In 1996 Rose Nolan made a series she called 'White Trash Work' which seemed to crystallise, perfectly, her attitude toward her sources. These modest constructions of cardboard, glue and other very simple materials revisited some of cubism's fundamental lessons.1 The pieces were leaned, hung, or propped against walls, engaging the floor and the wall surfaces as if a cubist relief might test itself, gingerly, as sculpture. In the spare tonalities of white cardboard and its woodpulpy underside, Nolan could suggest with witty economy the restricted palette of analytical cubism—the curved and folded cardboard so many planes fractured and reassembled into three-dimensions—while pointing to analytical cubism's more dynamic offspring and a critical reference point for her own practice, Russian constructivism. Invoking Braque and Tatlin, specifically his corner reliefs, in this way, Nolan worked through her sources rather than simply citing them. The works wore these references lightly—as signaled by their descriptive title—but without irony. If anything their tone might be called earnest.
Earnestness is rarely a characteristic of art made 'after' appropriation, that condition in which, according to Rex Butler, all art now finds itself.2 Nolan's early decision to work with 'borrowed' forms, chiefly Russian constructivism and suprematism, has not produced a body of work amenable to the 'appropriation' tag. If anything, her practice suggests the limits of appropriation's explanatory power and the need to rethink the history of a number of artists who, along with Nolan, came of age in the eighties.
Nolan has also worked extensively with text and while some of this material can be tied to authors other than Nolan, much of it is anonymous or quotidian, a fact which further complicates any facile appropriationist account of her practice overall. Text registers in almost every format in which she works. Word Work, a category devised to classify some of these pieces in the self-published Rose Nolan (2001) could not contain all the examples. In some work the graphic qualities of text are paramount and outweigh any semantic import. In other pieces, design plays off meaning, engaging a complicated viewer response that demands reading as well as a more pleasure-driven type of looking willing to suspend literal sense. Nolan has also toyed with text that reads unintelligibly. In the It's a Girl Banners (1996), commonplace announcements prompted by progress reports regarding a new child posted in a local pet store were presented by Nolan in Cyrillic type, rendering them opaque for most viewers. Nolan can work with the ubiquitous, like the birth announcement, as well as the particular. Treating one of Sol LeWitt's Sentences on Conceptual Art (1969) as a found object, she transcribed it onto the glass walls of the foyer of the Art Gallery of New South Wales as part of the 2006 Sydney Biennale. Nolan's recontextualisation radically inflated what was initially an artist's working note; at the same time it minimised its subsequent authoritative status within contemporary art by concealing its origin.3 Treated this way, LeWitt's 'Banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution', a self-evident truth whose possible failure in this instance the artist is willing to risk, can read like a self-help nostrum, a piece of what Nolan has called 'taxi driver wisdom'.4
Why Do We Do The Things We Do—a look at Nolan's current work in mid-career where text is now everywhere apparent—is also an occasion for considering her practice overall within a wider history after almost a quarter century of exhibiting. Many commentators have noted Nolan's sense of vocation as an artist, stressing that this fact of 'being an artist' constitutes to some extent the raison d'etre of her practice as well as, in the compulsive manufacture of work, the stuff of it.5 To which we might reply: what is vocation but a choice of action, delimited and maintained by excluding other paths or approaches? In hewing to this path, Nolan's choice of references for her earliest work, specifically constructivism and suprematism, continues to offer ways to understand her practice today.
Constructivism and suprematism pointed to two very different, irreconcilable ends. Constructivism sought the end of art as we know it through its dissolution into a range of activities we would now call design, engineering, architecture; it was avowedly materialist. Suprematism looked beyond the bounds of this world. By invoking the fourth dimension Malevich espoused belief in art's capacity for transcendence. Linking radical aspirations to a common revolutionary goal, however, both movements shared a common fate.
Chris McAuliffe neatly unpicked the two movements' shared utopianism and resulting failure when he accounted for their appeal to artists of Nolan's generation. As he put it, '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).'6 Constructivism and suprematism also appealed to this generation's 'combination of longing and pathos' which was felt as well, according to McAuliffe, in Australia's geographical distance and temporal remove from the wellsprings of European art. Nolan was not alone in finding more than a formal vocabulary in the forms of Soviet revolutionary art. In Brisbane from the beginning of the 1980s, a casual grouping of artists looked in a similar direction, if for slightly different reasons: Peter Cripps, John Nixon, Robert MacPherson and, some time later, the younger artists Bronwyn Clark- Coolee and Eugene Carchesio.7 Each took something different from this; Nixon's crosses being perhaps the most well-known. Michael Graf notes that Nolan's association with the Store 5 group of artists in Melbourne was not defined by alignment with any 'single tradition of twentieth-century abstraction'.8 So too with the earlier Brisbane group, whose members shared a common interest in new, non-gallery oriented modes of art production rather than stylistic uniformity. While Nixon, MacPherson and Cripps clearly looked to constructivist and suprematist models, in the words of Cripps, 'intellect' rather than form united the resulting work of a disparate group of artists employing what he called 'recession art' strategies. Equally important was the redefinition of the exhibition venue, now functioning as what Cripps called an 'intellectual space'.9 Such artist-run sites were often temporary, peer rather than market-oriented, and encouraged frequent and sustained exposure of work. Exhibition in this context was an integral component of the production process, not simply an end point. Partly through the agency of Nixon, the Store 5 group inherited this legacy of alternative exhibition sites. Nolan's formative affiliation with Store 5 thus ties her practice to a significant Australian history of artist-run initiatives, the products of which may be poorly served by the 'appropriation' model of Australian art history in the eighties and later.
Reference to this Brisbane grouping also begins to suggest what an engagement with the Russian avant-garde might subsequently have afforded Nolan and some of her Store 5 compatriots. Constructivism and suprematism offered another take on abstraction, specifically on an abstract painting practice uncoupled from notions of expression. While their historical status within modernism would change, within classic Greenbergian formalism the two movements existed only as repressed history.Minimalists might claim a distant Constructivist lineage but real familiarity remained slight. Julie Ewington recently recalled the state of knowledge. 'Back then, we peered at furry black and white photographs of lost constructivist sculptures and distant avant-garde exhibitions, evocative but unsatisfactory relics of lost art and disappeared artists . . . '10 What constructivism and suprematism offered, in the late seventies in Australia—in Brisbane—was not without contradiction: a genealogy that conferred vanguardism and authority. As models of production—the term itself acknowledges constructivist antecedents—both movements could endow practices determined by a poverty of means with serious ambition. The fact that the resulting work aped the look of constructivist or suprematist work in reproduction was almost incidental.11 This retrospective cast offered as well access to a history in which promise and aesthetic risk-taking had been foreclosed, snuffed out prematurely. Rather than replaying this as tragedy however, working with a repressed tradition within modernist painting enabled a continued engagement with the enterprise of painting itself.
By the time Peter Cripps' Recession Art & Other Strategies appeared in print, Nolan had already had several exhibitions. She had also visited Russia. While the historical outcomes of constructivism and suprematism might make them particularly appropriate models for young artists affected by McAuliffe's 'pathos and longing', in the eighties Australia's 'distance' was less the cause for wistfulness than a kind of celebration. Distance—from sources, from originals—was deemed the special condition of Australian art. When Nolan took up constructivism and suprematism, any number of artists were looking at different art historical sources as available styles (rather than models of practice). Michael Graf has suggested Tony Clark's 'playful engagement with the styles of art' set an energising example for Nolan and other artists associated with the Store 5 group. These young Melbourne abstractionists were, as he puts it, 'at liberty to handpick a genealogy of illustrious predecessors'.12 Predecessors, genealogy: the question of succession—of before and after—did not vanish in the eighties rhetoric of appropriation. The terms may have been inverted rhetorically, but beginnings and endings mattered. Constructivism and, to an even greater extent, suprematism underwent a curious transformation in the eighties. Less the aborted beginning of something new, as the eighties wore on they came to be seen as an early announcement of painting's end. This end-ism could itself underwrite a small school of art practice and criticism, distinguished by being, in Rex Butler's words, 'second hand, exhausted in advance', and signaled in Australia, by abstraction.13 Some practitioners of abstraction however imagined the possibilities of a modernism 'after' post-modernism. Judith Pascal, introducing a 1990 exhibition of Nolan's Store 5 compatriot Stephen Bram wrote: 'There now seems to be a place in our culture into which a chastened Modernism might fit… a Modernism which might guide us to somewhere better than where we are.'14
Nolan's work, in its exuberant productivity, its jostle of tones, shows no trace of this end-ism. Of all the artists working however distantly with the legacy of 'the great Russian experiment', Nolan's engagement with text singles her out and complicates her position within abstraction. Her Word Work demands to be read. At the same time, because text functions as a design element in these works and very often because of Nolan's use of scale, the Word Work challenges us to see words without reading them, to waive or suspend meaning for at least part of the time of looking. (This, in a very different register, is territory worked by Ed Ruscha and Robert MacPherson.) In a practice that remains essentially abstract, Nolan tests abstraction. Her Word Works, which often use found text, acknowledge a world awash with text (and textuality), a world in which this saturation by text feeds anxieties about the decline of novel reading and the consequent loss of a certain experience of interiority; the shrinking of attention spans; the demise of 'serious' fiction. Nolan's Word Work doesn't replay this anxiety, instead it makes for an arrest—playful, brief, funny—a respite from the constant screaming address of early twenty-first century urban life.
Put this way, the Word Works might appear exceedingly modest, but modesty has always been part of Nolan's modus operandi—the palm-sized works sent as gifts, the use of hessian and cardboard, the simplicity of typeface, the hand-hooked rug included in this exhibition. Even when Nolan works large, she undercuts any grandiosity, as Michael Graf has noted. It's possible to see here how Nolan's engagement with the legacy of revolutionary form is marked by inversions and reversals. The revolutionary project—abetted by constructivist design, Mayakovsky's poetry, Eisenstein's films—sought to forge a new Soviet man. Nolan forgoes the heroic exhortation this demanded. Instead of 'Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge' she offers something smaller 'Help Me To Do Things Differently' or, in a vastly hyperbolic inflation of bourgeois subjectivity, the enormous 'SELF' where scale deflates utterly. In poetics, 'bathos' is what results when a poet, aiming at elevated expression, ends up lapsing into the ridiculous. Nolan's large-scale works often display a similar kind of tension between grandeur and its opposite, but unlike bathos, which represents an unintended failure, the effect here is no accident. Neither art's aspirations, nor its attenuation worry Nolan although she knows their histories. Mid-career, she can work through both.
1. Reproductions of three White Trash Works can be found in Rose Nolan and Max Delany, Rose Nolan, Melbourne, 2001.
2. Rex Butler, 'Introduction' to his What is Appropriation?: An Anthology of Critical Writings
on Australian Art in the '80s and '90s, Power Publications, Sydney, and Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 1996, p.40. Butler writes, 'Appropriation—though it is perhaps not to say anything specific about art, to determine it in any way—is now the unavoidable fate for all art, whether it knows it or not.'
3. Nolan came across photographs of LeWitt's Sentences on Conceptual Art (1969) reproduced in an exhibition catalogue on European conceptual art where they served as contextual information. LeWitt's sentences appeared here as lists of handwritten notes with edits, unlike the final list of 35 complete sentences first published in journals on both sides of the Atlantic in 1969. Nolan appreciated the similarity with her own practice of filing lists, notes and scribbles, and felt an affinity for the private working of LeWitt's thinking. Email to the author, 22.5.08.
4. Email to the author, 22.5.08.
5. Max Delany, 'Rose Nolan: Dressing Up and Sizing Down', in Rose Nolan and Max Delany, Rose Nolan, Melbourne, 2001; and Chris McAuliffe, 'Help Me To Do Things Differently,' in Rose Nolan and Chris McAuliffe, Rose Nolan: Work in Progress #3, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, 2002
6. Chris McAuliffe, 'Help Me To Do Things Differently', p.2.
7. The work of Cripps, Nixon and MacPherson during this period is documented in the following: Q Space + Q Space Annex 1980 + 1981, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 1986, and Recession Art & Other Strategies, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 1986, both of which include work by additional artists working outside the constructivist or suprematist legacy. John Nixon was the Director of the Institute of Modern Art, 1980–81; Cripps occupied the same position, 1984–86. Clark-Coolee and Carchesio were both later associated with and exhibited through the Store 5 group.
8. See Michael Graf's essay in this publication: 'Why Does She Do The Things She Does: Rose Nolan 2008'.
9. Peter Cripps, in Recession Art and Other Strategies, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 1986, p.2. The Institute of Modern Art had also hosted Minimalism x Six, an earlier exhibition of work employing'recessional' modes of art production, curated by Malcolm Enright, in June–July 1983. Again, to stress the fact that style was not at issue for the work gathered under the 'recessionist' umbrella, Cripps, when noting models of 'recessional' strategies, pointed to Percy Grainger's Free Music Machines, and claimed an art-historical antecedent in Albert Tucker's career.
10. Julie Ewington, 'In Form' Robert MacPherson: Popov and the Lost Constructivists, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2007.
11. See in particular pp.26 and 27 of Q Space + Q Space Annex 1980 + 1981, and the centre pages of Minimalism x Six.
12. See Michael Graf, 'Why Does She Do The Things She Does: Rose Nolan 2008'.
13. Rex Butler, 'Introduction' in What is Appropriation? p.39. On this 'end-ism' see for instance the essays by Yve-Alain Bois and Thomas Crow in Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, and MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1986.
14. Judith Pascal, 'Introduction', Stephen Bram, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 1990.