CHRISTOPHER HEATHCOTE, Kind of Blue
Gallery 101 [Ground level, 101 Collins Street, Melbourne];
November 4-28th, 2009
At Christopher Heathcote's opening the other night at 101, red in hand & generously at hand, the trio smoothly dipping in & out of Coward, Brubeck, Monk, Miles et al, not yet 'playing the paintings' as I fancied could be done when we first noticed the adjacency of jazz band to paintings --Mondrian/Malevich topographies but just as likely musical staves--, I deliberated with Stephen McLaughlin on how many local art-writers also painted & actually exhibited? Jeffrey Makin; Robert Rooney for a long time; Bernard Smith? --but not too many more (that's a statement not a plea). We did see an exhibition by Bernard Smith? I say to Retta, doubting myself --she nods in the affirmative, yet for some reason Tucker's in my mind now --portraits after photographs? --or Smith's portrait of Tucker, or vice versa? --golden opportunity with McLaughlin & Heathcote both in the room to corroborate, but we're having a conversation, folks, not writing a thesis!
I remember Christopher telling me the show had been hung according to palate, and perhaps the groupings & progressions did peg back the large white, albeit divided, space to a series of harmonic clusters, which is what the paintings are. A moot point, I suppose, whether there's greater or lesser aesthetic coherence in studio or gallery (or do I mean 'explication', implying that the environment for the art's literal making is the fuller context)? Telling, though, that Christopher's invitation is a photograph of his studio in the Nicholas Building, and one can imagine that the pipes & windows opposite his studio, through his similarly partitioned window, is the model for the canvas on the floor leaning against the sill. There too are his brushes, a painting on an easel, objet d'art, two small framed portraits, &, instructively, piles of books propped against which is a Readers Feast shopping bag bulging, probably, with recently acquired booty!
He's a scholar-writer, a reader-painter. Expect correspondences, then, between the monographs he's written --in recent years there's Roger Kemp & Yvonne Audette --& his own painting? Well, the references exist, but no should or shouldnt about it. To converse people employ the same language, simple as that?
Exhibition launching, as with book launch & reading, is sometimes like the mega-, meta- artefact often promised. For me, Christopher Heathcote's 'artist reception' was the expanded painting --jazz trio fulfilling the paintings' jazz titles (Around Midnight, Twentieth Century Blues, Kind of Blue), encouraging one to see the paintings' grids as fretted with the whimsical points & angles which have denoted City & its Sounds since ever art made virtue of the naturally traducing popular culture!
I recall looking back down the room, to the right of the gallery entrance, at a particular work which then opened up to me as red base (the painter getting down his initial energy & excitement), overlay of grey squares (reflections : thinking aloud the problem of what to say), gathering details (or story subsumed to & expressed as pattern). Generalizing, I could say Heathcote's paintings elicit ideas from emotions, ultimately presenting or, dare one say, expressing a state of mind, a mood, a kind of blue! According to the notes, the paintings have accrued over a long period of time spent in the inner city, and maybe that explains their combination of movement & tranquility --both states rely on repeated signs & lines for their effect.
Writing these words, Ben Shahn is suddenly in my head, --exemplary of a calligraphy that's also choreography. Shahn & Saul Steinberg both? 50s, early 60s motifs, decor, design... And confirmed easily as I turn up the copy of Perspectives (Autumn, 1952) which my late uncle Dennis gave me, my last family summer holiday before I came away to Australia, first as a one-voyage mariner then an assisted passage migrant,1965 & '66 --a magazine which introduced me to Shahn's pictures &, as it happens, W C Williams' poems & prose, & much else besides, Rexroth, Barzun, Jarrell, Dahlberg --resonating forever after!
There it is : Shahn's Composition for Clarinets and Tin Horn (1951), in which a figure of anguish, face hidden in bent fingers & forearms, & mocked by the clown face on the horn, might even be missed in the strong line of instruments, which almost indicate a kind of grid. And grid it is that's foremost in Paterson (1950) & World's Greatest Comics... Selman Rodman commented, "Shahn has not been unaffected by the drift toward nonrepresentational abstraction in the past decade. The emphasis on background pattern in such transitional pictures as World's Greatest Comics (1947) and Convention (1948) has assumed a dominant foreground position in the more recent May 5 and Paterson. The latter picture was inspired by a passage celebrating 'invention' in William Carlos Williams' strictly 'nonrepresentational' poem with the same title and has been criticized by some of Shahn's admirers as 'arid,' 'empty,' and 'too abstract.'"
I'm not sure if the discussion around abstraction & realism that Rodman reports of 1952 is or isnt passe in 2009. Certainly no reference to Ben Shahn in Heathcote's exhibition note, though Leger's La Ville, Wyndham Lewis's The Crowd, Mondrian's Broadway Boogie-Woogie, & architects Van der Rohe & Gio Ponti are all acclaimed. And the jazz goes without saying.
In the exhibition note, Christopher Heathcote doesnt talk about abstraction or at all abstractly --quite the opposite. And he could easily share Shahn's axiom that form is only ever an expression of content...
Resoundingly then, a cool event, a cool show; two weeks left to dig it some more!
November 6th-15th, 2009--