Resilient Modernism

Exhibition review Miriam Stannage and Tom Gibbons Goddard de Fiddes Contemporary Art Perth, Western Australia 2- 22 June 1996

The joint exhibition of works by two senior Western Australian artists, Miriam Stannage and Tom Gibbons, offered an interesting essay on the creative recoupment of certain aspects of modernist technique and philosophy. Drawing from different strands of modernism, the juxtaposition of their dissimilar work highlighted the heterogeneity of modernism and the possibility of a hopeful and optimistic reworking of its legacy.

Miriam Stannage presented two related bodies of work, the recent Kimberley Suite: 1994, and the three early Colourfield paintings: 1970'. The latter were the first of Stannage's works to be seen in the show, establishing a point of biographical/historical reference, situating the viewing of the new works through the old. These large, bold, abstracts do not seem to have dated over the last 26 years, probably because Stannage shied away from the more gaudy and overstated colours of much of the work of this period. Though large, these early works are subtle, using pastel colours that reverberate and hum in the eye, rather than assaulting it with a Frank Stella-ish brashness. Stannage's visual sophistication, however, is revealed most fully in the more reserved and meditative Kimberley Suite: 1994. This is the presentation of 15 superbly crafted variations on a theme. From a single compositional format Stannage quietly and assuredly plots and explores subtle shifts and changes in combinations of colour, tone, and pictorial dimension. In her gallery note [1] Stannage writes that these images are distillations of her visual experience of north Western Australia, and links their abstract composition to that of musical chords. In this Kimberley Suite: 1994 recalls the experiments in 'musical' colour harmony by the early Australian modernists Roy de Maistre and Roland Wakelin. Stannage's work, however, is less a formal experiment for its own sake, as her abstract harmonies relate to specific sites and experiences. A sensation of place is given, a feeling highlighted through the careful painting of the raised sides of the pictures. This strategy brings the three-dimensionality of the paintings into play, altering the relationships on the face of the picture, and producing a shimmering effect akin to looking at a crystal. As a suite, the works play off one another, evoking memories and associations of our relations with place, not from a position of remove, but rather, as it is experienced from within its space.

From the refined and meditative work of Stannage, Gibbons's Fun and Games was intentionally more momentarily, or awkwardly, elegant, displaying a rather more garish and unnerving picture. While Stannage's images are responses to the remote northwest of WA, Gibbons taps into an alternative tradition, that of the "subject matter of the great modern city"[2]. Gibbons playfully presents cut-outs of everyday consumer ephemera (hamburgers, television, 'choc-chill' cartons etc), laid out on multi-coloured tablecloths, setting them up as the locus of the gratification of appetite. The images carry all the baggage of the hype and noise of the advertising culture from which they are culled. Within this framework, they play with the viewer's expectation of the hard sell. Instead of delivering the hype, however, the images leave the viewer hanging, forced to contemplate harder the significance of each particular arrangement sensing that they may, after all, be only the random collection of junk: no stable referent can be easily identified. In this, Gibbons deals with a fine and delicate refusal of the motions of desire attached to the culture of consumerism. Drawn into the images through the promise of fulfilment only to find it deferred, we, like the packaging itself, find ourselves discarded, adrift. For me, this was a perversely captivating experience.

For both Stannage and Gibbons aspects of modern visual culture are alive and kicking, and used to work through personal and contemporary concerns. If Gibbons' work tends to the post-modern through the play of desire and surface, then this shows just how much of the modern is in the post-modern. The work in this exhibition was far from the much lampooned and caricatured modernism that has been the 'straw-target' for much post-modernism, indicating the possibilities that modernism(s) may still have to offer in the ongoing melodrama of life.

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