ModCon considers how the works of selected senior artists fit into a canon of New Zealand Modernism. Juxtaposed with this are works from contemporary artists whose practices interrogate the ways in which paint and sculpture can simultaneously illustrate and subvert the fundamental elements of their chosen medium
Clement Greenberg’s seminal essay Modernist Painting (1960) provided a definition of modernism that has continued to echo throughout the intervening decades. Invoking Kant’s Critique of Reason, Greenberg outlined modernism’s essential self-reflexivity and positioned it firmly within the modernist paradigms of progression and empiricism. Extraneous influences were of no concern to modernism; art’s narratives were of itself, and presented according to its own (medium-specific) parameters. Art used its fundamental properties to criticise “from the inside” (1). Modernist art could be said to epitomise the logical endpoint of Marshall McLuhan’s declaration (2) where medium = message = medium in a closed, self-referential loop.
For many, the phrase ‘modern art’ conjures up paintings that are non-realist and non-figurative. They do not ‘show’ anything nor are they ‘like’ anything other than themselves: they possess none of the objects (subject-matter) that Barnett Newman declared most people want to see in an artwork and which “for them, makes the painting seem full” (3). Confronted with an abstract painting, viewers might try and find forms that look like a recognisable object and the age-old phrase “my child could do that” is still uttered, especially in reference to minimalist works.
Graham Fletcher’s work Untitled (Long Room with Carvings) encapsulates for many the notion of a ‘modern’ interior: low-slung furniture devoid of decorative excess, a linear architectural style that references the Bauhaus dictum of form following function, an emphasis on the materiality of the stone and wood finishes. The interior is completed with a Rothko-esque colourfield painting and a collection of artfully displayed ‘tiki’ items – tribal artifacts appropriated into the modern discourse due to the aesthetic affinities “between modern and ‘tribal’ art that transcended time and space” (4).
The abstract works by Gordon Walters, Ian Scott, and Mervyn Williams are some of the most recognisable modernist artworks in the country. Walters distills a traditional Māori motif into a ‘universal’ language of geometric abstraction and in the process strips it of its cultural narratives. These and Scott’s Lattices demonstrate New Zealand examples of Frank Stella’s proposed solution to what he saw as the problems of painting:
One [problem] was spatial and the other methodological. In the first case I had to do something about relational painting, i.e., the balancing of the various parts with and against each other. The obvious answer was symmetry [a solution which] forces illusionistic space out of the painting at a constant rate by using a regulated pattern (5).
The works of Walters, Scott, and Williams operate as “art preoccupied with its own process and means” (6) – in this case the flatness of the surface, the rectangular form of the canvas, the application of the paint, the role of colour. Distinctions between figure and ground are dissolved and any illusion of movement and depth is purely a function of opticality, a principle especially exploited by Williams.
Simon Morris’ subtle monochrome canvases approach most closely the purity of painting espoused by Ad Reinhardt: “Abstract painting is … the first truly unmannered and untrammeled and unentangled, styleless, universal painting. No other art or painting is detached or empty or immaterial enough” (7). Morris’ works are an intimate investigation of paint’s physical properties: its viscosity, its chemical composition, the ways in which it reacts to gravity and temperature, the surfaces created by layering. In addition to his consideration of colour and surface, Morris explores the temporality of an artwork. Each of his canvases speak to a measured set of actions that are dependent on the movement of paint down the surface, its collection, dilution and re-application. Although the hand of the artist is not necessarily visible, it is deeply embedded in each painting.
Morris, Williams and Scott compose the elements of their paintings with an emphasis on the rectangular form of the canvas, Gretchen Albrecht’s shaped Hemispheres canvases subvert the expected physical boundaries of a painting. A 'Penumbra' (In Memory of My Father) is simultaneously painting and object. We see the same concerns in the works of Oliver Perkins. The painted surfaces push out from the frame and the viewer is consciously aware of the artwork’s materiality. Perkins highlights the tension that exists between the painting as an object and the painting as a painted surface. The surface acts as a skin that is stretched across its three-dimensional supports and also as an exploration of the relationships of line and colour.
Helen Calder takes the idea of painting as object to its extreme iteration. The painted surfaces are wholly divorced from the canvas and operate of their own accord within space. Stacked or draped over a support, Calder’s works can be seen as sculptural paintings or painterly sculptures. They reference both the reduction of painting to its absolute essence and a solution to the problem of the non-neutrality of the rectangle (8). As sculptural objects they remain faithful to the medium used; Calder does not seek to represent the paint skins as other than what they are. The works depict nothing but exist as themselves: they have volume, mass, form, surface area. It is this self-reflexivity that the artist invites viewers to reflect upon.