In his new solo exhibition at the illallery, SWAustin’s paintings read as iconic testimonies to the idea of metamorphosis and transmutation: they exude a self-reflective sense of time, a sense of being articulated by processes and the stories of their becoming. They speak of a journey that could have had several paths but in the hands of the artist, the arrival achieves a singular image or sequence that holds its constituents in a striking formal and material tension, with each painting like a past and an enigmatic and beautiful present, which appears as a perfect resolution of his particular journey.
If any artistic creation can be considered a metaphor for alchemy, Austin’s work ups the ante. His materials are modest and everyday: they include paint, wood, wire, cable, metal, nails, usually « found » materials which, if we follow the metaphor, have already lived a life as something else and are reused here to truly create meaningful objects. art or « gold » from the « base » of common materials. So what could we see as this “gold”? In Austin’s work there is no reliance on any quasi-mystical sense of alchemical transformation: the materials he uses remain firm in their materiality, without vanity of transubstantiation or symbolic importance. The nature of her work is that the manipulation of her resources stays in the world and in doing so she achieves a language of powerful poetic presence.
from Austin methods, include adding, accumulating, joining, removing, cutting, gouging, marking, as well as making marks with paint (« house » and « artists » paint) and more traditional drawing tools. In each painting, all the elements are orchestrated into shifting cretions, pockets of detail often set against a flat painted or painted masonite or wood surface.
Some of these works contain very little actual painting, so the question may arise: are these works “Paintings”, or are they more like painted sculptures, murals or assemblages? The answer to that is yes, they really are « Paintings ». They reflect a line of advanced Western painting that was inaugurated with the Cubist and papier collé works of Picasso and Braque, where form was deconstructed and found materials and elements, previously foreign to serious painting, were introduced. If the Synthetic Cubism of Picasso and Braque marked the forging of a new artistic language, the openness of art that their discoveries initiated throughout the century took multiple forms often used for very different purposes.
European art in particular showed a tendency to attribute an allusive meaning to these materials, beyond their materiality. Antoni Tapies in painting and Joseph Beuys or Mario Mertz in sculpture come to mind in this regard. To varying degrees, a sense of metaphysics, symbolic and metaphorical intent pervades this work. Allusions to alchemy have notably been part of the critical discourse around Tapies.
Tapies is an artist admired by SWAustin for the material qualities of his work. As a Canadian artist, however, Austin possesses a more North American sensibility, akin to Rauschenberg or the early Johns, in their rejection of metaphysics. Rauchenberg’s desire to « find the gap between art and life » finds an echo in Austin’s work, where the use of materials found in his art recontextualizes them. As Rauchenberg said in reference to his own work, “the object itself has been changed by its context and therefore has become a new thing”. Of course, Rauchenberg’s use of found imagery extended to screen-printed photographs, and together with Johns’ use of popular iconography, the early work of these two artists is generally considered a precursor to Pop Art.
pop art, however, in terms of reference to popular imagery, is the antithesis of Austin’s work. The title of this exhibition is « New and Improved Materialism » and it is an ironic but relevant commentary on Pop Art, which in many of its incarnations has had an ambiguous relationship with consumer society. The materials found in Austin’s work are largely the ancillary, everyday or mundane physical elements of our contemporary world; there’s no found or appropriated imagery, there’s no hint of shiny pop fetishization of the new, no hint of shiny retail lust. Instead, there is a raw and often rough quality to these works that paradoxically testifies both to an immediacy in their making and to a long thought process in the making.
Color is often muted or pre-existing in Austin’s found elements, with whites, grays, and blacks dominating all applied colors. wolf house, a masterful triptych is the largest piece in the show at 12 feet wide. It is a remarkable work, incorporating as it does, an earlier painting also titled wolf house. In a largely scratched surface of various materials, including inverted canvas stretchers, the entire painting is small. It has the appearance of a ravaged and complex multi-layered wall with a totemic power that subliminally summons Louise Nevelson.
In his “Window” series of paintings, Austin brings together elements that reconfigure his strategies of transformation. Rather than accumulations of salvaged materials fused into compositions on a surface, the repurposed elements are actual windows, salvaged from his century-old home when he replaced all the windows. Therefore, window pieces vary in size and proportion and the shape of each work is determined by the window as a “found object”. The paint is applied to the back of the glass giving a reflective exterior glass surface in stark contrast to the roughness of the paint and the textures found on the window frames. Throughout his work, Austin’s painting formations and his making of drawn marks are non-referential if at times cryptic. Here in the “Window” paintings there is a play of painting that forms a dialogue between the polarities of “seeing through” the “window” and blocking the view through, thus holding different readings in enigmatic tension.
Austin’s work represents an ongoing reconfiguration of the idea of painting as an exploration of material and conceptual possibilities. On the evidence of this exhibition, he continues to push the boundaries and fruitfully explore the parameters of what a « Painting » can be. His paintings are essentially constructed. Decisions on shape, material, composition, color and concept are made throughout their development. Yet these are not formal works. Rather, through visual and material language, they investigate how painting can constantly stretch its physical, historical, expressive, and theoretical constituents and, ultimately, how painting can interpret the world.
Geoffrey Nawn 2018
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