Absolute luxury

For the first time ever Michael and I WENT AWAY FOR THE WEEKEND WITHOUT THE KIDS!!! Patrick very kindly agreed to look after Ella overnight for us, so we flew to Sydney bright and early on the Saturday morning and flew back on Sunday afternoon, staying one night in the Sydney Intercontinental Hotel all courtesy of airmiles and Intercontinental Hotel Group points! We’ve stayed there a few times over the years, courtesy of Michael’s business travel and NOT because we can afford it personally, and it’s a lovely place, not least because the staff remember you next time you check in, and this trip we ran into someone we’ve met every time we’ve stayed there and he was asking about Patrick and Ella and stuff… very genuine and friendly.

Anyway, eulogies about the hotel over with, the purpose of our visit was to overdose on arts and culture (and possibly shopping although obviously that wasn’t the main reason for our stay, nor the driving force behind us packing our small suitcase into a much larger one on the way out and filling both of them by the return flight!), so we did. After checking in and dumping our case(es) we walked over to the Museum of Contemporary Art on Circular Quay to have a look at three exhibitions: Callum Innes From Memory, Tim Hawkinson Mapping the Marvellous, and Shazia Sikander. How interesting and different they were to each other, and what a great opportunity to see them side-by-side.

I knew of Callum Innes in a vague sort of a way, having lumped him in with people like Sean Scully and referring back to Mark Rothko in my head, but without any great recollection of specific visual images. It turned out that I didn’t recognise a thing, but lots of it ‘spoke’ to me, although not necessarily in a positive way. The fold-out guide available at the MCA has on its cover a lovely image: washes of Chinese gold, layered over each other and speckled with black. I don’t know why I am such a sucker for this kind of thing: you could argue that the image, which is almost square and 2.25m a side is merely an exercise: the materials used are oil and shellac, and the painting ‘method’ is clearly the application of a big gloop of liquid which is then sloshed around the canvas by picking up the sides and tilting it, with a finishing touch of sprinkles added, just like decorating a cake. However, I guess this description doesn’t do justice to Innes’s oeuvre, and I do like the finished product.

The problem, I guess, with some of the work on display, was that it was so impersonal and so much to do with minute variations in processes that I felt very disconnected from the work and it seemed to me that some of the exhibition was very self-important. There was a whole section devoted to a series of canvases that are again roughly square and roughly 2.25m a side, so they are sizeable pieces and each is a variation on the theme of intersecting sweeps of black and another colour. Part of the problem in getting to grips with these pieces is definitely that I hated the colours used! Dioxazine purple and a yucky malachite-y sort of green… just not my cup of tea. What was interesting, for me at least, was the perception of squares and stripes within the colour blocks, shifting and fading in and out. I was interested by that but NOT by the composition which left an ugly expanse of white along the top of each canvas, and NOT by the repetitious experiment with diluting the colour with turpentine, which seems to have been the technical ‘point’ of the series of paintings. Yes, I understand that it is interesting to push a technique (is diluting paint with turpentine really a ‘technique’ in painting with oils? I thought it was a sort of given…) to its limits, but what limits are there with oil and turps? Different dilutions, overpainting the colour block at various stages of dryness perhaps, using a different sort of brush, using a clean brush or a dirty brush and…. So what? This is the self-importance to which I referred earlier. The brochure contains an extract of an interview between Innes and Paul Bonaventura that happened in January 2006 and it is full of what we like to call in this family art bollocks, viz.

Incorporating and subverting the conventions of abstract painting, the shifting quality in Innes’ work is apparent in the way the volatility of materials and the possibilities created by process undermine the formal precision of twentieth century abstraction. Looking at each series it becomes evident that paint itself is the maker of its own poetic beauty – the artist, like the solvents and other agents, is the catalyst. As the progenitor of successive bodies of work attesting to the enduring appeal of abstraction and to the allure of manipulating paint upon a canvas, Callum Innes ensures that meaning and content are inseparable from the act of painting itself.”

As a printmaker perhaps I should be a bit more sympathetic to Innes’ intentions. After all, a charge often thrown at printmakers is that they are slaves to process. I like printmaking processes and it is very satisfying to me to explore processes, following a path and seeing where it takes me. I think that people who don’t understand printmaking think that it’s ALL about the process and that restrictions in techniques limit creativity. In fact I find that sometimes restrictions and constraints encourage creativity: you are pushed further and forced to do more in order to achieve what you want to achieve, and often you end up pushing at the boundary until the fence falls over… The ‘but’ in this instance comes in something else Innes says:

I make so much work, and as soon as I make a work I can see whether I can take it further. I make a painting and immediately see where I can take the next painting, and the next one, and the one after that. In an exhibition, when a work begins its existence outside the studio, it has to have that possibility to fail when the viewer comes to it… It’s just how the work exists beyond the studio. It’s how the viewer approaches the work that might not be perfect and fully resolved.”

He does, apparently, make a lot of work, and I have to ask myself whether all the stuff about dissolving pigments in turpentine in different ways is anything more than studio experimentation? OK, so perhaps he wants the viewer who comes to an exhibition to see beyond perfection and to engage with his artistic processes, but I see the works in the Exposed Painting series as little more than a snapshot of the exploration of a technique, which is of passing interest but not worth much more than that. This is what I mean by the exhibition’s sense of Innes’ self-importance. It’s as if he’s taken Damien Hirst’s mantra, ‘I am an artist therefore everything I do is art’ rather too literally to heart…

Having said that, it was interesting to read John McDonald’s review of the exhibition in the Spectrum section of the Sydney Morning Herald on February 9th. I would usually provide a link to the relevant web page but unfortunately as I am writing this post a few weeks after the event the review has moved into the ‘pay to see it’ section of the on-line Sydney Morning Herald so if you want a look at the whole article you’ll have to do a search on Callum Innes within a time frame of the last couple of months and pay $2 for the priviledge of downloading the text! The article is titled, A blast of contract and reviews the Tim Hawkinson exhibition (of which more in a moment) as well as Callum Innes’ show.

If Hawkinson has too little art, Callum Innes has nothing but. Where Hawkinson has more ideas in one show than most artists achieve during their entire careers, Innes has a single-minded interest in the application and removal of paint.

If this sounds dull, I am unable to summon up any convincing argument to the contrary. For that one must turn to the catalogue… one might imagine that [the paintings] could never be adequately represented. In reality the first-hand experience of the works is remarkably close to the book: they are just as empty and shallow as their photographs.”

Ouch! He goes on:

Anybody reading the essays in this brick might be forgiven for thinking that Innes is the first artist ever to put paint on a canvas and then remove it with turpentine…

We are told, over and over, that Innes is so exacting with himself, so fearfully self-critical, that he destroys three-quarters of his work. Why stop at three-quarters?”

I’m possibly being a bit unkind, quoting all this, but there is something delicious about an art critic saying what they think about what they see, especially when they don’t like it. I wonder if there’s any “history” between McDonald and Innes? Not that there is any such implication, but McDonald is scornful of Innes in this article in a way that I haven’t seen him write before (I struggled then to find an adjective that wasn’t sexist! The first words that sprang to mind were bitchy and catty, with all the chauvenist behavioural connotations…).

The last part of the review is lengthy, but I’m going to quote it in full because McDonald makes a number of valid points that aren’t exclusively barbs aimed at Innes:

Innes was a figurative painter in the 1980s but after a residency in Amsterdam he decided he could no longer continue on this path. For British critic Richard Cork, who can always be relied upon to take the orthodox line, from this point “the inauthenticity of [Innes’s] previous work melted away”. In its place was “a nourishing battle between vitality and the void”.

Innes says he still sees himself as an “inherently figurative” painter. If this sounds far-fetched, he hastens to elaborate: “We are talking about paintings that work on many levels – emotionally, physically, figuratively, politically. I think if I explain too much about their making, I shut down some of those possible readings. I reduce the magic”.

Rather than risk reducing the magic any further, I must confess I am baffled by the possible political readings of these abstract rectangles and dribbles – unless we’re talking about art politics, which has nothing to do with the real world. Art politics has mainly to do with one’s personal visibility and curriculum vitae; with the number of glossy catalogues and portentious essays devoted to one’s work. In this sense, Innes is a consummate politician, having realised that the more vacant the work, the greater the scope it allows congenial essayists. The real skill is to say something that sounds insightful and profound, while being so generalised that it could be applied to any painter who ever picked up a brush. One of the best examples in the Innes catalogue is that his work lies somewhere between something and nothing. I’ll leave it to viewers to decide which end of the scale is dominant.”

Doesn’t think much of Innes, does he?!

I’m afraid I agree with McDonald about Innes, while also being moved by some of his paintings. What worked best for me were the less formulaic paintings in which I could see beauty and meaning beyond just a series of experiments. Admittedly the beauty and meaning are personal to me, but that’s the point of art, I think: to evoke a personal response that says you either like something or you don’t.

Michael liked the Exposed Painting series, and I preferred the dribbles, but we both agreed that we liked layers on layers upon layers and depth, and that visual trick whereby your brain tries to produce recognition out of the abstract. A wash of lacquer and some random dots became a Chinese mountain or waterfall landscape, and not just because of the oriental gold(Untitled 2002). Dissolved triangles in black, taupe and grey (7 isolated forms, 1991) became a forest shrouded in mist. Dribbles, spatters, corrugations became constellations, leaves, rocks…

So after all the hoo-ha about Callum Innes, what about the rest of the work at the MCA? Well we saw Tim Wilkinson next and it was interesting because I’d expected to come away feeling awed by Callum Innes in some cerebral, intellectual way and was mildly disappointed, and I almost didn’t go into the Tim Wilkinson show because I was afraid it was all too far-fetched and modern and just beyond me, and I really enjoyed it!

If you have a chance to read McDonald’s review of the show you’ll see that he was broadly enthusiastic, if slightly unsure where to find the ‘art’ in amongst the imagination, experimentation and creative energy… I found myself so overwhelmed by the experience of the show that my little Moleskine notebook that I take round with me (to do doodles and sketches and remind myself about what I’ve seen and what I thought when I saw it) contains the simple words, “Tom Wilkinson”, underlined, and then a large space!

Aesthetically there wasn’t much to grab the eye, although Blastula is fairly gripping and I thought Moebius Ship was one of the most intriguing and beautiful things in the show, even though it didn’t give as much of a visual ‘punch’ as the larger, weirder items next to it. I found the concepts behind the stranger pieces REALLY interesting. How fascinating to see the workings, the innards, of complicated pieces like Deposition, which is a branch of a grapefruit tree made into a mad instrument! Hawkinson conceives, designs and makes it all himself and is the very antithesis of the sort of painter whose assistants actually put the pigments onto canvas (although as a life-long fan of Bridget Riley I can’t really moan about that!). What a contrast with Innes! The one is a sort of latter-day aesthete: dark jacket and pale trousers and beautiful gestures but some creatively empty paintings; the other is a sort of mad inventor, following his imagination who-knows-where and tinkering as he goes.

Last and in some ways least was Shahzia Sikander, whose work extended from a site-specific wall painting and around the lower galleries. Visiting this exhibition was the last part of our trip, a sort of added bonus of being there, but was also a bit disappointing. Sikander is Pakistani and trained as a miniature painter. I love Indian/Persian miniature paintings and used to have my own little collection, bought when I visited India in the early 1990s. Technique, composition, tradition – it all works for me. I love the ornate borders, the occasionally bizarre perspectives, the stylised animals, the beautiful portraits, the traditional tales, the gorgeous colours, and the swirling calligraphy… and I really admired Sikander’s technique and her efforts at juxtaposing new and old. But this exhibition seemed to me to be another show-off show. It grated watching Sikander performing balletic sequences of yoga moves over a floor painting; it grated seeing ‘films’ of one image sliding into another image, endlessly looping. If she wasn’t beautiful, educated and, one presumes, from a relatively wealthy family, would she have filmed herself dancing like that? You could argue that I’m just jealous because I’m not equally beautiful, talented and rich (well I’m making assumptions about the rich bit..), and you’d be right! But I’d argue back that if you took the beauty out of the equation would her work have such visibility? And anyway, as a graduate of the National Art School in Lahore is Sikander any more talented than her contemporaries? Or is it that she has positioned herself and marketed herself well?

Now am I being the sort of bitch that thinks my female colleagues have it easy, that I’ve battled my way up the ladder in a man’s world and the rest of them should have it hard? I’ve encountered that attitude myself in the world of work and it isn’t pleasant or easy to deal with. Or am I simply reacting with distaste to someone who doesn’t wear the shackles of a Protestant ‘don’t show off’ upbringing? Am I the sort of stay-at-home, domestic-goddess sort of woman who doesn’t like to see a woman express herself assertively no matter what she looks like? Perhaps Sikander is liberated, forward thinking, adept, clever, personable AND talented, and perhaps she’s also very, very self-aware… If she is, and if she encounters the sort of open-mouthed sexist behaviour of men she meets through her work, isn’t she allowed to capitalise on their chauvenism if it takes her where she wants to go? I don’t know… it’s all very confusing. I like to think of myself as feminist and as supportive of my fellow female artists, and it isn’t nice to think that I might be swayed by jealousy or the grooves of my un-feminist upbringing into treating Sikander unfairly, but something just didn’t work for me in this show.

Perhaps in the end my problem is one of ignorance: I just don’t have anything else with which to compare her work. Even my knowledge of her traditional background and training is limited, to say the least, so how can I assess her work? In the end it just boils down to how it takes you when you look at it, so all I can say is that I found it visually and culturally interesting but that something about it left me a bit cold.

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