Over the years Andrew Jensen has edged his way north, starting in Christchurch, moving to Wellington, on to Auckland, and last year crossing national lines and arriving in Sydney. What makes the Jensen Gallery unusual is that the exhibition program consists of 70-80 per cent international art – the kind of art we normally only see in foreign museums or exhibitions such as the Sydney Biennale.
When I spoke with the dealer last week, part of the discussion was about how coming from New Zealand means one has to try harder. For such a small population, the New Zealanders are a nation of high achievers with a dynamic and varied art scene. There is also an element of stubborn determination: a desire to prove they are up there with the best in the world.
Jensen shows work by a range of Australian and New Zealand artists, but he owes his reputation to his willingness to deal with high-profile international figures such as Tony Oursler, Eric Fischl, Helmut Federle, Gary Hill and Imi Knoebel.
Of all the overseas artists who have been associated with the gallery, Fred Sandback (1943-2003) is the most radical and perhaps the greatest gamble. When one walks into the gallery it looks empty. Suddenly one notices a collection of fine, dark lines running from floor to ceiling on the left-hand side – lines that are not attached to any solid object. On the right there are thin yellow lines set at an angle from the wall. Directly in front are concentric squares made from red and white lines that stretch from the floor to the rafters. In the corner stands a tall triangular shape, featuring a two-tone hypotenuse.
Sandback’s lines are made with thin strands of coloured yarn that are slightly fuzzy when viewed at close range. He called them “sculptures”, but the entire show could be taken down and rolled into a small ball. Set in place according to the artist’s instructions, these pieces give the impression of large, geometric shapes carving up the interior of the gallery. In Sandback’s words, this linear technique “was a consequence of wanting the volume of sculpture without the opaque mass.”
Born in Bronxville N.Y., Sandback was associated with the American Minimalists, but always rejected the label. Even before he had left college his greatest admirers were Europeans. I’ve seen his work in German museums but it has never previously been shown in Australia. He is such an unknown quantity here that I wasn’t even aware he had died in 2003. Nowadays, Sandback’s works are installed by two assistants working for the estate. If you buy one, be prepared to fly the assistants over to do the set up.
This exhibition features the most diaphanous body of work I’ve ever seen in a local commercial gallery, but it does odd things to one’s perception of space. The square outline in the centre of the gallery feels like a threshold, a doorway to be instinctively walked around, as if one might be vapourised upon crossing the line. One imagines these large shapes have always been present in the room but previously invisible. Sandback was aware of what he called “the inherent mysticism” in such simple arrangements of lines, but aimed at nothing more than an ideal neutrality.
The show is difficult to describe and almost impossible to photograph. To get the full measure of these works one has to walk around the gallery, feeling how each piece changes its form in relation to one’s viewpoint. The effect is austere but playful, if you can imagine such a combination. Sandback had a degree in philosophy from Yale, but one has to admire the chutzpah of an artist who wanted his drawings to be “habitable”
In an interview, Sandback once said that he worked only for himself, and felt horrified at the idea of addressing the public. The artist who made work with a particular audience in mind became nothing more than an entertainer.
This is an appropriate point to turn to that great entertainer from Belgium, Wim Delvoye, who is supplementing his survey show at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, with a commercial exhibition at Roslyn Oxley9. No-one could be more aware of his audience than Delvoye, whose every move is calculated to stimulate surprise, delight or revulsion in the spectator. Many of his creations, including the infamous poo-making machines and tattooed pig skins, have that special form of attraction-repulsion that makes people go “Yuck!” but then find it hard to tear themselves away.
While no excreta may be discerned at Ros Oxley’s, there is a collection of framed, tattooed pig skins, fresh from the artist’s Art Farm in China, complete with images of Jesus Christ, Ganesh, Dracula, and other characters. There are tattoo-style drawings in coloured pencils, and eye-catching sculptures of a concrete mixer and a dump truck made from stainless steel panels laser-cut into intricate, Gothic traceries. It is as if the great spiritual architecture of the cathedrals has been broken down and recycled in the form of utilitarian objects. On the other hand, the dump truck and concrete mixer take on an aura of religiosity.
Delvoye’s point may be that we have come to hold nothing more sacred than the dance of progress, with its rituals of development and construction. As a maker of high-end commodities in his own right, he sees no contradiction in the simultaneous pursuit of parody and profit. Delvoye is a double-agent, a mole in upper echelons of the contemporary art world, dedicated to producing objects of desire that incubate a faint trace of ridicule. He invites us to become complicit in the joke, but never allays the suspicion that he may be laughing at us, not with us.
Elsewhere this week, The Abstract Canvas at the Wilson Street Gallery at Danks, brings together a lively collection of paintings by seven experienced artists, including Ann Thomson, John Firth-Smith, Craig Gough, Kate Briscoe and Col Jordan. The undoubted highlights, however, are a massive canvas by Graham Kuo called Afternoon Sun (2008), and a 1973 work by Sandra Leveson, titled Blue Sonata.
Kuo’s title is a severe understatement, as his painting is more like a super nova than the gentle rays of the declining sun. Leveson’s large, elaborate piece is as dark as an underwater cave, illuminated by tiny pinpricks of colour. The contrast between these two dominant pictures reveals the vastness of the terrain covered by that word, “abstraction”. Kuo’s work is loose and expressive, making use of the whiteness of the primed canvas to project a sense of light and heat. Leveson’s picture is an introverted affair that lures the viewer into its mysterious depths.
Finally it would be a dereliction of duty not to take note of another show by an international artist – the monotypes and small sculptures of Phillip King at Defiance Gallery.
King is one of the most celebrated British sculptors of the twentieth century, and this exhibition focuses on a single key work: Genghis Khan (1963). This was a breakthrough sculpture that saw King relinquish traditional materials for brightly-coloured, moulded fiberglass. It was notably free and whimsical in form, with two branches or antlers hanging off a central cone shape. It resembles a warrior’s helmet, or maybe a teepee that has sprouted wings.
Of the two original versions of Genghis Khan, one is in the Tate, the other in a private collection in London. When the work was shown at the Royal Academy last year, as part of a comprehensive survey of British sculpture, it generated a wave of interest. King decided to make a new edition of three: one for Europe, one for the United States and one for Australia. Defiance has the full-size sculpture on display on a property in Bowral, and is selling five out of ten bronze maquettes of the work. It is a museum quality piece, and the edition is small in comparison to most prominent works of sculpture, which usually range from six to nine.
The Art Gallery of NSW recently spent $3.7 million for an early work by the American sculptor, Richard Serra, which it was claimed would fill a hole in the collection. However, with a collection that includes significant pieces by British artists such as Henry Moore and William Tucker, it could be argued that a major Phillip King is a more logical hole filler than a minor work by Serra. One hesitates to talk about filthy money, but the British work would also be a mere fraction of the cost of its American counterpart. Of course, if one wanted to extend the game of comparisons, $3.7 million would secure a huge, representative collection of Australian sculpture. Perhaps when newly-appointed director, Michael Brand, takes the helm at the AGNSW, he might quietly reassess where the holes lie in the collection.
Fred Sandback: Sculpture & Drawings. Jensen Gallery, February 09 – March 25, 2012
Wim Delvoye. Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, February 09 – March 03, 2012
The Abstract Canvas. Wilson Street Gallery at Danks, February 08 – March 03, 2012
Philip King: Genghis Khan and recent monoprints. Defiance Gallery, February 01 – February 12, 2012
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, February 18, 2012