Portraiture in Non-Objective Art

Disagreements over what we consider to be portraiture became intense when Justine Varga’s ‘Maternal Line’ won the 2017 Olive Cotton Prize for photographic portraiture. ARTIST PROFILE invited a panel of artists: Justine Varga, Michael Buzacott, Coen Young and Andrew Christofides, to discuss art’s 100-year-old conflict between classicism’s mimesis, modern art’s representation of the visible world, and non-objective and abstract art.

Lucy: Justine, did you expect controversy?
Justine: I knew there wouldn’t be other portraits like mine in the award. There were of course portraits that obscured the face, or rendered somebody quite vaguely. My work, in seeking to portray the relationship between my grandmother and myself, took it to that next step, by not including a recognisable face. When the Sydney Morning Herald contacted me, I thought they wanted a little story in the art pages as they would with any photographic or art awards. When I woke up the next morning, to find a controversy on the front page, it was a bit of a shock.

Kon: Is portraiture possible in non-objective art?
Andrew: Absolutely not. It depends on the definitions of portraiture and non-objective art. Portraiture is perhaps fluid and porous, but non-objective art is fairly strict. There is a difference between non-objective art, concrete art and abstraction. The strictest version of non-objective art is probably Theo van Doesburg’s of 1930, in which he rejects intuition and personal touch. He wanted to exclude every aspect of the appearance of the real world within the work. So that to me prevents the notion of portraiture existing in non-objective art. I have no problem at all with portraiture existing within abstraction, and I would see ‘Maternal Line’ as an abstract work rather than a non-objective work. Portraiture requires a portrayal of some aspect, characteristic or appearance of a particular person. A degree of specificity is implied in portraiture. I’m not sure how blurred it is. For my money, portraiture couldn’t exist within non-objective art.

Justine: I should make it clear that, my work is not non-objective and doesn’t set out to be. Like all photographs, ‘Maternal Line’ is grounded in real life. I asked my grandmother to inscribe her marks upon a photographic surface, using some pens she was already testing, and to create a double inscription by rubbing her saliva upon the surface. I was thinking about the nature of photographic portraiture and what it is that we ask of a subject whenever we take a photograph of them. When we take a photograph of someone digitally, or with an analogue process, as I do, we’re seeking to inscribe them onto light-sensitive surfaces. When I asked my grandmother to make her own inscriptions on my piece of film, I was actually asking her to trace herself directly onto that surface, without any mediation from a camera. It’s a deconstruction of the exchange that occurs whenever we take a portrait of somebody. The resulting photograph is not just of her; it comprises her and re-presents her. It is her. But it is also of me, or of our relationship. This was an activity of portrait-making that depended on a trusting, physical and intimate relationship between my grandmother and myself, two women from the same family. As its title suggests, ‘Maternal Line’ is therefore a complex kind of portrait; it is simultaneously a portrait and an artwork about portraiture.

Michael: A portrait needs a maker. Objective means prior and superior to ego – so non-objective means pure ego, pure mind, something not in the body and not being about the body. We’re embodied beings, we’re corporeal. It’s a delineation of something that you’re observing or encountering. It’s not something that just happens. If you look at a mirror, that’s not a portrait, that just happens, it’s not made. Makers incorporate themselves in the thing they make, everything they make is to some extent a self-portrait. How you define these terms also depends on where you’re situated in time. I don’t like the terms ‘figurative’ or ‘abstract’. I’m a sculptor, it’s a very corporeal thing. Everything en-bodied has a shape, therefore sculptors say figure. We are historically located as well. We live in a time where people do not look to the future, they look to the past. So, you have to locate yourself in terms of history.

Justine: That’s quite interesting, Michael, what you say about time. There’s a lot of fear at the core of what happened with ‘Maternal Line’. It has highlighted a social anxiety at play at the moment. The response to my portrait was a symptom of that anxiety. People felt the social order was being somehow disrupted by my work being recognised. The press people and, older male photographers at the Sydney Morning Herald (who had not seen ‘Maternal Line’ except in rather poor reproduction) felt very affronted that my work was being recognised, a younger woman’s work which wasn’t using the language they used. That response also reflects the Trumpian moment we’re having, a moment very fearful of elites, artists and intellectuals – and of women.

Michael: When I think about portraiture, I think of the great portraits that I have seen: Holbein, El Greco, Goya, Rodin, van Gogh. I mean Cezanne’s portrait of Vollard which is in the Petit Palais in Paris is absolutely mind-blowing. When you make a portrait, when you portray somebody, you’re referring to that history and experience, that’s what you’re trying to rival. As an historical being, I need to understand where I am located and where I am coming from, but I don’t look to that work to learn about myself because I don’t think my questions will be answered. So, to round off, no, I don’t think that portraiture is possible in non-objective art.

Coen: It can go beyond that, actually. I have found it amusing watching people interact with my work, especially in this context, an art fair, because you get a whole cross-section of people just responding to it on a visual level, and others responding on a more academic level or whatever. My ‘Mirror’ works came out of thinking about the figure. I wanted to make work that implicated the viewer, and always in a state of flux. You (Michael) made a comment about a mirror not being a portrait as such. As the physical material maker of the ‘Mirror’ works, I play with what it doesn’t do, and what it’s supposed to do. Then there is that life of the ‘Mirror’ work that is placed onto the subject. The ‘Mirror’ projects their self, and then facilitates some kind of reaction. I hope it does more than just looking back. If they do function as a kind of portrait, it’s because the intention is that the content of the work is made up by their immediate circumstances. It’s one reason why the title usually includes very specific times. With my ‘studies for a mirror (July) 2017’ – if they are shown again, they retain these titles, there’s a specific reference to a specific time. If you’re standing in front of the ‘Mirror’ work, I hope that it prompts some kind of thought about loss.

Michael: I’m conservative, I would like to maintain the different genre. I would like to go back pre-Cubism. The problem with Cubism is it reduced everything to a manner. Although Braque and Picasso were doing portraits, still-lifes, figures, landscape, they were submerged within Cubism as a style. I like the Fine Arts, the representational arts. They are concerned with what you see. They became fine art because of the level of technical knowledge and skill and dexterity. People like Bernini and all the people before and after him, made this activity important. Before, these makers weren’t important, they didn’t have a name and were anonymous. In a sense the individuality we experience in our own culture is a double-edged sword. We have to be careful that the backstory doesn’t dominate what we see. Our eyes come first. No matter what rules or what we do, our eyes will make the final judgement.

Lucy: Coen, do you think portraiture in non-objective painting is a problem only in Australia?
Coen: It’s more of an issue here than anywhere else because we have quite a small art world pool. Developments don’t happen in such an extreme way as internationally. Maybe it’s the reason why young artists don’t flock to Sydney to be a part of a movement. We, as a society are so over-governed here, it’s so restrictive, so hard to even maintain a studio here. How could you expect anyone to express what is really going on? Obviously there’s some really great work being made here. It’s great to see Justine’s work ruffling the feathers of the old conservative men that dominate these public discussions or publications. How can we expect to move forward as a society and have empathy towards one another while we hold onto these borders? You’ve got to think why they were there in the first place.

Lucy: Holding onto definitions?
Coen: That’s right. It’s a very neo-liberal way of thinking. It’s looking into the future in relation to the past; trying to move forward while maintaining those values. We’ll let you move forward, but only so far.

Michael: Moving forward, that’s what politicians say. Radical means to get to the heart of something; it’s an illusion to think that there’s progress in art, you get to the heart of it.

Justine: I’d like to get to the heart of things, but Michael’s statement doesn’t really engage with what Coen was saying. Within my own practice, and I think with Coen as well, there’s a deep respect for history and knowledge of history, it’s not at all making a mockery of any of that. To create the work that we do is to have a deep understanding of what has come before and then we contextualise that in the present. That’s what’s at play. My own work is very much part of a long history within photographic practice, a history that can be traced back to the conception of the medium. At its origin photography was cameraless and artists and other practitioners of the medium have continued to use cameraless techniques into the present; some have even made portraits that way. In that respect, my approach is nothing new, and does not call for a redefinition of either photography or portraiture. What it does provoke is an interrogation of that very history.

Lucy: Andrew, can a pure type of the non-objective or abstraction exist?
Andrew: Absolutely. Non-objective or pure abstraction, call it what you will, is flourishing now. The problem is that people have misunderstood the purposes of non-objective art and pure abstraction. When the makers started this movement a hundred years ago, they did not want to exclude meaning in art, they simply wanted to extend meaning through another language, one that gave them meaning for something that they couldn’t speak about, one beyond the Renaissance tradition – that is to say, the language of perspective and representation of the world as we think we see it. I respect that tradition enormously, it comes up in my work all the time. But most non-objective work at the moment has lost its purpose; it’s come down essentially to decoration, the visual manipulation of images, based on personal aesthetics of likes and dislikes, not what the work speaks of. This bothers me a lot. I think it was Roger Fry, the great English writer of the ’20s, who said he “longed for religion again”, not because he was a religious person, but because religion had provided art with so much subject matter. Now, I’m not for or against religious painting. A hundred years ago when non-objective art arose, it had a purpose, that’s why it looked to spiritualism and music as models. A lot of that purpose in non-objective art and pure abstraction has been lost.

Kon: Coen, can you discuss the figures in your photographic works?
Coen: Most works I’ve made to date have come from concern with the figure, my relation to objects, to materials and things. The photographic work ‘Fundamental Fantasy’ touches on ideas that Andrew was talking about in abstraction, reduction to this point of selection based on aesthetic preference. A lot of younger painters now use abstraction or non-objective premises to make work. If we expand definitions of non-objective, abstract art and so on, why can’t it involve the figure? There’s no narrative in ‘Fundamental Fantasy’. It’s an objective work, documentation of a circumstance.

Andrew: We’re speaking about these things as though they’re polar opposites. The history of art generates so many different forms: non-objective, abstraction, portraiture and so forth that come out of similar concerns. I don’t want to have anything of the appearances of the world in my work, because that prevents me from saying and dealing with the purity of the things I’m interested in. However, somebody who’s interested in portraiture will choose the language that will give them the greatest expressive potency. It might be representation or abstraction. It certainly won’t be the non-objective. It will be a language allowing them to express what it is they want to say about the subject of interest. All of these things operate at the same time, and together.

Michael: There are far more similarities than dissimilarities between us. We’re simply at different points in our lives. I’m now going back to things that I was doing at 15. The optimism and the open-future-ness of one’s life changes as you age and you to compare yourself differently and parts of yourself differently. I identified with a great deal with Coen’s work. It’s simply a difference of generation. Sometimes, there has to be conflict between generations. We’re all part of a cycle, we’re just a link in the chain, but we don’t want our link to break.

Justine: What this discussion has made clear is that there is a lot at stake in the choices that artists make; different choices have different effects, are received differently, are differently valued. I hope the Australian art community can continue to debate these choices and the power dynamics that either promote or suppress certain choices over others.


Artist Profile also invited Hilarie Mais and Debra Dawes to be on our panel, but they sent their late apologies.