ACCA - 'Painting. More Painting'

Australian Centre for Contemporary Art 

 30th July - 25th September 2016

As a survey of Australian painting over the last ten years this show simply sprawls into indulgence and incoherence, lacks focus, insight and honesty. Frankly, it’s an embarrassment. From the clumsily punctuated title (would have been better without the texting full stops, wittier for one less word) the sense is already of a troubling indifference, as if merely a rostered chore for an ambitious public gallery. If the title flags a distinct lack of enthusiasm, promotion has hardly been more reassuring. For the prospective visitor looking to the ACCA website for a list of artists, only those for the first part of the show are given, still (as of writing on the 12th September). To add to the confusion, different versions of the list are given on different pages of the site. The show falls into two parts or ‘chapters’ – the work of thirty-six artists comprise the first, running through August, the work of forty the second, running through September. In each part seven artists are given additional space to highlight their importance or influence. The arrangement quickly suggests all fourteen would have been better served given the whole of the space for the two months, since they are the nominated standouts. Instead we have a hedging two-tier scheme. A catalogue might have helped on this point but staff told me this would not be ready until the second instalment. On visiting in September, I was told it would not be ready until near the end of the show, hardly an effective use of the publication. In lieu of any more considered rationale, I’ve drawn on press statements from all three curators, Max Delany (director) Annika Kristensen (curator) and Hannah Mathews (associate curator).

On the one hand, the show is conceived as just a ten year update on the state of Australian painting, on the other, the period is seen as distinctive for the advent of social media and painting’s response, as well as a bit of a lull in art schools for video and installation, ACCA’s customary niche. The first is a dauntingly wide frame of reference, the second derisively narrow. Nor are they strictly compatible, since works devoted to more than the likes of Tumblr and Instagram only diminish the narrow thesis, while impressive adherence diminishes the range of Australian painting. Which is it to be? Kristensen declared “It is not zeitgeisty, there is no ticking of boxes. We are not seeking to be definitive in the way a survey would.” Yet the show sets itself a definite time frame, and if the influence of social media is not a box to be ticked, it is hard to think how else to describe it. Similarly, a selection of paintings illustrating developments in a given time frame is what most people would call a survey. Other gems from Kristensen include “Even as things like Tumblr became popular, which was invented in 2006, painting has withstood these, which were meant to be a challenge to its viability.” This bizarre view of Tumblr’s purpose will come as news to its developer, David Karp who, incidentally, did not launch the site until 2007. How exactly could social media challenge the viability of painting? The remark confirms the curator’s distance from painting as a practice and probably this planet. “We didn’t want to have any more curatorial control than the selection process.” By which she attempts to distance the curators from their decision to hang the paintings alphabetically, by artist’s name (except in the case of the fourteen standouts). None of it makes sense. It is a worry. 

Delany claims the show “represents painting across a great diversity of formal, conceptual and perceptual orientations” and one looks forward to reading more about these eventually, in the meantime it needs to be demonstrated in the selected works by a suitably organised hanging. This is precisely what is denied them by an alphabetical ordering. Instead, viewers are expected to somehow make these connections for themselves, but the connection that most readily springs to mind is with curatorial laziness and arrogance. Zeitgeisty or what? ‘Formal, conceptual and perceptual orientations’ are no more than glib patter when the curator won’t or can’t walk the walk. A more concrete criterion was that works maintain “the classical notion of painting, which is pigment on a support, not at the notion of expanded painting – not the borders or challenges of painting," according to Mathews. But since this is unquestionably part of Australian painting in the period (most prominently in the work of Dale Frank, teased by Sally Smart), the survey looks less diverse or inclusive than claimed. In any case the selection ignores this caveat in the case of Oscar Perry, compounding the problem of a weakly framed criterion with poor compliance. 

The show suffers not just because the curators do not always do what they say or say what they do but because their selection is impossibly attenuated across an age and ability demographic as well as stylistic variation. This renders the sample so diffuse that selections are essentially arbitrary. The show aims for a big picture of the period but achieves only a pointlessly fuzzy one. Thus for example, the selection throws up older artists like Helen Maudsley, Robert Rooney and Ken Whisson but can offer no useful links between them or juniors for the period, no compelling reason why they, rather than others of their age, style or standing merit inclusion. It is not enough simply to have been painting in a period, to have worked in older or traditional styles. These tell us nothing about what makes a period distinctive. Salient traits are discerned in striking departures from preceding styles and themes, in contrasts and affinities with parallel developments overseas. The curator’s job is properly to trace influences and novelty based on a critical engagement with the whole range of exhibition and production opportunities. There is little evidence of this in the show.

Seventeen of the seventy-six artists pursue the tidy variants on abstraction dismissively labelled ‘Zombie Formalism’. They range from the vigorously gestural to smoother geometric pattern. The term was coined by New York critic Walter Robinson in 2014 to flag its essentially complacent, anodyne nature and to remind us of the exhaustion of its critical tenets in the 70s. Practitioners persist as a sort of harmless living dead. The trend arose around 2010 and appears to have peaked in 2015, to judge from auction figures for a number of its key exponents. While undeniably a part of Australian painting for the period, numbers here are excessive. There are worthy inclusions of course, Stieg Persson and Daniel Noonan in particular looked good in this company. Another over-subscribed trend was the modestly scaled and loosely transcribed photograph, after the manner of Luc Tuymans and to a lesser extent Elizabeth Peyton or Karen Kilimnik. The show includes eight artists mining this seam. Distinct from loose transcription are dogged Photo-realist tracings and these are represented by only three artists, Jan Nelson, Louise Hearman and Hamish Farah. The style obviously extends back to the early 70s at least, but developments to the last decade have adopted more elaborate staging and tableaux. More might have been made of this iconographic turn with the likes of Juan Ford, Tony Lloyd, David Waddleton or Kate Bergin. I confine myself to Melbourne artists for convenience.

Other notable omissions include the refinements to the post colonialism of Stephan Bush as he gradually turns to issues of globalisation and ecology with degrees of painterliness. While these might not have quite the cachet as social media and a naive quest for’ materiality’, Bush has an international reputation, rare amongst Australian painters for the period. Also extending post colonial concerns are the flowing exotic and historical whimsies of newcomer Adam Lee while the architectonic fictions of Darren Wardle and David Ralph pursue a theme and treatment that hints at AutoCAD, with precedents and parallels in Europe and the U.S. All deserved inclusion, all underline a grave imbalance to the selection. Beyond these flaws is the issue of assigning influence to fourteen of the artists. Many are patently more influenced than influential, while the aboriginal artists Nyapanyapa Yunapingu and Teresa Baker, working in traditional styles necessarily confine influence to ancient tribal lore. We admire them largely because we cannot emulate them. Ry David Bradley on the other hand only had his first solo show in 2014 and while he has since shown far and wide, what possible measure of influence could there be in that time? And where? Certainly not in London, listed as his current residence. Nor are his soft-focus airbrushed or inkjet-printed graphics and photo sources particularly novel, treading heavily in the wake of Albert Oehlen, Sigmar Polke and others. Needless to say, none of the fourteen reflects the influence of social media.

Like ‘formal, conceptual and perceptual orientations,’ ‘influence’ here is really just waffle concealing the shallow and stunted tastes of the curators. For those suspecting that the hand of Sydney dealer Roslyn Oxley perhaps carries too much weight in these matters, it’s worth pointing out that only four of the selected artists exhibit with her, compared with nine associated with Neon Parc, seven from Sutton, and six from Station and Anna Schwartz. Of the ten galleries with more than one artist included, nine are in Melbourne. Combined, they account for forty-seven of the seventy-six artists, or just over sixty percent. And if the curators remain coy about their allegiances and networks, their cavalier approach to presentation more than compensates. Apart from the alphabetical hanging in the main gallery, an enormous mural by Sam Songailo, from floor to ceiling on all four walls provides a jarring backdrop to the other works. The mural, a bold diagonal pattern of black squares and rectangles on a white ground, sets such an imposing scale that it simply monsters the rest of the room. The line of paintings registers as merely a strip along its lower border. But this coup is no more than a distraction from the matter at hand and only relegates the Songailo to the function of wallpaper by hanging pictures upon it. Delany insists it is to be treated as a work in its own right but since he has deliberately covered parts of it, it is rightly regarded as just grossly inappropriate wallpaper.

Installation view main gallery

This desperate bid for a spectacle of architectural proportions perfectly demonstrates the show’s lack of focus. Basically the curators are more interested in turning the exhibition into an installation and this sanctions treating the integrity of one work with contempt in order to alphabetically distribute others, skipping the nitty gritty of pictorial meaning and settling for the monster coup. It is a designer’s approach to curating and while it may sit well with ACCA’s established practices it is a grave disservice to painting. Either ACCA needs more specialised curators when dealing with painting or they need to stick to video and installation where their shortcomings are less noticeable and expectations lower.

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