Stephen Little
CBD Gallery, Sydney

Enigmatically titled Give, Stephen Little's installation at CBD Gallery consisted of one yellow monochrome on the wall facing the entrance and a number of wooden pallets lining both walls and floor of the gallery. Similar to the artist’s past works, this installation exacted a discussion of the relationship between painting and the readymade.

Thierry de Duve's re-reading of Duchamp’s oeuvre in Pictorial Nominalism, provides a lineage from which one might view Little's artistic practice. According to de Duve the readymade is an alteration of pictorial representation, but it is not necessarily a development that precludes the demise of painting. Different from other art historical accounts positing the readymade as a departure, de Duve surmises that the readymade is linked to the history of painting in the way that it signifies the moment of its 'impossibility'. Little's practice pursues this nexus between painting and the readymade, since his 'paintings' are paintings in title and description only. The yellow monochrome in Give, for example, is considered a painting even though it does not utilize paint and canvas as convention would dictate. Despite its resemblance to a painting, the monochrome consists of mass-produced fabric covering a stretcher. Both fabric and stretcher are industrially manufactured materials which invoke a tradition of the readymade, acknowledging it as a development parallel to industrialisation.

In past works, Little's monochrome paintings have characterised his investigation of both the readymade and painting. For instance, Negative One (1994) comprised five paintings executed with taut clear plastic across a painting stretcher, differentiated only by the presence of a cross-bar on the reverse. In contrast to the definite focus of the monochrome in Give, Negative One suggests an inherent absence generated by the transparency of the plastic. This distinctive element of the installation provided a reflective surface which showed the wall of the gallery, usually hidden behind an artwork, and the wider gallery space thus negating itself as a painting. The title connotes a negative, but the work operates in another fashion by referring to everything except itself (the walls, the gallery space and the viewer). Negative One adopts the name and tradition of painting in its manner of exhibition, but it refers to the readymade in its materials.

Interestingly, Little aligns his painting practice and more specifically his monochromes with a Russian Constructivist tradition rather than with American Minimalism. Not dissimilar to Malevich's quest for non-objectivity, Little's work possesses a 'reductive' quality portrayed in the selection of materials and their presentation. His works constantly seek to undermine themselves as objects to behold, as they appear familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time. No doubt the combination of readymade and painting is a contributing factor, determined by Little's re-figuring of both in differing contexts.

In Give, the pallets rented for the duration of the exhibition were displaced temporarily in their usual role of transporting of large crates and boxes. Leaning against the gallery walls and on the floor, the pallets acquired an alternative function in the way they confined the space within which viewers walked, directing their attention toward the monochrome. Just as the pallets facilitate movement in an industrial sphere so too did they direct our movement within the gallery. Indeed at the opening they were transformed into makeshift tables, chairs and platforms bestowing a performative aspect to the work. An earlier work referring to transportation and the means of exhibition in the combination of object and painting is Standard (deferral) (1993). Featured in Primavera 1994 at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art, this installation engaged the material conditions of painting. Little exhibited a transportation crate with the painting still inside, an immaculate white monochrome wrapped in plastic for protection. The seemingly unresolved quality to the work belied its engagement with the processes involved in exhibiting on the one hand and the link between the readymade and painting on the other.

Overall, Little's interpretation and application of the tension between the readymade and painting manifests itself as a mimicry of the conventional structure of painting while relying on readymade materials. His practice focuses on notions of presentational value and Give expresses this focus in the way it establishes an interplay between the static position of the monochrome and the more fluid spatial arrangement of the pallets.