Barbara Penrose

Loss of the middle ground
Smith and Stoneley, Brisbane

Barbara Penrose's recent installation quietly demanded the viewer's attention. This thirteen metre 'drawing', constructed from black contact adhesive, oscillated between the appearance of a three dimensional brick design and a flattened grid-like pattern. Minimal and cool in design, the work was laden with art historical references—the apocalyptic paintings of Frank Stella, Geometric Abstraction, the wall drawings of Sol LeWitt and the wall/floor pieces of Eva Hesse. With these references and Penrose's use of repetition, the grid and geometric form, it is easy to place this work in the file marked Minimal art. However, closer inspection revealed contradictions which belie the desire for such easy categorisation.

Zelevansky has written that while the Minimalists did not 'share a large body of beliefs... they did share a desire to escape the emotional and autobiographical emphases of Abstract Expressionism'.[1] One of the nagging and rewarding contradictions within Barbara Penrose's work Loss of the Middle Ground, is the rationality of the design combined with a re-instatement of the emotional and autobiographical. Rosalind Krauss has argued for an obsessional—as opposed to a rational—reading of the repetitions in the work of Sol LeWitt.[2] Similarly, when one reads Penrose's work as the whole, her working process has an obvious focus on the obsessional. The installation of this drawing deliberately forces us to think of work—and possibly women's work—the labour of cutting the endless strips of fabric, the labour of attaching these to the wall and floor with (almost) geometric precision, the labour of stripping away these pieces and the labour of scrubbing the walls and floor free of adhesive to return the gallery to its pristine, white cube, state. These processes of cutting, placing, peeling and scrubbing are laden with psychological and autobiographical emphases.

In the catalogue essay for the exhibition Small Truths—Repetition and the Obsessional in Contemporary Art, de Ville has noted of repetitive processes, such as those used by Penrose, that 'through dissociation and the practical application of psychoanalytic theory, the artist...demonstrates the relationship between repetition and the creative act by turning the obsessional into (my emphasis) a working practice.'[3] Through Penrose's obsessional practice she marks a polite space within the gallery and, although this winged shape is almost symmetrical and straddles both the floor and wall, its qualities seem to be aligned to painting and the phenomenological aspects of seeing. In working with black matt contact, generally used for protecting shelves, Penrose hints at the relationship between covering and painting. However, this is less dominant in a reading of the work than the illusionism of the grid-like drawing which becomes particularly disturbing as it seeps across the floor. Closer in tone to the timber than the white wall, the black pattern beneath our feet gives the illusion of shifting and movement, of uneven surfaces, of a net through which we might fall or of blocks with jagged edges. Staring at the vertiginous pattern, the quality of danger is present, albeit a danger which can be viewed from a distance. Perhaps, as Hall has written, 'art criticism gives too little evidence of this relationship with a work of art ...[the relationship which is] always an exercise in potentiality and loss of definition, however temporary and safe'.[4]

The loss of definition, the loss of a middle ground, is far from the Minimalist's aim of removing emotional emphases from artworks, but is close to Penrose's own project which recognises the desire for closure as being inextricably linked to emotion. It is an unsettling aspect and a strength of the work that it sets up oppositions—including intimacy/alienation/, fullness/loss, claustrophobia/freedom, interior/exterior, real/illusion. Penrose's attempt to conflate these oppositions underlies the work's sense of continually turning itself inside out, like a Möbius strip.

As with the Möbius strip, an endless repetition with no inside or outside, Loss of the Middle Ground is mesmerising. ‘The rhythm of repetition has a curious ability to transcend the disturbing overtones of obsession and assert its own melodic panacea. Unlike the introspection implied by psychoanalysis, the viewer (can become) too mesmerised to disengage and take a critical stand.'[5] Perhaps this is one of the middle grounds which Penrose would like us to lose.

notes: 

[1] Zelevansky, L., Sense and Sensibility: Women Artists and Minima/ism in the Nineties, Museum of Modem Art, New York. 1994. p. 7.

[2] Krauss, R., 1973, in Zelevansky, L., ibid, p. 8.

[3] de Vi lie, N., 'Small Truths—Repetition and the Obsessional in Contemporary Art', catalogue essay, 1997.

[4] Hall, S., 'Time in the Body', Gory Hill: In Light of the Other, Liverpool: Tate Gallery and Museum of Modem Art, Oxford.

[5] Lores, M. 'Small Truths—Repetition and the Obsessional in Contemporary Art', Contemporary Visual Arts, Issue 14, 1997.