Geometric painting in Australia

1940-1997
University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane

This two-part exhibition at the Queensland University Art Museum was a rare occurrence: curated by David Pestorius and spanning over half a century, the exhibition traced the history of an aspect of international modernism that has received little attention in this country.

Constructivist tendencies began to appear in Australian art during the 1940s, entering the country quietly, almost covertly. Since then, other styles, such as Post-Painterly Abstraction, Minimalism, Pop and Op art have followed but without the critical controversies that surrounded these trends abroad.

Over the decades these styles have been practised in Australia by a minority of dedicated enthusiasts, who believed in the legitimacy of the forms and their potential to perhaps rival the dominant representational, impressionistic, landscape tradition which has ruled Australian painting since the days of the Heidelberg School. And why shouldn't they? Surely these 'ring-ins' from around the world are not so far removed from the brand of impressionism Tom Roberts smuggled home in his tucker-bag from France in the late 1800s, or Leger's cubism, swiped from the volumes of the Heide library by Nolan in the 1940s?

After all, as papist Paul Taylor and appropriationist Imants Tillers have told us in recent years, this is what Australian artists are best at. We are dealers in secondhand goods, so why not come clean about it?

For those raised on realism, the world of Geometric Abstraction might likely prove an alien address. The exhibition offered few toe-holds for those unfamiliar with the terrain. This was a soiree of the sensuous, where colours, shapes and surfaces collided and combined to disorientate and delight.

In many ways, Pestorius's exhibition was not unlike a stroll through a hall of mirrors. One's perceptions were questioned at every turn. What appeared solid in one sighting dissolved in the next.

Organised roughly into three production periods and ordered in reverse chronology, the first exhibition began intimately enough in the downstairs gallery with modestly-sized works from the Neo-Geo revivalists of Store 5, Melbourne.

Inspired by the aesthetic and entrepreneurial approach of John Nixon, this collective set up alternative exhibition venues to promote the work of art school graduates. In this way they hoped to establish their own credentials, by-pass the restrictive prerogatives of the Establishment and have new work shown more frequently. Store 5 artists' preference for working in cheap industrial materials and simple themes suggests an affinity with Fluxus. Almost all of the works in the downstairs gallery were constructed from non-traditional materials. Between the nine works on display, there were only a few square metres of canvas. Instead, cardboard, transparent acrylic sheeting, hessian, felt, wood and laminex are used inventively to lend a distinctly tactile presence.

Highlights of the lower gallery included Kerrie Poliness's Pavilion. These diamond-motifed, pyramidic placards stood like a thicket of carefully balanced playing cards, which seemed to reshuffle themselves whenever our backs were turned. Store 5 founder, Gary Wilson's Unfitted (Red) exuded nothing but hard-edged, neon slickness. A horizontal duochrome of matt black flocking on blood-red, transparent acrylic glaze, this work reads on/off, deep/shallow depending on the supporting surface. This effect is not dissimilar to the push/pull that Ralph Balson strove for in his pioneering abstract paintings.

Anne Marie May's Unfitted displayed an ingenious use of felt off-cuts, which lent a Beuysian touch to one corner, while Elizabeth Newman's Open showed that fractional twists can still be worked within the well-worn avant-garde paradigm. 'Open' book or 'open' mind, this piece shared something of the austerity and decorative blankness of Elizabeth Pulie's 168 of the second exhibition. Whereas the former's work was three-dimensional, the latter's created a similar effect, albeit in two-dimensional flatness.

Constanze Zikos's I Woody was a curious conglomeration of laminex veneer, acrylic paint and chalk. It was a personal statement about his migrant experience in Australia. In this work he stands astride two worlds—between order and asymmetry, decoration and progressive aesthetics, high art and craft, the past and the present, the East and the West.

Onwards to the works of Eugene Carchesio and Bronwyn Clark-Coolie, which prepared us for the block painting and the all-overs of the upper gallery. The Group Otto palindrome in the gallery stairwell acted like an exit sign and marked the halfway point, both spatially and historically, before we happened on the fulcrum of the first exhibition.

Scott Redford's enormous Lissitzky-like wedge signposted the undisputed highlight of the exhibition. John Nixon's citrine cube is barely larger than the palm of an adult's hand and yet it easily held its own against the clinical bare expanses of the upstairs gallery's eastern wall. It was an installation in itself and a tribute to its creator's untiring championship of the non-objective abstractionist cause. Block painting (orange monochrome) left us perfectly primed for the illusionism of the next section.

A.D.S. Donaldson's Untitled (Red/Purple) played out a horizontal, Newmanesque riddle of peripheral perception and colour equivalence, just as Gunther Christmann's perpendicular Juddian piece played a similar game, only this time vertically. One was drawn to ask just where was the optimum vantage point for viewing such canvases when shape, colour and dimensions conspired to unsettle?

At this point we became aware of how the thick-stretchered frames appeared to make the paintings 'float' upon the wall. The Stella-like canvases of McGillick's Republic and Johnson's Chomp verged on the borders of art and objecthood, whilst Watkin's Untitled and Doolin's Artificial Landscape employed colour and shape contrasts to create illusions of animation which overturned our usual expectations of how paint ought to operate.

The works in the adjoining room had a distinctly Australian flavour about them. Robert Rooney's Superknit 4 poked fun at Pollockian all-overness, while its greens, browns and reds hinted at the colours of the 'gum-leaf school'. Furthermore, its banal, but insistent, mesh patterning lent a decorative, domesticated feel, which could be compared to Debra Dawes Gingham of the second show. Australian elements were extended in Ian Burn's conceptual piece Blue Yellow Equivalence. Here the Antipodean landscape hues of golden yellow and deep sky blue were stacked in horizontal harmony.

Finally we come to the pioneering section of the exhibition. Here Ralph Balson, the grand old man of Australian Constructivism displayed his European-influenced Constructive Painting in its sober timber frame. The geometrical shapes, squares, rectangles and horizontal bars, advance or recede in an elegant push/pull dance created by the juxtaposition of warm and cool colours. Compare this to the 'instant' on/off effect of Wilson's Untitled (Red).

Grace Crowley's work was also indebted to the European Constructivism but lacked the dynamics of the Balson piece. Frank Hinder's Construction by comparison reminded one of the fragmented planes of Picasso's Cubism.

On departing one had to pass by Steven Bram's Untitled lurking in the stairwell. This explosive-looking piece is based on the geometry of two point perspective. It has vanishing points to either side, beyond its borders, and it is this that gives it a window-like illusion of depth. We were left imagining what could be outside this window.

So was this not a fitting motif to round off Geometric Painting in Australian 1940-97, for who of us can truly say we have seen 'everything'. And how come those playing cards of Poliness's had reshuffled themselves again in our absence?