Visions of Utopia

Andrew Christofides is very well-known to serious artists and curators in Australia for his relief constructions and paintings. Since his very first show in the early 1980s, few artists have been as uncompromising in their pursuit of pure abstraction as Christofides.

The Wollongong Art Gallery has commissioned Christofides to curate Visions of Utopia, an exhibition of his ideas on the pure elements of painting. This is the first time he has curated for the Gallery, but in 2007 the Gallery curated a survey of his works from 1982-2006.

For Visions of Utopia, opening on 3 September, Christofides has selected 36 works from 30 Australian painters. The earliest work in the exhibition is Ralph Balson’s, ‘Construction, Transparent Planes’, (1942), the latest being John Aslanidis’, ‘Sonic No.49’, (2015). Christofides’ selection of painters sings of quality and depth. This is partly achieved by combining the not so well-known with the renowned, which together offer a fresh perspective on Australian Non-Objective painting, and which demonstrates how closely local ideas developed in parallel to those being explored internationally.

This notion is examined insightfully by Paul McGillick in his essay for the Visions of Utopia catalogue. McGillick alludes to Roy de Maistre’s, brilliant 1919 music and colour painting, ‘Rhythmic composition in yellow green minor’, that Australian Non-Objective painting was practised almost as Kazimir Malevich was working towards defining “Suprematism” in 1913.

There is a staggering range of formal concerns contained within the 36 works in the show, from Tony McGillick’s 1969 acrylic on shaped canvas ‘Acid Rock’; or Hilarie Mais’ 1987 wood and synthetic polymer paint ‘The Grid’; and Suzie Idiens’ 2012 polyurethane painting, ‘Pink Red’. My other favourite is Frank Hinder’s vibrant ‘Construction’, because the conventional painting mediums that had been developed over centuries – egg tempera, watercolour and gouache – were placed on the surface of discarded cardboard in 1943.

Christofides’ survey includes the ever-expanding notions of Non-Objective paintings, of materials, scales, surfaces, colours and shapes. Also noticeable among the many formal concerns is how some of the artists have utilised the shifts in technology at the time in the making of their paintings, such as Sydney Ball’s 1968 ‘Temple’, made from enamel and glider plywood. There’s also a strong presence of female artists beginning with Grace Crowley’s 1950 ‘Geometric Abstract’. This reflects the history of the Non-Objective, in which female artists have played a leading and innovative role.

Interestingly, Christofides has curated two of his own early works: ‘Untitled Construction’, (1984), and ‘Relief No 21’, (1993). Christofides’ decision to include his own work was the right one in the context of this show; his works balance the vertical and horizontal forms of Hinder, Hilaire Mais and Jon Plapp, and indeed the mythical presence of Mondrian.

The chronological order of the curation from pre- to post-World War II Australian modernism to millennium Non-Objective painting provides a context to celebrate Malevich and the more than 100 years of Non-Objective painting. Yet it also seems to emphasise the expansive spirit and the sometimes circular movements of Australian Non-Objective painting. Reflecting on the bold modular painting resembling an irregular rectangle by Sydney Ball titled ‘Temple’ (1968), stirs images of Ball’s more than 50 years of painting. One is reminded how colour has been a constant force for him. Though his scales, shapes and methods have changed over 50 years, Ball’s current Infinex series clearly has its roots in ‘Temple’ and other early works.

Non-Objective painting is most interesting at the moment in Australia. It’s easier to understand why, from Christofides’ study of its history and present forms. The move from a decaying representational image to more formal elements of colour, line and scale evokes a heightened sense of feelings, both empathetic and ethical. There is also an evenness that has little to do with material accumulation, but plenty to do with contemplation.

Don’t expect irony in Christofides’ curation, he chooses artists who have pursued the Non-Objective genre. What is astonishing, as McGillick has pointed out, is that Australian painters were developing a local form of Non-Objective art while never intellectually distanced from the rest of the world.

This exhibition relies on the generosity of artists and public galleries. It includes two paintings from the Penrith Regional Gallery and Lewers Bequest, seven from Wollongong Art Gallery, three from Newcastle Art Gallery, one from the Art Gallery of Ballarat, and two from the Art Gallery of NSW.

What is apparent from Christofides’ exhibition is the need for one of our state or national galleries to hold a major exhibition of Australian Non-Objective art alongside the company of international artists.

Visions of Utopia
3 September – 20 November
Wollongong Art Gallery 

Courtesy the artist and Wollongong Art Gallery

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