ABSTRACTION / ARCHITECTURE / SPACE
23 August - 14 September 2007
Essay by Carolyn Barnes
Justin Andrews (Curator)
ABSTRACTION / ARCHITECTURE / SPACE
For a number of decades now architecture has been a foil to art, the perceived dependence of modern art on the neutral white box of the modernist gallery inspiring a stream of art investigation while making architecture seem like a cultural category in direct contact with the social. Minimal art, for example, addressed the phenomenological experience of art in the gallery through the character and placement of geometric and readymade objects. Conceptual art engaged gallery architecture as a way of examining the art system's institutional status and operations. Site-specific and environmental art harnessed non-architectural locations beyond the gallery to contest the perceived hermeticism of late modernist art. In post-conceptual art examining architecture has been a way of transcending the critique of art's institutional structuring in order to engage the nature of present-day reality, David Cunningham and Jon Goodbun characterizing the 'contemporary "drama" of architecture' as predominantly that of 'spectacle and brand image.'(i) Conversely, the extrapolation of principles of site-specificity in Minimalism-Conceptualism has seen much recent art become architectural, the current proliferation of installation practices suggesting art's dissolution into the spatio-temporal dynamics of the exhibition format.(ii) Before these developments-and lending them much critical impetus-were modern artists' efforts to identify an autonomous and universal aesthetic in abstraction. These formalisms have been characterised as oblivious to context, including the relativity of artistic and architectural production.(iii) Yet it is difficult to disconnect abstraction's modern identity from the reformulation of social space in modernity through architecture and urbanism, or to discount the stimulus non-objective art provided to both in its negation of traditional cultural forms.
In sketching out some broad historical dynamics around art and architecture these points serve as a general background to Justin Andrew's intergenerational sampling of abstract art, a group of works loosely connected by their relations to architecture. For instance, George Johnson has seen architecture as painting's primary social location, while taking architecture's concrete geometry as a model for non-representational art. John Nixon locates the logic of the work of art in the interaction of materials, construction processes and display methods. In Stephen Bram's work perspective drawing creates a fractal architecture reduced to the form of a visual system. Kerrie Poliness often works directly on the gallery wall, her standard vocabulary of repeated forms offset by the raw quality of the processes and materials she uses. Sandra Selig's installations contrast the simplicity of gallery architecture to complex geometrical arrangements found in the natural world. Bianca Hester's installations draft everyday objects and materials into a process of construction, even as they evidently resist their own formalization. Kyle Jenkins produces his work in direct relationship to the architecture of the exhibition space, foregrounding how the conditions of viewing preempt artistic meaning. In Justin Andrews' sculptures conflicting impulses of order and unpredictability erupt together, their diverse, small-scale components having a dynamic relationship to the larger structure, extending a line of research into construction with irregular, self-similar forms initiated in recent architecture. Masato Takasaka addresses architecture as real estate, the focus on production, exchange and consumption in capitalist economics highlighting the continuing problematic of art's commodification. Inspired by the Deleuzian idea of the rhizomatic structure, Inverted Topology use the proposition of coincidence between multiplicities as an engine for art production, the fantastic 'architectures' that emerge from their collaborative explorations of forms and materials a manifestation of the inter-human relations normally lost to (commodified, spectacular) contemporary art.
These various interests are mostly recognizable in the works themselves. What perhaps isn't so evident is how each artist has negotiated various binaries of art and architecture from the basis of the historical context in which they practice. As art gains ever-greater social prominence as an exemplar and resource for the unfolding 'experience economy'(iv) recognizing contemporary art's historical dimensions becomes a critical counter to the immediate presence of new art on the exhibition circuit. In Australia, artists' interest in the nexus of abstraction and architecture as a site for artistic encounter has happened within a specific and specifically challenging cultural matrix, Australia's geo-cultural situation seeing artists' exploration of non-objectivity frequently judged as inauthentic, peripheral or secondhand. In particular, abstraction has often been associated with a lack of connection to place by comparison to the apparent identity-forming characteristics of representational art. The reverse, however, may be the case.
Henri Lefebvre's widely-acknowledged analysis of the social and political characteristics of space describes space as both the product of human activity and the setting where such activity takes place.(v) The lack of cultural opportunity for vanguard art in previous decades in Australia elicited a direct response from certain artists to the positioning of their practice, encouraging alternative models of artistic agency that resonate in the present. To this end, the emergence of a network of artist-initiated exhibition venues since the early 1970s represents an important spatial context for the practice of non-objective art; supporting the development of artists' work while transforming the socio-spatial structures of the Australian art world. In Europe and North America, the interrelated developments of art and institutional critique, site-specificity and alternative art spaces emerged from a historical situation in which the modernist gallery had become, as Brian O'Doherty observed, 'the single major convention' through which art 'passed'(vi) , these contrary developments being read firstly as creating an outside to the art system and later-when it was seen that the established art world had rapidly expanded into this new territory-as wholly co-optable. In Australia, the advent of artist-initiated exhibition venues followed soon after the emergence of a modest commercial gallery sector while preempting the establishment of dedicated public galleries for contemporary art, identifying principles of independence and self-realization ('do-it-yourself') to be the basis for artist-generated activity, though this is not to discount many Australian artists' justified and dedicated interest in the practice of art critique.
Both examples support Ingolfur Blühdorn's argument that radical action involves 'the implantation of the alternative into the system', any position outside society being in Blühdorn's estimation largely futile, altogether unattractive and progressively more difficult to achieve in a mediated world.(vii) However, the development of artist-initiated exhibition venues in Australia, in lacking the motive of a historically institutionalized avant-garde, makes this clearer. In Australia, such venues have offered artists a comparatively free and available space for the development and circulation of art ideas, supporting experimentation with new ways of making, displaying and experiencing art, especially those that take an installation format and engage exhibition space. They have fostered an active dialogue between communities of like-minded individuals in different cities while having an important role in developing artists' skill sets, supporting, as is pertinent here, artists' work as curators and writers and hence their (alternative) voice in identifying important principles, tendencies and relationships in current art.(viii) The effect on artists' identities has thus been strong, to the extent that some streams of non-objective art in Australia can be seen equally as artistic and intellectual genres and (sub)cultural movements, suggesting some interesting things about the nature of audience and motivation in contemporary art.
The upshot is that for the majority of artists here space and architecture are not just discretionary subject matter to inspire art making. Neither is exhibition space simply an idealist construct to be ideologically contested. Both have a direct relationship to the positioning, understanding and development of their work. For example, the effect of limited or unacceptable exhibition opportunities prompted John Nixon to found a number of private exhibition venues where he and other artists could present their work in terms they controlled.(ix) In an intensive period between 1979 and 1984, having liberal access to multiple exhibition spaces allowed Nixon to experiment freely with installation strategies, leading him to see the totality of his practice as a 'work-in-progress'. The paintings Nixon presents here can be thought of as a detail view of the much larger 'work' that is his global art project, an entity dispersed in space and time and generated through activity in the studio and the practice of exhibition. Nixon's practice shows that one effect of artist-initiated exhibition venues in Australia has been the re-conception of the gallery as an extension of the studio, especially where both are recognized as a context for programmatic art experiment, this shift occurring long before the recent identification of similar principles surrounding the work of certain European installation artists.(x)
From this perspective George Johnson's work represents something of a counterpoint in its relationship to the space of art to that of the younger artists in this exhibition. As one of the first non-objective artists in Australia, Johnson's practice reflects the concerted modernist effort to locate the meaning of art within the inherent elements and relations of the work and the medium, the concrete forms of modern architecture providing an exemplar of an integral abstraction. However, antipathy to modernism during the formative years of Johnson's practice denied his work the 'publicness' of the gallery space. Its principal architectural contexts were the everyday spaces of the studio and domestic rooms, making the practice of art something very different to the experience of the youngest artists here, who have grown up with a multi-layered art system, which in combination with the promulgation of principles of art and institutional critique and the post-conceptual proliferation of installation practices make the proposition that art works are read through multiple social and contextual relations appear self-evident. In this sense, Miwon Kwon has argued for the 'site' in art today being understood in terms of transference and connectivity, 'encompass[ing] a relay of several interrelated but different spaces and economies, including the studio, the gallery, museum, art criticism, art history, the art market, that together constitute a system of practices that is not separate from but open to social, economic and political pressures.'(xi) At the very least all art practices after Minimal-Conceptualism need to acknowledge contextual relations at some level to be considered in any way advanced.
Similarly, George Johnson's work, along with that of John Nixon, is closest to modernism's ethos of progress through reduction in the aim of discovering a transcendent order in things. For the other artists abstraction is more a channel to explore complexity in a world no longer reducible to a single model. This clearly includes paradigms of space and the built form, which, as Mark Wigley has argued, are now inhabited by such an accumulation of unseen networks as to defy 'visible means' of definition.(xii) The work of Justin Andrews, Bianca Hester, Inverted Topology and Sandra Selig gives a strong sense of this shift, formal arrangements having an emergent quality, the nature of individual elements no longer a pointer to the work's overall form and meaning as it was in modernism. As centrifugal structures Justin Andrews' sculptures reject coherence and unity for the immediacy inferred by their exploded form, their formal/structural instability challenging the idea that materials or forms can have an exclusive, indexical relationship to actuality. Bianca Hester's installations set up the collision and interference of two different symbolic systems-art and reality-keeping possibilities open while at the same time suggesting the opacity of ordinariness in contemporary life. Sandra Selig's installations pit architecture's deterministic vision against a nature-based model of matter as alive and divergent, their non-hierarchical juxtaposition leaving the viewer to decide whether or not this constitutes an ecological critique of values of rational objectivity, separateness, autonomy and control in modernity. The collaborative works of Inverted Topology especially exemplify mutation and systemic unrecognizability. In being produced through the inter-subjective interaction of a group of artists whose individual input is to respond in turn to what others have already done, they nullify modernist ideas of the rightness of form in the sense that all arrangements-as the product of principles of social connectivity-are equally valid.
Hal Foster has commented that such tendencies in recent art make him feel that 'the dialectic at large-not only in advanced art but in cultural history-has faltered ... [that] ... we are mired in a stalled relativism'.(xiii) Certainly, the complexity and indeterminancy of much of the work here represents a marked departure from a modern idea of things as predictable, intelligible and ultimately controllable. Yet the shift from analysis to proposition gives the work a prospective character that Foster argues offers ample capacity for conceptual engagement and development by the viewer. Neither is modernism completely out of the frame, a number of works revealing clear references back to early European abstraction in its radical mixing of formal experiment and applied aesthetics. For example, when Kerrie Poliness and Stephen Bram began their careers in the 1980s pervasive theories of a simulacral world accorded artists only the affirmative role of creating fetishistic exemplars of capitalism's pervasive culture of surface effects and mediated images. For both artists the specificity of materials and compositional processes in the work of the historical avant-garde offered a way forward, as did early twentieth century artists' experiments with interior schemas.
The abstract wall paintings and room designs produced by artists associated with the Bauhaus, Constructivism and De Stijl sought to reunite art and architecture and integrate art with life while enhancing spatial awareness and precipitating a critical outlook in the viewer. Although both Bram and Poliness make self-contained paintings and drawings, these are part of a broader practice that also incorporates wall paintings and installations that actively engage architecture in dialogue. The role of architecture as a site of contested meaning and a conduit for the contestation of representation is perhaps most evident in the work of Bram, which since 1987 has been based around the presentation of a sequence of generic, early modernist interiors. Both artists, however, have explored the way modern architecture and abstraction stand as related systems of meaning and experience in their aspiration to concreteness and reality. For Bram, the location of perspectival recession points outside the image links his work to the wider world, not in order to identify some original referent but rather to challenge the privileging of formal readings over processes of signification in the reception of abstraction. In a cultural climate that has broadly yielded to the practice of simulation Poliness has continued to see art and architecture as sites where critical reflexivity can be exercised through formal investigation and material presence, the relativity of art to architecture underscoring art's simultaneous dependence on and responsiveness to the conditions of external reality.
There is, however, no doubting that the unobtrusive architectonic of the contemporary gallery-as a privileged, single-use environment-disturbs the social integration of art. Kyle Jenkins' work approaches the naturalized abstraction of the gallery as a case of the concealment of the signs of meaning production, while investigating the embodied relations actually brought to bear through gallery architecture. In this it builds on a stream of art tracing back to the 1960s, which has represented meaning in art as heavily context dependent. Certainly, Jenkins' work implies that the experience of art is intrinsically related to the physical and aesthetic characteristics of gallery architecture. However, the fact that contextual factors determine the nature and organization of formal elements in his work, suggests the potential for interdependence rather than a stark disjuncture between art's dependence art on the institutional frame and an ethos of aesthetic independence as occurred in modernism. For Masato Takasaka the realm of market forces and capitalism's logic of relative equivalences is the context for the art work, though, like Jenkins, formal relations in his work are readymade ones in being derived from real estate sale boards. These, however, are stripped of their information content to leave simple planes of colour, their reduction to a banal from of abstract art suggesting the collapse of art into everyday life while linking architecture to the commodity form.
The traditional conception of architecture is of a static, self-contained entity rooted in a single place. The idea of space is less defined, admitting the potential for openness and freedom. Today, however, new patterns of connection and communication disturb the sense of both, making fixed conceptions of interior and exterior space seem like historical relics or a mere surface effects.(xiv) In a related sense Justin Andrew's exhibition doesn't just present a group of works ranged around principles of abstraction, architecture and space. It highlights the socio-spatial and intergenerational relations underpinning the recent practice of non-objective art in Australia, emphasizing networks rather than boundaries, relationships and connections as much as discrete art objects, and social communities as much as individuals, recognizing that art is animated by diverse patterns of circulation, being a nomadic enterprise conducted across a sequence of public and private locations.
Dr Carolyn Barnes
Senior Research Fellow
Swinburne University of Technology
(i) David Cunningham and Jon Goodbun, 'Marx, architecture and modernity', The Journal of Architecture, Vol. 11, No. 2, 2006, p. 175.
(ii) See Peter Osborne, 'Non-places and the spaces of art', The Journal of Architecture, Vol. 6, No. 2, 2001, pp. 183-194.
(iii) See Benjamin Buchloh, 'Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to the Critique of Institutions', October 55, Winter 1990, pp. 119-120.
(iv) See B. J. Pine, and J. H. Gilmore, The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater and Every Business a Stage, New Haven, Harvard Business School Press, 1999.
(v) Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1991.
(vi) Brian O'Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1986, p. 2.
(vii) Ingolfur Blühdorn, 'Self-description, Self-deception, Simulation: A Systems-theoretical Perspective on Contemporary Discourses of Radical Change', Social Movement Studies, Vol 6, No. 1, 2007, p. 15.
(viii) This model was already present in Australia due to a lack of official support for modern art. See Peter Cripps, 'Artist as Other: Being Seen & Not Heard', Broad Sheet, Vol. 21, No.1, March 1992, p. 8 ff.
(ix) See Peter Cripps, Q Space + Q Space Annex, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 1986; Carolyn Barnes, 'Defiance as a Constructive Principle: Art Projects 1979-1984, in Max Delany, Pitch Your Own Tent: Art Projects, Store 5, 1st Floor, Clayton, Monash University Museum of Art, 2005, pp. 6-13
(x) See, for example, Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon, les presses du réel, 2004.
(xi) Miwon Kwon, 'One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity', October 80, Spring 1987, p. 88.
(xii) Mark Wigley, 'Network Fever', Grey Room 4, Summer 2001, p. 83.
(xiii) Hal Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', October 110, Fall 2004, p. 20.
(xiv) See Wigley, pp. 82-122.
Dr Carolyn Barnes is a Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Design, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, where she supervises a range of doctoral projects in the areas of Australian design history, information design for the new museum and participatory communication design. Carolyn's background is in cultural theory and the history of art and design. She holds a MA and a PhD from the University of Melbourne. Her writings on post-conceptual painting and installation practices in recent Australian art have been widely published in scholarly catalogues and art magazines. Her monograph on the Hong Kong Australian artist John Young was published by Craftsman House in 2005.
Artworks by Stephen Bram, John Nixon and Kerrie Poliness courtesy Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne.
Artworks by Justin Andrews, Kyle Jenkins and Masato Takasaka courtesy Primer, Melbourne.
Artwork by George Johnson courtesy Charles Nodrum Gallery, Melbourne.
Artwork by Sandra Selig courtesy Bellas Milani Gallery, Brisbane.
Bianca Hester has recently completed a PhD at RMIT University, teaches in the Department of Sculpture and Spatial Practice at VCA, is a Gertrude Studio artist and one of the founding members of CLUBSproject inc.
Masato Takasaka would like to thank Danny Lacy and Vital Signs, Melbourne.
Danny Lacy would like to thank Angela Brophy at the Faculty Gallery, Monash University.
Justin Andrews would like to thank all contributing artists, Louiseann Zahra-King, Andrew Tetzlaff, Ceri Hann and volunteers at RMIT Project Space / Spare Room, Rebecca Guest at Charles Nodrum Gallery, John Murphy at Eureka Skydeck, Amelia Stuparich, Peter Jones and Susan Taylor.