Asim Memishi, David Akenson (Brisbane), Mira Gojak, PJ Hickman (Brisbane)
9 - 25 September 2004
Sometime in the late nineties, Australian painters stopped purchasing their art materials at Windsor & Newton and instead began shopping at Bunnings hardware superstores, together with all the other inhabitants of suburbia. Sculptors had been shopping there all along and so too had those artists who continued to negate the distinctions between painting and sculpture by making constructed objects to which paint was subsequently applied. But what was significant was that when painters suddenly joined the others in the queue at Bunnings, causing a run on MDF (or Medium Density Fibreboard, the material of choice in contemporary art over the last few years), it signalled a more widespread DIY turn.
DIY, or do-it-yourself, most often refers to a leisure activity wherein people use amateur skills to produce functional or decorative objects for around their home, or to make structural improvements to the dwelling itself. Some of the types of projects embarked on in this way are catered to in the market place by kits or products pre-prepared for assembly, particularly for those projects that normally require professional skill but are designed to be carried out by amateurs.
As well as being a leisure activity, DIY may refer to a retail market sector (making it a category of consumption), and also a type of material practice (being simultaneously a form of production). DIY can provide an artist with an answer to the problem of what to make and how to make it – by providing mass-produced components or materials that have specific applications and suggest the manner in which they need to be employed: MDF asks to be shape-cut with a jig or table saw, silicone needs to be squeezed out in lines, metal structures require bolting together and readymixed paint in a tin needs to be put on with a roller.
Examples of the DIY influence in contemporary art abound (1) and some features of it may be seen in these works by David Akenson, Mira Gojak, PJ Hickman and Asim Memishi. It is the single factor that connects the works to one another, operating as a lowest-common-denominator across the various objects. The exhibition title, The Blindside Effect, is a kind of in-joke.
Appropriately enough for a new gallery, in the days and weeks prior to the opening of this, our first exhibition, we were sanding, stripping, masking, painting, puttying, no-more-gapping, cornice-cementing, bondcreting, sealing and patching these walls, floor, ceiling and door. To purchase gallery refurbishment equipment, we joined the queues in Bunnings and fought artists over paint rollers and sandpaper. We believe it is fitting that our work preparing the space has a kind of resonance with the theme of our first exhibition.
For the most immediately apparent feature common to the works in The Blindside Effect is a similarity in the types of materials used and the mode of their employment. Most of the objects in this exhibition are made from materials purchased at a hardware store and assembled or fabricated in a workshop or garage. Their components of wood, metal and plastic are basic, cheap and ubiquitous. These materials have not been approached in terms of their limitless transformational possibilities but have been configured or reconfigured in a minimal and logical fashion. The objects do not incorporate ridiculous degrees of invention but mostly adopt simple arrangements and feature a fairly literal use of materials. They appear to have been fabricated according to a process that is first planned, then executed, then repeated – for each contains an element of seriality.
Further, the artists have rejected monolithic forms in favour of
structures that are made of multiple parts, and/or incorporate repeated
modules. Mira Gojak has cut and configured three plastic chairs,
each according to the same process. PJ Hickman has assembled frames
from metal stripping where the technique of joining the strips repeats
itself internally in the fabrication of each frame and, externally,
across the construction of the three. David Akenson presents two
panels of pine side-by-side, each cut down to a square and each
incorporating a drilled-hole sequence. Asim Memishi’s work
comprises multiple units of painted plywood boxes in tower/stack
formation with triangulated summits. They bear variations on the
same surface treatment: bands of paint alternating with unpainted
bands where the timber is exposed.
In each case, the material has been used for its direct instrumentality, not as a vehicle for individualistic expression, or for registering the mark of the artist’s hand. There is no de-skilling apparent in the fabrication of the objects but perhaps it would be more appropriate to refer to a kind of non-skilling. There is nothing shonky about the way these things were made; they are well-finished, but their construction is unremarkable. The materials appear to have yielded readily to the purposes to which they have been put rather than offering a resistance that the artist needed to battle with and/or overcome in a demonstration of mastery or virtuosity.
Yet it cannot be said that the works represent a truth-to-materials approach, for in each of these pieces, while there is no attempt to hide, disguise or transform the material unrecognisably, yet neither is there an especial concern to reveal it. There is a sense in which the qualities of these materials are given. They are taken for granted. Significantly, PJ Hickman does not describe the medium of his work as paint on steel but lists each of its components, treating paint, screws, nuts and steel stripping, with equal emphasis.
These artists express a perfunctory trust in their materials to do the job rather than revelling in the properties or surfaces of the materials. On Akenson’s and Hickman’s works, the paint was applied with a roller in a regular, overall finish that owes more to the processes of house-painting than the techniques of easel-painting.
The DIY turn identified here is not especially related to art’s move away from the traditional disciplines of painting, modelling, casting or carving; clearly that happened a century ago with the development of photography and the invention of the readymade. Display of everyday functional objects or components in the gallery is not the significance of the works presented here per se. That would amount to no more than the simple recategorisation or relabelling of the everyday object that was fist mooted with Marcel Duchamp’s display of a bottle rack as a readymade. Rather, this DIY-influenced strategy eschews the more traditional materials of painting and sculpture not in favour of the readymade but in favour of the ready-to-make. For the operation of the readymade is to take an everyday, functional object and remove it from the realm of utility by its categorical renomination as a work of art. In the genre of the readymade, the object’s functionality is suppressed rather than renounced. It always retains the ambiguity of being simultaneously a work of art and an otherwise functional object.
In contrast, the ready-to-make approach chooses ingredients that already have a slight ambiguity or multiplicity of purpose (in that they may be adapted to different functions) but it makes no attempt to conceptually recategorise them. Instead, the artists assemble, construct or arrange their materials and objects through an application of labour. Neither are the objects thus produced simply modernist assemblages by another name, for they do not reconcile disparate parts in a strategy of formal ‘inventiveness’ but maintain an internal homogeneity and consistency.
In two of the four works in The Blindside Effect, utility is even emptied out. Hickman’s steel stripping, for instance, is marketed at Bunnings as a structural support for plumbing, electrical wiring, storage, curtains and blinds, and furnishings. But he has deliberately rendered it useless by presenting it as a finished object. Ineffectual in taking or distributing weight, his structures themselves need to be supported by the wall of the gallery. In the case of Gojak’s work, the chairs are not readymades but may even be called un-readymades. Far from being functional objects, they have abandoned their original functionality not merely by having no use, but by being in a sense defective, by being of negative use. Maladapted, un-designed, unfit for any purpose, they have been opened out as a flimsy diagram or drawing in three-dimensions; they appear as if they can barely support themselves, let alone a human body.
It is fairly apparent that in the use of hardware materials and in the concern with simple modes of fabrication, in the appearance of painted objects that extend into real space, the works in this exhibition incorporate some of the features and concerns of minimalism. I would propose that it is this turn (to DIY) that permits and mediates a re-turn (to minimalism). Historical returns are never straightforward of course and there is no suggestion that these artists naively recreate minimalist works. Perhaps it is better to see this return as reiterating the one that the minimalist artists themselves effected when they took up some of the challenges laid down by early twentieth century avant-garde art (specifically those posed by the readymade and the monochrome). It is perhaps through the strategy of DIY that contemporary artists are afforded a reconnection with some of the concerns of minimalism after two decades of body/ identity/ culture themes saturating the field of critical discourse in visual art.
One of the main issues at stake in the minimalist program was that, in producing art works that extended three-dimensionally into the space of the gallery, the objects adopted a literalness that threatened the distinction between the two categories: art and non-art. This is foregrounded as a concern in Akenson’s, Memishi’s and Hickman’s work. Akenson’s work, Swiss Monochrome, has the title and appearance of painting. Yet the two panels that comprise it have a persistent object nature that intrudes on an attempt to see them as flat fields of colour. By drilling holes in the panels, the artist has ensured the works inhabit literal space. The holes draw attention to the objectness of the pine panels, their extension into three dimensions. They announce the solidity and substantiality of the timber even while, and even by, breaching it. The depth of the bored tunnels and the small glimpses of gallery wall they afford compel us to see through, and beyond, the picture plane.
Memishi’s modules are objects with painted surfaces and, despite their three-dimensional form, they relate to the painting tradition. It may be argued that they are paintings that occupy literal space. As well as representing a massing of objects within the gallery, the work reaches forward exponentially in space and time, for Memishi is continually adding to the number of individual modules that make up the work. The numbers of the box/tower structures and the space they occupy has the potential to swell out infinitely.
Hickman’s work is viewed against the wall from the position and angle that is the usual one for the display of paintings. Each of the three components takes the form of a frame, which in the traditional practice of easel painting usually surrounds and delimits a painted canvas. Though they have only a shallow depth, they nevertheless extend into the third dimension as literal objects. They bear paint on their surfaces, yet it cannot be said that the medium of the work is paint and the support is steel. Instead they operate ambiguously as both paintings and as also as everyday metal structures that bear merely functional surface treatments.
There is a sense in which the autonomy of each of the works in The Blindside Effect is compromised. The forms all extend into space, but so too are the limits of each art work breached in turn by the space itself. Gojak’s chairs have been opened up literally and metaphorically. Literally, because an internal space has been created in the base and back of the chairs through the removal of parts, and metaphorically, because the chairs never had any such parts to begin with. Other chairs are made of parts such as ‘back’, ‘seat’ and ‘legs’ but each of these three chairs began life as injection-moulded, unitary, gestalt forms, lacking these internal part-to-part relationships. They originally possessed a conceptual as well as physical unity and autonomy, which the artist has now destroyed. Peeling open the chairs by removing the plastic serves to break open the forms, empty out their mass and render their shape as a linear armature in space.
Memishi’s work opens up to the outside through the functioning of the mirrored plinth. The surface of the mirror is flooded with the reflected visual information of the surrounding space and is permeated by the images of the forms that surmount it. Some of his painted box structures have triangulated summits that are bare of any cladding. This puts the spatial limits of the forms into question, thereby posing a threat to their autonomy. But the painted structures are, in another sense, turned inside out. For the paint lies on top of the wood, yet the grain of the pine appears not only between the bands of thin paint but also through it. The grain behind and beneath the paint pushes itself forward as if to rupture the painted skin from the inside.
The autonomy of Akenson's work appears to be breached through the mechanism of the drilled holes literally rupturing the surface. But these holes are the guarantee of the work’s autonomy as well as its principal threat. There is a sense in which the holes operate as the ‘content’ of the work and its 'pictorial motif’ even while their manner of boring down through the depth of the timber extrudes the work out into the third dimension, shifting it away from a picture plane and towards an object. For the holes do not break through the edge of the timber at any point in either of the panels. Therefore, there is no basis to believe that the two panels were cut from a torn (i.e. hole-ridden) fabric. Instead, it appears they were cut from intact pine, and the holes subsequently drilled, thereby importing a motif onto a blank picture plane. The holes are a positive index of what has been removed from the wood and thus appear as figures perhaps not on, but at the very least in, a ground.
The work’s integrity is also breached in a further way. If a monochrome painting is usually thought to operate as an autonomous work of art, in this case the dialogue created between Akenson’s two panels threatens the autonomy of each and/or of the two together. Each panel intrudes on the other, forcing an uncomfortable and unstable relationship between them. The panels do not replicate one another; there are differences in size, surface treatment and the pattern of drilled holes. They do not declare that they were cut down from a single sheet of pine because, as has been noted, no single drilled hole breaches the outer edge of either panel. This prevents us from imputing either spatial continuity, or discontinuity, between the two. We cannot know what to make of their relationship. While the title announces they are one work of art, they adopt the form of two separate objects that contest one another side-by-side on the wall.
In PJ Hickman’s work there is a front and a back but the perforations in the steel allow our vision to penetrate the surface. The steel structure delineates a space without displacing a mass. This linear, open format affords the work a transparency. The transparency is modulated in those places where the steel strip adopts a right angle formation and the visual density this creates makes that part of the frame appear as if it is painted a different colour from that of the surrounding areas.
For three of the four artists represented here, the process by which they generate their work involves a partial surrender of decision-making. Asim Memishi makes his painted hoop pine boxes according to a formula of repetition and difference. Multiples are made simultaneously. They all bear the same dimensions as one another, but will subsequently be painted different colours so that no single piece replicates another exactly. Following this procedure allows the creation of the work to adopt the pattern of “make one thing and then another”. When the modules are assembled for exhibition, Memishi encourages input from other people in deciding the positioning of the objects, rather than imposing on the elements an artful composition of his own choosing.
Mira Gojak’s approach to fashioning her materials is to make small strategic changes in the forms of the chairs through the process of disassembly, and thereby allowing a degree of readymade content to gradually emerge as if by itself. The shape, features and properties of the chair impose limits as to what rearrangements are technically possible. However, the appearance of the tinted wax on the plastic slats as both a type of paint job and a material encrustation does suggest the incorporation, by design, of a foreign object.
To an even greater degree than the other artists, Hickman allows the materials’ possibilities to dictate the form. The strip metal bracketing he uses comes in specific lengths with holes at predetermined intervals. Hickman tries to avoid deliberate, especially inventive, decision-making throughout the process of constructing the work. The maximum possible span of a single bracket strip determines the dimension of one part of the structure, and once this dimension has asserted itself, Hickman simply replicates it elsewhere within the form.
If these three artists have been concerned to eliminate the arbitrariness of artistic invention, by contrast, David Akenson is keen to test the limits of what arbitrariness is permissible. He works backwards (or forwards) from a technically restrictive position, for he is operating at the limits of minimalism and of the monochrome painting, whose artistic conventions are already tightly determined. His process remains a very simple one, and incorporates basic constructivist principles in the approach to materials. Commencing with the given elements of paint and support, he seeks to test how much invention is possible, how much room there is to move in extending a monochrome in the direction of a literal object without completely abandoning its own autonomy and without the features incorporated into the work being reducible to the whim of an individual. He seeks to discover what technical innovations may be adopted such that the work must still be seen to have emerged from within the range of what is possible, and indeed what is necessary, in treading the boundary that delimits the modernist painting and the minimalist object.
The strategy adopted by most of these artists, of starting with a formula, or procedure, or allowing the material itself to provide cues as to how to proceed is a solution to the problem of how to generate works of art. The question that every artist continually faces is, How does, how can, or how should a work of art come into being?
More particularly, one of the problems that concerned the avant-garde
and neo-avant-garde artists of the last century was how a work of
art may articulate its very genesis. For instance, in the way the
readymade operates, it announces its own creation by the very recategorising
of an object as a work of art. We may say that in the case of the
readymade, the work of art is its own genesis. Artists whose works
have been concerned to articulate their own conception include Barnett
Newman, whose paintings Gea, The Beginning, Genesis-The Break, Onement
I, narrate their own origin through a biblical creation motif, and
Robert Morris in his 1961 work Box with the sound of its own making,
a small wooden box that played back a recording of the sounds of
the box’s construction.
In the way it allows the materials to significantly dictate the works produced, the DIY approach both addresses and neatly elides this problem for DIY bears within its own practice a logic for its own output, and for the genesis of its own products. Insofar as it adopts the form of the ready-to-make, its creations are always already preconceived, always already guaranteed.
Mira Gojak’s work knowingly confronts this issue of genesis. The simple means by which she connects the plastic chair pieces appears to be a kind of ‘grafting’. The three fan-like arrangements that have been sectioned out from the backs of the chairs and stuck back on suggest organic forms. They sprout like wings, fronds or fins. In viewing this object we are invited to bear witness to an art work that is coming into being at the moment we look upon it, and whose subject matter is the narration of its own birth.
Insofar as all of these works incorporate seriality, they reflect aspects of mass production, and its counterpart, mass consumption. But individual works foreground their commodity-aspect in other more particular ways. Gojak has made her art work out of three identical beige plastic chairs that are cheap, mundane, standardised and mass produced, their ubiquity such that they almost crowd out other chairs in the marketplace. Hickman and Memishi both display their artworks like merchandise. Each presents a series of elements that come in different shapes, sizes, varieties and colours, almost as if they comprise a product range. Hickman’s three structures are placed together on the wall more closely than three paintings of an equivalent size would usually be displayed in a contemporary gallery, giving a slight sense that he is squeezing in as much of the product as possible. Memishi’s works feature this spatial cramming to an even greater degree. He also incorporates a mirrored plinth into the work, bringing with it connotations of retail display.
If there is a permeation of the superstore into these works and more generally into all works that feature the DIY influence, there is also a reciprocal permeation of art into the store. The minimalists used geometric forms and industrial finishes sourced from manufacture and light industry, with the result that products for sale in the hardware store have now come to resemble minimalist art. Not only did the creation of the readymade import the world of everyday objects into the category of art, but the manner according to which its aims have been elaborated by minimalism has created a kind of reciprocal effect, of making-over the everyday so we can only see it in terms of art.
To wander around in the aisles of Bunnings is to stumble across
objects that resemble monochrome paintings, Carl Andre works and
mini Sol LeWitts. The manner in which some materials are already
burdened with historical references, and have come to be seen as
a trademark of particular minimalist artists (say, fluorescent tubes
and Dan Flavin, or Ad Reinhardt and black paint) is something of
which the artists in The Blindside Effect have a heightened awareness.
In their insistence on the products of suburban hardware superstores providing the material and literal content for their works of art, these and other DIY influenced artists are perhaps creating, and/or responding to, a sympathetic shift in the discourse of contemporary art display.
Since the early twentieth century, the museum has increasingly been likened to the department store, with its array of competing products that are compartmentalised and displayed in different sections or floors. But of late we have seen a heightening, perhaps even a transcending, of this effect. No longer department stores, the museums of today have become shopping barns, megastores or shopping malls.
From the window of this exhibition space, can be seen one of Melbourne’s newest sites for the display and consumption of culture, Federation Square. It is laid out below us and calls up to Blindside like a beacon. It features a massive carpark, eateries, an information booth, a centre stage for performances, retail spaces and, perhaps most tellingly, a cinema multiplex. It takes as its conceptual model not the traditional museum but something closer to Chadstone shopping centre. And if Federation Square functions as a shopping Mall then the new ACCA – situated on a naked gravel site, a vast and cavernous building with high ceilings and a raw, industrial aesthetic expressed in its surfaces – functions as a kind of superstore or art barn.
Whether museums have evolved the form of the mega art-barn/art-mall in part to accommodate the DIY turn in art or whether the DIY turn has emerged to furnish art malls with the ready-to-make commodity works these spaces demand does not concern us here. For ultimately, both the artists and museums have received their imperatives from elsewhere: from suburbia, and from mass retail.
But let us give the last word not to an institution but to one of the artists. In an intense heightening of the DIY commodity effect, Hickman, as we have already seen, chooses not to provide the description of the medium he has used as paint on steel but instead as a list of brand names and product specifications, indicating that the work is in some sense reducible to its purchased components. Indeed, armed with the information he provides, a person could go shopping for these exact materials and replicate Hickman’s artwork in their own garage. In an act that is no more foolhardy than generous (the word generous is, fittingly, a cognate of the word genesis, whose significance we have already discussed), the artist has furnished us with the recipe.
As viewers of this exhibition, you and I can make a note of these specifications and each take away with us a ready-to-make artwork of our own.
An obvious exponent is Sydney artist, Nuha Saad. A typical work of hers presents a shelf on which are displayed multiple fixtures of turned wood (furniture legs, door knobs etcetera bought at a home improvements store), each painted a different shade according to a straightforward decorator treatment. In Melbourne, those sculptures by Nick Mangan that incorporate cut sheets of polypropylene in receding topographic layers inside the kind of green plastic bin that is intended for garden waste exemplifies some aspects of this turn. As do those sculptures by Ricky Swallow that use balsa or MDF for their model-making properties or, in the case of a particular sofa sculpture, sheets of plywood laminated together – conflating the subject matter of home improvements (couches, furnishings) with one of its techniques (constructing things out of plywood). But perhaps this movement first surfaced in Brisbane, in the mid-nineties, when Colin Reaney began making structures that were neither coffee tables nor bedside tables, nor shelving units but an assortment of unidentifiable platforms and open box forms of painted MDF to which he applied casters; when Sally Cox massed hundreds of small disks of hardware laminex samples on a wall as an installation, when Peter Alwast began painting by squeezing lines of silicone sealant from a caulking gun onto various supports.
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Nicholas Building level 7 room 14
37 Swanston Street Melbourne Victoria 3000
Enter via lifts in Cathedrale Arcade corner of Flinders Lane
Open 12-6pm Tuesday to Saturday during exhibition program
BLINDSIDE is supported by the City of Melbourne.
BLINDSIDE's projects have been assisted by the Australian Government
through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory
body, and by the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy, an initiative of the
Australian, State and Territory Governments.