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Craig Easton made his Brisbane debut at Ryan Renshaw Gallery and confirmed his reputation as one of Melbourne’s better abstract painters. He presented refined, meticulous and highly aesthetic elaborations of the genre in a mix of large-scale abstract paintings, smaller shelf pieces, and wooden containers.
Easton exists in a kind of twilight zone for he is a traditionalist who remains open to recent developments. His commitment to technical expertise and the exploration of abstraction’s formal questions is somewhat out of kilter with some of today’s painters who are post-production conceptualists. The latter tend to treat painting styles as freewheeling options that are adapted and combined to produce works that do not have a consistent look, style, material, subject, or theme. Yet Easton shares the new generations’ desire to exploit the worlds of design, sculpture and architecture to expand painting’s range of operations. Like Tomma Abts, Karen Kilimnik and others, he also focuses on ‘how’ to make do with painting’s legacy rather than getting hung up on pondering the ontology of the medium.
Easton is a methodical and fastidious painter who explores new territory in the same assiduous manner as he approaches everything else. Cases in point were the large-scale works Finish (2007) and Suddenly (2007). Finish contained a white field and an upper portion of black rectangles, and from it dripped lines of paint. The drip is readily associated with the artist’s unique brush mark and has expressionistic connotations, but this untidiness is anathema to Easton’s sensibilities. By depicting these drips in a highly stylised manner they turned into motifs, and were then readily incorporated into his decorative ensembles.
Easton was more adventurous in After (2007) where he set up a beguiling interface between gloss/matt, recession/projection, and interior/exterior. His abstract schema consisted of three black fields (gloss and matt) bordered by a white stripe along the left hand side. This arrangement elicited a lively play of internal formal relationships, but Easton also left the work open to exterior interventions, for the glossy field reflected the viewer looking into the painting. This had the effect of undercutting abstractions’ aspirations to transcendence, making them prey to the figurative and the ephemeral (represented by the changing line of spectators who viewed the work and saw themselves in it). This was an important manoeuvre for it demonstrated that the artist acknowledges the limits of abstraction, especially in regards to its supposed autonomy. Airlock (2006) applied the same lessons except that it drew attention to painting’s place in social reality. A matt black field housed receding planes that acted as interior frames. By graduating the shading in these planes Easton presented us with a clever exercise in perspectival illusions of space and other optical effects. However, these were supplemented by allusions to an entryway into a gallery space, which drew the spectator away from aesthetic self-absorption and made them aware of art as a social phenomenon.
Easton’s ‘shelf’ paintings were impressive attempts to extend the reach of abstract painting. These were small works on aluminium panels that were slotted into aluminium supports. The paintings were displayed as an orange, green, black and white modular assemblage that was populated by a lexicon of symbols and icons. These hybrid ‘test-sites’ included orange bars that enveloped bare aluminium grounds, drain pipe patterns that formed stark contrasts, and barcode references that defined pictorial spaces. One delightful piece had two panels placed together like a jigsaw. They contained a black square and orange polyhedron. The orange form overlapped the black shape and generated a stylised fracture that danced between rupture and reformulation.
In the shelf series, Easton used the gambit of design to disrupt painting’s conventional terms of reference, but he also played a double game. On one level, the works could be interpreted as a resuscitation of De Stijl’s neo-plastic universal design scheme, but they could just as easily have represented painting’s transition into shelf-like ornamentation. This meant that ‘pure’ painting became more generic objet d’art than fine art extrapolation. In this instance, Easton responds to the contemporary moment in painting and its promiscuous correspondence with cultural areas like design and architecture. Easton only pushes the boundaries so far but he is willing to relinquish claims to painting’s formalist ‘authority’, despite the fact that he values control, precision, and finely wrought aesthetic effects.
Perhaps Easton’s greatest strength is also a bit of weakness. His commitment to technical proficiency, integrity and ‘finish’ can be an anachronism in today’s culture, but he is far from a painter defeated by the tide of history. He is bright enough to recognise the dilemmas facing a painter of his ilk and works hard to make the most of the marriage between his sophisticated management of aesthetic quality, and his urge for innovation and conceptual relevance.
Craig Easton, Airlock, 2006. Enamel and acrylic on canvas, 122 x 122cm. Courtesy the artist and Ryan Renshaw Gallery, Brisbane.