Daniel Mafe

Recent painting
Palace Gallery, Brisbane
September 2003

The most recent Venice Biennale entitled ‘Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer’ proved to be controversial and was, at worst, a resounding dud, if the response of international critics is anything to go by. Indeed at times the Biennale resembled an exercise in excess, the product of the vagaries of so much curatorial input and perhaps ironically, the dictatorship of curator Francesco Bonami himself. In the midst of so much work competing for something more than mere recognition of its presence, certain aspects stood out. The Italian pavilion was often successful because it blended some of the greatest hits and the international ‘art stars’ with less well known practitioners, and because Richard Prince’s beautiful room of painterly photographs of iconic cowboys was truly seductive.

For me, the highlight of the Biennale was the exhibition at the Museo Correr entitled ‘Painting: From Rauschenberg to Murakami’. Also curated by Bonami, this exhibition offered something of a who’s who of painting from Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Agnes Martin through to Lucio Fontana and Cy Twombly, and more contemporaneously John Currin and Damien Hirst. Of course there were glaring omissions (no Australian artists) and some odd inclusions, but in an otherwise lack-lustre Biennale this exhibition shone, if only because it is a reminder of the undeniable charm and relevance of painting.

Painting practice in Australia has always been strong, and Daniel Mafé is one artist who has pursued the medium with something akin to reverence and a deep respect. Mafé’s new work is the continuation of an ongoing project, an unfolding articulation about the act of painting. His work offers respite from so much of the white noise of contemporary art practice that competes for attention. There is no claim to irrelevant innovation here, rather a reserved determination to simply paint.

Mafé’s quiet paintings are hushed as opposed to mute; they offer something to the viewer who allows time for contemplation. While Mafé’s work is two dimensional, when installed his paintings speak of a third dimension. Hung with the centre-point at waist height for the average person, Mafé installed the works in this latest show in multi-panelled configurations of triptychs and diptychs, a strategy which lent a powerful presence to these gracious paintings. Hung so closely and tightly on the wall they reminded me, curiously, of my central point of gravity, as though physically exerting a centrifugal force, an effect that was perhaps the result of the inherent shapes of the canvases, coupled with the luminosity of the painting. This visceral effect is interesting considering Mafé’s light painting touch, which does away with primer in favour of layers of pigment, but the artist admits to being interested in the sculptural possibilities of painting.

Mafé’s configurations are evocative of religious painting and point to a redolent, although non-prescriptive, spirituality, a term often associated with abstraction, in part as an attempt to find meaning in the non-representational. At times, the repetition of shapes evokes a mantra; inscrutable to all but the painter perhaps, Mafé’s paintings operate on one level as meditations on time and its passage, an aspect of the work that is again heightened by considered contemplation.

Mafé’s new paintings echo past bodies of work through the way paint is applied in fine translucent skeins in several layers of subtle geometric shapes that simultaneously emerge and recede. Importantly, the shapes Mafé layers one upon another—squares, grids and circles which overlap to reveal triangular proportions and ellipses—are drawn freehand, so that on closer viewing the paintings move gently and almost vibrate eschewing the hard edge of formalism and offering something more organic. This imperfect aspect of an abstract approach coupled with the repetition of particular motifs adds to the compelling quality of these works.

Mafé is deeply interested in the luminous possibilities of paint, and with these new works has employed a brighter palette of blues and oranges, albeit diluted and pared back, and applied in washes. The geometric shapes float on the canvas creating delicate scaffolding, onto which the paint appears to hold. As paintings they are as much explorations of light, the interface between pigment and light (and the works rely on natural illumination for the best viewing), as they are modernist experiments. On one level, Mafé’s paintings are reminiscent of the work of abstract painters such as Stieg Persson, in terms of the repetition of pattern, and Barnett Newman, in terms of the larger repetition of an idea. In some respects both artists reside at historically opposite ends of painting practice, but for each the act of painting is and was paramount, as it is for Daniel Mafé.