Kay Abude, CJ Conway, Xanthe Dobbie, Fiona Morgan & Jacqui Shelton at Bayside Arts and Cultural Centre, Brighton
If you have ever come across a series of Giorgio Morandi’s almost-but-not-quite monochrome Natura Morta paintings sitting quietly in a museum or nestled between the pages of someone’s coffee table art book, you will recall the discreet determination resonating from this artist’s work. The ongoing renditions of bottles and jars seem at first glance almost too similar to differentiate, and yet it is precisely this lack of distinction that makes the work so compelling.
By punctuating his life with the production of still life paintings Morandi invoked a profound sense of the passing of time and of course delighted viewers with the modesty and power of his work. However, the mystery of the artist’s dedication to representing the nuances of light over crockery, and the extraordinary number of records he created in the process, remains confounding.
It is this body of work that has prompted Repeat Offender, a contemporary investigation of repetition and variation, through the works of Kay Abude, CJ Conway, Xanthe Dobbie, Fiona Morgan & Jacqui Shelton. These Melbourne-based emerging artists work in installation, performance, video and painting, each approaching the theme from a perspective informed very much by their chosen medium.
The use of repetition in art practice aligns itself with structure and routine, traits that exist in opposition to wild experimentation. On first glance we may think that the use of series, patterns and loops creates a formal regimen to follow, to become comfortable and familiar with. From the perspective of the viewer this can be true, but for the artist, repetition enables the study of variation, comparison and alternatives to what has come before. The more we consider the act of ‘re-doing’, the more it becomes a pathway to the new.
This study of newness is deeply embodied within CJ Conway’s practice, represented here by two distinct but interrelated works. In tracing her own spiralling lines in a time-based drawing which develops over the course of the exhibition, Conway demonstrates to her audience that newness is inherent within the act of repeating oneself. Just as Heraclitus espoused the impossibility of stepping into the same river twice, no two hand-drawn lines will ever truly be the same. Infinite changes occur between each rendition, despite our best efforts to reproduce them. This sense of the unplanned or the ‘un-plannable’ is cultivated and even celebrated within Conway’s work.
A different approach is taken in Kay Abude’s Production Line series which explores the notion of repetition as physical labour. Rather than approaching repetition as an organic process as in the case of Conway’s drawings and sculptures, Abude’s precise and orderly performances demonstrate the gruelling nature of work. Her performers set about manufacturing infinite sheets of a blank currency, and yet the outcome of this toil is left unsaid or unknown. The nature of Abude’s performances is slightly tongue in cheek but the implication of the work is earnest; how do we quantify artistic labour and with what tools can we ascribe value to it?
For Jacqui Shelton the documentation of performance also plays a pivotal role, however the performing and re-performing of an action here serves to question the poetic and political influence of public space. In her video installation, Framing everyday negotiations: never confuse movement with action, Shelton’s futile repetitions become an articulation of her shifting relationship with the environment around her. The artist’s positioning within the landscape and the fragmented conversation carried out in subtitles beneath the scene draws attention to the peripheral nature of the shoreline, an ‘in-between’ place ceaselessly adjusting itself.
Where Shelton’s works are cinematic, Xanthe Dobbie uses video to explore the potential of formalist abstraction. The aptly titled People en masse doing things at the same time in the same colour 2011-13 is a two-channel video work which loops eternally through footage appropriated from across the globe. It presents less as an indictment, and more as an objective ‘mulling over’, of the continuous rise and fall of political powers and the increasing homogeneity of cultures. To experience Dobbie’s careful positioning of sequences, the intense layering of pattern, both visually and temporally, is akin to standing atop an anthill. It is the industry of it all that amazes.
In a similar vein, but without the complication of technology, Fiona Morgan’s colourful abstracts on ply also explore the formal possibilities associated with repetition. In these eight new works created specifically for the exhibition, we see perhaps the closest relationship with Morandi’s method of working due in no small part to a shared medium. In investigating the possibilities of abstract line, shape and colour, Morgan’s paintings operate within what could be seen as a narrow field of inquiry. Yet what is demonstrated so emphatically through these paintings is the overwhelming potential for rampant variations within a distinct set of rules.
Einstein defined insanity as repeating the same action over and over with the expectation of a different outcome. Certainly the exploration of ‘sameness’ requires an acceptance of the circularity and frequent futility of our actions within the scheme of things. What the artists included in Repeat Offender expect from their processes of repetition varies – but a quiet acceptance of the madness of the repeat is evident in each of their practices. This teetering between pointlessness and purpose defines the process of making and the works here are collated as documents, creating a record of this process.