Perceptual Abstraction

1 Jun — 1 Jul 2017

Christopher Day Elizabeth Newman John Nixon Nick Ryrie Antonia Sellbach Esther Stewart Fairy Turner Lydia Wegner


Photo credit: André Piguet


Opening Thursday 1 June, 6-8pm
Exhibition Friday 2 June – Saturday 1 July 2017

“I have always believed that perception is the medium through which other states of being are directly experienced.” (1)

“To this day abstraction is characterized by the co-existence of ideal and matter, transcendentalism and structuralism – an ambiguity not to be shied away from but instead acknowledged and explored.” (2)

The term perceptual abstraction embraces art that was traditionally devoid of narrative. Instead this type of art places an emphasis on the clarity and precision of objective sensory perception. The broad range of approaches to art making within the realm of perceptual abstraction include hard-edge geometry, spatial illusion and perceptual ambiguity. These approaches impart value to the psychological and physiological responses of the art viewer.

This exhibition includes a selection of contemporary Australian artists from different generations that experiment with the abstracted form in a variety of ways. The works nod to the lineages of a broad range of movements associated with 1950 and 60s perceptual abstraction, including Hard-Edge Painting, Minimalism and Op Art. This exhibition aims to illustrate how the selected artists expand upon these aforementioned movements by harnessing new forms and approaches to abstraction today.

Christopher Day creates photographic work that he distorts into compositions through post-production methods. Day selects photographs from various contexts within his archive to create something altogether new in each composition. untitled is made from his archived photographs that he has selected, layered, bent, softened, stretched and placed in a process akin to collage, although created with technological rather than craft processes. Photography as a medium offers clarity to visual representations of our world that another medium cannot, yet this clarity is precisely what Day’s work seeks to elude. Day distorts the original appearance of his photographs to find something else that doesn’t look the same as before, in an effort to evade the narrative structure inherent to photography. Kyla McFarlane echoes this sentiment: “What if the logic of such narrative was undone, and the logic of the incidental, the collage and the opaque took its place?” (3). Reverting to a collage-like system to disrupt what he has originally captured, Day dislodges the representative potential of his photographs. Unlike geometric abstraction that exists through contrast of colour and form, Day’s abstractions sit on the fence – shimmering comfortably in the softer realm of the grey area. There are faint hints to objects or figures, where the illusory effect renders the truth of the image ambiguous.

Elizabeth Newman’s Big Yellow consists of a fluid field of mustard coloured fabric that has been cut and stretched over a semi painted canvas. The fabric is stretched over the majority of the canvas and fixed at various points, but there are certain areas where the tension is tighter or looser, which reveals the inherent materiality of the fabric. The format of the work towers over and envelops the viewer in an intensified field of colour. While seemingly Minimalist, Newman’s work might more accurately springboard from the realm of Post-Minimalism, which continued a number of preoccupations that Minimalism began, but engaged different artistic strategies. The formal qualities of the materials used in Post-Minimalist work were notably different. Rather than pre-fabricated industrial materials, Post-Minimalists often presented materials in an unprocessed manner that seemed to allow the inherent character of a material to play out. The work associated with this movement was arguably less fixed, more idiosyncratic but still non-objective. In Lucy Lippard’s 1966 essay Eccentric Abstraction* she articulates that with art of this kind, form that a material takes and the treatment of these forms elicits a sensual response in two ways: appeal and repulsion – appeal being the ability to caress and get caught up in the works feel, and repulsion linking to ones taste, and the “distinctions between beauty and ugliness, right and wrong subject matter.” (4) Lippard emphasises that artists examining non-objectivity with Post-Minimal strategies opened up new areas of “material, shape, colour and sensual experience” to expand upon traditional forms of painting and sculpture. (5) These notions can assist to frame a reading of Newman’s work, though Big Yellow does not sit firmly here. As much as the materiality of her work is important, the act of cutting and construction that is embedded within her work is equally telling. Newman thinks of the ‘act’ of cutting as drawing or writing. The construction of form from cutting the fabric is only articulated once she has completed it. (6) Therefore the act and the material are equally engaged. The structure of the canvas assists the reading of the work as painting, however Newman uses different strategies to reach an emptying out effect, to create a space that is altogether free from constraints, to achieve a unique wholeness. Newman has said that “a painting is always mute and enigmatic” (7) both of which are achieved in Big Yellow.

John Nixon’s abstract work is founded in propositions from modernist art-historical movements such as Constructivism, Minimalism and the Monochrome. (8) He draws from the non-objective and non-narrative positions that these movements harnessed to expand upon and experiment with the possibilities of painting. This exhibition includes a range of Nixon’s work: two monochrome paintings from his ongoing Experimental Painting Workshop series, a Rotational Painting and four collages. His Rotational Painting from 2009 orders the colour spectrum from yellow to purple, including black and silver, presenting a logic proposition of colour and form. His monochromes are part of his Experimental Painting Workshop, an ongoing “cumulative and generative” (9) investigation into painting that began in London during the 1970s. This investigation is guided by faktura, a concept associated with Russian avant-garde artistic theory and practice, where in visual arts “the material constituents of a work of art be elevated in status as a challenge to the culture’s traditionally accepted definition of painting.”(10) The aim was to diminish hierarchy, which aligned with social views of the time. It sought the essential in art; its basic material and formal construct. Nixon puts forth his own experimental and logical propositions of colour, form and structure, and in the process has enabled the vocabulary of painting in Australia to expand.  His collages offer an interesting counterpoint to his painting practice. Nixon has said that his collages “present an even more open and experimental vocabulary than the paintings.” (11) The collages are much smaller in scale and employ craft processes often with found materials in contrast to his painting practice.

Perspective plays a large role in Nick Ryrie’s practice. Ryrie explores the possibilities of painting and often incorporates three-dimensional spatial elements that become extensions of his two-dimensional painting surface. In this exhibition, Appetite is not firmly within the category of painting or sculpture, but rather melds the two in one object. Appetite is activated by the viewer’s position in the gallery space; it changes depending upon each viewer’s perspective and the angle of light at a specific time of day. This provides a unique perspective for each viewer. Ryrie’s work often employs geometric form and colour using aggregation methodologies – compositions that use repetition of form and colour built up over time. His work has the effect of toying with viewer’s perception, sometimes so much that one may perceive a three-dimensional form pulsating out of a two-dimensional surface. Through these methods Ryrie creates visual illusions in his work, the effect of which makes a viewer slow down to become more aware of their own position within time and space. In this way, Ryrie’s work offers a stasis or pause to contemporary life that is increasingly defined as fast paced.

Antonia Sellbach’s research and art practice investigates limitation as a methodology. She constructs her compositions over time through adding and subtracting each coloured line, building up and painting over, layers at a time. The width of her line remains consistent throughout all of her work. Repeating this serial form creates a visual grounding, enabling Sellbach to build her own language within each painting where she can notice moves within her composition that might otherwise go unnoticed. Although her lines are guided as straight, her painterly technique subtly diverges from the rigidity of Hard-Edge Painting and mechanical like processes associated with traditional geometric abstraction. She applies paint to surface in a range of weights, from opaque to semi-translucent. Some decisions appear dragged, others bleed out from the edges and some feel more textured and labored over. The white layers don’t quite cover the traces underneath, evidence of her past moves. This presence of the artist’s hand creates softness to a traditionally rigid approach. Antonia’s paintings map her binary decision-making process where faint traces to past decisions are held within her layers.

Esther Stewart has established a unique language within the realm of geometric abstraction. Stewart applies large fields of flat colour, lines and patterns in a systematic layering process resulting in complex compositions that are fixed and certain. Stewart expands on the lineages of Hard-Edge Painting by taking stimulus from the visual language of architecture, interior design, maps and flags. These exterior sources motivate her work, however Stewart constructs her compositions using her own knowledge of colour and form  through contrast and repetition, which renders these exterior influences visually flat. Stewart draws out from these exterior sources only what is ‘essential’ to her work or composition. This notion of the ‘essential’ was a leading preoccupation of the De Stijhl movement, whereby representations of things from our real world were reduced to shape, colour and form, resulting in an abstract compositions. (12) However, Stewart does not simply reduce the exterior sources into pure abstract forms, rather she sees in their visual vocabularies potential ways to construct her compositions. Therefore, it can be said that the influence of exterior sources to Stewart’s practice is both direct and indirect. The meticulous formulaic process of constructing her compositions involves not just exterior sources but also her own acute awareness of contrast, form and structure.

Fairy Turner’s work stems from an investigation into the conventions of painting, but experiments with ways to expand beyond its traditional form. Rather than painting pigment onto a flat surface, she approaches painting with a constructivist sensibility. Her compositions, or ‘picture-objects’, are created from found and handmade materials assembled into spatial collages. She employs papier-mâché – a composite non-durable material constructed from craft processes – with found materials and offcuts from domestic furniture. Various objects index the picture, or the lack there of, by mimicking the rectangular format of a picture frame. She examines notions of instability, failure and resilience from a conceptual perspective and these notions underpin her work from a material perspective. The resulting forms soften, unsettle or break away from formal traditions of painting, however she doesn’t negate the painting frame altogether. This decision keeps Turner’s work within the realm of painting, while simultaneously offering a tool to expand beyond its conventions. Her abstract compositions physically expand out of a fixed frame, creating various voids that are suspended in states of limbo.

Lydia Wegner’s two-dimensional photographic works are the resolve of innumerable decisions and experiments with form, colour and light. Though their surfaces appear somewhat flat, their shadows allude to the three-dimensional structures that were photographed. There is a set-like theatricality to her work, where these materials become props in her final compositions but are rendered somewhat anonymous. Wegner carefully constructs her compositions from various types of coloured papers, lights and reflective surfaces. A viewer does not see the material for what it is, rather we are only given a certain amount of information in the final image from which we can decipher what it is we are looking at. The materials are very present, but the resulting photographic works are also representations of what was there that no longer exists after the image is taken. The material’s use therefore becomes somewhat obsolete after the image is taken. Pippa Milne suggests that Wegner’s work exists in the genre of photo-materialist. She asserts that Wegner’s process of making images involves “… mechanical acts of experimentation in front of the camera.” (13) Yet this process of construction is not clearly perceivable in the clean and resolved final image. The reflective aluminium frames in Orange Double Block and Green Shadow mimic the production processes undertaken to reach the final composition, although occur outside rather than within the frame. The reflective quality of the frame activates the work in the gallery space and alludes to the theatricality within their construction.

Charlotte Cornish


* Eccentric Abstraction was the title of an exhibition that Lucy Lippard curated in 1966. The essay cited was created for her exhibition, so it has the same name. Critic and art historian Robert Pincus-Witten, who coined the term ‘Post-Minimalism,’ observed that what Lucy Lippard referred to as Eccentric Abstraction was actually part of emerging reactions against Minimalism.

1) Bridget Riley, Perception is the medium, 1965, in “Abstraction,” edited by Maria Lind, MIT Press, Cambridge, and Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2013. 2) Maria Lind, Introduction, in “Abstraction,” edited by Maria Lind, MIT Press, Cambridge, and Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2013. 3) Kayla Macfarlane, Eleven Passages of Ambiguous Associations, in “New Reading Order,” Negative Press, Melbourne, 2016. 4) Lucy Lippard, Eccentric Abstraction, 1966, in “Abstraction,” edited by Maria Lind, MIT Press, Cambridge, and Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2013. 5) Ibid. 6) Elizabeth Newman, Introduction, in “More than what there is,” 3-ply, Melbourne, 2013.7) Romy Ash, Artist Elizabeth Newman, The Saturday Paper Issue #115, 2-8 July, 2016. 8. Emma Busowsky Cox, John Nixon: Painting Itself, written for the John Nixon: EPW publication, Castlemaine Art Museum, Castlemaine, 2016, 93. 9) Ibid. 94. 10) Ibid. 93. 11) Emil McAvoy, Modernism in the Medicine Cabinet, written on the occasion of John Nixon Collages: selected works at Two Rooms, Auckland, April 2017. 12) Robert Zimmer, Abstraction in Art with Implications for Perception, in “Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, Vol. 358, No. 1435, The Abstraction Paths: From Experience to Concept,” 2003, pp. 1285-1291. 13) Pippa Milne, Lydia Wegner Silver Shadow, written on the occasion of Lydia Wegner Silver Shadow Bus Projects, 1-27 August 2016.