peripheral vision has its rewards

The essence of abstract expressionism was defined by the dynamic gesture. But I’m sure nobody ever expected to experience it as a dynamic viewer. Speeding through a gallery is one thing, but seeing art from the corner of one’s eye, while zipping along at 60 kph, is an altogether different conception of dynamism. However this is how most people experience one of the best examples of public art in Canberra.

In the rush to decorate our public spaces, drive-by art is one of the cliches of  town planners’ and politicians’ needs to render the modern freeway less dehumanising than it already is. Most often such drive-by art is infuriating. It’s like being shot at, with aesthetic intent. You have to duck, and sometimes this can be a hazard. Very occasionally, however, such art is properly hazardous because you should hit the brakes, throw the car into reverse, and back up for another look. The Margo Lewers mural Expansion on Northbourne Avenue is one such work.

This work, first installed in 1960, and now fresh from recent restoration, has been the subject of a recent exhibition at the ANU School of Art, curated by Tanya Crothers and Darani Lewers. The catalogue for this exhibition (Expansion) explores the processes of its creation, its restoration and its art historical context in essays by Peter Pinson, together with Tanya Crothers and conservator Gillian Mitchell.

In this archival photograph we catch the installation in progress. The mural was Lewers’ largest work, later judged by her then assistant (and later her gallerist) Frank Watters as “one of her finest”. Measuring 12.3 meters by 2.3 meters, its proportion matches that of the building it adorns. Just six stories high, The Rex Hotel was Canberra’s horizontal skyscraper. Together with its contemporary, Roy Grounds’ Shine Dome, Alexander Kann’s Rex was the epitome of architectural modernity in Canberra in the 1960s.

Peter Pinson writes: “Expansion… was a painter’s mosaic mural rather than a ceramist’s mosaic mural. Abstract expressionism sought to imply that the making of an artwork has entailed urgency and existential struggle. A technique that appeared too accomplished or too polished was associated with glibness and “style”. For abstract expresionists generally, the apparent vigour of the execution and the potency of the imagery were paramount, and so they were for Margo Lewers in Expansion“.

Recognising the character of her medium, where “sharp biting edges of the cut tiles lent her mosaic composition an abrasiveness” Peter Pinson also acknowledges that the overall design, with spatial clues and architectonic elements, is strongly aligned to its landscape format. This is in keeping with most of what passed as “abstract expressionism” in the 1950s and 60s in Australia. Abrasive, perhaps, but as you see from the detail above, it is the quite specific pictorial effects that derive from the painstaking placement of the thousands of geometric shards of ceramic tile – which both activates the surface and enhances the spatial illusionism of the artist’s dynamic gestures and palette decisions – that makes this work uniquely significant.

What keeps me looking at this work with (a certain nostalgic) admiration is the way it reconciles its painting style (expressive, gestural, tending towards abstraction, in keeping with her contemporaneous painting practice) with its materials – the fragments of ceramic tiles, the leftovers of a hundred bathrooms. The material is surprisingly effective, and even more so when you realise that the process of its production involved tiling over Lewers’ full scale painted cartoon. The surprise, fifty years later, is that the process retained the expressive intent of the original with such a high degree of stylistic fidelity.

1 comment so far ↓

#1 Judith Pearce on 05.16.11 at 3:16 pm

There are some rewards for being a foot passenger!

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