We couldn’t think of a way in our coverage of the Sulman Prize last week to discuss the inclusion of a work by Virginia Coventry called Hover, a geometric abstract painting.
It was interesting to see the painting because we had lost track of Coventry over a decade ago when we were in her post grad class (where she said “I don’t think I can teach you anything” and which we naturally chose to take as a compliment). Coventry was a painter of abstract expressionist works 30 years ago before becoming well known for her writing and photography before giving up the conceptual school for a return to canvas. The last thing we saw of hers was a drawing with text called This Shift of Desire where the word ‘shift’ was scribbled over with the word ‘drift’ in heavy pencil work. Got it?
There’s nothing much to say about Hover except it’s a lovely painting, beautifully finished and knowing a little bit about Coventry, most likely underscored by some heavy theoretical discourse.
We are always impressed with artists who persist in making abstract work. It’s heroic in the best way, since so very few people buy it and it strikes us as amazing that artists are still even doing it, let alone taking it up. Sure, there are plenty of painters doing ‘conceptual’ pictures but they are hard to recognise lined up next to the stuff you can buy in homeware store and the decorative end of town is just… decorative.
Thus we were surprised to find that Anna Lisa Buckland had invited us to see a show of her abstract canvases on show at Francis Baker-Smith. Where? That’s Gallery Wren to you and me (or Rubyare if you’re nostalgic). The duo behind Wren joined forces with a new crew and decided that a name change was in order. Don’t these people know anything about branding for God’s sake? Here’s a gallery that’s still open after all these years (it must be going on for four years now) and they decide to change the name – it confuses the punters and erases the good will the gallery built up. And to make matters worse, they’ve decided to cut the front gallery into two, making three tiny rooms with low ceilings and fluro lights, just like our father’s garage except without the antique TVs and bottles of red wine.
Paul McNeil was in the front room at the back and had stuck up a whole lot of drawings he had done on a cartridge pad. They looked nice, in red and black, layered and cartoonish, but we’ve seen this type of thing done a million times before and this was nothing special.
Meaghan Bennett and Kate Mulheron, meanwhile, had the other front room and they had done a floor to ceiling wallpaper style installation of some abstract colour photocopies. As we stood there looking at the work, two women were sitting and laughing, eating chips and gossiping. One said “This book goes with the show!” as she gestured to a spiral bound book on a bench. We checked out the book called Imitated and saw that Bennett and Mulheron had a complicated project going on.
Basically, they take digital photos of graffiti strewn walls and doors, door knobs, park benches, road signs etc, then make colour prints of the graffiti at a slightly less-than-life-size scale and then take photos of the prints in situ, which were then printed again and put in the book. Along with these images were shots of the artists wearing t-shirts with iron on transfers of the graffiti standing in front of the graffiti, like a slightly down rent Target catalogue.
It was while looking at the photos that we realised that the women in the gallery were in fact Bennett and Mulheron and they were discussing the trouble with men they’d been having. “I told him,” said the dark haired one to the blonde haired one, “that he was arrogant, obnoxious and distant!” Yeah!
We walked into the tiny back room to see Buckland’s paintings, not knowing what to expect. Apparently Buckland is related to the late Paul Partos so we weren’t sure what we were going to see. In the gallery were 11 canvases, in two groups of four and three separately hung and we were immediately struck by how finished they were. It’s true, one had slightly bodgy stretching and you couldn’t get back far enough to look at them properly, but their colours – predominantly shades of green – looked like a camouflage pattern and were very evenly painted with subtle underpainting. We were also intrigued by the way the paintings were hung in groups that could easily have been taken for one single work, implying in turn an interconnection between them, cells of a potentially infinitely expanding pattern without limit or edge.
We were on the verge of some massive conceptual breakthrough about abstract painting when the spell was broken by the sounds of vintage REM wafting through the gallery and the laughter of Bennett and Mulheron.
After saying farewell, we walked down the street and could smell the air getting colder, the light getting dimmer and we knew we were heading for magic hour. We passed a block where a beautiful girl once lived – and who we kissed and then never saw again – but now it’s just a massive building site.