Curated by Chantelle Mitchell
In Radical Immanence, curator Chantelle Mitchell aims to present artists sincerely engaged with their material. And it is around the idea of the sincere that the exhibition as a whole both coalesces and dissolves. On the one hand, the idea of sincerity asks us to consider the artist as a figure deeply engaged in their material, absorbed in it. Yet on the other hand, once sincerity is on display, it recedes and becomes complex, becomes a performance. The opposition between theatre and absorption, famously described in the 1960s by critic Michael Fried, transfers over to the figure of the artist who is presented as deeply, honestly and directly engaged with their material practice
Fried evaluated absorption as ‘good’ and theatre as ‘bad but necessary’. His idea was that the theatrical needed to be overcome in order for art to appear. Yet perhaps we can dispense with the idea of overcoming to still find these terms useful. Sincerity, as a unifying theme of this exhibition, operates within a dialectic very similar to Fried’s: engagement, deep concentration, contemplation, absorption, all operate at a level suitable to high art. Meanwhile, the value of display, performance, self-consciousness and theatre is lowered. We could quite easily add sincerity and insincerity to these oppositions. But do we really need this moral hierarchy? Perhaps these are best understood as two sides of the same coin.
Radical Immanence features the work of twelve artists working with paint and pigment in diverse ways. There are works that appear abstract, such as Renee Cosgrave’s loose colour-chart striped paintings, as well as Max Lawrence White’s hard-edged compositions. There is loose representational work from Paul Williams, Teelah George, Isabelle de Kleine, and Ben Jones. There are works in the expanded field of painting such as Melanie Irwin’s geometric sculptural forms, a meditation on the flat-pack by Franky Howell, and some ceramic reliefs by Tai Snaith. Nanou Dupuis presents gestural abstraction on clear acrylic, Antonia Sellbach’s paintings suggest alpha-numeric text and geometry while Tim Bučković shows work that shifts between abstraction and recognition. Presented across two levels, the exhibition contains a diverse range of approaches that suggest a deep and engaged focus on painting.
The show raises the question of this sincerity as a potentially radical act, offering itself up as a kind of testing ground. Sincerity as a form of attentive focus on the material of paint is indeed a focus on its immanence. However, as soon as a radicality is claimed for that immanence, it is undone, and a narrative intervenes. If you spend enough time engaging closely with a material, you start to find stories and open up narratives within it. Absorption becomes narrative, drawing attention to what Jacques Derrida calls the “becoming-literary of the literal,” the complex relation between literal immanence and literary narrative. Of course, this shifting and becoming is not a bad thing: it is the slippages and dynamics—the flipping of the coin—between different positions that give life to a work of art.
A Radical Immanence encloses a strange paradox, much like the ‘paradox of radical conservatism’ (the latter fast becoming both paradox and reality). And indeed it would be wrong to discuss this focus on painting, material, and sincerity without considering the possibility that it is conservative in some way.
The works, and their curatorial framing, do seem to encourage a critique of the transgressive. Paul Williams' small paintings on aluminium suggest fragments of painterly landscapes, drawn from nature or memory, while Teelah George’s texturally layered interiors, such as Rear Vision with Drapery (2017) convey a sense of realism amongst an almost claustrophobic pictorial space, both features perhaps attributable to the artist’s background in textiles. Isabelle de Kleine’s gouache Finding Solace (2016–17) narrates relations between figure and ground in shallow pictorial space, reinforced by its companion moving image piece. These works operate gracefully within a long tradition, rather than enact minor defiance against it.
Likewise, the works dealing with abstraction activate ornament and decoration, system and code in a way that both flatters my historical points of reference and binds me to them. My prejudices emerge when thinking of Franky Howell’s Flatpack part a and Funpack part a ( both 2017) as a playful inversion of painting and sculpture (although they could be critical of creative practice under the Swedish god of Ikea). Renee Cosgrave’s paintings shift from the decorative to the representational, especially apparent in Lines, (Transparent Colours) – Colour Chart (2016), showing the edge of the painterly weaving within its frame. Antonia Sellbach—daughter of German emigré artist Udo Sellbach—is as much concerned with colour as codified open form, Unstable Object #18 (2017) appearing part alphabetical, part formal system (like Sol Le Witt). Tim Bučković’s paintings challenge the drive toward recognition, hinting at figure and ground. The helpfully titled Untitled (2017) seems to appear as underpainting and background, then abruptly shifts back to abstract gestures.
While all the artworks do convey a sincerity toward their medium, those that form and present a narrative between the tradition and the material are the most engaging. This narrative can be found in elements of the picture-making tradition: in the tensions between the decorative and the abstract, the navigation of spatial depth, the underpainting emerging as a ground for material figuration, and in the complex paradoxes of display and expression.
It is not a problem that these practices are as diverse as they are. Rather, their diversity requires that each work be taken on its own. Overall, this attentiveness suggests a slowing down of critique, an appreciation of traditional concerns and an aversion toward the spectacular and monumental. While it is easy to critique a monument or a manifesto, the evaluation of twelve quite distinct voices is not so simple. The works in this show are objects of a sustained reflection on the artists’ part, and you can see yourself looking through to this investment. Whether or not you see this as sincere is an open question, yet it is one worth asking. With some of these works, you can imagine spending a long time with them around your living spaces, and this is where they seem to belong. Perhaps the best way to approach them is as a kind of artistic version of the “slow food” movement, that emphasis on the local and humble over the glamorous and international. While there have been efforts recently to spectacularise painting again, Radical Immanence suggests that a different experiential economy is needed in order to appreciate what painting can sometimes be, and perhaps more often than not what it cannot be.
David Wlazlo is a PhD Candidate in Art History and Theory at Monash University.
Title image: Teelah George, Pine, 2017, oil and enamel on linen, 92 x 76 cm)