MAKING A NAME, Sophie Gannon Gallery, Melbourne, 3 – 21 June 2008

installation views


Sophie Gannon Stable, 2008

Edition of 2, each 10 paintings and boxes, acrylic on canvas, cardboard box, each painting 30.5 x 40.6 x 3.8 cm
Edition # 1 Private Collection; Edition #2, contact Sophie Gannon Gallery

Venice Biennale (2007) , 2007

Edition of 2, each 6 paintings and boxes, acrylic on canvas, cardboard box, each painting 30.5 x 40.6 x 3.8 cm
Edition #1 Queensland University Art Museum; Edition #2 Collection of Sally Dan Cuthbert

AN ON , 2006

Edition of 2, each 8 paintings and boxes, acrylic on canvas, cardboard box, each painting 30.5 x 40.6 x 3.mm
Edition #1 JPMorgan Collection; Edition #2 Private Collections

catalogue essay


Alison Kubler

In an article for The Australian art critic Sebastian Smee asked a provocative question: which Australian artists will be remembered in 2048?  He wrote, “In the art world press, it's common to read articles about our ’hottest emerging talents’.  In the company of art lovers you may also hear arguments related to the past: about whether, for instance, Fred Williams was better than Sidney Nolan; or whether Brett Whiteley was worth getting so excited about; or whether John Brack was more than just a Melbourne phenomenon.  All these questions are fun to consider: they enliven our sense of history and help to clarify values.  But they do so within parameters we can all agree on: the history is written, the retrospectives have been held, the reputations established.  Much harder is to ask which Australian artists working at their peak today will be the subjects of books and retrospectives at our leading galleries in 20, 30 or 40 years.  Who will be given the kind of attention that artists such as Williams, Nolan and Arthur Boyd are given today?” (The Australian, April 5, 2008).

Just whom he postulated would be remembered is not really relevant; rather what is relevant are the issues his question raises for the contemporary artists he doesn’t acknowledge.  What future is there for the myriad of artists currently conscientiously eking out a career who are left bereft by their non-inclusion on such a list?  How might these nameless and ‘forgettable’ artists hope to make a name for themselves and leave something meaningful to posterity: what can their impetus and reason be to make work?  We live arguably in an era defined by the cult of celebrity.  Popular culture is peopled by a parade of stars whose careers are defined as much by their brevity as their meteoric highs and falls from grace.  Their contribution to the greater culture is negligible, although arguably more entertaining than say, that of your average unknown artist.  Because when it comes to contemporary artists, ‘celebrity’ is most often confined to a select circle of the chosen few: fame in the contemporary art world is not so much fleeting, as it is rare.  And therein lies the rub: how does an artist make a name for themselves and their work?  What, exactly, is in a name?

PJ Hickman’s exhibition MAKING A NAME comprises three series of paintings: AN ON 2006; Venice Biennale (2007) 2007 and Sophie Gannon Stable 2008.  These series are part of an ongoing project for Hickman whose conceptual and artistic concerns are numerous.  His witty articulation of Minimalist theories combined with a formalist conceptual approach to painting offer a wry take on some of the issues raised by Smee at the same time that they extend arguments surrounding objective and non-objective painting.  Hickman’s individual paintings are defined by a series of controls or creative parameters that the artist implements.  Each resulting series is the product of a rational considered process of selection, a kind of theoretical symmetry or imposed order designed to minimise and eradicate the artist’s subjective impulse.

Each of the three series consists of two identical editions of paintings and boxes: an A/P (or artist’s proof, an acknowledgement of traditional printing conventions) and a Box Set, which is intended to remain a complete set of paintings.  In AN ON there are 16 paintings (8 in an A/P edition and 8 in a Box Set), in Venice Biennale (2007) 12 paintings (6 A/P and 6 in a Box Set) and in Sophie Gannon Stable 20 paintings (10 A/P and 10 in a Box Set).  The three series are defined, to use a scientific analogy, by one main control or shared characteristic: artist’s names.  The artist’s names are not chosen by a subjective process but again conform to a series of rules employed and established by Hickman.

The artist’s names in AN ON (Robert Hunter; On Kawara, Sol LeWitt; Kasimir Malevich; Agnes Martin; Piet Mondrian; Ad Reinhardt; and Gerhard Richter) have at times all made ‘non-objective’ paintings, while the number of paintings was determined by the manufacturer’s identification of the paint used in groups of eight.  With this work, Hickman paid respectful homage aesthetically to conceptual artist On Kawara’s ongoing series of ‘date’ paintings that consist of the date the individual painting is executed painted on a monochrome field, in the language and according to the calendar conventions of the country in which Kawara is in when he paints it.  The artist’s names in Venice Biennale (2007) are, as the title suggests, the Australian representatives at the Venice Biennale 2007 (Christian Capurro; Shaun Gladwell; Rosemary Laing; Callum Morton; Susan Norrie; and Daniel Von Sturmer).  Similarly, the artist’s names in Sophie Gannon Stable are the artists represented by Sophie Gannon Gallery at the time of the exhibition (Emily Ferretti; Nicholas Harding; Kirra Jamison; John Nicholson; Selina Ou; Matthew Sleeth; Martin Smith; Vera Völler; Judith Wright; and Michael Zavros).

To further ensure an artistic and emotional distance Hickman employs standardised materials and formulaic painting processes that further limit subjective decision-making about aesthetics and to a certain extent eradicate the hand of the artist.  The ‘look’ of the paintings mimics machine manufacture, negating gesture.  Hickman also eschews mixing his own palette, instead opting for ready-mixed acrylic paints in a restricted colour range applied to readymade Winsor and Newton canvases, thereby removing variables (to use another scientific analogy) that are often inherent to painting, such as gloss, texture, hue, tone, quantity, and brilliance, for example.  These strategies of self-control knowingly challenge the elitist ‘aura’ of the artwork, simultaneously exploring concepts about the authenticity of the original through the use of multiples and editions.

Hickman expands, “The process used to make the paintings is only what needs to be done, what is essential.  Process is used more to allow a repetitive and consistent production than remaining as a prominent aspect or subject of the completed painting.  The paintings are meticulously well finished but without mastery or virtuosity.  For each series the same brush or paint roller is used to evenly apply the paint with minimal surface distortion or irregularity.”  Similarly, the fonts Hickman uses are another controlling element: in the case of AN ON and Venice Biennale (2007) it is the ubiquitous Arial while Sophie Gannon Stable employs Trade Gothic Condensed, that used by the gallery.

The individual paintings are boxed in white cardboard boxes designed by the artist but commercially manufactured, and labelled with museological, non-emotional rigour.  Hickman sees the box as an integral aspect of the artwork: they function as a kind of democratic or prosaic frame.  For example, when Venice Biennale (2007) was shown in the ARC Biennial 2007 (at the QUT Art Museum) the six paintings in the A/P edition were displayed on the wall and the corresponding boxes, open with the lids and bases separated, displayed below on a low-level floor plinth.  The other six paintings (unseen in their boxes) – the Box Set – were stacked on a plinth, another aspect of the rhetoric of art museums and galleries that Hickman playfully deconstructs.  Indeed, Hickman’s ‘name’ paintings might be understood as particularly post-modern appropriations.  In utilising an individual artist’s name with all that it implies, Hickman sets up a tension between what is there and what is suggested

The utilitarian canvasses operate as a cipher for the artists named in the three series, artists whose characteristically unique practice is reduced to the sign of their own name.  In the case of A DANIEL VON STURMER for example, we have a painting in place of the artist’s usual video based practice while A MATTHEW SLEETH engages in an obtuse dialogue between painting and photography.  When we look at A GERHARD RICHTER, what do we see?

Hickman elaborates further, “The paintings are based on a Minimalist aesthetic of extreme simplification, repetition and reduction.  They ‘minimise’ painting to an icon.  As an icon, they are images that stand for another (iconic) recognised artist.  Fulfilling only the minimum expectations of ‘painting’, each painting acts as a proxy for other (unknown) artwork(s) by the artist.  The ‘content’ of each painting is reduced to a common denominator – the artist’s name – yet the ‘name’ (and title) of each painting draws attention to the fact it isn’t by the named artist.”  Curiously, while Hickman empties the paintings of emotionality and character, the viewer simultaneously brings to the work a range of subjective and ironic responses.

In this case, will one name be considered more collectable than another, and why?  Is one name more valuable than another?  What exactly is the artwork: is it the sign of an oeuvre, or the physical embodiment of an oeuvre?  Artworks by association, Hickman’s paintings also postulate, “Well, it’s by INSERT NAME HERE so it must be worth something.”  Right?  By ‘making’ non-artworks by other artists, Hickman ups the ante.  Always wanted one of the other 20th Century iconic artists like Piet Mondrian (not represented in the National Gallery of Australia collection)?  Well, here’s your chance.  And with A PIET MONDRIAN you can have any Mondrian you prefer, provided you can suspend your disbelief and imagine the painting to represent a Piet Mondrian.  Or want an artist who represented Australia at the 2007 Venice Biennale or is showing with Sophie Gannon Gallery?  Or even a painting by the artist.  Take your pick, they might even ‘make a name’ for themself and be the subject of books and retrospectives at our leading galleries in 20, 30 or 40 years.