'In Through Your Window' By Laura Skerlj
In her 1987 novella-cum-painting-meditation titled f, German-born artist Jutta Koether wrote: “When you make art, you’re often asked: ‘What’s art doing?’ But never what the things are doing that make art.”[i] She proceeds to describe, via a series of disembodied women, what inhabits a private universe: “things that are stuff,” such as velvet, oranges, the colour red, a fountain pen, lipstick, money. Each element is given space in the book, a slim chapter in which it is discussed; each element is evident in the artist’s oeuvre which spans painting, performance, music, sculpture, critique; each helps the book’s human subjects come into being.
To look at Koether’s paintings is to enter a (predominantly) scarlet-hued world made of many gestural brushstrokes that are agitated into figurative happenings. The works are, for the most part, large in scale; the compositions often remakes of pictures by famous male painters from the past (Poussin, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Manet…). Yet Koether’s representations have their own obsessive energy – graceless, celestial, web-like, aggressive, punk. In tandem, her novella invites you to pay closer attention to some of the objects that make up her creative universe as she draws them together within a singular text. She remarks, this is not with the intention to present fragments, but to unify them, “to observe how the tumor changes.”[ii] The fairly ordinary elements that consume Koether – given rise in this book – are subsumed within her paintings, spun into schema where figures and fruit and sex and music and violence live; all that “stuff” from her personal world, and the wider universe of painting and human ephemera, having moved on in.
The exhibition Outside Painting presents the work of three Melbourne-based artists – Nadine Christensen, Bill Hawkins and Katrina Dobbs ¬ with painting practices intimately connected to what lies outside the frame. In varied ways, each of these artists engage with everyday life via their artwork, making the dichotomy between inside and outside inconcrete, collapsible. In turn, the influences that orbit and move through their works are subjective, hinted at in constellations of images stuck to studio walls, pedestals of dogeared books, their social media accounts, personal collections, writing, colour choices, materials. And although these elements might seem to be the anecdotes of a personal activity – accumulated in the isolation in which much painting, and thinking on painting, occurs – this exhibition, curated by Christensen, shows how this highly subjective, umbilical “stuff” is given rise through the process of making; specifically, via painting. This could be connected to what Catrinel Popa described as an “oblique glance”: an autobiographical strategy she determines as used by French novelist, filmmaker, documentalist and essayist, Georges Perec. She describes how Perec’s texts contain both “an autobiographical thread and a formalist-experimentalist one, which overlap”[iii]; she connects this to how travel writing (the lens through which she considers his work) is only definable through [the frame of] a departure date and a return date, with the journey, not the self, being of most importance. We might consider how painting is similar – “vitalistic,”[iv] as in, a kind of “life writing”; an everyday odyssey; indebted to the frame, yet always in oblique, sideways connection to what surrounds it.
For painters, the frame is a constant force to be used, rejected and battled with. In its variations, it might be the actual rectangle of a canvas, the door of a studio, the confines of a specific exhibition space, or a schema for thinking. In all these examples, the frame emphasises the dichotomy between inside and outside, as in Derrida’s interpretation of the ancient Greek parergon, a relationship between core and periphery: “neither inside or outside, neither above nor below, it disconcerts any opposition but does not remain indeterminate and it gives rise to the work.”[v] Here, in this gap, vital decisions of inclusion and exclusion, be they conscious or not, determine what seeps into a picture and, through these choices, bring the “stuff” of that particular universe to life. In his much-praised essay from 2009, “Painting Beside Itself,” David Joselit defines transitive painting as having the “capacity to hold in suspension the passages internal to a canvas, and those external to it.”[vi] In this way, there is no separate “outside”; painting is of everything; part of an interchangeable and ongoing network of influences that include the medium’s own history, politics, aesthetics, popular culture, the life of the artist, and so on. This idea is an energising one in comparison to the historical insistence that painting is a “pure” medium, letting it be of the world in a way that it hasn’t before; as Isabelle Graw argues, that “the social (and digital) universe in which the artist operates is no more extrinsic to the painting than those other [historical] outsides.”[vii]
The artists in Outside Painting engage, in various ways, with this fluidity. Nadine Christensen’s paintings are populated by the recurring “stuff” of her subconscious; as Popa described of Perec, returning “to the same episode several times, rewriting it from different perspectives.”[viii] Some of these motifs, which have haunted the artist over the course of her practice, include a pesky fly, architectural skeletons, DIY materials, ancient gemstones, and a vision of a beaten-up car, seen many years ago outside an inner-city studio where she once made her work. Via repeating subject matter, Christensen brings to the surface her everyday – with its shared uncanniness – in a way that perpetuates a cycle of renewal and collapse. This could be seen as connected to Perec’s “infra-ordinary,” that privileges the “endotic” details and rhythms of everyday life over the “exotic” ones found further afield; looking to “the visible but hidden details of the space and gestures of the bodies around us.”[ix]
Next, through a framework of “shyness” and “failure,”[x] Bill Hawkins’ work is entwined with the awkwardness, pathos and ridiculousness of life. These experiences and ideas are brought into being via the aesthetic and formal decisions made in his paintings, drawings, writing and performances: a spiritual blue with historical, economic and symbolic value; mark-making that is blunderingly human yet erased of the “artist’s hand” via the use of an airbrush; sarcasm; everyday settings and subjects; cartoonish renderings; spaghetti.[xi] These attributes of the work are somehow deceptive, as their familiarity, odd beauty and humour welcome you in; however, once you arrive, the work’s “inner life” is often shameful, embarrassing. If you have known those dark-slash-awkward places, it is an addictive feeling, sublime even, to have this contact – to be made vulnerable via an object. For Hawkins, painting does not exist in isolation but is connected to everything that surrounds it, and this is evident in the way his medium, subjects, material choices and ideas swap over between works, like characters from a television series making an appearance in their director’s next production; the space of painting as “fundamentally unstable” as perhaps it always has been.[xii]
And lastly, for Katrina Dobbs painting is a bodily force, a cosmological one, that seeps around all of the corners of her life (as Francis Bacon’s palette did, oil paint mixed on the wall). Her painting is a non-stop affair that happens in the collapsible space of her home studio – reaching from the bedroom to the living area to the garage – borrowing from the domestic and ending up with the transcendental. Here, there is time to spend with the work and to experience it evolve. Using materials from everyday domestic life – synthetic curtain lace, flyscreen, tarpaulins, old furniture, Chux clothes – Dobbs turns the symptoms of a painting practice into something mystical through a process of “slowing down chaos.”[xiii] In this exhibition, anthropomorphic sculptural works made using studio drop cloths and furniture inhabit the gallery, while a series of writhing pattern-on-pattern paintings – produced through a screen-printing-like process with lace and flyscreen instead of silk – pop, hum and decay in discordant colour and texture on the wall. Here, in character, Dobbs’ obsessive and intimate approach to image-making spiritualises the materials she uses; hers is, to quote Elizabeth Grosz, “an art of affect more than representation, a system of dynamized and impacting forces rather than a system of unique images that function under the regime of signs.”[xiv]
The belief that painting can be a conduit for an intimate engagement with an artist has been desirable to many contemporary painters in recent times.[xv] One reason for this is a yearning for activity that connects us back to ourselves, as we reach again for the private parts of our lives, tired of the techy, extroverted and gregarious ones we have become exhausted and isolated by. This is possibly hastened by an art world of “short termism” and “over-sharing,” as described by Martin Herbert, where “being present” is about self-marketing,[xvi] not the becoming inherent in the slow, fraught and revealing processes needed by most painters. This relationship – where painting acts as a medium between the artist and itself, where both have things to give and receive, where both stay open, challenging each other’s factness, repeating and sharing images and materials and ways and means over a long time, a lifetime, a practice – is vital to the works in Outside Painting, as what lies outside the frame is painting itself.
[i] Jutta Koether, f, (Berlin, Sternberg Press, 2015), 10.
[ii] Koether, f, 33
[iii] Catrinel Popa “Exploring the Infra-Ordinary (the ‘Oblique Glance’ as Autobiographical Strategy)”, Human and Social Studies, 5 (2016): 76.
[iv] In reference to the ideas of Isabelle Graw as in: Thinking through Painting: Reflexivity and Agency beyond the Canvas, (Berlin, Sternberg Press, 2012); The Love of Painting (Berlin, Sternberg Press, 2018).
[v] Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, (Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1987), 9.
[vi] David Joselit, “Painting Beside Itself”, October, 130, Fall (2009): 129
[vii] Graw, The Love of Painting, 266
[viii] Popa, “Exploring the Infra-Ordinary”, 76.
[ix] The Institute for Endotic Research (TIER), “Exploring the Endotic”, http://theinstituteforendoticresearch.org/wp/projects/exploring-the-endotic/
[x] Bill Hawkins, artist statement (2020).
[xi] A nod to Martin Kippenberger’s connecting of painting to the world, as referenced in Joselit, “Painting Beside Itself”, 125: “Simply to hang a painting on the wall and say that it’s art is dreadful. The whole network is important! Even spaghettini…”. Hawkins used this anecdote as a “touch stone” for his video work titled Lunch with Sanja (2019), where he invites a buyer (in this case, artist, Sanja Pahoki) to pay for his lunch (spaghetti) in return for career advice.
[xii] Graw, The Love of Painting, 265
[xiii] Katrina Dobbs, “Aspiring to a state of grace”, research paper (Bachelor of Fine Arts, Honours), VCA, University of Melbourne, 2017.
[xiv] Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (New York, Columbia University Press, 2008), 3.
[xv] Graw, Thinking through Painting: Reflexivity and Agency beyond the Canvas, 64.
[xvi] Martin Herbert, Tell Them I Said No, (Berlin, Sternberg Press, 2016), 11-12.