Erin Driessen – 5 July, 2012
If these paintings are looked at as sculptural objects the exhibition takes on a whole new set of ideas. The frames can be seen as sculptures. Certainly in the third version, the frames resemble paintings in the way they are spaced and how they sit flush with the wall. The shadows they cast give them an undeniable three-dimensionality, something colour field and expressionist painting was generally trying to deny.
Untitled (mural design)
28 April - 12 August, 2012
Fiona Connor has reformulated the Dunedin Public Art Gallery’s existing exhibition Colourbox, which is made up of neo-expressionist and colour field paintings by New Zealand artists including Philip Clairmont, Gretchen Albrecht, Toss Woollaston and Judy Millar. Connor has constructed metal, free-standing frames or stands on which the works are displayed or transported during reconfigurations of the exhibition by new curators, whom she has chosen and invited. Other than the stands, she has added no work of her own. This show is about ‘how,’ not ‘what.’
Connor’s use of the word ‘mural’ is interesting. A mural is often the product of a collaborative effort by a group of people wishing to convey a specific message. The way in which that message is sent, however, differs depending on who is sending it. Each different mural designer seeks to send the same message, using different means. Here, that idea is turned around, as each different curatorial group seeks to send a different message, using the same means.
The exhibition is staged in one room on the first floor gallery. Before the viewer can properly enter the room, they are confronted by a stand-alone piece of white wall, which displays text informing visitors whose version of the show they are about to see, depending on the schedule. I visited it during its third of four incarnations, when it was curated by Adam Elliot, Spencer Hall, Clarke Hegan, Jed McCammon, Sam Oram, Phoebe Thompson, and Hamish Wadworth. The group used the original layout of Colourbox, but their show consisted of five paintings and seven empty frames. The twelve objects are evenly placed around the edge of the room in a standard layout, forming an inner layer apart from the white wall.
The inner ring is however broken in two, as the empty stands are placed across two adjacent walls, and the paintings are placed across the other two, effectively drawing an imaginary diagonal line across the room. The white cube is therefore separated into two triangular sections. The stands are white and differ in size; they are lit so the top bar casts a very dark shadow on the wall, and the two side bars of each frame cast multiple vertical shadows.
The paintings by contrast sit in darkness, not lit at all. The five works left on display by the current curatorial group are Judy Millar’s Working the Green (2003), Gretchen Albrecht’s Cushioned Fall (1973), an untitled work by Philip Trusttum (1963), Toss Woollaston’s Wellington (1972), and Helensville 3 (1971) by Colin McCahon. They are arranged left to right, in my opinion from brightest to quietest. There is a sense of time passing either forward or backward, and momentum rising or falling, depending from which end of the wall you start. Each of the empty frames is designated for a specific yet invisible work. The five visible paintings were hung on nails left by the previous curators.
The disruptive piece of wall encountered at the entrance plays with the emptiness of the frames. It is initially anticlimactic to have traversed the wall and found what looks to be an incomplete exhibition. In the first version, curated by Connor and Aaron Kreisler (who also curated the original Colourbox), visitors were confronted with the constructed stands displaying the backs of paintings. The stands were placed throughout the room, not just against the wall, so that the viewer had to weave through the works.
The second version was curated by artists Michael Parr and Blaine Western, who decided to exploit their interest in and knowledge of architecture. They placed all of the works on one side of the room, compressing the space and playing with the idea of the mural as a wall. The works were covered in sheets while they were being handled and moved, and Parr and Western responded to the sculptural aesthetic, leaving the sheets to obscure the paintings. The mural design therefore became a denial of, not a yielding to, the painted surface.
The idea that these works can be interpreted or experienced differently according to their spatial arrangement is difficult to accept. They are fundamentally abstract paintings brought together by the simple fact they were all by New Zealand artists who experimented with colour. Non-figurative works displayed in a group exhibition generally lend themselves to isolated appraisal, no matter what other artworks surround them. Connor highlighted this in she and Kreisler’s initial layout, where the works stood alone, on their own stands, away from the wall, not aligned with other paintings.
However if these paintings are looked at as sculptural objects instead, the exhibition takes on a whole new set of ideas. The frames can be seen as sculptures in their own right. Certainly in the third version, the frames resemble paintings in the way they are spaced and how they sit flush with the wall. The shadows they cast though, give them an undeniable three-dimensionality, something colour field and expressionist painting was generally trying to deny. The stands can also be seen as Minimalist as they are repeated shapes in serial patterns, creating a kind of gestalt. Minimalism in its first incarnations in America was a rejection of Abstract Expressionism.
The third version of this exhibition creates a provocative tension between painting and sculpture. The different incarnations of the show work together to subvert the notion that art works by progression or evolution. I don’t think interpretations of the individual paintings themselves are much changed, but the simple wheeling of a couple of paintings from one side of the room to the other creates engaging oppositions and complex symmetries. In the words of Philip Clairmont, quoted in the gallery text for Colourbox, “The act of remaking or transforming an object is magic.”
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