In its ostensible connection to the legacies of European and American abstract art, Australian artist John Nixon’s work could be labelled as somewhat conservative. To be sure, the question of how it links to what has preceded it has been one of the most often discussed features of Nixon’s practice in a career that spans more than four decades. However, while it is true that any consideration of either his oeuvre or this exhibition in particular must surely perform an obligatory iconographic trawl through several pivotal moments of 20th-century abstraction – most obviously Russian avant-garde art from the 1910s and ’20s, and 1960s American Minimalism – Nixon’s project is not merely retrogressive: rather, it seeks to further develop and advance certain tendencies spawned by these Modernisms.
Via their formal arrangement and nomination as art, the 36 works included in ‘EPW: SILVER’ – variously consisting of industrial chipboard, hessian, canvas, enamel paint and sand – assert their status as non-representative, physical objects. In this exhibition, as with most of Nixon’s work, the drive towards autonomous form was paired with a serialism that, although a morphological descendant of Minimalist art, eschews the latter’s industrial sheen for a primitive, handmade finish (somewhat reminiscent of Malevich’s work, which although comprised of highly resolved formal qualities, manifests a roughness on closer inspection).
Connected to this is the administrative-archival dimension of Nixon’s practice, through which he both organizes his prolific output and frames it in terms of cumulative visual research. This is manifest in the occasional production of indexes, compilations and catalogue raisonnés, and, more prominently, in the ongoing ‘Experimental Painting Workshop’ (EPW), of which this exhibition is the latest instalment. A project founded by Nixon in the late 1970s, ‘EPW’ serves as the official title for a range of formalist inquiries organized into various subdivisions (the most prolific of which is ‘EPW: POLYCHROME’) that constitute the central trajectory of the artist’s work.
In ‘EPW: SILVER’, further evidence of the methodical nature of Nixon’s practice was conveyed through the uniform titling of works (‘SILVER MONOCHROME’) (2008–11), and their hanging (with two exceptions) in an evenly spaced chain around the four gallery walls. A handful of ‘themes’ could be discerned, with groups of works functioning as variations on each. In one theme, for example, canvases coated in silver enamel are fastened together so as to protrude outwards from the wall and slice into the viewing space; in another, white and silver panels are stacked flat against the wall, diagonally rotated or tilted at different angles. However, as though deliberately guarding against an interpretation that overstates their position within a series, works of all themes were shuffled together across the gallery walls.
Nixon’s project is interesting for so clearly preserving its enabling antimony: it is both an experiment in contemporary art’s capacity to monumentalize its recent past (a reading founded on the assertion of a rupture between the moment in which the artist is working and the past Modernisms revived in his work), but equally, in the case of ‘EPW Silver’, as a sustained investigation into and expansion of the definition of silver monochrome painting (a reading that asserts a continuity between Nixon’s practice andthe modernisms from which it adopts its inclination towards an elucidation of painting’s essential qualities). In the meantime, Nixon is no doubt puzzling in the studio, where minor revolutions (and the reactions they inspire) take place every hour, and he – well, he continues to produce one thing after another.