THE MEMORY OF BECOMING
“It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so make a few objects beautiful, but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look….to affect the quality of the day…”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854) p.134
Snowflakes collide with a branch, settle, start to melt until a sudden temperature change solidifies the falling water into icicles, objects glistening in bright daylight until another temperature change restores them to liquid, which drops to the ground, pools, evaporates, to later condense as rain.
Johl Dwyer’s plaster Icicles set into forms recognizable as paintings, a making process through which the artist assays pictorial space and the grammar of painting. Creating a tension between surface plane and physical depth, between image and materiality, and between practice and artwork, he addresses ‘frame’ not as method for composing an image but as the edge of an object. At the same time he replaces the thin layer of canvas with dense, active substrate and integrates colour into the structure of the work rather than simply applying it; each is a formal gesture in exploring the definition of his chosen medium.
Icicles recrystallize some of the strategies of Minimalism in new configurations. When John Cage proposed that there could be no void in hearing or seeing, Robert Rauschenberg responded by creating a series of White Paintings (1951). Each was a number of modular panels – variants exist in one-, two-, three-, four- and seven-panel formats – painted uniformly, pristinely white. Rather than being sensory voids, these works were referred to as ‘clocks’, registering changes of light and weather.
Most of the works in Icicles register these changes internally, deep within their materiality, but some emphasize the sensitivity of surface with a glossy, reflective finish. Then clocks become mirrors and the depth within the gallery space itself is interrupted, distorted, expanded. The object on the wall becomes a reminder that the gallery is also an object; a box set up to generate certain strategies of looking and interpreting.
Rauschenberg’s radical reduction of content redefined the role of meaning in art and required the viewer to actively participate in its construction – in the words of Frank Stella,“what you see is what you see” (1964). By creating a conversation with Minimalism, Dwyer invites this participation to be both experiential and intellectual.
Yves Klein also worked in monochrome, preferring vivid colours such as orange and blue to white because he believed that each colour has a unique essence, a ‘presence’. Dwyer referenced this notion of presence with Entombed (2012), a small work of intense Klein Blue within an irregular 24K gold frame. The work’s title expands the colour’s immediate physical presence by alluding to the use of lapis lazuli and gold in making hallowed works throughout history, from Egyptian artifacts to Renaissance altarpieces, and Klein’s own anthropométries suaires (shrouds), (1960-61); Dwyer suggests clocks can be time machines in another sense too, and that art contains/entombs the presence of its inspiration.
The artist is locating himself in relation to his art form and his predecessors, establishing a working continuity which contains the compulsion to maintain past standards of exploration – standards of intellectual rigor, as well as standards of material innovation and originality – which Clement Greenberg described as having “scientific consistency” (1965).
Underpinning this exploration is the defining and refining of the distinction between painting and sculpture. While Dwyer’s works make clear the nature of the painting as object, they withstand being merged into the sculptural. In Icicles he brings more tension to this boundary with the works System (2014) and Guide (2014), which invoke images of sculptural corners by Sol LeWitt and Robert Morris. As quiet and refined and elegant as these works are, they also hum with audacity – they are invigorating, in the true spirit of Minimalism.
Part of this vitality is the way the works delight us with their captivation of colour. If Klein Blue is one kind of readymade, the chromas which develop and bloom inside these works are another. From soft chalky whites to glowing jewel tones, they emerge and mutate throughout the making process, recording the passage of time and the elemental transformation from liquid to solid. They undermine both the notion of surface as a kind of virtual flatness, and that of the blank canvas awaiting the hand of the artist; these colours have developed a life of their own.
By relinquishing control and by introducing chance into a process of scientific consistency the artist addresses both the limits and potential of Minimalism, uncovering a potential for lyricism within the presence of austerity.
This is how Dwyer affects the quality of the day.
DR. ANN POULSEN
Photography: Kallan MacLeod