Heavy, with the Weight of History
On the 27th March 2018, I contributed a comment to a long and smouldering debate on Abcrit, following the publication of Alan Gouk’s tremendous Key Paintings of the 20th Century: Part 2. The comment read as follows:
I’m in no way suggesting that we are yet to see an abstract painting. I’m saying that there is no appetite for that as an un-compromised artistic pursuit in our current prevailing culture. Rather paradoxically, we have a situation where there are more “abstract painters” than ever before, but just as so many of these painters are capable of pulling off some rather good paintings, many are just as capable of drawing a smiley face into one of them the very next day. This is because there doesn’t seem to be any sense that a critically engaged audience is watching. Casualism is to a great extent born out of a perception that no one actually cares. This is very different to the climate that gave oxygen to the painters in your survey, Alan [Gouk], and from what I can gather, quite different to the critically engaged times you yourself came up in, able as you were to exchange ideas and have your work seen by the likes of Greenberg and Fried. The tide may already have been turning then, but it is at its lowest ebb now. The fact that we have to resort to google to try and find new or interesting artists is a massive indictment on how far things have fallen, and how isolated we all are.
Actually, I made this comment on the 28th of March, because Australia is about eight or nine hours ahead of England, despite the general lament that we are ten to fifteen years behind in regards to everything else. Australia is no stranger to isolation. The illusive Southern Continent, that last piece of the imperial puzzle, a vast and sporadically populated landmass surrounded by endless sea. This is a place people were sent to so they would disappear. As Robert Hughes wrote in the Fatal Shore:
… transportation got rid of the dissenter without making a hero of him on the scaffold. He slipped off the map into a distant limbo, where his voice fell dead at his feet. There was nothing for his ideas to engage, if he were an intellectual; no machines to break or ricks to burn, if a labourer. He could preach sedition to the thieves and cockatoos, or to the wind. Nobody would care.
Eerily familiar. Barbarism aside, the most significant difference today, as I see it, is the repeated assurance that our voices matter and will be heard. The world has shrunk, so they say, and we’re all supposedly much more connected, and yet it feels as if we’re all just shouting over the top of each other, silencing ourselves in the process, creating a new breed of repression. In colonial Australia, repression was the local currency. We have always felt like this, and it contributes to the manifestation of The Cultural Cringe, that peculiar, archaic but ever present inferiority complex, the reverence for the ‘homeland’ suffered by post-colonial nations but particularly Australia. It’s a complex that has impeded our cultural development, devaluing everything we make here in favour of almost anything from Europe and America, because of our insecure and guilt ridden view of ourselves, born out of the knowledge that this isn’t really our country.
For an international reader-ship not so familiar with this concept, the phrase was coined by Arthur Angell Phillips in his seminal essay, The Cultural Cringe (1950). Its origins however, can be traced back as far as the late nineteenth century, to the articulation of the concept by the poet Henry Lawson. I am extremely wary of the potential dangers presented by any attempt to weigh in to this heavily charged and divisive discourse. It may well be too complex a topic to take on for the purposes of this essay, but to some extent it is unavoidable. Let it be said that The Cringe has evolved and in some cases, been outgrown, but nevertheless, it continues to shadow the Australian consciousness across every conceivable cultural endeavour.
So, it is only fair that I examine my own personal relationship to Brancaster Chronicles, the UK based forum for exhibiting and discussing abstract art, of which I am a participating member. Was my sense of the importance of these forums and the work which has developed out of them, which was of course strong enough to motivate me to travel to England to see it, brought about by an undeniable recognition of the content and quality of the work and discussion in its own right, or by my own insecurities about the worth of Australian culture itself? I would like to think it was the former and I have reason to believe that it is, but it would be immature to dismiss the possibility that I wasn’t persuaded by some inherited sense of European authority, and that I may perhaps be less pre-disposed to recognise the value of home-grown efforts. Many Australians think and feel that way and I don’t think I am any different. Artist residencies, study exchanges, overseas shows, these are all rites of passage for Australian artists, and although these are opportunities that artists the world over make use of too, in Australia they seem to be coveted very highly indeed, affording the artist an air of respectability they may not have previously enjoyed. These are all valuable experiences that I wouldn’t discourage anyone from pursuing. This is simply something for all Australians to be aware of, but particularly artists, who so often end up leaving Australia in search of better opportunities overseas, but perhaps at the cost of postponing the inevitable confrontation with the cultural dilemma back home.
I say dilemma, because the question of how best to address that cultural problem is where the ground becomes more treacherous still. In Australia, to simply be seen to defy The Cringe is often accepted by the public as more than adequate, but it can result in the reinforcement of cultural clichés and stereo-types, through the self-conscious perpetuation of typically Australian iconography. This predicament is examined in Terry Smith’s 1974 essay, The Provincialism Problem. He argues that the questionable power structures of metropolitan art centres, in this case New York in the 1970s, spreads subservience and dependence. Smith writes that Australian art before the 1950s, “like its political history… is typified by variations on the theme of dependence.” As a result, the provincial artist “is never himself the agent of significant change. Larger forces control the shape of his development as an artist.” He observes that the provincial artist’s world is characterised by a certain bind,
…replete with tensions between two antithetical terms: a defiant urge to localism (a claim for the possibility and validity of “making good, original art right here”) and a reluctant recognition that the generative innovations in art, and the criteria for standards of “quality,” “originality,” “interest,” “forcefulness,” etc., are determined externally. Far from encouraging innocent art of naive purity, untainted by “too much history and too much thinking,” provincialism, in fact, produces highly self-conscious art “obsessed with the problem of what its identity ought to be.
Australian abstract artists, by rejecting the requirement to perpetuate iconography, may also find themselves trapped in this bind, because whilst their work may have more appeal to an international audience, it can struggle to leave any impression at home, which is ultimately where it will need to be nurtured. Its dismissal as being self-involved can result in feelings of guilt.
Guilt is a common Australian trait, but abstract artists suffer from it all over the world, because of abstract art’s apparent lack of a social conscience. In Australia, that social conscience is inextricably linked to an increased awareness amongst white Australians of the harms done by them to the Indigenous people and their culture, and a moral sense of duty to right the wrongs and maybe even see that culture reinstated. This produces an intriguing manifestation of The Cringe, and an awareness of it produces a damned if you do, damned if you don’t attitude to creativity and its national significance. A. A. Phillips addresses this in his 1950 essay, specifically in reference to the Jindyworobak literary movement, which was comprised of white, predominantly male authors, who sought to integrate the uniquely Australian environment and Aboriginal history into their writing, whilst also rejecting the infiltration of any European imagery. Phillips observed that:
The Australian writer cannot cease to be English even if he wants to. The nightingale does not sing under Australian skies; but he still sings in the literate Australian mind. It may thus become the symbol which runs naturally to the tip of the writer’s pen; but he dare not use it because it has no organic relation with the Australian life he is interpreting…
A Jindyworobak writer uses the image ‘galah-breasted dawn’. The picture is both fresh and accurate, and has a sense of immediacy because it comes direct from the writer’s environment; and yet somehow it doesn’t quite come off. The trouble is that we—unhappy Cringers–are too aware of the processes in its creation. We can feel the writer thinking: ‘No, I mustn’t use one of the images which English language tradition is insinuating into my mind; I must have something Australian: ah, yes—’ What the phrase has gained in immediacy, it has lost in spontaneity. You have some measure of the complexity of the problem of a colonial culture when you reflect that the last sentence I have written is not so nonsensical as it sounds.
In Australia, the search for identity that has often been the stomping ground of our cultural elite, often produces work that nobly but at times egotistically advocates the role of the artist as mythmaker. Our most celebrated painters tend to be the ones who personify the very male dominated sphere of ‘folklore’, pitting man against nature, bushranger against policeman, underdog against establishment. What Phillips cites as a problem for Australian Literature, can be extended to Australian painting, which has its own history of self-categorisation. On a visit to the Drill Hall Gallery in Canberra last year, I got to see Sidney Nolan’s River Bend from 1964-65. It is a frieze comprised of nine paintings that follow the slight curvature of the room, depicting a bush scene that bulges forward or recedes dramatically in accordance with the bending river. Painted in enamel, it has a surface quality that doesn’t feel overly indebted to the European painting tradition. The representation of the water is ghostly and flat, yet sets off such a bizarre contrast with the apparent meatiness of the trees, contradicted by the fact that the trees themselves are comprised of very little paint at all. I found this work extremely evocative and an accurate reflection of my own perceptions of space in the Australian bush, particularly on the Murray river. In some ways, it makes an absolute mockery of the abomination that is David Hockney’s A Bigger Grand Canyon (1999), which resides close by at the neighbouring National Gallery. Unlike the Hockney, which is embarrassingly flat, Nolan’s painting becomes almost virtual in the way it wraps around your field of vision, somewhat capitalising on our own optical limitations as the receding peripheries are thrown into further degrees of uncertainty. The problem though, is that Nolan feels compelled to include an ancillary and superfluous element to this already distinctive and resonant bush scene by peppering it with his trademark Ned Kelly stick figures fighting policemen in the wilderness. How else would we know it was a Nolan? How else would it help to fill the “gaping hole” in our national mythology?
Terry Smith takes note of the problem faced by Nolan and artists in a similar position to him. He writes:
Nolan’s greatness is of a different order from [Jackson] Pollock’s. Nolan is admired as a great Australian artist, while Pollock is taken to be a great artist – his Americanness accepted as a secondary aspect of his achievement qua artist. In such circumstances, the most to which the provincial artist can aspire is to be considered second-rate.
For Smith, the provincialism is what simultaneously makes and breaks Nolan. What he has to do to attain significance at home, is what limits the reach and impact of his work away from these shores. It should be mentioned that some overseas audiences through unfamiliarity may enjoy these parochialisms, but moments of approval from audiences at home and those abroad rarely seem to align. To repeat A. A. Philips, “we unhappy cringers are too aware of the processes in its creation.”
This insecurity about cultural signifiers filters through into much of our ‘abstract’ painting as well, which feels compelled to reference the Australian landscape in order to deliver meaning. As Smith also observes, “a range of exploration conventional to the categories of international art, with a touch of local colour, seems fundamental to the way Australian art develops.” For myself, I find the referencing of things like landscape and other figurative devices in work that otherwise lays some claim to being abstract, to be quite alienating at times, which is the opposite effect that would have been intended. It has something to do with the fact that I feel like some sort of barrier has been erected between myself and the artist, as they resort to well established and accepted conventions in order to justify and mediate an activity that is otherwise their most direct means of personal communication. When these conventions are so readily adopted, it is as if the artist is not taking full responsibility for their work, and riding on the coat tails of somebody else’s achievements. As Alan Gouk pointed out recently, those somebodies often end up being Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston, American painters not without their own flaws, and it is on their account that scores of contemporary abstract artists readily and without question adopt a “hell for leather” approach to paint handling that through its complacency tends to have very familiar results.
Here is one example:
I came across none of this in Brancaster Chronicles when I first started delving into them. That is hardly surprising given that the forum exists in England, a country with a more developed awareness of abstract art, but the paintings did not even bear any traces of the St. Ives style, that of greyish land and seascapes, often abstracted by wildly expressive brushwork, somewhat reminiscent of wind in the paintings of Peter Lanyon, or the calm, still airiness of Ben Nicholson. Whilst I understand the importance of these works and the significance they hold for many an Abcrit reader and contributor, these are not paintings that I can feel any strong connection to. This is not a blanket criticism. There are bound to be exceptions. But I think the reservations are there because the work is inextricably linked to the cultural sensibilities of those familiar with the environment that gave birth to them. Their ‘Englishness’ works for and against them. So, in that respect, why should we expect an international audience to fully appreciate or comprehend the ‘Australianness’ of our painting?
Brancaster painting, sculpture and collage for that matter, does not look English, to me anyway. In fact, it does not appear indebted to any concept of cultural identity. Brancaster painting and sculpture is rich with visual stimuli. It is in many cases uncompromising in its search for something that is not over-reliant on figurative conventions. It is expressive and spontaneous without being wild and romantic. It is considered and purposeful without being tentative or pre-conceived. Ultimately, I find it very rewarding to look at, because it privileges the freedom of the viewer to seamlessly move anywhere at any time, in any direction, rather than the freedom of the artist to do whatever s/he wants, which is an overrated freedom often culminating in tropes, a fall-back alternative to the tyranny of ‘infinite choice’. Perhaps just as importantly, Brancaster fosters a culture of cooperation through peer review, and the consistent development of the work is testament to this. I would nominate this collaborative approach to abstract art as being perhaps one of the most necessary antidotes to overcoming the cultural alienation outlined at the beginning of this essay. For a fuller account of my experience of Brancaster work, my review of the group exhibition in Greenwich last year can be read here: https://abcrit.org/2017/04/17/61-harry-hay-writes-on-brancaster-chronicles-at-the-heritage-gallery-greenwich/
More recently, I had this to say about the work of John Pollard and Anne Smart, who are both Brancaster painters, in a comment responding to Robin Greenwood’s essay about Content and its Discontents:
Does the density of content, when precisely adjusted to lead into any of the other moments in any possible direction, create a kind of mental imbalance for the viewer? By imbalance, I mean that if we want to, we can lock ourselves into any part of the painting for a considerable period of time, and at the expense, for that time, of the rest of the content, but only for that time, because of the freedom we enjoy of being able to spend just as long somewhere else in the painting, and neglect the part that so utterly engaged us prior. We end up with an ever-shifting visual hierarchy, which can only be achieved by making every square inch equally as important as each other. The shifting of focus can throw the peripheral information into a kind of depth, but it is not necessarily destined to stay there… I feel that it is quite different to how I look at quite a lot of abstract art, which often asks us to take in the whole work at once, to be engulfed, and not get lost in pockets. This may still be the more radical approach, and I still feel challenged by (Jackson) Pollock for instance, and the ramifications of what he did.”
It was no mere accident that led me to cite the work of Jackson Pollock. His Blue Poles (1952) is the pride and joy of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. It is probably treasured as highly, if not more so, than Nolan’s Ned Kelly series, for reasons hardly surprising given the earlier quotation from Terry Smith. I’ve probably seen Blue Poles three or four times, but the only decent crack I’ve made with it came last November. It is very hard to find writing about Blue Poles and the Whitlam Government’s controversial approval to acquire it that displays some originality of thought, and does not descend into polarising narratives about the price tag, whether it be “the waste of money” it was criticised as being at the time, or the “valuable investment” it is hailed as today, which in turn generates more bitter cries from the far Right that it should be sold to pay off the nation’s debt.
I did however manage to locate one article that offers a different take on the whole affair, oddly enough by attempting to gauge just how good a painting it actually is. The essay is by Giles Auty, British born émigré and previously the arts writer for The Australian and The Spectator. The article was first published in 2006 by Quadrant, a notoriously conservative journal that espouses some pretty toxic opinions at times. But nevertheless, Auty’s essay is an attempt to put Blue Poles into some sort of perspective, historically, financially and artistically.
Auty’s article can be read here: http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=1605
Auty is critical of some of the guff put forward at the time of the Blue Poles acquisition, notably by Max Hutchinson, who brokered the deal and made the claim that “Blue Poles, along with Picasso’s Guernica and Monet’s waterlilies, is one of the five or six great works of art painted since the Renaissance”. Auty scoffs at this obviously ridiculous statement, proceeding to cite Hutchinson’s colleague Sandra McGrath’s attempt to water down the aggrandisement by adding, “it is certainly one of the five or six great paintings of the twentieth century”. Auty’s view is that Blue Poles is not even a good Pollock, and he uses Pollock’s own words, that it was a “failure”, and the unfavourable commentary it received from Clement Greenberg as proof of this. I don’t think that such citations close the case once and for all, but judging from my own experience of Pollock’s work, I would say that it is probably less radical in what it achieves than some of his other paintings that I have seen, and struggled with.
The total immersion pioneered by Pollock in paintings like Autumn Rhythm and One: Number 51 (both 1950), require a kind of awesome homogenising of the surface. I do not mean this in a pejorative sense. The homogeneity or equality across the whole work denies the temptation to look for focal points or integral passages. You take it all at once or not at all, though that is a simplification, because I have often found I’ve had to work to appreciate these paintings. Yet Blue Poles goes some way towards introducing a series of focal points, seven in total. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they become objects in a figurative space, but they are not so fully subsumed into the rest of the paint work that they utterly cease to be either. The procession creates a left to right reading of the work that sits at odds with the all-over immersion of previous works. I don’t want to suggest that it therefore fails as a painting, but that it might have been antithetical to what Pollock was trying to achieve.
Unfortunately, Auty avoids this kind of examination of the painting and relies upon the accounts of others to draw his conclusions about the artistic worth of it. Even when he claims that his opinion of Blue Poles has been formed by the comprehensive exhibition he saw of Pollock’s work at the Tate, he hastens to include that he “imagine(s) that a number of other professional commentators who are similarly familiar with Pollock’s work would agree with me.” The essay makes some fine points, but ultimately it is Auty’s conservatism that is the essay’s undoing, but not because of its lengthy dissemination of the economics of the purchase, nor because of Auty’s position on “novelty” or pseudo-progressive rhetoric. Rather, it lies in Auty’s inability to sympathise with the Australian condition, somewhat pardonable given he didn’t arrive here until 1995. It doesn’t seem to matter to Auty that whether or not the painting is good or bad is of absolutely no consequence to Australians, who as he points out, own very little else in the way of exemplary Western art to hold Blue Poles up against. And we never will! For us to be repeatedly told that the painting is a masterpiece without providing us with much else to compare it to is indeed alienating. But so too is telling us that the painting is overrated without adequately explaining why, and then lamenting the “tragedy” that is our national collection. This only contributes to our insecurities and reinforces the view that we are “second rate”. Whether it be because of our insecurities or in spite of them, Blue Poles holds an extremely important place in the Australian cultural psyche.
Gough Whitlam and James Mollison would have understood the national significance of the acquisition. They would have hoped that it marked the beginning of a Modern and independent Australia breaking free from the clutches of Old England. It didn’t really matter that the painting was already twenty-one years old, and that the artist had been dead for seventeen. It also would be unfair to say that the purchase symbolises the shifting of Australia’s allegiances or dependencies, and the transferring of our sovereignty over from Britain to America, not that this is suggested at all by Auty. I only add this in anticipation of the potential room to criticise the Blue Poles purchase as another manifestation of Cringe. It would be unfair, because of all the other local initiatives laid out by the Whitlam government that gave opportunities to artists at home, such as the establishment of the Australia Council, and the fact that Aboriginal artists started to be recognised during Whitlam’s tenure. As art critic Jeremy Eccles writes, for the Aboriginal Art Directory in 2014, “What does matter is Gough’s reputation – which should be recognised for taking assimilation off the table and allowing Indigenous culture to flower. As one facilitator who was around at the time said to me: ‘Imagine the art world before Gough – it consisted of the Bush Church Aid Association in Bathurst Street (not Sydney’s most plush thoroughfare) hiding marvellous barks away in a back room if there was any sign of genitalia! He brought it out into the open and the funding he gave the Aboriginal Arts Board allowed all that we have today.’”
Auty’s recommended solution to sweeping away the mystique and hysteria around Blue Poles is hinged upon something that could never happen here, which is for Australia’s museums to be filled with European masterpieces, and not only that, but that Australian children should be forced to learn about them as well. Tell that to the remote communities of the Northern Territory, or the rapidly growing migrant populations in the sprawling suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney! I have come to realise that even if our museums were in a position to acquire such works, they should not be trying to compete with their European and American counterparts. They attempt to anyhow, and it is to the detriment of the arts in this country. For an in-depth analysis of the shortcomings of the National Gallery of Victoria’s international agenda, read Giles Fielke’s review of the Melbourne Triennial, here at https://memoreview.net/blog/triennial-at-ngv-international-by-giles-fielke .
Imagining for one moment that Auty’s suggestion is sound (which it probably is to a European), that a journey through the past would enrich and inform our perspective of Pollock’s Blue Poles, a painting we own but do not fully appreciate, would it not be equally possible that an analysis of the present, and what has come since Blue Poles, could also inform and enlighten us as to some of its remarkable achievements and deficiencies. I know that I myself have come to appreciate artists like Pollock more by paying closer attention to my own work and that of my peers, and realising how very different it is from something like Blue Poles, despite it being able to attract the same tag of being ‘abstract’. Assuming that my perceptions of Anne Smart and John Pollard’s paintings have any accuracy, a comparison between my account of their work and Pollock’s reveals that an enormous shift in thinking about abstract art has taken place. As exciting as these new possibilities are, they also make me all the more impressed at the tense equality of Pollock’s surfaces given how much he was doing to them. Such an outcome seems completely unattainable for my own work, and this is largely to do with the pressures of the historical moment Pollock found himself in. Yet he seized that moment and turned it into something real, a moment that can never again be repeated, and makes all attempts to do so look fraudulent. For Australian abstract painters to look back at this moment, and compare it to their own, could prove quite beneficial, and force a complete reversal of what we are always taught, that Blue Poles and other paintings like it signify the end of the line for painting, the last port of call before the inevitable disembodiment into performance and conceptual art. What if it was only the beginning?
This April, Chamber Presents, an artist run gallery situated in Brunswick, an inner-city fringe suburb of Melbourne, will host Heavy. Curated by artist Simon Gardam, with a little help from myself, it brings together a collection of abstract paintings that share similarities in visual density and the development of idiosyncratic content, despite being made by artists who come from a diversity of backgrounds. This diversity is not part of the show’s emphasis, nor did it form any prerequisite for who should be invited to exhibit. It is merely something that can be noted. Jiaxin Nong for instance, is a Chinese born painter living in Melbourne. Tom Dunn is an Australian painter living in Los Angeles. John Pollard, whose work I discussed above, is English. This information might be trivial, but given the nature of this essay, it seems appropriate to draw some attention to this, symptomatic as it may be of Australia’s outward looking condition. In a way, it brings me back to my comment about the global abstract painting culture and the sheer volume of painters making interesting work today, but the ever-present danger of slipping into complacency because of the lack of a pressurised environment. Perhaps one way of remedying this lies in identifying a range of artists with similar concerns and just getting them in the same room together. I honestly don’t know if Heavy has any ambition greater than this, other than the unique concerns that drive the individual painters involved.
It seems strangely fortuitous that Heavy should open the very same week as the NGV’s The Field Revisited, which re-stages the 1968 exhibition of Australian Minimalism that launched the museum’s new and current premises at St. Kilda Road. The re-staging however, will not take place at the original St. Kilda Road venue, but at the Ian Potter centre, because the former venue is now the NGV: International (Oh Là Là!). The history of the NGV is in many ways a symbol that traces Australia’s own cultural growth and subsequent regression, from British Colonial outpost, to forward looking and aspiring sovereign nation, to “that next large rectangular state beyond El Paso… (to be) treated accordingly” (President Lyndon B. Johnson according to Marshall Green, US Ambassador to Australia, 1973-5).
What the NGV did in 1968 was extremely ambitious and predictably controversial. Arguably, The Field was an even more radical gesture than the purchase of Blue Poles, which was already twenty years old, and brought to Australia’s attention at a time (1973) when the country was waking up to itself. The 1960s on the other hand, were still suffering from the post-Menzies stupor, and it would not be hard to imagine how much hysteria could be caused by a painting of simply ‘nothing at all’ appearing in a national museum, and for the venue’s inaugural exhibition, no less. To add insult to injury, the paintings and sculptures were made by Australians, forty of them, with no less than half of them aged at thirty years or younger! These artists were engaging in a current and internationally recognised movement in art, and probably punching well above their weight too. Was it the Cringe, or Smith’s Provincialism Problem that motivated these artists to fix their focus on the world stage rather than to look inward for their content? Possibly. Yet it doesn’t really seem to matter, because the exhibition, and the purchase of Blue Poles five years later, was a huge challenge to the conservative establishment, signalling a severing of the Imperial umbilical cord.
Fast forward fifty years, and now The Field is the establishment, and it is to them we come crawling back. Where is the 2018 equivalent of The Field? Where is the NGV’s exhibition of new, locally made, internationally engaged abstract art? I’m not suggesting that The Field shouldn’t be celebrated, but it is downright hypocritical of the NGV to boast of its importance whilst failing to recognise the example set by their former self, and the potential rewards of investing in the here and now. They have become a shining model of neoliberalism, a mirror image of the Australian Labor Party, seeking approval by asserting their progressive credentials and working-class roots, whilst funnelling public money into the hands of big business.
If The Field Revisited whets your appetite for abstract art that challenged conservative tastes of the time, but leaves you wondering whether anything of similar ambition is happening in Melbourne today, I would suggest heading out onto Swanston street and catching the number 1 or the number 6 tram up to East Brunswick. In a small laneway, in what looks like it could be somebody’s garage, you might just find something that goes some way to subverting the familiar narratives about abstract art in this city. I make no grand claims for the artists in Heavy, other than that they are young and committed to developing the personal content of their work, and are largely uninhibited by rules and reservations about when something is “too worked” or contains “too much”. Whether or not a non-referential content driven approach to abstract painting contributes anything in the way of outgrowing The Cringe is largely unanswerable, if not unhelpful to have to consider whilst trying to develop content that is both personal and universal. But when it comes to abstract art, the international art community is in this together, and history has shown that when Australians apply themselves at the coal face, they are just as capable as anyone. The cultural uncertainty that exists on an international level today, may mean that Australia now finds itself no more handicapped than any other country, and possibly even at an advantage, due to years of experience.
I would say that what I have learnt from examining Blue Poles and the discourse around it, is that cultural maturity in Australia will not be achieved by becoming more insular. In painting, The Cringe is something to be challenged, but not necessarily by mining the resources of our inherited imagery and hoping we get used to hearing the sound of our own nasal voices, but by paying close attention to the unique content and possibilities in painting today as it emerges, and if some of that work is happening in England, so be it. Let us not go the way of the Jindyworobak movement and miss out on exciting developments on the grounds of cultural incompatibility. None of this in itself will rid us of The Cringe, which I think is here to stay for a long time to come. Its origins go back too far, to the very theft of the land itself, the subsequent genocides, and the sad fact that reconciliation has not yet been achieved. With that in mind, it would be quite easy to dismiss abstract art as something of a self-indulgence. But time and time again, its pursuit in this country is dogged with political controversy, whether it be in the examples I’ve addressed above, or the ones I provide below, which I was unable to work into the thread of this piece. It would appear that abstract art has played an undeniable role in Australia’s maturation.
Heavy opens on April 26th at Chamber Presents, 19 Church street East Brunswick, Melbourne, Australia. It features the work of Mary Barton, Tom Dunn, Simon Gardam, Harry Hay, Merryn Lloyd, Jiaxin Nong and John Pollard. The show runs until May 6th. https://www.chamberpresents.org/heavy
I could have made mention of the furious controversy surrounding Vault (aka Yellow Peril) by Ron Robertson-Swann. Public condemnation of the sculpture saw it relocated from its original position in Melbourne’s city square in 1980, prompting massive counter rallies.
Mention could also have been made to the Betty Churcher review of the Parliament House Art collection in 2004, after protestations from conservative ministers Tony Abbott and Ross Cameron, that the collection was full of “Avant-Garde crap!” The report recommended that the requirement to only purchase work by living artists be lifted, finding that “some members ‘object to all abstract art – seeing it as elite and not representative of broader Australia.’” (Betty Churcher quoted by John McDonald).
It seems to me, that being an abstract artist in Australia is controversial almost by definition.
Some work by the artists in “Heavy”:
Auty, G 2006, “Blue Poles”, Modernism and the Novelty Trap, published by Quadrant, re-published by The Jackdaw, 2015, http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=1605
Eccles, J 2014, Whitlam Maligned by Fairfax, published by the Aboriginal Art Directory, https://news.aboriginalartdirectory.com/2014/10/whitlam-maligned-by-fairfax.php
Green, M quoted by Pilger, J 1989, A Secret Country, “The Struggle for Independence”, p. 139, published by Vintage Random House.
Hughes, R 1986, The Fatal Shore, “Who Were the Convicts?”, pp. 175-176, published by Vintage Random House.
McDonald, J 2004, Culture in the Age of Howard, published for the Australian Financial Review Magazine, re-purposed at http://johnmcdonald.net.au/2004/culture-in-the-age-of-howard/
Phillips, A. A. 1950, The Cultural Cringe, published by Meanjin Quarterly, https://meanjin.com.au/blog/the-cultural-cringe-by-a-a-phillips/
Smith, T 1974, The Provincialism Problem, first published by Artforum, accessed via search.proquest.com