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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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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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Corey Bulpitt and Larissa Healey: Permanent Presence

With the start of the Fall semester, I am beginning to think that my aim to do a blog post a day was a little too ambitious… Nevertheless, despite having missed a few days, I am going to try and get back on the horse!

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Larissa Healey and Corey Bulpitt with their mural Salmon Cycle – The Spirit Within 2013, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada.

On my recent visit to Vancouver, I became a little obsessed with Northwest Coast Indigenous art. It really is hard not to: it is extremely visually compelling, and speaks so beautifully to the landscape from which it comes. It certainly didn’t hurt that I spent much of the week at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, which houses so many cultural riches of region’s traditional owners. Lacking the budget to acquire any artworks, I returned with a lot of presents for my young son: a very nice t-shirt designed by Eric Parnell; an animal puzzle designed by Doug LaFortune (which Gabriel loves) and the Book of Play with Northwest Coast Native Art .

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Corey Bulpitt and Larissa Healey, The Storm, 2011, Grenville Street Bridge, Vancouver, Canada.

This evening, as Gabriel and I were reading the Book of Play, one image in particular caught my attention. It was the Haida artist Corey Bulpitt‘s depiction of the rainbow. It is a striking image: the contrast between the multi-colour of the rainbow and the thick blocks of black and white typical of northwest coast art causes the image to leap out. Seeing the image in Gabe’s book reminded me of the first time I had seen this motif, in a different work of Bulpitt’s, which I stumbled upon quite by accident while in Vancouver. In 2011, Bulpitt included the rainbow motif at the very centre of 50 foot mural entitled The Storm. The Storm is one of two murals underneath the Granville Street bridge in Vancouver; the other being an equally impressive work by Bulpitt’s frequent collaborator Larissa Healey (which I believe pre-dates The Storm by 3 years). I was very pleased to stumble on these works, because I had recently seen Bulpitt and Healey’s wonderful mural outside the National Gallery of Canada, which had been commissioned for the exhibition Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art.

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Larissa Healey and Corey Bulpitt, Granville Street Bridge Mural, 2008, Vancouver, Canada (photo 2013 by author).

As my photos show, the Grenville Street bridge murals have suffered a bit from the elements. Nevertheless, the rainbow beams out with an irrepressible luminosity. Bulpitt and Healey’s murals clearly belong to two identifiable traditions: Northwest Coast Native art and the more recent graffiti styles. In their dress and invocation of the parlance of hip-hop, they clearly find this to be a compatible marriage; certainly, their artwork moves fluidly within and across both circles of influence very productively. This week, however, I have been thinking about these works in slightly different terms.

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Corey Bulpitt and Larissa Healey, The Storm, 2011, Grenville Street Bridge, Vancouver, Canada (photo 2013, by author).

In the 1920s, when Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros revived the Mexican tradition of mural paintings, the attraction of muralism to these artists was, in part, that it was anathema to the formalist traditions of easel painting. Murals were a way of reconnecting modern art to the people; of inserting it into the very architectural fabric of society. To this end, the Mexican muralists revived the Renaissance tradition of fresco painting, in which paint is applied to wet plaster, literally becoming part of the substance of the wall upon which it is painted. In some ways, I see a very obvious parallel here to what Bulpitt and Healey are attempting to do through uniting traditional Haida and Anishinaabe designs with the modes, mediums and language of the street. But there is something more here I think needs to be teased out. As a medium, fresco also attracted the Mexican muralists because of its permanence; it was intended to last forever, just like the revolutionary governments that it celebrated. How does this compare to Bulpitt and Healey’s murals, which belong to the ephemeral tradition of graffiti?

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Larissa Healey and Corey Bulpitt, Salmon Cycle – The Spirit Within 2013, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada.

One answer might be found in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. In the museum’s Great Hall are dozens of examples of Northwest Coast art in varying degrees of repair. In their traditional settings, the giant totem poles preserved at MOA would have eventually deteriorated, to be replaced by new poles. What remained was the imagery, passed on through generations, persisting long after the objects had returned to nature. In a sense, the medium of graffiti is somewhat more permanent, but its associations with the outlaw and the ephemeral is particularly poignant in the case of Indigenous cultural representations. This is a very bold assertion of permanent presence. These murals powerfully declare: “You might outlaw our culture, you might repress our imagery, but like the salmon we will return against the tide; our traditions are permanent.”

stepping forward quietly and boldly
elders watch as we stand our ground
once again the silence is broken
hear our songs under your bridge
we have not left n we rise again

Gurl 23 [aka Larissa Healey]

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Lisa Uhl: Repetition and Transformation

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Lisa Uhl, Turtujarti 2012, acrylic on canvas, 120 x 240 cm.

Recently, I was asked to write a catalog essay for a forthcoming exhibition featuring nine senior men from north Western Australia. In the essay, I note that one of the things that made these artists great (sadly eight of the nine are deceased), was their ability to constantly shift their practice, which I argue is symptomatic of a kind of “transformational ontology.”

For Indigenous people, the visual activity of the landscape (the shimmer of a dried waterhole, shifts in light and color, blooms in Spring) are all tangible expressions of ancestral experience. They are the bridge between the phenomenol and noumenol worlds: the way in which the Dreaming is made visible. Recreating these visual effects is not about creating a representation of the landscape (as in a western landscape painting, which is always a copy of the “real” world), but rather, a re-enactment of the power of the Dreaming. As such, paintings become an active part of imagining country, participating in this transformational process, and giving them power to literally change the world! […] Despite their relatively short careers, all nine artists were extraordinarily mercurial in their artistic practice, experimenting, innovating and shifting styles with alacrity. This peripatetic drive stands to reason; re-energising the Dreaming was a full-time creative exercise: a life’s work.It is impossible to grasp the immensity of such a project from a single painting. Just like the landscape, which reveals its ancestral energy through constant change, the profound success of these artists must be measured through their own continued processes of innovation and transformation.

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Lisa Uhl, Four versions of Turtujarti, 2012-2013, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 90 cm each.

This is more or less the same argument I offered in my discussion with Will Owen at the Toledo Art Museum, and I think it is more or less accurate. What it ignores, however, is the question of repetition. Indeed, as an artistic strategy, repetition is integral to many of the finest Aboriginal artists. How might we begin to reconcile this with the idea of a “transformational ontology?”

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Lisa Uhl, Turtujarti, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 90 cm.

One artist we might consider is Lisa Uhl. I really admire Uhl’s paintings: they have a beautifully raw elegance that is deeply expressive, while speaking to a local art history. Along with the equally exciting, but slightly older Sonia Kurarra, Uhl is one of the rising stars of the Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency at Fitzroy Crossing. In her short painting career, Uhl (born c.1976) has clearly imbibed the influence of her aunt Jukuja Dolly Snell (who raised her from an infant), but has managed to find her own voice through her signature motifs of the Turtujarti (walnut trees from the Great Sandy Desert) and Kurrkapi (Desert Oaks). Uhl clearly does not tire of painting this limited repetoire of motifs (which, to be honest, are pretty much indistinguishable). But to call this a limitation in Uhl’s oeuvre, is like dismissing Mark Rothko because he only painted squares! While it would be wrong to call Uhl a formalist, her paintings are similar to Rothko’s in the sense that their charge comes from their exploration of light and colour: a line of white against a mauve background breaks like dusk through the trees, or a halo of amber emits the pulse of a languid afternoon.

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Lisa Uhl, Turtujarti 2013, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 cm.

Sure, some artists tear through styles and motifs, but. Uhl is on a different track. In her works, the motif of Turtujarti works as the earthly bedrock upon which the transformational actions of ancestral presence take place. Her motif is the immutable landscape, but its power is revealed through the ability of its surface to change. Uhl’s practice is a beautiful metaphor for this process. Painting might be used to rejuvenate this ancestral power, but it cannot be at the expense of this mutability. Perhaps Uhl’s focus is also a sign of her youth, revealing a sensible trepidation not to transgress the bounds of her authority. As she becomes an elder in her own right, perhaps her practice will transform; but for now, I am happy to enjoy her patient meditations on Turtujarti and Kurrkapi.

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Sidney Nolan and the Relativity of Otherness

Inland Australia 1950 by Sir Sidney Nolan 1917-1992

Sidney Nolan, Inland Australia, 1950, Tate Modern collection.

Yikes. It is 1030pm on my 34th birthday and I haven’t even started today’s blog. I knew the daily blog was going to be a tall order, but some days really push you!

In May this year I had the great pleasure of spending a week in London. It was the first time I had been to the UK since visiting with my parents in 1989. Needless to say, I spent my time dashing between galleries and museums, taking in the embarrassment of masterpieces on display. At one point, in the Tate Modern, I rounded a corner and came face to face with a very familiar sight: a Sidney Nolan desert painting from 1950. I haven’t been in Australia for about 18 months, so seeing Nolan’s painting was a bit uncanny; its familiar colors and textures belonged somewhere else entirely. Whether out of familiarity or surprise, it caught my attention; to the extent that I can no longer remember any of the other works in the room. Nevertheless, I approached it with some trepidation, cautious that its allure was nothing more that sentimental parochialism.

Alongside the work was a brief quote from Nolan, describing his motivation for painting these composite desert scenes:

I wanted to know the true nature of the “otherness” I had been born into. It was not a European thing. I wanted to paint the great purity and implacability of the landscape. I wanted a visual form of the “otherness” of the thing not seen.

Nolan’s statement is quite extraordinary, in that it reveals both his desire to escape the “provincialism problem” (so eloquently described two decades later by Terry Smith), while finding himself essentially trapped by his own strategies: his self-othering against the “alien” desert landscape. I cannot help contrasting this to Edouard Glissant’s assertion that the colonized is always the first to recognize the contemporary state that he terms “Relation,” because they are the first to recognise the other within, having been forcefully cast into the role by the encompassing colonial power. As always, Glissant’s description is delightfully rich:

We “know” that the Other is within us and affects how we evolve as well as the bulk of our conceptions and the development of our sensibility … In spite of ourselves, a sort of “consciousness of consciousness” opens us up and turns each of us into a disconcerted actor in the Poetics of Relation.

In the Cave 1957 by Sir Sidney Nolan 1917-1992

Sidney Nolan, In the Cave, 1957, Tate Modern collection.

It is easy to forget that colonization  works in degrees: and as Nolan’s case suggests, the Australian settler subject could occupy both the position of colonizer and colonized. But there is still something worth thinking through about an artist standing at the precipice of this consciousness of Relation. Several scholars have spoken to me about the profound influence of Indigenous art on Nolan, although relatively little has been published on this matter. (Likewise, the incorporation of Aboriginal shield designs in Albert Tucker’s work also demands some critical attention). On the one hand, this is clearly in line with the modernist tendency to use Indigenous art as a trove of primitivist motifs to be raided at will (something clearly evident in Nolan’s In the Cave 1957, also at the Tate). But I think Nolan’s statement hints at a more profound realisation. Nolan’s problem, as summed up in this statement, is that he is looking to replicate the other within through a generalised otherness without… something that can be reproduced as profoundly alien: the outlaw, the desert, the Aborigine and so on. This is why these paintings are ultimately provincial: they pander to the desire of the center for a provincial other than is recognizable, but different. The lesson of Relation is not to try and cast this otherness in understandable terms, but rather, to recognize that it is one part of the infinite diversity of the world. It would take several decades before the true artists of the desert would jolt the Australian art world into consciousness of this.

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Albert Tucker, Untitled (Bushranger with Sheild), c.1956, private collection.

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