exhibitions

Take Stock, Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Manuka Canberra, 1 – 11 December 2005

installation views




work

Six, 2005

acrylic on timber, 117.7 x 117.7 x 6.8cm
Collection of the Artist

Three, 2001

acrylic on timber, 97.8 x 97.8 x 4.2cm
Private Collection

One, 2004

acrylic on timber, 145.7 x 145.7 x 6.7
Contact Artist

Two, 2001

acrylic on timber, 83.6 x 83.6 x 4.2 (2 pieces)
Private Collection

Five, 2001

acrylic on timber, 97.5 x 97.5 x 6.7 cm
Collection of the Artist

One, 2001

gesso on timber, 97.8 x 97.8 x 4.2cm
Collection of the artist




catalogue essay

ONE, TWO, THREE … FOUR, FIVE, SIX

PJ Hickman’s unfolding of a colourless, standardized style is in fitting with the post minimalist and conceptual impulse to pare a work of art down to its elemental core – here a series of basic repetitive geometric and structural gestures that result in the perfect square. This appropriation of minimalism’s ‘radical reduction’ combines the historical attributes of painting’s so called ‘zero degree’; the grid and the monochrome; with the structural necessity of painting, the support.

Made over the time between 2001 and 2005, these skeletal constructions were put away, relegated to the artist’s own ‘stock room’. Never having completely stood away from this work, Hickman talks about the way it has functioned as reference and resource for the generating of new work. Now for the exhibition at Manuka, it is these works, rather than ‘the new’ that have been returned to, reassessed, and reworked, finished perhaps? The making, putting away, and revisiting of these works, suggests a kind of conceptual aging process, a process crucial to the way this artist calibrates thought and practice. It is to this period of sustained attention, that Take Stock refers. Such knowledge of how this studio practice is conducted and reflected upon provides the first hint we have of Hickman’s focus on a process oriented working method, a move away from what appears initially as a reductivist approach.

One through to Six are the titles identifying these timber structures, hung on the wall as paintings. These modular units, each with a varying combination of horizontal lines, compose a spatial construction that might usually be called a support or ‘stretcher’. It is as if the blank space of painting’s traditional support is now filled with lateral timber divisions performing the work of stripes. What might be the ‘ready made’ structure of the artist’s stretcher is here a meticulously composed and assembled support. And what at first appears as support becomes the surface on which paint is applied. Hickman documents all the materials and techniques that inform the work’s specificity. The paintings are made from standard and readily available hardware products. Hickman does not alter the dimensions of the timber and the paint is used as premixed by the manufacturer. A ratio of the width of each work’s timber establishes the spaces between the stripes. The dimensions progress from the bottom stripe upwards in sequence and the edge fits to the final stripe so that a square is formed. The works are primed and painted using a house painting technique. The long surfaces are rolled to the corners and the joins are brush painted. Although this creates a surface without deliberate incident, particularly gestural inflection, there is a residual speckle and brush marks. This surface is the result of the roller technique and brush strokes rather than a deliberate action to create surface factura.

Hickman has sourced the paint that CCAS Manuka Gallery use on their walls, Bristol One Coat Ceiling White, for painting these surfaces. That the works are painted with the same paint and technique seems especially calculated to implicate the wall on which the work is shown. The wall is captured and revealed as accomplice. The use of white allows for clarification of variances in the painting. It makes visible, aspects of the painting that other colours might not allow for, such as the subtle nuances in materiality and the interplay of light and shadow. Each work gathers a section of wall around it rather than being entirely framed off, providing a surface for shadow and the coloured fringes that form at the junctions of light and dark. It is in the shimmer of colour that disseminates from the crisp edges and the overhanging shadows that complete the act of painting in this work, not unlike the white paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, that were not considered complete until they had been altered by the light and dust of the room. Four, in particular, focuses on the ways in which light shapes and inflects the works environment. This is marked in the progression of the width of the triangular attachments from the top downward, mimicking and measuring the lengthening of the shadows that fall from the stripes’ outward projection. It is a move that points to the paintings as a kind of peculiar and architectural modification of the wall rather than as objects that merely hang on it.

The works in Take Stock offer us a perspective on particular threads of painting’s evolution since the sixties, threads that stretch across the legacy of minimalism to the interests of the French enterprise Supports/Surfaces. It is in the absence of canvas that we see a rapport between Hickman’s work and the early work of artists associated with Supports/Surfaces. Their theoretical formulations are characterized by work marked with an artisan approach to production and an interest in making the work’s literal, material exposure a part of its condition. Of the artists interested in the “unstructured” as a challenge to the conventions of painting’s support to surface relationship it is Daniel Dezeuze that influences the structuring impulses in the works of Take Stock. Dezeuze began his career by exhibiting an artist’s stretcher stripped of canvas and leant against a gallery wall, exemplifying his favour for the breaking down of painting into sets of tools, gestures, and supports, the simple grammar of which become capable of various kinds of combination. Dezeuze’s later ladder works went on to revise the position of the stretcher (the “archetypal figure symbolizing the perspectival window or grid of painting) as the “image” of the stretcher. Using a series of ever more flexible materials from lattice to gauze, melting this structure of perspective and refusing the minimalist interest in recapturing a sense of spatial expansion.”[1]  What Hickman returns to from a similar dismemberment of painting is the inextricability of painting and object. It is an investigation that does lead out of painting to something more sculptural or ‘real’ as the works become close to the “primary structures” of Minimalism particularly Donald Judd’s formulations of “specific objects”.

Taking his lead from such artists, Hickman’s exploration of painting can be described as a pursuit of its “zero degree”. The monochrome canvas and the readymade embody the classic historical results of such an exploration and stand as models of the limits of painting. Aleksander Rodchenko’s monochromes of 1921 isolated the fundamental properties of painting from within, the red, blue and yellow canvases forming a ‘discreet plane’ devoid of representation. Duchamp’s mobilization of the readymade stated the dependence of artistic value on conventional and institutional definitions, thus specifying the boundaries of painting by an approach from the ‘outside’. As artists have continued to wrestle with the challenge posed by the positing of these limits we witness the disparate outcomes of the avant-garde. At one end, is the idea of a fully autonomous and self-contained art object, as in the medium specificity touted by Clement Greenberg. At the other, is the notion of radically contextual and institutionally specific art, where the art is reduced to pure contingency and the exteriority of the encounter. 

Hickman’s own position within this play of limits is not a rejection of painting, nor is it simply a process of reduction. Hickman does want to eliminate elements that he see as extraneous – whether illusionistic space (“…the wall is real, colour is local colour, shadows exist and are not an illusion.”[2]), compositional complexity, metaphor, psychology or expression. The construction of the support is the minimum required structurally in this manipulation. However, the works in Take Stock do not seek to create a purely self-contained art object, either as an investigation of material nor as a purely optical experience and neither do they reject painting in preference for the ready-made object or a conceptual proposition. Take Stock in many ways concocts a synthesis of these extremes.

Hickman’s Ryman like material listings suggest the reduction of the practice of painting to a physics of its materials. However, these structures never convincingly represent the faithful adoption of a ‘minimum plastic element’. The view of painting simply as material, without external reference, is halted in the choosing of a few subtle moves. Hickman’s polished and attentive visual vocabulary ensures that painting’s traditional associations with notions of craft and labour are never entirely erased in favour of the anonymous, industrial production of minimalism. Careful attention to the means of studio assembly and the preservation of the speckled surfaces are the result of a process that is exacting and deliberate. These configurations are perhaps more diagrammatic than abstract, forming coded referents to architectural drawings and the plans of building construction. Hickman generates a version of the process of painting by creating a lexicon of plastic elements in which form and colour are reified to such a degree that the work seems to verge on the serial design of industrial objects for example the cross section of a packing pallet, without ever truly conflating.

One, Two, Three, Four, Five and Six form a repetitive and diagrammatic sequence of forms differentiated only by subtle variations. Attending to the disarticulation of every aspect of painting; materials, processes, techniques and the space of, these elegant statements of negation have their formal roots in Minimalism but far transcend that movement’s call for nonferentiality. Emerging with what might be described as a Post-Minimalist sensibility, Hickman utilizes a deliberate paucity of formal means neither to refuse painting or affirm its reduction, but to reconfirm its wealth of permutation, the infinite possibilities of painting’s articulation.

Pip Haydon

[1] Paul Rodgers, Excerpts from The Subject of Painting, As Painting: Division and Displacement, MIT Press, 2001, 189.

[2]PJ Hickman, Take Stock Notes, 2005.