A well-turned-out family from the 1950s – a father, mother, son and two daughters – leans in to inspect a monochrome painting on a gallery wall. A light bulb flashes above their heads, suggesting their appreciation of modern art.
The boy in the image could be Peter Tyndall, except that he didn’t grow up to adopt the middle-class disposition of occasional, respectful art viewing. He became an artist, his work providing both humorous and darker analyses of the intersections of cultural, political and social systems. He also became a dissenter, protesting against a range of issues from the imperious behaviour of art institutions to refugee rights, climate change and Tibetan independence.
This is all revealed in the retrospective exhibition of Tyndall’s work at Buxton Contemporary. Adeptly curated by Samantha Comte and Simon Maidment, the exhibition comprises more than 200 works by Tyndall from 1972 to the present that confirm his central place in the rise of critical art practice in Australia.
In critical art practice, visual art became a way to examine the role of different kinds of cultural products and institutional arenas in creating the social order, displacing the emphasis on aesthetics, representation and self-expression. In the late 1960s, state galleries began to exhibit recent art as a network formed of commercial galleries. Both developments gave contemporary art unprecedented public exposure and status, but also exposed a generation of artists to the role of the art market and galleries in determining artistic value and supporting mechanisms of social distinction. That sections of the Australian art world were simultaneously subscribing to the international ascendancy of abstract painting underlined the problem of art’s retreat from the world, but the celebration of the autonomy of art and pure visuality in formalist abstraction was also compelling for many artists.
Indeed, one of the earliest works in the exhibition is a large abstract painting from 1973. Executed in diluted paint on raw canvas, it reflects late Modernism’s focus on medium specificity and the flatness of the canvas. By the early 1970s, this position was increasingly seen to have taken modern art to its limits, as Conceptual, Minimal and Pop art actively contested the principles of Modernist art in different ways.
In 1974, Tyndall began to examine the codes of meaning and social relations invested in the consumption of art. He recognised that paintings were not self-sufficient aesthetic entities but rather were completed by the spectator. This investigation started with Tyndall encapsulating the convention of painting and the conditions of its display in the form of a rectangle with two lines projecting upward from its top edge.
While caricaturing the emphasis on flatness and edge in formalist Modernism and the conventions of hanging paintings in museums, Tyndall exposed the socially coded nature of the act of viewing art. In naming many of his works with the uniform title “detail, A Person Looks At A Work Of Art/someone looks at something...” he also identified how viewing art both resembles and diverges from looking in general.
Initially, Tyndall used this simplified image of a suspended painting to imagine his former abstract paintings hanging on the wood-panelled walls of the National Gallery of Victoria. At a time when few works in the NGV’s collection were by living Australian artists, Tyndall sometimes included himself as a vestigial figure in these paintings. However, he progressively became less concerned with the place of the artist and more interested in examining the variables that define something as art and that shape its viewing. Along the way, the depiction of the suspended painting became a standardised pictogram that Tyndall has used ever since to explore the social ritual of exhibiting and viewing art.
Sometimes the pictograms link together to suggest a symbolic system, echoing Tyndall’s interest in language as a primary system of meaning. Sometimes they form a diagonal network that projects beyond the image to suggest the intertwining of the cultural and the social. In other works, Tyndall combines the pictogram with additional pictorial elements, such as the image of the 1950s family, sourced from an advertisement for his father’s pharmacy in which the family was originally looking at items in the window of a chemist shop.
The opportunity to see so many works by Tyndall in one place reveals the scope and significance of his practice. In witnessing the unfolding of his work, one sees how he investigates both the microphysics of cultural and institutional practices and their macrostructural social and political expression. Over five decades this has expanded to investigating the relationships between diverse fields of cultural and social production from high art to popular culture, and powerful social institutions such as education, religion and sport.
Critical art practice is sometimes accused of reflecting a cynicism towards art, diminishing its practice to sociological or political inquiry. Tyndall’s work certainly examines culture as an ideological enterprise but not in a ponderous or reductive way. First, there are plenty of jokes. And while Tyndall never went to art school, dropping out of an architecture degree after two years to try his hand at art, much of the salience of his work rests on his investment in making and the consummate way he reproduces different aesthetic genres.
The exhibition also reveals how Tyndall’s work emanates from a sense of communality and social consciousness. A bonus of the exhibition is the accompanying audio track in which Tyndall explains the origins and trajectory of his work in relation to its art world context and his wider interests. In listening, you learn much about the history of Melbourne art since the mid-1970s and Tyndall’s use of art and activism to enact resistance.
His commentary also discloses the interplay between individual artistic subjectivity and the wider project of a community of artists. One gem in this exhibition is Tyndall’s scale model of the gallery Art Projects, in which he has held a continuous exhibition of his work in miniature since 1980. Art Projects was established in Melbourne’s CBD in 1979 by the late John Nixon as a venue for the serious presentation of experimental art. The group of artists active around Art Projects included Nixon, Tyndall, Jenny Watson, Howard Arkley, Elizabeth Gower, Imants Tillers, Mike Parr and Tony Clark. Together they significantly expanded the critical range of Australian art. Peter Tyndall’s pivotal and ongoing contribution challenges us to reflect on what we are really experiencing in the presence of culture.
Peter Tyndall is showing at Buxton Contemporary, Melbourne, until April 16.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 28, 2023 as "A critical practice".
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