In 2016 Tony Oates curated Repurpose at the Drill Hall Gallery. The exhibition took its impetus from the revelation of Cubist collage and the re-positioning of the found object to act as a signifier, sparking a catalytic chain of events. Separated by several generations from the founders of Cubism, the artists in the exhibition – Matt Arbuckle, Peter Atkins, Chris Carmody, Nicole Ellis, Erwin Fabian, Robert Motherwell, Elizabeth Newman and Trish Roan – tackled the depiction and understanding of our world through abstract means. Their art featured a foreign object, a third party, a ready-made pretext or a pre-existing structure from which a fresh outcome or insight was generated. Repurpose was a celebration of poetic transformation, intuitive response and the creative process of invention.
In his catalogue essay, Tony Oates asked “How does one approach representing a world that has been predicated on a false understanding? How does one confront the inconceivable?” Highly relevant questions in the world today. In a series of three posts we are reprinting the essay here, accompanied by images from the exhibition.
part one of three
Naturally I began my artistic education ‘with a model.’ I had learnt to paint from nature and when I was convinced that I had to free myself from the model, it was a rather hard task … I forced myself, and the liberation was achieved by intuitive impulses that widened the gap between me and my model. At such moments one harkens to an inner voice, oblivious of what it will lead to. That is what I call adventure. – Georges Braque1
Greek art had a purely human conception of beauty. It took man as the measure of perfection. The art of the new painters takes the infinite universe as the ideal. – Guillaume Apollinaire2
Leading into the twentieth century, physicists, astronomers and thinkers ‘perceived that certain phenomena could no longer be explained, that they were, so to speak, inconceivable, in short, that they themselves could no longer grasp them and namely, represent them… Everything was once again in question.’3 The admission of the limitless extent of the universe and other conundrums – the proposition of a fourth dimension by thinkers such as Henri Bergson – put into doubt the very possibility of human comprehension. ‘Everything was once again in question!’ How does one approach representing a world that has been predicated on a false understanding? How does one confront the inconceivable? These questions struck at the very core of a rationalised existence.
If traditional humanist ways of understanding were shaken, possibilities for their reorientation and replacement were magnified in compensation. Bergson celebrated the evolutionary unfolding of human creative resources, elevating the role of intuition, the imagination and the appreciation of vitality (élan vital) as a superlative source of discovery. The mind-expanding implications for renewed creativity within an as yet uncharted cognitive milieu appealed as powerfully to artists as to scientists and metaphysicians. For visual artists, many of whom learnt of these matters by hearsay (at second or third hand), Bergson’s postulation exposed a fallibility in the link between subject and object, a relationship long supposed to be straightforward in the Western tradition. From now on, the subject-object relation was characterised as an indeterminate state in which flux was the essential condition. These ideas may have chimed in with intimations that had already been broached in the experimental painting of the Impressionists, and in particular Cézanne.
In certain linguistic speculations, structuralist thinkers such as Ferdinand de Saussure recognised the inherent frailty of existing theories.4 Beholding the arbitrariness of the sign, they threw into question the relationship between signifier and its referent (famously ‘bracketing the referent’). The Symbolist poets, Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Mallarmé, equally, revelled in the non-transparency and malleability of language, embracing slippages, uncertainty, and multiple meanings to emphasise the materiality of text, the musicality of prosody and the plasticity of syntax. For the Symbolists, reading was conceived as an associative, intuitive, open-ended kind of wonderment.
Within these linguistic and literary circles, the knowability of the world as revealed by our senses came under interrogation. Objects, once considered the stable currency of truth, became doubtful phenomena. As the privileged signifiers of common experience, they now belonged less certainly to the material world than to the mind of the beholder.
The basis of art in representation underwent a related crisis of confidence. Some artists were afflicted by doubts that were ontological, epistemological, technical and formal. Although these same artists tended to be treated by their peers as carriers of a dreaded disease, their condition of doubt nonetheless became defining of Modernity.5
The Post-Impressionist painters mapped out several possible directions. Negations of naturalism took various forms: one trajectory led to non-objectivity; another dramatized simultaneous, multiple, clashing points of view and discordant pictorial codes; a third resorted to schematised ideograms suspended within a hermetic utopia. ‘Modern art’ emerged from this crisis of representation.
For the purposes of the current exhibition, our most significant flashpoint occurs around 1910, when Picasso and Braque dispensed with the need for a model, relinquishing their dependency on a pre-existing motif. For the two young artists, traditional aspects of mimesis – copying and transliterating the world as it appeared – were deemed facile and illusory, insufficient to address changing conceptions of space and time. Rejecting mimetic conventions, Picasso and Braque exploded Euclidian geometry and proposed new ciphers for the multi-faceted vitality of experience.
Their conjurations of fractured lines and mottled, crystalline planes generated abstract configurations which might or might not have been qualified with details identifying these compositions as figures, landscapes or still lifes. There were several notable metamorphoses at this time where figure compositions became still lifes or vice versa.
As if to draw attention to the absence of a model, Braque and Picasso introduced found elements into their work. In 1912 they pasted sections of wood grain wallpaper or swatches of newsprint on the surface of their drawings. Initially these papiers collés may not have been conceived as self-sufficient works, but as preparatory studies destined to be converted into paintings. Yet the papiers collés proved legitimate, vital works of art in their own right; the found objects enriched the abstractness of the Cubist premise, establishing a dialectical rapport with the ‘real’ world. A spectator can clearly identify the ‘foreign’ element as wallpaper, for example, and be guided by its material association to infer a table or guitar, and also read a spatial configuration into overlapping lines and planes. In effect, the found object functions as a substitute ‘model’ extracted straight out of the quotidian world. What, if anything, could sabotage the illusion of a transparent picture plane more effectively than the inclusion of these chunks of unprocessed reality?
One of the perennial anxieties of theorists and artists is the fear of entropy. The second law of thermodynamics implies that all matter and energy tend to degenerate into a state of inert uniformity which only chaos can redeem. The law of thermodynamics forms a sort of parallel to Hegelian dialectics where the interplay of thesis and antithesis, force and counter-force generates dynamism. However, when the tension of opposition expires, entropy prevails. For Modernist innovators, the restaged clash of form and content, real and ideal, presentation and re-presentation, generated by the inclusion of collaged objects served to revive the stalemate of pure abstraction, reviving the possibility of dialectical progress. The foreign element became a stand-in for the model that had gone missing.
Repurpose takes its impetus from the revelation of Cubist collage and the re-positioning of the found object to act as signifier and spark a catalytic chain of events. Separated by several generations from the founders of Cubism, the artists in this exhibition – Matt Arbuckle, Peter Atkins, Chris Carmody, Nicole Ellis, Erwin Fabian, Robert Motherwell, Elizabeth Newman and Trish Roan – are clearly much less preoccupied with representation than were the Cubists. Nonetheless, their artwork results from similar motivations, revelling in a subtle, sceptical appreciation of the conundrums of time and space, staging a distancing and disentanglement of stimuli derived from their physical environment.
In 1935 Picasso told Christian Zervos: ‘There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all traces of reality. There’s no danger then anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark.’6 When asked by Georges Charbonnier in the 1950s if the object was his subject in painting, Georges Braque responded:
‘No. I believe that colours and forms come into play before all else. I think that poetic art – if I may use the expression – consists of giving life to those forms and colours, in other words: out of a white patch on the canvas, making a towel. But I believe that the white patch is a thing conceived before the knowledge of what it will become. So there is a transformation of the thing. You could say: a poetic transformation of the thing.’7
1 Braque in conversation with Dora Vallier 1954, quoted in Dan Grigorescu (trans. Richard Hillard), Braque (London: Murrays, 1977), p. 11.
2 Guillaume Apollinaire, Les Peintres Cubistes: Méditations Ésthétiques (Paris, 17 March 1913) in Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten (eds), A Cubist Reader: Documents and Criticism 1906-1914 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 482.
3 Francis Ponge, Braque (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1971), p. 57.
4 Others in this circle include André Martinet, Gustave Guillaume and Emile Benveniste. For an analysis of Saussure’s analogous discoveries to the Cubists’, see Yve-Alain Bois, ‘Kahnweiler’s Lesson’, Representations no. 18 (1987), p. 48-52.
5 See Richard Shiff, Doubt – Theories of Modernism and Post Modernism in the Visual Arts (New York: Routledge, 2008).
6 ‘Conversation avec Picasso’, Cahiers d’art, vol. 10, no. 10 (1935), quoted in Ellen H. Johnson, Modern Art and the Object (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976), p. 10.
7 George Charbonnier, Monologue du peintre: entretiens avec Braque, quoted in Peter Daysan, Art as Music, Music as Poetry, Poetry as Art (Surrey: Ashgate, 2011), p. 79.