Ave atque Vale (for now):
May 30 - June 24, 2006
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Reading between the lines
The exhibition Ave atque Vale (for now) formed part of my examination submission for my doctoral thesis, ‘Between the Lines’. The following text is a short extract from the exegesis.
Extract from Chapter 3
I have not attempted to count the number of contemporary abstract artists whose work practice, like my own, involves the use of stripes. I can say that the number is high and amongst these the works of John Aslanidis, Jon Plapp, Neil Haddon, Melinda Harper, Lesley Dumbrell, Robert Owen, Galliano Fardin, Helga Groves, Debra Dawes, A. D. S. Donaldson, Michael Johnston, Steve di Benedetto, Ross Bleckner, Tad Griffin, Peter Halley, Jim Isermann, Jason Martin, Tom Moody, Sarah Morris, Susie Rosmarin, Peter Schuyff, Michael Scott, James Siena, Philip Taaffe, Fred Tomaselli, David Szafranski, Kerrie Poliness, Estelle Thomston, Jim Lambie, Sean Sculley, and Ian Davenport are well documented.
Many of these artists make paintings or their works derive from painting conventions and practices. In some way each of us, whether we use paint, digital technologies, coloured adhesive tape or medicinal pills, whether we paint on canvas, on walls or metal invariably ‘relate colour’ in rich and meaningful ways.
In his 1983 publication, Working Space, Frank Stella complained:
Much has happened in the world of colour since Stella delivered this critique. In the last ten years colour has undergone a reformative re-evaluation due in large part to new digital technologies that simplify designing in colour and that facilitate most types of photographic colour reproductions. Colour now proliferates in the world of print and screen, even newspapers, once printed predominantly in black, are now filled with colour on almost every page. Previously a specialised preoccupation of concern to designers, those involved in the textile and clothing industry and visual artists, awareness of and interest in colour is now of more general significance.
The stripe, as Davis indicates, is a fantastically economical and effective way to relate colour. Such economy, however, has little to do with austerity and frugality. Fer proposes that:
Fer argues that Mondrian’s ‘excess’ relates to his exaggerating the significance of the most infinitesimal incident in the visual field.
While ‘economy’ has acquired overtones of thrift, its roots in the realm of (household) budgeting are relevant here. The practice of economy requires careful management of resources and considerable willpower and effort to sacrifice inessential expenditure. Mondrian’s economy was achieved through obsessive and continual modification, reworking and readjustment of all aspects of the limited means he chose for his work. Davis also limited his means, and in so doing he too achieved extreme solutions in his excessively colourful works.
My own pictures look ‘economical’: they consist almost exclusively of coloured lines. A ‘sleight of hand’ ensures that none of the fastidiousness that goes into their making is visible on the surface. It is important to me that I mask the excessive and narcissistic tendencies in my own work through adopting particular and effective surface ‘disguises’.
Gene Davis’ comment, quoted at the beginning of this chapter, in an oblique way, raises the issue of comparison and ‘possession’. My central concern in undertaking the work for this project has been to distinguish my painting practice from those of other artists whose works mine ‘superficially’ resemble. This is not so difficult when comparisons are made between my paintings and the works of those other contemporary abstract artists who employ striped iconography. The materials used, the site specific nature of the works of some artists, the performative procedures adopted by others and the stated claims both by artists and their contemporary commentators justifies the distinctions that I claim. To establish fundamental distinctions between my paintings and those made by Op, Colour Field and Systemic artists in the mid-twentieth century is a more complex matter. A comparison between similar looking paintings requires that one is sensitive to those subtle manifestations of difference that most observers tend to overlook.
Difference, or the manifestation of the idea of difference is my critical motivating factor and this has also been paramount in the evolution and development of my work. It is within the heraldic context of a ‘differ’, that is, a figure on a coat of arms which distinguishes one family from another or discriminates a younger branch from an elder one, that my work should be considered.
I have also made dissimilarity a deliberate feature of my painting practice, that is, I like my paintings to look markedly different, one from the other. While I have used repetition to organise striped motifs I have done so in a variety of ways in individual paintings. I have tried to avoid utilising the same mechanisms, particularly once I have understood how such mechanisms function. During the period of this project I have sought to explore alternative pictorial solutions to a variety of specific colour and spatial anomalies that captivated my imagination and this has resulted in works that ‘look’ quite dissimilar.
I have experimented with the same formal elements of painting used by many abstract painters. These include an interest in reducing illusionist spatial depth, using abstract form and colour and initially limiting myself to repetitive structuring systems. The use of these formal elements gives my works a similar look to those made by artists in the past. I have had little desire, however, to achieve the type of pictorial equilibrium, harmony and balance inspired by what Bois has termed ‘elementarization’ and ‘integration’ in his description of the principles that guided Mondrian. Nor has reductivism, the descriptor for similar objectives posited by minimalist artists, concerned me. The invocation to adopt procedures ‘true’ to painting, that is, the use in painting of only those elements intrinsic to the painted object is of no interest to most contemporary painters, including myself.
I have not used Mondrian’s methods for integrating figure and ground, at least not those of his early Neoplastic works. I have avoided using absolute or bi-axial symmetry to organise my striped compositions, as this is Stella’s preferred solution to his specific needs. Davis’ rhythmic orchestrations of coloured stripes and regulated intervals are inimitable because they are intuitively derived. Riley’s distinctive use of alternating colour and white (or near-white) stripe and interval often allude to the radiated light and atmospheric space that she experienced in particular landscape environments. I have kept the surfaces of my paintings dense and impenetrable and have used colour and spatial dimension to create a stifling sensation. Optical effects similar to those in Riley’s paintings and those made by other Op Artists in the Sixties can be seen in my works. However my work has not been made to illustrate particular optical affects. Commentators often identify humour and wit in my work but observe that this humour does not arise from an ironical critique of these works.
Rather than create harmonious, balanced, well-ordered works I have been more intent on using formal principles to divide and fragment the picture plane and in this regard my work is close to that of Davis. Unlike Davis however, I have attempted to dislodge the vertical-horizontal supremacy of the ‘edges’ or framing structure of the canvas and to avoid any of the overly restrictive organisational tenets that guided many of his contemporaries. Although initial viewing may suggest the schematic, the simply structured and the pictorially integrated, closer viewing of my work does not confirm this.
I take care to ‘cover my tracks’. Disguise, a refusal to commit to appearing one way or another, to being one thing and not another accords with my character. I thoroughly enjoy dressing up, applying cosmetics and selecting appropriate accessories. These essentially theatrical mechanisms reflect a desire to ‘appear’ in a certain way: an elusive way, a way that conceals while it apparently ‘reveals’.
Sasha Grishin comments:
In this same review Grishin subtitles a reproduction of my painting Undercover ‘a strategic conceit’. Conceit in this context I take to mean a witty thought.
Briony Fer observes in Donald Judd’s sculptures that: ‘More than anything else, it is an uneasy relationship between anxiety and pleasure that characterizes the effect of the work.’ For me anxiety is unfathomably woven into the pleasure of painting. My intuitive way of working strikes me as being a double-edged flirtation with the possibility of failure. I derive immense pleasure both from the act of creating and from not knowing how the work will turn out. This ‘uneasy relationship’, I believe, also characterises the effect of my work. I use colour and structure to depict unsettling optical and spatial disturbances, and this is observable in the work. My way of working acts to enhance the sensations of unease that I want my imagery to evoke. None of this, of course, is visible: it cannot be located in the pictorial devices and mechanisms which make up the paintings.
Wilma Tabacco, 2006 ©
 D. Wall (ed), ‘Interview with Donald Wall’, Gene Davis, Praeger Publishers, NY, 1975, p 60.
 F. Stella, Working Space, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1983, p 12.
 B. Fer, On Abstract Art, Yale University Press, London, 1997, p 134
 S. Grishin, ‘Not purely minimalist,’ Canberra Times, May 6, 2000.
 B. Fer, Op Cit. p 137.