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Never neutral, abstraction in Auckland

The most recent exhibitions at Gow Langford Gallery from two leading Australasian abstract artists, Judy Millar and Dale Frank, reveal that both they and the genre are in robust health.

Judy Millar and Dale Frank’s latest New Zealand solo shows run concurrently at Gow Langsford Gallery in central Auckland until September 1. Abstract painting within the western art tradition celebrates its 105th or 112th birthday in 2018.

A little debate has emerged in recent years as to just when pure abstraction emerged. For decades the ‘accepted’ wisdom was that year zero for abstraction was 1911 in the form of a small watercolour by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866 – 1944).

However since the turn of the century, after decades remaining hidden, the work of the transcendent, visionary Swedish artist Hilma Af Klint (1862-1944), whose first documented abstract work dates to 1906, has emerged to upset the apple cart in terms of first mover status, gender bias in abstraction and just who split the atom; Adam or Eve?

There is no doubt that a carefully crafted lineage of masculine intellectual genius and protean creative magma as being the twin poles around which a century of abstraction has revolved has been advanced. From Kandinksy to Kazimir Malevich (of Black Square fame) via Mondrian to Albers, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko and so on is how the story goes.

Turns out it is a bill of goods. In the last decade, the history of abstraction and the accompanying reams of text that cling to the form, as perhaps the most unwelcome houseguest in all of art history, have had to be rewritten to, in effect, melt the iceberg of the ‘genderisation’ of the very genre itself.

This means that after many years of being considered lesser figures, or simply not being considered at all, artists such as Hilma Af Klint, the Swiss Emma Kunz, the Pakistani Nasreen Mohemedi and perhaps the most pivotal figure of all Agnes Martin have been re-evaluated and seen, at last anew. The entire history of 20th century abstraction has had to elasticise, enlarge and become a much broader church.

So this is the backstory, call it baggage if you want, that informs abstraction in the 21st century. Both Millar and Frank will be highly aware this discourse and as practitioners of the form they participate in both the current dialogue and its ongoing democratisation.

A single shot of Judy Miller's work, courtesy of Judy Millar and Gow Langsford Gallery.

Judy Millar holds a key position within the contemporary New Zealand scene and in Europe. She is one of a small number of New Zealand artists who exhibit regularly in New Zealand and internationally. In the last few years she has staged exhibitions in Basel, Zurich, Brisbane and Berlin.

Next stop for Millar will be a solo show in London. She represented New Zealand in 2009 at the 53rd Venice Biennale with the installation Giraffe-Bottle-Gun. Aucklanders will be familiar with her large-scale painting meets sculpture Rock Drop which was unveiled in 2017 at the Auckland Art Gallery.

Her recent works have tended to be spectacular canvases at large scale. Studies in Place is a remarkable departure: small scale works on paper that measure 35 x 25 cms. Most encounters with Millar’s paintings over the last decade have asked the viewer to step back a few paces to comprehend dramatic gesture at much larger than life size. These small studies invite a completely different mode of observation: up close and personal.

The exhibition is in two parts – a suite of works from 1989 at the very commencement of her career and works fresh from her Karekare studio. These smaller works demonstrate that monumentality is not necessarily a function of size. In actuality, these works on paper eschew abstraction’s trump card of size by offering an intimate connection with their highly activated surfaces and quiet thunder.

Given that abstraction’s reason for being to is not to do what almost all other painting does, i.e. function as a representation of a ‘thing’ then the ‘thing’ in play in Millar’s works is the paint itself. Within the swirls, colours, densities and movements of paint we must find all meaning and all satisfactions – aesthetic, emotional and intellectual. For both the artist and the viewer this is both an opportunity and a challenge.

Without the shock and awe of leviathan size these works must be on point. And they are. In Millar’s hands the book scale works are assured across an amazingly dexterous range of applications. From roiling, clotted high-tempo passages to finer arpeggios of delicate pigment films of they evince an enervating range of mood underpinned by a deep sense of concentration and inner journey.

In the catalogue introduction the artist speaks to her longstanding connection to Auckland’s West Coast, her New Zealand home for many years. She goes on to explain that both the works from 1989 and those created this year emerge from her response to this place, ‘The sea air has seasoned my lungs well. I have both arrived at and imagined a place.’

For Aucklanders this adds an additional layer of insight into these works and if an environmental frame of reference is a portal to engagement then it is surely the fury of flax thrashing about in a westerly and the percussive beat of a stormy surf that inform these works with their elemental heft.

Between, above and inside the free range of colour-ways, it is in the insistent interlacing of blacks and deep greys that local viewers can identify that unique visual signifier of the West Coast - black sand. Studies in Place achieves what art most naturally wants to do: render the personal emblematic of a wider reality, and on a good day, a universal truth. Abstraction needs to do this without the signpost of the object, having only recourse to the artist’s mind, hands and actions in paint.

This is a courageous show by an artist who has added a suite of small pages to her now massive book by standing on a cliff at Karekare. At the same time she manages to both celebrate the whakapapa of a sustaining and beloved seascape some 37 kilometres (I checked on Google maps) from Gow Langsford Gallery and locate herself within a century of abstract practice.

Around the corner at Gow Langsford’s Lorne Street Gallery is Australian artist Dale Frank’s latest New Zealand exhibition entitled in typical deadpan fashion, Dale Frank. This might be a bit tongue in cheek because one thing Frank usually doesn’t do is call his works Untitled. A random example of a title in the current show is… In London outside Paddington Station he walked past his first black man and black woman, even though he had seen and spoken to Aborigines before, this was his first black man – he felt cool.

Dale Frank's work: "In London outside Paddington Station he walked past his first black man and black woman, even though he had seen and spoken to Aborigines before, this was his first black man – he felt cool". Photo: Tobias Kraus

Past Frank showstoppers have had titles picked at random from the internet, travelogues, accessed from online porn sites, urban slang, trash magazine articles and in the main a million miles from the pained precision of artspeak – how does French Cheese at 3AM grab you. His goal is to get us onto a different dancefloor, so his funky canvases can bust a few moves before our very eyes. Dale Frank has been a rock star artist since the 1980s, his work is held in International public museum collections including the Zurich Kunsthaus, The Guggenheim in New York and the Auckland Art Gallery.

Frank’s work in recent years has featured vast glossy surfaces ablaze with coloured varnish, resins, enamels and epoxy, even Swarovski crystals. There is no such thing as over the top in much of Frank’s work. His most spectacular works skirt disaster and triumph, the sublime and the ridiculous in both the risky nature of their manufacture and the resultant canvas as all those gooey pigments coagulate into a shiny hot mess.

2018 Frank sees the artist pulling back from recent dayglo pyrotechnics by introducing a palette of cool metallics that gel, separate, rupture and ooze into a range of reveals and conceals in the same breath. It has taken Frank decades to master all the elements of his runny orchestra and at over two metres these latest canvases possess the symphonic quality of a knowing yet beguiling power Popera. That sweet and sour vibe is the key to Frank’s allure. There is a method to his madness that is borne of long trial and error alloyed to a deep commitment to the endless potential of the abstract genre. These latest works appear as both witnesses for the defence and prosecution of the form.

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