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Not-so-Marvellous Melbourne: Anxiety on the urban frontier in the art of ST. Gill

In July, that State Library of Victoria will be hosting an exhibition of works by the colonial Australian artist ST Gill. The exhibition, Australian sketchbook: Colonial life and the art of ST Gill, is being staged to coincide with the launch of a major new book by Professor Sasha Grishin of the Australian National University. Grishin has been researching Gill’s work for several decades now, so Grishin’s book, ST Gill and His Audiences promises to be a major contribution to the field. Grishin will also be presenting at a one-day conference, along with many other distinguished figures.

I became interested in Gill’s work while curating the exhibition Experimental Gentlemen at the Ian Potter Museum of Art. I included a number of Gill’s works in the exhibition, including a copy of the Australian Sketchbook after which Grishin’s exhibition is titled. I had an idea for a longer piece, which never quite made it over the line to publication, but which I thought I might offer here, more as a series of rough thoughts than a finished argument. I am sad that I won’t be able to be in Melbourne for the conference, because I think that Gill’s work presents a lot of complex questions in relation to how the Australian colonial imagination was formed.

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ST Gill, The Newly Arrived. Watercolour, 21.8 x 14.8 cm. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

The State Library of New South Wales holds one of the largest collections of paintings, prints and drawings by the Australian colonial artist Samuel Thomas Gill (1818-1880). Amongst its collection is a pair of small watercolours designed to be viewed in concert: a technique that Gill frequently used to tease out subtle antinomies across his satirical scenes. The first of these scenes, entitled The Newly Arrived c.1860, shows a group of European settlers dressed in top hats and frock coats, gathering around an Aboriginal family. In the centre, an Aboriginal man in a long flowing fur-skin coat, and his naked son, perform a spirited dance for the onlookers. So enthralled are the new settlers by this exotic performance, that one man reaches into his hip pocket, presumably for some coins to reward his primitive entertainer. In the background, a row of neat brick houses suggests a well-established and thriving colony.

ST Gill,  The Colonized, watercolour, 21.8 x 14.8 cm. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

ST Gill, The Colonized, watercolour, 21.8 x 14.8 cm. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

The second image offers a stark contrast to the genteel pleasantries of The Newly Arrived. Gone are the neat brick houses and gentlemanly finery; in their place, a shanty bark hut and the rough and tumble uniform of the pioneer settler. Likewise for the Aboriginal characters: the life of carefree dancing as exotic amusement is replaced with a heavy burden, as they are roped into the hard labour of empire building. With his characteristically acerbic satire, Gill titles this second work The Colonized c.1860

It is hard not to read these two works as “before-and-after” shots, contrasting the carefree life of Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants before being colonized, with their subjugation under the imperial project. But there is also a charged ambivalence to this contrast: not only does Gill offer a vague sympathy for the plight of his Aboriginal subjects, but he simultaneously points towards the degradation of colonial settler subject-hood: a fall from grace that effects the European on the frontier, himself colonized as part of the imperial process. While the European in The Colonizer is appears to be the “master,” it is a debased mastery, devoid of the fine trimmings of civilized society.

The frankness with which these images explore colonial encounters across the Australian frontier makes The Newly Arrived and The Colonized are remarkable pair of images. Lynette Russell argues, that while the American frontier was lauded by writers like Frederick Jackson Turner as being responsible for the emergence of an American identity, in Australia, “the frontier was essentially ignored.”[i] Ian McLean takes this further, suggesting that the frontier acted as a vital negative component to identity construction, habituating an inability to feel “at home” in the new country. According to McLean, for Australian artists, the frontier could not be pictured because it defied temporal unison. American painting could transcend this, because it was freed from colonial attachment, but in Australia the frontier was too close. The Australian artist was caught on the cusp of two worlds.[ii] As Paul Carter notes, picturing the act of settling became a psychic impossibility for Australian artists, requiring the constant proliferation of boundaries, whose deferral served the “symbolic function of making a place that speaks, a place with history.”[iii]

The Newly Arrived and The Colonized might be seen as both exception to, and proof of, this psychic impossibility. If by setting these two images against each other, Gill draws explicit attention to the passage from settling to settled, from colonizing to colonized, at the same time, it is a passage that occurs in absentia. The precise moment of colonization is never pictured, remaining always an invisible passage; even the transaction of payment alluded to in both works, is never visually realized.

This essay is not an attempt at what Rex Butler has called ‘radical revisionism.’ It does not seek to re-write history from the perspective of the present, in order to show the artists of the past pre-empting the political and social concerns of our current age. In addressing the work of ST Gill, I do not wish to position him as a radical proto-post-colonialist, speaking across “time-like separated’ areas to contemporary issues” or articulating “newer public virtues of beauty, persuasiveness and social justice.”[iv] My ambitions are decidedly more modest: my argument is that the art of ST Gill illustrates a key transitional moment in the development of the Australian colonial imagination, when the temporal strategies of modernity (such as historicism, evolution, and nationalism) emerge to normalise and repress the inherent contradictions and instability of the colonial project. By a fortunate confluence of coincidences (including his genre, audiences, temperament, and historical moment) Gill inadvertently captures this fleeting moment of transition, and in doing is, pictures the ambivalence of colonial discourse before it is obscured beneath the redemptive nationalist fantasy of the Heidelberg school of Australian Impressionism.

If, as Homi Bhabha has argued, uncovering this ambivalence serves to disrupt to destabilize the colonial project, this should not in any way be considered an act of rebellion on Gill’s behalf. Despite the ways in which it is often read, I understand Bhabha’s text as offering a method of interpretation and not a strategy of resistance. As he notes, disclosing the colonial ambivalence is a process that serves to both normalize and disrupt colonial authority.[v] Rather than being actively subversive, if Gill’s work reveals the antinomies and inconsistencies of the colonial mission, it is because it all too faithfully visualizes the colonial frontier without the benefit of the strategic apparatuses that would soon serve to normalize the unstable systems of power relations upon which this mission was founded.

In large part, this disclosure is the necessary result of Gill’s picturing of the urban environment, as opposed to the landscape idiom that dominates the canonical narrative of Australian art history. As Penelope Edmonds argues, colonial frontiers did not exist only in the bush, backwoods or borderlines. Rather, as the site for the emergence of colonial modernity, it was the “urban frontier” in which the realities of colonial authority were most conspicuous.[vi] Despite imperial confidence in the spatial order of the city and its power to produce and discipline subjects, colonial cities were mixed, uneasy, and transformative spaces, shaped by settler-Indigenous relationships. Torn between imperial ambition and colonial anxiety, they were the primary “contact zone” (to use Mary Louise Pratt’s term) in which issues of race, gender and miscegenation were played out. Edmonds notes that colonial cities were charged sites of mutual transformation in which the colonial narrative and identity was confounded and subverted. “Just as Indigenous people were colonized, so too were the newcomers and new spaces indigenized, albeit in highly uneven ways and within asymmetrical relations to power.”[vii]

It was in these urban encounters that the ambivalence of colonial relationships was brought into starkest relief, casting the settler subject as both colonizer and colonized. Following Lefebvre’s edict to reveal the ways in which spaces obscure the conditions of their own production, Edmond’s argues that settler cities have become naturalized and inevitable, concealing the constitutive relationships of Indigenous dispossession and displacement that adhere in their current incarnations.[viii] In examining Gill’s images of the ‘urban frontier,’ I would like to suggest that it was precisely this transactional, transformative nature of colonial cities that made them such heightened sites of colonial anxiety, leading most Australian artists to ignore the city in favor of the idealized bush. By exploring the slippages in Gill’s urban scenes, this paper aims to reveal the motivations and inherent repressions that underlie the development of the colonial imagination, and reveal the ideological foundations of Australian colonial identity.

Gill

It was late in the afternoon of Wednesday 27 October 1880. Rounding the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets, the artist S.T. Gill collapsed onto the steps of the Melbourne Post Office. In full public view, the once famed ‘artist of the goldfields’ died in quiet anonymity from a ruptured aorta: his heart finally broken from years of heavy drinking. As ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ entered its decade of greatest prosperity, one of its most important chroniclers was buried in a pauper’s grave, his passing marked only by an indifferent note in the Sydney Bulletin, commemorating “an artist formerly well known in the South.”[ix] A century later, in his monograph S.T. Gill’s Australia, Geoffrey Dutton lamented, “Even now, Gill is an under-rated artist.”[x] By 1981, however, this seemed a somewhat outdated threnody. As early as 1911, A.W. Greig had begun Gill’s critical resurrection with a lengthy piece in the Melbourne Argus asking, “Are there any Victorian’s alive to-day who, for the sake of his art and the sake of the days that are gone, would rescue the last resting place of poor “S.T.G” from the oblivion to which it has fallen?”[xi] Within a year, the Historical Society of Victoria had relocated Gill’s remains to a private grave with a handsome headstone bearing the inscription: “Samuel Thomas Gill – The Artist of the Goldifelds.”[xii]

There seemed little doubt that Gill had been welcomed back into the Australian cultural canon: his works were acquired by all the major public institutions in Australia, and his reputation as ‘The Artist of the Goldfields’ was reaffirmed in every major Australian art historical text of the twentieth century.[xiii] By 1971, in the very first monograph on the artist, Keith Bowden marvelled, “High prices are now paid for [Gill’s] pictures and his books have become scarce collector’s items, all steadily appreciating in value and all eagerly sought.”[xiv]

For Dutton, however, it was not simply a matter of prestige or prices, but the seriousness with which Gill’s work was inserted into the narrative of Australian art history. As the title of his monograph suggests, this was connected to a peculiarly nationalist narrative, in which artistic development (like colonial settlement) was an unfolding process of acculturation, that Anne-Marie Willis has described as “coming to terms with the uniqueness of the land, learning to love it, leaving behind their European aesthetic framework an seeing the Australian landscape ‘with Australian eyes.’”[xv] This was not simply an aesthetic development, but a psychic process of identity construction. Thus, according to Dutton, it was Gill’s temperamental sympathy for the “Australian” characteristics of egalitarianism and “rough democracy” that attuned him to the “Australian” experience, allowing him to see the landscape as it really was. “As if by osmosis,’ writes Dutton, ‘Gill was at home from the time he stepped off the boat.”[xvi]

His ardent poetic and sympathetic temperament, spiced with a humour that could detect the hidden balances of character and occasions, enabled him to be wide open to the Australian experience … in a few year, he was already the most Australian of the 19th century artists, speaking the instinctive language of Australia’s rocks and trees, wildflowers and light.[xvii]

If these boosterish claims lack a certain level of sophistication (particularly in their evocation of a singular ‘Australian’ experience), they are hardly unique to Dutton: his is merely one iteration of a common refrain in Australian cultural history, in which the landscape is used to naturalize what Willis terms “illusions of identity.”[xviii] According to Willis, in such narratives the landscape is endowed with an inalienable truth, the problem being that of the observer, “needing to remove the scales from their eyes in order to see the land fully revealed.”[xix]

Nature is posited as culture, when in fact, nature itself is a cultural construction and the history of Australian landscape painting is not one of progressive discovery, the building up of an ever more accurate picture, but a series of changing conceptualizations, in which one cultural construction plays off another in ever more complex webs of invention and in which the picturing of the local intersects with other, including imported, aesthetic and cultural agendas.[xx]

Leaving aside for one moment the constructed nature of this narrative as critiqued by Willis, the question remains: why, despite the best efforts of critics like Dutton, has Gill’s work continued to sit so awkwardly within this nationalist narrative? This inexorable quandary confronted Bernard Smith in his pioneering 1945 history of Australian visual culture, Place, Taste and Tradition. Like Dutton, Smith concluded that “the most Australian of all artists, though himself an Englishman, was Samuel Thomas Gill … In many respects he was more Australian than any of the Heidelberg School.”[xxi] Recognizing that this flew in the face of art historical orthodoxy, Smith defends his position in an extraordinarily prescient passage that anticipates Willis’ argument made half a century later:

It will be said that Gill’s work was only Australian in content, that the form was English. But where a racial or national quality is to be found in a work of art, in our times, and belongs to the Western European tradition, such quality almost invariably resides in the content … A prevalent form of aesthetic snobbery has seen fit to use certain qualities of the Australian landscape – the nature of the trees, skies and fields – as Australian symbols. The reason for this is to be found, perhaps, in the Impressionists’ preoccupation with landscape painting, and on the other the squatter’s idolization of his property. There is no such thing as an Australian art-form. Lines and colours have no nationality … Gill used a style typical to the English graphic artists of the early nineteenth century to portray Australian genre subjects; Streeton used the formal qualities popular among the academic Impressionists of the late nineteenth century to portray Australian landscape subjects. Both expressed local subjects with techniques developed abroad, and in doing so both assisted the movement towards a national style, since content always tends to create a pattern suited to its own expression.[xxii]

In Place, Taste and Tradition, Smith offers the first social history of Australian art. In drawing attention to the Heidelberg Impressionist’s use of the landscape as national symbol, he pre-empts the critiques of scholars like Willis and Richard White, who argue that by linking national character to landscape, the Heidelberg artists naturalized Impressionism as a style. “It was a myth invented by the Heidelberg school,’ argues White, ‘that theirs’ was the ‘first truly Australian vision’ – their commitment to naturalism required that all previous versions were contrived.”[xxiii]

By 1961, when Smith set himself to writing the history of Australian painting, his commitment to Gill as an artist of distinctly “Australian character” posed a number of difficulties. Not least of these was reconciling Gill’s work within the dominant trope of melancholy that, following Marcus Clarke, Smith argues defines the Australian landscape tradition. Thus, on the one hand, Smith asserts that Gill’s paintings “form a most valuable commentary upon the life of the time, a commentary which is expressed with great gusto and great humour,” making Gill the first artist to “express the sardonic humour, the nonchalance and the irreverent attitudes to all form of authority, so frequently remarked upon by the students of Australian behaviour.”[xxiv] On the other hand, Smith is quick to remark that this humour is always tempered by the “melancholy of the Australian scene … the dead and fallen timber, the stunted grass-trees … the presentations of the dramatic in a primeval setting.”[xxv]

The dominance of the landscape narrative in Australian art history is tellingly revealed in the subordination of the scene to the setting that occurs in Smith’s account. Equally revealing is his invocation of the primeval quality of the landscape; by 1980 Smith had begun to recognize melancholy as a vital trope occluding the guilt of terra nullius.[xxvi] It was Smith’s student, Ian McLean who would take this idea to its logical limits, framing melancholy not as an ailment, but as a linguistic meta-trope underpinning the thought and imagination of the entire colonial epoch.[xxvii] For McLean, this melancholy created a dialectic narrative of redemption and failure, allowing for the creation of history from loss. If melancholy serves to dehistoricize the landscape, it also finds in it an original landscape that substitutes for the migrant’s actual sense of loss. “A melancholy landscape,’ he argues, ‘is an historical landscape, haunted with memories.”[xxviii]

In pointing to this melancholy, both Smith and McLean draw attention to the challenge that the proximity of the Other on the frontier posed to the structured order of European selfhood. Frederick Jackson Turner would unwittingly point to these antinomies in his influential 1893 treatise, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” For, if Turner’s “frontier thesis” is best know for the proposition that it was the endless space beyond the frontier that forged the aspirational nature of the American character, he also recognized the frontier as the site of encounter: “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.”[xxix] It was through the hardships and adversity of this encounter that Turner believed a truly unique identity would emerge: “the outcome is not the old Europe [but] a new product that is American.”[xxx]

Turner’s evolutionary approach to American history stood in stark contrast to those who saw the frontier as merely a site where culture was replicated over an ever-expanding territorial domain.[xxxi] Half a century earlier, Alexis de Tocqueville contended that the cities of the New World were constructed from the “invisible luggage” of their migrant settlers. The men who travelled to the American wilderness, he argued, brought with them “the customs, the ideas, the needs of civilization” and implanted them in the wilderness.[xxxii] Despite their differences, however, in framing the frontier as a dividing line between civilization and wilderness, both Turner and de Tocqueville cast the frontier as a psychic line demarcating the limits of European identity. As Paul Carter concludes, this required a particularly western logic of property value, in which territorial units were treated as isolated legal and economic units.[xxxiii] Not only did this set the preconditions for the atavistic principles of origin and territory upon which western identity was based, but the endless deferral of the expanding frontier also enabled the developmental drive of capitalist modernity.

While the frontier provided the site for exposure to the Other, thus extending identity, this demarcation allowed a beyond in which the Other could be cast as contrary, maintaining the illusion of a stable identity.[xxxiv] The way of achieving this beyond was temporal.[xxxv] Rod Macneil has argued that understanding the landscape as temporal Other was fundamental to its recreation as a space available for colonization. Cast in primeval terms as the dialectic counter to civilization and modernity, the wilderness was forced to play a psychic role as the baseline against which colonial history could be written in order to stem the tide of ahistoricity. Couched in the terms of progress and redemption, the consequent conversion of the landscape from uncivilized place to colonized space signalled its transformation from the past into the present.[xxxvi] Likewise, by their connection with the pre-colonial landscape, the New World’s Indigenous inhabitants were cast into a temporal condition confined to the prehistoric past. Macneil concludes, “Aboriginality remained defined in terms of colonization’s temporal frontier, as a signifier of the past upon which the colonial nation was built.”[xxxvii] By the late nineteenth century, as artists like those of the Heidelberg school attempted to build a distinct national visuality, Aborigines disappeared almost entirely from Australian art, leaving a melancholy landscape haunted by what Bernard Smith evocatively termed “the spectre of Truganini.”[xxxviii]

And yet, the image of the frontier depicted by Gill in The Newly Arrived and The Colonized is strangely incongruous with this melancholy and empty landscape. Even McLean is forced to note this, offering a curt and unsympathetic dismissal:

If the frontier aesthetic had to first empty the landscape in order to silence it, it also needed to be filled with the figures of the new owners claiming their possession. In this respect, colonial artist S.T. Gill might appear the real precursor of the Impressionist project, as with his The Colonized. However, his satire is in the melancholy vein typical of his time. Gill gives Australia the comic people that he feels it deserves.[xxxix]

While McLean’s explanation seems a considerable development from Bernard Smith’s setting of Gill’s caricature within “melancholy of the Australian scene,” both work on a similar logic, reconciling Gill’s work within what they see as the dominant colonial landscape trope. And yet, it seems to me, that while Gill’s images contain a deep-seated anxiety, this anxiety is markedly different in character to the melancholy of the later Australian Impressionists, or even that of his closer contemporaries such as Eugene von Guérard or Nicholas Chevalier. While Gill moved in the same social circles as von Guérard and Chevalier, he belonged to a markedly different status of artist. The son of a Baptist minister, Gill did not have the benefit of academic training, but rather, was apprenticed as a draughtsman by the Hubard Profile Gallery in London, where he was employed to produce profile silhouettes. After arriving in Adelaide in 1839, he established a studio to produce low cost depictions of humans, animals and houses on “paper suited for home conveyance”[xl] This put him in very different social category of artist from that of von Guérard and Chevalier, who were both academically trained artists who travelled to Australia in search of the exotic and sublime landscape. Unlike the imposing canvases by these artists, Gill’s works were low-cost souvenirs. Tellingly, in 1864 Chevalier’s The Buffalo Ranges 1864 became the first Australian painting acquired by the recently established National Gallery of Victoria; it would be another 90 years before the hallowed institution would acquire a work of ST Gill.[xli]

Nicholas Chevalier, The Buffalo Ranges 1864. Oil on canvas, 132 x 183 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Nicholas Chevalier, The Buffalo Ranges 1864. Oil on canvas, 132 x 183 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Moreover, despite the efforts of scholars like Geoffrey Dutton and Bernard Smith to reconcile Gill with the landscape tradition that dominates the Australian art historical narrative, Gill’s paintings do not seem particularly interested in the landscape. Gill is a genre painter, and his best works are animated scenes filled with energetic figures. While Smith makes much of the “melancholy” landscape in which these scenes are set, this reading requires a decidedly selective vision. More often than not, the landscape in Gill’s works is little more than a hastily rendered background. Even his most melancholy “outback” scenes, such as those that Gill produced while acting as draughtsman to John Horrock’s ill-fated 1846 expedition, are less concerned with the landscape than the dramatic scene occurring within it (see for instance, Invalid’s tent, salt lake 75 miles north-west of Mount Arden 1846 in the Art Gallery of South Australia). Gill’s great skill was figures, and when he paints an empty landscape, such as Flinders Range, north of Mount Brown c.1846 (Art Gallery of South Australia), the overall effect is far too dull and generic to privilege any particular emotion, melancholic or otherwise. If, as Willis argues, in the art of the Heidelberg school “nature is posited as culture,” it is perhaps unsurprising that Gill’s awkward commercial landscapes were not embraced into the national canon.

ST. Gill. Flinders Range, north of Mount Brown, c.1846. Watercolour on paper, 34.0 x 46.2 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

ST. Gill. Flinders Range, north of Mount Brown, c.1846. Watercolour on paper, 34.0 x 46.2 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

More significantly, this comparison is illustrative of the connection between modern aesthetics, nationalism and the idealised bush. As Tony Bennett notes, the discourse of aesthetics, which crystallized around this time (centred on emergent institutions like the National Gallery of Victoria, which was founded in Melbourne in 1861) played a significant role in developing new forms of self-governance. This discourse was an “active component in the eighteenth-century culture of taste and played a major role in the subsequent development of the art museum, providing the discursive ground on which it was to discharge its obligations as a reformatory of public morals and manners.”[xlii] By positing nature as culture, while offering their particular vision as the first truly accurate depiction of the Australian landscape, the Heidelberg school perfectly wed modernist aesthetics to this reformatory apparatus.

Tom Roberts, Bailed Up 1895. Oil on canvas, 134.5 x 182.8 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

Tom Roberts, Bailed Up 1895. Oil on canvas, 134.5 x 182.8 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

Following Marshall Berman, Dipesh Charkrabarty has characterized “modernism” as “designating the aesthetic means by which an urban literate class subject to the invasive forces of modernization seeks to create, however falteringly, a sense of being at home in the modern city.”[xliii] In this context, the retreat from the city by the urbane and educated artists of the Heidelberg school might be seen, as Terry Smith argues, as “ahistorical attempts at ‘universal’ resolutions of conjectures of problems which are threatening the present.”[xliv] Discussing the academic Impressionism of Tom Robert’s Bailed Up 1895 (Art Gallery of New South Wales), Smith concludes:

Roberts’s painstaking realism serves to give to the spectator a sense of being present, at a moment in the past, it gives ‘eyewitness news value’ to history. And it does so [with] the same detachment from the forces of contemporary reality … Conflict between rich and poor, between the rule of law and the rules of the lawless, between the safe system of those who have and the aggressively independent self-seeking of the have-not bushrangers – all this is absent from the painting.[xlv]

ST. Gill, The King of Terrors and his Satallites [sic], c.1880. Watercolour, 31.7 x 22.2 cm. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

ST. Gill, The King of Terrors and his Satallites [sic], c.1880. Watercolour, 31.7 x 22.2 cm. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

The bush idealism of Heidelberg was precisely a retreat from the anxiety inducing realities of Melbourne’s urbanized reality. But Gill’s works did not retreat from this reality; indeed, one of his final paintings The King of Terrors and His Satallites [sic] c.1880 (State Library of New South Wales) directly tackles the subject of urban iniquity in a grim portent of the artist’s own imminent demise. But if the image of Gill as a drunkard and an outcast, serves to cast him as the emblematic figure of modern experience, the flâneur, it must be noted that Gill’s experience of modernity was radically different to that of the Heidelberg artists. When Gill arrived in Adelaide in 1839, he landed in a colony less than three years old. Although blessed with an influx of immigrants, South Australia was almost broke, having embarked on an ambitious program of public works. In this tiny and impoverished colony, it was exceedingly difficult to make a living as an artist, and in 1851 Gill appeared in the Adelaide Supreme Court and declared that he was insolvent.[xlvi] Gill’s insolvency coincided with the discovery of gold in north-eastern Victoria. The following year, Gill followed the rush of men to the goldfields seeking his fortune on the diggings.

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ST Gill, A City of Melbourne Solicitor 1866, lithograph, 34 x 26.6 cm, University of Melbourne Art Collection.

When Gill arrived in Melbourne in 1852, the Victorian gold rush had just begun transforming the city from a small, provincial town into one of the world’s richest metropolises. Although he found little success as a miner, Gill made a roaring trade selling images of the goldfields to the influx of men and women who flocked to north-eastern Victoria from across Australia and the world. In his four years in Melbourne, Gill documented life of the goldfields with an unmatched vigour and animation. In 1856, he left Melbourne in order to try and extend his artistic success into New South Wales; when he returned in 1864 he found a city transformed. In the decade since his arrival in Melbourne, the population had risen from 23,000 in 1852 to over 140,000 in 1861. Over 20 million ounces of gold had been mined from the Victorian goldfields, allowing for the construction of grand new buildings, roads, modern plumbing and gas lighting, ushering in the era of “Marvellous Melbourne.”[xlvii]

Suffering from financial difficulties, alcoholism, and venereal disease, Gill was perhaps indisposed to celebrate the city’s new-found prosperity. The images that he produced in his final decades in Melbourne present an unremittingly bleak view of the modern city, lacking the levity of humour of his images of the goldfields; a vision of modernity characterised by public drunkenness, racial degradation, alienation and poverty. This might well have reflected Gill’s internal state, but it should also be seen as an indication of the radical acceleration of modernity that occurred in Melbourne in the 1850s and 60s. As Bennett notes in regards to the slowly unfolding influence of evolution and historicism in Australia, modernity arrived in gradual waves: a “slow modernity” rather than a rupture.[xlviii] Unlike the Heidelberg artists, who were mostly born in the decade after 1865, Gill witnessed firsthand the maturation of modernity in Australian cities; the fully-fledged modernity that characterized the grand metropolis of Melbourne in the 1880s should not, therefore, be assumed to be a naturalized part of Gill’s understanding of the world.

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ST Gill, On the Board of Works 1866, lithograph, 34 x 26.6 cm, University of Melbourne Art Collection.

A simple analogy might be seen in his preferred choice of medium: the watercolour ‘sketch.’ In 1845, Gill had acquired a daguerreotype, the first camera in the colony of South Australia. The purchase was greeted with great enthusiasm in Adelaide, with the South Australian Register noting:

It appears to take likenesses as if by magic. The sitter is reflected in a piece of looking glass, and suddenly, without aid of brush or pencil, his reflection is “stamped” and “crystalised.” That there should be an error is absolutely impossible. It is the man himself. The portrait is, in fact, a preserved looking glass.[xlix]

Gill’s career as a photographer was, however, short lived, and soon after acquiring his daguerreotype machine, he sold it to the publican Robert Hall.[l] The most likely reason for this was financial; it was not until the late 1890s that new printing processes made photographic reproduction an affordable medium of dissemination.[li] On a psychic level, however, Paul Carter notes that the realism of photography – as marveled by the reporter from the South Australian Register – created an “ambiguity of the present tense” that undermined the colonizer’s ontological claims of spatial speculation, as it presented a history of objects (“the man himself”) rather than their conjuration by discovery. This could only be resolved by returning to the picturesque view of the tourist: “The strangest place in this looking glass world is where we stand looking into it but fail to see ourselves reflected there, glimpsing instead the strangeness of our origins.”[lii]

In abandoning the photographic for the painterly, Gill might be seen to be playing precisely into this colonial trope, preempting the Heidelberg artist’s claim to capture the essential truth of the landscape. Indeed, this is not far from Dutton’s interpretation, that in the watercolor sketch, Gill found the medium best suited to his desire to capture the liveliness and spontaneity of colonial life.[liii] And yet, Gill did not abandon photography (the most modern and mimetic mode available) in order to adopt the picturesque stylings of Chevalier of von Guérard; he abandoned photography in favor of the debased popular medium of caricature.

ST Gill, The Provident Diggers 1869. Watercolor, 26.8 x 19.5 cm, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.

ST Gill, The Provident Diggers 1869. Watercolor, 26.8 x 19.5 cm, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.

While Gill’s first volume of published sketches purport to represent his subjects precisely “as they are,”[liv] the image’s mode as satire offers a markedly different version of presentness to the “eyewitness news value” of the Heidelberg artists. This is most strikingly evident in Gill’s use of paired images, such as The Newly Arrived and The Colonized, or the pair of lithographs The Provident Diggers in Melbourne and The Improvident Diggers in Melbourne which appeared in Gill’s 1852 publication The Victorian Gold Diggings and Diggers as They Are. The folly of reading these images as documentary is illustrated by Graeme Davison, who completely fails to recognize the irony of Gill’s depiction of the diggers, reading them as straightforward morality pieces:

Conservative colonists feared … that the social dislocation of the gold rush might culminate in anarchy and revolution. The arrival of thousands of avaricious young men, adrift from the restraining influence of home and kin, exposed to the hazards and temptations of frontier life and susceptible to the appeals of radicals and revolutionaries, inspired dread among the governing classes. S.T. Gill gave vivid expression to these fears in his contrasting portraits of the ‘improvident digger’, bent upon riot and debauchery, and the ‘provident digger’ contemplating self-advancement and domesticity.[lv]

While Gill’s “improvident diggers” are shown drunkenly staggering past a jewelry store, the “provident” pair soberly concentrate on plans for available freehold land displayed in a realtor’s window. And yet, like many of Gill’s images, the message of this counterpoint is far from straightforward. As most contemporary Australian viewers would have been aware, inflation and land shortages had created a situation in which private real-estate contractors could easily prey upon unwitting diggers, charging highly inflated prices for low quality holdings. In such a situation, gold was a much sounder investment. In this situation, it was the “provident” digger was the one most likely to be swindled.

ST Gill, The Improvident Diggers 1869. Watercolor, 26.8 x 19.5 cm, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.

ST Gill, The Improvident Diggers 1869. Watercolor, 26.8 x 19.5 cm, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.

To read Gill’s images as morality tales, as Davison does, is to quite literally miss the joke. As Geoffrey Dutton rightly asserts, “S.T. Gill was a humourist rather than a moralist.”[lvi] However, as Rex Butler and Ian McLean note”

A joke gets its laughs by momentarily revealing the absurdity of a conventional truth, as in the medieval carnival that turns the world upside down. The secret is not to resolve the antinomy but hold it in suspense; what Žižek calls a parallax view. Thus the successful mimic is always funny because they are two at once.[lvii]

This is particularly significant, considering the dual nature of Gill’s audience; The Victorian Gold Diggings and Diggers as They Are was editioned in both Australia and Britain, and was therefore required to appeal to both colonial and imperial tastes.[lviii] And yet, as Žižek notes, the joke also serves to transform an inherent limitation (that which cannot be spoken, the position that cannot be assumed, the void of what cannot be seen from the first perspective, the space between The Newly Arrived and The Colonized) into something that is only a contingent difficulty that will one day be overcome. Nowhere is this ambiguity more evident than in one of Gill’s most difficult and troubling works: Native Dignity 1866.

Samuel Thomas (ST) Gill, Native dignity 1866, lithograph, The University of Melbourne Art Collection, Gift of the Sir Russell and Mab Grimwade ‘Miegunyah’ Bequest, 1973, 1973.0648

Samuel Thomas (ST) Gill, Native dignity 1866, lithograph, The University of Melbourne Art Collection, Gift of the Sir Russell and Mab Grimwade ‘Miegunyah’ Bequest, 1973, 1973.0648

By the mid-1860s, orthogenetic theories of social evolution were slowly beginning to emerge in Australia.[lix] Aboriginal culture was seen as an earlier stage in the teleological progress of human civilization and likened to an archaeological remnant of primeval man. Once contact was made with the more ‘advanced’ cultures, it was assumed inevitable that this ‘primitive’ culture would disappear. Not only did this lead to a sense of urgency on the part of early anthropologists to record and collect ethnographic data for the information it could shed on the development of humanity, but it inspired artists like Gill to create detailed visual records of Indigenous dress, material objects and cultural practices. He documented these observations in his most lavish publication, The Australian Sketchbook 1865.[lx]

In contrast to the detailed attention paid to traditional Indigenous dress and custom in The Australian Sketchbook, Native Dignity offers a striking counterpoint. An Aboriginal man is shown in a battered top hat, cutaway jacket and shirt, but no trousers. With his cane under his arm he swaggers down the street, alongside a smiling female companion swishing a tattered crinoline and a dinky parasol. It is likely that Gill, like many of his contemporaries saw Indigenous Australians as a dying race, but Native Dignity might also be seen as a critical commentary on the adverse impact of the encroachment of modernity upon both Indigenous and non-indigenous subjects in the colonial city. In making this claim, it is worth revisiting Edmonds assertion that the colonial city was a charged site in which “issues of civilization and savagery; race, gender and miscegenation were played out.”[lxi]

By the 1860s, images of Indigenous Australians in the urban setting were increasingly rare, not because Indigenous Australians were not present in Australian cities, but because their presence was a source of great anxiety amongst non-indigenous Australians. As Patrick Wolfe argues, rather than a fixed site, the frontier was always shifting, contextual and negotiated: always placing the Aboriginal somewhere else.[lxii] Lynette Russell continues, “the spatial coexistence of invaders and indigenes was anomalous making settler colonialism an assertion about the nation’s structure rather than a statement about its origins.”[lxiii] Beyond a simple racist stereotype, by picturing Indigenous people in the present, in such an ambiguous image of the urban frontier, Native Dignity plays upon the full range of urban anxieties of the non-indigenous colonial subject.

Confronted with the realities of the urban frontier, the settler subject is forcibly cast into the role of both colonizer and colonized in a dialectic of domination in which the self and the Other become mutually dependent. Although imbued with all the prejudices of its time, the very act of picturing this violence is, in some small and unintentional way, a form of resistance to the imperialism of silence. As Lynette Russell concludes, “when frontiers and boundaries are examined closely they seem to melt away. Instead of a line or a space or even a contact zone, we find only a concept, a notion that lacks temporal and geographic specificity.”[lxiv] Rather than defining the Australian experience, in Native Dignity, the melancholy nationalist landscape tradition fades into the dust between barefoot dancing feet.


[i] Lynette Russell, ed. Colonial Frontiers: Indigenous-European Encounters in Settler Societies (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 4.

[ii] Ian McLean, “Under Saturn: Melancholy and the Colonial Imagination,” in Double Vision: Art Histories and Colonial Histories in the Pacific, ed. Nicholas Thomas and Diane Losche (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 152-58.

[iii] Paul Carter, The Road to Botany Bay (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 154-55.

[iv] Rex Butler, ed. Radical Revisionism: An Anthology of Writings on Australian Art (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 2005), 9.

[v] Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” October 28(1984): 126-7.

[vi] Penelope Edmonds, Urbanizing Frontiers: Indigenous Peoples and Settlers in 19th-Century Pacific Rim Cities (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010), 5-6.

[vii] Ibid., 9.

[viii] Ibid., 10.

[ix] Keith Macrae Bowden, Samuel Thomas Gill: Artist (Maryborough: The Author, 1971), 103-12; Geoffrey Dutton, S.T. Gill’s Australia (South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1981), 47-50.

[x] Ibid., 7.

[xi] A.W. Greig, “An Australian Cruikshank,” The Argus, Saturday 14 September 1912, 7. Reprinted in The Register, Wednesday 18 September 1912, 11.

[xii] Bowden, Samuel Thomas Gill: Artist, 109.

[xiii] See for instance, William Moore, The Story of Australian Art (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1934), 59-60. Bernard Smith, Place, Taste and Tradition (Sydney: Ure Smith, 1945), 67-70; Bernard Smith, Terry Smith, and Christopher Heathcote, Australian Painting 1788-2000 (South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001), 49-53. Gill was also routinely featured in Australian newspapers and art magazines, for instance, E. McCaughan, “Samuel Thomas Gill,” The Australasian, 15 November 1930. Basil Burdett, “Samuel Thomas Gill: An Artist of the ‘Fifties,” Art in Australia 3, no. 49 (1933); W.H. Langham, “Samuel Thomas Gill (1818-1880): Landscape Painter,” Bulletin of the National Gallery of South Australia 2, no. 1 (1940); J.K Moir, “S.T. Gill, the Artist of the Goldfields,” The Argus, 9 December 1944 1944.

[xiv] Bowden, Samuel Thomas Gill: Artist, xi.

[xv] Anne-Marie Willis, Illusions of Identity: The Art of Nation (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1993), 62.

[xvi] Dutton, S.T. Gill’s Australia, 7.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Willis, Illusions of Identity: The Art of Nation.

[xix] Ibid., 62-64.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Smith, Place, Taste and Tradition, 67.

[xxii] Ibid., 67-70.

[xxiii] Richard White, Inventing Australia (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1981), 106.

[xxiv] Smith, Smith, and Heathcote, Australian Painting 1788-2000, 50.

[xxv] Ibid., 50-51.

[xxvi] Bernard Smith, The Spectre of Truganini: The 1980 Boyer Lectures (Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1980).

[xxvii] McLean, “Under Saturn: Melancholy and the Colonial Imagination,” 131-42.

[xxviii] Ibid., 136-7.

[xxix] Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in The Froniter in American History, ed. Frederick Jackson Turner (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1921), 3.

[xxx] Ibid., 4.

[xxxi] Carter, The Road to Botany Bay, 158.

[xxxii] David Hamer, New Towns in the New World (New York: Columbia University, 1990), 65.

[xxxiii] Carter, The Road to Botany Bay, 136.

[xxxiv] The maintenance and hegemony of this identity position is taken up by a number of scholars, for example Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 14-15; Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 16-17.

[xxxv] As Johannes Fabian observes, “there is no knowledge of the Other which is not also a temporal, historical and political act.” Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983; repr., 2002). Similar positions are articulated in Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference; Tony Bennett, Pasts Beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism (New York: Routledge, 2004).

[xxxvi] Rod Macneil, “Time after Time: Temporal Frontiers and Boundaries in Colonial Images of the Australian Landscape,” in Colonial Frontiers: Indigenous-European Encounters in Settler Societies, ed. Lynette Russell (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 48-49.

[xxxvii] Rod Macneil, “Time after Time: Temporal Frontiers and Boundaries in Colonial Images of the Australian Landscape,” in Colonial Frontiers: Indigenous-European Encounters in Settler Societies, ed. Lynette Russell (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 49.

[xxxviii] Truganini (c.1812-1876) was an Aboriginal woman from the island of Tasmania. By the time of her death, she was widely considered the “last full-blooded Aboriginal Tasmanian.” Smith, The Spectre of Truganini: The 1980 Boyer Lectures.

[xxxix] Ian McLean, “Picturing Australia: The Impressionist Swindle,” in Becoming Australians: The Movement Towards Federation in Ballarat and the Nation, ed. Kevin T. Livingston, Richard Jordan, and Gay Sweely (Kent Town, South Australia: Wakefield Press, 2001), 59.

[xl] E.J.R. Morgan, “Gill, Samuel Thomas (1818-1880),” in Australian Dictionary of Biography (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1966); Patricia Wilkie, “For Friends at Home: Some Early Views of Melbourne,” La Trobe Journal 46(1991).

[xli] In 1954, the National Gallery of Victoria purchased their first work by Gill, The Avengers c.1869.

[xlii] Bennett, Pasts Beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism, 3.

[xliii] Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, 155-56. See also, Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air (New York: Penguin, 1988), Ch. 1.

[xliv] Terry Smith, Transformations in Australian Art: The Nineteenth Century: Landscape, Colony and Nation (Sydney: Craftsman House, 2002), 93.

[xlv] Terry Smith, Transformations in Australian Art: The Nineteenth Century: Landscape, Colony and Nation (Sydney: Craftsman House, 2002), 99. In noting this disconnect from the urbanized reality, Smith notes, “In this sense it is a retrospective creation, celebrating a phase which was passing. And, in this same sense, it is city-based: it imposes the over confident optimism of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ onto a declining rural industry … There is no suggestion here that Roberts is deliberately misrepresenting the situations he is painting: all of them, with the exception of the bushranging subjects, could be witnessed in places throughout Australia. Rather, interest lies in the fact that, unlike much of the popular illustration and public rhetoric of the time, he elects not to show the most progressive aspect of the situation.” 84-85.

[xlvi] Dutton, S.T. Gill’s Australia, 27.

[xlvii] Graeme Davison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne (Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 2004).

[xlviii] Bennett, Pasts Beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism.

[xlix] South Australian Register, Saturday November 8, 1845, 2.

[l] Dutton, S.T. Gill’s Australia, 18.

[li] Wilkie, “For Friends at Home: Some Early Views of Melbourne,” 64.

[lii] Paul Carter, Living in a New County: History, Travelling and Language (London: Faber, 1992), 36-45.

[liii] Dutton, S.T. Gill’s Australia, 18-19.

[liv] Samuel Thomas Gill, The Victoria Gold Diggings and Diggers as They Are (Melbourne: Macartney & Galbraith, 1852).

[lv] Graeme Davison, “Gold-Rush Melbourne,” in Gold: Forgotten Histories and Lost Objects of Australia, ed. Iain McCalman and Alexander Cook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 63.

[lvi] Dutton, S.T. Gill’s Australia, 28.

[lvii] Rex Butler and Ian McLean, “Let Uz Not Talk Falsely Now,” in Richard Bell: Lessons on Etiquette and Manners, ed. Max Delany and Francis E. Parker (Caufield East, Victoria: Monash University Museum of Art, 2013), 39.

[lviii] As I have argued elsewhere, in Britain, the display of colonial iniquity was a subject of considerable interest, playing up to both Imperial fantasies of domination and colonial anxiety. Henry Skerritt, “William Strutt: Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia, 1852,” in Visions Past and Present: Celebrating 40 Years, ed. Christopher Menz (Parkville, Victoria: Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, 2012).

[lix] Phillip Jones, “Words to Objects: Origins of Ethnography in Colonial South Australia,” Records of the South Australian Museum 33, no. 1 (2000).

[lx] Samuel Thomas Gill, The Australian Sketchbook (Melbourne: Hamel & Ferguson, 1865).

[lxi] Edmonds, Urbanizing Frontiers: Indigenous Peoples and Settlers in 19th-Century Pacific Rim Cities 12.

[lxii] Patrick Wolfe, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology (London: Cassell, 1999), 173.

[lxiii] Russell, Colonial Frontiers: Indigenous-European Encounters in Settler Societies, 2.

[lxiv] Ibid., 11-13.

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What have I been doing?

It occurred to me recently that I haven’t updated this blog in some time. It isn’t because I haven’t been writing, but quite the reverse. So, what have I been up to?

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Well, last week I headed to Buffalo to give a talk at the Albright-Knox Museum, entitled “Ancient Endless Infinity: The Rise of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art.” It was magnificent to visit the Albright-Knox, and take in their extraordinary collection. As it happens many of their “masterpieces” were actually off on tour as part of the show Van Gogh to Rothko: Masterworks from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery… And while some might have found this disappointing, I found it really great to see such a varied selection of artists who are often underrepresented: Karel Appel, Joaquin Torres-García, Marisol, not to mention all those big Clifford Stills. It really shows the depth of this collection, that even without their “masterworks”, the collection still packed a pretty powerful punch.

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Gabriel appreciating Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Touch Sanitation Performance 1977-80.

But probably the biggest highlight for me, was to see the installation documenting Mierle Laderman Ukele’s Touch: Sanitation Performance. The work was a central part of Cathleen Chaffee’s really smart temporary exhibition Overtime: The Art of Workwhich also included the quite compelling Harun Farocki video piece Workers Leaving the Factory. Alongside Chaffee’s exhibition was an equally well considered collection show by Holly Hughes titled Eye to Eye: Looking Beyond Likenesswhich adroitly managed to offset 19th century portraiture from the collection with more recent efforts, ranging from a very awkward Warhol portrait of Seymour Knox, through to a profound and understated Felix Gonzalez-Torres paper piece.

So, what did I talk about? Although I’ve lectured a fair bit on Aboriginal art, I’d never given a sweeping introduction like this one before, so it took a little bit of thinking about. I structured the talk into three sections: in the first, I tried to establish some of the key concepts for understanding Aboriginal culture: concepts such as Country, Law, Dreaming and so on. Then, I made my case that, rather than seeming arcane, such concepts gave Aboriginal artists a unique position from which to engage with the contemporary world. In the second section, I attempted to sketch a very brief history of Aboriginal contemporary art, starting with the artists who painted for Baldwin Spencer in 1911, moving through the great Yolngu renaissance led by Wonnggu Mununggurr, then I quickly moved through Papunya Tula, the diaspora of desert painting, the rise of urban artists around Boomali, and the emergence of the East Kimberley school. Finally, I tried to do a quick scan of recent developments, looking first at some of the stars: Paddy Bedford, John Mawurndjul, Gulumbu Yunupingu, Richard Bell, and then some more recent artists carrying the torch: Nyapanyapa Yununpingu, Bob Gibson, and Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula. Forty-five minutes is hardly enough to cover the entire history of Aboriginal art, but it was an interesting exercise, and one that I feel like I will probably spend the next couple of decades refining.

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Nyilyari Tjapangati, Untitled 2010, acrylic on linen, 61 x 55 cm.

In terms of writing, I have been pretty busy too. I recently wrote an long-ish essay on the Papunya Tula artist Nyilyari Tjapangati for a solo exhibition of his work in Paris at Stephané Jacob’s Gallerie Arts de Australie. The essay was published in a very lovely publication, richly illustrated with works by Nyilyari as well as some spectacular photographs by Paul Sweeney and Ben Danks. You can download a PDF of the catalogue here, or you can purchase a hard copy here.

I have also recently finished writing a piece for the catalogue of the momentous looking exhibition Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia curated by Stephen Gilchrist for the new Harvard Art Museum. The works that Stephen has selected are truly extraordinary: it is a great credit to him that he has been able to secure such amazing loans from Australia’s premier institutions. I can’t wait to see the work assembled in Cambridge in February: and let me tell you, they would have to be pretty remarkable to convince me to go to Massachusetts at that time of year! The essay I wrote for the catalogue is called “A Stitch in Time: How Aboriginal Australian Artists are Reweaving Our World.” It gave me me the opportunity to delve into the work of an artist I have long admired: Regina Pilawuk Wilson. Regina was kind enough to give me an interview for the piece. She is such an impressive woman and she really helped set straight my thoughts.

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Regina Pilawuk Wilson, Syaw (Fish Net) 2008, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 198 x 200 cm, National Gallery of Victoria.

One of my favorite lines from the interview, which didn’t quite make it into the essay, was a bit where I asked Regina what she thought non-Aboriginal viewers might get out of looking at her paintings. She laughed this big, hearty laugh and said: “I have no idea what whitefellas can get. But my way—the story—it’s there, from a hundred thousand years ago.” Well then, I pressed, what would you like them to think. To which she replied: “I would like them to think that, you know, Aboriginal people living out in the bush are doing this painting and are proud. I’m really proud that my paintings are in America. It’s a long road from home.”

Writing the Harvard piece was really useful for me. For the past six months or so, my head had been in the question of abstraction, mostly due to my working on the exhibition No Boundaries: Aboriginal Australian Contemporary Abstract Painting. But with this piece, I wanted to leave that aside and return to the essential elements of world-making, connectivity and contemporaneity that I see as the more pressing and fundamental questions in relation to Aboriginal contemporary art. Paradoxically, the exercise gave me a new appreciation for the profound differences between contemporary Aboriginal and EuroAmerican abstraction, so I am currently working on a piece entitled “The Living and the Dead: Aboriginal Contemporary Art and Zombie Formalism.”

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Bob Gibson, Warlurtu 2014, acrylic on-Canvas 100x121cm.

I’ve also written a few recent things for Art Guide Australia. The first is an “Art Radar”: a pretty general wrap up of the state of the industry that I actually wrote shortly after returning from Australia in September 2014 but which just took a bit of time to make it to press. A few people picked me up on my suggestion that figurative elements are making a comeback in contemporary Aboriginal painting. Broadly speaking, I think this claim is correct, but it might take a bit of time to establish whether or not it is enough to constitute a “trend.” So, at this point it remains something of a speculation. But once you think about it, you start to see a lot more footprints, animal tracks, snakes, spears, woomera and shields turning up in recent paintings than we have seen in many years. But even more notable, I think, is the resurgence of the classic track-and-circle iconography. Johnny Yungut is a prominent example, but he is not alone. Scanning the website of Papunya Tula, you can see a plethora of magnificent recent examples of the style by Willy Tjungarrayi, Hillary Tjapangati, Morris Gibson, Yakari Napaltjarri and so on. I think this is mirrored in other communities, particularly in the NPY lands (think of people like Jimmy and Maringka Baker) but also in the work of artists like Peter Mungkari and Alec Baker.

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Morris Gibson, Untitled 2013, acrylic on linen, 107 x 91 cm.

The other thing I wrote recently was a short preview of the exhibition Earth and Sky on display at the TarraWarra Museum of Art. I must admit, it was strongly influenced by reading Will Stubbs punchy essay in the exhibition’s catalogue. Will’s take-no-prisoner’s style of writing is quite infectious… I am not entirely sure why I started moving into boxing metaphors at the end, but I think I will just blame Will!  I have also written a short piece for a forthcoming show at JGM Gallery in London, to accompany their May exhibition Transformations: Aboriginal Art TodayFinally, the other thing I have been doing is slowly adding bits and pieces to my academia.edu page. So, if you are really interested, you can find a selection of more recent writings there too!

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Lisa Uhl: Seeing the Forest and the Trees

The following is a catalogue essay, written for the exhibition Lisa Uhl: Turtujarti at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi from November 19-December 20, 2014.

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Lisa Uhl, Kurrkapi 2014, Cat No. 305-14, 120 x 240 cm, acrylic on canvas.

Most English speakers will be familiar with the phrase, “to not see the forest for the trees.” It is used to describe someone whose focus on minute details obscures their ability to see the broader context. Over her short career, the oeuvre of Lisa Uhl has been almost singularly devoted to trees—in particular, the turtutjarti (walnut trees) and kurrkapi (desert oaks) of Wangkajungka country on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert. And yet, Uhl is most definitely a “big picture” painter. Nowhere is this more evident than in the works in this current exhibition, which rank among the most accomplished and daring of the young artist’s career. Here the turtutjarti and kurrkapi are rendered almost a spectral presence, subsumed beneath Uhl’s painterly experiments in the visualization of space. These paintings seem less concerned with taxonomic detail than with an ambitious project of world picturing.

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Installation image, Lisa Uhl: Turtujarti, Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, November 19-December 19, 2014.

This is not to say that the centrality of turtutjarti and kurrkapi to Uhl’s work has diminished in any way. The trees remain the structural foundation of her practice. Typically, they are the first element that Uhl commits to canvas, before following their contours to fill the negative space with color. It is this technique that gives Uhl’s paintings their languid pulse, so evocative of the shimmering desert heat. In her most recent works, however, Uhl has begun to vary this formula. As Mangkaja Arts studio coordinator Wes Maselli notes, if Uhl encounters a blotch, splatter or errant line, “sometimes she will now follow that instead.” In these new paintings, the negative space takes on a life of its own. Rather than being rendered in a single color, the space between Uhl’s trees is now increasingly punctuated by bold gestural incursions and multiple colors. Differentiating between the trees and the spaces between has become increasingly difficult. Uhl is not prioritizing the forest or the trees, but refuting the entire binary. These paintings suggest that it is in the connective space between these poles that our knowledge of the world is produced—that allows one to see both the forest and the trees.

Much has been made of the story that Uhl has not actually “seen” the turtutjarti and kurrkapi, but rather, that her knowledge of them comes from the oral accounts of the influential senior women in her community. In noting this, we should be careful not to underestimate the significance of this system of oral knowledge transfer. After all seeing and knowing are rarely the same thing. The clunky attempts of early European painters to depict the Australian landscape is clear evidence of this. These artists “saw” the landscape, but lacked the conceptual frames to accurately represent it. Uhl might not have seen the turtutjarti and kurrkapi, but she has an intimate and passionate knowledge of them, imparted by figures of the highest esteem, such as Jukuja Dolly Snell, Milkujung Jewess James, Kuji Rose Goodjie, and Purlta Maryanne Downs. These women have instructed Uhl in the deeper meanings of the land: meanings that come from the ancestral Ngarrangkarni. As a young woman, Uhl does not have the authority to paint the “big stories” of Ngarrangkarni. Instead, she restricts herself to the secular subject matter of trees. Nevertheless, her paintings still participate in a worldview informed by this “big picture” view of country.

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Lisa Uhl, Turtujarti 2014, Cat No. 366-14, 90 x 60 cm, acrylic on canvas

This is a worldview defined by connectivity. In a sense, Ngarrangkarni is the most complex network of them all, connecting all things across time and space. It is also the foundation of being. During the Ngarrangkarni, the ancestral beings traveled across the landscape, creating the world and everything in it. Ngarrangkarni is not, however, restricted to the distant past. The residue of these events remains in the present, creating a landscape saturated in ancestral signs. Children are born from the ancestor’s spirits emerging from the earth, linking a person to their country and defining their identity. As a result, the boundaries between the human and natural realms (between self and country) are indistinct. Ngarrangkarni is a network of the most total integration.

While identity is rooted in place, the nature of place is not static. While many Westerners think of the desert and barren and monochromatic, it is full of color and life. The visual activity of the landscape—such as the shimmer of a waterhole or the changing colors of desert blooms—are all tangible expressions of ancestral presence. Recreating these visual effects, such as in the vibrant color combinations and pulsing hum of Uhl’s canvases, is a reenactment of the power of Ngarrangkarni. In Uhl’s paintings, turtutjarti and kurrkapi are the earthly bedrock upon which the transformational actions of ancestral presence is manifest. Her motif is the mutable landscape, but its power is revealed through the ability of its surface to change.

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Lisa Uhl, Kurrkapi 2014, Cat No. 340-14, 90 x 120 cm, acrylic on canvas

This explains why Uhl can find a seemingly endless source of inspiration in repeating the same motifs. It also explains why her paintings never fully divest themselves of the imagery of turtutjarti and kurrkapi. They are the literal roots of her network, bringing it back to earth and avoiding the inverse risk of only seeing the forest and not the trees. This insistent physicality of Uhl’s paintings is also an insistent humanity, reminding us that the most powerful networks are also the most affective, uniting real people and real places. The dissociated image of surfing the internet has led many people to view networks as disembodied frames. In reality, networks are the imaginary links that we use to call our world into existence. These networks still require nodes, operators, and locations from which to form our relations.

This takes a decidedly contemporary relevance in a world increasingly defined by the entangled networks of globalization. Despite coming from the seemingly remote locale of Fitzroy Crossing, Uhl’s paintings speak to a global condition. Picturing the complex networks that make up contemporary life—networks that are at once internationally expansive but locally experienced—is one of the central concerns of contemporary artists across the world. This is perhaps why, in our world of increasingly unfathomable networks, the ancient wisdom of concepts like Ngarrangkarni has taken on such contemporary resonance. It is also why artists like Uhl sit comfortably at the vanguard of international contemporary art practice. Drawing on the network ontology of Ngarrangkarni, Uhl’s paintings speak confidently across cultures without sacrificing any of their distinctive identity.

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Lisa Uhl, Turtujarti 2014, Cat No. 383-14, 120 x 120 cm, acrylic on canvas

Since anthropologists first began recording Aboriginal culture in the late nineteenth century, Western commentators have been prophesizing its demise. But Aboriginal culture has proved remarkably resilient, continually adapting the tools of modernity for its own revitalization. It seems strangely fitting then, that the final exhibition at the legendary Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi should come from such a dynamic young artist as Lisa Uhl. While the art market might have its ups-and-downs, and galleries might come and go, in the hands of artists like Uhl, Aboriginal culture continues to finds new vitality. Uhl is the model of resilience in the face of adversity and social tumult. Amid the often-challenging circumstances of modern Fitzroy Crossing, her radiant personality and personal strength shines through in the joie de vivre of her canvases. Like the turtujarti and kurrkapi, she stands tall: a sign of life in what others might wrongly perceive as a barren desert. This life breeds life, and as a committed artist, her success has inspired others in the community. In time, she may well grow to become as important a leader as the great women who went before her. The closing of Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi marks the end of one era, but the paintings of Lisa Uhl point to the future: you just have to see the forest for the trees.

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AKOS: Corey Bulpitt

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Last week I was lucky enough to swing a couple of days in Vancouver on my way back to Pittsburgh from Australia. I didn’t need a lot of persuading to stop by the seaport city; I always enjoy my time there, whether spent on the beach, at one of the many great museums, or at the delicious Toshi’s Sushi.

But the reason for my visit this time was to catch the exhibition AKOS: Corey Bulpitt, curated by Kwiaahwah Jones at the Bill Reid Gallery. I was really glad I did, because it is a knockout show. It is always exciting to see an artist emerging into an important new talent. AKOS shows Bulpitt restlessly but methodically working through a range of critical questions, and finding a pretty striking array of answers.

I am still processing my thoughts on the show, and on Bulpitt’s work in general, so that is something for a later, longer piece. For now, I just wanted to encourage you all to try and catch AKOS: Corey Bulpitt before it closes on September 14.

I have blogged on Bulpitt’s work before, and am currently working up a longer piece. Up until now, my interest has been mostly in his mural practice, and how this works both within and across cultures in interesting ways. But what AKOS: Corey Bulpitt shows is just how reflexively Bulpitt is engaging with the historical trajectory of these traditions.

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Corey Bulpitt, This is Not Art (detail), 2014. Image from Urban Native Magazine

 

Take for instance the work Old School/New School 2014, which is one of the first “graffiti” style works in the exhibition. The title refers to a multi-faceted pun taking place across the canvas. On a black background, Bulpitt has stenciled a “school” of salmon in the traditional formline style. While formline is clearly an “old school,” the use of stencils belongs to a “new school” of graffiti practice (made famous by the work of Banksy, but which also has a lineage stretching back several decades.) On top of this, Bulpitt has created a crashing wave of free-hand aerosol paint lines, redolent of the classical style of “old school” graffiti practice. But like all of Bulpitt’s work, this combination of styles comes together into something seamlessly whole: itself a “new school” of Indigenous artistic practice, embodied by collective movements like Beat Nation and the Vancouver based Shop Wrong, of whom Bulpitt is an active and prominent figure.

This is a lot going on in just a single work, but the exhibition teases out the implications in even more profound ways, in large part due to the sophisticated curating of Kwiaahwah Jones. Jones has skillfully managed to unite the disparate parts of Bulpitt’s practice (from traditional totem poles, ceremonial masks, photography and painting) into a seamless whole. This is no mean feat in the complicated spaces of the Bill Reid Gallery, in which the work of the museum’s namesake casts a long shadow.

 

However, Bulpitt and Reid actually share many similarities: both discovered their Haida artistic heritage later in life; both viewed their predecessors with great reverence, but both were determined to be cultural innovators. Thus, while works like Pipe Dreams/Tunnel Vision should seem jarring set amidst Reid’s beautifully austere forms, they work in tandem to present both the persistence and dynamism of Haida culture.

The parallels were clearly not lost on the exhibition’s curator, who notes, “Graffiti and Haida design share many of the same artistic values: continuous flow that expands and compresses, balance in design, colour, positive and negative, and narrative which is reflective of society and social status.”

I was extremely fortunate to be given a tour of the exhibition by Jones, and she offered the apt description of Reid as a being “bridge between worlds.” It was this characteristic that she also saw in Bulpitt’s work. Both artists, she argued, were “healers, crossing cultures, bringing people together and showing them what is wrong, so that they can begin the healing process”

AKOS: Corey Bulpitt is on at the Bill Reid Gallery, 639 Hornby Street, Vancouver, BC until September 14.

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Letter from Pittsburgh: Aboriginal art in America

The following review appeared in Art Guide Australia, January/February 2013, 68-72.

Installation image from Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art.

Installation image from Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art.

In his recent compendium, How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art, Ian McLean observes that the rise to prominence of Aboriginal art in the 1980s was due, in no small part, to timing. Buoyed by the radical ideas that percolated in the 1960s and 70s, a younger generation of artists and critics sought out more performative and visceral modes of art production, to which Aboriginal art seemed a perfect fit. At the same time, these formally brilliant canvases (with their uncanny visual affinity to late modernist abstraction) also appeased the desires of nostalgic modernists, hoping that these desert prophets could reinvigorate the formalist tradition. McLean is rightly dismissive of this latter tendency: “Whatever cheer modernists may have got from Papunya Tula painting, its artworld ascendency was only possible because of the perceived exhaustion of modernism. Whatever its transcendental beauty, Papunya Tula painting did not rescue modernism, but discovered a way for painting to continue after it.”[i]

I write this from Pittsburgh, the once famed industrial centre in the rust-belt of the north-east United States. It is a city that has played its own small part in the development of contemporary art: it is the birthplace of Andy Warhol and the Carnegie International, which since 1896 has been one of the world’s longest running contemporary art exhibitions. It is also a city in which the realities of the end of modernity and Euro-American industrial dominance are unmistakably evident. In the ruins of a once thriving steel industry, it is a city that has been reborn in the model of 21st century globalism; its economy structured around universities, medical technologies and IT companies like Google whose worker-friendly offices inhabit a former factory on the city’s revitalised east end.

Abie, Loy Kamerre, Bush Hen Dreaming, Sandhill Country, 2004, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 71 5/8 x 71 5/8 in, Seattle Art Museum, Promised gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan.

Abie, Loy Kamerre, Bush Hen Dreaming, Sandhill Country, 2004, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 71 5/8 x 71 5/8 in, Seattle Art Museum, Promised gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan.

2012 has been a pretty big year for Aboriginal art in America; it would be an overstatement to suggest that it stormed the citadels of contemporary art in the USA, but two major exhibitions on opposite sides of the country asserted the global significance of the Australian Indigenous art movement. On the west coast, Ancestral Modern at the Seattle Art Museum (May 31-September 2) exhibited the promised bequest of collectors Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan, while in New Hampshire, Crossing Cultures at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College presented the equally beneficent gift of collectors Will Owen and Harvey Wagner (September 15, 2012 – March 10, 2013).

Both exhibitions presented a radiant picture of the strength and diversity of contemporary Indigenous art practice in Australia, with their differences resting mostly in the peculiar strengths of the collectors’ respective visions.  For Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan, the collection was the result of a premeditated desire to create a “museum-quality collection.”[ii] As a result, Ancestral Modern was dominated by large, abstract works, highlights of which included a spectacular canvas by Mitjili Napanangka Gibson, a commanding collaborative painting by the Spinifex Mens Collaborative, and a judicious selection of elegant works from Utopia in the Eastern Desert; a potent reminder of the formidable power of these artists before many fizzled into a repetitive artistic paralysis. And yet, it would be wrong to characterise Ancestral Modern as only presenting the abstract, modernist-eque tendencies of contemporary Aboriginal art; the exhibition was punctuated with wonderfully surprising figurative works by Alan Griffiths, Jarinyanu David Downs and Stewart Hoosan, all of which helped present a vibrant picture of contemporary artistic practice in remote Australia.

Installation image of Crossing Cultures at the Toledo Museum of Art, showing Patrick Tjungarrayi’s Illyatjara 2001 (left) and Naata Nungurrayi’s Marapinti 2005 (right).

Installation image of Crossing Cultures at the Toledo Museum of Art, showing Patrick Tjungarrayi’s Illyatjara 2001 (left) and Naata Nungurrayi’s Marapinti 2005 (right).

In contrast to Ancestral Modern, most of the works in Crossing Cultures were domestic in scale, reflecting the more modest aspirations with which Will Owen and Harvey Wagner assembled their collection. Nevertheless, their collection has grown to be almost encyclopaedic in scope, and despite their modest size, works like Patrick Tjungarrayi’s Illyatjara 2001 (121 x 91 cm) or Naata Nungurrayi’s Marapinti 2005 (121 x 91 cm) are expansive in their aesthetic achievements, proving that quality always trumps scale. But the real strength of both exhibitions lies in the extraordinarily coherent visions brought to their collections by these very different collectors. In both exhibitions, the tastes, aspirations and passions of the collectors was readily apparent, allowing the sensitive curating of Pamela McClusky and Stephen Gilchrist to tease out rich parallels within both collections. Both exhibitions were accompanied with substantive catalogues (for the sake of disclosure I should note that I provided one of the ten catalogue essays for Crossing Cultures) and a rich program of talks and symposia, which brought together leading thinkers in the field from Australia and abroad.

At both these symposia, the overriding question seemed to be how to capitalize upon the success of these shows: how to stake Aboriginal art a central position in the global narrative of contemporary art. Those who gathered took for granted that the art of Aboriginal Australia is some of the most serious and important work being produced in the world today. The difficulty, it would seem, was communicating this to the rest of the world. When reflecting on these two shows, and their reception in the USA, I am inclined to return to McLean’s analysis, to wonder whether the battle for the critical soul of Aboriginal art has been adequately resolved. For instance, in one of the more lengthy critical reviews of Crossing Cultures, art critic Kyle Chayka begins with the question “Is Aboriginal Abstraction Modernist?”[iii] While Chayka’s review is thoughtful and perceptive, there is a staggering Eurocentrism in the insistent tendency to frame Aboriginal art in these modernist terms. In the 1980s, Aboriginal art was discussed critically in terms of postmodernism, conceptualism, performance and land-art. Thirty years later, we seem stuck ad-nauseum on the fabled tale of when Rover Thomas thought a Mark Rothko looked vaguely like his, or how much Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s work looks a bit like a Jackson Pollock. These are specious formal comparisons that neuter Aboriginal art into an outdated visual regime.

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Jarinyanu David Downs, Whale Fish Vomiting Jonah 1993, acrylic on canvas, 112 x 137 cm, Seatle Art Museum, promised gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan.

The persistence of such comparisons cannot be attributed to a paucity of good criticism; at the present, many of the finest minds in Australian art history, anthropology and journalism are turning their pens to Australian Aboriginal art with increasing sophistication. One can only presume that more insidious motives are at play. As McLean notes, modernism is exhausted, but this cannot prevent it clinging to the crumbling residues of its power, attempting to exert the supremacy of a centre that looks increasingly Ozymandias-like. Aboriginal art is not simply a defence mechanism against the onslaught of colonialism, it is a powerful weapon that exposes the contradictions and antinomies inherent in the modernist imperial project. This is why Aboriginal art stands at the vanguard of contemporary art: it is able to express the coevality of difference, while maintaining its own identity; to show the coexistence of multiple ways of being in the present; and to reveal the connective fibres of relation that make the contemporary world comprehensible. Aboriginal art shows us what it means to live in a world of accelerating multiplicity – literally, what it means to be contemporary.

So what is the solution? Firstly, we need a forceful definition of contemporary art: one in which modernism is merely a single possibility, neither more inevitable nor valuable than any other.[iv] Secondly, there is an urgent need for curators to begin working across the fields of Indigenous and non-indigenous art, in order to move beyond superficial visual affinities towards serious conceptual engagements. In the catalogue for Ancestral Modern, the curator Lisa Graziose Corrin  attempts precisely this task in a way that it rarely encountered. In comparing the work of artists like Mawukura Jimmy Nerrimah and Mitjili Napanangka Gibson to contemporaries like Julie Mehretu and Raqib Shaw, Corrin attempts to create ‘conversations’ in which the expressive and conceptual forcefulness of Aboriginal art is able to participate in a truly planetary conversation. This is a far cry from the often limp politeness with which Aboriginal art is so often included in Australian biennials and group exhibitions.

Mitjili Napanangka Gibson, Wilkinkarra 2007, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 305 cm, Seattle Art Museum, promised gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan.

It is time for curators to begin thinking in these planetary terms. It is shameful how few curators in Australia are working across the fields of Indigenous and non-indigenous contemporary art. Aboriginal artists have long been engaged in this conversation, offering a munificent cross-cultural dialogue with the non-indigenous world, through which the strength and vitality of their culture has been displayed with ever increasing aesthetic poise and finesse. This is the brilliant lesson of exhibitions like Ancestral Modern and Crossing Cultures; judging from their popularity, it is a lesson that has been warmly received in the USA. Most importantly, through the generosity of these collectors, there are now three significant collections of Aboriginal art in the United States (the third being the Kluge-Ruhe collection at the University of Virginia). Aboriginal art might not have stormed the barricades yet, but these collections are like splinter cells, biding their time ready to strike.


[i] Ian McLean, How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 2011): 44-47.

[ii] Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, “Collectors’ Statement,” in Pamela McClusky, ed., Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2012): 11.

[iii] Kyle Chayka, “Is Aboriginal Abstraction Modernist?Hyperallergic, October 16, 2012.

[iv] See for instance, Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009).

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New lines of flight: Bark Painting as Contemporary Encounter

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Yirawala, Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent, 1968, ochre on bark, 58 x 35.6 cm, National Museum of Australia

There are few artworks that can rival the power of the master bark painters from Arnhem Land. Australian audiences are lucky enough to have two fantastic opportunites to view superb early examples in the exhibitions Old Masters: Australia’s Great Bark Artists at the National Museum of Australia, and Transformations: Early Bark Paintings from Arnhem Land at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne.

For those unable to get to Australia, both exhibitions have some fantastic online content. The NMA has a set up a terrific digital platform which allows you to view most of the works in the exhibition, along with images and biographies of the artists. The Potter recently hosted a fantasic panel discussion featuring Lindy Allen, Howard Morphy, Wanyubi Marika, and the exhibition’s curator Joanna Bosse, which can be viewed below.

I also wrote a brief opinion piece on the two exhibitions for Art Guide Australia, the full text of which can be found here:

http://artguide.com.au/articles-page/show/new-lines-of-flight-bark-painting-as-contemporary-encounter/

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Transformations: Early Bark Paintings from Arnhem Land, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne. Photo by Viki Petherbridge.

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Rachel Harrison: Expanded or Abandoned Field?

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Rachel Harrison, Pablo Escobar, 2010, on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

In mid-July, I had the pleasure of visiting Chicago for the first time. We arrived in the middle of a mid-west heat wave, which was not all that conducive for sightseeing, but terrific weather to explore the magnificent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago. The Art Institute is such a wonderful institution; I could have spent all day amongst their extraordinary collection of European modernism, not to mention their superb selection of pre-War American paintings. One work I was particularly pleased to see was Rachel Harrison’s Pablo Escobar 2010. This is a fine piece, and Harrison is an artist that I very much admire; coming across it on the second floor was a very welcome surprise.

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Rachel Harrison, Pablo Escobar, 2010 (with detail of plastic chilli peppers).

Like many of Harrison’s best works, Pablo Escobar balances the gravitas of conceptual abstraction with an appealing playfulness and humor. The kitchy plastic peppers and garish Latino palette, are the perfect foil for the work’s faux-modernist angularity. Unfortunately, the curators have placed the work at the end of a roped off corridor, meaning that it is impossible to view Pablo Escobar in the round. This situation would be problematic for almost any piece of modern or contemporary sculpture; but the difficulties are particularly acute in the case of Harrison’s work.

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Rachel Harrison, Utopia, 2002, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

In Pittsburgh, we are fortunate to have an equally excellent example of Harrison’s work: Utopia 2002, currently on display as part of the spectacularly re-hung Scaife Galleries. In November 2002, Utopia was reproduced on the cover of Artforum magazine. Set against a crisp white background, the peak of Harrison’s hospital-green polystyrene menhir rises through the centre of the page. Like most photographic reproductions of the work, its is photographed so that the small porcelain figurine that rests upon a ledge of this monolith is seen from behind, casting an inevitable comparison to the famous rückenfigur of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog 1818. Like Friedrich’s wanderer, the figure appears absorbed in his environment, contemplating the pallid summit that soars above him.

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Artforum, November 2002, and Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany.

The coherence of this photographic image is somewhat different to the physical experience of the work in space. For a start, in order to photograph the porcelain figure from behind, the photograph elides the presence of a second ledge, upon which sits a small geological specimen of metallic encrusted rock.

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Rachel Harrison, Utopia, 2002, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

The direction with which the viewer approaches the sculpture determines which of these two objects are encountered first. If however, you approach the sculpture from the “rock” side, before circling the object in a clockwise direction, the first experience of the porcelain figure is not as rückenfigur, but front on, his crudely painted gilded face standing at approximately head height to the viewer. Rather than a figure of serious contemplation, the viewer is confronted with a kitsch mass-produced commodity. This is the kind of “trick” that Stefano Basilico sees in Harrison’s work, flipping expectations and making “the viewer aware of the transition of time in their experience of the work.”[1] Elizabeth Thomas counters, that Harrison is “a teaser, not a trickster,” setting up multipart compositions as part of the artist’s concern “with the act of looking, and of comprehending (or not) the whole field of visual culture that surrounds us.”[2]

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Rachel Harrison, Valid Like Salad, 2012 and All in the Family, 2012 (installation image from the exhibition The Help, Green Naftali Gallery, New York, 2012).

Over a century earlier, this question of looking and comprehending the world similarly preoccupied the German sculptor and theorist Adolf von Hildebrand. According to Hildebrand, our relation to the external world is based upon our perception of its spatial attributes. As a result, he concludes, we must consider our perception of space and form as “the most important facts in our conception of the reality of things.”[3] For Hildebrand, the perception of form is not immediately given in visual perception, rather, it is grasped through the combination of visual and kinaesthetic modes of perception, the two modes combining to supply the material for our imagination of three-dimensional forms. For Hildebrand, this is an “impure” understanding, requiring a combination of experiential components. The role of the artist is to unify these components into a purely visual form.

In the artistic representation, we may check and control the relation between our visual and kinaesthetic ideas, and the test, both of these our own ideas and of the efficacy of the artist’s work is – Do we react immediately to the impression received from this representation … This unity which the artist makes of visual impression and kinaesthetic idea, is the most fundamental source of our aesthetic enjoyment in a work of art.”[4]

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Adolf von Hilderbrand, Philoket, 1886

This creates a clear difficulty for the sculptor, who, as Hildebrand notes, works in the mental material of kinaesthetic ideas. If the role of the artist is to create a purely visual and immediately recognisable spatial unity, the unity of a sculptor’s work must be dependent on its two-dimensional image. Hildebrand even asserts the primacy of drawing, arguing that “sculpture has undoubtedly evolved from drawing; by giving depth to a drawing we make it a relief.”[5] It is relief sculpture that Hildebrand sees as the format par excellence for the capturing of form, in which spatial unity remains bound to a simple, understandable spatial unity. For Hildebrand, even sculpture in the round is conceived of as relief, as the sculptor works towards extracting a single, unified form by imagining the work from a single vantage point. This is contrasted to modelling in clay; where sculpture extracts an image from a spatial unity (the block), modelling works in the entirely wrong direction, starting with kinaesthetic ideas: “That which is not modelled is entirely lacking as volume. No general element of clay exists beyond that which is modelled.”[6]

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Adolf von Hildebrand: Amazonenjagd (Mittelteil aus dem Amazonentriptychon), 1887/88

In her 1977 text Passages in Modern Sculpture, Rosalind Krauss positions Hildebrand’s argument as the articulation of a peculiarly neoclassical worldview. Like Hildebrand, Krauss also sees relief sculpture as the ultimate expression of this worldview. “The rationalist model, on which neoclassicism depends, holds within it two basic suppositions: the context through which understanding unfolds is time; and, for sculpture, the natural context of rationality is the medium of relief.”[7] Following from Hildebrand’s espousal of the instantaneousness of visual appreciation, Krauss argues that the medium of relief links the visibility of the sculpture with the comprehension of its meaning: from the single viewing point “all the implications of gesture, all the significance of form, must naturally devolves.”

Relief thus makes it possible for the viewer to understand two reciprocal qualities simultaneously: form and meaning. Just as the enlightenment heralded man’s capacity to understand the world through reason, the relief “aspires to comprehend and project the movement of historical time and man’s place within it.”[8] This also explains the neo-classical tendency to depict figures from multiple vantage points, in order to transcend the partial information any single aspect coveys, and to find an ideal vantage point that will contain the totality of information necessary for a conceptual grasp of the object. “Throughout the nineteenth century,” Krauss concludes, “sculptors continually tried to provide the viewer with information about those unseen (and of course unseeable) sides of whole objects imbedded within relief ground”[9]

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Antonio Canova, The Three Graces, 1817

In essence, this argument does not depart substantially from Hildebrand, with the key exception that Krauss sees this as symptomatic of a particular epistemological moment, whereas Hildebrand sees it as the expression of a universal, aesthetic law. In noting that sculpture is a “historically bounded category and not a universal one,” Krauss argues that modern sculpture marks a paradigm shift in which logic of sculpture began to change.[10] For Krauss, this transition is clearly evidenced in the work of Rodin, in whose work, she argues the omniscience of neoclassical relief is replaced with an entirely different subjectivity: “This picture of the self as enjoying a privileged and direct relationship to the contents of its own consciousness is a picture of the self as basically private and discrete.”[11] In the essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” Krauss argues that this sets ups a new problem for sculpture. With Rodin, sculpture enters into the space that Krauss terms its “negative condition.” No longer tied to the condition of the monument, it becomes homeless, functionally placeless and self-referential:

Through its fetishization of the base, the sculpture reaches downward to absorb the pedestal into itself and away from actual place; and through the representation of its own materials or the processes of its construction the sculpture depicts its own autonomy.[12]

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Auguste Rodin, Monument to Balzac, 1891-1898

According to Krauss, this led to a situation in which sculpture could only be defined in the combination of exclusions not-landscape and not-architecture. This space could only be explored for a limited time, and by the 1950s its potential had been largely exhausted. This led Krauss to argue that the sculpture of the 1960s and 70s consisted of an expanded field “generated by problematising the set of oppositions between which the modernist category of sculpture is suspended.”[13] In Pop and Minimalist sculpture, Krauss saw a desire to defeat the idea of a centre towards which forms point or build, rejecting the ideal space that exists prior to experience and the psychological model in which a self exists replete with its meanings prior to contact with its world.[14] This was achieved by pointing to the externality of meaning.

Within the situation of postmodernism, practice is not defined in relation to a given medium…but rather in relation to the logical operations on a set of cultural terms … this is obviously a different approach to thinking about the history of form from that of the historicist criticism’s constructions of elaborate genealogical trees. It presupposes the acceptance of definitive rupture and the possibility of looking at historical process from the point of view of logical structure.[15]

In Passages in Modern Sculpture, Krauss concludes with a rhapsodic account of recent works by Robert Smithson, Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman and Robert Morris. In these works, she argues, the process that began with Rodin has reached fulfilment. “In every case, the image of passage serves to place both the viewer and the artist before the work, and the world, in an attitude of primary humility in order to encounter the deep reciprocity between himself and it.”[16]

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Rachel Harrison, Installation image from the exhibition The Help, Green Naftali Gallery, New York, 2012.

In his 2007 essay on Rachel Harrison, John Kelsey labels the artist’s work “Sculpture in an Abandoned Field.”[17] Kelsey is not the only person to note the antagonistic relationship between Harrison’s sculpture and Krauss’ theorising. Situating Harrison amongst an emergent movement of “unmonumental” contemporary sculptors, Trevor Smith argues: “Though this work appears to be a retreat from Rosalind Krauss’s description of “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” it might be seen more accurately as a strategic bulwark against that field’s potential collapse into culture-at-large.”[18] For Smith, it is not simply that Harrison’s sculptures are “obdurately sculptural,” but that they re-examine pre-minimalist forms of address.

Even though Michael Fried’s landmark 1967 critique of literalism, “Art and Objecthood,” was concerned specifically with the phenomenon of Minimalist sculpture, his warning against the unexacting subject relations found in works that were primarily physical and durational, as opposed to optical and instantaneous remain critical to the discussion.[19]

Harrison’s Utopia does not have the theatricality of minimalism, nor does it evoke the kind of humility espoused by Krauss. In its use of found objects, it does not suggest the kind of self-referentiality of Rodin; neither does its mutlipart composition conform to Hildebrand’s single-view. Laura Hoptman argues that the organization of disparate elements into a coherent narrative is one of the crucial distinctions between 20th and 21st century assemblage. Compositionally, sculptures like Harrision’s Utopia are intended to be holistic, with discrete objects coalescing into a coherent narrative. “Organization,” claims Hoptman, “has superseded chance.”[20]

In the beginning of the twenty-first century, an era of customization in which selections from an almost infinite array of choices are collaged together to create personal soundtracks, social groups, menus, histories and canons, the most interesting artists are the mixers, the mashers and sewers-together, the cobblers of irreproducible one-offs.[21]

Kelsey draws the distinction between between “combines” and “complexes” to describe this difference, noting the highly individualised and personal nature of such customizations.[22] This is not a dissolution of artistic subjectivity, but rather a repositioning, that can be seen in Harrision’s balance of the fabricated versus the readymade. As Elizabeth Thomas notes:

Within a single work, Harrison sets up a complex relationship between the created and the found – it is unclear which was devised for which, whether the specificity of a particular photograph or porcelain figurine completes a sculpture, or whether the sculpture was in fact initiated in response to the objects.[23]

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Rachel Harrison, Nose, 2005

This uncertain precedence gives Harrison’s sculptures a sense of contingency, as Kelsey comments: “there is always one more component, and it could be anything … that shows up to antagonise the idea that sculpture will ever be complete or identical to itself.”[24] This indeterminacy between object and plinth, artwork and readymade all suggest that Harrison’s work is not interested in the kind of dialectics between form and appearance, subject and object, duration and space that characterise Krauss and Hildebrand’s approaches to sculpture. Ellen Siefermann claims that, “Harrison’s strategies unsettle, provoke, mislead and destabilize … so that through such dialectical reversals she can immediately collapse them again.”[25]

This brings us back to the two-sided nature of Harrison’s Utopia (and the profound difficulties posed by the Art Institute’s display of Pablo Escobar). In presenting the rückenfigur in the round, Harrison seems to want to both re-inscribe the contemplative viewer while mocking the pretensions of the self-contained modernist artwork; to return meaning to the sculpted form, while keeping one eye firmly on the world outside. In doing so, Harrison does not seek to resolve this opposition, so much as reaffirm it as a space of play, undermining the critical force of both poles.

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Rachel Harrison, from left: Pablo Escobar, Around the Water Cooler, Siren Serenade, Signature Roll, installation image, Regen Projects II, Los Angele, 2010.


[1] Stefano Basilico, “Rachel Harrison, Trick and Treat,” in Basilico, cur., Currents 30: Rachel Harrison exhib. cat. (Milwaukee: Milwaukee Art Museum, 2002), 22.

[2] Elizabeth Thomas, “Rachel Harrision” in Laura Hoptman, cur., 54th Carnegie International exhib. cat. (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art, 2004, 158.

[3] Adolf Hildebrand, The Problem of Form in Painting and Sculpture, trans. Max Meyer and Robert Morris Ogden (New York: G.E. Stechert & Co, 1945), 17.

[4] Ibid., 32.

[5] Ibid., 125.

[6] Ibid., 134.

[7] Rosalind Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977), 9-10.

[8] Ibid., 14.

[9] Ibid., 21.

[10] Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October 8 (Spring, 1979), 33.

[11] Kraus, Passages in Modern Sculpture, 27.

[12] Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” 34.

[13] Ibid., 38.

[14] Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, Ch.7.

[15] Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” 44.

[16] Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, 283.

[17] John Kelsey, “Sculpture in an Abandoned Field,” in Heike Munder, cur. Rachel Harrsion: If I Did It, exhib. cat. (Zürich: Kunsthalle Nürnberg, 2007), 120-125.

[18] Trevor Smith, “Sculpture: A Minor Place,” in Laura Hoptman, cur., Unmonumental (New York: New Museum, 2007), 188.

[19] Ibid., 185.

[20] Hoptman, Unmonumnetal, 132-137.

[21] Ibid., 138.

[22] Kelsey, “Sculpture in an Abandoned Field,” 120.

[23] Thomas, “Rachel Harrison,” 158.

[24] Kelsey, “Sculpture in the Abandoned Field,” 124.

[25] Ellen Siefermann, “Many Layered Objects: Notes on Rachel Harrison’s Strategies,” in in Heike Munder, cur. Rachel Harrsion: If I Did It, 118.

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