Daniel Mafe

Savode Gallery, Brisbane

Dan Mate is a painter who for a number years has taken his bearings from a culturally sedimented (modernist) idiom of geometric abstraction. His work appears both untouched by various interrogative endgames of modernism and unconcerned with opening painterly practice onto the realm of art in general, or of rendering ready-made (desublimating) a type of formalism committed to the specificity and autonomy of aesthetic experience. This is despite a tendency in available accounts of Male's work to speak of extensive historical influences including: Bellini, Pontormo, lngres, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, Brice Marden, late De Kooning, James Turrell, and Ad Reinhardt among others.

In my view, Male's paintings are not principally about the discursive, art historical structuring of our reception of works of art. Rather, as Michele Helmrich has proposed, his paintings call for prolonged and patient attention to the smallest details of their composition. We are asked to focus on the signifying logic of the paintings as well as their interaction with the white gallery wall. In the current climate of art criticism governed by various paradigms of externality, these paintings call for a formal orientation grown rusty from lack of use.

The work in this show could be located within the Kantian analytic of the beautiful with its emphasis on formal boundedness and an agency that appears to emanate from the work rather than the spectator, the maker or historical circumstance. Here a kind of pleasure is generated by a harmonizing of formal relations that precludes any (sublime) encounter with either a threatening or charismatic excess of painting as a practice that produces something for us to see. At least I shall start with this premise and proceeding as though following the directives of the work, isolate where it stumbles a little.

The blueprint for these fifteen untitled paintings is simple and uniform, although the permutations derived from this basic matrix are various. Rectangular canvases of ratio 3:1, but in three different series based on size, are hung with the longer sides at top and bottom. This ensures that the horizontal axis governs the vertical. Often, two canvases are brought together to form the larger rectangle. Just as often, the seam between the canvases is made explicit. Each painting contains a grid-like ground of hard edged, sharply distinguished geometries (rectangles and squares) in a range of spatial and colour combinations: turquoise, black, magenta, yellow, lemon, cobalt blue, brown, peach-brown, flesh tone and grey. The strips of white veiling painted over the coloured grounds mute the clear distinctions between the geometric forms without diminishing or confusing them. With few exceptions, our ability to measure the difference between forms and colours remains stable, especially in those paintings that contain high key colours, and strong contrasts between colours.

The white veils display varying degrees of translucence. On some occasions the grid of the "background" comes forward through the overpainting, and on others it is held back by the density of the white screen. This produces a subtle instability between what may be identified as foreground and background. The veiling effect is produced by the assiduous application of up to thirty layers of thin white paint which are sanded back after each overlay has dried. What from a distance appears as a hazy, intangible mist, assumes in close proximity, a grainy, impermeable and literal quality. But, unlike some of Mate's previous works, the floating optical effects of these paintings are intrusively grounded and contained by the logic of the grid. It is as though the mutability and even sentimentality of atmosphere is overpowered by the demands of an objective linear structure. This objectivity is enhanced by Mate's commitment to finish. Neither overt brushstrokes, nor any sign of painterly gesture are allowed to compete with the emergence of the geometric structure. If these paintings bear any relation to those of Ingres, it is not in the area of subject matter or colour choice, but in the tensile and limpid features of their surfaces.

Each painting retains a definite framing edge at top and bottom where the underpainting emerges as bars of colour untouched by the white overpainting which abruptly terminates below the edge of the canvas. Alternatively, if we turn our attention to the left and right sides of the works, here the overpainting continues to the very end of the canvas. This means that the border between inside and outside, the illusionistic space of the paintings, is stark at top and bottom but looser at the sides where the distinction between canvas and white wall is partially eroded. Horizontal closure is opened up along the vertical axis.


The fluctuating sets of relations amplified in these paintings - proximity/distance, canvas/wall , mist/grain , bounded/unbounded, grid/atmosphere, underpainting/overpainting - are activated according to the place from which we view them. This suggests that the work involves a phenomenological appeal to a shifting, non-objective and nonunitary conception of seeing. How then does the question of the spectator's participation, however conditioned, square with my earlier claim that the analytic of the beautiful, with its emphasis on the autonomous system of the work, seeks to evacuate such considerations? One answer might be that there is a disconcerting but controlled tension between the two registers in Mate's paintings. Yet another might be that the subjectivism of a phenomenological reading is here immobilised by the cool precision of geometry.