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PJ Hickman: Residue 

 

In the exhibition Residue, PJ Hickman examines what remains when everything superfluous to painting is removed.  One might expect that doing so would allow him to identify painting’s minimum conditions — those non-negotiable factors without which it cannot exist.  But instead, ridding painting of everything that is ‘extraneous’ merely reveals other content that ordinarily goes unseen.

 

There are two works in which he symbolically pulls back the superficial layers from painting-as-artifact in order to reveal its substrate.  In Ad Infinitum and the series All Blacks, wherein timber frames or ‘painting stretchers’ appear denuded of canvas, the removal of layers is also quite literal.  The frames are coated in the various shades of commercially-available black oil paint.  

 

Together their titles create a slippage between the name of American abstractionist Ad Reinhardt, and the work he is renowned for: black monochromes, which he claimed were ultimate paintings.  By means of the subtle tonal shifts between the blacks, Hickman’s painting, like Reinhardt’s, reminds us of the myriad contingencies that stand in the way of absolute ideals, thus ensuring that painting’s ultimatums may never be reached.

In other works composed on conventional stretched canvases, Hickman rids his paintings of as much unnecessary subject matter as possible.  He banishes colour, figuration, gesture and illusionistic space.  Instead he chooses the most mediated and least conventionally ‘expressive’ content for the surface of the paintings.  This includes grey tones — described in terms of the proportion of black mixed in with the white — and applied text that is minimal, matter-of-fact and mechanical in appearance.  Drawn from the surrounding context of an art work — exhibition labels, image credits, artists’ names and the headings that appear on commercial gallery websites (for example in the work White Cube) — these words are anything but minimal in their evocations.  They indicate art’s institutional conditions and the paintings they appear within reflect their own status as objects of commercial exchange.  For example, the series Venice Biennale (2009) bears the names of those Australian artists who will be exhibiting their work in the 2009 Venice Biennale while another very witty series A PAINTING displays a description of the painting’s own medium and dimensions, together with information that the image appears by courtesy of the artist.

 

One might speculate that there is a symbolic process at work that serves to bring these words into his paintings.  By strategically removing everything unnecessary from a painting, the artist perhaps creates within it an unstable vacuum that can only regain equilibrium by sucking in the stuff — label descriptions, marketing devices and so on — that hovers just outside painting’s limits.  In the work Paint Used on the Gallery Walls (Tate Modern, London) the words, Tate Modern, London are repetitively painted — using the same paint and exact colour used by the Museum on its walls — on the raw linen of elongated canvases.

 

Yet in a deliberate reversal of his reductive approach, many of his paintings are supplemented with a new, outer layer.  He presents his paintings with their own individual cardboard boxes.  The packages are slightly suggestive of those Solander boxes in which a museum stores its works of art, yet they also resemble the boxes in which take-away pizzas are sold.  These boxes refer to art’s commercial branding and to painting’s existence as a readymade practice — in the sense that everything has already been made and, at most, requires only a little reheating.


The word residue has another, more particular meaning — a legal one, denoting the remnants from an estate when it has disbursed all its debts.  It is not coincidental that the current exhibition highlights two important debts that the artist pays.  One of these is to Minimalism.  In common with minimalist artists he chooses industrial materials and finishes and mechanises as much of his art production as possible.  He adopts a reductive approach to painting and many of his works push painting in the direction of sculpture.  He chooses simple, repetitive forms and nominal content that is as literal as possible.

 

But Hickman’s other obligation is to Conceptual Art.  His work features text very heavily, and often reflects on art’s status and its institutions, particularly those relating to its own commodification.  He employs many rules and procedures in conceiving and producing his paintings, which sometimes approach the condition of ‘instruction based’ art.  Many famous works of Conceptual Art are about the filling of time or space and one particular work that reveals this debt is Museum Piece.  The two large paintings feature alternating grey stripes and pilcrows — the typographical symbol that appears thus, the subject of the work is the literal filling (or perhaps emptying) of its own space.

 

Some of the works in the series A PAINTING are over painted and bear the label SOLD, and in many subtle ways I think the artist wants us to consider painting as an estate whose stock and assets have been stripped.  The answer to the question, what remains when all the debts are discharged? is that most nebulous and also most valuable of commodities: goodwill, in other words, the worth that painting may continue to trade on because of its past.  In fact, in a previous exhibition Making a Name (Sophie Gannon Gallery 2008) Hickman examined the idea of relying on reputation; it included many paintings each of whose subject was the name of an artist, including Agnes Martin and Piet Mondrian, as if they wished to claim for themselves some of the status enjoyed by those artists and their works.  And in the current exhibition, the paintings in the series Yesterday (which bear the numeral value of the recent high and lowest closing levels on the Australian Stock Market All Ords index) takes as its subject the idea of a value that belongs in the past.


However, in another work, What a Trillion Dollar Painting Looks Like (depicting the sum of $100,000,000,000 in white against a black monochrome field) Hickman casts some doubt on the certainty of this terminal outcome for painting.  No great estate winds up without leaving one or two bequests and we are left believing painting may bear riches yet.

 

Christine Morrow

 

Christine Morrow is a Sydney based artist, lecturer, freelance curator writer, gallery director and former curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney