Things are always declared dead: rock’n’roll, God, novels, painting. Still, there’s no shortage of exhibitions devoted to painting – and it’s fascinating when a show ambitiously reveals the impulses and philosophies of creators currently working with paint.
Featuring eight emerging and mid-career artists at the Australian Center for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Like a wheel that turns enjoy the formality of painting and the struggle of working inside and outside the canon. But it also expresses a great contemporary social consciousness, exploring themes of identity, boredom, queer politics, ecology, spirituality, diaspora and Country.
The works embody the quote by South African artist Marlene Dumas, from which the title of the exhibition is derived: “Painting does not freeze time. It circulates and recycles time like a wheel turning.” It soon becomes clear that this exhibition is a series of divergent ideas about material, history and time.
In a field of color and play, a mural the size of a mural by Lucina Lane, framed by the words “A strangely sophisticated self-organized world”, dominates one space. With its laissez faire presentation, it is a fun and paradoxical reflection on making art. It’s also unique: the paint was left over from previous ACCA exhibitions, the work references a 1949 painting by Australian modernist Frank Hinder, and the text comes from an article by George Egerton-Warburton on the precariousness and ingenuity of Melbourne’s DIY it-yourself art scene. It refers to the circularity, rather than linearity, that underlies this exhibition – the idea of recycling materials and ideas of making them revealing.
Nearby is Jason Phu’s hamster-style mini house. It’s brilliant: childlike and wonderful. I laughed when I looked in and saw Phu’s old dozing form, but then stopped myself because there is something heartbreaking about this work. Inside and out, the house is piled with piles of objects that are precious, nostalgic and junky at the same time. At the back is a homemade toilet and a bathtub and cloth for washing.
While it expresses a collector’s horror vacui – a fear of empty spaces, perhaps of loneliness – it is also reminiscent of the dream of the “hut in the woods”, a longing for solitude indulged by exhaustion, seeking nothing for refuge. The artist likens it to both home security and a tomb: the work is titled everyone is dead except me. everything is meaningless and I am tired. I’m waiting in my little house, for winter to take me (2022).
Phu’s art is reflected in the 85 paintings of JD Reforma, Optical fiber; an intranet of virtue (2022). On top of canvases made from hand-felted coconut husk — the fibers that symbolize connection and wellness culture — the artist has painted phrases from conversations, iPhone notes, pop culture and social media. Installed in geometric groupings, the red words are both mundane and provocative – “power is a product”, “you want it when you want it” and “nothing is for everyone”.
Reforma provokes reflection on the inequalities and injustices within money, class, power, race and the art world and uses the art of the poet to contrast words and sentences with careful visual design. While the repetition is funny, these hackneyed sentences register a cultural boredom.
Language is also important in Nadia Hernández’s installation. The Venezuelan-born, Australian-based artist creates various structures in bold monochromatic colours. It is like a three-dimensional deconstructed painting, but the political context refers to Latin American diaspora, design and poetry. Hernández intertwines facets of Western art history from Henri Matisse to Barbara Kruger with Venezuelan art, paying attention to her family heritage.
Her text borrows the loving words of her mother’s assurance, of our happiness, which means “we are the owners of our own happiness”. Hernández playfully poses a pressing question: how do you manifest your whole self and the cultural complexities of your art in an Australian context that has historically relied on simplified ideas of national identity?
The idea of circulation lives in Gian Manik’s eight canvases. The artist questions painting traditions by literally reproducing them, including still lifes, landscapes and self-portraits. The central work is an unforgettable montage-like painting that depicts soldiers in erotic acts, undermining the male ideal through queer eroticism.
While Manik demonstrates his technical prowess by complicating the virtuosity and authenticity of painting traditions, he also makes this work personal. My favorite work is a close-up of a horse’s eye painted in the style of Dutch masters, titled Pain (2022). It acknowledges his heritage but also explores how Manik was ashamed to love horses as a child, perhaps because they are often seen as having a female interest.
At Jahnne Pasco-White’s Embodied watery entanglements (2022), a bunch of painted material hangs from the ceiling and is laid across the floor. Pasco-White makes her paintings from materials such as plum skin, arugula, fungus, moss, turmeric and coffee grounds. In this entwined materiality we add our own dirt by walking over the paintings. Since the piece cannot be viewed as a whole, but only from the inside, neither the paintings nor the viewers dictate the space – they coexist.
Esther Stewart exhibits the Painted ladies series (2022), four window canopies painted in bright colors and geometric patterns, a break from the dullness imposed by body corporates. Stewart has long legitimized household spaces and home decor in contemporary art, this time placing the simple canopy in ACCA’s cool monolith. It makes us realize the mundaneness – but also the exciting aesthetic potential – of our everyday environments.
Opposite these canopies, in an interesting installation choice, is the colossal painting by Betty Muffler healing land (2022). In pulsating white and muted grey-purple tones, Muffler Country represents from the point of view of the walawuru Tjukurrpa (Eagle Dreaming), inherited from her father. She also records her birthplace of Yalungu, south of Waturru in South Australia, the ancestral creation story of the emu Tjukurrpa, and her role as a famous ngangkari (traditional healer). The connection of mind, body, healing and land is breathtaking.
For all the play and complexity of this exhibition, it seems to focus on one simple question: what are interesting artists doing with paint in Australia today, both on and off the canvas? With funding from the Macfarlane Commissions, ACCA supported these artists to provide ambitious answers.
It is a subjective selection and sometimes feels full with little thematic coherence. The power is the singular works themselves. Painting emerges as both a dismantling and a restorative task, finding unique expressions in legacies of craft, feeling and culture.
A medium crisis is not always a bad thing, as it forces artists to reassess their form. While the ‘extinct’ form is now probably theory-driven art, hand-to-hand wrestle continues today as to the direction of painting. It reminds me of writer Don DeLillo’s relaxed response to writing novels in a digital age: “The novel is what novelists do at a given time.” The same can be said of painting.
Like a wheel that turns can be seen at ACCA until September 4.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2022 as “The life of paint”.
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