A Work for Clandulla State Gallery 2015-17

Umbrella Studio contemporary arts, Townsville, Queensland

27 January - 5 March 2017

A Work For Clandulla State Gallery

In a now famous interview for Artforum in 1966, Tony Smith describes a journey along the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. 

"It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, lines, railings or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, rimmed by hills in the distance, but punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes and colored lights. This drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn't be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done. At first I didn't know what it was, but its effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had had about art. It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art."

The anecdote has about it the elusive quality of a parable - the drive at night along a highway stretching outwards, not into some wilderness, but outside of its nature as highway.  The paved concourse "moving through the landscape" is bereft of its conventional repertoire of marks, lights, lines and barriers by which it regulates the traffic that will one day negotiate it. The sense of freedom is exhilarating, as though Smith has turned the lights off and coasts in silence through the darkened industrial landscape toward, as he described it, "something mapped out but not socially recognized."

You can understand how Smith would have concluded that that road would lead to "the end of art".  In a way it did, but not as it was assumed at the time, as the death of art, the death of painting.  It was the end of art in the sense that Smith had reached the limit of art's conventional paradigm, and peered out into a world for which there was no familiar landmark.  Art spilled through the frame and into the world but it did not, as we now know, spell the death of art.  Painting did not die, art did not die on that highway that night.  Minimalism, you might say, was born there, as art pressed through the picture plane and fell into the world, but it survived as art.

To extend the highway, to the other side of the world, you will eventually come to The Clandulla State Gallery in regional NSW. Formally established through the publication of a wordpress website, the gallery boasts over 1400 hectares of exhibition space, and is co-extensive with the clandulla state forest.  It is arguably the largest gallery in the world.  At the time, I had never read the interview by Smith, but my act, I understand now, was made possible by that moment on the Jersey Turnpike.  

And so it was at least intuitive that the affinity between Clandulla State Gallery and the work of Carla Liesch and Hayley Megan French would generate a connection and suggest a project.  Specifically it was a work made in much the same spirit of irreverence that founded the gallery. It began as a canvas wall that was stretched and installed in a gallery and then a white painting was painted onto it.  The idea of collapsing the difference between the painting and the wall is fairly implicit within the narratives of modernism and in itself was not as significant as the spontaneous decision by the artists to 'take the painting for a walk' after the exhibition was over.  This abrupt departure broke with the more restrained logic of the original work and struck a chord that resonated with the historical context in which it was situated.  Why shouldn’t art take a walk? And if it was going to walk about in the city, it seemed only natural that it would do well to go for a bushwalk as well.

Their collaboration takes place at that intersection of practice that Smith crosses in 1966 – between abstract painting and minimalism.  What is at first most interesting about their partnership is that two artists, each coming from the other side of a watershed art-historical conflict would collaborate so productively.  How can Hayley’s abstract painting concerns co-habit collaborative endeavor with Carla’s minimalist inflected conceptual practice?  Minimalism was perceived, and often by its own practitioner’s (Smith included), as the death of painting.  But as I stated above, nothing died on that highway that night, other than a limit to what art could be conceived of.  It should not surprise us that a later generation would salvage from the rubble of that conflict, the fragments of concern over which it was fought, innocent now of their opposition, to improvise and renew their relationship.  The line between these two movements, so absolute in its moment, is in retrospect arbitrarily drawn by circumstance.  

The fact that Clement Greenberg, who had forged the narrative of modern art that inspired Minimialism, felt compelled to deny its lineage as the successor to Abstract Expressionism is that circumstance.  For Greenberg, modernism was an essentialising movement – a series of reductions, discarding conventions that were not exclusive to the medium specific quality of each art form.  For painting he recognised this as the flatness of the picture plane.  Sculptural illusion, narrative, or poetic elements were successively eliminated until modern painting survived as an expression of its own flatness.  In other words, his was a movement inwards, that resulted in an art form that was self-coherent, a relational field immanent to the interior of the picture frame from which its meaning could be derived.  Minimalism threatened this view by challenging the limiting condition of the picture plane itself, as yet another convention to be transgressed and discarded.  This single move transformed Greenbergs centripetal narrative into its opposite, a centrifugal impulse.  In this view, Modern art is seen as a series of transgressions against the limiting conditions of established convention, pushing the artform against the conventional limits of its established identity – a movement that would eventually push painting through the picture plane, past its own support and outward into the world.  From the relational field immanent to the picture plane, the artwork would eventually come to admit its involvement in the relational field of its situation, especially its social and conventional situation. 

In this sense, A work for Clandulla State Gallery (and the gallery itself) can be seen as a direct descendant of the centrifugal movement of minimalism (and conceptualism following it).  Yet, the work reflects a truth about the gallery for which it has been made – that for all its outward going, it still contains a centripetal gesture.  By placing a gallery wall that is also a painting within a forest that has been called a gallery, the artists make evident the absurdity of any attempt to totalize either the interiority of the artwork or the exteriority of the world.  Clandulla State Gallery would be a pretty meaningless gesture without the word ‘Gallery’ and all of the attendant conventional context it both attempts to escape and at the same time brings with it.  ‘A Work for Clandulla State Gallery’ inserts the essential element of that attendant conventional context (a white wall) into ‘The World’, surpassing the desire of art to escape the white cube by staging the escape of the white cube.  By placing this signifier of interiority as an object into the ‘outside’ context of the forest, neither pole of the relationship is extinguished; they do not eclipse or cancel each other out.  Across their difference they begin to relate. 

The wall, in this context acts as a painting, standing in stark contradistinction to the overwhelming visual complexity of the world around it. The white rectilinear form assumes its status as a heightened object: its content (or void) is sustainably contained and immanent to the inside of the frame that circumscribes it.  At the same time, it acts as a gallery wall, providing a negative ground against which the world around it begins to relent in the fullness of its plenum.  From the fullness of the forest, a tree emerges as distinct, replete and unto itself, a branch of leaves, the grass, a stone, another tree.  Out of the cacophonous democracy of the forest, things step forward to present themselves individually.  The functioning of the white wall in the gallery to isolate the art object from the distraction of ‘irrelevant’ circumstantial context, becomes in the context of the forest a fragmented play, a moving speculation in which details emerge, become observable in the coalescence of an object that never quite succeeds in pulling itself free from the world around it.  The attention shifts and the object retreats, giving way to further observation, distraction, restless movement.  If the painting on the wall of a gallery is a window into another world, the white painting in the forest is a windowless wall that stops the gaze and refracts it onto the world around it.  Art’s power to focus human attention within a context of conventional constraint, isolating it object from the overwhelming plenum of the world renders it thinkable.  In the gallery this function is so absolute as to become sterile – but in the forest, thought and observation are always partial, tangential and compromised, never allowing the object to become wholly singular or unary, it reveals itself in the flux between becoming object and being world.

This reflection is possible 50 years after Smith's epiphany at the precipice. Not knowing the future, he speculated that it was possibly the moment that art dies, and that some brave new form of culture would be born from it.  Making art within that future, Hayley and Carla (and myself) have no such monumental pretension and represent a generation of artists that have developed practices still informed by the issues established by these earlier artists but without the heroic, grand narrative, and end-game pugilism that dominated Modernism.  The impulse is still outward, but with an awareness that when you take art into the world, you have to take art with you.  

Alex Wisser 2017

See Stories Around A Work For Clandulla State Gallery for the online content of the show.