Peter Nelson: Things That Look Like Rocks

Gallery 9, Sydney

Peter Nelson’s recent exhibition at Sydney’s Gallery 9, curiously titled Things That Look Like Rocks, could with equal verisimilitude also have been called: Things That Look Like Digital Prints, Things That Look a Bit Like Clouds, possibly even Things That Look a Lot Like Literati Landscapes. The polyptychs, all ink on paper, are contextualized by a short, unattributed essay that concludes with a paragraph establishing that they are a night time countervail to the prodigious amount of time the artist spends on his computer during the day. The cleft this opens up between employment and its opposite, has, with regard to these images, the curious consequence of exalting labour above capital. In the process, it unravels the accepted categorisation of the artist’s hand as merely instrumental by re-theorising repetitive, materially valueless exertion as a thinking through of things. That making, as a form of cognition, is a conceptual not physical act; something special, even priceless. If these were text, they would be poetry not prose.

Art often tells us about the world by incidentally telling us something about the artist. The small scale of these pieces is proof of the constricted space within which Nelson works; a dormitory in Hong Kong where he is studying for a PhD. Their dimensions allow for either postage or for him to continue to develop and refine them as he travels. They tell of his mobility and disclose a professional if not personal itinerancy, an increasing reality for many contemporary artists. Furthermore, they attest to his ongoing, respectful investigation into classical Chinese art. Visually, they acknowledge the primacy of game-based graphics and post-internet studio methodologies within an emerging, geographically decentred art world nourished by multiple historical traditions. They are not orientalising but are examples of what might be termed the ‘Transimage’, a provisional name for the category of things not bracketed by the fixed, arguably now redundant binaries of East or West, contemporary and archaic, digital and analogue or art and craft. Identified by a formal and theoretical lability, the transimage is often anachronic, atemporal and stylistically promiscuous.

As subjects and objects, rocks are special in Chinese art, and these pictures conjugate at least two of the three most important desiderata of rocks within the classical canon. Zhou meaning surface texture and Tou indicating a superfluity of perforation. Scumbled into visibility from raw pigment that the artist grinds with an ink stone, they seem to float like pumice in spumante or the aerial islands in James Cameron’s Avatar. A contradiction, one of many that mask a complex and sophisticated reconciliation of vastly different theories of landscape painting.

Landscape is a vitally important genre in the artistic genealogies of both China and Australia. Inseparable from the paradigm of place, it is usually linked to the articulation of national identity. Though not in this case. All the works in Things That Look Like Rocks are landscapes and almost all with levitating amorphous shapes on top of or partially occluded by a schematised space of mostly oblique lines. These diagonals could be variously interpreted as atmosphere, corrupted data or driving rain. They also approximate the large annulled areas characteristic of traditional Chinese scroll painting. Indeed, the images’ aggregation of uniformly proportioned panels evokes the unfolding horizontality of a scroll. Sometimes, as in One was reticent (2016), the vaporous slanting is interrupted by either contra-directional or horizontal strokes distinguished from the others by added thickness and a deeper tonality, inferring either spatial crenulation or perhaps a dislocated, wavering horizon. The ambiguous negative spaces in the centre panel of this work are soiled with a thin, haemorrhagic bleed of diluted ink, a device the artist employs frequently.

To speak generally of these works, as a way of locating them culturally, one would say they co-inhabit rather than occupy the ambient nuance of classical Chinese landscape painting. Passing as literati images by slyly occupying that in-between space in which, according to Walter Benjamin, a text shelters during translation. Unhinged stylistically; oscillatory, they swing back and forth between contradictory representational conventions.

Foucault coined the term dubitative image to describe representations that could be mistaken for other things, exemplified by a painting masquerading as a photograph. Outside (2016) and I smudged my responsibility (2016) both evidence this attribute. Each of these works contain simplified portrayals of vernacular Hong Kong apartment blocks. Depicted from above their flat roofs, balconies and windows are visible, veiled behind the miasma of repeated, regular line work. Usually in the centre of the panel above the geomorphological element, these economical renderings of vertical housing are easily confused for calligraphy. Were these ‘authentic’ literati works an inscription of some sort would normally take up this exact space.

The culture and geography of 21st century Australia are at opposite points on the compass. Generally speaking, contemporaneity and internationalism are predicted on the legacy of European and more recently North American cultural and economic proclivities. Global, as opposed to international culture will need to allow for the compounding and synthesising of disparate cultural traditions as we move beyond the restrictive binaries that emerged during the brief historical moment of Western ascendancy. Things That Look Like Rocks is timely evidence that this process has already begun.

Peter Nelson, Outside, 2016. Ink on paper, 58 × 200cm. Courtesy the artist and Gallery 9, Sydney.

Peter Nelson, One was reticent, 2016. Ink on paper, 32 × 110cm; Courtesy the artist and Gallery 9, Sydney.

Peter Nelson, I smudged my responsibility, 2016. Ink on paper, 58 × 200cm. Courtesy the artist and Gallery 9, Sydney.