Starting with a quote is something that happens a lot with essays about painting. Often a quote provides a way in, but just as often, it can provide an escape route. That hasn’t been done here because this show and this essay are attempts to strip the conversation back, to deal with a group of painters engaged in their own tricky discussions.

The artists in Sticky are concerned with what it is to make a painting. Significantly though, this doesn’t mean that they are just exploring materiality. They also offer up a type of performance, both in the act of making and in the behaviour of their paintings once they hit the world. There’s a sense of grappling, often in an overwrought way, with ideas and processes. As a result, they and their objects establish a sticky relationship with their audiences.

This leads to a critical conundrum too. On the one hand these artists feel like they are doing something new, but then they are still fumbling through painting’s traditional baggage – the frame, the grid, object-ness, process and form and surface. So maybe the safest way to describe their work is ‘new-ish’. And while this might seem like a cop-out, the implied ambivalence is consistent with a lot of recent responses to contemporary painting. Several projects in the last few years have tried to address painting’s status without getting bogged down in the inane debate about its death. So ambivalence becomes a strategy to avoid defense or attack, a way to defer an essentialist response that goes over the same well-worn ground.

Two major projects that have helped formulate this approach to Sticky are Painting at the Edge of the World and the mid-career retrospective of John Currin. One is a major thematic exhibition, and the other is critical recognition for a painter previously slated for being, among other things, misogynist, though now he is being lauded as one of the master technicians of his time.1

Curator Douglas Fogle’s approach in Painting at the Edge of the World is particularly useful. He puts forward the idea of ‘the ontology of painting’ and the need to deal with it on its own terms.2 In doing this, he implicitly points out the dangers of painting reinventing itself – as installation, as collaboration, as video. Such gestures, which are increasingly common, seem to a certain extent fatalistic attempts to put painting on life-support. By contrast, the artists in Sticky keep going, keep making things that fit within painting’s traditional rhetoric. Some critique the
history of abstraction; some parody their own role in artmaking. Others turn it into flesh or use it to simulate fashion photography. But none make declarations about painting’s pulse rate.

Which is not to say that they don’t pose questions. One of the major things that links this particular group and separates them from the plethora of painters feeding a hungry market is their desire to examine the public status of their objects. All of them have a slightly perverse relationship with their audience,something often disguised by their seductive surfaces. Hence the title of this project. These artists have critical eyes on medium,market and museum, and they act this out by playing within painting’s stickiness, staying faithful to its fundamentals. The problem that they leave us with then, is what on earth to do with the things they make. Or maybe more accurately, what on
earth to make of the things they do.

Expression

Judy Millar has become one of New Zealand painting’s leading figures and in some ways, she is a starting point for this project, an artist who addresses painting without apology. Her recent works are known for their ‘gesturalism’ – a feigned expressionism that simultaneously undermines and reinforces Greenbergian art-politics. Ostensibly, they are about surface, the grid, and repetition – abstraction’s classic devices. But while the things she makes can be beautiful, they also raise an eyebrow towards the contemporary art world’s view of abstract painting. Her work manifests a strange spatial reversal, a sense of being ‘inside out’, hence the title of her recent book, How to Paint Backwards.3 Her ability to create this space results from her experimentation with materials. Critics tend to focus specifically on questions of materiality when discussing her painting, often returning to her application of paint with a rag or the edge of her hand. While this intimacy between artist, surface and gesture raises the spectre of Abstract Expressionism, her ‘graphic’ strokes are more like those of David Reed, Roy Lichtenstein and Bernard Frize.

But either way, her ‘originality’ is questionable and as a result it’s easy to get trapped either in defending her work for should be on the underlying unease, the tense relationship with abstraction. Millar is a formalist, a fastidious technician who turns painting inside out and upside down to see what really needs to be there.

Rohan Wealleans is the easiest fall guy in the world. But like Millar, his paintings are more dangerous than they seem. Not because of their content, but because they lie. Wealleans has the same relationship with vaginas that John Currin has with breasts. They are an adolescent distraction. Both artists act out Freudian ‘issues’ in their disturbed attraction to female anatomy. Recent acknowledgments have been made that this is an unfair reduction of Currin’s work, but the same concession hasn’t yet been made for Wealleans. True, he flays his surfaces and opens them in a labial way, and his incisions are invasive, violent, even misogynist. But only if you read them as
‘narrative’. This is much too simple. His paintings are actually driven by a distinctly formalist approach, which is the real determining factor in their content, physically and conceptually.

His paintings’ interiors are built with multiple layers of paint and he works in series, so that each piece undergoes the same treatment. This indicates why it’s a mistake to talk about his work in narrative or sculptural terms (they are often discussed as vaginas, not as paintings of vaginas). Another its painterly merits or slamming it for its imitations. The problem with employing this dichotomy though, is Millar’s own awareness of it. Her instructions on ‘how to paint backwards’ aren’t just about how her paintings are made or how she flips space but also about how she flips painting’s history and New Zealand’s strange relationship with it. Consequently, her heroic expressionist posture is actually a carefully formulated historiography.

Extending this, she actively questions painting’s status and her status as a painter. Her titles give this away, with recent shows being called Don’t Call me Baby, Baby, and The Brush Moves This Way, The Brush Moves That. Then there are paintings with names like The year I was born and the year I was born, again, and Big Pink Shimmering One. These titles either pose a challenge (‘don’t call me baby’), or bore with banality (‘the brush moves this way…’). Further, her most recent work, made in the context of sellout shows and international dealers, is ugly. Her marks are more erratic, less pleasing, and the new paintings seem to confront their audience with questions of desirability.

The problem with couching her work in these ‘cosmetic’ terms though, is that this has never been Millar’s primary
consideration. The early ‘beauty’ of the current body of work was incidental. The real focus when looking at her paintings example of this are his ‘birth paintings’, in which giant bellies explode out of the surface. But while the bellies are made from polystyrene, they are paintings rather than sculptures. Wealleans paints the bellies with the same multiple layers of his other works, and has recently begun cutting back into them, exposing underlying layers on a surface which expands out from, well,another surface. Such shifts show the way he is directly concerned with positive and negative space.

Like Millar, his objects’ public performance adds another layer to his formalist non-agenda. In his recent exhibition
Albino, he tested the limits of decorum again by transforming his vaginas into aboriginal motifs to create ‘tribal’ artifacts. He also made a tribal outfit – a cupless bra and G-string – from lumps of paint, dressed an attractive young woman in it, and then had her photographed by Yvonne Todd emerging sexily from a swamp. It was tasteless in the extreme, and to make the whole project worse, Wealleans wore a grass skirt to the exhibition opening and cut into one of his ‘ritual paintings’,piercing a sack of wet paint so that it ran down into a ceremonial bowl.

Of course this work is offensive, if you take it seriously. But it’s better to view Wealleans as playing provocateur by mixing crude essentialism with puritanical formalism. In a review of John Currin’s retrospective, David Rimanelli stated that: ‘Dead painting lives on because of the unhealthy – politically incorrect,historically inappropriate – passions of its practitioners.’4 Clearly, this can be applied to Wealleans. His paintings are unhealthy, lying, dirty little things. But by creating this tension between content and form and between figuration and abstraction, he holds a mirror, not just to painting, but to the art world and some of its anatomical curiosities.

Juxtaposing Wealleans with Luise Fong might seem crude,but there’s a point to it. For most of the nineties, Fong was seen as one of the young saviours of New Zealand painting, her work gaining a great deal of attention because of its sharp combination of abstraction with feminist issues.5 Fong references the female body with her distinctive central core imagery, based on circles and cuts through her canvases and drips suggestive of body fluids. In total contrast to this seriousness, Wealleans is just being a bit gross, so the comparison sells Fong a little short.
Where Wealleans uses the female body as a distraction, it is a genuine concern in her practice. Likewise, where his show Albino parodied identity art, Fong’s connection with her Chinese origins is significant.

The most recent example of Fong bringing together identity and abstraction is Elemental, an exhibition that openly addressed the horrific motorbike accident she was in three years ago.6 Her paintings also have a new motif – large contrived drips built with gesso, which, like Millar’s marks, suggest a feigned,formalist expressionism. These drips refer back to her earlier paintings and central core imagery also reemerges, but this time it seems more theatrical and self-aware. Titles like Big Girl’s Butterfly say it all, really.

Like Millar and Wealleans, Fong has an obsessive relationship with paint, working back into her surfaces pathologically. This exploration of surface and more directly, her desire to mess around in it, slots her comfortably into a discussion about materiality. But her critical eye is not just directed towards materials – her role in the art world is also something she interrogates. For instance, despite the fact that Elemental was her first major show in Auckland for several years, she presented the largest paintings she has ever made – hardly a quiet and modest
return to the scene.7 This, combined with the fact that some of her paintings and sculptures referenced an accident she was almost killed in, created an unsettling and confrontational body of work.

So there is always a narrative aspect that takes Fong’s work beyond the confines of satisfying the market need for minimalist abstraction. She willingly examines her own performance and the fact that she makes these gestures despite her relatively secure place in New Zealand art history makes her an important figure for this show.

25 Eye-Candy

A perverse relationship with abstraction can also be slight, subtle. Noel Ivanoff and Bill Riley both seem to have
straightfaced responses to abstract painting and the slickness of their work, its interior-design perfection, makes it very easy on the eye. But this, ultimately, is a misunderstanding of their respective practices.

In this show of obsessive formalists, Ivanoff is the most obsessive of the lot. While others manufacture a false
gesturalism, he does everything he can to avoid it, erasing every trace of his hand from the surface of his paintings by lifting 1:1prints from them. And while it’s easy to focus on the paint, the stretcher is actually the most important part of this. Painting and print are both mounted on identical stretchers and the one supporting the print is almost always visible through the traces of paint. The prints therefore become a vehicle for what he describes as ‘obsessive overstatement[s] of the conventions of stretcher construction.’8 And this concern with construction is the major cog in his drive for perfection. But ‘perfection’ never arrives, and as a result, his constant attempts to remove himself almost always confirm his presence, giving his practice a frustrated circularity.

Despite this frustration, his works are almost always beautiful and stylish, and the ‘fashion’ in what he does is
something he is very aware of.9 Consequently, he toys with it and has recently begun to introduce self-parody into his overstatements, a bold move for an artist whose colour-field paintings have become satisfying eye-candy.

It’s funny when you see his current work to know that he once built crates for Bridget Riley. His new ‘crates’ would send that venerable British abstractionist into convulsions. In an extension of his stretcher pieces, he is now working on forklift pallets and crates. So rather than the Ralph Mayer rules of stretcher engagement, he is working on supports which are ugly and unstable, most of them untreated pine rather than kilndried cedar.10 Many are weather-damaged, so that as they dry they are likely to buckle and warp.

So why bother, when your other works are so pretty? Well, to further complicate this, it seems that despite his attempts to work on such unstable surfaces, he can’t escape his need to ‘fix’ them. Rather than accepting the pallets as hopeless supports he tries to dry them out, and then tries to smooth their surfaces with bog, to build up a colour-field, again. Only this time, the paintings will slowly change, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

So Ivanoff’s practice is a panicky minimalism, a performance of his desire to be taken seriously, which can only happen by producing clunky objects. He does deliberate damage to the desirability of his paintings, as though he is allowing them to slip slowly off the wall. The stark grandeur and hubris of his earlier stretcher works has mutated into a consciously troubled humility.

Like Ivanoff’s prints, Bill Riley’s mirrors try to look at themselves, exposing their own anxieties in doing so. Riley is an artist who has actually been accused of producing ‘eye-candy’,and there is no doubt that his painting is very seductive.11 But this, again, is taking the work at face value, a dangerous thing to do. His new mirrors blatantly confront their audience with themselves, creating a strange relationship between surface, content and viewership.

Or maybe they’re confronting themselves with themselves with themselves.12 The reason for this confusion is because the ‘self’ on display is so slippery. Like Ivanoff, Riley’s mirrors are about the way his work has been viewed up until now, a chance for him to challenge his audience with a barbed cynicism in an effort to expose that his work isn’t just a self-satisfying exercise in formalism. And, to a certain extent, the viewer becomes his content, in both a literal and conceptual way.

The mirrors reflect back on his practice self-consciously andbuild on a series of works that took ugly wallpaper designs as source material. In a sense then, those were ‘found-object’ paintings and, to a certain extent, figurative. But rather than maintaining their ugliness, Riley made beautiful reproductions, seductive to the point that his original material had almost disappeared. But it always emerged through the paint, a lumpy, sticky reminder of the clumsiness of his original choice. Close inspection revealed other tragedies – stray bulldog hairs for instance, traces of his beloved pet.

All of these things undermine the minimalist beauty of his paintings, but it is his frustration that this self-criticality is continually overlooked that has led him to these mirrors, which confront his audience with their image of him, but also of themselves watching his work. They are a kind of portrait of the artist in reverse, literal one to one reproductions of the context his work finds itself in. Eye-candy is all about surface appearances, about creating a space in which to quietly consume easy painting. Riley’s mirrors show that there is nothing more unsettling than having to watch yourself eat.

New Image

Sara Hughes is a surprising artist, not least because of the way she moves between painting and installation. Or maybe more precisely, the way she explores painting as installation. But returning to the start of this essay, it was suggested that there are dangers in turning painting into something else. But Hughes is different, because she works within the confines of a traditional formalism.

Her Software for Ada installations were a key feature of Stella Brennan’s curated exhibition Dirty Pixels.13 She worked between vinyl cutter and computer to produce massive installations of vinyl dots, each version responding directly to the space it found itself in, integrating with the architecture. Because of Dirty Pixels’s theme, it was easy to miss that Hughes’s works are so strongly about painting. While her dots seem to refer to digital technologies, each is painted, giving the pieces an obsessively handcrafted aspect that their computer-generated aesthetic
belies.

Hughes recently produced a series of minimalist paintings closely aligned with Frank Stella and Bridget Riley, which create a deeper understanding of her installations. They are sharp plays on perception and viewership, so Minimalism and Op art become obvious reference points. As a result, New Zealand’s own earlier engagement with these styles emerges as a historical consideration, and the work of Gordon Walters resurfaces.14 But like other artists in Sticky, Hughes tries to rearrange that history.

She does this by using a mathematical, computerized systemto create awkward compositions and colour arrangements, erasing the utopian ideals of abstraction’s function in the world and its emphasis on object-ness. Hers are images composed the same way most images are in contemporary culture and as such, they almost have a dystopian quality, a digital Big-Brother foreboding of the dangers of high-falutin’ artmaking.

Extending this, her new paisley installations throw painting at the wall to see where it sticks. Her orderly arrangements of dots and carefully measured paintings mutate into ugly, unfashionable motifs. Spatially, the paisley provides Hughes with a means to play with perspective by projecting back into space with computer-generated foreshortening. Like Millar’s inside-out paintings, depth is emphasised at the same time as total flatness. They show, along with much of Hughes’s work, that though she might be viewed as an installation or new
media artist, she is a painter. She plays with paint, its stickiness, its history and its context to create a distinctively branded and stylised computer-age painting. She’s the ultimate cybermodernist.

Hughes’s cyber-spaces complicate this seemingly simple discussion of painting, and making this even worse is the presence of Peter Stichbury. Since the late nineties, Stichbury’s uber-stylish portraits have presented a kind of millennial cultural angst; his own fetishistic responses to fashion’s victims, paintings that lay bare the ridiculousness of advertising stereotypes. But where his early works were seriously sexy portraits possessed by a saccharine sweetness, his new works test the rules of attraction, while maintaining their own sense of style, of course.

Chester Karnofsky and Debbie Bloomquist are the latest members of Stichbury’s crew. Chester and Debbie make more obvious something that has been latent in his work for a while now: perversity. His critique of fashion has always given his subjects a twisted gaze, but Chester and Debbie are even more crooked. And this is because they are both nerds, pubescent kiddies who probably wear pocket-protectors. But Stichbury has been kind.They have a saintly presence, handing the nerds their own quiet and poised revenge.

It’s easy to compare Stichbury with John Currin, but as the artist himself points out, their similarities are superficial at best. Which is to say, that superficiality is their common ground. Both focus heavily on surface appearances. But one major difference is that where Currin addresses the history of art, Stichbury’s primary concern is with the relationship between surface and content, which is more complicated than it might seem.

The reason for this is that his content is surface. His characters lack depth, one-dimensional sitters lifted from two dimensional images, straight from the pages of flashy magazines.15 This leads to the irony that, in a sense, his work is deader than any of this exhibition’s other paintings, because despite the fact that he is the only ‘genuinely’ figurative artist, there was never anything alive in the first place.

His execution feeds their necrophiliac perversity. Just like his content, his working process is all about surface. And like Ivanoff, he is a colour-field painter. The backdrops to his figures are always monochromatic, always smooth. His work is concerned with figure and ground, and with flatness. So in a weird way, he brings us full-circle, back to Millar’s faux-Greenbergian reversals. And in fact, the seeming disruption his work offers in this context just throws one of the major features of the artists on show into a stronger light – all of them offer up
surface appearances in order to hide more complicated secrets. And maybe that’s a good place to stop. Chester and Debbie are the end points for a protracted discussion about contemporary painting and its discontented, slightly twisted heroes – a group of artists who keep messing with paint. More fool them.

Anthony Byrt, 2004.


1 Several reviews of Currin’s exhibition have discussed his reconstruction of historical techniques and his mastery of them. By contrast, Jerry Saltz of the Village Voice has sought to cut through this, stating that: ‘Currin’s accomplishment is not his crackerjack craftsmanship: it’s the way he reinserted ideas about “ quality” into the artistic conversation.’ J. Saltz, ‘Reaction Shot’. Village Voice, 6 February 2004, http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0406/saltz.php.
2 See D. Fogle, “The Trouble with Painting’, Painting at the Edge of the World, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2001, pp. 9-25
3 For a more detailed discussion of this, see my essay in J.Millar, How to Paint Backwards, Gow Langsford, Auckland, 2003.
4 D. Rimanelli, ‘John Currin’ (review), Artforum International, September 2003, p.219
5 See for example, Priscilla Pitts’s essay in Luise Fong: More Human (exhibition catalogue) Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, 1995.
6 Elemental was shown at Starkwhite, 10 February – 6 March 2004. See also my review of this exhibition in the New Zealand Listener, 28 February – 5 March 2004, p.57.
7 Fong spent most of the late nineties living in Melbourne, exhibiting rarely in New Zealand.
8 See N. Ivanoff, Dressed Four Sides (exhibition catalogue), Vavasour Godkin Gallery, Auckland, 2003, n.p.
9 Beauty, style and seduction are all continuous concerns in Ivanoff’s work. One instructive essay, which helps frame this discussion of his practice and this project in general, is Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe’s ‘I’m Not Sure it is Sticky’ in Sticky Sublime, ed. B. Beckley, Allworth Press, New York, 2001.
10 R, Mayer, The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, Viking Press, New York, 1982.
11 See Jon Bywater’s review, ‘Auckland’, Art New Zealand, 101, Summer 2001-2002
12 This is a nod in the direction of Laurence Simmons, whose recent collection of essays The Image Always has the Last Word (Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 2002) has influenced my approach to contemporary painting. In particular, see his essay ‘The Enunciation of the Annunciation’, pp.68-79.