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This unlikely coupling of Robert MacPherson and Ania Walwicz took its cue from MacPherson who has known Walwicz’s work since the early 1980s when both artists exhibited with Art Projects, Melbourne. Since then, Walwicz has maintained a practice in both visual art and literature; her written work has been variously described as expressionist, stream-of-consciousness, and appropriative. In the same period MacPherson has retained a strong conceptual foundation for his work both in and out of painting and much of this, unlike the process-based paintings from the seventies, makes explicit reference to language. Curator Ewen McDonald has worked previously with both artists, producing a CD for Walwicz and writing frequently on MacPherson in addition to including him in several exhibitions, among them the 1998 Adelaide Biennial. While ‘act’ was prompted by MacPherson’s enthusiasm—in Walwicz’s practice he recognised a kindred enterprise—it was McDonald who conceived the show.
The exhibition opened with one of MacPherson’s suites of Robert Pene drawings, here a four-part full-length portrait of the eponymous fourth-grade pupil of St. Joseph’s Convent, Nambour, his feet floating above the ground. This work slyly encapsulated many of the show’s concerns—the production of self, autobiographical invention and bodily inscription, the procedural nature of both Walwicz’s and MacPherson’s production, the authenticity of gesture and line—but much of this was contained by the overall cuteness of the Robert Pene conceit and to that extent, at this point in the show it was almost invisible. Only in conjunction with Walwicz’s drawings and selections of other work by MacPherson—a 1976–77 process piece called Lip Ritual and a contemporaneous three-part Scale from The Tool—did it become apparent.
The disarming quality of the Pene work, its overload of narrative and autobiographical content and its graphic charm all help disguise MacPherson’s gambit in adopting this alter-ego in 1989. Although there are enough biographical points in common between the Robert Pene character, as documented in hundreds of drawings, and Robert MacPherson, the artist, to consider them identical (Robert Pene is Robert MacPherson as a child), Pene can also be considered dissociatively. The Pene persona allowed MacPherson—the painter and conceptualist known for his rigorous, if idiosyncratic, adherence to certain rules of Greenbergian modernism—the distance necessary to produce work laden with the explicit qualities of narrative, history, and regional specificity, qualities disallowed by formalism. (These qualities did not feature highly in conceptual art either.) If, through his own reading of Greenberg, MacPherson the formalist painter could successfully exhibit a single paintbrush as a painting, MacPherson the conceptualist could equally show a slew of drawings by his ten-year old alter-ego, conjuring up an image of childhood within the context of rural, Catholic life in Queensland in the immediate post-war period, an image in fact of his own childhood. (Pene is a name from his maternal line.) MacPherson exhibited the first Pene drawings after several exhibitions of his Latin-scripted Frog Poem signboards, word-and-text assemblages that were not afraid to court impenetrability or opacity, hinged as they were on herpetology and scientific nomenclature.
The first Pene drawings risked being seen as both a puzzlement and a relief, for MacPherson was not known as a maker of images and the representational quality of the Pene drawings could come as a surprise. In ‘act’, however, their conjunction with Walwicz’s looser drawings muted this representational force and the drawings’ status as configurations of line became more readily apparent. ‘Act’ orchestrated a play of similarity and difference across both artists’ work and surprisingly, perhaps, some of this similarity was formal. A number of Walwicz’s self-portraits echoed MacPherson’s hand and highlighted the fact that, when stripped of aged paper effects and narrative attachments, the Pene drawings are primarily registrations of penciled gesture.
If the conjunction with Walwicz’s drawings weakened the Pene drawings’ claim to representational effect by emphasising their graphic invention, it also minimised their status as autobiographical evidence. (They are first and foremost marks on paper.) Walwicz’s literary work also highlights the invention of MacPherson’s Pene persona, for she is engaged in a similarly autobiographical project, a writing of the self and its stories. In an interview she gave in 1996 she underscored the fictional aspect of this enterprise, and spoke of ‘the persona of the artificial self’, noting, ‘(The) autobiographical angle is really an illusory side of the work…it is very much a construct’. And while Walwicz illuminates the autobiographical invention in Pene, in conjunction with MacPherson’s work the procedural nature of her own practice becomes apparent. As installed in the exhibition, the page-after-page of A3 typescript for ‘body’ (1999) and the accompanying 100-plus self-portraits along with a similar number of drawings for ‘act’, suggested less a finished work than a constant working through: the drawings for ‘body’ are described as ‘unlimited’. (MacPherson too has produced thousands of Robert Pene images.) Ewen McDonald writes of ‘the self tracing itself’ in Walwicz’s drawings and texts, of an unceasing effort to catch—rather than find—‘Ania Walwicz’ out ‘between self and representation’.
In ‘body’ Walwicz writes: ‘I write my body now. I write a story. I don’t know a story. But I write me. The writing is doing me. I do me. This forms my body. My hand does me. The body of the text constructs the body of the writer now’. What Walwicz announces, MacPherson has long acknowledged in his work, frequently using his bodily reach as a limit to determine stretcher size. Generating a rule for making paintings, MacPherson’s body has rarely featured as a direct marker of that entity we might call ‘self’. Lip Ritual, a series of ghosted, empty ‘o’s, produced by blotting his own lipsticked mouth, included in the exhibition, is one of the few exceptions, but the self it calls up is not only MacPherson’s—whose presence it traces—but his mother’s, the memory of whom prompted the work.
In recognising something of themselves in the other’s work, both artists acknowledged their common project as well as shared influences. (Gertrude Stein is important to both.) Mirroring the eighteen Robert Pene self-portraits was a wall of Walwicz’s drawings, many of them complete self-portraits, some simply facial notations. In this doubling it was easy for any singularity of line to weaken, if not disappear, so that Walwicz’s auto-portraits seemed to call up the strongly iconic portraits of MacPherson/Pene’s boss drovers as if to ask ‘Whose drawing is this?’ In ‘act’ the strongest markers of self—Walwicz’s frenetic delivery of ‘body’, a text from 1999 replayed during the course of the exhibition; her scribbled facial notations; MacPherson’s ongoing autobiography through Robert Pene; his most intimate indexical markings—revealed most clearly their production, performance, and representation.