Too Much Of Nothing


For Hannah Arendt writing in 1958 the ‘Human Condition’ is underlaid by three kinds of activity – labour, work and action. The painting we’ve recently completed took a significant amount of time at the wall face for its two labourers, myself and Barbara Penrose. The repetitive activity led to a conversation on work as a living, work as a crafting occupation, and work contributing to a sense of identity.


The most private survival-oriented category in Arendt’s ‘active life’ is labour, serving biological processes of survival, making a living and extending out into all areas of consumption. ‘Work’ in Arendt’s system pertains to the making of things, its product houses and equips human life. Action is in another realm : Action is the only activity that goes directly between men, without the intermediary of things or matter… it corresponds to the human condition of plurality. Action for Arendt is the initiation of an act together with its consequence, the performer and witness drawn by their participation into the formation of  identity.

This blog forms a background to my art practice and lately I’ve been feeling some repercussions from the thoughts unravelled here.   The posts are clipped fragments of word and image aiming to articulate the making and experience of art engaged within a public space.

Action, in Arendt’s sense forms a glancing identity perceived within the transformative plurality of a social situation.  I see myself reflected by others. It’s a model of public space inherited from the Greek Polis, unpredictable, risky and rarely seen in our very different public spaces.  More likely now my appearance stands for me.  Bound into consumer structures, my identity is given by signs portrayed in clothing etc. Perhaps the disturbing repercussion of this line of thinking is that I’m spoken by and through things, rather than in more directly communicative relations with others.

Mimics+Models1auto levels

In March 2003 Barbara and I began an Australia-China Council residency in Taipei, our project was to observe the way public space is used in Chinese culture. The Chinese scholar Wu Hung suggests we look to Chinese civilization for something other than formal  monuments,  In place of ‘monument’ he proposes ‘monumentality’, introducing the idea of content over form and foregrounds the people themselves in Chinese civilization as monumental. This approach is echoed in other currents such as  European archaeological sites viewed through the lens of performative rituals as opposed to object inventories. As applied to public space it suggests we look to transformative content rather than commemorative forms.

Mimics+Models no 1 2003 detail 2

The residency coincided with an outbreak of SARS in the city, a week later a state of emergency blanketed all of Taipei’s Public spaces. Suspected SARS carriers were quarantined by thermal imaging in public buildings and with thousands detained in their homes the city verged on civil insurrection and social collapse.  The work I made during this period, observed a public space caught in a tension between the individual and the calibrating force of the civic institution. I painted linen tapes cut and marked with increments, figures and mists of glaze. The concept was crude, its allusion to an overbearing social control, a thinly realized and over-determined process of art-making. In the intervening years I’ve taken these limitations as an environment from which to order crowds of figures with ad hoc systems of drip-lines and gridded surfaces whose nuances instruct the figure placements.


Photo by Rod Buchholz

The latest painting conceived under these auspices adds something else into the mix, it’s an installation of three walls, the central being a 3m x 5m coloured grid layered with almost a thousand figures. Either side are mirrored images of a close-up of a female visage. The juxtaposition is made loosely continuous by a frieze-like gridded surface that, on longer exposure yields the scenic visage.


Photo by Rod Buchholz

The three walls of  Riversongs evolved through the layering of repetitive visual systems. Loom-like the central wall was hung with a hundred measured drip-lines, the developing grid of 1800 rectangles coded in 14 colours developed the warp and weft of the loom bed while the final layer smudges and shadows the colour with a thousand figure sketches.


Photo by Rod Buchholz

The systematic application placed our working attention within the layers of the painting, dripping paint lines in regular intervals, filling in rectangles with preordained colour codes, sketching figures from photographs shot and collected for the purpose. This kind of absorption leads the result away from the Modernist goal of autonomous form and presence… dissapoints the self-seeking subject. Against this lack of self presence is a kind of call and response rushing to fill the void. One is left taking it in rather than surveilling.


Photo by Rod Buchholz

In the period between the Taipei work and Riversongs  I’ve  worked with pattern as a kind of geometrical space and people somehow in it but resisting – a grid of constraints with people smuggling across the space – organism and environment as distinct from figure and ground.


Photo by Rod Buchholz 

Arendt was keen to comprehend the ‘Unquiet’ which in a pre-modern tradition was negatively cast in relation to contemplative ‘Stillness’ in which a singular truth could be revealed.  Arendt’s project in The Human Condition is to disentangle aspects of the active life in order to better comprehend how modernity has conflated activity into labour and lost its articulation of work and action under the priority of consumption.

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Dancer 2017 Synthetic polymer on raw linen 180 x 91cm

I’m currently working on a series of paintings in the studio and preparing for a site specific painting commission to be carried out in April.  The commission, over several walls will create a gallery in the lobby of a residential development; it brings together aspects of the grid-colour crowds and large figure and pattern work currently in studio. 

Census 2006 synthetic polymer on linen 120 X 180 cm

In Brisbane three  of my works are on show in different exhibitions in February.  One is a painting acquired by Tim Lynch ten years ago for Moreton Council on show at the Moreton Shire Gallery in an exhibition entitled Ocular Play; another, a drawing made as a game in collaboration with my nephew Leo,  and showing as a finalist in  the Jacaranda Acquisitive Drawing Awards at the Caboolture Regional Gallery. The latest painting to leave the studio is on show at the Brisbane Institute of Art. 

Leo Ahonen and Nameer Davis Exquisite Zombie 2016 charcoal and pencil on paper 76 x 54 cm

The shift in emphasis within the work is exemplified in these three pieces, the drawing was one of several from an afternoon’s entertainment;  this one shone out for its happenchance correspondence of shape and line that answered a requirement I’ve given to the current studio work- that something has to be altered by the repetitions of pattern and surface. The gridded system had been a way of denying aesthetic composition, but it became a closed frame, and the complex crowd is ultimately at odds with the unitary grid.

Change is essential to social appearance, In fact, David Antin says, it is only in process of change that the self becomes evident.  Narrative is an account of change, it requires the subject to have a stake in an outcome. Something calls the subject into play and there’s a mission in the process of Being grasped. 

The painting titled Dancer is one of a series translating fashion plate imagery and print collage into paint. In painting the image is like a plot, it makes things intelligible but also kind of redundant. That’s why, in modernist art, Form becomes the outcome of a call to play, because somehow in good Form lies a repetitive return to the act of transformation.  

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Celestial Bodies 

​ Musings on the installation of Equinox, a public artwork for the new Tamworth Hospital made on site in October 2016 by James Rogers and Nameer Davis. 

Equinox is the twice yearly event at which the sun crosses the celestial equator and day and night are equal in length the world over
While working on this project I kept pondering on a story I’d heard during the drive down.  The short story from TC Boyle, a perfectly melded unit of form and content hurtling into tragedy. The story’s narrator presents fragments of a natural history of meteors while recounting specific events surrounding his daughter’s apparent roadside death in a traffic accident. A meteor extinguishes the dinosaur age and a swerving car shakes a relationship off its orbit. It’s a spellbinding collage of human order, probability and random nature which in a sense is the workaday world of the hospital.  

I Drove to Walcha in late September on a friend’s invitation to collaborate in a public art work he’d conceived for the new Tamworth Hospital.

My friendship with James Rogers stems from a studio shared in Sydney and farther back to art college in Toowoomba. James describes himself as a journeyman Sculptor; some years ago he relocated from Sydney where he exhibits regularly and successfully, to the New England town of Walcha.

For the purpose of our collaboration I would hazard to say that we have common sympathy in responding to the visual and physical as the avenue through which complex experience in art is formed.  

Table draft,  work in progress 

Shortlisted and successfully negotiating the competition, James provided the commissioners with the concept of an arrangement of coloured discs along the given venue, a 37 metre corridor.

The installation is a performance insofar as the design is composing itself in tandem with its application, onsite in real time. This process encourages an exploration of colour and placement, of circle and ground as colour fields experienced up close as well as rhythm and variation appreciable from street approach.

The exciting prospect of the work lies in the improvised nature of the composition, making decisions as the elements are painted on site and in public view is an anxious enterprise, heightening  perceptions of the site that deepen with developments on the wall… decisions in such a context expand the meaning of aesthetics. Founded in perception, flexing knowledge and experience, they become expressed in decisions that entwine stylistic and historical association with the optics and physicality of shape and mass; a fresco in which freshness stems from an active and live dialogue.

Tamworth hospital was the first Australian government institution to fly an Aboriginal flag. The actual flag flew till its tatters were conserved and framed; it now hangs on the stairwell approaching the fresco. Its yellow sun, together with the afternoon sunlight flooding the corridor decided the colour for our central disc, yellow is also the way-finding colour for this floor.

Patient wards and imaging services of ultrasound, mri and x ray, are the media through which medicine divines its cures. The abstract probabilities of modern medicine are offset by traditions of care and systems of order; a hospital begins and ends with the human body. 

Equinox is a series of 2.5 metre diameter discs drawn with compass,  chalk, Caulking gun, roller, brush and squeegee. The act of painting using the outstretched body within a circle puts in mind Leonardo’s Vitruvian figure holding nuance while honing surface close up and rhythm further afield. On-the-spot decisions arrived at through sun cast shadows, projections of mood and activity, effects of ambient medical smells and sounds and the overall making of the workaday hospital routine coalesce in these 37 metres. Sequencing between entrance and exit and renewing itself in each traversal. 

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