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.
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.