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— Evergreen ... Quasi Una Fantasia - by Dr Barbara Bolt

Evergreen ... Quasi Una Fantasia

Dr Barbara Bolt

'A line is a dot that went for a walk.
A drawing is simply a line going for a walk.
Art does not reproduce what we see; rather, it makes us see.’ (Paul Klee)

 I am watching David Harley’s work Before Green (2015). It starts so simply, in some ways so insignificantly. Some fragmentary marks … dots and some coloured shapes appear just to the left of centre and then a strafe of blue lines cut through the plane sending these dots and marks backwards into some unfathomable space. As we watch we are drawn into the crazed world of David’s moving painting—lines, thin and thick come and go, shapes meander across the screen, shapes grow dark and angry and intimidating and then shrink and slide away or retreat as a cacophonous orchestra of sound assaults our senses.All hell breaks loose both visually and aurally and then it quietens and whimpers …a dark screen a long, drawn-out note … a breath … and then silence. Tension and relief. The reason we are alive.

 Before Green is a mere five minutes and seven seconds (5:07), but within this work David lays out a whole world for us to experience. It is not necessarily pleasant and at times bewildering, but in this one work there is a great generosity. As much as it is a work of the senses, it is also a conceptual piece, a work that harks back to the conceptual movement of the 1950’s and 60’s, to John Cage’s 4:33[i] and Robert Morris’ Box with the Sound of its own Making (1961).[ii] As with these earlier conceptual works in Before Green we are seeing process, duration and provisionality on display for us to witness in all its grittiness. 

 This is a watershed moment in the development of David’s practice, a moment where he bears his soul in revealing his thinking and working process. There are those experimental works Before Green and then there is after-green. We may Return to Green in 2021 but Before Green holds the key. It is the one work that is the place holder between childhood and adulthood between experimentation and play and intentional and mature work. It is the becoming multi-modal of painting.

 It is important for us to remember that David is a painter not a video artist. These works are moving paintings not videos. He has coined the term free-form abstraction to apply to these works. David has practiced as a free-form painter since the mid-1980’s beginning with his delicious and delicate lyrical abstract paintings on canvas. During the 1990’s he expanded his practice beyond the canvas to incorporate digital technologies. Initially he experimented with large-format printing but as he engaged with the digital, he came to understand the multi-modal potential of the digital space—its capacity to transform the “still-image” through animation. Being a painter at heart, it still left him with a question: How can a pictorial ‘language’ derived from free-form abstract painting expand and retain signification beyond the canvas into durational modes such as animation? [iii]

 David talks of the formative experience arising from a concert performance of the Hungarian composer, György Kurtág’s Quasi Una Fantasia (c1989) by ANAM at the South Melbourne Townhall in 2010. He had long been interested in the formal relationship between music and art and music had been both a source of inspiration and, also increasingly a co-collaborator in his expanded painting practice. We see this being played out in his composition, 9 Minute Painting (2005). Working with found music— fragments by Hummel, Haydn’s chamber music and solo piano works by Prokofiev—and the digital programs Corel Painter, Adobe After Effects and Brushes Viewer, David creates riotous and at times intense free-form visual music. In this early composition we see the beginnings of a visual vocabulary that comes to characterise later “mature” work.

 However, the experience of Quasi Una Fantasia was of a different order and came at a time when David was ready to expand the potential of his moving paintings into 3D software. He describes how, in the performance, instrumentalists were spread around and amongst the audience creating the effect of surround-sound:

The music evoked, many assembled elements in a terrain to animate from, the space of the music suggested these arrangements assembled according to the character of each of the four movements. These elements would be non-anthropomorphic and thus … convey the psychological space in the work. (Harley 2015: 62-3).

Here were the seeds of what was to become David’s multi-modal practice.

 While David’s embrace of the digital format and multi-modality in his free-form paintings is of the NOW, his thinking returns us to the early twentieth century and to modernist abstract painting, a movement where the visual arts were intertwined with music and dance. It was through the art, writing and pedagogy of Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee that David developed the foundations for his thinking about the dynamics of the multi-modal. Both artists were musicians who adopted musical concepts and analogies in their painting, and both engaged with synaesthesia and a belief in a super-sensory world beyond the observable of the everyday. From Kandinsky, David borrowed the notion of improvisation, or the impro-modal and from Klee’s polyphonic paintings he engaged the poly-modal or the contrapuntal, an organized visual structuring that engendered ‘simultaneity of perceptually active elements in an image.’[iv]

 Whilst the idea of improvisation may seem antithetical to the organised visual structuring of the contrapuntal, David found that the operations of digital allowed him to combine both elements into the multi-modal. Put simply, the unique affordances of the digital, such as layering and the capacity of digital software for movement, sound and implied depth, allows the visual and aural elements to engage in their own animated behaviours simultaneously in free-form lyrical abstraction.

 There is something of the “ugliness” of the first born that is so compelling in this exhibition. In the later moving paintings, we see the struggle realised in works of incredible sophistication and vision. Yet, for me, it is within the earlier works that we glimpse those initial and tentative formations and vocabularies that were becoming multi-modal free-form painting. It is a rare gift that we see an artist lay themself bare in this manner and a rare trust that a gallery should offer the space and opportunity for this to occur. Quasi una fantasia is becoming reality. 

[i] In 1952 John Cage staged the first performance of his composition 4'33" at Maverick Concert Hall in New York. In this first performance, the pianist David Tudor entered onto the stage armed with a stopwatch, sat down at the piano, placed the score on it and lowered the lid of the piano. During the next four minutes and thirty-three seconds Tudor lowered and raised the piano lid at prescribed intervals and turned the pages of the score to mark the three movements of the composition. At the conclusion of the performance, he raised the piano lid and left the stage. By creating a frame of four minutes and thirty-three seconds, Cage had thrown a net over the chaos of the world and layed out a plane of composition.

[ii] Robert Morris’ Box with the Sound of its own Making (1961) is simply that: an ordinary wooden box from which emanates the sounds of labour of its making – the sounds sawing, hammering, sandpapering and the moving around of its maker. This artwork has been considered as “a manifesto of sorts” since for the first time an artwork consciously made “evident the means and methods of its own production.”  As such, “it heralded a paradigm shift in art, one in which process, duration, provisionality, and incompletion take pride of place.” Accessed on 11/02/2024 at https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/689665.

[iii] David Harley’s PhD Thesis ‘Beforegreen, Extended Abstract Painting’ (2015), provides an erudite and compelling overview of the genesis of the work. It provides the context for the work and lays out David’s thinking through of his process and offers new insights into the expanded field of painting.

Since its establishment in 1984, the Charles Nodrum Gallery’s exhibition program embraces a diversity of media and styles - from painting, sculpture & works on paper to graphics and photography; from figurative, geometric, gestural, surrealist & social comment to installation & conceptually based work.