Visual Art

Two exhibitions of utopian abstraction enable comparison of pure ideological approaches with something gentler. The latter is more satisfying. By Patrick Hartigan.

Visions of Utopia and Superposition of three types

Ralph Balson’s Construction, Transparent Planes (1942)
Ralph Balson’s Construction, Transparent Planes (1942)
Credit: Michael Waite

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Ralph Balson was, from the age of 12, a house painter. But in his art he had a special knack for getting at what Wassily Kandinsky called painting’s “laws of internal necessity”.

From the blue and black rectangles of Balson’s Construction, Transparent Planes (1942), a series of warmer, perfectly weighted notes chime to bring gravity, equilibrium and completeness to this mini-cosmos. The only excesses to be found are, on closer inspection, in the tiny gatherings of paint at the edges of each circle and rectangle.

In Balson’s constructions, celestial necessity and immaculate composure find purchase through deferential and dutiful brushstrokes – stroking windows by day, paintings by night – in ways I find both relaxing and uplifting.

The picture is part of Visions of Utopia, an exhibition about pure or geometric abstraction curated by Andrew Christofides, on at Penrith Regional Gallery and the Lewers Bequest. It is a modest show, but with some gems by names people won’t necessarily know.

Balson came to his “Construction” works from Cubism, the movement developed by Picasso and Braque in early 20th-century Paris that saw a hacking away at pictorial illusion. He did so partly under the guidance of his well-travelled friend Grace Crowley, also in this show. The purer forms of abstraction that emerged from Cubism, in the years leading up to and following World War I, betray an urge to break with the past. Bolshevik Russia – by then making art under the banner of Constructivism – repudiated bourgeois individualism and embraced forms of “construction” more in line with social progress.

At the Bauhaus in Germany, where Kandinsky taught, a similar purging of pictorial content took place. Getting back to basic form by removing decorative superfluities, its focus was very much on the logic of the grid rather than the mytho-logic of more national or romantic interests. In both cases, the rejection of content links abstraction with utopia, a word and fictional concept deriving from the Greek words for not and place. Literally, it means “nowhere”. Thomas More, a lawyer with earlier hankerings for the monkhood, was the first to use the word in 1516, for a book about an island of inhuman order and sobriety.

Notwithstanding its erasures and reimaginings – some more severe and far-reaching than others – pure abstraction remains closely tethered to painting history. Interestingly, the works I was most drawn to in Visions of Utopia were those that called to mind early Renaissance frescoes. Frank Hinder’s modestly scaled tempera on paper, Construction (1943), transported me back to the chapel in Arezzo, in Italy, adorned with Piero della Francesca’s epic fresco cycle The Legend of the True Cross (c. 1440s).

Hinder’s even and gentle application of Tuscan hues – given breath and life by a series of white diagonal strips cutting through its middle – evokes a period of art both centred around mathematical systems relating to spatial depiction and proportion and the falling and rising of a cross at the centre of religious worship. The intersecting of scientific inquiry and reverential surrender, as well as the integrating or reunifying of painting with surrounding architectures, closely links worlds six centuries apart.

Jon Plapp’s Least all turns almost now (1993) has divine proportions. Its Mondrian-esque composition of verticals and horizontals – suggestive of a window within a window, or perhaps a religious altar – assuages with an unlikely combination of colour chords: highlighter-pen pinks, greens and yellows between dense, black lines; a square frame of flesh-pink encased by delicate pencil-like red daubs. It’s a painting that both merges with the language of architecture and asserts itself as an autonomous reality and object. A similar quality can be found in the paintings of Winston Roeth, an exhibition of whose work – not reviewed here – can be currently viewed at Fox Jensen Gallery in Sydney.

In Balson’s example I find a humility and resistance to the ideology that pure abstraction’s idealism often precipitates. His was an openness that saw order eventually embrace chaos, at that moment losing the support of critic and self-restrained Surrealist painter James Gleeson. “For an artist to deny that he is a man means that he has become less than an artist. He has become an accident’s assistant,” Gleeson wrote in response to an exhibition in 1963 of Balson’s “Matter Paintings”, the looser topographies of paint directly influenced by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and the principle of indeterminacy.

The recently deceased Sydney Ball also traversed these territories; he’s the only artist in Visions of Utopia to also be found in Superposition of three types, an exhibition about colour and abstraction at Artspace, curated by Talia Linz and Alexie Glass-Kantor, which celebrates indeterminacy. Superposition is a term in quantum physics referring to subatomic particles in their fluid state of connectivity prior to becoming empirically accessible or discernible. If you imagine what painting looks like in this state – bunches of cloth, brightly coloured shapes and walls, timber constructs and other optical stimulants – then you’ll have a vague picture of what this show looks like.

Taking its cue from more aggressively utopian ideas of collapsing painting into architecture – abandoning stricter traditional forms while replacing them with no less functional ones – this orgy of colour bursts through the containment lines of frames in a manner that has the contemplative potential of art being thrown out with the bathwater of convention. Aiming to “resist the increasing grasp of commercial culture” it comes across as a very hard sell, in moments bearing eerie resemblance to the all-encompassing shopping arcadia of IKEA, or perhaps its kids’ play areas.

My flat response to a collection of paintings by Elizabeth Newman – enjoyed a few months previously in the deafening, stark white surrounds of Neon Parc’s Brunswick space in Melbourne – was instructive. The same paintings here, on walls brightly painted by Rebecca Baumann, seemed small and somehow lacking in energy – this in spite, or perhaps because of, their energetic surrounds. It might merely demonstrate my preference for paintings that operate internally or at least more subtly in relation to their surroundings but the disjuncture also highlights the reality of Collectivism – usually tied to an agenda or interest, in this case what I assume to be the curator’s.

If Superposition of three types exercises its utopian vision with feverish verve then Visions of Utopia has an air somewhat languid and aloof to its surroundings. I was puzzled by the placement of technology in this context, a television in the show’s centre supplanting pure sensory experience with curatorial commentary, and a couple of iPads sitting in front of one of the quietest works, Saqqara XXVII (1991) by Hector Gilliland. This demonstrated the way reductive paintings both closely relate to technological form and yet are undermined by it. Reduced to technicians working towards Bauhaus goals such as mass production and the standardising of form, painters later faced extinction in the very school and vision they helped establish.

Considered together, the two shows recall differences that emerged exactly a century ago between friends cum rival utopianists: Mondrian, the introvert theosophist, and Theo van Doesburg, the extrovert founder and leader of De Stijl, or “The Style”, who advocated a whole societal vision. In February 1917, Mondrian wrote to van Doesburg, “You must remember that my things are still intended to be paintings, that is to say, not part of a building. Furthermore, they have been made in a small room.”

Whenever you talk about hard-edge abstraction you enter into a complex and convoluted web of manifestos and theories. Abstraction – generally speaking – frees the canvas of pictures so as to search for universal truths and imagine new worlds. These two shows reveal the same impulses for utopian projection but from very different places, neat versus spilled, quiet against verbose.


1 . Arts Diary

CINEMA Cradle Mountain Film Festival

Cradle Mountain, Tasmania, March 31-April 2

VISUAL ART Streeton Prints

Queenscliff Gallery and Workshop, Victoria, until April 30

COMEDY Melbourne International Comedy Festival

Various venues, Melbourne, March 29-April 23

VISUAL ART The National 2017

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, March 30-July 16

VISUAL ART Albert Tucker and Fred Williams: The Springbrook Landscapes

Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until August 27

HORTICULTURE Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show

Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, March 29-April 2

CINEMA KidzFlicks

Event Cinemas, Bondi Junction, NSW, March 27-31

CULTURE Refugee Trauma Recovery in Resettlement Conference

Wesley Conference Centre, Sydney, March 29-31

Last chance

MUSIC Field Trip 2017

University of Adelaide Waite Campus, March 31

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 25, 2017 as "The shape of things to come".

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Patrick Hartigan is a Sydney-based artist.

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