewer’s mind. Paradoxically the painting has almost no definite visual images….unless we look down at the bottom section and discover small collaged photos of the artist caught seemingly in the throes of some mad existential play. Nice to note the perfect match of the masked figure with arm resting on the edge of the modernist square complete with soulful drips in the right bottom corner. The switch of languages is deft and exciting.

This painting is an accumulation of things found in the process of making. It is not possible to plan such an adventure. The paint and possibilities of space, image and colour lead the way and the artist follows. Light is the great activating force. The putting down of elements in turn creates the picture’s own appetite for development or elimination and then finding another way. I see Gary opening and descending one trapdoor then finding another. The painting establishes its own desires, the artist must submit.

Windows, gaps, apertures, perimeters, an accumulation of lushly painted grammar never getting to one point but many. Time is elongated and materialised into the picture. The clues keep appearing yet an answer is very happily not revealed. For me, Gary’s lifelong passion for cinema seems to come to a palpable moment in this picture, especially with the pitch black surround- the painting like a bright white burst onto the cinema screen before the celluloid jams and melts in the projector -the audience collectively catch an image, of what they don’t know, in the dazzle.

Written by David Palliser.

A Tale of Two Masters

Agnus Dei by Francisco de Zurbarán
Rijksmuseum © Olivier Middendorp 2019

Before I left for Europe, my father told me that I had to see the artwork of one of the greatest Spanish artists, Diego Velázquez. So it was a wonderful surprise when I stumbled on an exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam called ‘Rembrandt-Velázquez – Dutch & Spanish Masters’, a comparative exhibition including a collection of Dutch and Spanish artists from the 17th Century.

Each charcoal coloured wall had two or three masterpieces hung next to each other. The curators had identified a key idea that they shared and chose particular paintings to be exhibited together. The most unique aspect of this exhibition was that all the Dutch and Spanish Masters lived through and created their art during the Eighty Years’ War. This war began because the King of Spain, Philip II, was persecuting a religious minority of Calvinists in the Netherlands. As Spain was predominantly Catholic, the King felt it was his duty to fight Protestantism and protect Catholic values throughout the empire. After eight bloody and murderous decades, the Dutch eventually seceded from the Spanish Empire and declared their independence in 1648.

Interior of the St Odulphuskerk in Assendelft by Pieter Saenredam
Rijksmuseum © Olivier Middendorp 2019

The complicated history of religious tension between Spain and the Netherlands is articulated in the first pairing of the exhibition which is Agnus Dei by Francisco de Zurbarán and Interior of the Sint-Odulphuskerk in Assendelft by Pieter Jansz Saenredam (pictured above). The Spanish artist draws on traditional Catholic iconography of the lamb as a symbol of Jesus Christ. In contrast, the Dutch painter focuses on the speaker at the pulpit as Protestants believe that all religious teaching should be centred on the Bible. Furthermore, the simple decoration of the Protestant church reveals their contestation of the Catholic veneration of Saints and Mother Mary through the lack of icons and imagery that adorn the walls of Catholic churches.

Although visually and technically quite different, both paintings demonstrate a fundamental truth of which the artists appear convicted. As these paintings sit side by side it seems simple to point out the similarities in the way that religious ideas are conveyed. This is the unique power of the exhibition. It allows conversations between the artists through their masterpieces that would not have been possible in the time they were intended.

However, these paintings being exhibited together also highlights a weight of pain. So much time has passed that we are unfamiliar with the suffering endured due to the fundamental differences that caused the Eighty Years’ War. Yet, these images intimately reflect the pain of loss, the fight for one’s religion and the struggle for freedom that permeates not only this war, but the multitude of conflicts throughout history caused by religious division. The paintings transcend their time and represent the individual’s perseverance and resilience for their faith and culture. We cannot imagine what these images sitting side by side could have meant to the people who lost everything due to the Eighty Years’ War.

Diego Velázquez (left) & Rembrandt van Rijn (right)
Rijksmuseum © Olivier Middendorp 2019

As we continued to weave through the viewers, a series of four paintings by Velázquez and Rembrandt appeared. The structures and pigments of each work resembled the next with only the majestically draped clothing slightly altered. It is hard to believe that these were not painted by the same artist, or at least influenced by each other. Velázquez and Rembrandt never met despite being Masters of their craft in the same era. Here you can almost hear them chatting as friends and colleagues, sharing techniques and enjoying the craft they both love. As the Netherlands broke away from Spanish rule, a new society was created that was founded on citizenship. Dutch painters such as Rembrandt worked for a free market, as seen in these portraits that were commissioned by wealthy, newlywed merchants. Spain remained more traditional and was ruled by an influential Royal House. Spanish artists such as Velázquez were primarily commissioned by the Church and the King to create their artwork. This is evident in his subjects who were nobles in the Royal Court.

The social and political differences in the structure of these societies gave rise to the selection of subjects by the two Masters. However, these unique positions of status could have influenced their depiction of the subject so much more. The nobility could have been shown with a valuable symbol to demonstrate their high position in society. The newlyweds could have been positioned to show the beginning of their future together. Instead these five incredibly wealthy and powerful individuals, though living in different contexts, are painted with the least embellishment possible. They stood before us almost life-size, revealing only our shared human experience.

Self-Portrait by Diego Velázquez & Self-Portrait with Beret and Golden Chain by Rembrandt van Rijn
Rijksmuseum © Olivier Middendorp 2019

The way that these individuals were crafted speaks volumes about the crafters themselves. On the next charcoal wall, we see Velázquez and Rembrandt’s self-portraits exhibited next to each other. The paintings parallel each other both visually and emotionally. Dark brown hues encase detailed, creamy faces. Their steady gazes are locked with the viewer. Both paintings are humble and unpolished. They show the raw talent of the artists and give us a unique view into the depths of life that the artists experienced.

Velázquez and Rembrandt both played leading roles in their own societies. Velázquez held a high position in the Spanish Court and Rembrandt was an influential painter and printmaker. The curators eloquently note that ‘while their social environments were worlds apart, their artistic ambition and unsurpassed ability to fathom the human depths of their models hardly differed’. Three hundred years after the war has ended, it is a joy to listen to these Masters conversing and to find with them the similarities that surpass their differences.

Written by Bella Corsini.

– Other Worlds – Philip Wolfhagen’s Latest Exhibition

by Elizabeth Fritz

Other Worlds, is a collection of landscape paintings that embody the subtleties of the natural world; the changing light and weather, the evolving colours and the textural intricacies of the environment. But it’s the depth within the landscapes, the movement, and the emotional response that standout.

The landscape that surrounds Tasmanian artist Philip Wolfhagen, has been penetrating his being for a long time. They are triggers for new works, sources of colour and light, and they are a connection to the past and the present. Landscapes, and elements within the landscapes fuel his imagination and solidify a starting point. From here, with the inclusion of classical music, beeswax, and a primary colour palette his evocative and perceptual paintings begin to develop.

Philip Wolfhagen The Serpentine Path 2015 Oil and beeswax on linen 96.0 x 338.0 cm (overall) Image courtesy the artist and Karen Woodbury Gallery, Melbourne
Philip Wolfhagen
The Serpentine Path 2015
Oil and beeswax on linen
96.0 x 338.0 cm (overall)
Image courtesy the artist and Karen Woodbury Gallery, Melbourne

The Serpentine Path 2015, a group of three paintings on linen with oil and beeswax, depicts impressions of the undulations in the land. Rocks, shrubs and paths and a never-ending horizon complete the picture. The subdued colours of browns, greys and greens are blended to create contrast, depth and texture all at once. For Wolfhagen, a landscape isn’t about precision and accuracy but rather a representation of the natural world, in which he harnesses the atmosphere, the mood and the light. His paintings are emotive and represent a snapshot of a fleeting moment in nature.

Philip Wolfhagen Other World No. 1 2015 oil and beeswax on linen 200.0 x 214.0 cm Image courtesy the artist and Karen Woodbury Gallery, Melbourne
Philip Wolfhagen
Other World No. 1 2015
oil and beeswax on linen
200.0 x 214.0 cm
Image courtesy the artist and Karen Woodbury Gallery, Melbourne

The large scale Other World No.1 2015 draws the viewer into the landscape. The shear size is like a window you could move through. Strong shades of browns and oranges in the foreground are gradually teamed with greys and blues that fade into the distance. The painting commands stillness as the eye moves into the distance. It is as though Wolfhagen’s landscapes urge the viewer to stop and take notice.

Discussion between author and Philip Wolfhagen

Elizabeth
I have read that music plays a very important part in your painting process. One of the standout features in your paintings is movement, is it your engagement with the music that enlivens your paintings?

Phillip
I would say that listening to music keeps me aloof from the act of painting. It is a means to maintaining a separation; it promotes more rational thought processes, and is a caution against too much self awareness. It is possible that the influence of the music translates into movement, if not in the image itself, then certainly in the accumulation of gestures that comprise the image.

Elizabeth 
Another standout feature is the depth you create in your landscapes. Does the depth represent the deep feelings you have with the natural world and the deep respect for the historical and cultural past?

Phillip 
The illusion of receding space is a vital element in my work because each successive painting is representative of a journey; a never ending reinvention of self. The passage from ones own position to the always shifting vanishing point is inexhaustible in its potential for meaning. 

Philip Wolfhagen
Other Worlds
1 July-1 August 2015

Karen Woodbury Gallery
Level 1/167 Flinders Lane
Melbourne

Melbourne Exhibition Review: Kate Daw – Love, Work (Show Me Grace)

Kate Daw: Love, Work (Show Me Grace)
at Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne

Elizabeth Fritz

Kate Daw’s exhibition, Love, Work (Show Me Grace) is her third solo exhibition at Sarah Scout Presents.

As I entered the gallery’s hallway, I was surrounded by pale lilac wallpaper with a floral motif. This is Daw’s installation that has been described as ambitious. It felt intimate and inviting and made quite an impact but on closer inspection it started to reveal a whole lot more.

I started noticing uneven edges and fraying, this wallpaper is in fact pieces of dyed calico that have been pasted to the wall. The origin of the floral images is twofold; the gardenias are photographs straight from Daw’s garden and her student created the linear flower drawing. These two images have been printed onto fabric to create a visually rich and somewhat feminine feel. The textural effect works well. “Striking” commented a man as he walked into the hallway.

Image courtesy of artist and Sarah Scout Presents.
Image courtesy of artist and Sarah Scout Presents.

The remaining space is comprised of a further two rooms. The artwork in the first room was not what I expected. There are two paintings, one on canvas with the word ‘MAM’SELLE’ and the other on reclaimed blackboards comprising of light blue flowers heads. On the adjacent wall was a series of small boards, some with text and some with images. I read the texts over and over trying to get a sense of the meaning. One of the boards posed this question; “What is important in your life? “Fresh coffee and a sense of autonomy” was the response. There are in fact big questions offered up on these small boards. Such as what true happiness might be? And is there ever a point of satisfaction we arrive at? What initially appeared to be a somewhat underwhelming room was suddenly being transformed into a contemplative space. Here the viewer could be confronted with weighty topics that were based on actual conversations between Daw and a few young women.

Daw’s diverse influences continue to be evident in the second room. Floral motifs, words painted on black boards and references to sisterhood dominate.

KATE DAW Blue Flowers (when we slept in the studio you gave me some good ideas) 2015 oil paint on found blackboard 41.5 x 60.5 cm (framed) Image courtesy the artist and Sarah Scout Presents
KATE DAW Blue Flowers (when we slept in the studio you gave me some good ideas)
2015
oil paint on found blackboard
41.5 x 60.5 cm (framed)
Image courtesy the artist and Sarah Scout Presents

I am not really interested in logical links, rather how far I can stretch things both from their     original source and from one another. I am fascinated by certain books, relationships, memories and associative, sensory experience, among other things.
Kate Daw in conversation with author.

Love, Work (Show Me Grace) is a collection that showcases Daw’s interest in literature, design and reproduction but at the same time there is something jarring about how she paired the complexities of the underlying subject matter to the almost simplistic, child-like works of art. But perhaps this is precisely what makes it compelling and thought provoking.

Love, Work (Show Me Grace), until May 16
Open Wed-Sat 12pm-5pm

sarahscoutpresents.com
Suite 15, Level 1
12 Collins St. Melbourne