Visual Art

The Macfarlane Commissions at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art is a fascinating tour through what painting is now. By Tiarney Miekus.

Like a Wheel That Turns

An installation view of Jason Phu’s everyone is dead, except for me. everything is futile, and i am tired. i wait in my little house, for the winter to take me (2022) at ACCA.
An installation view of Jason Phu’s everyone is dead, except for me. everything is futile, and i am tired. i wait in my little house, for the winter to take me (2022) at ACCA.
Credit: Andrew Curtis

Things are always being declared dead: rock’n’roll, God, novels, painting. Even so, there’s no shortage of exhibitions devoted to painting – and it’s transfixing when a show ambitiously reveals the impulses and philosophies of creators working with paint right now.

Featuring eight emerging and mid-career artists at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Like a Wheel That Turns revels in the formality of painting and the struggle of working within and beyond the canon. But it also expresses a vast, contemporary social consciousness, exploring themes such as identity, ennui, queer politics, ecology, spirituality, diaspora and Country.

The works embody the quote by South African artist Marlene Dumas, from which is drawn the title of the show: “Painting doesn’t freeze time. It circulates and recycles time like a wheel that turns.” It soon becomes clear this exhibition is a series of differing ideas on materials, history and time.

In a field of colour and play, a mural-sized wall painting by Lucina Lane, framed by the words “An oddly sophisticated self-organised world”, dominates one space. With its laissez faire presentation, it’s a fun and paradoxical reflection on artmaking. It’s also appropriative: the paint was left over from previous ACCA exhibitions, the work references a 1949 painting by Australian modernist Frank Hinder and the text comes from an article by George Egerton-Warburton on the precarity and resourcefulness of Melbourne’s DIY art scene. It hints at the circularity, rather than linearity, that underlies this exhibition – the notion of recycling materials and ideas to make them revelatory.

Nearby is Jason Phu’s hoarder-style mini house. It’s brilliant: child-like and wondrous. I laughed when I looked inside and saw Phu’s aged, snoozing form, but then stopped myself, because there’s something heartbreaking about this work. Inside and out, the house is stacked with piles of objects that are simultaneously precious, nostalgic and junky. Out the back is a self-made toilet and a tub and rag for washing.

While it expresses a hoarder’s horror vacui – a fear of empty spaces, perhaps of loneliness – it’s also reminiscent of the dream of the “cabin in the woods”, admitting a desire for solitude prompted by exhaustion, seeking nothingness as refuge. The artist likens it to both homely security and a tomb: the work is titled everyone is dead, except for me. everything is futile, and i am tired. i wait in my little house, for the winter to take me (2022).

Phu’s art is mirrored by JD Reforma’s 85 paintings, Fibre optics; an intranet of virtue (2022). Atop canvases made of hand-felted coconut husk – the fibres symbolising connectivity and wellness culture – the artist has painted phrases from conversations, iPhone notes, pop culture and social media. Installed in geometric groupings, the red words are at once quotidian and provocative – “power is a product”, “you want it the minute you want it” and “nothing is for everyone”.

Prompting thoughts on the inequalities and injustices within money, class, power, race and the art world, Reforma employs the poet’s art of contrasting words and phrases with careful visual shaping. While the repetition is amusing, these hackneyed phrases register a cultural ennui.

Language is also important in Nadia Hernández’s installation. The Venezuelan-born, Australia-based artist creates several structures in bold monochromatic colours. It’s like a three-dimensional deconstructed painting but its political context references Latin American diaspora, design and poetry. Hernández entwines facets of Western art history from Henri Matisse to Barbara Kruger with Venezuelan art, while paying attention to her familial heritage.

Her text borrows her mother’s loving words of assurance, De nuestra felicidad, meaning “we are the owners of our own happiness”. Hernández playfully asks an urgent question: how do you manifest your entire self and the cultural complexity of your art in an Australian context that has historically relied on simplified ideas of national identity?

The idea of circulation lives in Gian Manik’s eight canvases. The artist interrogates painting traditions by literally reproducing them, including still life, landscape and self-portraiture. The central work is an unforgettable, montage-like painting portraying soldiers in erotic acts, subverting the masculine ideal through queer eroticism.

While Manik demonstrates his technical capability by complicating the virtuosity and authenticity of painting traditions, he also makes this work personal. My favourite work is a close-up of a horse’s eye painted in the style of Dutch masters, titled Pain (2022). It acknowledges his heritage, but also explores how Manik felt shame in liking horses as a child, perhaps because they’re often viewed as a feminine interest.

In Jahnne Pasco-White’s Embodied watery entanglements (2022), a forest of painted material hangs from the ceiling and is laid across the floor. Pasco-White creates her paintings from materials including plum skin, rocket, mould, moss, turmeric and coffee grounds. In this entangled materiality, we add our own dirt by walking on the paintings. As the piece can’t be viewed as a whole, but only from within, neither the paintings nor the viewers dictate the space – they coexist.

Esther Stewart exhibits the Painted ladies series (2022), four window awnings painted in bright colours and geometric patterns, a respite from the drabness dictated by body corporates. Stewart has long legitimised domestic spaces and home decor in contemporary art, this time placing the humble awning inside the cool monolith of ACCA. It makes one realise the mundanity – but also the exciting aesthetic potential – of our daily environments.

Opposite these awnings, in an interesting installation choice, is Betty Muffler’s colossal painting Healing Country (2022). In pulsating whites and muted grey-purple tones, Muffler represents Country from the viewpoint of the walawuru Tjukurrpa (eagle Dreaming), inherited from her father. She also captures her birthplace of Yalungu, south of Waturru in South Australia, the ancestral creation story of the emu Tjukurrpa, and her role as a renowned ngangkari (traditional healer). The connection of spirit, the body, healing and Country is breathtaking.

For all the play and complexity of this exhibition, it seems to focus on one simple question: what are interesting artists doing with paint in Australia today, both on and beyond the canvas? With funding from the Macfarlane Commissions, ACCA supported these artists to provide ambitious answers.

It’s a subjective selection and sometimes feels crowded with little thematic coherence. The strength is the singular works themselves. Painting emerges as both a dismantling and a restorative task, finding unique expressions within legacies of craft, feeling and culture.

A crisis of medium isn’t always a bad thing, as it forces artists to reappraise their form. While the “dying” form now is probably theory-driven art, there is still handwringing about the direction of painting today. It makes me think of writer Don DeLillo’s relaxed response to writing novels in a digital age: “The novel is whatever novelists are doing at a given time.” The same can be said for painting. 

Like a Wheel That Turns is showing at ACCA until September 4.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2022 as "The life of paint".

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