Nearly a century after the Russian Supremacists, the contemporary relevance of the monochrome painting is explored in a considered exhibition at Sutton Projects. David Homewood’s curatorial statement speaks of the complications with our traditional process in trying to make sense of a painting when considering the monochrome. Instead of focusing on whether we like the genre, or constantly striving to entirely understand the work, it may be more prudent to accept the monochrome’s place within both modern and contemporary art and consider what exactly artists are trying to achieve with it. One thing that remains clear, however, is that the monochrome always ‘distils the essence of painting’ and Homewood’s choice of work by Helen Johnson, Joshua Petherick, John Nixon and Elizabeth Newman represents this ongoing exploration of the ‘painting of paintings’.
Accounting for the complexities that the monochrome presents, it is poignant that All the rage by Helen Johnson is the work that greets the viewer. Startling and confronting hue cautions us upon entrance to the gallery, immediately turning any previous complications into outright hazards. Here paint is substituted for distress signal smoke, with the artist’s motion creating warning clouds that expand from the dark burn on the lower right. The symbolically extreme red could be interpreted as a caution for the exhibition visitor—for what they are about to encounter. Interestingly, this is by far the most expressive work in the exhibition; with the eruption of the flare providing an expansive and gestural mark-marking device that stands out compared to the inherent sparsity of the other pieces presented.
But as Johnson’s smoke swirls remain within the frame, Joshua Petherick’s high chroma-colour cannot be contained. Shadowcast (Blue Stray) sees colour escaping outwards from narrow confines. The blue seepage curls and extends, questioning the traditional binary relationship between painting and gallery wall. In Leaning (Attachment) he goes one step further, bringing an entire column section of wall from a previous exhibition to be presented as the work itself. Plaster oozes through the metal support structure behind the façade, adding a much needed sense of light-heartedness, while uncovering and displaying what is traditionally unseen in a high-art avant-garde context. Here the white cube becomes the work, questioning the neutrality of the gallery space.
John Nixon works in the tradition of the white monochrome, combining his exploration with the use of the entirely non-art material of rice. The individual grains sometimes clump together in groups, or elsewhere scatter loosely across the square canvas, but their location is fixed by the enamel paint. Whether the material used functions as a metaphor for something larger or merely exists as a medium of curiosity, the work speaks to the power of the genre. White Monochrome is separated from the other pieces in the show in the nook of the former warehouse space, and serves as a fitting conclusion to the brief suite exhibited. Here we see a painting that is fundamentally uncomplicated, devoid of grandiosity, yet one that makes quite a statement. By focusing on colour and texture, the essence of painting can be explored and examined, provoking consideration. Indeed, like this exhibition, much can be said with little.
Whether we in fact require the production details when considering the monochrome is open for debate. Does it need the information of the artist’s name or date of production to make up for what it may lack? The absence of pictorialism invites and encourages the spectator to draw their own conclusions, which could make that information less relevant. While subjectivity is present in any experience with art, the monochrome’s liberation of painting requires an enhancement of this subjectivity in our attempt to understand what we are seeing. The works of Monochrome Exhibition are effective catalysts in stimulating this individual consideration.
Daniel Withers is a writer and works at the Monash University Museum of Art.