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The monochrome, over the past century, has edged painting closer to the parameters of its own surface. The lasting tension in the monochrome may perhaps be due largely to the inherent paradox that in achieving the absolute, the monochrome approaches the extreme gravity of ‘zero content and infinite meaning’.1
The work of PJ Hickman enters this zone, this ‘zero degree’ of painting. Over a sustained period, Hickman has set about reconstructing the repetitious possibilities of a reductive logic, a logic that is inherited from the serial effects of minimal abstraction. In his most recent series Hickman again plays a minimalist game as he continues to zero in, this time on the name.
These names are seen as one enters Sophie Gannon Gallery. Sparsely arranged and symmetrically hung, Hickman’s discreetly sized paintings which each bear an individual name, all retain a uniform scale and composition: all are monochromatic and dark, and all meticulously painted. With the name of the artist there boldly stated in white text against the muted tone of the monochrome surface.
Who is listed? Some are more recognised then others. Here I shall spare you the list, though I must say there are several pivotal figures. Produced in three series, Hickman begins with ten of the forefathers of non-representational painting. The two remaining series consists of the names of the six Australian representatives for the last Venice Biennale, and the ten stable artists represented by Sophie Gannon herself.
In already ‘hijacking’ the naming rights of those artists who are commercially represented, Hickman further agitates their value by displaying the paintings along with the custom made boxes in which they are kept. Stacked on plinths and also placed ceremoniously on the gallery’s floor, the presentation of an archiving device objectifies the works into a conventional state, whilst concurrently conferring their legitimate status as objects to be preserved and remembered.
Upon seeing these paintings, which bear their own title, a sequence of questions immediately arises. They concern the fundamentals of our looking, our coded reflex to identify the author in works of art. They ask us, exactly what do we look for in an artist’s work? What is it that we see?
In citing a name—a proper name—Hickman strikes us with a sense of double vision. We see a visible name, yet simultaneously the resounding absence of it. For here the specification of a name only points to the fact that it is not of the named artist at all. Such a disorientating condition ironically produces a moment of clarity, as its effects put into focus the institutionalisation of the ‘name as interior to the artwork’.2 Thus what is recovered is not the identity of the artist, but the artist’s name designated in terms of consumption and ownership within the arbitrary exchange and circulation of aesthetic signs.Is this the image of the artist?
There is a need to return to the monochrome, as this is the surface upon which Hickman ultimately works. Upon this blankness which suppresses and transcends the figure/ground relationship. Thus to look at Hickman’s paintings at this crucial moment, a literal but dissimulated form resurfaces: the figure—the figure of the artist—reappears by name. The monochrome in this disfigured state equates to a play on both figurative painting and the figure/ground relationship. Hickman I think has just edged a little closer to the surface.
1. James Panero, ‘Gallery Chronicle’, The New Criterion, vol.24, no.6, February, 2006, p.50.
2. Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights: The Writings of Andrea Fraser, ed. Alexander Alberro, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2005, p.25.