Visual Art

The German-born gleaner and Darlinghurst institution in a retrospective at Heide. By Patrick Hartigan.

Gunter Christmann exhibition outside the box

Sprankle paintings in the Gunter Christmann: Now and Then exhibition.
Sprankle paintings in the Gunter Christmann: Now and Then exhibition.
Credit: Christian Capurro

Gunter Christmann was a painter and sometime bricklayer. German-born, he arrived in Sydney in 1959 and spent the next five decades, until his death last year, wandering Darlinghurst as he fossicked out the images and odd shapes he would take back for his paintings.

A builder I once worked for liked to extol the merits of bricks. Holding his hand around one, he demonstrated that the width of a brick is what can comfortably be picked up and held by a human hand. Stretching his arm out, he showed that the weight of a brick is just light enough to hold with an extended arm. The length of a brick is exactly twice its width, making them easy to stack.

The parameters of bricks and the walls they so reliably build are somehow in keeping with Christmann’s attitude towards painting: how and what can we do within these containment lines? In terms of process, there’s also the meeting of the horizontal and vertical: like bricks becoming a wall, his paintings were usually created on, or in response to, the ground.

As with the physical structures that bricks sustain, painting is a language that adopts definite and reliable means to steady its architecture. The attempts to unsteady this vocabulary of physical facts have tended to only reinforce the brick-like staying power. In their crudest terms, paintings are more or less flat rectangles hung on walls. Across the object, within the rectangle, painting performs its gesture; one of the key fundaments of painting history is the meeting of these two realities – pictorial language finding physical form –
and how they work with or against one another to produce or challenge meaning.

While Modernism’s shallowing of pictorial space brought more attention to the object side of painting, Christmann, adopting precisely those grammatical devices and signifiers of “avant-garde” painters, remained oriented towards the language end of things. This is clarified in his assertion, paraphrased by Lesley Harding, the curator of Gunter Christmann: Now and Then at Heide Museum of Modern Art until November 16, that “the painting is not so much an object in the world as an extension of our perception of the world”.

Christmann’s “sprankle” paintings certainly invite perceptual immersion. Pink Smoke Stone (1971) suggests an apprehension of the world somewhere between the surface of a stone, the haze of smoke and the spatter of a galaxy. These paintings, in which many layers of colour were sprinkled or flicked onto the surface of canvases lying underfoot, evolved into a less abstract process of walking, looking, capturing, looking, recapturing. One of Christmann’s hobbyhorses was tracking the limitations imposed by the frame, sometimes smuggling in fragments of the bigger, more chaotic world of nature beyond its purview to aid this process. At times he reminds me of the way a child will return home from a walk with a cherished pebble or feather for their keepsake box.

Boxes, like bricks, seem good markers for this artist. For Christmann, nature wasn’t the yawning chasms of his Romantic predecessors but the wooing of chance by means of “shuffle boxes”, “float tanks” and magnets in which simple shapes or the fragments underfoot – what he encountered most readily when wandering the streets of Darlinghurst for 40-odd years – could regain some of nature’s randomness, an “equivalent sort of integrity and rightness”, as he put it. The gleanings of Christmann’s walks – the plastic cable ties in Bagdad (2012-13) or the coathanger in The scholar (2011-13) – would be picked up and taken home before undergoing a kind of inversion of the scientific method by being placed in the box and shuffled back and forth into a pleasing disorder.

What increasingly occupied Christmann is what Wittgenstein, that language mischief-maker, referred to as “language games”: the game within the frame. Dodgem cars, billiard tables and pinball machines come to mind when noting the way Christmann delighted in bumping up against the frame’s edges. As if needing to further establish this playing field, he often reiterated the edges of his canvases with a kind of rule-defining painted edge. In Red Tops (2009) and Green Tops (2009), for example, there’s a quiet thrill in the floating, abstract forms of this painting-box that ultimately tame the physical and heavily historicised environment in which such forms participate.

While Christmann’s notion of nature “out there” and artifice “in here”, in the form of the studio and art history, of getting things right, can seem misguided, the way it so evidently maintained wonder for him was a good thing. But it’s also prescriptive: the small room in which the shuffle box and float tank pictures hang in this exhibition also contains a very understated video in which we are invited to share the spectacle of morphing red liquid in a tank of water, among other things. Standing beside the artist, we listen as he casually enthuses about the work in progress. With the inclusion of this outlier, one of two non-painting works in the show – “little playthings”, his term for anything in the spillage beyond painting – I enjoyed the merging of the downward gazing genesis of his paintings with the outcomes hanging on the walls around me.

Like Chateaubriand spending “hours among the warblers”, Christmann’s process certainly had a covetable, pervasive receptivity about it. But the beauty of his paintings is in their deference, the humble sticky tape as it were, with which he attempted to piece the lovely havoc of the world back together, rather than in their ability to overcome artifice.

Several weeks after visiting Heide, I’m still grappling with the question of what I actually feel about this exhibition, and why so much of the work – particularly the larger, more overtly figurative examples outside the room of shuffle box wonder – had no impact. In relation to many of the works, both abstract and figurative, it appeared that reverie was sacrificed to the convention of the picture plane, rather than finding a willing sponsor in it. Like Christmann’s pursuit of making things feel “right” in the frame, I find myself in a quandary here, while writing this piece, on how to tape down feelings both admiring and ho-hum.

With regards to the latter I find a worthwhile point of reference in the Australian abstract painter Ralph Balson, an artist Christmann admired. The thought of that artist, while roaming back and forth through the rooms, reminded me of how humble paintings can so energise as objects. I could also not help but speculate that this hanging, with its habitual groupings, might have benefited from a shuffling of sorts – some loosening in search of Christmann’s less wooden, more fortuitous potentialities as a painter and artist.

Encountering paintings merely being paintings, those tick-tocking minutes of a life delighting in filtering and filling a frame, can amount to nothing, or something of a blissful experience. The modesty and quality of resignation in some of Christmann’s paintings – private revolutions on the stoop of history – locates the apex most delicate and dear in his life’s work.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 25, 2014 as "Outside the box".

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Patrick Hartigan is a Sydney-based artist.

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