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One of the most provocative implications of Belgian art theorist Thierry de Duve's article "The Readymade and the Tube of Paint" (1986) is the idea, developed from the writings and remarks of Marcel Duchamp, that all forms of painting are always and already ready-made objects. What is at stake in this process is, for de Duve, not so much an expanded definition of the categories of either painting or the ready-made, but an understanding of an art practice that, while no longer painting as such, is intrinsically about painting itself. In an oblique manner, de Duve goes on to describe such a practice, in reference to the work of Duchamp, as "apropos of painting".1
Semblance, a recent exhibition at Canberra Contemporary Artspace, elucidated a more general strand of this often unacknowledged tendency within contemporary art practice. That is, as stated by Melissa Chiu in a catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition, the common utilisation by artists of the formal conventions and principles of a genre or discipline- such as painting, photography or sculpture- while at the same time incorporating materials and ideas apart from, if not in direct opposition to, that genre or discipline.2 To outline the pervasiveness of this practice, the exhibition contained the work of three young Australian artists (Helga Groves, Shane Breynard and Robert Pulie) and one New Zealand artist (Toby Curnow).
A good example of this practice were Toby Curnow's colour-field 'paintings' which consisted of two black-box television monitors continuously displaying static blocks of bright colour. One monitor, Untitled (1996), contained a monochrome while the other, Untitled (1993), displayed a series of coloured vertical stripes. Although at first reminiscent of a television test pattern, these flat and silent images - all surface and no depth - seemed to offer a reflection upon the formal painterly qualities of more conventional minimal art. Another work which mimicked the conventions of painting while experimenting with a diverse range of non-painterly materials was Helga Groves's installation Dissolve. Consisting of four rectangular panels made from mesh, Perspex and wood and hung on the wall, these images explored more practical painterly concerns such as layering and the use of light. Applying traditional techniques of painting, such as shading and staining, to her non-traditional materials, Groves produced works that faded in and out of the exhibition wall.
Canberra-based artist Shane Breynard 's installations were, to some extent, the most interesting conceptual pieces included in the exhibition. This was the case because his work engaged self-consciously with the discourses of photography and architecture as much as with their formal and practical components. In Dry Units (1996), for instance, Breynard combined glass, aluminium, rubber and granulated silica gel (moisture beads) to produce two odd looking specimen trays. Elevating the assorted props, traces and residues of the photographic process to the status of art works themselves, Dry Units conjured up images of precisely that which is absent: photographs. At the same time, however, the work raised more general questions around the recoding, in museum spaces, of everyday materials as aesthetic objects.
The fourth artist whose work was included in this exhibition was Robert Pulie. There is a kind of cheeky charm about Pulie's word games and visual non sequiturs which is, at once, both boyish and bookish. Structured around an absurdist sense of humour, his trite aesthetic objects and images cleverly seduce the viewer and then abandon him or her to conceptual confusion. Works such as The Meaning Behind it (1994) and Sobriety to the point where to be sober is possible (1996), for instance, lead the viewer- as indicated by the oblique titles-back to him or herself. While Pulie 's work seems to conform least to the curatorial premise for the exhibition, it nonetheless reflects the presence of a more general spirit of irony and humour not usually associated with the painterly and photographic precedents for much of this work.
1. Thierry de Duve, "The Readymade and the Tube of Paint", Artforum, May 1986, pp. 110-121
2. Melissa Chiu, "A Semblance of .. ", Semblance, Exhibition Catalogue, Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Canberra, 1996, np.