Johl Dwyer: I’ll be your mirror
by Talia Smith
“… we do not live in a kind of void, inside of which we could place individuals and things. We do not live inside a void that could be coloured with diverse shades of light…”
– Michel Foucault (Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias)
Notions around what is considered to be “painting” are in a constant state of flux. They are evolving with the political and social climate of their context while, at the same time, the physical medium itself is changing. The surface of a painting – raw canvas coated with gesso and primer and then with layers of oil, acrylic or ink – is now harder to define in terms of certain sets of standards. The painting’s surface has become an object in itself, subject to both visual and conceptual manipulation by the artist and even, sometimes, totally disregarded.
By drawing the viewer’s attention to the physicality of a painting the artist can start to break down the barriers that exist in the space between artwork and viewer. French philosopher Michel Foucault described this process in his writing: ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias’. Defining Heterotopia as being a space of otherness and, using the mirror as an example, he drew the conclusion that the mirror was a ‘placeless place’. When viewing one’s reflection, he suggested, you were seeing a space below the surface that did not actually exist – and yet, somehow, there you were. You were both here and not here. In this instance the mirror was acting as the physical embodiment of the separation, or distance, between the real and the virtual.
The exploration of physical and virtual space, or otherness, is a feature of Johl Dwyer’s most recent body of work: Mirror. Dwyer’s artworks usually encompass a sculptural element. Through the layering of plaster and paint his ‘canvases’ are exposed for what they are – an object, a frame, an edge, a piece of the process. His works become planes of colour that float not only within the frame but also above it, pushing the boundaries of the surface of the painting and the depth to which it can be viewed. In some instances the joins of the frame are revealed through the sanding process. As a result we see the marks of the maker in an ‘I was here’ moment.
The American painter and sculptor Donald Judd worked within the ideals of Post Minimalism. He rejected traditional notions of painting and sculpture and strived for a neutral quality in his art by focusing on material and process, and by extracting emotion. Although his work makes reference to Judd, Dwyer chooses to occupy a space between the traditions of painting and the conceptual thought of Post Minimalism.
Rather than being devoid of emotion, Dwyer’s works allow for thought and contemplation. Hazy shadows reminiscent of foggy mornings appear in his paintings’ gentle layers of colour. Glossy enamelled sculptures made from ash and redwood are a solid counterpoint to his paintings’ softness. Both types of work elicit feelings of tactility; the viewer is tempted to run his or her hands over the glistening enamel finishes and feel the warmth of smooth wood under their fingers. The surface literally reflects the viewer; it narrows the divide between reality and the imaginary void and asks us to consider the present moment, to look at our surroundings, to be aware of what is in front of us, of what we are holding, of when we are breathing in and of when we are breathing out. Each part of the object reminds us that we are most definitely here.
Without being heavy-handed Dwyer treats us to colour, form, and material while simultaneously offering a challenge to the mediums of painting and sculpture. There is an honest joy in his material and process. He refers to artistic movements that have gone before but does not get caught up in their semantics. Rather, he takes them in another direction by encouraging his materials to speak for themselves and allowing thoughts and emotion to occur after, rather than during, the process of making.
Insofar as an object can capture the present moment Dwyer’s sculptures attempt to bring the viewer out of the coma of the virtual world and into the real one. Conceptual artist Joachim Koester said:
“The landscape functions as a mirror and a lens: in it we see the space we occupy and ourselves as we occupy it.”
In Dwyer’s case the materiality of the medium is the mirror. He gives the viewer a glimpse into both the process and the material through marks left behind from sanding and the exposed edges and joins of his ‘canvases’. The barrier between what is real and what is imagined begins to be deconstructed. The ‘mirror’ becomes less of a glimpse into a virtual void and more of a glimpse into the artist’s mind. As we view Johl Dwyer’s artworks our shallow breathing become deeper and slower … and there is a realisation that we are, actually, here.
Photography: Kallan MacLeod