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THE VOID. VISIBLE. ABSTRACTION & NON-OBJECTIVE ART Andrew Christofides Stephen McCarthy Wilma Tabacco Stephen Wickham

Deakin University Art Gallery 1 November – 15 December 2017


Introduction

A new area of speciality for the Deakin University Art Collection, the Centre for Abstract and NonObjective Art, is a timely focus on an important field of the visual arts that is currently not well represented in Australian collections. Artists have worked with ideas of abstraction for over a century and as a truly international art movement, local developments are often overlooked yet possess unique regional characteristics and breakthroughs that represent a very significant part of Australian art history. As a visual language and as a form of artmaking, the nature of abstraction and non-objective practice is perhaps best placed to inspire openness and foster new readings and diverse understandings. I would like to thank and acknowledge the artists Andrew Christofides, Stephen McCarthy, Wilma Tabacco and Stephen Wickham who have each generously donated all works in this exhibition to the University Art Collection. Thank you also to Christopher Heathcote for his catalogue essay and to Jasmin Tulk for the catalogue and Centre logo design. Artist and co-curator Stephen Wickham has been instrumental in working with me in the development of this new collection focus and it gives me great pleasure to share some his very particular reflections. Leanne Willis Manager, Art Collection and Galleries Deakin University

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Modernity is equated with the secularization of Western culture, the dominance of the scientific method, and the endings of European empires. The late Professor Bernard Smith argued that Modernism is a “cultural expression of modernity” and suggests Paul Gauguin was the first European artist to take the path “away from Classical Naturalism”1. Smith, the contrarian, presents a complex story of European Arts’ encounters with the ‘primitive’ that informed early Symbolists and later the Cubism of Pablo Picasso. His critique of abstraction weaves a labyrinthine journey that includes every sort of mysticism, myth, arts & crafts, and ideas of a mesmerising array of cultures, continents and eras. A common story of abstraction suggests a paring away of external dross to expose some essential reality. Beginning with the heavy lifting by Cézanne, then major interventions by Picasso and Braque, and later, flourishes from Matisse, followed by the colourful chaos of the universe envisioned by Kandinsky, next was the orderly geometry achieved by Mondrian. In turn it is Malevich, who takes European Art over the brink, and into the black void.

Suprematism, Constructivism, Rayonism, De Stijl and the Bauhaus, Formalism, Minimalism; myriad schools and schisms. The end of the Second World War saw the cultural dominance of America, and Abstract Art was promoted as an emblem of freedom and liberty. Yet it was European emigres and refugees who transformed American Art from parochial to cosmopolitan. Now, Abstract and Non-Objective Art is international and ubiquitous. Contemporary practitioners are engaged in all manner of critiques, innovations, theoretical discourses, scientific innovations and stylistic tremors. It is here to stay. Stephen Wickham 1. Smith, Bernard Modernism: That is to say, Geniusism, Modern Painters, volume 3, no. 2, June 1990.

Abstraction has been presented as a way towards some fundamental mystery that will be revealed by the application of wisdom or subconscious-abandon. Smith views abstraction as a reconciliation and examination of ideas and theories ranging from the fraudulent ideas of Madame Blavatsky, the pseudoscience of the Fourth Dimension, to the appropriation of signs and symbols, forms and structures. In Petrograd 1915, Malevich exhibits his Black Square. This radical work ensured Non-Objective Arts’ standing in history. The foundations of further counterparty abstraction are planted in Cubo-Futurism,

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Geometric Abstraction

Wherever civilisation ventures, it brings a geometric outlook. This insight came strongly to several friends and me some years ago. We were in remote parts travelling over wilderness on a small airplane. From high up you could instantly pick the attempts of outsiders to settle. A geometric configuration would appear in the distance, and as we flew near it would separate into fences, tracks, a cluster of buildings. Decay might have set in, several places being meagre ruins. But there was always an order to how these efforts had been set out, an attempt at rationality and method—at geometry.* Zigzagging between traditional painting and designerly pattern, between planner’s model and constructed relief, this distinctively Australian awareness of how humans shape their world has been insistently at play in our culture’s geometric art. Indeed, we find it strongly conveyed in the paintings and constructions of Andrew Christofides, Stephen McCarthy, Wilma Tabacco and Stephen Wickham, artists for whom geometry emphatically reverberates with cultural meaning. Stephen McCarthy has taken as his long term subject how a modern administrative mind equates geometric structure with coherence. His ascetic compositions mix the format of classic abstract paintings by Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and Mondrian with visual echoes of the production spreadsheet, the industrial plan, and the organisational chart. There is a sobering point to McCarthy’s allusions to the 1920s constructivist movement in design and art. Forward-thinking architects, engineers and artists may have aspired to build a Utopia free of human want, sickness and misery, but their impulses to impose uniformity and order upon everyday life lead to those increasingly controlled, even repressive societies of the 1930s. His Irish social activist forebears would approve of how McCarthy drives this point home with titles (Construction of Peace, for instance, as well as Political Landscape with Barriers) which allude to the

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slippery rhetoric of political leaders: how, even as world peace and communal consensus are being invoked by legislators, nations can be subject to ever tighter regulations and bureaucratic obstructions. Andrew Christofides is not so symbolic in outlook. Having come to painting after an early career as an economist, no forlorn political messages are delivered in his work. Instead, Christofides feels art must be necessarily grounded in visual experience: proportion, measure, balance and repetition should stir the viewer’s eye. This most tells in his calculated use of chequering and pattern which enliven a composition without resorting to empty decoration. Christofides’s geometric works mirror the cosmopolitan values of an Australian of Greek-Cypriot heritage who is equally fascinated in exploring New York’s cultural scene as the architectural relics of Aegean cities. Like McCarthy, his pieces gesture to an enduring constructivist legacy in art and design, although Christofides invariably employs shapes, forms and ratios inherited from Euclid and Pythagoras—those founders of classical geometry. Of course, geometry had a transcendental aspect for the ancient Greeks. It was a means of perceiving the metaphysical framework that underpins our world of surface appearances. This is carried into Yellow Painting No 7 where much about the structure and industrial-like palette suggests bald understatement, a quality that has lead collectors to speak of such pictures’ concentrated ‘inwardness’, as if , through the act of soberly examining the same plain geometric facts over and over, something inexplicably direct about a Doric purity of form and colour comes forth. This is an art which speaks of truths revealed by scientists, mathematicians, physicists. Viewers with an Eastern Orthodox background may also detect allusions to the pictorial grammar of icon painting in these fastidiously calculated canvases like


Village Craft, and relief constructions such as (3, 5, 13) Subtractive X 11. Christofides does sometimes tap aspects of the compositional geometry which has underpinned the religious icon for many hundreds of years, although this legacy is chiefly manifested through his striking patterned sections of interlocking gold, red and black bars: they repeat the abstract designs which customarily appear on the vestments of Saints Basil, Gregory, and John Chrysostom.† In comparison, the paintings of Wilma Tabacco seem starkly architectural and contemporary. Using a former factory as her studio, her abstractions seem to consciously bear the structural language of highly urbanised cities—that pervasive geometric assemblage made of concrete and brick with glass and plastic upon which appear a busy array of electric signs, sharp logos, and sleek advertising hoardings. With an eye attuned as much to commercial design as fine art, Tabacco’s painting is very much anchored in the geometric idiom of our metropolitan environment. The painter ranges over the rich variety of geometric incidents. Where Orihon resorts to monotonous stripes, Tabacco’s sequence of four industrial-like constructions in white, grey and black rehearse games of logic with squares and suggested cruciforms. Then there is the subtle Night Flight which, despite being held in a mathematical formality, has a calming grace and softness. It refreshes and pleases the eye on each viewing. Like the latest European art concrete, a stylistic reference point, there is in Tabacco’s work a constant hint of the styles that envelop us. What a contrast to the intriguing idiom of Stephen Wickham where layered black rectangles sit over bars of jaffa orange, candy pink squares or hot lilac blocks. The artist’s oils appear to alternate between symmetrical designs centred on a minimal shape (usually a square, or a Greek cross), and what critics term “all over” compositions where a dense arrangement of flattened forms are deployed in an

even scatter across the canvas. The outcome is a geometric art that can be asserting, humorous and sensual on the one hand, yet self-aware, intellectual and searching on the other. Beyond an evident and long-standing absorption in Central-European abstraction, as the son of Austro-Hungarian émigrés Wickham’s work throbs with allusions to the cultural melting pot of pre-war Vienna. This accounts for his repertoire of shapes and seemingly eccentric palette, paintings like Diptych Portrait of Malevich after Ivan Kljun 2014 and Red and Black Neo Suprematist triptych 2015 drawing strongly on decorative arts traditions practiced from Czechoslovakia across to Romania (the same source for Paul Klee’s geometric watercolours). Andrew Christofides, Stephen McCarthy, Wilma Tabacco and Stephen Wickham are not to be mistaken as members of a self-proclaimed vanguard group. They may be friends, and respect each other’s work, but they have no collective message to press, no unified claim of revealed geometric truth. Refusing to fall in line with the trend cycle of gallery fashion, these mid-career art professionals paint and construct wholly on their own creative terms, using their own visual means to convey their own insights. Christopher Heathcote

* T his pattern is not restricted to western culture. If there are surface differences in decorative style, from outback Australia to the Persian Gulf, one sees from the air similarities in how peoples establish a presence. There is the same reliance on interconnected lines and rectangles, with occasional arcs. Most striking can be the geometry of suburban developments at city edges, the layout of a sprawling estate I once saw at Abu Dhabi unconsciously rhyming with New Jersey’s Levittown, even Caroline Springs in Melbourne’s west. †For example, see the figures of Basil the Great and John Chrysostom painted on the 16th doors from the Iconostasis of a Russian Orthodox church, presently in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria.

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Andrew Christofides Untitled Construction 1984 acrylic, card and wood on board 107 x 122 x 6 cm Photography by docQment

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Andrew Christofides Grey Construction No.8 1989 acrylic, card and wood on board 60 x 110 x 3 cm Photography Michel Brouet

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Andrew Christofides Yellow Painting No. 7 1990 acrylic on canvas 74 x 74 cm

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Andrew Christofides Village Craft 2006 acrylic on canvas 122 x 122 cm Photography Michel Brouet

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Andrew Christofides, (3,5,13) Subtractive x 11 2011 acrylic, card and plastic on conservation board 13 x 134 x 1 cm Photography Michel Brouet

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Andrew Christofides (3,5,13) Subtractive x 11 Times 2011 working drawing for number 5 above acrylic, pencil and ink on graph paper 19.5 x 153.5 cm (paper size)

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Andrew Christofides (3,5,13) Subtractive x 11 Times 2011 acrylic and ink on paper 13 x 134 cm (image size)


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Stephen McCarthy 3/200 and 1/3 1993 acrylic on linen 138 x 92 cm

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Stephen McCarthy Double Cross 1998 acrylic linen and ply 83 x 83 cm

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Stephen McCarthy My Commune – Five Elements I 2001 acrylic on marine ply 83 x 83 cm

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Stephen McCarthy Emerging Peace Blok 2004 acrylic on marine ply 29 x 20 cm

Stephen McCarthy Construction of Peace 2001 acrylic on marine ply 30 x 20 cm

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Stephen McCarthy Black Blok, Black Square, Black Wedge Anarchist Collective 2009 acrylic on marine ply 40 x 40 cm

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Stephen McCarthy Political Landscape with Barriers – the Weight of the Dispossessed (Apologies to Mondrian) 2004 acrylic on marine ply 58 x 58 cm

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Wilma Tabacco Night Flight 2008-09 oil on linen 152 x 183 cm

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Wilma Tabacco Orihon 2006 oil on linen 152 x 183 cm

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Wilma Tabacco Constructions 1—4 2014 mixed media on wood panels 30 x 30 cm

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Stephen Wickham Diptych Portrait of Malevich after Ivan Kljun 2014 oil on linen 121 x 91 cm

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Stephen Wickham Black cruciform and square with diptych after Ivan Kljun 2016 oil on linen 46 x 86 cm, 121 x 182 cm

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Stephen Wickham Black on black on black 1996 oil on linen 61 x 61 cm

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Stephen Wickham Black Cruciform as Stupa Floor Plan 1996 oil on linen 61 cm x 61 cm


Stephen Wickham Deep Blue Cruciform 1997 oil on linen 73 x 73 cm

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Stephen Wickham Red and Black Neo Suprematist triptych 2015 oil on linen 47 cm x 94 cm, 30 x 30 cm

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Stephen Wickham Homage to Ivan Kljun [Diptych with black square] 2013 31 x 31 cm, 76 x 122 cm

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Stephen Wickham Homage to Ivan Kljun [Diptych with dark violet square] 2016 55 x 94 cm, 26 x 26 cm

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Stephen Wickham Homage to Ivan Kljun [Diptych with red violet square] 2017 oil on linen 54 x 94 cm, 26 x 26 cm

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The Void. Visible. Abstraction & Non-Objective Art Andrew Christofides Stephen McCarthy Wilma Tabacco Stephen Wickham Deakin University Art Gallery 1 November – 15 December 2017

© 2017 the artist, the authors and publisher. Copyright to the works is retained by the artist and his/her descendants. No part of this publication may be copied, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted or reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher and the individual copyright holder(s). The views expressed within are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views held by Deakin University. Unless otherwise indicated all images are reproduced courtesy of the artists. Photography is by Simon Peter Fox unless otherwise indicated. Image measurements are height x width x depth. Exhibition curators: Leanne Willis and Stephen Wickham Published by Deakin University ISBN 978-0-9944025-9-2 Edition 500 copies Catalogue design: Jasmin Tulk Deakin University Art Gallery Melbourne Campus at Burwood 221 Burwood Highway Burwood 3125 T +61 3 9244 5344 E artgallery@deakin.edu.au deakin.edu.au/art-collection Gallery hours Tuesday – Friday 10 am – 4 pm Free Entry Deakin University CRICOS Provider Code: 00113B

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The Void. Visible. Abstraction & Non-Objective Art  
The Void. Visible. Abstraction & Non-Objective Art