Trocadero Art Space comprises two exhibition spaces in the old Trocadero Theatre building in Footscray. The building dates back to 1914, and I’m told has a colourful history. The feeling of that history still lingers, with a wide tiled stairway that takes you to the first floor. At the top there’s a small foyer. Turning around you come face to face with the front windows of the gallery and the familiar Trocadero signage. A narrow corridor takes you around the corner to Five Walls another independent artist run.
Saturday afternoon (Feb. 7) I made my way to Trocadero for the opening of Variable Concepts, curated by participating artists/curators Patricia Todarello and Billy Gruner. The exhibition is the first in Trocadero’s ‘Guest Curator Program’ (GCP) for 2015. The show worked with a broad selection of artists, all working, in what the catalogue describes as, “contemporary abstractionist styles.” Participating artists: Richard van der Aa (PARIS); Justin Andrews (MEL); Peter Atkins (MEL); Sonia Donnellan (MEL); Beata Geyer (SYD); Billy Gruner (SYD); Sarah Keighery (SYD); Sarah Breen Lovett (SYD); Annee Miron (MEL); Patricia Todarello (MEL); Nikki Walkerden (SYD).
Two large windows flank the entrance. On the left Annee Miron’s complex plaited sculpture fills the window space. On the right Patricia Todarello’s opaque sheaves of plastic drape themselves over a barrier, falling to the floor in folded puddles. These two works frame the entrance and play off each other perfectly, with Miron’s tangled earthy and evocative cardboard constructions playing against Todarello’s ethereal plastic.
When I spoke to Miron about Borrowed she described her practice and working methods as engaging in “making and unmaking”. This is an intriguing idea. Cardboard is an omnipresent material in our industrialised society, where goods are distributed across the globe, often packaged in cardboard boxes of one sort or another. Cardboard is a material that could be considered a paradox. It’s both ‘natural’ (a form of paper) and manmade (originally invented in China). In working with found cardboard, often boxes, Miron ‘unmakes’ these manmade things and then ‘makes’ a new thing through age-old processes like cutting, plaiting and knotting – processes that engage the body itself in the making, and “handling”. In Borrowed, you sense the human/non-human relationship as it emerges, perhaps briefly, only to fall away again – unmaking.
Patricia Todarello’s Wallwork series 6, soft wall, also works with an industrial material. This time it is plastic, perhaps the most omnipresent industrial material of all time. Again it is the nature of the material itself that draws you in. Its luminescence, its “softness”. In Todarello’s intervention the flat tube plastic plays a double game. It falls to the ground, as if a transparent curtain, almost invisible, yet it is also totally opaque. Light seems to shine from it, rather than through it. The flat strips bring to mind strokes of paint – the curtain becomes a painterly wall of luminosity.
As I walk into the space proper, the left-hand wall shimmers with Sarah Keighery’s Green Line E142 ‘10’ 1-7. Keighery’s Green Line is in reality a row of vertical circles painted green. The green-ness gives a distinct sense of the vegetative world outside – of grass and trees and greenery. The textured surfaces of the disks multiply this effect. Keighery is known to use vegetable dies or other natural substances to make her paint – and perhaps this method is why the greeniness of her circles has such an organic lushness. Like other works in the exhibition, Keighery’s Green Line shows how painting is itself an object.
From inside the gallery Miron’s Borrowed falls dramatically into the space, untangling and ‘unmaking’. Todarello’s Wallwork series 6, soft wall drops softly, this time flush to the floor. There’s something wonderful about the way these two works frame and make use of the window space, working inside and outside the gallery space.
Sitting quietly but provocatively beside Todarello’s Wallwork – and echoing it’s play with light – is Sarah Breen Lovett’s video work, ‘Monument’ for Flavin Black and White. The video features an animation of what looks like monument-shaped fluorescent lights, which flicker on and off in different configurations. This, the fluorescent lights, speak directly and evocatively to Flavin’s earlier fluorescent light configurations, (1960s-1990s), only this time as virtual and moving sculptures. The title of the work, ‘Monument’ for Flavin‘ mirrors Flavin’s own homage to the Russian constructivist, Vladimir Tatlin, where he titled one of his most famous works Untitled (“monument” for V. Tatlin). Lovett’s gesture creates a link with this past, an acknowledgement, a homage but also a recognition of the realities of our present day preoccupations with life on/in/with the screen.
Billy Gruner’s Assemblage is placed next to Lovett’s video screen. You can sense the careful consideration of the curators’ work here, with the rectangular and colour-saturated shapes of Gruner’s piece echoing the shapes of both the screen on one side, and the rectangular boxes of Peter Atkins Medicine, on the other. The colourful configuration acts as a sculptural painting. There’s a delicacy to the ‘assemblage’ and precariousness too as it assembles against the wall — or with the wall –with one piece leaning away from the wall. Or perhaps into the wall.
Billy Gruner is the co-founder, with Sarah Keighery, of Sydney Non-Objective art space (SNO), a distinctive ARI based in Marrickville, Sydney. SNO has carried out an exciting and provocative project over the last several years with its singular mission to investigate non-objective and abstractionist art. SNO’s unwavering project has attracted a wide range of artists, deeply interested in an ongoing investigation and re-engagement with avant-garde practices and ideas. This engagement is very much a contemporary project exploring the plastic arts, non-objective, concrete and abstract, through a wide variety of approaches, including new media and video.
Peter Atkins Medicine 2012-15, presents a series of four exquisitely made boxes. They are devoid of any text, yet the painted stripes and squares of pharmaceutical packaging are unmistakeable. These are reconfigured mainstream drug boxes – pharmaceuticals – the kind that you and I buy everyday at our local chemist. The accompanying gallery text confirms this with titles such as: 1. If Pain Persists; 2. Two Tablets Daily; 3. 24hr Relief; 4. Non-Drowsy. These are such familiar phrases that I can almost envisage the text written on the erased boxes – and even try to guess at which box fits which familiar brand. Elsewhere Atkins has used the term “readymade abstraction” to describe his practice of collecting and/or observing abstract forms in the world at large. He writes, “My work resides in a space between abstraction and representation…” A very apt description. There’s a warmth and a humour to this work, inviting us to look again at our ordinary pill boxes, now lifted out of their banal invisible existence to be invigorated with aesthetic feeling.
On the back wall facing into the gallery is Richard van der Aa’s Flat Formality. He is originally from New Zealand but is now based in Paris. Flat Formality, (Enamel on Aluminium) is a distinctive elongated oval-shaped piece in muted gray. I say ‘piece’ because as a ‘painting’ on the wall, it also feels like an object. I want to touch it. There’s also a softness to this piece, which could be something to do with the shape and the particular grey that the artist has chosen, it’s a warm grey, especially against the white edge, and then the textured whiteness of the gallery wall. But it’s more than that. What at first appears to be sharp-edged minimalism, on closer inspection, turns out to be a more painterly ‘formalism’ with painted edges softly formed, careful, yet not quite perfectly straight-edged.
Sonia Donnellan’s, Lattice Series Two, is a delicate and surprising work made entirely of adhesive tape, which floats atop a large white pedestal. Like many of the artists in this show I wanted to know more about this artist and her work, so I quickly googled her website. Donnellan it seems often uses domestic and unusual materials to make work that holds a great sense of ambiguity. In the past she has used sugar, which she describes as associated with both delicious comfort food as well as a sticky substance that rots your teeth. Adhesive tape also has a dual and ambivalent role in our everyday lives. It is both a crucial and very useful material, but can also leave marks, be difficult to use, and lose its stickiness and therefore usefulness.
Across the room is Justin Andrews, Untitled Experiment (03.2012). There’s something mesmerising about Andrews image that draws me to it, something that I can’t quite explain. Perhaps it’s the energy of the explosive geometric shards, a composition in grays and blacks.The gallery notes describe the work as a, “Unique transfer on linen on plywood panel.” The process seems mysterious and gives a sense of warmth and texture.
In contrast to Andrews grey, white and black ‘painting’ is the colour-saturated canvas of Beata Geyer, 1,2,3 Polychrome. Geyer’s painting is a minimalist band of intense colours, with the colours arranged in a composition of four large stripes, playing between shades and tones of red, violet and magenta. There’s a sophisticated play with colour here and I found myself shifting positions and moving around it – seeing the colours shift their tones.
Venturing behind the block-out curtain into Gallery Two I encountered the work of Nikki Walkerden, titled ‘CLIMACTIC ACTUALITY’. It’s a single channel HD video, with sound by Shaun Hay. The footage was filmed in Switzerland and China in 2011–2013, and includes an important performance – Balancing Act on Gornergrat (2011). The film follows the shadow of a cable car as it moves up a mountain. It then jump-cuts to a pile of stones, carefully balanced yet looking precarious. The accompanying gallery notes enhance the sense of suspension. “Following a shadow of expectancy, making a mountain out of a mountain, shifting balance is found in suspension.” The camera angle, or point of view, gives a distinct sense of being outside the cable car, unprotected, dangling. I began to feel wobbly with vertigo. This video in particular suggested to me the expanded field of current abstraction, as artists renew the formal constraints and arguments with new investigations, and renewed vigour, of the non-objective and abstract.
Given the current “material turn” across philosophy and academia in general, it’s a propitious time for non-objective and abstractionist art. With the renewed interest in materials, materiality and the thingness of the world, and the accompanying focus on the non-human world and our human relationship with it, the non-objective and abstractionist project has a lot to offer all of us, and particularly artists. At its core has always been a profound engagement with the materials and processes of making.
Variable Concepts highlights the singular ways each artist has developed a “specialised visual language.” And as the curators write, “In Variable Concepts the simple experience of viewing works may be understood as works participant in a discourse both individually and collectively speaking. The curators claim this exhibition models a fresh art-critical vista that Gruner has defined, a post-formalist aesthetic response.”