A new exhibition of works by Robert MacPherson at GOMA showcases an artist for whom life, art and work are inextricably bound. By Patrick Hartigan.
Robert MacPherson at GOMA
In this story
Standing before the urinal at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane I watched imagined word associations sluice by like the water down that shiny, metallic wall: WATERFALL, PAINTING, PISSER, DUCHAMP. Leaving the bathroom I returned to the foyer for a second look at CHITTERS: A WHEELBARROW FOR RICHARD, 156 PAINTINGS, 156 SIGNS (1999-2000), the immense text painting that introduces Robert MacPherson’s exhibition The Painter’s Reach, on until October 18.
The work presents a grid of what seem to be signs found by rural roadsides. The simple means of white paint on black background, uniform Masonite panels, create something of a giant bark painting, while the entwining letters, words, phrases and customs offer the sense, rather than tradition, of landscape. “BLOOD + BONE”, “BOBCATS”, “MANURE”, “TURF”, “MULCH” – life and labour rolled on with the gift, quite exotic to art, of pragmatism. I guess it’s that hand’s finely tuned sympathies that keep me gazing up while feeling firmly on the ground.
MacPherson has spent his 40-plus year career absorbed by the convolutions of art while steadied and nourished by working roots. As a worker he’s the daydreamer on site, the abstractionist cursed with that twitching muscle known as reflexivity; as an artist he’s in his own words the “child poking holes into the wet paper bag” of intellectual conceit. The straddling of these worlds has resulted in an array of distinctive paintings, Masonite and text often their key ingredients, as well as a rich archive of reflections more slight.
The American artist and writer Robert Smithson, who addressed the land, though very differently to MacPherson, liked to emphasise the fraught task of writing about art – forever prone to abbreviation and simplistic classification – while not “cheating” artists of their time. “Any critic who devalues the time of the artist is the enemy of art and artists,” he noted. For some reason this statement, its sentiment at least, bobbed into my head between the urinal and my return to CHITTERS. Made lonely and apprehensive by the idea, I sought refuge on a leather seat under the shade of an escalator to give it some thought.
Time is impossible to fully value, by artists as much as those referring to their artworks; their objects in these museums robbed of the elusive twists and turns, minutes or decades, the life, basically, that ultimately made them. There’s no way to maintain time, only the possibility of regaining some characteristic flow or element of it through the process of its reordering. This is a tremendously difficult affair in the case of someone like MacPherson, the multitudinous and concentric nature of his work defying any easy, linear solutions. In my mind this showing of MacPherson flowed logically but, through the cutting off of smaller tributaries, seemed to move too swiftly. Tilting my head I discovered a fellow loner by way of MAYFAIR: MUDDIES FOR HENRY BURY (1999-2002), a painting about words or crabs.
The strong sense I get of MacPherson’s time is of art being made according to the measure of life, life being lived according to the measure of work. As with certain breathing techniques the result is a constant and steady channelling, back and forth between the material jurisdiction of a studio and the wealth of material lying beyond it: lunch, part-time jobs, trips to the drycleaners and a variety of actions, sentiments and relics associated with the ennui of pursuing something at once monumental and weirdly peripheral.
One finds system and analysis in MacPherson’s early paintings, the outcomes of which possess the material thinness of Chinese ink painting in combination with those less fleeting antecedent building blocks he’s addressing – the object at the base of it all. Nothing is taken for granted, everything at face value, as he assesses the most basic proposition that is a painting. If you weren’t a monk, you’d go crazy applying such due diligence to life.
The meditation expands: anything painted or with colour is a painting. Even referring to colour or other painterly attributes or processes, from spreads on a sandwich to household paintbrushes. “Any move beyond this point is superfluous,” remark the text captions between three classic red house paintbrushes in THREE PAINTINGS (1981). On the other side of the same wall, SCALE FROM THE TOOL (SABCO) (1977) likewise gives this object something of the charged, sacred status of an icon, its transition from paintbrush into painting, working-class utility into abstract purity, made holy and clear.
“All good art comes from previous art,” MacPherson once said, explaining something of the inherently self-conscious activity that making art is. Early works by this artist identify that the brush of art is always loaded, and while all artists go forth with some level of self-consciousness, very few, MacPherson sometimes among them, have the ability to own self-consciousness and use it to their creative advantage.
MacPherson’s oeuvre gains more gravity when the blasphemed conventions of the rectangle get reconsecrated through their intersection with more everyday materials and shapes – the map of Queensland in NATIONAL ART: A SIMPLISTIC VIEW ‘QUEENSLAND SERIES’ (1978) or Easter buns in MAYFAIR: SIX FOR BUBBLES, EASTER (1995-2006). These and MAYFAIR: PALMS (2007-08) – the word “PALMS” with its backwards ‘S’, reposed on its idyll of chipped Masonite – are among a handful of my favourite works in this show. A word, a sign and a colour crossing paths with a colour, a shape and a surface: strangely epic though almost nothing.
A curious contingent of MacPherson’s output adopts the alter-ego persona of a fourth-grade boy, from 1947, named Robert Pene. These works represent something more inscrutable – spasmodic outbursts of what might be this artist’s scepticism towards art’s elevation, its notions of purity and innocence, or simply a way of having fun. WHITE DRUMMER: 15 FROG POEMS (MAMARAGAN) FOR D.P. (1989-90), the first of these works, presents a taxonomy of graphite-drawn cloud and horizon studies, hung to the height of a 10-year-old. Stained to look old, attacked with the stamps and approving comments of his fictitious teacher, they betray their very grown-up intelligence: the line moves freely but with something of a pantomimic twist.
The repetition of the word “DUCK’S” in MAYFAIR; DUCKS 5 SIGNS, 5 PAINTINGS (DRUNKEN BUDDHA) FOR IAN FAIRWEATHER (1992-2004) awakens the mind with the wonder and fluttering – a word flock scattering from the reeds – of that delightful error. That homage in its title is also interesting and a reminder that painting, at its core the filling of a frame, is no different to life. As MacPherson once said of art or life, though it could equally have been Fairweather or the Drunken Buddha: “I then realised it was a personal container and all I had to do was cover it.”
At the end of the exhibition 17 FROG POEMS (FOR G.N. & A.W. [WHO BY EXAMPLE] TAUGHT THE KINDER WAY) (1987-89) juxtaposes canvas stretcher beds with Metl-Stik text and Latin terms for frogs. Stretching between the idealisms of classification and the nether regions of poetry, it’s a work decidedly more subdued, less chittering. Lying in the shadows of more painterly gestures it locates the unique, if not exactly painterly, reach of this artist. Like his early paintings this is a work about human scale while its implications are thoroughly incorporeal. It’s a good note on which to finish any show.
FESTIVAL St Albans Writers’ Festival
Various venues, St Albans, NSW, September 18-20
HORTICULTURE Floriade 2015
Commonwealth Park, Canberra, until October 11
CINEMA Sydney Underground Film Festival
Factory Theatre, Sydney, September 17-20
FASHION Perth Fashion Festival
Various venues, Perth, September 15-20
THEATRE They Saw a Thylacine
Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, September 15-October 4
Moonah Arts Centre, Hobart, September 17-19
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 12, 2015 as "Signs of life".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial