Incident and Anecdote

Robert MacPherson: The Painter's Reach

On entering the building the visitor to Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) is immediately confronted by two possibilities: veer to the left and examine the small selection of works in the long vitrine, or look up to the right. Here, in a towering hang that reaches almost to the full height of the building, is CHITTERS: A WHEELBARROW FOR RICHARD, 156 PAINTINGS, 156 SIGNS (1999-2000). It is a huge work (almost ten metres high by a little over seventeen metres wide) with each Masonite panel carrying a text linked to landscaping—painted white on black in Dulux Weathershield Acrylic. It is so big that it is difficult to take in all at once, there is no way to step back, and climbing the stairs to the upper galleries simply proffers angled or fragmented views. But you can put it together, bit by bit, perhaps the way it was made, in modular fragments: SMALL/LAND-/SCAPING ROAD/FILL. NAMBU/-CCA/RIVER/PEBBLE WATER/FALLS. Read this way, it is a painting and maybe also a poem: DRY/STONE/WALLS. BOBCATS/+/EXCAVA-/TORS. ASPHAL/T. DRIV-/E. WAYS. ROCKE-/RIES. 

Like most of Robert MacPherson’s work, CHITTERS invites the viewer into a layered system, a play with language, process or form, often drawing on quite specialist knowledge—be it scientific, artistic, or vernacular. A quick search of a dictionary for the meaning of ‘chitters’ for example, is quite likely to come up blank, leaving you caught toying with the idea of a brief note, slip or voucher, a ‘chit’, or a bit of gossipy chit chat, a pile of words, rather than the coarse pebbly residue left over from coal mining. No doubt there is a story in this, not tailings, but a tale. But knowing just how far to dig with MacPherson’s work can be a challenge, it is not always easy to follow the seam.

While presented as a kind of side-story to the main exhibition, the collection of works in the vitrine to the left of the main gallery entrance—identified on the didactic panel as ‘Relics of Boredom and other Ephemera’—offer some interesting keys to MacPherson’s practice. ALL ENGLISH LITERATURE-UNWRITTEN (1981) simply presents the alphabet on a printed index card, with the title text in smaller type across the bottom, propped on an old typewriter, suggesting that all literature and, by extension, all art, is simply the product of manipulating pre-existing elements. But if letters are the foundation of literature, what might be the fundamental units for art? Interestingly, the categorisation of these works as ‘ephemera’ seems to downplay their significance a little, as for a time in the early 1980s they were at the centre of MacPherson’s practice, opening up the possibilities for the Frog Poems, and the later Mayfair paintings.

About half-a-dozen key Frog Poem works are included in the exhibition, while some thirty works from the Mayfair series are included, mostly painted in the last two decades. The original text based work I ALWAYS BUY MY LUNCH AT THE MAYFAIR BAR, which gives them their title, dates from 1983, when MacPherson’s practice seemed to have shifted away from a primary focus on painting. This and a couple of more ephemeral early text/image Mayfair works are included in the vitrine. In fact, one could say that this work comes at the point during the late-seventies when MacPherson’s analytical approach to painting had reached its logical conclusion. But perhaps that is oversimplifying the process a little. 

One of the interesting things about MacPherson’s practice is how tightly edited it is, for although he began painting in Brisbane in the late 1950s, none of this early work is included. As the catalogue’s useful chronology of the artist’s working life informs us, he stopped painting in 1968 destroying much of his work. This is a career that has no room for juvenilia. Although he began painting again in 1973, the earliest work in this exhibition dates from 1974, the year of his first solo show at the Ray Hughes Gallery—he was thirty-seven. The following year he held his second solo exhibition at the recently opened Institute of Modern Art (IMA), which has served as the location of most of his key exhibitions in Brisbane over the past forty years. The last time a survey of his work was held in Brisbane was back in 1985 at the IMA, in a two part exhibition curated by Malcolm Enright and Peter Cripps. In 2001 there was a major survey of his work, curated by Trevor Smith for the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) that toured to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, but this is the first significant showing of a body of his work at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art. 

In the first room of the main exhibition space a carefully selected group of works provided a way of following MacPherson’s early moves exploring the process of painting. In a work such as BLACK/WHITE (KILRAIN) FOR O.M. (1975), the focus is on treating the canvas as a container to be filled, exploring the subtle differences that emerge through variations in the way paint is applied. These works are very much within the tradition of process art—rather than conceptual art—the key focus is the following through of a predetermined strategy, or formula, for making art. In MacPherson’s case the logic of his exploration progressed in series, initially focussed on the painter’s reach and the properties of the brush as a tool for paint application, as exemplified by works such as SCALE FROM THE TOOL (1976), but then it shifts quite quickly to an exploration of the limits of painting itself.

In curating this exhibition, Ingrid Periz—who has been curating and writing on MacPherson’s work since the mid-eighties—has taken great care with the installation, which allows the viewer to grasp important links between works. For example, when the viewer enters the first gallery they face SCALE FROM THE TOOL (SABCO) (1977), a simple five piece work that plays with the relationship between the three basic elements of a standard Sabco paint brush—painted wooden handle, metal ferrule and black bristles. This work was positioned on the freestanding wall that divides the gallery into two sections. As the viewer came around the wall the logic was revealed, with the paint brush and text combination of THREE PAINTINGS (1981) hanging on the other side. If in ‘The Scale From The Tool’ works the brush serves as the model for four small paintings, in THREE PAINTINGS the brush becomes the painting, with the text panels outlining the logic of each step, from dipping the bristles in paint to the painting of the handle during manufacture—‘any move beyond this point is superfluous’. 

Interestingly, MacPherson played around the limits of painting for some time, with numerous works that might well serve as either preludes or encores to this ‘end point’, and perhaps the ‘final moment’ in this exhibition is LITTLE PICTURES FOR THE POOR (1983). It is perhaps a sign of the restrained curatorial positioning of this exhibition that the point is not laboured here, and so other well-known works that play in this territory are not included—pieces like ARTIST/ARTISAN (1979) or I SEE A CAN OF PAINT AS A PAINTING UNPAINTED (1982). If my memory serves me correctly, I SEE A CAN OF PAINT AS A PAINTING UNPAINTED first appeared as a ‘text only’ work in Notes On Art Practice, a small book of artist’s statements edited by John Nixon and published by his gallery, Art Projects, in 1982. Similarly, my first recollection of I ALWAYS BUY MY LUNCH AT THE MAYFAIR BAR is also as an ‘artist’s statement’ in the catalogue for the group exhibition ‘Minimalism x Six’, curated by Malcolm Enright for the IMA in mid-1983. In this exhibition MacPherson did exhibit paintings, but not his own. Instead, in Where are You Now, Silvia Holmes? (1982–1983), his work consisted of two paintings by Silvia Holmes, ‘found’ in an op-shop, and a four page text. 

In a way, MacPherson’s method has not really shifted greatly across his career, and this is very clear in the later Mayfair paintings. The big difference is the way his work begins to admit other language systems—it stops being primarily about painting. Perhaps this is why the Mayfair Bar text is so significant, it allows MacPherson to open up the rules that structure his art making, allowing him to play with a wider set of materials than paint, canvas and brush. But the idea that MacPherson is working within a very tight set of self-imposed rules or instructions is also undermined if one reads the Mayfair Bar text carefully. For although it begins with a focus on ‘always’, the account of sandwich making and the list of ingredients and processes admits substitution and variation from the rule—MacPherson begins by stating ‘I always have a salmon on brown bread sandwich’, but the text quickly slips to ‘sometimes I have a cheese and tomato sandwich’ and concludes with ‘sometimes I have a prawn and tomato sandwich’. In other words, just as MacPherson’s account of the lunch he ‘always’ has needs to be understood as a flexible account of an apparently tight set of choices and processes, so too with the systems set up for the production of art. 

Across his career MacPherson has spent periods working in intense detail with a variety of language systems, both visual and verbal, in fact usually a combination of both—the Latin names of frog species, the vernacular language of road-side signs, the subcultural argot of drovers and deros. In the final rooms we find MacPherson both revisiting the Mayfair Bar text, and also returning to colour, with works like MAYFAIR:(PEERLESS) which make use of dry cleaning dockets to establish the rules for colour panels (although, one of the ironies here is that MacPherson’s work as ‘colour field’ painter remains as invisible as his early forays as an expressionist painter). In some of the more recent works from the MAYFAIR BAR REVISITED (1983-2012) series the links between the original text and the paintings becomes almost too obvious, with paintings that seem to illustrate aspects of sandwich making outlined in the text. 

One of the keys to the way MacPherson’s work is presented here is to be found in the substantial catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, which—along with Ingrid Periz’s excellent curator’s essay—includes essays by Angela Goddard, and Trevor Smith, as well as an interview with MacPherson by Ewen McDonald. A core thread which runs through the account of MacPherson’s practice is signalled by a quote on the catalogue’s opening page: ‘I’ve always found inspiration in the places where I worked …’. Much is made of the fact that MacPherson is essentially a ‘self-taught’ artist, and that his work often draws insights and other material from the various jobs he has held—the catalogue’s chronology flips between references to his art practice and his ‘other work’, from rural work in his teens to factory work, time as a painter and docker, and a decade as a cleaning supervisor, as well as work in the antiques trade. But, aside from this account of his working life, MacPherson’s personal biography remains fairly opaque.

Perhaps this is one of the things that is so appealing about the persona that MacPherson has created as the ‘author’ of the large body of Boss Drover works that he has produced since the mid-1990s—ten year old Robert Pene, a student at St Joseph’s Convent, in Nambour. Included in this exhibition is the monumental 1000 FROG POEMS: 1000 BOSS DROVERS (‘YELLOW LEAF FALLING’) FOR H.S. (1996-2014), a towering installation of 2400 drawings. Each presents a drawing of a face, a boss drover’s name and occasionally a brief notation, embedded in a painterly surface of ‘aged’ ink stains (although some faces also use collage elements). The project as a whole is dated to 14 February 1947, Robert MacPherson’s tenth birthday. In this installation format, it is impossible to examine each page in detail, but the gallery has added an additional layer with the inclusion of a digital image of each page, and in some cases further research notes. In this way the fiction is tied to the historical record of drovers and droving in Australia. This kind of further development of MacPherson’s ‘Robert Pene’ works also occurs in the ‘Swags and Swamp Rats’ exhibition in the QAGOMA’s Children’s Art Centre. 

As is the case in so much of MacPherson’s work, with these Boss Drover drawings it is difficult to know how to manage the layers of information, how to disentangle the specialist art knowledge from the layers of incident and anecdote. It is a point that has been made before. As John O’Brien wrote in his catalogue essay for the 2001 AGWA survey: ‘Audiences do not need to know that the Mayfair Bar … was a sandwich shop in Brisbane at the corner of Adelaide and Queen Streets.(1) It is a matter of specialised knowledge as opposed to anecdotal ephemera. Art is generally a function of specialised knowledge, not lunch-time biographies.’ Although, with MacPherson it can be difficult to tell which territory you are working in, or for that matter, which bit of information is which. Perhaps this is because for those who have the knowledge—be it about art, frogs, landscape supplies, droving, golden syrup or the streets of Brisbane, any small detail can be significant, and a small error can easily put you on the outer. 

Robert MacPherson, CHITTERS: A WHEELBARROW FOR RICHARD, 156 PAINTINGS, 156 SIGNS, 1999–2000. Detail. Installation view, ‘The Painter’s Reach’, QAGOMA. Courtesy the artist and Yuill | Crowley, Sydney.

Robert MacPherson, SCALE FROM THE TOOL (SABCO), 1977. Enamel, gold foil on wood, paintbrush, five units 27 x 9 x 2cm (each). Collection the artist. Courtesy Yuill | Crowley, Sydney.

Robert MacPherson, SCALE FROM THE TOOL, 1976. Acrylic on canvas, 19 panels: 176.5 x 20.8 x 3.5cm (each). Private collection, Sydney. 

Robert MacPherson, MAYFAIR: LAMINGTON DRIVE, FOR IGOR MULLER-GRABINSKY, 1995–2005. Dulux Weathershield Acrylic on Masonite, four panels: 91 x 122cm (each). Private collection. 

notes: 

1. While the issue of where the Mayfair Bar was located is perhaps only of anecdotal interest, it is worth noting that O’Brien’s remark here presents us with an interesting problem for those who are familiar with the layout of Brisbane, the grid of which is organised around a particular naming system based on the gendered names of kings and queens. Most intersections in the heart of the city are of a king and a queen—Albert and Queen Street, for example, which is where MacPherson locates the Mayfair Bar in his interview with Ewen McDonald. My recollection is that the Mayfair Bar was located in Albert Street, but at two different sites, the latter being closer to Burnett Lane, at the end of The Pavilion Arcade. However, O’Brien’s error locates it at that rare point, the intersection of two streets that for the most part run parallel, only intersecting after Queen Street swings north at its intersection with Wharf and Eagle Streets. This puts the Mayfair Bar right at the edge of the CBD, rather than a short walk from where MacPherson worked as a cleaning supervisor at the time the original Mayfair Bar text was written. As MacPherson’s work shows us again and again, the line between anecdotal and specialist knowledge is a fine one, and sometimes trying to make a distinction between the two simply muddies the water

‘Robert MacPherson: The Painter’s Reach’ was exhibited at QAGOMA Brisbane, 25 July – 18 October 2015. 

Peter Anderson is a Melbourne-based writer.