Deborah Dawes

Abstract paintings
Mori Gallery, Sydney
30 August - 17 September, 1988

The impact of Dawes meticulously painted coloured grids is immediate, they draw us into their depths, enveloping us like large swathes of woven material. Dawes has achieved this effect with great material labour that is revealed in the microscopic precision with which the oil paint is worked into, and over-painted on, every square centimeter of even the large canvases. There is also a laborious logic at work in this show, a logic that insists on taking this materiality as its starting point, upon setting it to work against the symbolic order imposed by the geometry of the grid form. This materiality is indicated via a minute messiness, a bleeding of pure colour at the edges of the grid lines, a slight inconsistency in the harmonic colour gradations or in the rough texture where brush strokes cross. By assigning this gestural Detail a determinant role in the work, the minute blob achieves a force in the context of the grid form that is experientally comparable to the grand gestures of abstract expressionism.

The traditional grid form, symbolic of mastery through detachment, is curiously manipulated by Dawes to a contrary purpose: to render useless the separations we erect between the cerebral and the sensual, and between sight and touch. Dawes' paintings produce their effect by teasing the very perceptual impulses that perspectival grids stabilize when they mimic the optical projection of the human ocular field. Dawes uses everything at her disposal: light, shade, colour, repetition and rhythm to direct our attention simultaneously towards opposing poles of visual signification. Our gaze is caught, running between figure and ground, depth and surface, focal point and visual continuum. In one canvas for example, Dawes emphasises, through shading, the illusionary deep space already hollowed out by the grid form, creating a space into which our eyes are drawn, only to be pulled ceaselessly back to the picture surface by the optical flicker of the multiple colour lines and intersections.

A similar strategy is detectable in the logic of the harmonic colour progressions, that never fully resolve. These are progressions in which contrasting colours are mixed together as they approach the grids' centre. Purple and orange, for example, gradually merge to form a brown-green cross. But the colours are graded so that they pass into each other rather than stopping at some definite mid-point. Even the emergent form of the cross tends to disperse amidst the plurality of grid intersections.

Everything about these works resists the unifying gaze of rational aesthetic appreciation. In order to announce this defiance the works rely upon confusing our intellect physiologically; upon offering our gaze a sensorial experience, and intimating a secret geometry that incites viewers to walk up close, to step back, to move on and to return to take another look. In effect these works demonstrate that visual language acts upon bodies. That the visual is only intelligible insofar as the processes that position us to read visual signs remain unseen. In this way the perceived autonomy of the viewing subject from objective visual sign is also shown to be an illusion, not fixed or given, but relational and elusive.

There are precedents - in particular Mondrian - for Dawes' almost obsessive efforts to confront perception with a knowledge of the habits that constrain it, so that we might experience as habit those perceptual impulses that persist in closing down the free rhythm of the visual facts that confront us. But Mondrian's dictum, "if we cannot free ourselves, then we can free our vision”, is not so much followed by Dawes, as used as a point of departure. Whereas Mondrian sought to fix the visual event in its integrity, without hierarchy, by eliminating the contingent and the incidental, Dawes seems to accept that to liberate our vision is also to acknowledge that we cannot ultimately master it.