Exhibition

Nadine Christensen’s first retrospective exhibition surveys 25 years of a diverse practice. By Lisa Radford.

Nadine Christensen: Around at Buxton Contemporary

A work from Nadine Christensen: Around at Buxton Contemporary.
A work from Nadine Christensen: Around at Buxton Contemporary.
Credit: Christian Capurro

The BBC Science Focus magazine tells me flies have evolved a highly acrobatic flying style. The single-paragraph entry says that instead of turning by flapping harder with one wing, flies roll their body to one side and pull up like a fighter pilot. The random zigzag effect makes it much harder for birds to get a “missile lock” on them.

I have visited Nadine Christensen’s first survey exhibition at Buxton Contemporary a few times since its media preview on November 24. Not unlike the fly, I move between works inside and outside of the museum, in and out of order. Rolling like the fly between walls, hearing the media tour, attempting to avoid the lock of the institutional lead, I hear 85 or so works, some new, are collected for the exhibition. It’s hung achronologically, enabling me to meander through 25 years of practice and myriad iconographic and formal relations.

A few nights earlier, at post-Victorian College of the Arts Art Grad Show drinks at Blondie bar, I see a man reclining. His bike rests on a nearby pole and beside him is a bucket, side-saddle bag and cinematic snacks. He is perched on the corner of Dodds Street and Southbank Boulevard. “Best seats in the house,” he says. “And they’re free!”

He is watching Nadine Christensen’s new four-minute video work, Around, on Buxton Contemporary’s external screen. The camera, following the artist around while she collects dog faeces in her backyard, pans past paintings that rest – punctuated by stacked gumboots – against a weatherboard house. While the artist shovels shit into a used Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box we overhear a muted conversation. The cinéma-vérité shadow self-reflexively notes the operator before cutting to a shot of said shit rearranged as the word AROUND.

My internalised Dr. Seuss-ian wordplay subverts the title – doing nothing doing (Around) doing doo doo doggy doo doo – accompanied by a mental image of Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista (1961). From factory floor to Reservoir and back again, the artist’s labour is an economy of excrement domesticated and decentred by the dog we do not see. Around, also the title of Christensen’s exhibition, excretes a sense akin to laissez-faire – yes, I’m here and, like the shit, a system and order subject to change, resistant to regulation.

The Buxton Collection, as Rosemary Forde points out in the catalogue-cum-monograph accompanying Christensen’s exhibition, was given to the University of Melbourne in 2014. The collection documents a shift from important examples of what might be called postmodern art – Howard Arkley, Peter Tyndall and Juan Davila – to what we now refer to as contemporary art. Both Charlotte Day, associate director of the art museums at the university, and Forde note the collection reflects a change in artists’ focus, scope and reach through an examination of indeterminacy.

It also traces a shift in a relationship between images and language that conceptual art broke open in the 1960s, from the immaterial to an aesthetics-related materiality that, coinciding with the birth of the internet, reconsiders the limitations and liberation of representation – the burgeoning excess of information and its subsequent lack. My peers of this time explore a relationship between lived experience, art history, pop culture and a sociopolitical milieu shared globally and locally – questions of colonialism, ecology and the Anthropocene.

I enter, exit and re-enter the museum, each time passing between cerulean-blue restored iron gates. Their decorative swirled ribbon design shifts to flamingo pink through the arcs that form the tails of two Indian peafowls paired back to back on the central top third of each gate. This domestic coat of arms is a reclaimed colonial overlay hung on institutional security and crowned by the moving image of Around. The paintwork is as matt as the paintings that will soon be encountered, a sculptural surface rendered flat.

Images of Nadine Christensen’s work are merged with an encounter of the everyday. The foyer of the gallery is a case in point, with another new short video screening behind the desk. Slow Motion (2023) depicts three- to five-second cuts of a Holden Camira painted in multiple yellows. The used and abused fibreglass shell is treated as a support structure for the matt paint that simultaneously sucks and gives light, as it is towed on hard rubbish day through the back streets of Reservoir.

The word Camira derives from an Aboriginal word for wind. The shell of a car once produced in Melbourne appears as a semi-deflated skin in the video and later as a real-life monument jammed into the gallery columns, almost blocking entry to the large ground floor gallery. Opposite the video, a wheelbarrow titled Bumping into things (2016) comprises a ready-made barrow, hairpins and bottle tops embedded into DIY cement, plaster and mortar. Fantastical rocks collide with the barrow in a Baudrillardian simulacrum that punctures the real.

De Chiricoan metaphysics are channelled in Soya Beans and Sweet Potatoes (2006), where a carefully arranged triad of bar stools host a lamp with a tasselled shade, saddled with stacked rocks. Seaweed debris is strung over the rungs of a stool, above which hover a hawk and large parrot. The wonky rectangular shadow below, scumbled as either turned soil or shag pile rug, grounds this central composition into what could be dry wetlands. Frontier backdrops – Lakes Entrance, perhaps? – where land meets sea, fresh water blends with salt.

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, painting referenced antiquity to conjure a sense of time. Václav Janoščík and Eva Skopalová note the presence of the past comes in the form of anonymous materials such as draperies or clouds, expanding the visible into the invisible. This repeated trope is also an icon for Christensen. The phenomena of light and air transposed as sight and breath. There are few human forms in Christensen’s painting – except the post-punk weather presenter on the Konka television in the painting Tomorrow, this week (2005) – but each painting is a scene rendered changed by humans.

Riffing off the history of paintings, from Fra Angelico to Magritte, between the reverence and treachery of images, Christensen’s fragmented non-narratives are contained within landscapes both familiar and farcical. The quotidian forms to which Christensen is drawn seem at once specific and coded, speaking not only of the ontology of images but also their transmissions and apparatuses: phones, tripods, pulleys, frames, legs of chairs and tables abstracted as turned wood, latticed fences, ladders and lights.

In 1435 Leon Battista Alberti proposed the idea of painting as a window. For centuries, artists have employed this metaphor to think through how knowledge is contained, framed and subsequently freed. Christensen extends this portal through compositions that are contained by crops or diagrams – windows and doors, bus shelters, architectural ruins, wardrobes and greeting cards (Mirrors with Landscape, 2012).

Persian paintings are not based on linear perspective but rather are multifocal, emphasising time and the communication of information. The information in Christensen’s paintings is alert to the deceit of indoctrination. Christianity’s Renaissance compositions are compounded and conflated; flat fields of plastic acrylic are overlaid with delicate imagery that purveys a graphic quality.

Images, French art historian Georges Didi-Huberman says, awaken the dream, reinvert mutilated life, rise up endlessly. Their fragility allows us to escape the definitions of power and so they hold an infinite potency. Rising up, he says, requires the knowledge to start again, to become a subject that can be reborn.

Opposite the car skin on the ground floor gallery, painted larger than life, is a single housefly. The painting is signed. The fly is a repeated motif in Christensen’s paintings, where perhaps this signed work alludes to a kind of vision for viewing not only her work, but perhaps the world. Flies have compound eyes, capable of detecting both the polarisation of light and colour spectrums unseen by humans. It means they can recognise even the slightest movement in a wide field.

To paint the wind via the Holden Camira, or the sun through Dolphin torches, is to sense with the eyes and to feel with paint. Christensen’s work wanders through frontiers of humour and pathos. Four freestanding paintings comprise CMYK (2006), an attempt to document a plausible myth. Almost the last work in the show, the paintings – in which the stones of Stonehenge were the first apparatus to print (CMYK) in light (RGB) an image of the globe projected as holographic phenomena – riff off a contradiction in physics. The ancient omnipresent in the terror of the sublime. 

Nadine Christensen: Around is showing at Buxton Contemporary, Melbourne, until April 7.

 

ARTS DIARY

EXHIBITION Triennial

NGV International, Naarm/Melbourne, December 3–April 7

MULTIMEDIA Fairy Tales

Gallery of Modern Art, Meanjin/Brisbane, until April 28

PHOTOGRAPHY Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition

Adelaide Botanic Gardens, Kaurna Yarta/Adelaide, until January 31

VISUAL ART Emily Kam Kngwarray

National Gallery of Australia, Ngambri and Ngunnawal Country/Canberra, until April 28

DANCE New Breed 2023

Carriageworks, Gadigal Country/Sydney, December 6-16

LAST CHANCE

THEATRE A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Theatre Royal, nipaluna/Hobart, until December 2

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 2, 2023 as "Compound visions".

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