Marlee McMahon’s abstract paintings are deceptively complex in both construction and execution. Her work appears nostalgic, but perhaps for a time or a place that never existed or has yet to come into being. Contemporary culture is saturated in nostalgia, to the extent that it has become one of the dominant modes in popular culture and discourse. McMahon’s work interrogates this impulse, presenting visually lush, complex abstracts that at first glance recall 1980s décor or graphic design, but whose compositions contain notes that subtly undermine the easy confidence that such a label might imply. Rather than bright, reflective surfaces, these are deeply considered, thoughtful meditations; the evocatively named Pillow Chocolate at first emanates a sense of cosy domesticity with its rich reds and browns, but on closer inspection becomes something stranger and, perhaps, less reassuring. McMahon’s use of jagged zigzag motifs to encircle the central forms performs an elegant play with notions of framing, but also recalls teeth or sawblades, suggesting a rather less domestic type of containment. The “chocolate” brown squares in the centre of the image are placed as though falling like Tetris pieces—another retro staple—but what is the viewer to make of the dark void that occupies the upper half of the picture plane? It is an unknowable presence, an outside-ness that refuses to be contained or explored.
Kim Pieters’ fiction of a hill is an expansive work executed over four large panels of salvaged hardboard. The title is drawn from a poem by Sally Ann McIntyre, in which she writes of seeking “ to walk horizontally along the edge of a / word, blinded by sun, / to forget what was seen, and what there is, and beneath real heel, to tread the / fiction of a hill:” Pieters’ works often function in just this way, negotiating the terrain of language, functioning as both exegete and topographer, navigating a path between seeing and reading, painting and writing. In this work, Pieters deploys an encompassing field of mossy green paint, streaked with brown, creating a “hill” that is more ethereal than earthy; a kind of “floating world” in which a few tangled linear figures seem almost lost, cast adrift between the actual and the imagined. Much like Pieters’ other hardboard works, fiction of a hill also invokes the terrain vague, the abandoned zones that lie in the interstices of the city. Much like Hill and McMahon, Pieters interrogates assumptions about safe, easy narratives; while it might support our weight, her fictional hill is bathed in a light that conceals more than it illuminates.
The 1970s works by Carl Sydow included in this exhibition serves as an interesting counterpoint to the contemporary abstract works on display. Sydow, much closer to the source of the modernist movement from his twentieth century vantage-point, produces optimistic works that function as blueprints for an imagined, clean-lined future. Collectively, the works in this show demonstrate a range of approaches to the problem of translating structures of thought into the methodology of abstraction. By turns serene, menacing, dreamlike and confident, these artists prove that there is still territory to cover in abstract painting.