Unmanned

I’ve just finished tutoring a session of twelve hour painting and drawing workshops; with a duration of two to four days these are classes where people meet, needs are gauged and teaching delivered in a compressed time frame.  A retired high school art teacher attending one workshop congratulated the class on the diversity with which each student used the exercises to develop their subjectivity. A little later a tutor from an adjoining class passed through and declared that the easels all spoke Sydney Nolan, an artist whose later work came to represent a pastiche of originality.

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The contrast in these responses reminds me that in painting the exchange between reflective experience and symbolic convention is critical. Claude Lévi-Strauss observed such renovation and abstraction at work in tribal societies which divide their world with a taxonomy that is both symbolic and material. He gives the example of one South Pacific culture whose world was divided into elements that were fresh and those that were decayed, or to reverse the implications of good over bad: the cooked and the raw.

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José Orozco, Study of a hand for the Huntingdon Mural 1932

A couple of examples in a modern context of the way the fresh and the decayed can represent a similar reversal are evident in two artists I’ve been looking at recently.

The Mexican muralist José Orozco painted a fresco in the early 1930s at the Huntingdon Library in New Hampshire: The Epic History of American Civilization. It depicts humanity freeing itself from the chains of mechanistic labour. At one stage he depicts knowledge as a skeleton giving birth to bones in jars, with robed skulls looking on.
This arch idealism which is of its time is countered by another artist with an oppositional practice who found less repugnance in the decaying body of his art’s history; James Baldwin wrote:
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

Baldwin takes heart from the past, but current consciousness is shy of history mainly because of the forms of its remembrance. Born yesterday many things appear new that have always been around, the driverless car for example is merely an accessory for the driverless body which has been wandering the streets for years caught in a warp, remembering itself once remembering its past.

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Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The New Wallpaper, 2001

In my painting now, studying the shape of someone’s distant pose in a tiny photographic image, I begin looking for some expression of emotion, a hint that can help take this figure somewhere the last figure didn’t. It’s a funny business, each rendering necessarily ends with a question hanging over it: what part does it play in the composition, in the situation? When it happens the resulting geometry only becomes clear much later, under the gaze: an interplay of figures that are effortlessly drawn into the viewers space. In the end it isn’t emotion that finds expression, but action, figures acting on each other in the surface weave

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Into The Mix

washing up yesterday, I turned a cup in my hand examining it for particles of matter.  Accompanying this act was a thought of people in great magnitude doing just this,  a wave of cup turning day after day, year after year- hygiene, vision and stubborn marks. 
The extension of the singular into the multiple, I do it all the time, dissolving the continuity of my own experience of time into the episodic fragments of others. Most of the time this mental activity leads to an unwelcome moment of helplessness, or perhaps it’s the need of help, a lack of some kind that brings it on.

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I can remember when it first came to me as an adolescent in the English Midlands, one who walked a lot along city streets, railway lines and  pathways. counting road reflector spikes and considering  each one planted by someone employed to do just this. the repetitive elements of the urban environment were feeding back into something within me which also seemed constituted by series . this was at a time when I was trying earnestly to figure out what future work I was going to be able to fit into, road and rail crews, distribution and collection,  unanswered callings.

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As one of his first scientific projects, the young Descartes began an exuberant treatise on the wonder of nature. The church deemed this earthly focus heretical and threatened him with excommunication. He then performed a cunning sidestep with a new angle that legalised his research, viewing the world as a doubtful space prey to the observer’s subjectivity.

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My painting goes through some excruciatingly convoluted processes to arrive at a completion. In my teaching classes I show images in-process of a painting I completed a few years ago as an example of decisive changes in direction that can take place in trying to maintain a focus on the subject. Initially in this painting several systems of grid, figures and chromosome pairs were superimposed as a kind of problem in the depiction of an urban crowd. In the second documented stage they are severely constrained to develop a tonal point of view; the final application produces a singular field, a space that is a kind of model like those sociobiologists tell us we construct to conceptually attend to our worlds.

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Repetition and Variation

This week we twice sighted a man walking barefoot on the highway. In the five days between our inward and outward journeys he’d covered 120 km including a mountain range. Of Chinese appearance, dressed in orange robes, barefoot and carrying a bedroll. The language of police reports, hours remembered walking and waiting in years gone by, on the roadside : litoral zone, non-place, scene of notorious acts and forensic scrutiny.
A twilight zone, a grasshopper and an uncommon scale of movement on a machine road. Speeding past, idly considering a good story of perpetrator and avenger in uncompromising circumstance.

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John Peart – Colour Square 3 – 1968

Sadly, the abstract painter John Peart died recently, a victim to  bushfire near his home in southern Sydney. In the many years I’ve followed the developments of his work, Peart was a stalwart practitioner of a form of abstraction marked by a pictorial equivalence within the space of painting. Like a pianist on a keyboard, he handled elements of language with a speculation that appeared natural and easily come by, but underlying his scale-like notations is a highly synthetic process. To my mind the spatial construction of marks suspends his paintings somewhere between the concrete and the hypothetical.
Abstraction is to some extent the response of the artist to a post human world, an absence of a veiled and mystical encounter between an interior spirit world and concrete reality. For the contemporary abstract artist completely surrounded by the concrete, a screen in place of a veil presents itself. A screen with stains that look a bit image-like but are simply readings. Actually non-existent, hypothetical and speculative, the screen is a groundless space.
Looking at a John Peart painting is an experience In repetition and variation, a structural code, its terms of success lie in its ability to speak cogently of specific moments upon a generic plane, the one and the many with an equivalence that privileges neither. From this encounter, in the best scenario issues an abstract field.

Some would say the screen is a phenomenon we create to cover the empty face of reality, or rather it’s multifaceted and unbearable equivalence.

Abstract art is generally anti-narrative. Most storytelling privileges the singular, a focal point, often an individual made to stand for the many, a figure on the screen that subsumes the generic field. But occasionally one finds the binary held in a way that measures up more even-handedly.

By chance on the local high street I came across a copy of a collection of essays by the pioneering war journalist Vasily Grossman, several pieces bear witness to the complexity that came with the events of the second world war, one essay, The Hell of Treblinka is Grossman’s account of the red army discovery in 1944 and unearthing of the activities at the Treblinka death camp. It is an earnest workmanlike attempt to describe the morally outrageous crimes committed there by studying the statistical volumes of victims and the industrial scale conveyer of execution. Overwhelmed by the monumental scale and absence of morality in the camp routines, the typical narrative byline won’t hold. Instead the reader’s attention is brought to the logistical issues of the camp jailers ‘handling’ , in thirteen months what amounted to the population of a medium-sized European city.
In walking around the camp Grossman is repeatedly drawn to the ground beneath his feet that offers up its evidence in the form of broken watch movements and innumerable locks of hair. Using Repetition and metaphor to build emotion : ‘… the earth sways beneath our feet – earth of Treblinka, bottomless earth, earth as unsteady as the sea.’

We may be somewhat jaded by the problematic narratives that issue out of this part of history, as also to Adorno’s oft repeated ‘there can be no poetry after Auschwitz’. But I think it is in the work of an artist such as John Peart that art has been able to survive its groundlessness. It was the reality of this condition that became for better or worse the basis for the screen out of which its constructs developed – without looking back.

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