Exhibition News

Review of Matthew Johnson's exhibition "Peregination" at Christine Abrahams, and Martin Parr's "Common Sense" at Niagara Galleries, October 2005.

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Published Thursday, October 20, 2005

Paintings that ask questions are always better than those that impose answers. Matthew Johnson and Martin Parr both invite us to look again.

I was reminded of the revolutionary nature of abstract or non-representational art when reading the introduction to the White Noise exhibition currently showing at ACMI. The curators refer us back to the revolutionary nature of non-representational art, as artists sought to graphically represent a world where order came from the chaos of multiple revolutionary polemics in politics (Marx and Engels), Pschology (Freud and Jung) and Physics (Einstein). Embracing the hegemony of sylistic revolution for the sake of change is an attribute of modernism and nothing typifies modernism better than abstract art. Exhibited abstract pieces by their very nature, work through ontological processes to investigate order and meaning (or the lack of) in our social domain. The profound impact of the first World War gave artists and the public an urgent impetus to search for meaning outside a conventional representational idiom.

Now, close to a century since the radical works by the Russian Constructivists, the De Stijl Movement or the Cubists were first painted, non-representational art once again hits the wall with fresh energy.

Much has been done with both hard edged geometric forms and the softer drip and splash works in Australia since The Field exhibition at the NGV in 1968 . Artists such as Peter Booth, Helen Eager and John Firth-Smith have moved from one idiom to the other without loss of audience or meaning, for isn’t the abastract or representational idiom just a technique or mindset for both the audience and artist? Is abstract art so different from the frozen moment in representational forms.

The object of this brief ramble is a response to the works of Matthew Johnson, currently on show at the Christine Abrahams gallery in Melbourne. These paintings are neither revolutionary or radical – that seems to be left to artists exhibiting at the Tate or ACCA, but they are both thoughtful and very seductive. Working not from the top down, that is not from the big idea imposing itself on the composition, but from the bottom up, from fragments and impressions of light and surface, Johnson is able to explore perception of the real world investigating both landscapes and painting. Using a repetitive grid populated by soft edged squares – physically it is like a 500x zoom of an image in Photoshop, but in these paintings the scale of the work and the use of a glaze makes these images so visually intriguing.

Untitled by Matthew Johnson
A Verdant Void by Matthew Johnson
After Blaze by Matthew Johnson

In works such as A verdant void (Scarlatti) Johnson works with a dry humour by creating a shallow space anchored by the blurred grid forming a field with crisply painted discs that appear to float right at the surface of the canvas. And from the noise that forms the background field, emerges focal points that our eyes attach significance to, simply, because they stand out due to an optical illusion.

When hung in a commercial or domestic space Johnson’s paintings are part of the general noise of patterns that surround us in daily life and probably suggest nothing more. But, in the rarefied atmosphere of a gallery where there is time to look at the paintings, then meaning may emerge – and an attribute of the meaning can be humour or curiosity.

It isn’t so unusual for artists to tap into our need to create order and meaning from patterns – and this has been applied in many different ways – for those that visited the exhibition of Martin Parr’s photographic series Common Sense, currently on show at Niagara Galleries Parr has captured a range of different objects with no obvious connection or theme. These are gaudy coloured photographs from everyday life – the back of a man’s head, the name tag on a woman’s bust, a sandy ashtray full of bristling butts, a pair of pink socks in sandals.

Common Sense 67 by Martin 

ParrCommon Sense 96 by Martin Parr
Common Sense 44 by Martin 
ParrCommon Sense 18 by Martin Parr

But, all these images are linked by the knowledge that these frozen moments are significant moments above the noise in our everyday life – the things we glance at just a little bit longer than usual, the things that we give meaning to, the things that make us laugh or frown. Not much meaning, but like the paintings of Johnson, with their clean and attractive surface, they have the ability to grab our eye and then let our mind investigate – even if it is just for a second. Martin Parr's photographic works are humorous and sympathetic to the run of images we are exposed to every moment of the day. If we are lucky we can stop and stare for a moment, before moving on.

The Matthew Johnson exhibition closes 22nd October, 2005, while the exhibition of Martin Parr’s photographs at Niagara Galleries runs until October 29.

Reviewed by Martin Shub, October 2005.

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