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Any sweep or flick of an arm with the hand holding a paint-laden brush could be termed a ‘filled gesture’. Robert MacPherson has used this performative action in numerous series to describe the act of painting—the making as much as the outcome, the painted object.
Indeed, the object/objective of the painting process, as far as MacPherson is concerned, is best described as an ongoing relationship between the artist, the tools of production, the construction and context for each series of work. Early in his career, the artist decided that his own body—its reach and proportions—would be the determinants of his practice, just as his experiences in the world would temper his approach to the rich legacy of art history (for instance, Clement Greenberg’s view of modernist paintings being ‘self-contained’). In this sense, MacPherson’s work is autobiographic… always a self-portrait.
This is evident in the formative Scales from the Tool series of 1978; panels of varying width (the size of a brush laden with black paint) and the resulting sweep of the arm down the canvas. Likewise, Filled Gestures—a selection of 21 acrylic on paper works from a total installation of 200 components included in a recent survey of projects—are the catalyst for the exhibition, Painting Uncontained, Robert MacPherson 1978-2016. The exhibition brings together seven discrete series focused on the evolution of this idea across a range of media—from the works on paper, to stencilled words on two grey blankets (Wagga Wagga: two frog poems for N.Y. 1992-1995), to ink-stained white shirts and works on canvas—each with an accompanying framed laundry docket, characteristic of the ongoing Mayfair Peerless series from 2002.
The series has now been expanded to include pairs of painted jeans: Levi Strauss & Co 503s. Marketed as ‘a modern take on boot cut jeans originally designed to fit over cowboy boots’, the 503 Regular Bootcut jeans incorporated into MacPherson’s practice now hang alongside painted canvases and a framed handwritten note for retailoring: ‘26” inside leg’—the artist’s instructions for shortening the jeans. Subtitled ‘Duck’s Disease’, this recent variation on the Mayfair Peerless theme acknowledges another bodily attribute of the artist as well as a common feature of his practice: ‘Duck’s Disease’ is Australian slang for short stature—the Levi 503 works continuing the body-scale determinants associated with MacPherson’s practice, as well as enlisting the linguistic wonders of common sayings. Again, a celebration of the untapped visual and metaphoric possibilities of the vernacular.
If the use of everyday language and slang is an important feature of MacPherson’s practice (think of the many often multi-panelled signage works), then of equal significance are the workers and characters who are the foundation of labour, of society—often, as the attributions in his titles suggest, the forgotten folk of local history. In this survey, while the words WAGGA WAGGA stencilled across two blankets, are an example of the former (‘Wagga’ a Wiradjuri word for ‘crow’; and now the name of the city… possibly meaning a place of many crows), the introduction of Levis can be considered a representation of the latter. Jeans have long been a symbol associated with the workforce and here, hanging alongside the woollen blankets, allude to former days when the artist worked as a drover, the leather Levi Strauss label at the waist depicting cowboys and horses at work.
The altered, yet-to-be-worn Levis may be ready for MacPherson’s body, for work, but displayed here in pristine condition these ‘ready-mades’ allude to another intriguing history. No longer ‘just jeans’, homogenised and undifferentiated, the artist has adulterated them, individualised them, turning them too into ‘containers for painting’.
If one’s ‘identity’ is encoded in the body, it can be traced in its cultural wrappings too. But here, while MacPherson’s thickly-painted white segments relate to proportion, the placement of square pockets—even the triangular space between the inside legs—the markers represent the ‘absent’ body of the artist. These 503s are not enlivened by traces of smells, sweat and wear-and-tear, but by their owner’s adulterations and adaptations. An elegant modernist project comprising denim jeans, hung and quartered, installed as stretched canvases left to dry.
Like the Scale of the Tool, this series draws our attention to the brushwork, the application of paint—again, the maker, the tool and the outcome. The invisible machinists of the pristine 503s incorporated into this series of Mayfair Peerless works, allude to the sandwich makers at the Mayfair Bar where MacPherson, when working in the city, bought his lunch each day. Like the sandwiches, these Levis are already imbued with the maker’s mark: production line maybe, mass manufactured by a multi-national brand, but nevertheless, cut and sewn by individuals (often poorly-paid) geographically removed from the point of sale. Unlike the sandwich makers at the Mayfair Bar however, with whom the artist had personable daily contact, by drawing attention to the invisible ‘constructionists’ behind the jeans, MacPherson acknowledges the context, the social realities of commodification, and the insatiable consumption of objects.
This ‘undoing of seams’—unpicking the unseemly—MacPherson’s adulteration of 503s highlights his ongoing focus on labour: the artist as worker, a maker of things, and the origins of objects brought into the world. While these Levis have never been worn, in their guise as markers and containers of painterly processes, they tell a great deal about their ‘wearer’.
Robert MacPherson, Mayfair Peerless ‘Duck’s Disease’ (hop skip & jump), 2002 – 2016. 1 framed text 41 x 31cm, 1 pair Levi’s 503, acrylic paint, 6 units 66 x 31cm (overall). Photograph Aimee Crouch. Courtesy Yuill|Crowley, Sydney.
Robert MacPherson, Mayfair Peerless (Duck’s Disease), 2002 – 2016. 1 framed text 41 x 31cm, 1 pair Levi’s 503, acrylic paint, 2 units 66 x 31cm (overall). Photograph Aimee Crouch. Courtesy Yuill|Crowley Sydney.
Robert MacPherson, Mayfair: (Peerless) 5 works for S.F., 2002 – 2004. Acrylic on canvas, electrostatic print on paper (framed), 5 units, each 70 x 60cm. Photograph Aimee Crouch. Courtesy Yuill|Crowley Sydney.
Painting Uncontained Robert MacPherson 1978-2016, Installation view.