PAINTING, ILLUSION AND THE REAL
Julian McKinnon, May 2015
In a 2011 lecture titled “Making it Visible” , curator and critic Robert Storr compared the respective artistic concerns of Gerhard Richter and Robert Ryman. “To Richter, all paintings are pictures,” he said, describing the German artist’s approach to abstract painting. Richter, whose initial acclaim stemmed from his extraordinary abilities as a photo-realistic painter, describes his non-figurative works as “Abstract Pictures”. This is a contradiction in terms for those who subscribe to the notion of abstraction as the antithesis of the illusionistic or pictorial. Richter’s abstracts, then, sit within the tradition of painting as image – in which the support, be it canvas or otherwise, serves only as a vehicle for a two dimensional picture plane, while paint serves as a vehicle for image making. The painted contents or subject matter are fundamentally illusory. Conversely, Ryman pursued the development of “Pictures that are not pictures,” artworks that are “built of contingencies”, artworks that have no external subject matter, paintings which address their own contents and material nature as primary. In his line of enquiry, a canvas becomes a “complete gestalt”, an art-object. The support, the fastenings that hold it to the wall, the exhibition environment itself are all integral to it. There is no aspect that is not considered to be a part of the artwork. “Both of these artists are concerned with what painting makes visible, and view making things visible as a primary function of art,” said Storr, drawing the relationship between these disparate practices.
What Johl Dwyer’s most recent artworks make visible is a space between material and art-object, and simultaneously between object and painting. They elude categorisation. They are a type of assemblage, yet they reference the language of formal abstract painting to such an extent that they’re undeniably part of that lineage. Painterly brush strokes, carefully abraded surfaces, and ghostly, translucent hues offer the visual experience of painting. Yet these works are constructed in the complete gestalt manner of Ryman. This synthesis of object and painting has a long established tradition, stretching back at least to the art of the Russian Revolution; Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Malevich, and more recently Judd and Stella all feature in their complex ancestry.
Dwyer’s avoidance of a material that wraps or covers – in the way that canvas or linen covers the stretcher that holds it together – is motivated by his desire to create art objects that reveal their own operation, their own means of construction. In the case of the smaller resin work the ethereal hues hovering on the surface give the initial impression of minimalist painting – like an elegant contemporary homage to Rothko. This seems recognisable as painting of the Richter ‘abstract picture’ type. Yet these objects, shaped like conventional canvas painting supports, are not what they first appear; the “image” is not an image. The shadowing at the edges of the picture plane is in fact an indexing of the material created by the translucence of the resin surface – which enables the perception of its underlying wooden structure. These works are of the Ryman art-object type. They present the illusion of being illusory, whilst not attempting to conceal their substance. It is a carefully balanced play between material gestalt and the pictorial.
Dwyer’s work takes another step down the perceptual rabbit hole in the large plaster, cedar, and gesso works. In many ways, these are similar to the resin works, yet they’re opaque. The white plaster surfaces have a shadowy staining which alludes to their underlying cedar structure. In this way, once again, they reveal their own material and fabrication. They have an almost construction-site, found-object aesthetic – like sections of drywall, excavated or salvaged. This resemblance to the readymade, as a matter of deliberate construction, comments intriguingly on “the negation of painting” advanced a century ago by Duchamp. Duchamp clearly established that “the work of art is a fetish that must abolish all pretense to use value.” The art object then – beautifully useless – gains its cultural value from nominal institutional investment – and by this rationale a painting has no more intrinsic value than a factory-made urinal or any other object. What makes Dwyer’s plaster works so interesting is their coupling of a lack of “use value” with an aesthetic born of hardware-store functionality. Furthermore the objects are constructed as paintings, from painting materials – but can be read as paintings that engage in the dialogue of the negation of painting.
Box-like, totemic sculptural forms counterbalance Dwyer’s wall-based works. These objects feature unprimed wood and coloured planes of enamel paint, or, in the case of the two largest works, reflective metal and unprimed timber. They have a restrained aesthetic that reinforces the reference to Donald Judd. Judd’s “real materials in real space” rejection of the illusory was foundational to the type of non-pictorial abstract art making which the painting aspects of Dwyer’s work address. Significantly, though, the associations being drawn by Dwyer are not strictly limited to the rarefied domain of historical art. The blocky graphics of the video game Minecraft, with its virtual renderings of architecture, are also an integral point of reference. These works occupy a hybrid territory between painting and sculpture. The monolithic scale of the larger objects places them on the cusp of “the station where one changes from painting to architecture,” to quote El Lissitzky. The fusion of painting, sculpture, and architecture was a driving motivation for Lissitsky – a figurehead of Suprematism and Constructivism – though what he could never have foreseen is the realm of contemporary digital culture that Dwyer’s field of reference encompasses. As Judd once said: “A simple box is really a complicated thing.”
Dwyer’s works are restrained yet they are not austere. For all the clever engagement with historical narrative and dense conceptual underpinning, these works have vibrancy and lightness. The artist himself states an appreciation for “moments of video games which link to high Modernism, for instance ‘Minecraft’ and Judd, Mondrian and ‘Pac Man’. Dwyer’s enjoyment of the discursive along with the canonical is part of the enquiry that makes his practice so compelling.
Photography: Kallan MacLeod