Guest reviewer Nadia Odlum explores the fine lines connecting Kate Vassallo‘s chance operations…
For a small space, Wellington St Projects in Chippendale always feels remarkably open and bright. As I arrive on a Wednesday evening, the huge windows on one side admit just the right amount of the late summer sun. The gallery is looking good – they’ve added a new wall – as they open their first show of the year: ‘Chance Forms’, a new body of work by Kate Vassallo.
The show is composed entirely of drawings. Thousands of impossibly thin, straight lines of coloured pencil are carefully arranged, connecting points on pristine white paper. The shapes and compositions vary; some resemble gems, with the lines forming facets and planes; others seem like constellations, charts, or complex data visualisations. There are some that are bright with colour, and others are in the palest grey. All seem to invite you to come up close, to marvel at the complex detail.
Arranged in grids on the wall, the works feel simultaneously laborious and light – you can feel the time spent in each work, yet somehow they sit with a certain matter-of-factness, a stillness, as if they had always existed and Vassalo had simply taken the time to bring them into being.
Perhaps it is a result of the order that underlies each work. With clear allusions to process based artists like Sol Le Witt, Vassallo’s works take a system or a method to its logical conclusion. She refers to these works as investigations of scientific imagery, of rhythms and processes of labour.
Over a beer at the opening, we discuss the concept of artistic labour. The works undoubtedly show the evidence of many hours of sustained focus. I am fascinated to hear her describe the concentration it takes to complete each work, particularly those where the lines are so faint that they seem to have only recently alighted, softly, on the surface of the page. If her focus starts to stray when making these, even a slight increase in pressure of the pencil on paper will create a darker patch that throws off the rest of the picture.
Similarly, small faults or errors, be it a wobble in the line, a momentary mistake in the order of colours, or a crease in the paper, can make the artist feel like there is a blight on an otherwise pristine arrangement.
However, it is exactly these small flaws that make this work so engaging. Though I am sure Vassallo could point out every one, as a viewer I find them almost impossible to discern, except in so much as they give the image a certain life, a vibration, that signals to me that despite the intricacy of these works they were not (as one might initially imagine) the product of digital creation. Rather, they are the manifestation of a body bent on bringing the order of scientific principles into the visual world.
The systems that dictate the works in this exhibition are not all of Vassallo’s choosing. In contrast to Logical Alterations, the title of her 2016 exhibition at MOP Projects, the title for this latest show ‘Chance Forms’ indicates an aleatoric process – scattered sunflower seeds. At the outset of creation, a handful of seeds lands on the paper and dictate the points at which the many lines will meet or intersect. As would be expected, this process gives a certain irregularity to the drawings, but the precision and order of the joining lines gives each form a sense of balance and deliberate geometry. It seems that, in these works, the logic lies not in the points but in the connections between them.
The level of focus represented in this exhibition doesn’t come without its drawbacks. To produce something of this quality takes time: time that, for artists, does not always equal money. Indeed, Vassallo and her partner James Lieutenant (an artist and sometimes collaborator) are soon eschewing Sydney for their hometown of Canberra. It’s the rent that’s the reason – while they have shared a studio at Wellington St Projects for the last year, they realised that the lower overheads in Canberra mean more time to make art. As we discuss this there are knowing and sympathetic nods from other Sydney based artists in the room – it’s a struggle they know all too well.
But if the move means more work like the ones in this stunning show, it seems logical. She’ll still travel up from Canberra for openings, of course. 2018 is shaping up to be an exciting year for Wellington St Projects: it’ll be too good to miss.
Chance Forms continues at Wellington St Projects until March 4th, 2018.