John Neylon takes us through Louise Haselton’s current Australian Experimental Art Foundation exhibition.
“Geniuses rarely improvise.” This observation by the French artist Edouard Vuillard may not fit easily with a 21st century aversion to genius labelling. But it contains a kernel of truth. The lessons of what used to be known as the History of Art demonstrate that art of significance, or, simply, art worth spending time with, has grown from a long commitment to studio practice. To look at a youthful Cezanne for example is to see a world through the eyes of a young man eager to emulate art of the past, ‘the art of the museum’. His late landscapes and still lifes, by comparison, are light-filled direct observations of life. Despite this difference it is possible to see a thread of connection between early and late works in terms of a consistent desire to formulate a structural style of painting. In the end it is not the apples on a tablecloth, or a Mont Sainte-Victoire, which deserve our attention. It is the realisation of an idea about things. The challenge viewers of contemporary art face is that the kind of art history trainer wheels, which, for example can trace a path from Cezanne to Cubism, are absent. It’s all down to individual experience. Louise Haselton’s current AEAF exhibition is a case in point. It consists of a series of wall and some plinth-mounted sculptures made from post-production materials including cardboard rolls, units of discarded industrial timber, styrene foam and cloth. Various forms have been created by binding (with string or cord), gluing or weaving units of material together. There is no hint of figuration. Despite some nagging thoughts that some of these objects might be referencing something utilitarian such as masks or jewellery, there are gaps and silences. If it helps, the artist comments that the viewing experience may offer the idea that imagination, speculation or play are worth engaging with. That there is an order of some sort, in life, the universe. Or that physical properties and states in the world such as colour, surface, weight and precision which can be experienced in the everyday have an intrinsic value. If one approaches, not only this exhibition, but Haselton’s work to date, with these kinds of perspectives then there are rewards in the form of reassurances that the artist has critically weighed things with eye and mind and distilled these senses of ‘aboutness’ into solid forms. But Haselton has no control over what takes place in the viewer’s mind. All the artist has to rely on is the reassurance that long-term commitment to her studio practice and a critical openness to possibilities will pay dividends and translate into something a viewer may find engaging. So, for this viewer, here goes. A deal of Haselton’s previous work has involved using found objects, both natural and artificial (such as sea shells, plastic pegs, drinking straws or metal pots) and combining such materials in ways which blurs the distinction between states of living and death. A visit to India in 2009 confirmed an interest in animism. Immersion in a world and cultures in which, for example, trees or rocks are honoured by wrapping or binding was an experience that continues to shape the artist’s sense of the world being interconnected. It explains, for example, her use of ‘neglected’ or cast-off materials and a predilection for reflective surfaces which enable objects to take on aspects of proximate identities. The current exhibition, Outsides, demonstrates trademark use of such materials and spirit of creative play. This is a very tightly structured presentation with a consistent aesthetic grammar: bold and confident with underlying subplots of delicacy and humour that contradict first impressions of a rough-hewn brutalism. The wooden units used to fashion a number of the works were sourced from fellow artist (and collaborator on Five necklaces for Uncle Toecutter and The loveliness of the catacombs, 2) Ben Leslie, who had obligingly left offcuts from his chunky wooden sculptures in a Fontanelle studio bin. Some of these offcuts came with Leslie’s dreamy 1950s colour palette. Haselton liked their “oddness”. You’ll need to move in close to many of these works to appreciate the nuances of texture and patterning which indicate how far Haselton has taken this source material in search of new possibilities. Comment has been made about Haselton’s ability to evoke physical states of freedom, bondage, stillness and movement through orchestrated acts of ritualized binding, piercing and interlacing. Others note constant elements of balance and movement. Such things may be identified in this exhibition if you so choose. It adds to the level of engagement. That one set of works suggests a set of outsized necklaces is amusing. You may or may not agree. In fact there is no logical reason why you should find this entire exhibition engaging beyond a certain level of curiosity. But logic doesn’t belong here. Understated absurdity does. Also a finely calibrated sense of alternative visual order. Who could ask for more? Louise Haselton Outsides Australian Experimental Art Foundation Continues until Saturday, November 22 Image: Untitled, 2013 (detail), rubber cord, tree root. Photo: Alex Lofting.