Visitors to art museums in Europe and America are accustomed to seeing serious large-scale survey exhibitions of work by important contemporary artists. In Australia it's a different story. State-funded art spaces generally act as agencies for the research and development of contemporary art, whereas art museums usually deal with contemporary art via survey exhibitions or project programmes. None have yet hosted a retrospective of a living Australian artist on this scale.
At the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth (apparently the planet's most geographically isolated city), curator Trevor Smith's survey of the work of Robert MacPherson - which is travelling to Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art later this year - was serious and compelling, revealing the subtlety and significance of the 64-year-old artist. It is impossible to do justice to MacPherson's work here, and indeed the exhibition itself was staggering in its breadth. It occupied the entire ground-floor galleries, and bled into the contemporary collection upstairs.
MacPherson's earliest pieces dealt directly with the physical relationship between a person and the work of art. The dimensions of his 'Scale From The Tool' paintings (1976-77) relate directly to the space required by a commercial paintbrush to apply paint in a single gesture. Importantly, MacPherson used tools and materials more common to tradespeople than artists - the politics and humanism of his work were present from the start. His best known works are his massive installations which include serialised standard-sized sheets of Masonite painted with commercial paint. Chitters: A Wheelbarrow for Richard, 156 Paintings, 156 Signs, (1999-2000), for example, comprises 156 panels which are installed in three rows around the gallery wall, to create an all-enveloping landscape.
MacPherson's work is not representational in a conventional sense. Chitters ... consists of panels which are, in a sense, facsimiles of the hand-painted signs propped at the side of the road which advertise local products in the sub-tropical environment of Queensland on Australia's north-east coast. This mighty installation effectively describes the landscape by suggestion, but it's still powerful. The panels include the words 'plantation bark', 'sand', 'pebbles all sizes', 'palms cleaned and removed', 'ponds', 'mossy bush rocks'; the wording soft-returned to fit the dimensions of the Masonite sheets. MacPherson also 'recreates' roadside advertisements for roast chickens, bananas, fishing bait, strawberries and avocados. These works draw upon the drive-past narrative accumulation that is instantly recognizable to visitors and residents of regional Australia. Commentators on the artist's work have emphasized his concern with specific languages - he has made works, for example, that refer to the language codes employed by indigenous Australians and cattle drovers, and made drawings attempting to 'channel' the imagination of a young country boy intent on visually describing particular types of clouds, cars and lesser-known figures in local history.
MacPherson's work is highly coded, revealing and exploring the constructions of myriad languages such as weather-flags and fauna classification systems as much as local terms for food. However the serial nature of his work refers less to mass reproducibility than to the fact, for instance, that there are 500 species of tree frogs in the world (signalled by MacPherson as 500 boats folded from newspaper).
One of MacPherson's central concerns is environmentalism. The unique nature of the continent of Australia is palpable and the materials he employs are sensual, but not romantic in an Arte Povera sense. His sets of flags, bird-houses, road-signs, paint-charts, socks, blankets, tablecloths and beehive-boxes conjure a systematic description of the world that is entirely legible and evocative of nature, which works because it is filtered through his concern with vernacular languages and conceptual systems.