Elizabeth Newman & Nicki Wynnychuk
Australian Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide
19 May – 18 June 2011
Art that looks like furniture, and furnishings that look like art, and polychromes that look like monochromes, but only because the lighting’s too low, and monochromes that look polychromatic, but only because you’re standing too close.
This is a review of a collaborative project, but I’m thinking right now about past viewings of the artists’ individual projects, since room for plan B, shown at the Australian Experimental Art Foundation earlier this year, was the first collaboration between Melbourne artists Elizabeth Newman and Nicki Wynnychuk.
Strains of minimalism and of arte povera echo through both of the artists’ independent practices, and these influences were evident in room for plan B also. The exhibition comprised two large works, in painted plywood over pine stud skeletons, a different colour on each side, organised in a line that spanned the length of the gallery, while a composition of found fabrics and ply furnished the end wall. The timber and ply works were monumental or indeed architectural in their scale: they towered over the viewer, almost meeting the ceiling, and one featured a doorway, or something like it, which encouraged the viewer’s passage. But, in spite of their imposing scale, there was an unmistakable lightness to these works: their sides remained open, revealing their hollowness and the thinness of their plywood skins, and their surfaces were punctuated by fissures where differently bowed panels of ply had refused to meet. American sculptor Tony Smith once remarked that his works should be understood as neither object nor monument, and the same is true here, but where the ambiguity in Smith’s work was a matter of scale, it is here a question of weight.1 The monochrome monoliths in room for plan B were too large to be objects, but they were too light to be monuments. Actually, they weren’t really monochromes either, because they belonged to the room, because all the holes and their arrangement meant that you couldn’t help but view one against its sibling and against the white of the walls and the grey of the floor, and so the overall effect was rather one of an ever-changing composition of differently coloured planes and spaces.
In their press release, the artists announced the work as ‘part discrete modernist object, part post-object interaction and installation’, which is a more concise way of saying much of what I’ve already said, and yet the work was not really part this and part that, so much as it was riven by a sense of being in-between or, better, by a sense of negation — indeed by a double negation, a negation of both polar possibilities. It is not, in other words again, a case of either/or, but rather of neither/nor — except when these works occupied both positions simultaneously. Negation, then, but evasion too. The scale of the things and our ability to walk through them threw the focus back upon the space or the viewer, and yet the works were too obviously handmade to allow the installation to function purely as such. We read the space between the two monoliths as a room within a room, but in the same moment their handmade quality drew one in, reinstating their objectness in a way that worked against the installation qua installation. Minimalism and materiality were in tension here, and recurringly so.
Unsurprisingly, the title of the show threw up problems too — and questions, such as: were the artists looking to make room for plan B, or was it all about this particular room in this particular gallery? What, in fact, is plan B? And should we be worried that it looks a lot like modernism? Probably not, because it is clearly after modernism: Newman has elsewhere admitted of her own work a nostalgia toward the avant-gardes of the twentieth century.2 But Bruno Latour has told us that we’ve never been modern anyway — that, in sum, the Enlightenment’s staunch division of the natural and the social is not merely fallacious but enduringly dangerous.3 So what does it mean to follow a thing that never was? Perhaps modernism itself is the absent plan A of the exhibition’s title?
Latour proposed a term to describe hybrid phenomena, those things that occupy the divide between the natural and the social: ‘quasi-objects’. With apologies to Latour, whose project is firstly an anthropology of science, it might be pointed out that this term actually describes Newman and Wynnychuk’s timber and ply constructions quite aptly. But this would be a presumptuous bow to draw, and, anyhow, it was perhaps the composition of fabrics on the end wall which spoke most about the error in the separation of man [sic] from his world. The treatment of this wall fell squarely within the lineage of Newman’s ‘paintings’ that aren’t. The artist’s description of her works as paintings, even when no paint is involved, exposes the mutability of signification and the politics of identification. And the logic of this collaboration therefore becomes clear, for Newman’s linguistic provocation mirrors the careful precarity of Wynnychuk’s work. This exhibition deploys an act of naming and a formal language that are both against nomination. In other words, if the details of plan B were spelled out too clearly, it would be our plan A.
Brad Haylock is an artist and designer, and a lecturer in the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at Monash University.