Galleries in art schools are like special labs where difficult ideas are examined and experimented with, often in hazardous conditions and without protective clothing. Whatever Happened To Minimalism? is a case in point, an exhibition at The Sydney College of the Arts Gallery in Rozelle.
The curator Brian Thompson has taken a selection of artworks united by minimalist form and put them all together in a room to see what would happen when they were exposed to some Rosalind Krauss and Hal Foster (two boffin types with big theories) and then mixed together over time. Some might argue that art isn’t either philosophy or science, it’s the result of expression, but the white coat people are gathering around with clipboards to see the results of grafting a monkey (an idea) to a waffle iron (the art work). The results could be monstrous, and way way cool!
Before we get to the art, we should quickly discuss the catalogue since this show is a curated affair with a big idea attached. The catalogue is a tough read and at only one and a half pages it covers a lot of ground. Thompson’s essay basically argues that even though the utopian optimism of Minimalism’s ideal of pure objectivity of viewing an art work has been discredited, it’s still A-OK. “Minimalism’s wish to have works read contingently remain valid,” he says and then he talks about the various philosophical conundrums associated with viewing an art work and bringing your own intellectual baggage with it.
Thompson asks a lot of questions he doesn’t really answer and that’s OK – this is an experimental idea where the results point to an possible answer, but nothing definitive – but we have a major beef with the assertion that the materials that the art work is made from carry their associations within the materials and not within the viewer. To put that another way, if you looked at a work of art made out of marble and you thought, “ah yes, white marble, statuary, white, cold, snow, Michelangelo…” it would be the block of marble talking and not you, the viewer, the person making the associations. Seems crazy to us.
The first thing you see when you walk into the exhibition is a plinth with the room sheet on it and a CV of the artist Julian Dashper which is the size of a brick, about 50 A4 pages, closely typed and single spaced. You’ve never heard of him, you can’t see him, but he’s everywhere – just like minimalism! No we’re kidding, obviously, as Dashper used to show at Sarah Cottier’s gallery and he does targets in various forms – as a canvas, as a vinyl record – and he’s contributed some clear vinyl circles about the size of a record and they’re hanging on a wall.
Stephen Little has contributed three works – one is a mirror hung like a canvas and two blown-up and mounted photocopies of pages from dictionary where in one the word Minimalism has been left blank and in the other the word Blank is given the white-out treatment. There’s a Nike Savvas piece from 1999 which is hanging mirrored circles (sort of Op Art meets minimalism) and then Janet Shanks has some red string going up and down Richter-scale style pinned to the wall. Mimi Tong draped pieces of paper over the top of a floating wall and Kyle Jenkins has two pieces a canvas with stripes (called 103) and a sculpture made out of wood that’s like a cool designer bookcase (called 102).
As far as an experiment goes, this is an interesting exhibition but the thing that sprang into our minds as we looked at the show that taken individually, each of the pieces engaged with the conceptual traditions of minimalism, but taken as a whole the exhibition’s negation of the idea of the title became unbearably obvious. The answer to the question “whatever happened to minimalism?” is that the repetition of minimalism inevitably becomes maximal – it really is everywhere. Elegant nothingness is the interior design ethos of our time and it is a manifestation of high art minimalism’s ascendancy more than 40 years ago. To build on that tradition is to balance your art work on a very high peak that is virtually inaccessible to all but the hardiest and most determined of climbers – and if you want to climb up there, don’t forget your oxygen. As Thompson signs off his catalogue essay, “In the end these works, in their different ways, refer back to themselves and the context of art making to be understood – and so connect with, and extend the tradition of Minimalism.”