Dispatch Review respectfully acknowledges the Whadjuk people as the traditional owners and custodians of the lands upon which we live, work and enjoy. We pay deep respect to Elders past and present. Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.

Reviews:

  1. Light Event by Sam Beard
  2. Rejoinder: Archival / Activism by Max Vickery
  3. Access and Denial in The Purple Shall Govern by Jess van Heerden
  4. 4Spells by Sam Beard
  5. Abstract art, DMT capitalism and the ugliness of David Attwood’s paintings
    by Darren Jorgensen
  6. Unearthing new epistemologies of extraction by Samuel Beilby
  7. Seek Wisdom by Max Vickery
  8. Something for Everyone by Sam Beard
  9. Violent Sludge by Aimee Dodds
  10. State of Abstraction by Francis Russell
  11. Double Histories: Special Issue, with texts by Ian McLean, Terry Smith, and Darren Jorgensen & Sam Beard
  12. Six Missing Shows by Sam Beard
  13. What We Memorialise by Max Vickery
  14. At the End of the Land by Amelia Birch
  15. The beautiful is useful by Sam Beard
  16. ām / ammā / mā maram by Zali Morgan
  17. Making Ground, Breaking Ground by Maraya Takoniatis
  18. Art as Asset by Sam Beard
  19. Cactus Malpractice by Aimee Dodds
  20. Sweet sweet pea by Sam Beard
  21. COBRA by Francis Russell
  22. PICA Barn by Sam Beard 
  23. Gallery Hotel Metro by Aimee Dodds
  24. A Stroll Through the Sacred, Profane, and Bizarre by Samuel Beilby
  25. Filling in the Gaps at Spacingout by Maraya Takoniatis
  26. Disneyland Cosmoplitanism by Sam Beard
  27. Discovering Revenue by Anonymous
  28. Uncomfortable Borrowing by Jess van Heerden
  29. It’s Not That Strange by Stirling Kain
  30. Hatched Dispatched by Sam Beard & Aimee Dodds
  31. Fuck the Class System by Jess van Heerden, Jacinta Posik, Darren Jorgensen, et al.
  32. Wild About Nothing by Sam Beard
  33. Paranoiac, Peripatetic: Pet Projects by Aimee Dodds
  34. An Odd Moment for Women’s Art by Maraya Takoniatis
  35. Transmutations by Sam Beard
  36. The Post-Vandal by Sam Beard
  37. Art Thugs and Humbugs by Max Vickery
  38. Disneyland, Paris, Ardross and the artworld by Darren Jorgensen
  39. Bizarrely, A Biennale by Aimee Dodds
  40. Venus in Tullamarine by Sam Beard
  41. Weird Rituals by Sam Beard
  42. Random Cube by Francis Russell
  43. Yeah, Nah, Rockpool by Aimee Dodds
  44. Towards a Blind Horizon by Kieron Broadhurst
  45. Being Realistic by Sam Beard




In his review of Sydney Contemporary 2023, Levent Can Kaya grapples with the Sydney art market’s fixation on abstract painting. A humorous passage worth quoting at length has Kaya lamenting how

buyers in Sydney only want paintings. And like… Twentieth century modernist monstrosities of paintings. Cum shots all over the canvas. Rothko-esque colour blocks. Mammoth gradients that could resurrect 2010’s Seapunk. Lines, oh my god, so many lines. Squiggly, straight, rough, every kind of line. Even I, a patron of the arts, was resorting to the tragic ancient axiom whispered in galleries around the world: ‘I could have made this.’[1]

Where it comes to the longevity of abstract painting within the art market, Kaya is surely not alone in his observation that—as regards canvases strewn as if by cum shots—collectors literally only want one thing and it’s fucking disgusting. Indeed, given its market prominence, various critics have argued that abstract painting should be viewed as a kind of aesthetic gold standard—a stable store of value to retreat to when the aura around the latest artistic trend enters a phase of decay. The rise of Zombie Formalism in the early 2010s, for instance, has been linked to the panic and pessimism that followed the Global Financial Crisis and to the collector’s search for reassurance in artworks with familiar, wholesome, and spiritually nourishing qualities. As David Geers put it back in 2012, 

in this time of economic crisis and political uncertainty, modernism may offer the closest thing we have to a solid foundation—to a classical as well as critical past. Yet, if today’s run to the Rothkos imitates modernism’s dialectical nature (its tactical call-and-response of one style to another) in order to contest the dominance of conceptual and image-based works, it also discards modernism’s oppositional aspects. Instead, it plunders modernism’s formal attributes for whatever charge they might still hold, trafficking equally in the shockingly outré and the canonically familiar.[2]

Pace Geers, a cynic might argue that today’s abstract painting runs the risk of only maintaining modernism’s oppositional aspects. Put differently, if the modernist narrative is one of rising and falling styles and schools—Expressionism, Futurism, Orphism, Vorticism, Suprematism, Constructivism, De Stijl, etc.—this ongoing aesthetic agonism is understood to have been in the service of novelty and the production of radically new visual languages. The last decade of modernist revivals, by contrast, has arguably produced a culture of abstract painting motivated by an ever growing list of things to oppose (e.g., the internet, video games, streaming, social media) and a limited, conservative, and at times painfully obvious list of things to affirm (embodiment, nature, form, mark marking, etc.). As such, and returning to Geers’ substantive point, once we put aside appeals to the purported moral superiority and spiritual purity of abstraction, the 2010’s and 2020’s return to the legacy of abstract painting has perhaps only functioned as another example of cultural fracking.[3]
        Given that, for most readers anyway, I’m re-treading familiar ground, I hope this preamble to a review of State of Abstraction (curated by Isobel Wise at AGWA) makes intuitive the following question: is it a bold or timid move to hold, in 2023, a major exhibition reviewing almost eighty years of Western Australian abstract art? Should we approach an exhibition like State of Abstraction as the curatorial equivalent of the sitcom holiday clip show, a “best of” flashback montage for the Christmas break—crowd pleasers and family favourites only—or should we be open to the possibility that AGWA have presented us with an increasingly rare opportunity to take abstraction seriously as a living and critical aesthetic strategy?
        Before attempting to answer these questions, it is worthwhile highlighting the strength of State of Abstraction as a collection of individual works. Given the location, the quality of the work on display could be presupposed, but it really should be highlighted; every work is a joy, and Jurek Wybraniec’s hardware shop Joseph Albers, Miriam Stannage’s ode to internationalism, George Hayne’s moody atmospherics, and Gloria’s rich and vibrant gestures are just a handful of the utterly compelling works on display. State of Abstraction’s breadth and intergenerational scale are also worth championing, insofar as Wise has succeeded in producing an exhibition qua celebration of the strength of Western Australian art. As summer months see the return of many Western Australians to the City of Light from overseas and over east, State of Abstraction provides a welcome opportunity to engage in some chest beating about the depth of Western Australian artistic talent. However, once we move beyond the broad success of State of Abstraction, questions of the coherence of the curatorial vision have to be raised. The exhibition’s strength—its breadth, diversity, and ability to cater to a range of interests and moods—is arguably also its greatest weakness. Which is effectively to say that while State of Abstraction is an undeniably charming collection of works, it is also seemingly agnostic, if not uninterested, in its own central interrogation of abstraction’s contemporary artistic meaning and significance.
        Moving through the exhibition, abstraction is invoked to refer to a specific aesthetic strategy of rejecting realism and the parochialism of the figure/ground distinction, a spiritual practice of making contact with whatever exists beyond the easily recognisable, a series of interconnected artistic biographies, and the attempt to come to terms with the increasingly dynamic, scientifically mediated, and financialised modern world. So what, then, is abstraction? Or, to be more specific, what is the curatorial argument as regards the premise contained in the exhibition’s title? What is the state of abstraction? Of course, one could counter that the only option available to the contemporary curator is to acknowledge the heterogeneous ways in which abstraction has been, and continues to be, interpreted through artistic practice. After all, isn’t it more reasonable to avoid doomed attempts at an essentialist definition of abstraction in favour of a generous and expansive premise, one that allows for a greater number of artists and perspectives to be recognised? While practical, such a framing more or less reduces the show to a collection of non-representational works; a situation we surely wouldn’t accept in the inverse. To take the counterfactual, how would we respond to a major retrospective that grouped eighty-odd years of Western Australian art in terms of the artists’ shared commitment to representing objects?
        Without ignoring the logistical challenges of producing a more curatorially rigorous interrogation of abstraction in Western Australian art—and this must be underlined, since these challenges are increasingly demanding and emerge from a cultural and economic milieu that is, without exaggeration, hostile to art—the tensions that emerge between the various usages of abstraction in the exhibition are underdeveloped and often unsatisfying. How should we make sense of the historical specificity of abstract painting—a tradition that emerged out of a series of analysable political, economic, and technological conjunctures[4]—and the injunction, provided both by broader culture and by some of the artists displayed, to retreat into the personal universe of subjective feeling? How should the rejection of the figure/ground distinction—which features as a kind of ontology and ethics for a great deal of European art—be understood with regards to First Nations’ knowledges and artistic practices, arguably for which an adherence to distinctions between the representational and non-representational already imports too much from Western metaphysics.[5] It is a shame that these kinds of questions were not made a more central focus of State of Abstraction, not only because they provide a real opportunity to engage with the complexities that surround art referred to as abstract—and thereby provide a means to more fully articulate why the contemporary viewer should care about both historical and contemporary modes of abstraction—but also because many of the works exhibited explicitly demand that such questions be directly addressed. For example, when Guy Grey-Smith is quoted, with regards to his 1971 painting Salt Lake, as saying that “in painting, the form of the experience should be fully realised in terms of the medium itself: one should not rely on subject matter. Paintings are not a kind of literary expression” one cannot help but wonder how this rejection of story—this rejection of a concrete aboutness within art—should be countenanced with the explicit embrace of painting as storytelling used to frame the work of Kumpaya Girgirba.
        Similarly, the supposed mapping of historical lineages of Western Australian abstract art is notably underdeveloped. While State of Abstraction is able to showcase a web of connections that permeated the oeuvres of middle to late twentieth-century artists—charting the various schools and mentorships through which many of the works showcased evolved—significantly less convincing is the claim that “the earliest work on display, by Iris Francis from c1946, resonates deeply with recent paintings by Mossy Johnson and Luisa Hansal. Similarly, the mid 1970s works of Miriam Stannage maintain a conceptual relationship with recent works by Annabel Dixon, Dan Bourke, and Gloria”. Such a statement sits at odds with the realities of the generationally fragmented character of the Western Australian art scene. Or, to be more sympathetic, at best one could say that exhibitions like State of Abstraction are modest attempts to create connections that have otherwise been left unforged. Regardless, the inclusion of undeniably strong individual works by artists who have built careers after the new millennium—such as those of Bloor, Ball, Bourke, and Baumann—feels curatorially strained. Indeed, there is something jarring about the arbitrary shift from the show’s emphasis on painting to the sudden introduction of video and photographic works in the artists born after 1980. While perhaps an attempt to show that contemporary artists are still doing interesting things with abstraction—what do you mean abstraction is dead? It’s pivoted to video—what are again fascinating individual works push the exhibition’s already-strained central theme to breaking point. Since traces of modernist abstraction can be found in almost all contemporary art, this attempt to show the contemporary resonance of earlier abstract works produces something conceptually vague. Indeed, standing before Baumann’s always mesmerising Automated Colour Field, it was difficult not to be struck by the kinetic artwork’s cycle of rotating objectless images as a kind of visual metonym for the State of Abstraction as such.
        Despite these frustrations, the State of Abstraction represents an opportunity to affirm the strength of a rich body of Western Australian works and to take up the significant but crucial challenge of building and maintaining concrete historical meaning—both inside and outside the institutions of art. Without this, abstract art will always run the risk of being reduced to an inoffensive form of luxury decoration; a splash of colour and cheap profundity for the boardroom or bedroom. That being said, if we are even to begin the attempt to meet this challenge more is needed than increasing the frequency of our trips to the back of the storeroom or the recesses of the archive. The consequences of failing to do so are nicely summarised in the description accompanying Iain Dean’s Untitled 2020 painting, insofar as we are invited to imagine the centre of Dean’s work as if a Rothko had been abstracted from its context in art history, almost “as though we might reimagine the renowned American painter within the confines of a comic book panel or social media feed”. Abstraction surely does have a role to play in contemporary art’s struggle to make sense of things, and yet, ironically, our capacity to attend to the specific value of artistic abstraction might require greater attention to the concrete historical, cultural, and political modalities of those artworks we label abstract.



Footnotes:

1. https://unprojects.org.au/article/modernist-monstrosities-or-future-a-review-of-sydney-contemporary/

2. Geers, David. 2012, “Neo-modern”, October 139, p. 11.  

3. Of course, zombie formalism is a parallel aesthetic phenomenon to the cultural mining of 60s comics, such as the Avengers and X-Men film series. Predating both Zombie Formalism and the MCU was the garage rock revival of the 2000s, which saw bands like the Strokes, Hives, Vines, and Libertines plunder 60s garage rock for any last vestiges of novelty, and, in many cases, merely saw the reproduction of well-established song structures in higher fidelity. On this oppressive enthusiasm for mid-century popular culture see Simon Reynolds’s Retromania (Faber & Faber, 2011) or Owen Hatherley’s The Ministry of Nostalgia (Verso, 2016).

4. For instance, see Frances Guerin’s The Truth is Always Grey (Minnesota, 2018), Jaleh Mansoor’s Marshall Plan Modernism (Duke, 2016), John J. Curley’s A Conspiracy of Images (Yale, 2013), and Nina Gurianova’s Aesthetics of Anarchy (University of California Press, 2012).

5. For a recent and thought-provoking critique of Western metaphysics from an Indigenous perspective see Mary Graham’s “the law of obligation, aboriginal ethics: australia becoming, australia dreaming” in Parrhesia 37, 2023: https://parrhesiajournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/the-law-of-obligation-aboriginal-ethics-australia-becoming-australia-dreaming_mary-graham.pdf



Photographs of State of Abstraction at The Art Gallery Western Australia by Dispatch Review.