Strange harmony of contrasts

Recycling modernism
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney; Canberra School of Art Gallery, Canberra; Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane

The idea of a curator or scholar selecting a group of works that share some characteristic or which together make an interesting statement has had a rather long legacy. Two such exhibitions that come to mind immediately are Kynaston McShine's exhibition Primary Structure at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1966 and which marked the public emergence of Minimal Art, and Lucy Lippard's Eccentric Abstraction at the Fischbach Gallery, in New York in the same year. Eccentric Abstraction looked at works that were considered anti-formalist, such as the fibre glass and cheesecloth pieces of Eva Hesse and the polyester and wire works of Keith Sonnier. Strange Harmony of Contrasts is in line with this type of exhibition.

Nicholas Baume, curator of the exhibition, has placed together the works of six contemporary Australian artists with the shared characteristic that all display an interest in the history of art, in particular, twentieth century art. To some extent all these artists incorporate elements of formalism plus, in some cases, what Baume refers to as the 'modern obsession with the grid'. Further, the works all call upon an environmental relationship with the architectural space in which they are installed and highlight the viewer's relationship to them.

As the exhibition is being held in a number of different spaces, I would think that its success will depend on how well the space is employed in each venue and the proper balance of work to setting. For example, I saw this exhibition at the Canberra School of Art where the space was just a little too cavernous for the installation. One work by Scott Redford, The Only Human Attribute, a series of minimal looking boxes with handprints on them, relies on the placement of the boxes on the wall. In the Canberra venue the wall chosen was short and therefore the series of boxes abutted the corner. The work would have had quite a different effect if it had been placed against a longer wall, removing the sense of ‘terminus' that occurred in this installation.

Contrasts occur as a result of the idiosyncratic use of elements of earlier twentieth century art (specifically Minimal and Conceptual art) by each of the artists. Hilary Mais, Rosalie Gascoyne and Imants Tillers all use the grid, a specifically Minimal format. They show that something as formal as the grid can be used in an endless variety of ways. Mais and Gascoigne play off the ambivalence between the grid as an ordered relation of parts and the element of hand craft (Mais) or of weathered and bent units (Gascoigne). The grids of Hilary Mais all lean against the wall like found objects. They are constructed of wood and the combined textures of wood and hand applied painted strokes provide an element of discovery as the viewer comes nearer to the work.

Imants Tillers places his grid directly on the floor in homage to the elemental metal floor pieces produced by Carl Andre in the 1960s. At the Art School there was a marvellously punning contrast between this work and Tillers's Erased Polke mounted on the wall behind. The Erased Polke is actually a mechanically reproduced photograph of a gallery space on which a painting by Polke has been erased. Besides the obvious allusion to Rauschenberg's Erased de Kooning of 1953, the photograph features a central Carl Andre floorpiece that echoes Tillers's version on the floor.

There is visual irony in the photomechanical reproduction of the floor piece, which seems to extend the actual gallery space, and also in the fact that the 'real' floor piece is covered in highly polished enamel paint that is the antithesis of the weathered dull metal surfaces of Andre's original floor units. On the comparatively glamorous surface of Tiller's work a reproduction of Andre's Closure of Three Vectors indicates the possibility of art production. The later is a clinical, but rather smug account of the elements necessary for art production to happen. The glossy rendering of Andre's somewhat tongue-in-cheek diagramme on what in Andre's hands would be the benumbed surface of bare metal, all placed in front of a photo reproduction of an Andre work in a gallery, builds up a rich series of perceptual levels.

Literal levels are employed in Scott Redford's (Phenomena) Sheltered and Withheld. Layers of composition board doors divide five levels of objects which are stuck to supports and painted black. There is about ten centimetres viewing space between the doors and the rich fields of found objects underneath: books, cameras, hammers, axes, etc., all looking like the petrified remains of some earlier civilization. For one looking through the layers the surfaces have a quality of shining coal. The idea of discovering this richness of forms is important, like the clues gained of a culture lost. The viewer has to physically lean down and look between the layers to see what lies underneath each panel. Materials such as banal, prefabricated doors and the basically uninteresting artifacts, contrast sharply with the magical effect of discovery. Tools adhered to the surface and covered in pigment are reminiscent of Jim Dine's treatment of similar material in the1960s. This work has also been displayed with the layers separated and spread out around the floor, giving the effect of a minimal surface in serial appearance, hiding the richness below each of the door panels.

Janet Burchill uses found objects in a very different fashion. Her line of numbered barrels entitled Twenty Drums is in fact not twenty drums, but four drums mounted on intervals against the wall. Each barrel is marked with a number from 0 to 20, in a progression of doubling (5, 10, 20). Burchill also used drums in a gate-like assemblage in the Bond Store venue of the Sydney Biennale. Both works call in the architecture of the room as a part of the piece as does Carole Roberts' Twisting Tables, a lead screen which is mounted flush against the wall. The forms of the units on each of the vertical members are generalized and look familiar. A screen, by its definition, implies something should be seen beyond, but in Roberts' piece it is seen as a relief against the wall. A lintel of lead-wrapped wood, touching only the end posts, crowns the work.

Where this exhibition succeeds, given the extreme variety of the six artists' works, is that Nicholas Baume does not overweight it with a mass of theoretical underpinning. One is invited into the show by its seductive use of the placement of the objects in space and asked to deal with each piece on visual terms alone. It is refreshing to have an exhibition that can hint at such underpinning, but which asks the viewer to experience it with the freshness of visual and environmental immediacy. For the last three decades the art world has given rise to entire communities whose art experience is primarily literary. Many knew a great deal about the art they were looking at, but the looking suffered from a lack of truly visual experience. This exhibition provides proof that one can return to the visual vernacular and still derive a great deal.