The Oval Window: Ian Friend

Brisbane City Gallery 18 April  16 June 2002

'Communication' is a term that is now largely defined by the realms of mass culture and that new kid on the education block, media studies. We have come to measure our interaction in terms of a global economy whose maze of electronic wizardry reduces the duration of communication to the micro-dimension of an electronic pulse. The twenty-first century message-bank is fast, slick and lethal, and yet it is still only a superstructure that rests upon the deeply personal dimension of human message transference. This intimate substructure of communication is a paradox of tremendous power and delicacy, and remains a beautiful dimension of human experience. Brisbane artist Ian Friend provides a glimpse of this beauty in his recent exhibition of works on paper at Brisbane's City Gallery, titled the oval window.

The exhibition brings together several series of works dating back to 1997. They are paintings that draw deeply on the absorptive quality of thickly textured paper and its capacity to respond to every nuance of the artist's hand. Friend conducts an interplay of indian ink, gouache and crayon to mine their essence of acquiescence and resistance and suggest the beautiful fragility of thought taking shape. The paper is repeatedly soaked and sprayed with water, encouraging a fluidity of expression and an effect of translucency. Finely drawn crayon lines give contour to this fluidity and modulate a sense of form. Upon entering this exhibition, the overall impression is one of the after-effects of a white-out, when vision is reforming itself and searching for structures of recognition.

It is this searching stage, or sense of origin, that seems to convey itself most strongly in the exhibition and the oval shape that recurs throughout the series of images gives emphasis to this. The oval appears in a transparent or translucent state, or often as a completely opaque white element, puncturing the surrounding indeterminacy with stark clarity. This solid 'whiteness' creates areas of intensity in the image, and casts formations of focus amid drifts of possibilities. It is arguably this modulation and tempo of chance and circumstance that conveys the delicate beauty of communication and the fragile science of thought and sense management.

Friend's interest in the generative layers of communication extends to an ongoing response to poetry. The City Gallery's presentation of this exhibition includes a Brisbane City Council reprint of J. H. Prynne's book of poems (published originally in 1983). The exhibition takes its name from the title of this anthology, the oval window, with excerpts of poetry appearing on the walls of the exhibition. The following lines from Prynne's poetry indicate the rapport between poet and artist in their explorations of fields and focus of communication.

the field is determined
by the exit window, the lens rim or stop
which, imaged into image space, subtends
the smallest angle at the centre.

The elementary form of the oval is perhaps an exit window, but it also provides entry to a primary level of communication. In works such as Metaphysics Set 7 #3, 1999, Friend also employs another window-shape with the elongated quatrefoil. This shape is most commonly associated with cathedral windows, where stained glass designs transform the light of Nature into the light of God. It is a miraculous transformation, but so too is all human communication.
Laurie Duggan's catalogue essay for this exhibition describes this spirit of transformation as a 'state of balance'. He writes:
The elements in Friend's work are held, as it were, in
suspension: a state of balance & like that of a dancer midway through a sequence, and also like a chemical suspension, its particles visible, neither resolved in solution nor separated through gravity, drainage or evaporation.

Along with J. H. Prynne, Friend harks from the United Kingdom, however since the latter's arrival in Australia in 1985 the artist has exhibited continuously in Australia, with regular group and solo exhibitions in the United States and Europe. His paintings are held in numerous prestigious collections, including the Tate Gallery, London and the National Gallery of Australia.

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