Review: Block Projects - Geoff Newton
BLOCK PROJECTS, MELBOURNE, MAY 2008
There’s a certain peripatetic nature to the various art projects of Geoff Newton. Traveling through music/sound performance, paintings of artists’ wallets and mix tape collections, you got the sense something was happening there. Something biographical, if not autobiography once or twice removed. Then he pretty much hit that one on the head with a show at Neon Parc a couple of years back. A knowing, painterly, heavily signposted excursion through the genres of historical and contemporary painting; neat shadow box frames and all. This time around Newton leaves the complications of exhibiting in his own space (along with Tristan Koenig he is a director of Neon Parc) for what, philosophically at least, is a bit of a sister gallery in Block Projects. Artist directors open to shows as project. Independent, but also smart enough to keep the commercial doors open.
A classic hang of like-sized canvases. No frames, no smart arse text, no telling objects of the artist’s daily life. Instead these are clearly portraits. Head and shoulders. On a formal level the faces, all centrally located to camera, are created with deceptively simple brush strokes to build a structure and likeness. The method of painting is pretty much foregrounded so nothing is hidden. In a largely acidic palette of thinned oils there’s a sense of the medical scan or heat measuring technology that lends each work a forensic light. Use a different eye and there’s something almost 70’s nostalgic going on with the aesthetic here. Memories of melting crayon wax. Maybe that’s just me.
And while there’s likeness here, the reliance for visual interest isn’t based on it. These are portraits that escape the curious distancing/ one-take effect of a simple mirror job. Here you’re left with a painting, not a picture. In a sense it’s the undoing of the traditional portrait.
Maybe even a kind of process based abstraction hiding behind a veneer of representation. Follow that line and this idea of the portraits as abstraction continues via a number of other carefully chosen devices. There’s the seriality of the canvases and the standardised image treatment. Repetition obliterating representation?
On the other hand…these heads, these portrait paintings. They’re not just any heads of course. They are all prominent Australian art dealers. Not painted from life but appropriately torn from the pages of art magazines. It’s all very neat really. As a motif, dealers are intrinsically tied up with the process of art making. And then there’s Newton’s place within their ranks. How essential or not this biographical detail largely depends on the slant you put on reading work. I think it matters a lot. I don’t think it matters at all.
A provocation. A statement in its own right, the use of Untitled. Just a small thing. But art is often built on the minor, the overlooked. At once the trope of a certain kind of abstraction or any artist wanting to declare their over-riding ’visuality’. Untitled leaves a lot unsaid. For one it sets up a kind of parlour game for the knowing viewer. Spotting Anna Schwartz here, Charles Nodrum or Roslyn Oxley over there… Look at these images in another way and it’s a kind of history, or series of genre paintings. Dealers and their stables commonly stand in for historical periods, styles, cliques. They are then another symbol, like the mix tape, the wallet, or the multi-genre paintings of 2007. Not so different from earlier projects after all. Newton continues pulling apart the many histories of painting. Like a kid pulling wings off flies. More curious than callous.
I don’t know what’s the one way to look at or interpret this show. Actually I don’t really believe there is meant to be ‘one’, or ‘just one’ anyway. In the end it’s your choice. Painting is intrinsically messy. A ‘picture’ may provide us with a neatly tied together story with a beginning and an end. A good painting rarely does that. It gets inside history. The history of art. The history of the present. And the history of its own making. That’s the portrait I see Geoff Newton really working on.