for PRACTICE IN PROCESS
COUNIHAN GALLERY,BRUNSWICK VICTORIA
9 SEPTEMBER 2004
Some time ago, hidden in a book on Mark Rothko, I discovered a photo of his studio. As if to separate itself from the art, which is gorgeously coloured, the photo was in black and white. It showed a clear floor marked with paint drops and smears, there was one canvas on an easel – yes, an easel – and in front of it, a chair with a fat cushion. The artist’s chair. I remember this chair most of all. It started me thinking about this piece of furniture and its role in making art. While scholars classify just about everything about artworks and museum labels become larger and larger, the facts of the studio are neglected – and the chair seems to me to stand for one of those facts.
I used to try my ideas about the artist’s chair on (artist) friends who I knew would tolerate it, friends who would just smile and nod and wait until I had finished. But some would also respond, and the best of these came from painter Trevor Vickers who, after I had said the phrase “the artists chair”, quickly added “and the artist’s fridge”. You can add to this the artist’s record player, the artist’s hotplate, the artist’s coffee mug, the artist’s stepladder, maybe even the artist’s dog. That last item is there because I just looked up a book on Al Held, and there he was, in black and white, in his studio, with his dog.
Nevertheless, I like to think that the chair has the pivotal place in an artist’s studio. It’s where the artist sits and gazes at what’s just been done, or maybe what was done yesterday, maybe what was done some time ago. Even the painters of the NY Provincial School (that’s Albert Tucker’s name for the abstract expressionists) didn’t smear paint all the time. Hours were spent confronting the canvas, working out what to do next, momentarily doing it, then more time confronting the results, presumably over and over until some-one took the painting away. The chair is at the centre of this meditative use of the imagination. It’s at the centre of what happens in a studio. I’m pleased to see that the artist’s chair is fore-grounded in the image on the invitation to this exhibition.
While the chair is at the centre of the studio, its periphery is the work. By ‘work’, I don’t mean the act of making, or the hours we keep, or the energy expended, but the works of art which will one day become the periphery of some-one else’s imagination. Thinking of it this way, the studio is a prototype living room, boardroom, foyer or gallery, testing the artwork before it is released.
This image of centre and periphery is not a new one. Here’s a well-known version of it:
We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the centre hole
that makes the wagon move.
So starts of one of Lao-Tzu’s poems, written circa 500 BC. It’s appropriate to reveal that I found it in the booklet of the CD I was about to play – in my studio – so I could begin to type this speech. I’m tempted to say something like “the journey of the studio begins with a single chair” but I’ll leave that for another time.
However, I will note that a wagon won’t work unless there are at least two wheels. (I accept that there’s such a thing as a wheelbarrow – and what a piece of rugged individualism it is.) Generally, through, four wheels are better than two. While the studio exists, so to speak, for the duration of the chair, it also has a door, and if it connects to the doors of other studios there is a kind of critical mass that can be reached from which artists benefit. This is to do with mutual support, the generation of ideas and projects and so on. As well as competition, loathing and envy, there may even be encouragement, friendship and love.
Between the chair and the art, the studio can be idiosyncratic. Actually, it must be. No-one’s studio is like another’s. This is part of the charm of visiting a studio: the confirmation of a shared discipline and endeavour, always undertaken through individual means. This is not only expressed through the artworks, but also through working habits and techniques, through specialized equipment and machinery. Put a lot of studios together, as has been done in this exhibition, and you can sense the various worlds that float between the artists and their works.
Now, given all of this, what could be better than for me to put my money where my mouth is, or rather, the seat to my pants, and sit down on this portable chair, brought here specially from my studio. From this pivot, I announce that the periphery is open for inspection. It’s now your duty to look and think, look and compare, and look and discuss.