Dale Hickey

‘Life in a Box’
The Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne
13 February - 27 April 2008

Dale Hickey is represented in almost every Australian collection worth being in, and has featured in dozens of group shows over almost fifty years, including ‘The Field’ (1968), ‘A Melbourne Mood’ (1983) and ‘Fieldwork’ (2002). What is annoying, however, is that this is the first solo survey of his work in a public gallery in twenty years. These are pictures that are all the better for being seen together, and the organisers should be congratulated for the undertaking. This small survey exhibition confirms Hickey as an artist of the highest calibre, who surely stands among Australia’s greatest painters.

It is easy to admire the smooth graphic quality of Hickey’s works in reproduction, but in the flesh they remain a revelation. Like the experience of first seeing a real Mondrian, they are revealed with all sorts of complexities. Overpainting never quite hides altered colours, the variations between oil and enamel give Hickey’s seemingly bland surfaces a pulsating tension and his bold flat blocks of colour are revealed, up close, to be more contingent, less certain. In short, they invite close and patient viewing. Looking at these pictures is like playing chess with the artist. Perspective flip flops, objects threaten to topple and roll off raking surfaces that should be flat, windows become crucifix paintings and vice versa, colours ‘push and pull’ until they hurt. It’s like Broadway Boogie Woogie powered by a V8.

The shifts between depth and flatness are especially well controlled in Untitled (1986) (catalogue 21). Two grey easels with white stretched canvases present variously—one faces the viewer as a white square, the other is only visible as a slim diagonal white zip, its schematic staples describing its side profile. The two easels become one strip of grey along the bottom of the picture. The lower left of this picture pretends to be unfinished, a Motherwell-like block complete with an ostensibly accidental black dribble. But elsewhere in the painting its accidental appearance is denied: drips on the easel cease to be paint, but highly realistic representations of the paint drips, while drip-like lines appear to hold the white canvas on to the easel, like small vertical supports.

In more recent works, conventions of perspective are especially controlled. Hickey’s objects usually appear in an elevation precisely parallel to one of their (usually flat) surfaces, without the variation one would anticipate resulting from their location on his giant canvases. There is something of the architectural draughtsman in Hickey: forms are defined by their outlines, represented in plan or elevation, but never anything in between. Like Matisse’s The Red Studio, the inconsistent perspective and all consuming background turns trompe-l’oeil into an intellectual illusion that defies your eye to occupy its space. Table surfaces become symmetrically receding trapezoids, such as in the dazzling Untitled (2004) (catalogue 33) where one’s eyes dart back and forth, trying to make sense of the optical arrangement (how can those stools both be in the middle?), all the while getting distracted by the endlessly fascinating workshop debris.

Hickey uses gradients to further stretch the tension between abstraction and illusion. In Untitled (2007) (catalogue 35), a can of spray paint and a fifties fly spray pump are rendered in Léger-style tubes. The inclusion of early still lifes in the exhibition reveals the lineage of the tableau in Hickey’s work. Morandi was apparently a pre-occupation of the artist in the early seventies. But Hickey does not just paint the still life as a convenient subject for formal experiment: his cool and creamy Cup Painting (1973) (catalogue 4) is as much a celebration of canteen crockery as it is a symphony in white.

The neo-expressionist My Lingo (1988) (catalogue 23) could almost be read as an encyclopaedia of Hickey’s language as a painter. The piggy tail curlicue inexplicably reappears as though caught underneath the canvas in …wyth orto trey (1988) (catalogue 24) (a fascinatingly uncharacteristic title that blends Strine with the ludicrous portent of the most overblown ‘ab ex’ titles), as does the crank and castors of his studio easel. His ruler reappears all over the exhibition. Elsewhere, silhouetted thimbles, tea cups, funnels, rolls of tape and stripe-labelled tubes of paint (either full or neatly curled through use) are scaled so as to easily reveal their function. Their featureless, conventional shapes are more symbols than icons, as though Hickey has selected only items that could stand in for whole categories of functional objects—the most cup-like of cups, and chair-like of chairs.

The look of industriousness provided by Hickey’s workshop rubble well balances any sense that the endeavour of abstract painting (for either Hickey himself or whoever is responsible for those severe monochromes and crosses that appear in this studio) is something mystical and otherworldly. The excellent essays in the catalogue leave the impression of an artist whose love of painting always paired with a healthy cynicism of art’s more pompous posture. His pictures might suggest abstraction but they are never, to pinch a Greenberg phrase, concerned merely with the effects exclusive to the picture itself. As Chris McAuliffe nicely puts it in his essay, the ‘effrontery of Hickey’s paintings lay in their inglorious presentation of the “modernist project”’.

Which points to the quality I most enjoy in Hickey’s paintings: the ability to let us see mundane items as phenomena worthy of high abstraction. (I’m not sure that I’m supposed to admit it, nor do I think others will appreciate the comparison, but it’s exactly why I also like Jeffrey Smart so much.) In Untitled (2004) (catalogue 33), for instance, a sinuous line that cuts through the geometrical arrangement of the painting is revealed to be a builders-strength yellow power cord only when it ends matter-of-factly in a power point. Moon-like light bulbs hang at the centre top of works such as Untitled (1986) (catalogue 19) and Untitled (1986) (catalogue 20). In Blue Studio (1982-1983) (catalogue 14) any sense of joyous pleasure in the den of creation is brought back to earth with a fluoro light and dangly cord.

Hickey’s famous paintings and installations of suburban fence palings tread the same tightrope between the realm of art and everyday life, their paddle pop stick forms practically poking their tongue out at the claims made for minimalist repetition. Along with Hickey, cheekily ironic takes on hard-edge abstraction by the likes of Robert Rooney, Robert MacPherson, Howard Arkley, Constance Zikos, Elizabeth Gower and others mark the blending of modernism and the mundane as a major strategy for Australian abstract art.

Hickey’s large paintings of leaning monochrome canvases are among the most reflexive works in the show—but in these the mood seems stoic and contemplative rather than ironically cool. My favourite is Night table (1990) (catalogue 26), where a not-quite rectangular field of dazzling blue first appears as a canvas resting on a blue easel, but almost immediately renders itself as the night sky through a window, a small white crescent, like a light bulb of the natural world. This might be a reflexive painting of a painting, but it still manages to provoke no less colour-induced awe than the most straight-laced monochrome paintings. And like the rest of the exhibition, it lets us have it both ways. Hickey satisfies our need for wink-and-a-nod conceptual cunning at the same time as fulfilling our desire to revel in the controlled visual effects of a masterful abstract painter.