Insisting that what you do is what makes you an artist, makes you a certain kind of artist. I don’t mean simply that what an artist says defines his or her art, I mean that the act of declaration itself – the gesture of bearing witness to your art – places more emphasis than usual on agency and process as a kind of content. How you say what you do, as well as what you say you do, becomes an important part of what an artist does.
In the late 1960s, the American minimalist sculptor, Richard Serra, defined his practice by listing a sequence of verbs. Among them were, ‘To sever, to drop, to splash, to lift, to grasp, to heap, to shave’. The identity he established for himself was that of homo faber; man the maker…and very manly at that, given the physicality of the actions evoked in the list. In his blunt writing, Serra aggressively asserted his presence in the world and his ability to grasp it, shape it and redirect it to his course.
Others of Serra’s verbs apply to Rose Nolan’s art: for example, to crease, to fold, to store, to hook. But if Rose Nolan were to make her own list, I think it would be a little different. It wouldn’t be so cocky or so resolute in the tone of its verbs. It would extend beyond physical actions to include states of mind: to long, to aspire, to doubt. It would have to use adverbs to link actions and emotional states: to fold casually, to stitch distractedly, to aspire diligently. And it would add notions not normally associated with the high ambitions of art and artists: to wane, to shelve, to trash.
I don’t make this contrast in order to suggest that mood or personality are the keys to Nolan’s art. What I want to point to is the importance of the ideas of agency and process in her work. These concepts are explored through an involvement with historical sources, with materials, and with a range of elements – such as signature, display cases and gallery architecture – that are associated with the business of exhibiting art.
Nolan’s work has always hinted at an involvement with versions of twentieth-century modernism in which agency and process – whether evident in the artist’s voice or materials – offered enormous promise. The non-objective art forms of the Russian revolution – Constructivism and Suprematism – declared that artists could reshape the material world or direct their audience to a new realm of absolutes. These kinds of modernist art, now distanced by history and filtered by shifts in ideology, demand an acknowledgement, even if ironic and backhanded, of moments when making art might mean remaking the world, when an artist’s voice was to call a crusade, when the material objects in a gallery were signposts to utopian futures.
Nolan acknowledges such an art and even admits to a ‘school girl crush’ on it. But, ever since I first saw Rose Nolan’s work at the George Paton Gallery in 1984, I’ve felt that this acknowledgement resulted in a sense of unrequited longing. At that moment, painting seemed to revolve around doubt (it was denied by post-Conceptualists and parodied by postmodernists) and faith (it was revived by neo-expressionists and others celebrating the return of ‘private symbol’). Rose Nolan seemed to hover disconcertingly between the two positions. If her forms were reduced and minimalist, her colour was rich and sensually loaded. Her banners were like talismans, hinting at the possibility of transcendent states beyond their tatty materials. The canvases were arranged as thresholds, like ceremonial portals into what the Suprematist, Kazimir Malevich had called ‘a desert where nothing is left but feeling’.
This sensation was reinforced by the artistic context in which Nolan’s art was seen over the 1980s and 1990s. Along with a number of artists working in a non-objective style, Nolan asked whether modernism was a project still to be pursued. In many instances, especially when Nolan used such loaded motifs as the cross, it was difficult to determine where her art lay on the continuum between homage and parody, between belief and blasphemy, between truth and travesty. In this uncertain relationship with modernism and the claims it made for art, Nolan embodies that atmosphere of contingency and possibility which was a hallmark of much Australian art developing in the 1980s and ‘90s. I think that Nolan, like so many Australian artists, is haunted by the prospect of art’s aspirations (what it might be) and its attenuation (what it can no longer be). This combination of longing and pathos, which is too wry to be called melancholic, is experienced in both Australian artists’ distance from metropolitan cultural centres and the lingering sense that they came to abstraction belatedly. It is also experienced in that everyday scepticism that Australian artists encounter when they declare their profession. What do you? I’m an artist. Yes, but what do you do for a living? Rose Nolan’s persistent discussion of what she does, her insistence that her art is evidence of her work, harks back to the Constructivists’ connection of art with industry and labour but also to the parlous economic conditions of contemporary Australian artists.
If, for Rose Nolan, art can be many things – ‘the everyday, the ordinary, the pathetic, the spiritual, the beautiful, the poignant, the fantastic, the brutal, the humorous, the romantic’ – it cannot, as artists of the high modernist period occasionally claimed, be any one of these things wholly, uniquely and definitively. As the field of possibility for art expands, the attainment of a supreme moment recedes. And an artist’s emotional, professional and psychic investment in art becomes an ironic solipsism, a circular definition masquerading as a big statement: ‘My artistic endeavour is fundamental to my existence. And, needless to say, my existence is fundamental to my artistic endeavour. What could be simpler?
Making art was once something undertaken confidently, or at least with the sense that an unachieved goal would result in a failed artwork rather than the failure of art as a whole to be convincing. Rose Nolan’s work suggests to me that it is now not so much a matter of making but making do. I don’t mean that art is impoverished, nor that the artist is weighed down by an immobilising pessimism, but rather that art is a matter of working within circumstances rather than leaping beyond them. This allows a sense of improvisation, of limitations, of partially realised ambition to enter the work. It’s not a surrender to circumstance but a form of egolessness played off against the egotism of much modernist art. It’s a willingness to admit that the presence of things beyond your control or reach can complement the artist’ practice rather than diminish it. It is an admission, however, that can only be made when considerable technical skill, art historical knowledge and understanding of the structures of culture are available to the artist.
A useful distinction, allowing us to reconsider the typical union of accomplishment and expertise, is that between the bricoleur and the engineer. Bricolage is a French word referring to a patching together of materials without regard for the proper rules of their use. The result is a kind of making that leaps over sequence towards outcome, wanders across categories in search of new combinations, and finds new sentences without regard for formal syntax. The engineer, on the other hand, sees process as rule governed and goals as the product of strict succession. Used by the anthropologist Claude Levis-Strauss to refer to the ways in which local cultures responded to imported experiences, the concept was later used by cultural theorists analysing the ways in which youth subcultures cobbled together new fashions from disparate sources. It’s not a great leap, I think, to find bricolage underlying the work of artists like Rose Nolan.
Dr Chris McAuliffe, 2002