WEST COAST GEOMETRIC
LEIGH ROBB PERTH 2014
The Australian Centre for Concrete Art (AC4CA) present an interesting case study and long-running working model for how artists across cities, countries and generations can sustainably work together and actually make things happen.
Theirs is not a sentimental approach, and is driven by a manifesto – that the work is non-objective and is determined by a given site. Acutely mindful of the location, the very shape, form, and palette of their paintings are dictated by the given space. But they are by no means obedient. The reason their works have such relevance is that they know the rules, the systems, the historic principles - they are keenly aware at what point to bend them - and how to make a clean break.
The title for the exhibition was drawn in part from the AC4CA’s method of working – one wall or project after another – and in part from the go-to manual on site-specific practices from the 1960s to the late 1990s, written by Miwon Kwon. In this, Kwon describes the resurgence of large-scale art work in, and determined by, the physical parameter of its location, but with a focus on America and Europe.
“…site-specific art initially took the ‘site’ as an actual location, a tangible reality, its identity composed of a unique combination of constitutive physical elements: length, depth, height, texture, and shape of walls and rooms; scale and proportion of plazas, buildings, or parks; existing conditions of lighting, ventilation, traffic patterns; distinctive topographical features”.1
Alex Spremberg elegantly describes the conundrum this creates for representation when he says, “walls demarcate space and, as architectural barriers, they deny and create space simultaneously”.2 Walls are some of the earliest surfaces which collected markings, diagrams, expressions of a given culture at a moment in time – one could say they are utterly contemporary, but also anachronistic, out of time. Architecture, perspective and illusion are part of the messy history of representation, but Spremberg goes on to say that, “Concrete Art, however, asserts the autonomy of pictorial means” and proposes that the real can be found in the materials, measurements, paints and geometric designs, rather than in illusionistic feats of the pictorial.3 But Spremberg’s wall painting complicates this certainty, compressing real architecture and painterly illusion to create an exciting optical paradox. His work is autonomous, but his chosen palette of pink, brown and yellow seem sampled from the coloured stained glass squares of the arched doorways they surround. It seems almost impossible to avoid a material, structural and geometric empathy with the chosen wall, recognising it as a loaded palimpsest, but Spremberg overlays it with a design that is stoically determined to resist it.
John Nixon began his first wall paintings in 1979, marking up a giant, 8 foot square black motif on a white wall at the Biennale of Sydney, and a red star at the IMA in Brisbane. Nixon’s guiding principles are to approach the whole available wall as the given ground and paint a basic, abstract, recognisable shape, like a circle, triangle, square or rectangle, in one contrasting colour and scaled to the wall. In keeping with the architectural idiosyncrasies of the site, for his PICA project the long wall is divided into 3 sections by 3 doorways, giving way to a triptych of symbols for each portion of the space. Nixon’s wall paintings harness the same abstract and formal principles as his medium-scale paintings on canvas, board or aluminium, yet he sees them as “a distinctive group of works which have their own coherence and logic, and which as murals exists as a form of applied art”.4
Zora Kreuzer, the most recent artist to join the group, was offered the PICA Screen Space, a small, black box of a room, often used for video projections. Zora’s spectrum of fluorescent coloured rays spill across the left hand wall and corner, creating an internal lighting source. Responding to the usual function of the space, Zora reimagines the projections, but sees it more like the dark corner of a nightclub – or a “club room without a club”.5 The club scene was and continues to be like a synesthetic installation for Zora, where sound expresses colour and light is sonorised. The relationship between light and painting is one of the most ardently pursued by artists throughout history. The searing intensity of the west coast sunset and the subtle diffusion of light as the sun rises over the Fremantle ocean inform the ‘neon pastel’ colour palette of Zora Kreuzer’s wall painting. But it’s the synthesis of natural and electronic light, between dusk and dawn and the laser aesthetics of the nightclub to which her wall painting refers. She synthesizes artificial fluorescent and neon light with natural colour fields sampled from the changing landscape in the places she inhabits, from Berlin and Karsruhe to Tianjin, and Fremantle to Perth.
Julianne Clifford’s painting stretches along the first floor landing, moving through different spaces as well as crossing digital and analogue platforms. The design for her wall extends the artist’s ongoing interest in data as material, extracting a found image from a public domain website which generates a random and unique bitmap on demand. The aesthetic and logic of the bitmap allows the artist to reconfigure the pixel as a painted module. Informed by the likes of Sol Lewitt and Carl Andre, for Clifford the pixel becomes the replicable unit and becomes a means of interrogating Concrete, Minimalist and reductive tendencies from a post-digital perspective. Always in relation and proportion to the wall support, Clifford’s wall painting seems like it is becoming visible: uploading vertically from ground to ceiling in a black and white analogue exercise of repetition and difference.
Jan van der Ploeg has influenced many artists with his bombastic geometric motifs. His recent iterations include posters, and, where Clifford on the other side of the lengthy wall alludes to a digital economy, van der Ploeg exploits this with his purple, computer rendered hard-edge spirals. The motif is the module and creates a fractured duo-chrome colour field, a Pop patterned wall paper of epic proportions.
Helen Smith has repeatedly employed the oval form throughout her practice. However, it has a specific reference here, as it was first used in her 2002 AC4CA Project 5 in Pearse Street, North Fremantle and was part of her brilliant ‘Pink Interventions’ wall paper works – pasting up hot pink abstract ellipses as a type of concrete, minimalist art tag. These guerrilla-style interventions present a shift in the logic of the hard-edge wall paintings, but keep with the manifesto of the group, using the sites to determine the response – inserting
Helen Smith has repeatedly employed the oval form throughout her practice. However, it has a specific reference here, as it was first used in her 2002 AC4CA Project 5 in Pearse Street, North Fremantle and was part of her brilliant ‘Pink Interventions’ wall paper works – pasting up hot pink abstract ellipses as a type of concrete, minimalist art tag. These guerrilla-style interventions present a shift in the logic of the hard-edge wall paintings, but keep with the manifesto of the group, using the sites to determine the response – inserting these Pop motifs amongst graffiti. As Smith says, “locating these works in the urban landscape originate from the ideals set up by Theo van Doesburg to investigate self-referential, pure forms”.6 For her PICA wall, Smith has changed the palette, seeking its optical opposite for the background: an acid green. The extremities of the oval shape are defined by the parameters of the eastern end balcony wall. The black oval extends to the outer edges of the space, the adjacent walls defining its size and shape. The smaller white oval is centred, with the size determined by the top edge of the closest doorway, creating a void and vanishing point in the centre of the wall.
Daniel Göttin and Guilluame Boulley’s works speak to each other across the vast divide of the West End Gallery – both seductive affairs with the monochrome and exactitude. Göttin’s concept for his PICA wall painting is based on the spatial conditions of the north wall and the corner and jutting edge of the gallery. Divided into halves, quarters and eighths, the artist always leaves some sections unpainted, others painted in his signature grey, and then he uses black textile tape to subdivide the wall space. The dimensions of the wall prescribes the rhythmic splicing of verticals and horizontals, creating a symmetrical/asymmetrical layering of two images that elegantly edges around the corner to join Jurek Wybraniec’s declarative yellow wall painting.
Boulley’s work is both reductive and constructed. The artist’s expanded corner diptych is interested in exploring what it means to build a painting and to paint a building. Extracting the rectilinear shapes of the long vertical gallery windows, he displaces these and transfers them to the adjacent gallery wall, creating a type of Rorschach in semi-gloss paint. This sublimely subtle wall painting is only visible when cast in sunlight through the negative framed spaces of the large construction that covers and flattens the architectural features of the historic building. So deftly made is this work that the hovering edifice in front of the windows appears to be a second solid wall, with the window areas neatly carved out. But Boulley has in fact painted a monochrome on canvas of epic proportions, a seemingly simple but deceptively complex painterly act.
Darryn Ansted’s wall painting is made up of the deconstructed planes of a grid. These create a space with the character of an architectural plan yet it is a space in which projected perspective points constantly shift. Using a palette and materials informed by the site of the gallery, including a square of mirror-finish stainless steel that is often used in architectural treatments, the idea loosely follows the methodology of the artist El Lissitzky. It sets out to create a dynamic yet spare relation between every form introduced. Painted shapes point our gaze to multiple vanishing points—to the centre, to the sides and diagonally upward such that it unfolds or deconstructs the planar surface of the wall. Ansted’s shapes agree and disagree with one another; they optically jostle yet rhythmically combine in palette and shape—creating a space of dynamic negotiation and playful contradiction.
David Tremlett is known for what he describes as his “drawings in space”. His work becomes a feature of the architecture: a greasy, rhomboid protrusion into, and of the space. In a play of opposites, the structure is sharp and edgy but slippery to behold, in contrast to the soft, powdery pastel pigment. An obtuse, skewed anomaly that is conversely hard-edged and supple, dark and colourful. It is organic and geometric, the mechanic’s grease, (occupying a state between liquid and solid) has been applied to the carefully calculated sections by hand, with the artist’s fingerprints still visible. Tremlett’s form is a sculpture, painting and drawing.
Jeremy Kirwan-Ward’s practice has been obsessed with the conditions of light on the west coast. His paintings take advantage of the complexities of weather and spectral phenomena. While predominantly determined by colour, his outcomes are arrived at by problem solving and adaptation, and working with artistic intuition to respond to a formal structure. Kirwan-Ward employed these principles with this wall work in two parts – one which exists as an outdoor wall mural and the other an indoor gallery painting. It is fitting that his PICA work both exploits the bright beating sun and seeks protection from it. He taunts the term ‘hard-edge’, using curving, hand-made lines with masking tape to mark the divide between his duo-chromatic colour scheme. Interested in the contrast of natural and electric light, Kirwan-Ward offers up two possibilities for experiencing his work. Both the indoor and outdoor wall paintings use the colour extremes of bold red and blue to create an intense optical effect with a lingering after-image.
Text and typefaces loom large, literally, in the practice of Jurek Wybraniec. His AC4CA Project 4 painted on the concrete water tank at Coogee beach was a particularly interesting dialogue, both spoken and articulated in paint, with the local graffiti artists and marine activists. Using his customary yellow palette, the artist’s PICA project makes reference to European modernist Kurt Schwitters by employing the ‘Archetype Schwitters’ sans serif typeface developed in 1927. Arrived at through a reductivist technique, the geometric typeface was Schwitters’ way of phoneticising the Western writing system, and owes much to El Lissitzky’s idea that “typographic design should perform optically what the speaker creates through voice and gesture”. Linking sound, shape and colour is also what Wybraniec’s insistent triple iteration of OK OK OK enacts, perhaps sitting somewhere between a graffiti tag and a manifesto for the AC4CA group that articulates the force of repetition and its necessary intervention with acts of difference.
Hubert Besacier’s essay takes us on a journey though the history of European abstraction and through two world wars, describing the differing conditions for artists working to set up a socialist utopia through art. They focused on what is real and concrete – the exactitude of the line, the purity of the monochrome, the geometric reassurance of primary forms – seeking out clarity and calm against the aftermath of a world in turmoil. So what then are the conditions at the turn of the 21st century that provoked this antipodean collective to form and to be gaining in momentum now nearly 15 years later? What is the state of painting, and indeed the state of contemporary art that marked the formation of the AC4CA? Curator Jens Hoffman describes this turn as Very Abstract and Hyper Figurative – in a show which attempted to look back from the future to recent painting practices as if they were archaeological taxonomies that could be cleaved in two. But in reducing contemporary painting practices the logic comes undone – as Jonathan Watkins says that while Hoffman tried to “draw a sharp line between the ‘very’ abstract and the ‘hyper’ figurative, in fact most of the works are neither. Many talk quite loudly across the divide with their counterparts in the other ‘department’… current painting proves itself to be far more subtle, delicate and sophisticated”.7
Hubert Besacier picks up on the cross-country connections between artists and social unrest that fuelled post-war Concrete Art. Rather than turmoil, the AC4CA are reactionary against apathy, and have taken action by taking over walls. Their outdoor works have had to deftly manoeuvre around red tape, and compete with the searing intensity of the west coast sun, with overpowering geometric acuity. Their supercharged palettes, hard-edges and determined black lines are driven by necessity, and a wilfulness to be seen against their particular environments. These are the conditions that create West Coast Abstraction.
Whilst making absolutely no pretences or casting illusions, the AC4CA artists are, in fact, masters of perspective and perception, optically and intuitively drawing out the defining properties of a wall, keenly aware of its proportions, its adjacent surfaces, and the movement of light. This does present a paradox of sorts, to be able resist narrative, to embrace the abstract, to resist the conditioned response to create a subject – in essence to maintain the non-objective within a site that is loaded with meaning. These are optical and perceptual exercises for the eye and brain – these artists want for things to not always make sense. Perhaps looking upon their works is akin to a case of cognitive dissonance, where we think one thing and behave oppositely – that we can maintain two contrasting beliefs at the same time.
So whilst the AC4CA seemingly sit adjacent to many current painting practices, or as Julian Goddard describes an ‘a-contemporary’ approach, their position is one of strategic anachronism. A century on, the craving, urge and necessity for painting with an economy of means and gesture that Concrete Art initiated, still provides the rule of thumb for these hand-made vast wall paintings, indoors and out. Like Ockham’s Razor, a term used to describe the least amount of actions to get the maximum result, the AC4CA prove that a century later, less is more.
In summary, perhaps it is no accident that the AC4CA group began in the Southern Hemisphere, in Fremantle, a port city on the Indian ocean. That it was on the edge of the Australian west coast that collectively they looked outwards, sought spaces and surfaces outdoors and brought artists and then friends across the sea. They use the essential devices they used those essential devices of point, line, plane and colour to anchor themselves in an otherwise hazy and infinite horizon. The invention and inventiveness of AC4CA was and continues to be a sure means of locating perspective and perception in time and place, for all to see.
1 Miwon Kwon, ‘One Place After Another: Notes on Site-Specificity’, October, Issue 80, Spring 1997, p. 85.
2 Alex Spremberg, from a conversation with the author, August 2014. .
4 John Nixon, from correspondence with the author, September 2014
5 Zora Kreuzer, from correspondence with the author, October 2014..
6 Zora Kreuzer, from conversations with the artist, July & September 2014.
7 Jonathan Watkins, ‘Very Abstract and Hyper Figurative’, Frieze, Issue 107, 2007.