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Recent Paintings?

PJ Hickman’s Recent Paintings were made using standard DIY hardware products and processes including timber, reconstructed timber veneer, and vinyl.  The paintings have a strong material presence: they take up space.  As sculptural forms they resemble industrial pallets in a small part of an urban landscape.  Central to the work however is that they also speak of painting.

Working in both two and three dimensions, Hickman’s constant point of departure is the question of what constitutes a painting, and exploring the conventions and theories of painting.  On viewing the works, vertical and horizontal planes of colour, light and shadow flatten out to form quite graphic monochromatic picture planes.  The use of colour, texture, tone and form being simply a tool for communicating or challenging a particular understanding of this medium. 

Recent Paintings comprises ten identical paintings.  The installation of the individual paintings is variable: single or multiple paintings horizontal on the floor; freestanding vertically on any edge on the floor; or supported on fixtures in the wall.  All ten paintings stacked horizontally create a striped cube.  Constructed from standard manufactured materials and installed on either the floor or wall they point towards the stacked sculptures of Donald Judd and the open cube works of Sol Le Witt. 

Both Judd and Le Witt advocated the creation of an art form that moved beyond the associations of expressionist painting and sculpture.  Emerging during the late 1960s, they rejected the strong emphasis within the then dominant abstract expressionism on recognising ‘the artist’s hand’ and intention, preferring to create works according to abstract principles or rules to purge their work of emotion.

Hickman approaches the construction of his paintings with the same intention.  Interested in pushing painting to its limits he creates works that are without painterly or authorial marks.  Recent Paintings has none of the markings that we are accustomed to look for as a symbol of an artist’s ‘style’ or ‘signature’.  The use of the DIY ‘iron on’ ultramarine blue reconstructed timber veneer and commercial vinyl lettering to avoid handcrafted skill are examples of such instances.

Hickman also notes the work is loaded with other references to iconic Modernist works, such as the origins of the regular spacing and identical elements used in the works to the standard width brush used in Frank Stella’s black stripe paintings, and the standard dimensions of each painting to Ad Reinhardt’s 60 by 60 inches black paintings.

On first glance the only thing that distinguishes the paintings from industrial pallets is the vinyl lettering – stating that they are in fact ‘RECENT PAINTINGS’.  This use of text dramatically shifts a viewer’s possible response to the work and its individual components.  Are the individual pallet forms recent paintings in themselves, or have they merely been used to transport ‘RECENT PAINTINGS’ for some exhibition? If they have no paint on them how can they be paintings?  Is it because they reference paintings?  But the paintings and artworks that they reference are anything but recent. The more the work is considered the greater the ambiguity.

The ironic use of text to confuse the status of an object is a strategy employed widely within contemporary art practice.  Hickman cites an interest in the text works of On Kawara, and closer to home we can also find parallels in the work of Robert MacPherson.

While Hickman arrived at the blue pallet like form in Recent Paintings through a process of trying to create a self supporting minimal painting rather than any desire to engage with the meaning or history of the pallet, the familiarity of this form, contrasted with the title does create a captivating tension in the work. 

This is the same tension that we encounter in MacPherson’s painting ‘Mayfair: (Swamp rats) Ninety-seven signs for C.P., J.P., B.W., G.W. & R.W’ where we move between reading the recreated roadside signs making up the work and the awareness of this composition as an abstract grid painting.

Both Hickman and MacPherson, in boldly presenting texts, invite us to take a mental position adjacent to them, in the place of the objects they designate.  They ask us to return to our experiences and understandings of recent paintings, road signs and pallets, allowing for small explosions of intrigue to be detonated and unexpected connections to be generated.  The resulting slippages in meaning and understanding evoke an analysis of the way in which language and painting try to create their own logical pictures of the world.

Recent Paintings strips away the aura surrounding painting, inviting us to think about how meaning is made.  How much is predicated on the art history knowledge of the viewer and how much on the ideas instilled in the work by the artist?  Looking at the work requires some exploration of the gap between the physical entity of an artwork and the meaning it accrues from our own experiences and understandings. 

PJ Hickman’s oeuvre is a consistent project.  Recent Paintings is similar to the approach adopted in previous exhibitions that presented three-dimensional paintings comprised of standard pieces of pine[1] or perforated metal[2] joined together to form a square, and the space within organized by graduated divisions.  These previous works also have a detailed listing of materials provided by the artist.  Resembling a stretcher or kit that can be purchased in a hardware store they force the viewer who wants to understand them to think about just what their expectation of a painting is.  To read these abstract, standardised paintings the viewer needs to find the bare bones of what a painting or artwork is for them.  Inevitably then the paintings are about us.  Hickman’s paintings, slipping in and out of a relationship with ‘real’ objects and processes from our experience, present us with our own selves.

 

Essay by Ruth McDougall

 

Ruth McDougall is currently Curatorial Assistant at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art.



[1] Outline Metro Arts, Brisbane 2004 and Take Stock Canberra Contemporary Art Space Manuka, 2005.

[2] Blindside Effect Blindside, Melbourne 2004