Macfarlane Commissions were first launched in 2018 with The theater liesthen the biennial delivered Superimposed magistracies in 2000. Together, the two exhibitions commissioned 10 works. In this year’s iteration, the show features a bumper of eight artists, some with the greatest pieces of their careers, specially curated for the Australian Center for Contemporary Art (ACCA).
“We were interested in examining the ways in which painting isn’t necessarily confined to the easel or the studio – it actually intersects with everyday life and the world at large,” explained Max Delany, artistic director and CEO of ACCA.
Title Like a Spinning Wheel: The 2022 Macfarlane Commissions it’s inspired by a quote from artist Marlene Dumas about the ability of paint to cross multiple timelines.
Delany continues: “Many of these works speak of the present but also of the past; they speak to their country, ancestors, family histories, global cultural histories and diasporas.
A clear example are Gian Manik’s paintings in the second gallery, which combine skill in the medium with intimate memories, war images and gay Internet pornography.
The series of eight paintings is almost cinematic. The work Pain focuses on the detail of a horse’s eye (a reference to Dutch masters and Manik’s maternal heritage) and another presents Fabergé’s thoughts through two lenses, one with the petals open to reveal AI-generated faces.
Manik’s works present an interplay between “authentic” genre painting and the frozen identities and conflicts of our current times that challenge the medium.
Another work that plays on identity and the idea of the artist’s self-portrait is that of Jason Phu everyone is dead except me. everything is futile and I am tired. I wait in my little house for winter to take mean installation built from the ground up with an array of memorabilia, everyday objects and obsessive collections.
Here, Phu appears as an old artist dying in a small hut, where birds chirp, hum and a digital display of a fireplace runs simultaneously with a rotating fan. The artwork may signal the demise of an artist, but ironically – and intentionally – it presents endless entertainment for the viewer.
Painting as construction (physics)
Another aspect that Like a spinning wheel explores is the intersection between painting and other disciplines, such as literature and architecture.
Upon entering the gallery, two of Esther Stewart’s architectural scale canopies are shown overhead. From the size of the windows in the artist’s apartment – from the living room to the bathroom – the works sit at a quirky intersection between the intimate and the industrial, simultaneously bringing in the outdoors and the indoors.
Stewart’s work pairs perfectly with Lucinda Lane’s mural, assembled from a 1949 abstract painting by Australian modernist Frank Hinder, an excerpt from George Egerton-Warburton on the ARI Stage in Melbourne (described as “a world weirdly sophisticated self-organized”), and remnants of paint from previous exhibitions in the ACCA storage.
It plays into the very fabrics of ACCA and its contextualization within the Melbourne art scene. And when the show ends and the work is painted, it will also become part of ACCA’s history and physical makeup.
Read: Exhibition Review: Jeff Gibson, Countertypes
Also playing with spatial experiments, Jahnne Pasco-White Incarnate Aquatic Entanglements, a jungle of webs falling from the ceiling and spreading across the floor. Natural dyes and recycled materials form tactile panels that segment the space but without the usual harshness of a solid barrier.
Described as “a collective body of paint”, the works – pigmented with organic materials such as fruit peels, turmeric and ground coffee – seem to form their own logic and ecology, which the artist allows to develop rather than control.
Attached to one of the suspensions, two pages of the artist’s notes where his thought process is laid bare, invite viewers to adopt their own interpretations. The first line reads: “Painting is the language of form and space that reminds me that I am made of the same stuff as the world.”
Cultural histories and diasporas also run through many works in the exhibition, including those by Phu and Manik, but also prominently in the practices of JD Reforma and Nadia Hernández.
Curiously, the works of the two artists form a visual intersection with banners, sculptures, stencil texts and installations.
Quotes, memes and collected snippets of overheard conversations are stenciled in bright orange red onto coconut shells in Reforma’s Optical fiber; an intranet of virtuethe fruit itself loaded with cultural meaning.
Delany explained: “Coconuts have very strong cultural signifiers in history but also in our modern culture, if you think of their association with beauty and well-being – but at the same time they are exotic and stereotypical.”
This is particularly interesting with Reforma’s experience in the field of artistic communication and marketing, since these phrases simultaneously function as slogans, riddles or clues. Together they provoke reflection on seemingly mundane everyday phrases that are now being laid bare and challenged.
The phrases Hernández adopts, on the other hand, speak of family history and shared wisdoms. textile work, De nuestra felicidad, states “we are the owners of our own happiness”, a word of encouragement from the artist’s mother.
Born in Venezuela, Hernández’s works also resonate with history, modernism, concrete and neo-concrete art and poetry as well as the country’s political climate.
Outside the main gallery, continuity throughout the exhibition is created almost by an overflow – one of Hernández’s sculptural works leads the way into the room dominated by Manik, and two other canopies by Stewart (a bit awkwardly) sit next to lead artist Pitjantjatjara and ngangkari (traditional healer) Betty Muffler’s three by five meter painting, Ngangkari Ngura (country of healing)
With five of the artists occupying a single gallery, the question is whether this year’s Macfarlane exhibition becomes too overloaded, almost overflowing with content everywhere the head turns.
It requires the viewer to take a slow, contemplative and immersive approach, to be absorbed in the details of this show.
Like a Spinning Wheel: The 2022 Macfarlane Commissions until September 4 at ACCA. The show stars Jahnne Pasco-White, Jason Phu, Betty Muffler, Esther Stewart, Gian Manik, Lucinda Lane, JD Reforma and Nadia Hernández.