West coast geometric abstraction

1999
Goddard de Fiddes Contemporary Art, Perth

This show is the latest in a series of surveys, organised by the Goddard de Fiddes gallery, to showcase Western Australian artists under the loose banner of 'geometric abstraction'. The artists included in the current exhibition represent three generations: emerging (Emma Langridge, Carey Merten, Cathy Blanchflower and Daniel Argyle), mid-career (Trevor Richards, Michelle Sharpe, Jurek Wybraniec, Andrew Leslie and Mark Grey Smith) and 'senior' (Giles Hohnen, Judy Chambers, Miriam Stannage and Trevor Vickers).

The exhibition's rationale is based on the notion that a distinctive local school of geometric abstraction has been developing in the West since the early sixties. According to the gallery's press release, what distinguishes this local school is a penchant for the 'high key' colours that characterises the local environment. But this reference to the 'bright light' of the Western skies as an influence for painters is in, many ways, a cliché. Local critics and art historians employ it every time they want to argue for the 'regional distinctiveness' of this or that aspects of Western Australian painting. Of course the 'bright light' notion is not totally groundless.The problem is that, as is often the case with clichés, a small truth is gained at the expense of larger ones which the cliché distorts and obscures. In this case, the 'bright light' concept is based on a kind of reductive naturalist determinism that overlooks the import of complex - and more elusive - patterns of cultural influence and transmission.

It is also doubtful whether there really exists in Western Australia an uninterrupted lineage of abstract painting spanning forty years. Arguably, it was not until the early nineties that a clearly recognisable and distinctive trend of this kind started to appear in Perth. This new tendency was largely due to a group of younger artists (many of whom are included in this exhibition) who have been more influenced by international examples than by their older, local predecessors. In this sense, the relative isolation, which in the sixties and seventies characterised the work of the older generation, is perpetuated today by the disinterest that the younger artists show towards it.

This exhibition, therefore, highlights a pattern of intergenerational discontinuities. In particular, the artists who have emerged in the nineties often reject previous idealised approaches that interpret abstraction as the sublimation of vision. The younger artists, prefer mundane, everyday materials and simple, matter-of-fact processes. Thus, Daniel Argyle covers rectangular wooden boards with cheap, monochrome carpet fabric; Jurek Wybraniec constructs simple assemblages of industrial peg-boards and paints them in strident yellow and pink; Michelle Sharpe uses black-board paint, chalk and plastic objects to create a small painting that combines Russian constructivism with childhood memories; Andrew Leslie creates strikingly elegant works in which the painted backs of jutting monochrome metal strips cast a pattern of coloured shadows on the wall behind them. In these works the colours are certainly 'high key', however their brightness does not derive from the natural environment but from the industrially produced urban landscapes that constitute the fabric of our everyday life. It is the brightness of street signage, advertising billboards, plastic toys and anodised metal surfaces, not that of the bush in a summer afternoon.

This kind of 'everyday constructivism' is not the only approach to characterise this group of artists. Cathy Blanchflower, Emma Langridge and Carey Mertens share a predilection for highly controlled and meticulously obsessive painting procedures. Their works feature stripes, checks and other simple geometrical patterns. These are repetitive structures in which variations are kept to a minimum; nevertheless the surfaces of the canvases is always energised by a subtle but continuous flow of visual tensions. Unexpectedly, these paintings exhibit analogies with those of a much more established artist, Miriam Stannage, who in this show presents a series of works based on minimalist repetitions and variations of a simple, modular pattern.

This exhibition highlights both the energy of recent local artistic tendencies and the problematic nature of the notion of 'abstraction': This is a term, in fact, that is useful as a very generic descriptive category, but that is also deeply misleading at a deeper interpretative level. Too often, under the banner of 'abstraction', artists with diametrically opposed approaches to art making are forcibly rallied. For many of the artists in this show labels such as 'constructivist' and 'concrete art' represent closer approximations. The term 'concrete art' was introduced in the thirties by the Swiss artist and designer Max Bill to counter the idealistic and spiritualist connotations usually associated with the dominant notion of 'abstract' art. Many of the best works in this exhibition, in fact, have a directness that is far removed from the purist loftiness of much modernist abstraction and more responsive to the immediacy of everyday experiences.

Daniel Argyle, Untitled, 1999. Carpet, wood. Courtesy Goddard de Fiddes, Perth. 

Carey Merten, Peaceful Vibrations, 1997. Chalkboard paint on wood, 4 panels, 45 x 90cm. Courtesy Goddard de Fiddes, Perth. 

Emma Langridge, Untitled, 1998. Acrylic on wood, 4 panels, 45 x 90cm. Courtesy Goddard de Fiddes, Perth.