Rose Nolan
More Rose Nolan

7th – 28th March 2002
Anna Schwartz Gallery

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


Rose Nolan

More Rose Nolan, 2002
instal­la­tion view, Anna Schwartz Gallery