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Modestly sized, predominantly white, restrained, precise. These are first impressions of a group of ‘paintings’ set into wall surfaces that have been prepared, with sensitive alterations, to receive them.1� Pleasure is derived from the pinpoint exactness of the cutout shapes and their fine interrelationship with paint, to say nothing of the amusement afforded by tiny patches of print, making reference to an art gallery, or a paper-making company. In short, these works will reward an attentive gaze, and, it soon transpires, a gaze informed by knowledge of the history of abstraction.

Like the free-standing wall that stands nearby at the same art fair, fully wallpapered, and painted front and back, Adsett gives us both sides of the individual paintings. Or rather, two sides in one. Looking out at us is a painted ‘face,’ neatly framed in blueblack. But each ‘picture’ is traversed, or wrapped, by materials that belong to the construction, the labelling, hanging and packaging of paintings. In short, to all those readymade elements normally seen at the back of painting, the face that remains hidden. We might say these elements (stretched linen, staples, fake wood frames, tape, paper, stickers, hooks, eyelets, string, nails) are extrinsic to the ‘picture’ as a western cultural artefact.


What must be said up front about these paintings is that what is on display, from which we extrapolate the meaning of the works, is the process of their construction. We can take numbers 3 and 8 as examples [fig.1, 2]. Each work comprises a white rectangular face, edged with blue-black, which we can identify as paint. Number 8 also has a thick, horizontal band of red-black wallpaper at the lower edge. Over this face, pieces of coloured wallpaper, tape, and other bits capable of being pasted and lying flat, wrap from back to front - or vice versa - appearing at the top and bottom in number 3, at the sides in number 8 (with smaller pieces at the bottom). These mirrored pairs of papers do something in relation to the white surface of paint. They don’t represent, they perform, supporting, holding the work on the wall, squeezing like a tight belt, or even suggesting to a viewer where to place the hands. That performance is not enough for Adsett, however. In each work, the ‘collage’ elements are pressed into the service of abstract painting. In number 8, twin strips of duck egg blue (painted wallpaper) wrap the sides, and cross horizontally into a central space marked by a pale grey, window-like

rectangle. This is actually a solid: a sample of Magnani printmaking paper, complete with printed label (note again that it is the back of the sample). Fake transparency affords an opportunity to play in Gordon Walters-mode, for the darker grey-brown patches where blue butts against pale grey are not created, as they appear to be, from overlapping paint layers, but from cutout paper. Their performance, set in motion by the alternating opacity/transparency, is a small tour-de-force of figure/ground reversal, producing an oscillation that is a major motif, or effect, in the whole series. (And need I remind the viewer that transparency is the necessary illusion in representational painting, whilst opacity is the rebuttal presented by all abstract painters worthy of the name, from Mondrian forward.) Meaning is therefore generated by a complex of elements that each enact a verb: wrapping, sliding, flattening, overlapping, and so on. What is painted, or pasted flat, will not stay flat here. That is one of the most challenging and satisfying tasks the painter sets himself, namely, to promote, in equal measure, the seemingly impossible twin states of inertia and constant sliding movement.


The role of the glued papers vis-à-vis the self-declarative surface of acrylic paint, is that those materials return to painting. And here we also mean Painting the discipline (understood in terms of its historic conventions). Paint or paper, their role is pedagogic, much as it was with Picasso. Adsett performs conventions in order to bend them toward becoming new ones. He does this with line, for example, in number 9 [fig.3]. Of course, there is no drawn line in this abstract work, since that would inevitably create a figure, and reintroduce the artist as subject. Words and numbers only appear in the form of print, which brings with it the horizontality and reproducibility of its process. Begin with the upper left corner where Adsett glued a thin segment of raw linen to lie flush against a vertical band of fake-wood (vinyl) frame on the right, and almost flush against the blue-black edge of the painting on the left. This little strip is ‘framed’ above and below with white paint and paper. Seemingly innocuous details, they nevertheless redefine the function of line, which is created by edges, joins, overlapping. We can discern no fewer than seven lines in this corner, none of which performs to enclose, outline, define, or bound planes (we can’t speak of images). Instead, each colour strip defers its spatial role, or meaning, endlessly, in all four directions.

In the mirror repetition, immediately below, the conundrum is multiplied. Subtle variants of tone, material and placement produce effects that outweigh their modest scale. Now it is paper, not linen, that seemingly slides under the internal yellow frame, only to reappear as a linen triangle in the white centre. The result is that all three pieces are thrown out of kilter, pushed now over, now under, the yellow frame. This is accompanied by a move that seems truly pernicious: the lighter-toned strip that sits to the left of the fake wood frame, supposedly mirrors the one above, yet here we find it wrapping around the black edge to disappear into the back of the painting. So, pretending to be the same, it is anything but the same. Meanwhile, to the right it is acting as if part of the brown triangle, but with only momentary success, for the triangle simultaneously declares its independence from everything around it. On a final note, the top segment of linen that stops short of the blue-black edge is separated from it by a very narrow, whitish fringe, making it stand out in stark contrast to its mirror ‘image,’ wrapping around the frame. This throws that edge into high relief as an unsurpassable boundary, something that cannot be ‘got around’. (Adsett says of this operation: “linen maps and exposes the blue black framing edge.”)


Recognition of the easel painting occurred in the late sixteenth, early seventeenth century in Europe. By this term is meant the object, independent of its source in, for example, altars, chapels, palaces and so on, able to be bartered, and transported into collections and art galleries. The frame now came into prominence in an external sense, indicating a privileged perceptual object, one both precious and valuable. But it also interacted with the internal images, that is to say, structurally. We see this in repeated motifs such as windows and doors (internal frames) in Northern and Italian painting. As the fictive world became more realistic, painted figures reached out across the threshold of the frame to implicate a viewer. Michael Fried demonstrated this in his book The Moment of Caravaggio,2 and wrote of how the emerging self-portrait of the artist, frequently pointing with the brush to his fictive canvas, is yet another sign. So the first easel paintings, long before Impressionism, were recognised as unique tableaux with frames, that is to say: structures. This affected the subject matter of painting. We find, along with self-portraits, the rise of still life, which is abstracted of human figures and of narratives. The logical extension is the meta-painting, the painting whose subject is nothing from the external world, but rather is painting itself. This, as we know, is a definition of abstraction. How intriguing that the earliest-known example of a meta-painting, by Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts, is a seventeenth century oil, depicting, in a highly illusionistic manner, the back of a stretched, framed canvas, complete with little nails and wisps of trailing cloth.3 Whilst the frame is internalised in several of Adsett’s paintings of this series, it undergoes complex analysis in number 4 [fig.4]. An L-shape of brown papers and tape thrust the white ‘picture’ off centre to the right, taking on the function of a partial frame in the process. Actually, we can discern at least three frames, two brown and one black - not counting the true edge of the support, - leaving us with a choice, but no preference. As soon as we think we have discovered the role

of some component, Adsett repossesses it, puts it to work elsewhere. This brown right angle we have been observing also performs as a shadow to the ‘picture’, as if the latter were standing forth from the wall. But this reading is soon confounded by the greyish paper strip that wraps over the double layer of brown, leaving a kind of watermark, and thus attesting to its material solidity (not shadow). We are taken aback by the presence of a displaced eyelet, screwed into the pictorial surface, from which extends a string, ending abruptly at the left hand edge. Of all the works, number 4 declares itself “painting’s back,” every bit as much as Gijsbrecht’s trompe l’oeil painting. But the absence of a second eyelet on the left side, and the disappearance of the string beneath the brown paper edge, throws this notion into question. As an additional effect, the disappearing string lifts the brown paper, making it lie on top of the white pictorial surface, which now drops away, bringing about a figure/ground shift. Here again, Adsett is giving us more than one “back” of painting, for surely the brown L-shape, made of wrapping paper, can read as the reverse of a painting, to which the white ‘picture’ is affixed. This interpretation gains strength when we look from an angle and see the painted black edge of the real support, together with the greyish strip that wraps around it, bearing the pencilled notation (size and title) that usually appears where it won’t be seen: on the back of the painting. A strange space opens up between the two backs I have described. If two paintings are joined back to back, are we to understand another front, facing the wall? One could go on multiplying the readings this work promotes, each of them as feasible as the next, and yet in the end, we are only looking at materials that depict nothing. We can’t help smiling at the seeming innocence of Adsett’s materials, the little pieces of masking tape, the aforementioned string and eyelet, the tiny black squares of Velcro that wait to attach the white face to the wall. Adsett’s often-made statement that his paintings “take on the wall,” reverberates in these details. Could anything convey this meaning more clearly than a face turned to the wall?


The history of abstraction finds many echoes in this series – starting with the altered wall on which it hangs! The horizontal bands of linen, and vertical hanging strips of wallpaper with cut out rectangles, raise echoes of the Russian Constructivist, El Lissitzky’s Proun Room of 1923 (an investigation of architectural space in relation to painting and sculpture), or his Demonstration Room in Hanover in 1926. Meanwhile, pasted papers, some with print (letters, entry ticket, labels) inevitably reference the collages of Picasso and his contemporaries, just as the grey/beige and pastel colouring in numbers 1 and 2 points more specifically at Cubism.

Adsett openly acknowledges New Zealand art too, firstly in the letterhead (bottom edge of number 8) belonging to the late Peter McLeavey, his former Wellington dealer, and champion of the two pillars of modernist painting in that country, Colin McCahon and Gordon Walters. McCahon is accorded a small nod in the use of black and ochre colours throughout, whilst Walters is affectionately quoted, as we saw, in the effects of transparency in numbers 1, 2, 4, 8 and 9 [fig.5]. Each element that might hint at a historic figure is always put to work in its own context, that is to say, it does not signify an externally derived meaning; it is made to operate in a two-way manoeuvre, between ‘architecture’ (the wall) and painting.


In part, the series is an homage to Robert Ryman, to those white canvases of the 1990’s that focus attention on the various studs and pegs which attach a painting to a wall. In the process, Ryman’s work incorporated another external factor, the shadow cast on the wall. Two of Adsett’s works in particular appear to make a witty recognition of this. Number 6 [fig.6] has two strips of paper protruding from behind the two vertical sides, material that evidently served as a mat placed under the canvas during the painting of the framing edges. The following painting, number 7 [fig.7], has an extra frame comprising a solid shadow, a remnant of black paper curling around unevenly from the back. Opposite, two small strips of tape perform a less dangerous role, attaching themselves to the framing edge, before disappearing around it, into the hidden back. Ryman’s intention was apparently to convey the equal role of all the elements: paint, shadow, supports, fasteners. He saw his brush strokes as readymades too, repetitive mechanical touches produced by a tool. Adsett, on the other hand, creates a traditional painted surface, what one might identify as the ‘space of representation,’ or a ‘pictorial surface,’ thanks to the strong black framing edge. This surface will in no way represent anything, however. Instead, each of the readymade components speaks about painting, either by association (staples fixing the canvas to the stretcher), or in the way they operate as formal, non-mimetic elements of painting (colour, transparency, illusory depth, etc.).

We can say that Adsett engages in a dialogue with Ryman. And here I borrow the idea as Yve-Alain Bois applied it to the rivalry between Picasso and Matisse. Quoting Mikhail Bakhtin, Bois writes that a certain understanding is presupposed by two-way exchange, deriving from the fact that an utterance already contains the germ of the response. This “active understanding” allows us to dispense with the notion of influence. It enables us to think of Ryman and Adsett (or Adsett and Rusty Peters)4 as engaging in a dialogue through the medium of the paintings. We could say (to quote Bois) that they reach out to “reactivate the past, and, in the process, anchor… our experience of modernity. In short, their dialogue is more than a private one; it is a matrix for most issues pertaining to the history of [… ] art.”5


Apropos of the title of the exhibition hung in the booth at Hong Kong, Painting’s Back is a double entendre whose meanings are straightforward: painting as a serious practice has returned; paintings have a reverse side. The first proposition assumes what many would argue, namely that the medium of Painting has been absent. Without entering into the controversies that have beset the western art world for the last few decades, we should just say that the thesis expounded by Yve-Alain Bois in the essays published under the title Painting as Model, offers the most clear-eyed, cogently argued counter-position to that of the so-called “death of painting.”6 Having forged a career presenting anew the oeuvres of the canonical painters of modernist abstraction, Bois demonstrated that the self-imposed task of each abstract painter was to seek the essence, the truth, the final word, and in so doing, work toward the end of painting as a goal. It was never realised, so those abstract painters could be said to have worked through the death of painting. Adopting Hubert Damisch’s chess analogy, Bois likened the practice of twentieth century painting to the game of chess, which has an “inherent structure” and is a “delimited field governed by a certain number of rules,” even as it allows for dynamic moves.7 The various moments of painting (erroneously spoken of as styles) are individual matches, none of which repeat the other. All, however, necessarily start from a consensus with regard to the conventions, each artist seeking to push them to their limits in his/her practice. After he had studied the ‘moves’ of his imaginary rival, Picasso, Jackson Pollock made drawing perform in a way predicted, but not realised by Picasso.8

Robert Ryman is identified as occupying a critical position in this revision of the history of modernism. To paraphrase Bois, Ryman stands guard at the tomb of Painting, a powerful image that connects with all the “deaths” attempted, but unrealised, by earlier painters. According to this logic, painting cannot end, so long as there are those who, following the example of Ryman, continue to engage in the big game. It is a counter-position to that espoused by the proponents of postmodernism who debased the term by aligning it cynically with ‘post-painting.’ The second idea behind Adsett’s title, Painting’s Back, is that paintings have a reverse side. These ten works cannot be identified in terms of their genre: they are not truly the backs of paintings, any more than they are representations of the backs of paintings. We are never given enough information; is there a McLeavey letter beneath painting number 8, as suggested by the letterhead? Paper, linen and tape wrap around the sides from back to front - or perhaps it is vice versa. Since we are bound to prioritize the side confronting us, wrapped materials are read as originating from the hidden side, the true back of the work - though this is not necessarily the case. We draw the conclusion that there is another ‘face’ of the painting, unseen. So, in asking us to consider the unseen painting behind - “painting’s back” - we are in fact given two paintings (two backs of painting) and/ or two fronts of painting.


If representational painting more or less assumes the Albertian window, a transparent surface that is penetrated by the eyes, through the wall, to an imaginary space beyond, the abstract paintings of Adsett present a dense, impenetrable surface, a material thing, like a wall. Adsett has long engaged in dialogue with Caravaggio, analyzing the latter’s powerful chiaroscuro. Historically, painters have always debated with others, across long stretches of time, not discriminating between representational art and abstraction. Nor is Adsett’s conversation with the long-dead Italian one-sided, for the more he paints into chiaroscuro as a convention,9 the more Caravaggio’s masterpieces echo in reply, revealing themselves as structures that signify through light and dark. By such an approach Adsett evades influence, empty quotation, and the boundaries of style. Caravaggio is present in the whitish surface and blue-black sides of Painting’s Back, looking strangely at odds with the collaged elements. We do not see the flat, matte, uninflected surface of a wall. Instead, it is painterly, achieved by the build-up of multiple layers of watered acrylic, trapping bits of studio detritus, brush hairs, dust and so forth. As a result there is a depth – inimical to abstraction. But it is not, after all, the depth of illusionism: it is the depth of materials. To look at those surfaces is like looking into a newly opened can of paint, smooth, slightly viscous. Our eyes cannot penetrate, but only flicker from one tiny detail of hair or dust to the next. Furthermore, black and white in Adsett’s work are thrown into a permanent movement, an exchange of advance and retreat. The thin black edge pushes forward, attempting to repress the white surface, without success. But looked at from an angle that reveals the edge of the stretcher, the black paint becomes something else: it belongs to the back - and possibly the inside - of the painting. Dealing with black in Caravaggio’s painting, Louis Marin wrote that whilst it purports to depict depth, it is anything but transparent. Figures (he cites the example of the

Resurrection of Lazarus) are thrust forward to the picture plane, as if on the edge of a narrow stage. The surrounding darkness makes of the picture a box, or a coffin, closed off on four sides, its interior space full, dense. Adsett’s blacks always read as material, and when appearing on the front of the painting, push forward instead of retreating. Conversely, the framing edges in Painting’s Back push in the other direction, suggesting that the picture is a black box reaching behind the white face of the painting. He goes further, providing glimpses of a black interior. In numbers 6, 7 and 8, black areas on a white surface offer, for a second, the illusion of holes, sudden plunges into depths, even as we simultaneously see them as solid materials that sit on top of the surface. They do, therefore, indicate the interior, a zone empty of any light or air. This suffocating interior becomes a salient feature of the freestanding wall in the hallway of the Hong Kong fair, and explains the migration of painting number 10 to the left side of that wall. Odd man out, number 10 is ‘pierced,’ an illusion achieved by rubbing back paint layers as if to reveal the back of the painting [fig.8]. Commenting on Louis Marin’s text, Adsett wrote: Marin’s black box is interesting. I always saw the black frame as the frame of a black container. It goes back to the smaller works of Matawhero [a series shown in New Zealand in 2009]. They are objects, but also paintings... The black is a material/substance ... It is what it does - pushes forward, asserts - has a job to do like any material. I love the idea of coffin. You are looking down at a coffin, suspended at the level of ground…. The black is the basis or ground of all my work - everything emerges out of that through my process, and it is the way in each series that everything projects. At different angles the wall [at Hong Kong] will operate as a black container, a surface with an interior. That is the connection with the little paintings in the booth. (Love the black box - like a flight recorder it holds all the information!).10


The task of demonstrating horizontality as a medium in its own right is another challenge in this series. All Adsett’s work is directed to revealing the essential horizontality of painting, the matrix of materiality and process. The formats of Painting’s Back are upright, or vertical rectangles (standard ‘portrait’ format), the purpose of which is to identify them as easel pictures. Since one can never reconcile them with the easel picture, which is usually representational, we have to find a different word. The Italian quadro is perhaps more appropriate, since it retains more literal meanings, such as table, board, or panel. That is, it denotes the flat, pre-painted object that is so clearly an attribute of this series. When a painter uses the full quadro, making a field of the whole – including the back and sides - the discourse is no longer that of representation, but of making. The space perceived is that of an object on a flatbed (to adopt Leo Steinberg’s term), while all the processes of making - cutting, tearing, dropping, pasting, wrapping, painting, hammering, screwing, stapling - use gravity, and are undertaken by the hand on a horizontal surface.

Meanwhile, every element that suggests the back of the painting calls for a horizontal flip-over. Ironically, this is true even of the pair with brown paper strips that clearly emphasise top and bottom (numbers 3 and 5.) This is because the actions of pasting flat, pressing down, smoothing across – which remain visible operations here and in all collage – are necessarily horizontal.


If Adsett were merely stating that all paintings are ultimately solid objects, boards or stretched canvases, there are simpler ways to do it, as both Gijsbrechts in the seventeenth century, and Giulio Paolini in the twentieth, demonstrated. In 1962, evidently meditating on Gijsbrechts’ famous painting of the back of a canvas, Paolini inserted two smaller canvases into a larger one, forming a single, tight-fitting concentric work, shown from the back.11 As is clear from a companion piece from a year earlier, a work that included a used can of paint propped inside an empty frame, Paolini tried to enlist painting as the means to highlight painting’s essential condition. The picture should downplay the artist’s subjectivity, and comprise “the very elements that go to make it up,” he said.12 Although Paolini’s works were primarily sculptural, we can recognise in those words some of Adsett’s concerns. This leads us to ask: what is his aim? It comes back to the notion of “taking on the wall.” In depicting the back of the painting (together with the processes of its making), even as they give the viewer a clear, framed front, these works are in a somewhat solipsistic conversation with the wall on which they hang. In this regard, we have also to take into account the rectangle of white wall hidden from view behind the paintings. What is the status of that hidden patch? Surely it implicates the wall in the work, becoming yet another of its ‘faces’ or ‘backs’?

In an obvious fashion, the ten individual works make reference to architectural angles or planes, as well as to the volumetric space in which a viewer stands. El Lissitzky did this in the Proun Room, creating an exhibition space that was both room and abstract art (were are unsure what to call them: two-dimensional sculpture?) on the wall. Rectangles of black and grey echoed the shape of absent windows and doors, and the whole room invited spectators to move around the volumetric space, and in turn be circled by the wall design.13 (Lissitzky famously designated the proun concept as “changing trains between painting and architecture.”) In doctoring the walls with strips of wallpaper and blind material, Adsett is not attempting to transform them into paintings that rival the actual canvases. Nor are the ten paintings shadows of architectural features. The relationship is more strategic, and best demonstrated in Adsett’s booth at the Melbourne Art Fair in 2014.


Alone amongst the exhibitors at Melbourne’s fair, Adsett’s Room with a View was an exhibition of work in a pre-prepared booth (three walls), using black paint and layered wallpaper in pastel colours. The paper was torn vertically so that, when pasted down in layers, seductive frayed edges appeared, revealing colours underneath and producing shadows and reflections. It resulted in a décor that welcomed the paintings and collages hung in its midst, so much so that one did wonder whether the works could have been designed for specific spaces. The tightly conceived scheme had overtones of a baroque picture cabinet, – a long way from El Lissitzky’s Proun Room, even if it shared some of its aims! [fig.9]

Thus, neither here, nor in Hong Kong, was there any idea of subsuming the artworks into a larger decorative scheme. Instead, the concerns of the artist had to do with the process and operation of the layers. They asserted their materiality even when performing as shadow or transparent plane. Thin, diaphanous squares of paper pasted onto delicate pink paint; torn pieces of dried acrylic paint glued down on picture surfaces; newspaper scrunched into the shape of curtains; ill-concealed gaps in mounts creating holes and shadows – these and a plethora of effects spoke to the wall’s surface as a dense solid of which we only see the face. [fig.10]

But as I have indicated, the papered wall is not mere decoration, and serves a more directed purpose than that of background. Other artists have reminded us that the walls of galleries are not neutral: their surfaces and volumes are already loaded with socio-political significance before any work is hung. Adsett is, however, conscious of a more fundamental (literal?) interpretation, understood by the first abstract painters. If the referent of the meta-painting is painting, it necessarily includes the wall as its locus, support and determining shape.

In both exhibitions, the works stand alone, their outer limits clearly defined by their frames, and the frames, in turn, interacting with the internal elements of the paintings. Adsett belongs to a tradition of abstract painting that does not need any external referent. Each of the collage elements, internal frames and the like, point to the canvas, which is to say they operate as indexical signs. That is, as signs, they reference the code of the tradition of abstraction. Speaking of the index, Roman Jakobson’s linguistic shifter (a special form of the index) can be invoked, the “I” and the “you” of the canvas and its elements constantly exchanging their roles.14 But, because the Hong Kong paintings turn their backs to the wall in the unique way that I have described above, we have to concede a corresponding shift (an indexical relationship) operating between the canvas and the wall.


Adsett has previously painted walls as an exhibit in its own right in Sydney in 2010. I avoid calling this an installation because it was an alteration of existing gallery walls, and as such, there was nothing random about it. Essentially two black lines on a white wall, the Taint work remained undeniably architectural, even as it spoke the language of painting [fig.11].15 Adsett related his wall to a series of paintings completed six years earlier, titled Serial Killer, of which he wrote: I am attacking the gallery wall, its meaning, the ultimate meaning of architecture as symbolic of reason. In recent decades institutional critique has included the art gallery or museum in its sights, but Adsett was less interested in architecture as tied to socio-political aspirations, or cultural imperialism, so much as a vehicle for investigating the phenomenological space shared by painting and architecture. His long adherence to the practice of working horizontally, and his understanding of how it alters the significance of work, led him to the writings of Georges Bataille, and to the exhibition of 1996, entitled L’Informe, inspired by the Surrealist.16 Bataille’s famous diatribe against the architecture of state and church was a point of departure for the two curators of L’Informe, Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois. Bataille saw grand edifices as symbolic of “the logic of majesty and authority,” inspiring not only “good social behaviour,” but “real fear”. The architecture of power implies erectness, uprightness, both physical and moral, as opposed to all forms of lowness, which civilised culture works to suppress. An “attack on architecture” said Bataille, “is necessarily, as it were, an attack on man”. Ultimately he was attacking humanism and metaphysics.17 Krauss and Bois theorized the significance of horizontality (the position of lowness) as a rejection of the uprightness (high cultural ideals) represented by easel pictures, images, monuments and pedestals. In so doing, they shifted focus to the horizontality of Giacometti, Dubuffet, Pollock and others. In Pollock the drip paintings were reinterpreted compellingly as a vehement strike against uprightness, the flung and woven skeins of paint obliterating the space of representation.18 Re-enter Adsett, whose abiding curiosity directed toward Australian Aboriginal art, no less than the giants of abstraction, inspired him to experiment with the axial shift that takes place when work made on the ground – or a flat surface – is erected to the vertical plane of the wall.

In Serial Killer Adsett lowered the concept of a ‘series,’ the notion of repetition as evidence of subjective outpouring. He did that by creating six nearly identical paintings, “placing the viewer in a dilemma over what to look at, or choose,” and by confronting that viewer with a knife-edge right angle of black which cut through a dense, white, square surface. With this ‘weapon’ of subversion he aimed to “kill off … various preconceptions about abstract paintings” … the most important of which concerned the structural role of the frame. [fig.12] Each of the six paintings sets the black right angle in a different position vis-à-vis the edge of the support, producing planes that slip-slide across and down, obeying the pull of gravity (an unavoidable sensation in the upright viewer whose feet are planted on the floor). The white planes migrate back and forth from framed painting to wall. This is an operation that resulted directly from the painting process: horizontal layering of watery acrylic to arrive at the extremely refined balance of oppositions. Black and white, normally regarded as an archetypal binary opposition, are never permitted to rest in a state of equilibrium, never serve gestalt, in Serial Killer. Such an approach focuses on the affect the work has on a viewer, recognising him or her as peripatetic, searching for a ‘proper’ place to see the work. This is what fed into Taint some years later. If the six canvases required the four white orthogonal lines and flat planes of the wall to operate fully, an actual wall – or rather, two walls and a corner – could be painted to fully engage perception as embodied. Now a viewer is aware of advancing, receding, trying out sight lines, turning away, realising that a fixed point cannot do the job. The black, diagonal dagger thrusts of Serial Killer were blown up to scale on the interior gallery walls. Cleverly, only the right wall is painted, its black diagonal connected with a shadow at floor level under the left wall. When one stands looking into the corner, the entire left wall is subsumed, and tilted sickeningly onto a 45-degree angle, one corner of which lifts from the floor and penetrates the contiguous upright wall. The notion of installation itself is already tainted: the pollution of painting by sculpture, or vice versa. In his entire oeuvre, Adsett reveals how painting does not need to be divorced from its essential structural codes in order to be dangerous or inventive. Taint isolates the concept of three-dimensionality, painting’s nemesis, and pushes it away from the site/sight of abstract painting, into the ambient space shared by the body. Perspective is thereby returned whence it came, the province of human reason.


The freestanding wall in Hong Kong is another blow directed at the decades of abandonment of painting in favour of what Rosalind Krauss calls “post-medium plurality”. Once again, this is not an installation. Nor is it a wall-sized painting (mural). It is painting incorporating a wall, needing a circulating viewer, someone whose act of seeing is consciously embodied, so that the big gaping hole is experienced as an affront. Part of the affront derives from the appearance of the ragged edges of torn wallpapers and frayed linen, as if someone had tried to peel back layers and punch a hole through the solid wall. Adsett has made a hole, but it is a contradiction because it is produced from materials. Contrasting tones set forth the classic pretence of a pierced wall. Concentric circles, alternating pale and dark (near and far), end in a strange oculus divided by a straight vertical line. The inappropriateness of that geometry in the midst of ragged circles leads us unavoidably to the architecture, specifically to black painted segments on the left and right of this long wall. And these, in turn, operate like the black frames around Adsett’s paintings, producing a space located beneath surfaces, or inside the wall. In the left-hand corner, beside the ‘hole’, is a menacing black triangle, performing a role similar to the diagonal cut of Taint. Here too, the line transects the adjoining wall when seen from an angle to the left, and in so doing it becomes a shadow of that wall, cast across the right side. So the black triangle can read either as superficial (shadow) or as deep (an interior space), and Adsett would enjoy the paradox presented to a viewer.

Whereas the canvases of Painting’s Back can only present us with faces and not backs - even if they imply several of each - we can walk right around the freestanding wall, from both ends, and see the back. Once there, we cannot be sure that it is a back, for its treatment is just as intricate, and involves perhaps more work. We have to regard the wall as having two faces, like a page in a book. This side is also ‘pierced’ but by a series of smaller holes created from torn layers, reminding us of Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale canvases of the mid twentieth century. After slashing right through his canvas, Fontana put a black lining behind his works in order to strengthen the actual gaps produced by the piercing. Adsett does not want real holes. It is much more in keeping with his trickiness to give the illusion of a hole made from plaster, paint and paper, taking us where Fontana did not go, to the layer behind painting: the wall. Let the painter have the last word, speaking about both Painting’s Back and the freestanding wall: [Materials] can transform the whole wall into a painting, thereby opening the idea of what lies behind. I mean that painting can collapse the structure of architecture as a support (turning it into another layer?), subsuming it into painting. This current work opens the wall up because the back is now the front. We are experiencing the other side at the same time as being in front. The wall carries the history of painting. I see it as part of painting, not a support. Therefore, the painting must respond to the body, and the body to the work. The wall is often attached to other walls, or makes a box shape, which of course then places the viewer in painting’s interior - in painting’s room (inside painting). It is like a ‘waiting room’. We, and they, are suspended in time, knowing something is about to happen. That happening is the operation of the work.

Text by Mary Alice Lee



10 works, 500 x 400mm, acrylic on linen.


Princeton University Press, New Jersey 2010.


Oil on canvas, 66 x 86.5cm, now in Copenhagen. Reproduced in Fried, idem, p.152. Fried included a quotation from Victor Stoichita: “the metapictorical act forged the modern state of art.” See Stoichita’s “The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Metapainting” (1993), translated by Anne-Marie Glasheen, Cambridge and New York, 1997.


In 2000 Peter Adsett painted a series in collaboration with Gija artist, Rusty Peters, at Humpty Doo in the Northern Territory. Each painter responded to the other as the series progressed, producing 14 paintings in all. They were exhibited under the title Two Laws; One Big Spirit (private collection, nsw.). This was a friendly rivalry, based on mutual understanding of the moves each made, as in a game of chess.


Yve-Alain Bois, Matisse and Picasso, Flammarion Paris, 1998, p.16.


mit Press, Cambridge Mass., 1993. The titular essay appears on pages 245-257.


Bois repeats the chess analogy in Matisse and Picasso, op.cit., p.22-3, where this citation appears.


Rosalind Krauss discusses Pollock’s relationship to the work of Picasso in the final essay of The Optical Unconscious, mit Press Cambridge Mass., 1993.


See various series, beginning with Snakes and Ladders in 1996.


Letter to the author, February 2016. (All quotes herein from the painter are from letters and conversations with M.A. Lee.)


Senza Titolo, 1962, Cochrane Collection, Turin. Reproduced in Anne Rorimer, New Art in the 60's and 70's. Redefining Reality, London 2001, p.65


The 1961 work is also untitled, and reproduced by Rorimer, idem. The quotation from Paolini is on p.64.


Both the Proun Room and the Abstract Cabinet are reproduced in Hal Foster et al., Art Since 1900, London 2004, p.210.


For an analysis of the shifter in relation to art of the 1970's, see Rosalind Krauss, “Notes on the Index, Part 1,” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, mit Press, Cambridge Mass., 1989, p.197ff.


Encompassing two walls (forming an L-shape) the work was part of an exhibition themed by the title Taint (aiming thereby to encourage work that crossed the boundaries of genre). The venue was First Draft Gallery in Sydney.


At the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. See Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois, Formless, A User’s Guide, New York 1997.


See Denis Hollier, Against Architecture. The Writings of Georges Bataille, mit Press, Cambridge Mass., 1992, ivff.


See Formless, A User’s Guide, chapter entitled “Horizontality.” Also Krauss, The Optical Unconscious, chapter 6.

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Painting no. 3, 2015, Awagami paper, Cole and Son wallpaper, sandpaper, wood veneer, envelope, blue card, nails, paint, linen, stretcher frame, 40 × 50cm


Painting no. 8, Magnani paper, Awagami paper, Cole and Son wallpaper, painted wallpaper, brown framing tape, letter, paint, linen, stretcher frame, 40 × 50cm


Painting no. 9, 2015, Awagami paper, vinyl wood adhesive, staples, paint, linen, stretcher frame, 40 × 50cm


Painting no. 4, 2015, Awagami paper, painted wallpaper, masking tape, brown framing tape, gum tape, D-hook, white cord, paint, linen, stretcher frame, 40 × 50cm


Painting no. 2, Awagami paper, Cole and Son wallpaper, wood veneer, gum tape, paint, linen, stretcher frame, 40 × 50cm


Painting no. 6, 2015, Velcro, Cole and Son wallpaper, brown framing tape, paint, linen, stretcher frame, 40 × 50cm


Painting no. 7, 2015, brown paper, brown framing tape, paint skin, paint, linen, stretcher frame, 40 × 50cm


Painting no. 10, 2015, paint, linen, stretcher frame, 40 × 50cm


Room with a View (installation), 2014, paint, wallpaper, wall and paintings, paulnache booth, Melbourne Art Fair, Royal Exhibitions Building, Melbourne, vic Australia


Room with a View (detail)


Taint at Firstdraft Space, Sydney, Australia, curated by Claire Lewis. Photo by Claire Lewis.


Painting no. 1 (Serial Killer Series), 2004, Medium: horizontality, Material: acrylic on canvas [1 litre of red paint, 250ml of blue, 180ml of white, brush hair, water and urine, 122 × 122cm


scafƒold (installation), 2015, wall and paintings, paulnache booth, Sydney Contempory, Carriageworks, Sydney, nsw Australia

peter adsett Art Central Hong Kong 23-26 March 2016 paulnache 89 Grey St, Gisborne Aotearoa New Zealand Apart from fair dealing for the purposes of private study, research, criticism or review as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part of this publication may be produced without written permission. Author: Mary Alice Lee Design: Tom Teutenberg, Matthew Nache Clarke Photography: Tom Teutenberg, Felix Adsett Printing: First edition: Printed March, 2016 Publication: paulnache Projects Š 2016 isbn: 978-0-473-35125-0 Supported by: Creative New Zealand


Peter Adsett, Painting's Back  
Peter Adsett, Painting's Back  

Adsett has devoted twenty years now to an investigation of abstraction, finding it to be an enterprise of great, untapped potential. One sh...