Repurpose: part three

In 2016 Tony Oates curated Repurpose at the Drill Hall Gallery. The exhibition took its impetus from the revelation of Cubist collage and the re-positioning of the found object to act as a signifier, sparking a catalytic chain of events. Separated by several generations from the founders of Cubism, the artists in the exhibition – Matt Arbuckle, Peter Atkins, Chris Carmody, Nicole Ellis, Erwin Fabian, Robert Motherwell, Elizabeth Newman and Trish Roan – tackled the depiction and understanding of our world through abstract means.  Their art featured a foreign object, a third party, a ready-made pretext or a pre-existing structure from which a fresh outcome or insight was generated. Repurpose was a celebration of poetic transformation, intuitive response and the creative process of invention.

In his catalogue essay, Tony Oates asked “How does one approach representing a world that has been predicated on a false understanding? How does one confront the inconceivable?” Highly relevant questions in the world today. In a series of three posts we are reprinting the essay here, accompanied by images from the exhibition.

Repurpose exhibition, Drill Hall Gallery, 2016. Photo: Rob Little


for part one of three click here:

for part two of three click here:

part three of three

More than is the case with any other artist in the current exhibition, the found object retains its autonomy in Trish Roan’s artwork. A pictorial/architectural/compositional context is never presupposed in her choice of objects. Rather, the operative challenge is to devise ways of making objects belong, motivating them to enter into contexts and associations with their neighbours, and integrating them with their environs. Choosing, collecting and sifting the possibilities of re-presentation, the microcosm of the work of art could be interpreted as an allegory of the individual in society. However, the object’s assimilation is never a forgone conclusion.

Indeed, Roan’s art maintains a position of acute uncertainty. Because the objects’ autonomy is assumed from the outset, the possibility of their interaction is necessarily limited: ‘I’ve been accumulating some collections that may or may not become something solid – it’s too early to say. I’d like them to become something, but I really don’t know yet,’ she says.(25)

Trish Roan, Star map, 2009. Colour photograph. ANU Art Collection.

In reviewing Bergson’s ideas of creation, Bertrand Russell noted ‘that evolution is truly creative, like the work of an artist. An impulse to action, an undefined want, exists beforehand, but until the want is satisfied it is impossible to know the nature of what will satisfy it.’(26) The transient qualities that Roan and her objects seek to harness are not easily represented. Her motivation is to bring the discarded, ‘poor’, unexamined aspects of the world into view and ‘within reach.’(27)

‘When something is so close to the everyday,’ Roan says, ‘I feel it has a more profound revelation. A lot of what I think about and travel towards… is about drawing something from (perceived) nothing, holding it briefly and releasing it back to ‘nothing’ – back into the world of things or weather or other kinds of indifference.’(28)

The function of the object is so tenuous as regards its repurposing as a work of art, that the conventional distinction imposed between presentation and representation is easily blurred or subverted. When a found object is photographed or filmed it is obviously given over to representation, whereas, when it is re-presented in a crude state, all the devices responsible for isolating, framing and intensifying focus on the object – endowing it with the aura of art – are much more elusive and open to question.

Roan’s video work, Iris, consists of a series of photographic stills linked by the recurrent motif of a discarded elastic band. These unexceptional objects, which are never identical, suggest cells or amoebae, and through their repetition they grow ever more relational. Like the ancient Greek omphalos, each elastic band becomes a centre, a navel of the world. In a universe that recognises no centre, the paradox is that everything and everywhere can assert itself as a provisional centre. The elastic band is also an archetypal drawing: a circumscription. The line has its inside and outside. The imposition of a ‘figure’ cut out from a ‘field’ momentarily interrupts the ‘indifference’ of the pavement or footpath. Encountered in the open, abandoned, the object is exposed – porous, (29) revealing a ‘conditional sense of meaning that can be disbanded at any moment’ – at every moment.


Trish Roan, Iris, 2016 stills

The ripped edges and wrenched planes that constitute Erwin Fabian’s sculptures seem to have the lightness and plasticity of clay. Their weight and mass are dissimulated by the volume of air invited into the heart of the assemblage. Harking back to the flash point of 1910 and the revelatory moment of Cubist collage, Fabian’s formal language incidentally testifies to the impact that Picasso’s constructions have had on precursor sculptors in the 20th Century like Julio González, Richard Stankiewicz and David Smith, and so Margit Rowell’s characterisation of Cubist sculpture pertains to Fabian’s work as well: ‘The volumes of objects [are] translated into spatial voids. Space, once the outer envelope of sculpture, becomes its very substance.’ (30) The alternation of planar elements with the intervening spaces – with the void – posits the interaction of positive and negative, inner and outer, tactile and optical inferences.

The generational link between Erwin Fabian (b. 1915) and Robert Motherwell (b. 1915), both of whom retain idiomatic connections to Abstract Expressionism and profess a deep identification with the legacy of Cubism, may also encourage us to consider similarities in their ideas. The rapport between solid and void in such works as Bloom suggests a metaphysical rationalisation. We might link Bloom’s floral/female form to a general idea of fecundity and to intimations of the ‘first beginnings of things’ (primordia rerum) or the ‘seeds of things,’ i.e. to Lucretian concepts so old that they have become brand new.

Erwin Fabian, Bloom, 2010

The torn and fractured vernacular of Fabian’s constructions evoke the Lucretian dichotomy of rupture and creation – in Lucretius’ own words:

‘And so the destructive motions cannot hold sway eternally and bury existence forever; nor again can the motions that cause life and growth preserve created things eternally. Thus, in this war that has been waged from time everlasting, the contest between the elements is an equal one: now here, now there, the vital forces conquer and in turn, are conquered.’(31)

For Nicole Ellis, ‘the idea of construction/ destruction was helpful early on. It was instructive in the importance of risk-taking and being prepared to lose something in the process of finding something.’ She adds: ‘I am now interested in the idea of a dismantling/ reorganising process, rather than the putting back-together principle of traditional archaeology. I dismantle objects to discover how they are made, to reveal their hidden structure.’(32)

From an early phase in her history, Ellis realised that primary invention, making something out of nothing, went against her creative predilections. The found object and, more specifically, found materials have provided the initial stimulus for more diverse avenues of invention. In her recent Time-Lapse series she alters the character of already coloured, already textured fabrics, extracting from them the most unexpected evocations of space, light and air. The constituent fabrics are laminated and torn apart, displaying the residues of the adhesives which streak and mottle their blues and greys with bright cloud formations. Subtle, almost subliminal tints modify the coloured ground: they are the residues left by ripping apart differently coloured textiles. As with Peter Atkins, Ellis’ role is virtually that of an editor, a compiler, a tailor of elegant formal constructs.

Nicole Ellis, Time-Lapse 8, 2016

Ellis’ seemingly vaporous distillations emit an energy of transformation. The suspended integers elicit a microphysical propensity, bring to mind the atomic thresholds of visibility whilst equally extending to encompass the immensity of space.

Colour is central to Ellis’ art. Found colour in the form of used, flawed or modified fabrics provides her with a ready-made palette. Ellis’ configurations of colour elide into voluminous illusions of light. This leads us to recall Lucretius’ account of vision in which air ‘passes through our eyes,’ or ‘luminous air… filled up the pathways of the eye with light.’(33) It is through light, the enabler of colour and the conduit of an endless stream of atoms, that we are able to envisage the contents of the void.

For Robert Motherwell, each blank canvas or sheet of paper presented a void, and this primordial emptiness precipitated the birth of a new creation. Recalling the phrase of Mallarmé’s, ‘the whiteness of the paper defends,’ Motherwell confessed to his difficulty in beginning work and his anxiety that a work might not live up to the perfect unity it displaces and supersedes.(34) One approach, also prescribed by Mallarmé, was the method of chance, a ‘throw of the dice’ whereby an arbitrary intervention provokes a chain of catalytic reactions. As with the three lithographs, Harvest with orange stripe , Harvest with blue shadow and Pauillac no. 4, the found object sets a tonic note within the composition and a call and response ensues. The artist’s efforts to accommodate the foreign fragment endow it with strategic, relational value, so that the observer, in a Bergsonian sense, becomes ‘capable of reflecting upon the object and of enlarging it indefinitely.’(35)

Repurpose exhibition, 2016, Drill Hall Gallery, installation view. Elizabeth Newman left, Robert Motherwell right.

As a young man Motherwell studied philosophy at Stanford and Harvard. Historians and scholars have tended to overlook the relevance of his academic grounding until recently. Motherwell’s interest in art lay in the primary process of creation and he attributed this to one of the fundamental insights of the Cubists. He wrote:

‘Working with great intelligence, stubbornness and objectivity, they stumbled over the leading insight of the 20th century: all thought and feeling is relative to man, he does not reflect the world but invents it.’(36)

Cubist imaging fed into Motherwell’s reading of Bergson’s vitalism, John Dewey’s sense of immediacy and – most of all – the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead.(37) In Process and Reality, Whitehead outlined a scheme in which process, or what we might prefer to call events, are the fundamental make-up of reality. He proposed a perpetual state of ‘becoming’ in which actual entities or occasions result from the concrescence of all elements within the scheme. He wrote: ‘It lies in the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity.’(38) Motherwell understood ‘that “meaning” was a product of relations among elements’(39) that can be apprehended in collage’s ‘capacity to arrive’:

‘No wonder the artist is constantly placing and displacing, relating and rupturing relations: his task is to find a complex of qualities whose feeling is just right – veering towards the unknown and chaos, yet ordered and related in order to be apprehended.’(40)

Motherwell’s America – La France series re-fathoms the processes of a universal scheme defined by dialectical fields of tension. Transcending multiplicity, ‘the many become one, and are increased by one’(41) as the new entity becomes. From the initial disorder the artist intuits a ‘relational structure,’ and his instinct directs the work ‘toward the realisation of a potential order.’(42) Formerly dispersed elements achieve a newfound bonding. In Whitehead’s terms, this forms a ‘unified actuality … devoid of all indetermination. Potentiality has passed into realisation. They are complete and determinate matter of fact, devoid of all indecision.’(43)

Repurpose exhibition, 2016, Drill Hall Gallery, installation view.

Like the early collages of Picasso and Braque, some of these works were initially conceived as a model – as preliminary steps towards a final print edition – yet each work has its own vitality and bears the imprint of a brilliant creative mind. Viewed as a developing concept, America – La France speaks of its own temporality and passage: the movement from one state to another tends to emphasise the provisional nature of each successive image and suggests a formative process that, in other realms of life, establishes identity and determines existence.

Donald Kuspit, responding to the insights of Alfred North Whitehead, identified collage as a metaphor for the ‘principle of universal relativity.’(44) He wrote: ‘Collage, for the first time in art, makes uncertainty a method of creation, apparent indeterminacy a procedure… its unity as much in the potentiality of its becoming as in the actuality of its presence.’(45) For Matt Arbuckle, found sheets of paper motivate his compositional adventures, providing a surprising stimulus or an unfamiliar foundation. ‘When working over found paper’ he says, ‘I am always responding to what already exists.’(46)

As with Trish Roan, Arbuckle’s found materials are often chosen for their immediacy, their poignant marginality and valuelessness: they
are social outcasts devoid of preciousness, their markings perhaps fresher and more exhilarating than could be achieved by any hand of intent.

Densely blue technical drawings provide the ground for In Between and Sliding Door Opportunity (illus. p. 46-47 & 12-13). A counterpart is set up by Arbuckle’s arrangement of slashing integers or rectangular sheets of white and off-white paper marked with daubed accumulations of non-colour. The opposition of these anonymous, artless smudges with the obviously skilled and unalterable figuration of the blueprints raises questions about aesthetic sufficiency and the relationship of images to the hand, the body and the eye.

Repurpose exhibition, 2016, Drill Hall Gallery, installation view. Matt Arbuckle, In Between 2016, (middle, blue).

The blueprint is perfect but dead – whereas the crude markings have the potential to evolve and associate. However, the viewer may not be able to decide whether the collaged elements evidence a meaningless scrawl or the artist’s deliberate marks, whether these markings are accidental or intentional. Nonetheless they contribute vigour, warmth and accessibility to the collages, bringing them within the viewer’s reach.

The dialectic of the parts qualifies the arrival of the whole. As Kuspit notes, ‘The elements are already “relative” by reason of their displacement from the life-world into the “art world” and by reason of their fragmentary state. Taken together, seen relative to one another, their relativity seems irresistible and fundamental.’(47)

Here, the poet Charles Olson’s discussion of poetic composition through projective, open verse provides a useful parallel:

‘From the moment he ventures into field composition – puts himself in the open – he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares … it is a matter, finally of OBJECTS, what they are, what they are inside a poem, how they got there, and once there, how they are to be used… Every element… must be taken up as participants in the kinetics of the poem… must be handled … in such a way that a series of tensions (which they also are) are made to hold, and to hold exactly inside the content and the context of the poem which has forced itself, through the poet and them, into being.’(48)

Arbuckle’s works on paper, like all the art in the current exhibition, manifest ‘a suspended moment’ or what Braque called an ‘in-between.’ As Braque explained:

‘You see, I have made a discovery: I no longer believe in anything. Objects don’t exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them or between them and myself. In other words, it is not the objects that matter to me but what is in between them; it is this ‘‘in-between’’ that is the real subject of my pictures. When one attains this harmony, one reaches a sort of intellectual non-existence – what I can only describe as a state of perfect freedom and peace – which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation. That is true poetry.’(49)

‘For the painter, for the poet, for artists (this is what makes them different from other men, and especially from scientists), each work becomes a new universe with its own laws.’ – Guillaume Apollinaire (50)


Anthony Oates
Curator, Exhibitions
Drill Hall Gallery
Australian National University, Canberra
October 2016

25      Correspondence with the author 5 June 2016, following quotes are from this source unless noted.
26      Bertrand Russell, op. cit., p. 323.
27      Georges Braque, quoted in John Richardson, Georges Braque (London: Oldbourne, 1961), p. 10.
28      Artist correspondence with the author (questionnaire, 5 August 2016).
29      We may recall the poet Paul Valéry’s Le Cimetière marin (1920), in which he wrote: ‘My presence is porous.’
30      Margit Rowell, The Planar Dimension: Europe 1912-13 (New York: Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, 1979), p. 9.
31      Lucretius, De rerum natura (2.569-80) quoted in Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2011), p. 186.
32      Artist correspondence with the author (questionnaire, 15 August 2016).
33      Quote in McGrath, Hugh P., and Comenetz, Michael, Currents in Comparative Romance Languages and Literatures : Valéry’s Graveyard: Le Cimetière marin Translated, Described, and Peopled (New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2013) ProQuest ebrary. Web. 1 July 2016, p. 138.
34      Interview with David Sylvester 1960, quoted in Mary Ann Caws, Robert Motherwell (Reaktion Books, 2013), p. 100.
35      Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, op. cit., p. 186.
36      Robert Motherwell, ‘Preliminary notice’, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, The Rise of Cubism (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz Inc, 1949), p. vii.
37      See Manfred Milz, ‘Essay in honor of Robert Motherwell’s centenary’, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, vol. 8 (2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/jac.v8.29952 (15 July 2016).
38      Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Macmillan, 1929), p. 31.
39      Robert Motherwell, ‘Interview with Bryan Robertson, Addenda’ (1965), in Stephanie Terenzio (ed), The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), p. 142.
40      Robert Motherwell, ‘Beyond the Aesthetic’ (1946), in Dore Ashton and Joan Banach (eds), The Writings of Robert Motherwell (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), p. 54.
41      Alfred North Whitehead, op. cit., p. 32.
42      Rudolf Arnheim, op. cit., p. 22.
43      Alfred North Whitehead, op. cit., p. 44.
44      ibid., p. 33.
45      Donald B. Kuspit, ‘Collage: the organising principle of art in the age of the relativity of art’, in Diane Waldman (ed.), Mestres del collage : de Picasso a Rauschenberg (Barcelona : Fundació Joan Miró, 2005), p. 277.
46      Artist’s correspondence with the author (questionnaire, 1 August 2016), following quotes from this source unless nooted.
47      Donald B Kuspit, op. cit., p. 277.
48      Charles Olson, Projective Verse (1950), http://writing.upenn. edu/~taransky/Projective_Verse.pdf (12 August 2016).
49      in John Richardson, op. cit., p. 24.
50     Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘Georges Braque,’ op. cit., p. 45.

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Updated:  25 August 2020/ Responsible Officer:  DHG Director/ Page Contact:  Drill Hall Gallery