When abstraction first appeared in the early part of the twentieth century, the use of simple geometric forms and broad expanses of uninflected colour was conceived as an idealisation of aesthetic purity: the aim was to reduce painting to its constituent materials, erasing any reference to the real world. Many contemporary artists have, however, stepped far beyond this original premise, frequently undoing and reforming their predecessor’s complacent harmonies and unities to present a more analytical, pragmatic or cynical point of view.1 Indeed, for the artists featured in ASsPEN Island, it seems as if abstraction may be best mobilised today by playing with the tension that exists between the desire for purity of form and the movement’s susceptibility to being exploited as decorative design.2
Featuring work by Justin Andrews, Julia Gorman, Melinda Harper, Bianca Hester, Clement Meadmore, Calum Stirling and Jan Van Der Ploeg, the exhibition sought to highlight the under-represented dialect of post-formalist abstraction in contemporary art. Consisting of what Sydney artist and SNO member Billy Gruner would describe as ‘gently-spoken rebels against contemporary art norms’ who have ‘staked their careers within a narrowly conceived mainstream’, ASsPEN Island explored a variety of ways in which artists continue to invest in and manipulate abstract forms.[^2]
For Melinda Harper and Jan Van Der Ploeg, the renovation of abstraction occurs through the act of transposing traditional geometric shapes to more curious sites and mediums. With its bold zig-zag lines painted in camouflage green and brown directly onto the gallery wall, Amsterdam-based Van Der Ploeg’s contribution to ASsPEN Island is emblematic of the artist’s graphic visual language. While far from ground-breaking in its scope, the impact and dynamism of WALL PAINTING NO. 324 2011 nevertheless reveals abstraction’s potential to move beyond the canvas.
Harper also makes an interesting detour away from non-objective painting, with an entire wall dedicated to her well crafted cross-stitchings that weave together busy patterns and bright, jarring colours. Known primarily for her paintings that employ similar visual motifs, the untitled series presented here extends both the technique and materiality of Harper’s practice, and suggests an unyielding preference for the boldness and simplicity of geometric shapes and block colours.
Justin Andrews, Julia Gorman and Bianca Hester, who each present the art object as something akin to interior decoration, provided an even broader — and more exciting — interpretation of what abstraction can do. Informed by a relaxed design logic, Julia Gorman presented two amorphous, multi-coloured light shades. Justin Andrews ambitiously constructed a pair of angular chairs and a table, the design for which was taken from How to make furniture without tools, an instructional ‘do-it-yourself’ furniture book by the Australian-born modernist sculptor Clement Meadmore (which, in turn, was thoughtfully signaled by the inclusion of an early Meadmore painting).
Predominantly known for her socially engaged sculptural practice, Bianca Hester was a surprising yet welcome addition to ASsPEN Island. Made from basic building materials, such as steel, timber and enamel paint in a palette of blue, pink and grey, Hester’s highly distinctive sculptural ‘props’ are usually employed as the backdrop for open-ended interactions in public and institutional settings. Produced in miniature for the exhibition and sitting as a centrepiece atop Andrews’ coffee table, an archetypal, angular model of Hester’s constructions was re-contextualised as an ornamental ‘embellishment’, thereby intriguingly revaluing the visual impact of her designs.
The one visual anomaly in the exhibition was Scottish artist Calum Stirling’s video Building/Sines 2000, in which carillonist Joan Chia plays Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’ on the bells of the National Carillon in Canberra. The inclusion of this work in an exhibition ostensibly about the legacy of abstraction in contemporary art is justified by its link to Walter Burly Griffin’s design of Canberra — which has a strong geometric basis — and, given the tenuousness of this explanation, the work felt out of place.
Disregarding this esoteric annexation, ASsPEN Island is a testament to Neon Parc’s director and curator Geoff Newton, whose interest in and knowledge of the recent history of Australian painting has produced a highly engaged case study of abstraction in its many contemporary and expanded forms.
Patrice Sharkey is assistant curator and registrar at Monash University Museum of Art, and gallery assistant at Sutton Gallery.
Mark Rosenthal, Critiques of Pure Abstraction, exhibition catalogue, Independent Curators Incorporated, 1995, p. 9. ↩
Billy Gruner, ‘Post-Formalism in Recent Australian Art’, available at http://www.sno.org.au/Images/Text/gruner_postformalism.pdf, accessed May 2012. ↩
Casa Batlló Double Bench/Telepathy Chair
Agatha Gothe-Snape’s Four Parts