Essay from the recently published catalogue Ham Darroch propeller
by Katie Dyer, Senior Curator, Contemporary, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, 2020
An entanglement between colour, form and edge characterises the sharp and alert artworks of Ham Darroch. His ongoing series of painted table-tennis bats exemplifies this entanglement, creating as it does a paradox between perceptions of utility and beauty. The bats are functional, playful objects which have been repurposed as supports for painting. Darroch’s treatment of them free-wheels between his investigations of colour theory, his incorporation of them into site-specific installations, his investment of them with figurative references and art historical allusions.
The series demonstrates Darroch’s constant reiteration of a tough question: What makes a painting? Or possibly: What makes a sculpture? It would seem the play between two- and three-dimensionality situates much of his work somewhere between painting and sculpture. In the context of modern and contemporary art, this may not be such a new exploration, but Darroch makes the case for a renewal of this inquiry more seriously and convincingly than most.
By painting on second-hand objects such as shovels, swags, plumb bobs and rabbit traps, he transforms their physicality, scale, materiality and texture, mixing and reshaping genres and perceptions in the process. An early work in the series, Fold Study 2013 (opposite), grafts a luscious primary-colour study in gouache onto the head of a vintage table-tennis bat. A circular shape is superimposed onto the centre of a painted diamond prism. The inherent brightness of colour ignites a feeling of light, while the geometrical divisions produce an illusion of plasticity or ‘folds’ in the diamond configuration. The circular form strengthens the illusion of ‘folding’ and adds a sense of transparency and transformation.
Darroch uses the term ‘tension’ to explain the dynamics of his practice – tension between painting and sculpture; between constructed sculpture and the readymade; between void and volume; between colour and line; and between relics of the past and the contemporary. The energy in these works is generated by this dialectic. What is so compelling about his work is the transformation and transvaluation of humble everyday things (trowels, ferry tickets, camp beds) in intimate dialogue with Darroch’s mastery of painting. Soetsue Yanagi, a Japanese philosopher who championed the significance of craft and the dignity of everyday things, wrote of such objects: “They may simply be things, but who can say they don’t have a heart?”1 Darroch’s attachment to “things” makes me think he shares the same sentiment. Over time, he has acquired a deep knowledge of the so-called high art traditions, of modernism’s legendary rebellions, and of the various avant-garde attempts to displace and subvert prescribed value-systems. How did these interests emerge, and how do they intersect with his development as an artist?
Growing up in the south-west of Sydney, Darroch lived with his mother, brothers and grandparents after the sudden death of his father when he was six. His grandfather was an aeronautical engineer whom he remembers always making and repairing things in a shed which held many fascinations. Darroch would watch him transforming materials and swapping object-parts. These early lessons in utilitarian honesty and technical ingenuity were reinforced by the art courses Darroch attended at TAFE in Sydney, and subsequently, in 1995, at the Canberra School of Art (now ANU School of Art & Design). In Canberra Darroch began working as a studio assistant to David Watt (1952-1997), who was then head of the sculpture workshop. This was a formative time when the technical training at TAFE with artists like Jim Croke, Jan King and Paul Hopmeier was further refined and enhanced by the multi-disciplinarity and critical engagement of the teachers and students in Canberra.
My first encounter with Darroch’s work coincided with meeting the artist himself in 2002. At the time he was humorously robbing everyday objects of their mundane identity in performance works staged in transitory spaces, such as the buses and ferries conveying him to his job at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, where we both worked. Darroch also used public transport tickets to make reliefs or cut-outs, creating portraits of his fellow commuters. He drew pen and pencil portraits on the tickets, so that object and surface, edge and volume, the mundane and the artistic were entwined on a small scale. These modest works held important insights to his later work.
In a recent conversation, Darroch recalled that Fiona Hall had been an artist in residence during his final year of art school in Canberra. Hall’s work not only excels in elevating ordinary objects into lyrical and poetic re-creations, she is also happily promiscuous across media incorporating painting, carving, assemblages, etc. The drawings and reliefs that Darroch made during his Sydney commutes had an almost social-realist quality. This association became far less evident once his work began to move towards assertive colour, abstraction and painting. None the less, if the representational approach may have receded, found objects continued to enrich Darroch’s art by providing links to the concrete, the actual and the functional – and also to locality and class.
Instruments used for measuring and for carrying out practical tasks usually have a direct relation to labour and human bodily scale. With the Resurface series 2008-2009 there was a significant shift in Darroch’s work: the objects became metaphors for human figures and for human endeavour. They have an appealingly rough-hewn, workman-like quality which becomes a foil for Darroch’s elegant painterly interventions. There is a poetics of ‘work’ inherent in the shovels and gaff hook that Darroch chose, and their sense of weight, mass and volume translates into his sculptural sensibility.
Using available materials wherever in the world he finds himself, Darroch found new inspiration when he moved to London in 2006. He re-habilitated the objects he found in Resurface 1, 2, 3 and 4 (p 16 & 17): old shovels, literally pulled out of the River Thames. To the new shafts he gave them, he applied a coating of oil paint and attached a plumb-bob – a device consisting of a string with a teardrop- shaped or pointy-ended weight attached to it. A plumb-bob is a tool used for making things ‘plumb’, i.e. vertically straight. The crisp white band applied to the handles provides a ground for coloured grid formations. These hard-edged colour sequences have been described by the artist as ‘eucalyptus colours.’ Any viewer versed in the colours of the Australian landscape would probably have an immediate reaction to the colour systems used here, playing as they do on our sensory knowledge and visual memory. Consequently, the Resurface series conflates things lost and found, transplants Australian memories to a foreign place, and channels the energy of the bush into an urban, industrialized environment.
Ham Darroch, Moonboy (After Nolan) 2012
Darroch’s interest in particular qualities of space, time, and light matured during this period in London, which coincided with his working for the celebrated British painter Bridget Riley. Simultaneously, references to Australian art became more pronounced in his work, along with the references to the bush. His experiments with vernacular objects developed another range of entanglement: with iconic art-references that Darroch adopted as a species of ‘readymade’. Sidney Nolan became an ambivalent signifier of Australian identity in Moonboy (After Nolan) 2012 (opposite). Here, the head of an old shovel has been removed from its shaft and on it, painted in casein, is a beautifully warm, outsized yellow ellipse. For display, the shovel head is mounted to the wall, facing outwards, turning its bright, buoyant face towards the viewer. Nolan’s painting, Boy and the Moon c.1939-40, is held in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, along with a preparatory study. Nolan returned to this moon/head many times and later included it in his set design for the 1962 Rite of Spring ballet production. An NGA publication states:
“The title of the painting refers to what Sidney Nolan says was the initial impulse for the work: the sight of a friend’s head silhouetted against a full moon. By conflating these two images Nolan has created a simple and memorable painting that negotiates the territory between representation and abstraction.”
The conflating of images and negotiation of the territory between representation and abstraction is relevant to Darroch’s concerns as an artist. He weaves into this seemingly minimal work additional quotations of Nolan’s pictorial language: it is impossible to miss the reference to Nolan’s Ned Kelly icon. Darroch’s shovel evokes the iconic black, rectangular form of Kelly’s head armour. Nolan’s powerful Kelly series emphasizes the bush-ranger’s anti-heroic status, playing on the tension and harmony between bodies and landscapes.
The shifting identity between painting and sculpture that Darroch so enjoys is typified by Moonboy (After Nolan), and like his other works, it speaks about working with and through the body.
Writing this, I am reminded of something Darroch said to me about his ambiguous references to Australian history, landscape and sense of identity.
He spoke about ‘time becoming a subject’ and ‘what the landscape does to objects.’ During this summer of unprecedented bushfires, as millions of hectares of land burned, objects of all kinds were destroyed and we experienced a collective sense of grief and shock, these ideas took on meanings I had not expected. It was a pleasure as much as a relief and deep sense of need that I immersed myself in Darroch’s beautiful, resonant, profoundly humane art works.
Senior Curator, Contemporary Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
To purchase the full catalogue online: https://dhg.anu.edu.au/drill-hall-gallery-catalogues/