Anne Harry (Sydney), Constanze Zikos, Katie Moore (Adelaide), Lyell Bary (Brisbane), Steven Rendall
21 October - 6 November 2004
In the issue of Who magazine devoted to the best and worst dressed people of 2004 Jack White, of the White Stripes, comes in for perhaps the harshest criticism of any celebrity featured. Designating him as the worst dressed man of the year, one judge, Ty Henschke from the clothing label Ty+Melita, sums up White’s two outfits thus: “He looks wood-grained. He looks like a floor finish.” (1)
Apart from being a salutary lesson in the perils of wearing brown, Henschke’s comment is revealing for the insight it provides into the qualities of wood veneer. To examine the two images of Jack White they have reproduced in the magazine is to acknowledge that his appearance presents such a bland evenness, such a dull, flat, unbroken and lifeless expanse that the overall effect is one of blankness. White’s figure seems impervious to vision in the same way wood grain can be a type of camouflage, able to spread out its own invisibility in a layer. It achieves this not merely by hiding what lies beneath it when it is laid on as a veneer but by performing this invisibility across its own surface through the repetition of the grain. If the quality of being deadpan, could be gathered up, compacted and rolled out, it would unfurl in the depthless patterning of wood veneer.
Actual or simulated wood laminate – in its various incarnations as plywood, painted-on wood patterning, wood veneer and wood-grained plastic adhesive – is incorporated in some substantial manner in each of the works that make up this exhibition featuring Lyell Bary (Brisbane), Anne Harry (Sydney), Katie Moore (Adelaide), Steven Rendall and Constanze Zikos (both based in Melbourne).
On first consideration, the idea of organising an exhibition around a single substance, especially a fairly idiosyncratic material like wood veneer, seems arbitrary if not perverse. However, if you consider veneer is a verb as well as a noun, then what these artists have in common is not simply the material they use, with its qualities of being low-tech, cheap, thin, flexible, insubstantial and lightweight. Just as significantly, by sharing a tactic of applying wood as facade, or choosing to work with materials that already incorporate this feature (irrespective of whether it is actual or imitation wood), each enters into a strategy of simulation, imitation, camouflage, superficiality, disguise and deception.
By simulation or deception, I do not necessarily mean that the artists in Veneer deliberately conceal their materials, or perform visual substitutions, but rather they employ wood in such a way that it departs the condition of being a substance and approaches the condition of being an image; there is a simulation effect in the hyper-visuality created by the image of wood’s surface details when they are divorced from its substance. Constanze Zikos’ work for this exhibition consists of adhesive plastic (the product here is called Kontakt) applied directly to the wall is a side-by-side inlay that approximates a tessellation, marquetry and cloisonné effect, but on a much larger scale than these techniques normally adopt. Zikos has covered two long, rectangular, vertical sections of masonry either side of the windows in a geometric pattern created by four different surface effects: mid and dark brown woodgrain, metallic woodgrain and silver.
Each of the artists in this exhibition has employed techniques or materials that push wood in the direction of wallpaper, but Zikos adopts its most extreme and dematerialised form: an imitation wood product which, having no body or structure of its own, clings to the walls for support. To understand the way in which a dematerialised image of wood signifies in each of these artists work, but especially in Zikos’ painting practice, I think it is necessary to briefly retrace the history of wood’s use as a material in the discipline of painting. For the divorcing of wood’s image from its substance is not a particular innovation by these artists; it is part of the history of Western painting practice.
Over the course of the development of European painting, around the Renaissance period on, the image of wood began to detach from its substance. This detachment is not the ordinary separation that exists in the process of representation, where one thing can stand in for another. Instead it is a doubly inscribed separation because of the way that wood retreated from providing the support for the painting medium at the same time as representations of wood began to proliferate within paintings to a much greater degree than ever before. The rapid spread of the medium of oil on canvas, around the 1500s onwards, eclipsed tempera on wood as the preferred medium for discrete or autonomous painting (painting that was not integrated with the architecture in the manner of fresco). Not only was wood rapidly overtaken by canvas as the dominant support for painting, but the lightweight and portable stretched canvas panels that replaced it relegated wood’s role to that of a frame that provided distension for the canvas but remained unseen and even concealed. Its role in the hidden structure of painting was even incidental to the degree that canvases are easily and readily removed from stretchers and restretched on other frames as required. The image of wood could still, and increasingly did, appear as a painted representation on the surface of the canvas, especially with the rise of the genre, still-life, picturesque, and academic modes of painting, but remained conspicuously absent from its support to the degree of suppression.
When wood appears in Zikos’ work, as in Rendall’s and Moore’s (despite her work occupying three dimensions, I believe it engages theoretically with the discipline of painting), there is a reversal of this effect. Each artist stages the return of wood as all surface,with no distension. The ‘wood’ in their works possesses no structure of its of own apart from what other materials – foam, stretched canvas, the gallery walls – can provide. This decisive split between the image and substance of wood was never made more explicit than during the early years of the twentieth century when the Cubists (Braque, Gris and Picasso) took up the idea and worked it through exhaustively in image after image that portrayed wooden objects – mandolins, violins, guitars, walls and table tops – through the application of collaged papers printed with imitation woodgrain. Several of Georges Braque’s works even feature sections of brown paint, applied flat initially and then scratched through in parallel lines with a comb or similar device in the most cursory approximation of woodenness. These sections are sharply delineated at the edges and over- or under-lapped with other surface treatments to suggest they are not depictions of wood but painted simulations of collaged woodgrain-printed paper.
I think painting retains, within its own discipline, the memory of wood. This wood, having departed from painting in substance, repeatedly stages its own return to painting by a kind of sleight of hand, in a dematerialised form, as a hyper visuality on (and often parallel with) the surface. (2)
Constanze Zikos’ work stages a symbolic return to the pre-oil-on-stretched-canvas mode of tempera-on-wood. The one traditional art form that has retained the practice of painting on solid wood (in oil or tempera together with gold leaf) is the production of religious icons in the Christian churches of eastern orthodoxy. Like icon painting, many of Zikos’ works adopt the form of paint on wood, using enamel on plywood or wood laminex. His images often repeat the motifs of secular icons (flags) as well as quotation of ancient religious icons (stars and crosses). His painted works may be understood in terms of icons not only because they depict these powerful cultural symbols, also because in many of his composite laminex painting images he retraces or picks out forms with thin lines of pale colours – such as the stars on his seminal work Fake Flag (1994) – in what operates as a kind of halo effect. Or in the case of the work he is showing here, he picks out accents in a metallic finish.
One motif that Zikos makes repeated use of in other works refers to the manner in which Greek temples retain the memory of wood within their marble architecture. Numerous of Zikos’ paintings have incorporated some version of the Doric frieze. This temple frieze is a carved marble representation of the wooden triglyphs and metopes that were part of the structure of wooden temples preceding the marble ones. In a discussion of the historical significance of the image of the Doric frieze in Zikos’ work, Merryn Gates writes, “[W]ith the change of building materials from wood to marble, what had its source in structure became motif.” (3) Zikos depicts this frieze repeatedly, across many of his works, to symbolise the way architecture memorialises wood. This operates as a counterpart to the concern in his practice with the idea that painting retains, within its discipline, a memory of wood – a memory whose return he repeatedly stages through a symbolic and stylised engagement with icon painting. Zikos’ paintings use veneers and laminates, substances with shallow depth, but the two types of wood they evoke are the solid and the invisible; the solid wood of the orthodox icon and the imaginary wood, the dematerialised memory of wood in the Greek temple frieze.
Katie Moore’s collection of ‘wooden’ objects are arrange in the centre of the room like theatre props. And as with theatre sets, we read the woodenness of their surfaces at a distance, and symbolically invest them with the solidity of real furnishings. Up close, though, we can see that Moore is not fooling anyone. There is no attempt to disguise the materials as anything but what they are. The ‘bench’ is made of synthetic foam encased in an adhesive imitation wood product called Cover-it (also known in Australia as Con-tact) in the approximated colour of teak. Two ‘stones’ are in fact plaster ovals covered by the same product in a lighter shade of pine. Up close, this tableau creates an effect not exactly of objects that try to be convincingly wooden but rather embody the abstract quality of ‘woodness’.This ‘woodness’ seems to be an attribute that real wooden objects can never have; it can only be attempted by something that is not wood but takes on exaggerated aspects of its appearance. The product Moore has used to cover her objects mimics wood in a way that is blatant (in this case through a hyper stripy surface treatment in a medium to dark brown colour) without really trying to deceive anyone that it is actual wood.
I think the artist identifies the ontological status of this stick-on imitation woodgrain product most precisely when she claims that she is drawn to using it not because, or despite, it being fake wood but because it is real Con-tact. There is a degree to which materials aren’t real or fake anything; they are what they are. In discussing the increasing polymorphousness of materials caused by the manufacture of synthetics, Jean Baudrillard writes, “Objectively, substances are simply what they are: there is no such thing as a true or a false, a natural or an artificial substance. How could concrete be somehow less ‘authentic’ than stone?” (4)
In it’s portrayal of everyday objects and its placement in a deliberate, artful composition, I think Moore’s work relates to the discipline of still-life. In conversation with me, she rejected too close an association with the still-life genre because of its lifelessness, its frozen qualities. And while I do not believe her artwork is either frozen or lifeless – there is a sense of humour that animates it – I do however think that it references the deadest mode of them all within the still-life genre, the vanitas. The vanitas confronts the viewer with his or her own mortality by presenting objects that represent the passage of time and/or decay.
Woodgrain symbolically represents time in all its eternity because wood is the image of its own history; wood recounts a tree’s own life story. Each ring, knot, blemish and striation in the grain of the wood represents slow growth in the life of a tree. The grain of the wood represents both an immense span of time but also time arrested, for the tree must be felled before the grain can be laid bare. Even where the wood is imitation, the grain still operates as a schematic or shorthand reference to the passing of time. The meaning is embedded in the grain of the wood whether such grain is hard-won by slow accretions in the forest, or more fraudulently acquired by being printed on, in stripes, in a factory. If several of the artists in this exhibition use the image of woodgrain in connection with the idea of memorial, this is because wood especially lends itself to the practice of commemoration. Wood is its own memorial; its surface is its own history made palpable. And it is significant that Katie Moore’s tableau centres around a bench seat, an object associated with passing time or more particularly, waiting for something to happen. But the anticipated action may already be in the distant past. The old-fashioned and outdated pair of shears set in a stony landscape is a nostalgic evocation of a type of rural labour that has long vanished.
One manner in which the genre of the vanitas reminds us that the
world is transient is by revelling in the material surfaces of things.
Convincing details, and carefully painted textures, reveal the material
deceptions that belie our passage on this earth. The exaggerated
‘woodness’ of Con-tact burdens us with a complete disclosure,
a full revelation of the surface details of the material. But if
the vanitas is often also based on representations of material decay,
then herein lies the real deception that sustains Moore’s
work. Clinging to the underside of the shears is a little foam snail,
an animal associated with an extreme slowness of movement, and it
is this little detail that provides the key. Wood – despite
symbolising time in all its eternity – eventually breaks down,
but plastic as we know has a half-life that rivals that of uranium.
Lyell Bary’s painting Cuckoo II features the application of paint over most of the surface of a large-format sheet of plywood. It is divided into flat segments of colour using a limited palette of three shades of acrylic paint. He exposes the surface of the wood only by leaving a slender network of lines bare of paint, the natural hue of the wood imparting a fourth colour to the composition.
The artist has constructed the image by superimposing a drawing (sourced from Branch of Leaves, 1970, by Ellsworth Kelly) onto the plywood. Where the curved lines of the drawing interact with the dominant lines of the wood grain, this articulates closed shapes that Bary identifies and fills in with paint, leaving bare a linear band along each edge. The paint is applied with an overall flatness and crisp edges not unlike the effect of stencilling or screen printing.
Over the course of his painting career, Bary has worked exclusively with these materials of acrylic paint and plywood. His practice varies in the application of colour and the infill treatment used across the grain sections. But his work remains consistent in that the composition always follows the lines in the grain of the wood, and he leaves some section of the plywood bare of paint, allowing the wood to reveal itself, and to represent itself, on the surface of the painting.
By looking for these intersections between the lines of the drawing and the lines of the wood, Bary is likening the grain of the wood to a readymade composition or visual framework. Instead of being confronted by a blank canvas, each sheet of plywood he selects for painting on comes with its own markings, a type of compositional armature to hang things off. Moreover, this structure or framework is likened to the modernist grid in that it bears its own internal part-to-partness. It has an overall pattern, internal markings or subdivisions and a broad equivalence between parts.
But there is nothing mechanical, geometric or predictable about the structure of the wood grain. Bary is drawn to using plywood as his support partly because no two sheets of wood are the same. Each one is unique in the patterning of its grain; the appearance of each incorporates chance and randomness. Bary’s working style exposes the notion that shapes in the grain of the wood are like patterns in clouds. Once Bary identifies a shape, he can coax it out by applying paint in some areas and leaving others empty. The wood has its own compositional logic that can be highlighted or minimised, but never completely defied.
The image of Cuckoo II remains abstract but because it is made up of a bold and stylised network of lines and shapes our eye seeks out symbolic patterns in the image, as we would in an Henri Matisse collage or a John Coburn painting. The title suggests the image of a bird, encouraging us to identify some shapes that may be tail feathers, some leaves, perhaps an egg. Maybe the word cuckoo also hints at something else, something more wooden: a kitsch carved timber clock, and the Black Forest where it originates from.
Because Bary works along, and not across, the grain of the wood, the sections of exposed plywood of his painting appear to be featureless, lacking any of the lines or tonal variations we expect to see in the grain of the wood. To look at the apparently flat yellowish linear network connecting the shapes in his painting is to be deceived into thinking that there is no woodgrain to be seen. By following the lines of the grain so exactly, it is as if Bary has managed to suppress them. He deliberately works too close to the grain. I think Bary’s strategy is to reveal the grain of the wood and in revealing it, to efface it. The grain of the wood is now forever lost to the line of the paint. In Bary’s work we may say that it is the paint itself that becomes ingrained.
Anne Harry’s work is a black-on-black grid structure made up of multiple squares of burnt beech veneer applied to a stained wooden support. Her work, (like the ashtray sculpture by Steven Rendall), makes direct reference to wood’s potential as fuel; in Harry’s case it is by singeing the surface of the beech to a powdery black that she evokes the material transformations effected by fire. Her work shares a reference to the grid with that of Lyell Bary, but here it is made more overt as this surface is divided into multiple squares. It has an overall regularity and symmetry without being rigid or mechanical. The image she presents could simply be the abstract grid which operates as a conventional device in modernist art, but can also be read as a chequerboard, an aerial depiction of a landscape under agriculture, or reference to the technique of marquetry where sections of different coloured woods are inlaid side-by-side for ornamental effect.
The chequerboard shape is suggested by the grid of black squares
but the art work’s placement on the vertical plane and the
absence of a distinct alternating pattern of dark and light tones
prevents us from reading it too literally along these lines. Alternatively,
as a representation of an aerial view of the landscape, each square
can appear as a sections of land under agriculture with the divisions
representing fences or enclosures. If the work is read in terms
of landscape, the surface burning of the veneer comes to evoke accidental
bushfires or the deliberate burning off that is part of land-clearing
practice, one stage in the cycle of regeneration that fire represents
within the landscape.
The raised circles that appear in many of the individual squares of veneer were vacuum-formed according to a mechanically process, but they can represent the ring shapes of salt pans in the landscape, the shape made by dumped tyres (especially those that adopt an abstract form when buried by dirt or sand), or even a stylised representation of the rings that form within a tree. If read in this way there is perhaps an irony here as well, because if the work is viewed as an aerial depiction of landscape then it is a denuded one in which trees are absent.
The other reading which this work permits is a self-conscious reflection on the ornamental technique of marquetry. Like marquetry, the work is made up of side-by-side inlaid sections of wood veneer. But Harry avoids the fetishisation of technique or potential for kitsch that marquetry can have by minimising the tonal variations across the inlaid pieces and adopting a technique that is deliberately low-tech. She uses pieces of veneer that are slightly irregular and incorporate splits in the wood. There is a randomness, too, in the interspersion across the grid of squares that are flat and those featuring embossed rings. As well as environmental renewal being evoked as the subject matter of the work, Harry’s work practices are themselves regenerative. She prioritises the use of plantation timbers, recycled wood and offcuts from industry. The technique Harry has applied in the manufacture of the work may be described as controlled burning. The way the artist transforms her materials with low and high technology, by cultural and natural means, operates as a metaphor for the way humans transform the landscape through industry and agriculture but their efforts must ultimately bow down to the laws and processes of nature.
If Lyell Bary’s work Cuckoo II represents an effacement of the grain, then Anne Harry’s work does too, but in a different manner. By burning the wood, she softens it to a rich, matte, velvety black finish. This surface fuzziness directly counteracts the usual crisp detail, the distinctness, the self-evident self-revelation that is the usual way in which wood articulates its own distinct details through its own grain. To soften this grain is to silence it and render the surface enigmatic. Ultimately this is an evocative work of art possessing great formal beauty. It hints at various meanings but cannot be pinned down too precisely. Here is a work whose surface continues to smoulder in a slow burn long after the flame that ignited it has been extinguished.
More than any of the other artists in this exhibition Steven Rendall rethinks the innovations of Cubism through his images and materials. By incorporating depictions of imitation woodgrain within his paintings, his work reiterates some of the strategies Picasso, Braque and Gris employed in their paintings and papier collé works. In the sculpted ashtray piece, he reiterates some of the conventions Picasso used in his reliefs and assemblages. The ashtray is even attached to the wall on its own shelf, in recognition that it shares concerns with Cubist relief assemblage rather than operating as sculpture-in-the-round. It has the same sense of deliberate crappiness of one of Picasso’s cardboard guitar assemblages. It even takes especial glee in its slipshod manufacture: Rendall knows it is bogus and takes pleasure, as does the spectator, in the joke.
There is a lovely detail within this work where Rendall coincidentally echoes Zikos’ concern with painting and architecture both retaining a memory of wood. The filter ends of Rendall’s modelled cigarettes are covered in cork-effect Con-tact. Rendall mentions to me in conversation that in the distant past, cigarettes used cork wood as the filter. The now universal practice of printing an imitation cork pattern around the filter in the manufacture of cigarettes is a testimony to the fact that cigarettes retain the memory of wood within the logic of their construction. Further, it becomes hard to read Rendall’s sculpture as being in any way ‘fake’ when those real things they portray incorporate their own simulations.
Like the work of Anne Harry’s we have already discussed, this sculpture of Rendall’s refers to the combustibility of wood, but here it has a daft aspect because an ashtray could never conceivably be made of a substance that is itself flammable. In its focus on burning, it is also about transience, the brief passage of time it takes a lit and abandoned cigarette to burn down to the end. Although the moment is frozen, latent within the meaning of this work is the thought that when the cigarette burns down, the moment will draw to a close and something besides the cigarette, we are not sure what, will be snuffed out. It is a sombre art work; like that of Katie Moore, a vanitas, and like that of Constanze Zikos, a memorial. Rendall’s paintings appear to depict not woodgrain but imitation woodgrain. They are not paintings of wood but of Con-tact. Although the distinction I make here is to isolate real woodgrain from fake, I think Rendall’s work achieves the opposite: he shows that all woodgrain (real or fake) blurs into one stripy oblivion, all woodgrain (real of fake) operates as a simulacrum. In F.A. and Tears, Abuse and Accusations of Subterfuge he incorporates painted-on sections of wood grain in unexpected areas within his paintings. In each, there is a visual confusion between two words that have their own logic but do not make sense in relation to one another. Each bears a section that is a painterly depiction of the world and a section painted with brown stripes of flat woodgrain. It is as if one of these two representations – either the painted world or the painted wood – is intruding on the other but we cannot be sure which is the impostor. In one of the two paintings, F.A., we are encouraged to believe the artists’s own hand is poised to pull back the veil, but we will never find out whether it will be the illusionistic painting describing a three-dimensional world, or the stripes of brown woodgrain that will be torn away, denounced as fraud.
This dual logic in Rendall’s work relates to the nature of the self-adhesive product, Con-tact, that he depicts. It comes in a roll, in which the adhesive part (woodgrain) is designed to peel away from the backing paper (usually a blue and white grid). Both of the two-part, hyphenated names this product is sold under – Con-tact or Cover-it – seem to announce the very duality of its nature, the back-to-backness it represents, its own verso-recto equivalence. This world Rendall is depicting in his paintings – the world of Con-tact – is not a world in the round. It is flat and depthless like veneer. It has a verso and a recto and while you can peel the stick-on wood away from the backing paper, you can no more separate out its dual logic than you can conceive of a one-sided coin or a one-sided sheet of paper.
Monkey Painting is a little different in its operation from the other two painted works. In the image, a monkey appears to be painting woodgrain onto a stretched canvas. But the bottom strip of the canvas is blank, making the stripes appear as if they are being filled in by some parallel motion gradually creeping down the canvas, rather than the monkey completing each individual stripe from top to bottom before moving across the painting. While I was discussing this work with Katie Moore, she made the lovely observation that the monkey was probably applying the stripes in the mechanical manner of a computer printer: from left to right, then back again in slow, automatic increments down the page, filling it from top to bottom. Or perhaps the monkey knows it is not really painting these wooden stripes, knows it is merely holding the brush for effect, while the woodgrain, presumably printed in a factory, seems to be rolling down the canvas of its own accord. Rendall’s work holds out the threat that Con-tact, once loosened from the tight roll it comes in, could unfurl and spread virally to infinity, effacing everything in its wake.
This foregrounds the other feature of woodgrain that we have only just touched on in passing. By revealing all its details promiscuously on its surface, it represents alike time in all its plenitude and time in all its tedium. For woodgrain can be boring, repetitive, and endlessly monotonous. The effacement that is taking place in the painting Tears, Abuse and Accusations of Subterfuge has already blanked out part of a dog and the whole of a person; it may be impossible to arrest its further spread. Which brings us back to where we began with the image of a man whose appearance, incorporating the likeness of woodgrain, renders him blank or invisible.
Let us briefly revisit the hapless Jack White who ought not go undefended against the attempted sartorial assassination at the hands of Ty Henschke. For being likened to wood grain in his dress, for achieving an overall effect with his appearance that finds its equivalent in floor finish, let us grade White on a different scale from that employed by Who magazine and award him full marks; for this was the effect Andy Warhol strove for all his life but never quite managed to achieve.
1 “Best & Worst Dressed 2004” Who, Sydney, August 30, 2004
2 There is insufficient room to fully develop this argument here, but I wish to remark that this effect never erupts more startlingly than in Jacques-Louis David’s painting of the slain Marat, slumped gracefully over the side of his bathtub like the dead hero of a classical tragedy. The one strange note in the painting is the inclusion of a scruffy wooden box next to the bathtub. This upturned wooden packing case, representing Marat’s makeshift writing desk, is depicted so the plane of the wood lies perfectly parallel to the surface of the canvas like a placard. David paints his dedication and his signature therein and it appears not so much on the plane of the painting as on the surface of the wood, giving this erstwhile wooden packing case the gravity of a tombstone. I think it is significant that, in this painting, wood functions as memorial.
3 Gates, Merryn 1997. Patterning in Contemporary Art: Layers of Meaning. Melbourne: Asialink; Canberra: Canberra School of Art Gallery. p. 24.
4 Baudrillard, Jean. 1996 The System of
Objects. London: Verso p. 38
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