Adventures with Form in Space

The Fourth Balnaves Foundation Sculpture Project

The predominant frame was still minimalism, but this exhibition of contemporary Australian sculpture was enlivened by the inclusion of figurative approaches. In the awkward, strange objects of John Meade and Nick Mangan, that disrupted the normative minimalist quietude, the exhibition was able to claim a certain adventurousness. This is not to say that those works that belong squarely to the minimalist tradition failed to make an impact: there were some installations that use that language adeptly and with erudition. However, there was also a sense of overly exposed, overly explored themes and strategies.

In different ways, the works of Meade and Mangan are not easy on the eye. Meade’s polyester resin figures (such as Black Duo: Self portrait as Mary Magdalene and nude with pitchfork 2004) are contorted or transformed by the addition of human hair, and appear to have been left—deliberately—formally unresolved. Combining the strategies of Surrealism—Hans Bellmer is an obvious point of reference—with mass production techniques and dissonant colour, the works jar our sensibilities. They cannot be easily reconciled: not quite fetish object nor pop culture tribute, they are a clash of abstraction and figuration.

Mangan’s obsessive carvings of ‘exotic’ woods such as teak (including The Colony 2005) also sit uneasily in the pristine gallery space. And they too use a self-consciously unresolved visual language, bringing together archetypal ‘natural’ forms, such as thorns and tree trunks, with iconography as evocative of tourist kitsch as much as grand historical and religious themes. As in Meade’s work, the intuitive psychic excavations of Surrealism appear to be an inspiration; indeed Mangan’s sculptures at times recall a Max Ernst frottage come to life. And again, the awkward combination of figuration and abstraction, realised through intense handcrafting in Mangan’s work, cuts through the uniformity of minimalist elegance.

There are generations of artists who have engaged with the sublime landscapes of German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich—and even some, such as United Kingdom based Mariele Neudecker, who have recreated Friedrich’s paintings as sculptures. Yet, Damiano Bertoli’s Continuous moment 2003-05, has an affecting physical presence that adds to, rather than replays, this strand of work. Unlike Meade and Mangan, Bertoli resolves the tension between abstraction and figuration. We can read his sculptural re-creation of The Sea of Ice 1822-24 as the sublime made concrete—ironically not from natural materials, but from the redundant packaging of a throw-away society. The crafting of the work, together with its installation in a well-dimensioned and dimly lit space, enhances our phenomenological awareness as viewers: we are actively called upon to consider our conceptual relations to sculpture, painting and landscape in terms of our embodied vision.

Hany Armanious’s Untitled work (1996 to the present) was comprised of adhesive vinyl tracing huge swirling arcs on the gallery walls. Installed together with composite objects that made explicit reference to revolving actions, this work also heightened the viewer’s phenomenological awareness, the vinyl arcs recalling tracks of burnt rubber, iterating and reiterating continuous revolution.

Sean Cordeiro and Claire Healy’s installation also reiterates, but perhaps in a less generative way than Armanious’s work. The pair’s practice entails the compact packaging and re-presentation of objects and materials found in particular sites, including houses and artists’ studios that have been abandoned. In Self Storage 2006, the artists recreated the shed that held the belongings left behind when they embarked on an extended international trip. The shed’s contents evoke a vision of the artist as a down-at-heel hoarder who brings the ultimate democratic value to the task of aesthetic judgement: keep everything. Arguably, however, the work replays rather than elaborates on minimalist strategies, as does Jonathan Jones wall-piece featuring fluorescent light tubes configured in the patterns of Aboriginal shield motifs.

Nike Savvas’s Atomic: full of love, full of wonder 2005, recalls the op art of the 1960s (some of which was recently on show in Sydney at the outing of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s permanent collection). As a trigger to the perceptual play and amusing optic effects of op art, the work is accomplished. However, the title makes overblown claims to the works’ conceptual and aesthetic power. In part, the work’s formal resolution keeps it from immersing the viewer more fully: its aesthetics are of control and stricture rather than free-flowing engagement as was apparently intended.

‘Adventures with form in space’ in some respects was genuinely adventurous, an invitation to consider approaches to sculpture that depart from contemporary orthodoxy. However, the exhibition also included certain works that merely reiterate rather than develop ways of making and thinking about sculpture.