BY Sophie Knezic in Reviews | 16 OCT 20
Featured in
Issue 215

John Nixon Tested the Vitality of Geometric Abstraction

An exhibition at Anna Schwartz Gallery of the late artist, curator and educator suggests that constructivist idioms still pulse with life  

BY Sophie Knezic in Reviews | 16 OCT 20

The title of John Nixon’s solo show at Anna Schwartz Gallery, ‘Groups + Pairs’, connotes the loose clustering of social relations and brings to mind an invitation for a crowd to rearrange itself into smaller, breakout units of social interaction. In choosing it, Nixon underscores the sociality of spatial relations, suggesting that paintings – like people – might assemble into parallel convivial formations. It is the last exhibition mounted by the artist during his lifetime, with his passing in August prompting reflection on his legacy.

Nixon was not only an artist but a curator, musician, gallerist, small-press publisher and educator, who cut a prominent figure in contemporary art in Australia over the last four decades. He co-founded the artist-run space Art Projects in 1979, with Jenny Watson, and was part of an influential coterie of Melbourne artists during the 1980s, including Tony Clark, Mike Parr and Peter Tyndall. In 1978, he coined the phrase Experimental Painting Workshop to refer to his ongoing artistic project of critical investigation into painting practice, pivoting on the open-ended exploration of abstraction, the monochrome and non-objectivity as fertile ground for honing his minimalist aesthetic. Nixon’s DIY ethos of staging exhibitions, his collaborative approach to making art, attraction to everyday materials gleaned from hardware stores and charity shops, and an overall reductivism emerged out of his stint at Art Projects.

John Nixon, Untitled, 2018, various woods, bottle caps and enamel on canvas, 66 x 50 cm. Courtesy: Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne

Nixon rejected the expressionist figuration that dominated 1980s Australian art and throughout his career maintained a fidelity to geometric abstraction and non-objective painting, largely influenced by Russian Constructivism and the rectilinear abstraction of De Stijl. While his early works presented simple motifs with secular adherence – blocky crosses, circles, squares – the progressive exploration of these reductive shapes over decades showed the artist easing into a more playful production of compositional configurations.

‘Groups + Pairs 2016 - 2020’ features 116 paintings and constructions, eight made in collaboration with his assistant Jacqueline Stojanovic. Installed salon-style across expansive walls and two trestle tables, the works resist their fixed placement by forging spatial correspondences, their duplicate angles and shapes bouncing from one to the other. Some pose perceptual tricks like Untitled (triangle) (2015), whose two panels of red and green triangles implicitly ask the viewer to ‘spot the difference’ (there is none). Others, such as Untitled (red and white pair) (2019), flaunt the dissimilarity of their coupling; painted in red and white monochrome, the two canvases are set at jaunty parallel angles, but one is larger than the other, as if dilated through a camera lens.

John Nixon, 'Groups + Pairs 2016 - 2020', 2020, exhibition view. Courtesy: Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne

Untitled (pair) (2019) is a composite work made of various woods, aluminium and enamel. Here, the concept of ‘group’ might refer to the layering of materiality itself. Across all of the works, a shrewd chromatic intelligence abounds: Nixon knew exactly what combinations of colours – aligned from painted surfaces, found objects and exposed wood – would make his compositions resound.

It’s been said that there is nothing experimental about Nixon’s Experimental Painting Workshop, that the artist fixated on modernist paradigms as a kind of performative grieving, or that his employment of a constructivist vernacular was merely rhetorical. This view accords with postmodern assertions that late-20th-century resuscitations of modernist painting constituted an eviscerated, melancholic return.

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John Nixon, 'Groups + Pairs 2016 - 2020', 2020, exhibition view. Courtesy: Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne

But Nixon’s works do not resemble the postures of postmodern morbidity. Rather, they pulse with life and buoyancy, delighting in inversions, doublings and bracing juxtapositions of materials, textures and colour. As a mentor to generations of artists and an enthusiastic advocate for artist-led initiatives and collaborative practices, Nixon embodied a latter-day utopian drive. If the artist immersed himself in the languages of early-20th-century geometric abstraction, it was to test their vitality. He swished the syllables around in his mouth to feel their shapes and speak them anew.

'Groups + Pairs' is on view at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, until 19 December 2020.

Main image: John Nixon, 'Groups + Pairs 2016 - 2020', 2020, exhibition view. Courtesy: Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne

Sophie Knezic is a writer, artist and lecturer based in Melbourne.