Brisbane

Robert MacPherson, Scale from the Tool, 1976, acrylic on nineteen canvases, each 69 × 8 1/4 × 1 1/2". From the series “Scale from the Tool,” 1976–77.

Robert MacPherson, Scale from the Tool, 1976, acrylic on nineteen canvases, each 69 × 8 1/4 × 1 1/2". From the series “Scale from the Tool,” 1976–77.

Robert MacPherson

Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

Robert MacPherson, Scale from the Tool, 1976, acrylic on nineteen canvases, each 69 × 8 1/4 × 1 1/2". From the series “Scale from the Tool,” 1976–77.

At the opening of “Robert MacPherson: The Painter’s Reach” (curated by Ingrid Periz with QAGOMA’s former curator of Australian art Angela Goddard), the eminent retired museum director Daniel Thomas described the artist’s work as “humorous.” It’s not the first word most of us would initially apply to MacPherson’s oeuvre—even to the austere wordplay in his most recent projects based on street signs and biological classification, let alone his early reflections on painterly mark-making. But Thomas had a point. MacPherson’s art is leavened by a humor we might ultimately want to call “Australian”: self-deprecating, egalitarian, born of a sense of distance from established cultural centers and a feeling that one will never belong. It’s a form of deadpan colonial revenge, pricking metropolitan pretensions by way of parody, played out with all of the ungainly grace of a Buster Keaton.

Take, for instance, Scale from the Tool, 1976: a series of long, thin canvases (the width of the brush used on them), each demonstrating one of the various ways (flat, on edge, twisting) in which a loaded housepainter’s brush can be used to apply paint. It is a perfect simulacrum of Greenbergian “self-reflexivity,” but stripped of any aesthetic dimension. It is modernist painting turning readymade—especially considering that MacPherson, having earlier worked as a ship’s painter, would have been experienced in subjecting such gestures to labor-saving scrutiny. This is modernism not as an expression of taste but as a recipe for action.

MacPherson self-consciously positioned himself as a provincial, and could even be considered a provincial among provincials, coming from Brisbane, historically regarded as the least cultured of Australia’s three major east-coast cities. But with the end of modernism, the geography of art-historical significance is being rewritten, and MacPherson no longer looks like some distant imitation of a metropolitan original. Rather, he strikes us as something of a regionalist, employing a variation on a style that is nothing but variations. In light of Katy Siegel’s pathbreaking 2006 exhibition “High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967–75,” we no longer see any great difference between MacPherson making works using a house brush and such metropolitans as David Reed and Ed Clark using similar tools at the same time. We might begin to think that what Pollock opened up with his dripped, allover paintings was not so much a new style as a new relation to technique, endlessly expandable and imbued with no teleological sense of the more and less advanced: A spray gun, metallic paint, the space between the canvas and the wall—whatever happens to be available may be pressed into use.

Periz wisely concentrated on such early examples of MacPherson’s painterly self-reflexivity as Scale from the Tool. Such works open up to what we might call the readymades of the “Frog Poems,” 1982–, in which MacPherson pairs the Latin names of frog species with a series of ordinary objects, and the billboard installations of the “Mayfair” series, 1993–. The turning point came with Three Paintings, 1981, ordinary housepainter’s brushes hung on the wall, claiming to be a work of art. In Thierry de Duve’s great 1988 essay “The Monochrome and the Blank Canvas,” he asked why no artist had yet produced a blank canvas as at once a Greenbergian painting and a Duchampian readymade. If only de Duve had gotten around a bit more, he might have thought of MacPherson’s paintbrushes and even his can of unopened house paint, I See a Can of Paint as a Painting Unpainted, 1982 (unfortunately not in the show). MacPherson proves the provincials are sometimes in advance of the cosmopolitans.

Rex Butler