Vitamin P3: New Perspectives in Painting
Emil Michael Klein
Emil Michael Klein
The paintings of Daniel Boyd, an Aboriginal Australian artist of the Kudjlat and Gangalu peoples with Vanuatuan heritage, question what it means to be a history painter now. Painting from 19th and 20th century photographs, Boyd reframes the visual narratives of indigenous people in the Pacific, including those of his ancestors. Using a technique that borrows from Central Australian Aboriginal dot-painting and Impressionist pointillism—as much as it does from the lexicons of printing and photography—Boyd implicates Australia’s aesthetic history with its post-colonialist past and present.
Using the abstract technique of dot painting as a means to a figurative end, Boyd paints portraits and landscapes in oils, watercolor or charcoal, before overlaying the painted surface with dots of archival glue. As if to emphasize that each painting is a record of loss, the image that remains outside of the glue is then painted—or Blak-ed out, so that only the convex dots remain. For Boyd, the historical record is best re-told through the holes of its missing parts. His monochrome paintings carry with them a nocturnal pall and, despite varying in scale, recall the epic night sky and the pixelated infinitude of digital screens. Atypical works in colour such as Untitled (2013), an idyllic tropical scene, still carry a sense of being in black and white as if shaded by history. Works from the series Up in Smoke Tour (2011), painted in watercolors and then Blak-ed out in Boyd’s signature style, were framed in skull boxes from the Natural History Museum of London.
If Primitivism (a neo-colonialist strategy wherein Western artists appropriated techniques, motifs and iconography from non-Western artists) was the Western colonization of the canvas, then Boyd’s paintings are almost reparative; emphasizing aesthetic beauty as they chronicle oppression. To this end, Boyd’s paintings detail encounters between Indigenous and Western artists, between Modernism and its antecedents, all the while quoting from the art historical canon. In Untitled (PIB) (2013), Boyd paints from a photograph of Pablo Picasso wearing a Native American headdress given to him by Gary Cooper. In Untitled (NDD)(2013), Albert Namatjira is pictured painting en plein air at Standley Chasm with the Duke of and Duchess of Gloucester peering over his shoulder. By re-remembering as much as re-stating historical encounter though his multifaceted paintings, Boyd implicates art as being complicit in the artful remembrances of history.
At the heart of Boyd’s paintings are two conflicting experiences of time; one, the Western linearity of past, present and future and, the other, the Aboriginal concept of the self as being enmeshed with the land, best expressed as Dreaming. Importantly, Boyd’s work positions this chronological opposition as being at the heart of Aboriginal and white relations in post-colonial Australia. Boyd’s paintings articulate the impossibility of representation, interpreting painting and history as similar approximations of the real.
In the studio, Emil Michael Klein responds to the painted surface over time. Tracks of blue and black run atop cool white tundras of paint. But Klein’s paintings have an exciting, necessary reversibility; these are not simply sedimentary layers furnished by gestural line. The chromatic tracks are actually formed by the gaps between – not lines on top – numerous layers of chalky white paint. As Klein paints white over and over and over an initial application of black or dark blue ground, series of frustrated reliefs persist through feats of resistance. Klein’s images – or to be more precise his afterimages – emerge from the void; you see them because they are not there.
For Klein – an artist whose every painting seems to ask the question, why paint? – a canvas is never blank. His peripatetic tracks take leave of the wall and then the gallery to crawl back through art’s history: past Barnett Newman’s zips, Frank Stella’s cool, diamond-cut stripe paintings from the 1950s, through the gauzy patinas of Blinky Palermo’s fabric paintings and over Heimo Zobernig’s deadpan institutional installations of institutional installations – before inevitably looping back to Klein’s studio where they are picked up and let go once again. Each painting, the beginning of the next.
This is art used as a key. Klein’s laboured brushwork directs our attention to the studio, where the painting is not made but dug out; in the same way a sculptor may claim that the form is extant within the marble. Colour is used almost architecturally, as both the process and the product of the work. The gallery is a practical space for his purposes in so much as it carries with it a history of broken rules. Painting, for Klein, seems to be a temporary project; a useful – if contrary – form of notation for the processes of accumulation and then encounter, misstep and then erasure that are common to all acts of creation. That art only exists in relation to itself is the tension with which Klein ruefully plays.
If these paintings are of a network, then the network to which they refer is endless. Through a process of arcane duplication and exquisite erasure, Klein’s paintings suspend their own history of meaning. The subject is not the artist, nor the context, nor painting itself; the subject is a verb.