Glen Snow – 17 March, 2016
Grouping these four artists together under the heading of 'Drawing Rehearsals' is to construe the work as functioning, “in the same open ended manner as working drawings”. This is explained in the introduction to the exhibition, and is qualified by their various outcomes not being predetermined, with compositions simply emerging during their processes.
5 February - 5 March 2016
With the current exhibition of mostly abstract paintings at the Auckland Art Gallery, Necessary Distraction: A painting Show, it is always a good thing to look at other concurrent painting exhibitions. Doing so can reveal artworks potentially latent to the ambitions set forth for the contemporary provocations it seeks to survey. Drawing Rehearsals at Two Rooms, in Putiki Street, is an exhibition of three emergent talents, Sandra Bushby, Fu-On Chung, and Rohan Hartley Mills.
For this public outing the three newbies appear to have a chaperone in the steady and assured presence of Gretchen Albrecht. One of her paintings oversees the downstairs gallery, and another is tucked just to the side of what otherwise amounts to a solo show for Rohan Hartley Mills in the upstairs gallery. Her work is like a watchful parent, sitting back on a park bench while Hartley Mills goes wild in the playground. As lovely as it is to pause with Albrecht, you’ll want to join in the fun of an infectious Hartley Mills.
Grouping these four artists together under the heading of Drawing Rehearsals is to construe the work as functioning, “in the same open ended manner as working drawings”. This is explained in the introduction to the exhibition, and is qualified by their various outcomes not being predetermined, with compositions simply emerging during their processes. While accepting this rather broad interpretation of ‘drawing’, Chung’s work would initially seem the least drawing-like, and although loose grid forms swim within these surfaces, revealing its brush as an instrument of inscription, it’s the implication of open-endedness that seems most useful. With his bright atmospheric glazes, and layers of scumble he is definitely painting. However, this work does seem to be rehearsing for some composition that may never emerge, and have a dashed-off quality that belies the time it would have taken to consider each layer. Yes, perhaps ‘painterly sketches’ might work after all as a descriptor for Chung’s painting.
Drawing as painting appears differently in the case of each of these artists. While the open-ended and emergent process is not new to painters working within an ‘expressive’ mode (for want of a better phrase) it was Jan Verwoert’s article addressing the work of Turner prize-winner Tomma Abts that gave us the word ‘emergence’ as a way of theorising this engagement (1). In comparing this word’s scientific usage, Verwoert was able to extract an understanding of the painting process as a gestalt, where a structure of parts gives rise to the whole of what the work is. This whole, although nested in its parts, is irreducible to those elements, because their combined composition have given rise to an emergent quality that makes it the thing it is. There is the sense of the final picture being the active procedure of finding that picture.
In looking at the Latin roots of the word, Verwoert also compares it to the terms of an ‘emergency’ where crisis and the need “to work ones way out of a critical situation” (2) are part of that process. In this sense, however, Chung’s pictures seem a little too at ease with their ecstatic, hallucinogenic reveries; too ready to escape into another sugar rush, to imagine a criteria established through crisis within his process. For Verwoert, criteria are produced within an emergent work by opening up to the crisis in response to each act. If Chung seems immune to such issues within the formal tropes at his disposal, such critical criteria can otherwise be discerned in different ways through much of the work in the show.
Both of Albrecht’s paintings are from the 1970s. It is difficult to discern reasons for her dalliance here, but a sense of her presiding over the other works is hard to shift. She holds a key position downstairs, facing us on entry against the back wall, which she alone occupies. From here the work may provide some standard or precedence, and as the introductory blurb to this show suggests, the 70s Albrecht becomes a temporal marker for the initial establishments of gestural abstraction in New Zealand. Her work could be understood, in this light, as ‘rehearsals’ for further abstractions: setting the scene, and marking the territory, for others to follow. A matriarch then, of late modernist gesture, but with her own peculiar absorptions and distortions into a society removed from the Euro-American centre.
Albrecht’s downstairs work, also sits comfortably with the exhibition title of Drawing Rehearsals, with its fattened calligraphic marks scudding across its surface like so much cloud or blown foliage. The paint seeps into its surface and hovers between signs of colour-field painting and sketch. There is a sense of the hurried scrawl to capture fugitive wintry-elements at a chilly beach sunset. In contrast to the younger painters, Albrecht’s work in these rooms appears to partake of a more pure formalism, like the modernism of Morris Louis, with their colour-field stains. The truth is elsewhere and more complex, however. She was a particular type of modern: a woman, living in a country that typified the meaning of the word sublime, with its overwhelming landscape and sweeping Pacific weather. This Gretchen Albrecht of the 70s, is a case for understanding what Schmuel Eisenstadt called Multiple Modernities (3). Modernism appears differently in different places and different time zones, away from its European and American centres. The shape of modernism in New Zealand was still being iterated through her.
In this show, I suggest she furnishes the contrast of a simpler modernism to the grab-bag ‘impurities’ of a new generation’s current activity. Of course, to say so, as already indicated above, is not quite accurate, although it looks to be the case. Her own impure mix of modernism makes this clear through her titling. The downstairs painting, called June Landscape, 1972, and the upstairs one called Pacific Drift, 1977, turns colour-field painting into a picturing of elemental-forces in the world around her. Grafting depictions onto her canvas as such is a modernist contravention, although she was not alone of her gender to do so at this time: consider Helen Frankenthaler’s Nature Abhors a Vacuum, 1973. Both women seem to bring an embodied experience of the world to bear on what was formerly a masculine head-thing. Hers is a temporal reach bridging the space between abstract expressionism’s modernity and its current contemporary iterations.
I began by talking about Albrecht’s precedence in the room. Having set this scene, it is worth noting this is not so straightforward. This is because on initial entry, her singularity at the end of the room is interrupted, so that a clear view to the gallery’s back wall is deflected. On a central pillar, occupying its width, hangs a small ‘unfinished’ painterly-sketch on paper. Despite its small size it actually does demand the first glance, and in doing so opens our periphery attention to Hartley Mills’ huge Wall Painting. This is what dominates the downstairs gallery. We are made to turn to take in this mural, and then look back and forth between this and the little sketched painting on paper. As these works face each other and appear to mirror each other’s compositions, a loop is set up between them and ourselves. The miniature seems to be a draft for the wall mural, but they are quite different: not just because of a shift in colour palette, or from matt to satin mediums, but also because of hand and brush being up-scaled to arm and roller.
Aside from Wall Painting, Albrecht’s two works would be the largest paintings in the show, and they still are if we consider everything on canvas. The Wall Painting, a mural commissioned for this exhibition, borrows familiar lineaments of Hartley Mills’ practice, but fails to really hold its own, despite its bombastic presence. Hartley Mills can do big, as he did for the Te Tuhi Wall project, but the smaller work here is the better. The mural simulates the unfinished quality of the painting-sketch it faces, with the base of the wall left as an uneven blank. Yet while the left-off quality of the sketch seems all of a piece, the mural has collapsed the move into something overly styled. The smooth, satiny interior-finish of Wall Painting is no match for the more textured and layered work of the painterly sketch.
Regarding Hartley Mills’ painting sketch (not included in the list of works), against the backdrop of the rest of the gallery, it almost seems to function as a poutokomanawa, or central post figure. With gallery as wharenui, the sketch sits on this forward facing pillar at the heart centre of the show. It is in the position of hosting our visit, and ushers our view around the room, back and forth between it and either side of the gallery walls. It is also a promise of what is installed upstairs, visually linked, in retrospect, to a particular work called Cut Painting.
Fu-On Chung’s work is displayed on the left-hand side, closest to Albrecht’s and seemingly deploys the formalism of abstraction to similar meteorological ends as Albrecht, in the sense of their atmospheric conditions. The difference is we feel that Albrecht gives us that world of forces as encountered by her body. Chung is in his own head on some metaphorical acid trip and his weathering of this trip ushers us into some psychological underworld. Consider his titles: Ghost Maps, Delusional Might, Windswept Furore, Spiralling Towards Ruin, Windswept Fury, and The Ancient Cistern Quandry. Carl Jung might have appreciated some of this stuff with their luminescent surfaces invoking smoke, flame, aery lights in the mist, and deep, though troubling, watery-caverns.
On the other side of the room, and extreme in terms of colour palette, is Sandra Bushby. While Chung revels in the possibilities of synthetic incandescence, Bushby has pared her palette back to earthen basics. If Chung is in flight, burning bright in his own heavens, Bushby is positively chthonic. White and black, blues and greys, mixes of raw umber, perhaps burnt sienna and some pinks to soften it here and there. These paintings fulfil a more obvious definition of drawing, where the surface, its manila hue of raw linen, is left as much blank as lined, hatched and scrawled upon. The brush is alternatively wet and dry, labouring over its surface to bring something to bear. There is a somewhat tortured quality about this work, but they seem to want to excavate modernism’s deeper past, with a look reminiscent of a Giacometti drawing. Along with this, a Sartrean existentialism seems to have been recovered, with the repeated refrain in her titles, So Much Depends Upon I, II, III, VIII. Her repeated titles can also be seen to nod to the exigencies of a criteria built through a process of contingent responses, in the manner of Verwoert’s telling.
The four paintings presented here, have the appearance of preparatory diagrams, and their emergent criteria are definitely brought about through a crisis of intervention. I’m reminded of Deleuze’s discussion about ‘The Diagram’, in chapter 12 of his book on Frances Bacon:
The diagram is thus the operative set of asignifying and nonrepresentative lines and zones, line-strokes and color-patches. And the operation of the diagram, its function, says Bacon, is to be “suggestive.” Or, more rigorously, to use language similar to Wittgenstein’s, it is to introduce “possibilities of fact.” Because they are destined to give us the Figure, it is all the more important for the traits and color-patches to break with figuration (4).
Deleuze uses “Figure” here in a particular way, which later becomes interchangeable with his term “figural”. It references an abstraction that nevertheless hints at figurative forms. Bushby’s abstractions are full of these suggestions and possibilities of referents in the world, that at the same time dissolve into the asignifying gesture that can only refer to its own materiality. The marks made here, or what Deleuze would call “traits” - because of their double French implication of physical trace and psychological imprint - present painting in an agitated and anxious state.
Upstairs Hartley Mills seems to have found a balance between the ecstatic state of Chung and anxiety of Bushby. His is an abstraction that seems to have understood the history of Pop Art within his reinvention of the gesture as somewhat funny and cartoonesque. The title of this show is a perfect fit to the way he thinks about and frames up his art. All works are usually titled as some kind of painting trying something on, or rehearsing a look, such as Painting with Blinders, Tower Painting, Cut Painting, X Painting, Deco Painting. ‘Painting’ is also sometimes substituted for the word ‘study’, as in Curve Study with Blinders, Bazaar Study, or there is a sculptural object installed as a Drawing Study for Painting, which in this case is his eighth iteration (VIII). Sculpture as a physical drawing, in the service of painting, is a sophisticated and quirkily disruptive use of signifiers. This one made of thick plywood-batons in the shape of the letter pi, rests against the wall in an italicised lean, with dark-blue velvet wrapped around its two ‘stems.’ It is largely unpainted, except for small spots of green over the plugged and filled nail holes, orange on one square-end of the horizontal arm, and pink on the other. Small bands of paint ring the upper and lower ends of the velvet, as if standing-in for rubber bands pretending to hold it in place.
Drawing Study For Painting VIII is not the only sculptural addition to his painterly language. Two pictures, as their names suggest, sport ‘blinders’ like costume accessories. Perhaps, because of a sense of caricature I thought them reminiscent of the ears on animal onesies. Yet these are triangular and rhomboid wooden flaps nailed to the top of each of these paintings. They serve to extend the painting into space, as well as bring our attention to the sides and edges. As they are meant to do on a harnessed horse, these additions suggest containing the train of attention, maintaining focus without distraction and bearing witness to the work’s concentration. The sense of deliberation where the surfaces are marked with only what they need, and nothing more, reveals their critical emergency as painting, and their emergence, in Verwoert’s sense, of a criteria of critically contingent responses. What is impressive is the lightness of touch, despite such considered surfaces.
Only one of his paintings remains Untitled, as if it dare not name itself and its excesses. With its rugby jersey stripes, it looks to be tucking-in its untidier, more romantic brushy-gestures, behind opaque horizontal white-stripes. Yellow and mustard lines seem to darn the surface in an attempt to keep everything down. The flesh of bare canvas threatens to be exposed. It’s a painterly joke, and Hartley Mills’ humour is never too far from any of these works, whether in the cartoon qualities of Wheel Inside a Wheel, or the semiotic fooling of Bazaar Study.
Pretending seems to be a big part of these paintings as well. They are like children at play, though more knowing while keeping their innocence. I mentioned Cut Painting earlier because of its visual connections to the mural and painting-sketch downstairs. It is a delightful work that impersonates being framed, with black and pink blocked forms whose bevelled ends allude impossibly to three dimensions. The concentrated figurations of green diamond-shaped lines pretend at being centrally severed.
Hartley Mills has the knack of making pictures that seem familiar, though strange. They are anti-heroic in their caricatured dimensions (which usually also relates to their scale) and adhere to a poetic simplicity. In his restless search to resolve the question of a painting, he presents himself as a painter’s painter. This last comment is borne out by the fact that other painters, as I’ve heard tell, have visited to spend time with this show.
(1) Jan Verwoert, “Emergence: On the Painting of Tomma Abts,” davidzwirner.com, www.davidzwirner.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/…/TA-Verwoert-05.pdf
(3) Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, ‘Multiple Modernities’, in Daedalus, vol. 129, no. 1, Winter 2000, pp. 1-29.
(4) Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon (London, New York: Continuum, 2005) 71-2.