New York

“An Australian Accent”

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

This show of works by three Australian painters not seen in this country before was right on the issues of the moment; it made one wonder how much intelligent and mature international painting goes relatively unseen here. The post-Modern concern with mediating surface and depth—terms that can be applied to both painted space and the sense of self—is a basic and well-understood ingredient of much of this art. Mike Parr’s large horizontal works on paper address the dilemma directly. Each features on its left side a representational charcoal self-portrait of the artist in a reifying context of deep space; this context is strangely torqued and tested, however, and is balanced on the right by an expressionistically scribbled mottling of the surface which compromises deep space, sometimes to an extreme of flatness. Parr, formerly a performance artist, incorporates performance elements into the works, giving them interesting temporal axes and conceptual layerings. Sometimes, they are also handsome or ingratiating esthetic presences.

Like Parr’s, Imants Tillers’ large paintings incorporate both conceptual and performance elements. Each is a vast jigsaw composed of many small canvas boards, all identical in size and shape, and all painted with a fragment of the total image system. These small canvases may be stacked on the floor, in a minimal/conceptual type of installation, or arrayed on the walls as representational paintings. But when they are composed on the walls it is found that the jigsaw is compromised; contiguous edges do not necessarily read contiguously, and so on.

Most interesting is how Tillers deals with the interface between the deep and shallow models of space. In some works, grids asserting the primacy of the ground are jostled by brush-drawn figures which bring no environment of deep space with them. In others the ground is worked and reworked in a variety of ways till it becomes a kind of woolly deep surface. In this entangling stuff, images from different contexts and of different scales flow over one another, as in filmic superimposition. The images are all quoted, found ones, and their relationships point to a semiotic infinite regress, as, for example, areas that function as ground in one reading function in another as figure. Sometimes figurative incidents relate in joking ways to the ambiguous density of the surface that surges around them; small landscape vistas open up here and there, within which tiny dramas arise. One studies the most successful works, like Pataphysical Man, 1984, as intently from two feet as from twenty, finding quite different paintings and experiences.

Ken Unsworth’s paintings are concerned less with the question of space and self than with the post-Modern substitution of dramatic for formal values. Though works on paper, they are so heavily built up with bitumen- and aluminum-based paints as to appear heavy. Unsworth’s cartoonlike images are appropriated partly from the domain of the horror novel and the horror comic, partly from his own earlier performance pieces. Birds start trouble everywhere, as in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, while humans are attacked, tortured, and terrified in a variety of ways. The images are hauntingly dramatic.

In all these works we are dealing with post-Modern, conceptual painting. Tillers’ images are all appropriated. Unsworth and Parr, both formerly body artists, try to mediate performance and painting by incorporating elements of their performances into their pictures; both, for example, sometimes derive their images from photographs of their own performances. Many other artists who ten years ago felt that by doing performance they were working “closer to life” are also now juggling images in this way. But the question of what is closer to life has become more difficult; insofar as images and their permutations are of and for the mind, they embody life as consciousness. Yet paintings derived from performances often seem less compelling than photodocumentation of the performances, let alone the performances themselves. In any case, this strategy is emerging as another major subgenre of conceptual painting.

Thomas McEvilley