Dale Hickey, Untitled 6, 2018, acrylic on board, 47 1⁄4 × 35 3⁄8".

Dale Hickey, Untitled 6, 2018, acrylic on board, 47 1⁄4 × 35 3⁄8".

Dale Hickey

Over nearly six decades, the Melbourne-based artist Dale Hickey has presented historians of Australian art with a minor conundrum, which is how—or, indeed, whether—a consistent conceptual project is expressed across the breadth and diversity of his long career. As a friend and astute critic of the artist, Gary Catalano, once wondered, What is the work’s “hidden content?”

After gaining prominence as a painter of hard-edge abstraction in the mid-1960s, Hickey abandoned painting for Conceptual art at the close of the decade, producing a number of idiosyncratic, de-skilled works such as Fences, 1969, for which he commissioned a tradesman to install picket fencing around the interior gallery walls of Melbourne’s Pinacotheca, and 90 white walls, 1970, which comprises ninety photographs of blank walls in a handmade wooden box. Hickey began painting again in 1973, this time adopting a photorealistic style for a suite of technically proficient still lifes of solitary cups set against minimalist backdrops. In subsequent decades, he turned his hand to other genre studies in which he blended tropes of hard-edge abstraction such as color blocking, geometric shapes, and pronounced linearity with those of representation: figuration, perspective, and tonal rendering. Starting in the late 1970s, he focused on depictions of Australian landscapes, executed with a complex compositional structure and paper-thin depth of field. Then, in the 1980s, Hickey turned his eye to studio scenes, working with the reductive and stylized motifs of the utility cart, the easel, the trestle table, and other pictures in the making. He also began producing paintings of his studio window sectioned into quadrants by the vertical beam of its timber frame and the schematic, horizontal edge of a trestle table placed before it. The resultant wooden cross invites us to read the window as the reverse side of a stretched canvas—and, by extension, to see Hickey’s overarching project as a dialectical marriage of the Renaissance notion of painting as a window onto nature with the postmodern concept of it as the horizontal workbench of culture: something like a trestle table or utility cart.

Hickey’s latest exhibition, his first in almost a decade, presented ten window/canvas paintings: nine modestly scaled acrylic-on-board works from 2018, and one towering oil and enamel on linen from 1990, titled A dog’s breakfast. The last depicts a nocturnal window: Lustrous black nothingness is intersected by the brown wooden cross of the window frame and tabletop, with a few shapes (including an open tin can) scattered in the foreground. Hanging at the end of the long, narrow upstairs gallery at Niagara, it certainly read as a large window, but one that opens onto an inversion of the diurnal world. In the more recent paintings, Hickey used the trope of the window/canvas to create internally conflicting temporalities. The window in Untitled 5 opened onto a tiny crescent moon and the last rays of sunlight shown as a brilliant, tangerine horizon bisecting an otherwise black field, whereas the painting resting against an easel in the foreground depicted a silhouetted boat at the height of a fiery sunset (also quartered by a thin black cross). The three canvases of Untitled 1 evoked digital windows hovering weightlessly on the screen, ready to be dragged and dropped into new configurations.

The most elaborate of the new paintings was undoubtedly Untitled 6, through whose window we glimpse a curved horizon line haloed by iridescent cobalt, as if we were looking down on earth from outer space. A small picture evocative of the cross on Golgotha is nailed to the crossbar of an easel in the painting’s middle ground, playing with scale, mise en abyme, worlds nested within worlds. Each window is a glimpse onto another canvas, and each canvas onto another window; but the cross is also a symbol of negation, a reminder to look at, not through, the window. The imagery itself thus serves as one of Hickey’s many pictorial devices for squashing perspective like a drop of blood suspended between the glass slides of a microscope, and for meditating on the faculty of perception itself. This invisible labor of looking points to the work’s hidden content, without hawking its charms.