If Robert MacPherson (b. 1937) were a character in a novel he would test the reader’s credulity. It’s hard to believe in the idea of a conceptual artist raised in a Queensland country town, who left school early to work in a cannery and then as a musterer at a cattle station. By the age of 20, MacPherson had mastered cane cutting and coal shovelling. He would go on to work in a foundry and then as a ship’s painter. In 1961, at the age of 24, he enrolled in art school, but left after a week.
During these years MacPherson developed an interest in the antiques trade, which would become a lifelong preoccupation. His free time was spent in libraries, where he immersed himself in the latest developments in international art.
MacPherson’s first solo show came along in 1974. He was soon acquiring Visual Arts Board grants and residencies, and was even included in the Third Biennale of Sydney, subtitled European Dialogue. At the same time he worked as a supervisor for a cleaning company, while keeping up his antiques business.
This diverse life experience forms a picturesque backdrop for MacPherson’s retrospective at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art, but it also provides the subject matter.
Robert MacPherson: The Painter’s Reach has been well thought-out and beautifully presented. The catalogue is equal to the occasion, being as good as anything I’ve ever seen from the Queensland gallery. Guest curator, Ingrid Periz has written a very readable overview of the artist’s unusual career.
The only glitch in this slick presentation is the art itself. Although I’ve been looking at MacPherson’s work for more than 30 years, it’s difficult to warm to the exasperating mixture of banality and self-conscious cleverness that is the hallmark of his activities.
MacPherson says he experimented with expressionist painting in his teens, but quickly decided it felt too immature. From an early age he was determined to take an analytical approach.
These analytical ambitions have prompted the artist to examine painting in the manner of a research scientist: breaking it down into its raw components, testing its limits, separating the material aspects from the myths.
Early works such as Scale from the tool (1976), were long vertical strips of canvas covered in crude black marks determined by the scale of the artist’s body and the limits of his reach. His chosen tool was a housepainter’s brush, establishing a relationship between his dual identities as artist and tradesman.
As paintings these are singularly boring works, unless we enter into MacPherson’s mindset, seeing them as demonstrations of thought propositions. There may be even less visual interest in a series of store-bought paintbrushes presented as fully-fledged works of art.
MacPherson realised that a typical housepainter’s brush might be seen as animal (the bristles), vegetable (the wooden handle), and mineral (the metal trim). The brush itself was a kind of painting, due to the colour applied to the handle. These observations might seem obvious – hardly more than a rediscovery of the “readymade”, such as Marcel Duchamp’s notorious urinal, called Fountain (1917). In the context of this show MacPherson’s thoughts on paintbrushes are presented as revelations.
Soon everything began to look like a painting to MacPherson, even the polish on his shoes. But if everything is a painting then what’s the point of covering a canvas with pigment? Instead, MacPherson’s investigations drew him into an increasing fascination with the minutiae of everyday life.
He produced a voluminous series of works based on his daily visits to a sandwich bar, with paintings relating to the colours of the ingredients – red for tomato, pink for salmon. He analyses the way the sandwiches are cut, and the way the butter is applied. He writes a long description of the different methods employed by the three shop assistants who serve him. It’s an orgy of triviality in which nothing is too small to ignore.
His dry-cleaning dockets send him off on another fantasia, making small paintings that follow the colours listed on the receipts. He is thrilled by the discovery that the shop assistants describe the colours of shirts in a way that he wouldn’t. Is that really a “dark blue”? “Would you call this pink or purple?”
This may sound maddening, but curators such as Daniel Thomas have showered praise on MacPherson over the years, proclaiming him to be “the most important contemporary artist in Australia” (at least for this week). MacPherson seems all the more significant because of his well-documented hostility to landscape painting which remains the dominant tradition in Australian art. His objection is that he views a painting primarily as an object, not an imaginary window onto the world.
Ultimately the curatorial hyperbole does an artist no favours because it sets up expectations that are unrealisable, unless the audience is composed entirely of fashion victims.
The most striking aspect of MacPherson’s work, as revealed in this exhibition, is its sheer obsessiveness. MacPherson may not be “the greatest” contemporary artist in Australia (Who is?) but no-one could be more devoted to lists, inventories, series and archives. His only counterpart might be Peter Tyndall, with whom he has exchanged items of mail art since 1979. “Late in 2014,” we read, “Tyndall donated his side of the exchange – approximately 13,000 items – to the Queensland Art Gallery Research Library.”
When MacPherson begins a sequence there is no telling when it will end. The Mayfair series of black-and-white signs, playfully echoing homemade, roadside advertising notices, seems almost endless. Chitters: A Wheelbarrow for Richard. 156 Paintings, 156 Signs (1999-2000), occupies an entire room, floor-to-ceiling. It is nothing but an accumulation of gardening products and services: Blood + Bone, Magic Mulch Bales, Tree Lopping, and so on.
The Frog Poems series seems equally limitless. The largest example, 17 Frog Poems (for G.W. & A.W. (who by example) taught the kinder way) (1987-89), presents a series of canvas stretcher beds beneath a wall display of wooden slats, each bearing the Latin name of a different species of frog. It’s a puzzling piece until we start to see the canvas beds in relation to the canvases used by painters. The Latin names bestow fanciful features on the frogs, which hibernate in summer. Soon we’re thinking of both artists and frogs sleeping and dreaming.
It becomes apparent that MacPherson’s work is not as oblique as it initially seems. There are private jokes, puns, layers of reference, and grounds for interpretation. Nevertheless, the interpretations often feel strained, while the visual aspect of a piece may be no more exciting than looking at a cross-word puzzle.
Although there is a superficial attractiveness in some of the bold sign paintings in this show, there is only one truly dazzling work: 1000 Frog Poems: 1000 Boss Drovers (“Yellow Leaf Falling”) for H.S. (1996-2014).
This monumental series of drawings occupies a vast wall in GOMA’s central corridor. Each individual work is a childish drawing of a real drover that once plied the stock routes of northern Australia. They are not intended to be likenesses, but imaginary portraits. To make matters more interesting, MacPherson has attributed authorship to a ten-year-old boy, Robert Pene (pronounced “pee-nee”), living in a Catholic convent in 1947. The drawings have been artificially aged with tea, covered in squiggled notes and red stamps denoting good schoolwork.
The Boss Drovers is a tour-de-force that helps illuminate other aspects of MacPherson’s work – notably its playfulness. There is also a powerful sense of nostalgia for a lost Australia in which every proletarian subculture had its own special lingo and its own way of doing things. It may seem a peculiar fixation for an artist who has always pursued a conceptual agenda, but it springs from MacPherson’s own history of employment and his antiquarian tendencies.
Perhaps this isn’t so unusual after all. When Duchamp exhibited a bottle rack in the gallery he was drawing attention to the elegance of its design. When he wrote L.H.O.O.Q. (roughly translated “She has a hot tail”) on the Mona Lisa with a moustache, he was bringing this precious icon down off her pedestal. The avant-garde project that proceeds from Duchamp has been defined as the attempt to abolish the distinctions between art and life. In this sense MacPherson’s credentials are impeccable.
Robert MacPherson: The Painter’s Reach
Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane. Until 18 October
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 19th September, 2015