2013 – Compositions in Paint: This is the End

45 Downstairs, Flinders Lane, Melbourne

30 July – 10 August 2013

Paul Newcombe went to the Tasmanian School of Art in the 70s – when Performance Art and Process Art were a part of the avant garde. Generated out of a reaction against the commodification of the ART OBJECT – sold in commercial galleries – as some artists felt it restrained their creative freedom, they resorted to using their bodies as a material to explore and express ideas. And if independent objects were produced, it was as a by-product of a bodily “action” – or series of actions – rather than through any aesthetic predetermination.

In Performance Art at the time, artists like Europe’s Viennese Actionists were renowned for their often self-destructive actions, while the American Chris Burden is still widely recognised for being nailed to the roof of a VW ‘beetle’ in the crucifixion position in one of his performances. In Australia, Mike Parr became the most salient protagonist of this artform.

The most infamous of the Process Artists would have to have been Jackson Pollock, who allowed paint to ‘express’ its properties by dripping it off the end of a stick as he moved his body across the canvas. Rather than predetermining the outcome of a work at the beginning it was simply ‘finished’ when he felt it to be so. Robert Macpherson was probably the most recognised protagonist of this artform in Australia.

While the zeitgeist of Newcombe’s art school days – where he began in printmaking and sculpture but ended up painting – informed his future oeuvre, so did dramatic theatre, which he attended much of while ‘growing up’. Not surprisingly, he lead somewhat of a ‘double life’ – working in visual arts and performance theatre – after art school.

In the early 80s, Newcombe moved to Adelaide to work with the seminal performance group The All Out Ensemble. In ’81 he produced a series of abstract artworks using various materials and techniques for his first major exhibition.

When the All Out toured to Melbourne, Newcombe stayed behind to work with avant garde theatre groups like Anthill and Handspan – who unfortunately no longer exist – and La Mama and Chamber Made Opera – who are still running. At the same time he was exhibiting abstract works at galleries like Pinacotheca and Roar Studios.

After a period of then writing, developing and touring his own productions across Australia and overseas with Black Hole Theatre – mostly Puppetry as visual theatre – he started bringing art and performance together. Out of this arose ‘exhibitions’ such as 45cm x 45cm and 100 paintings x 100 hours whence, in a shopfront in Fitzroy, he and others performed the process of painting under the set of parameters, or conditions, that were listed in each exhibition’s title.

What we saw in his most recent solo exhibition – Composition in Paint at Melbourne’s G3 Artspace (27 Mar – 23 April 2013) – was a continuation of projects such as these. While a single large painting was installed on each of the three walls of the gallery, the piece tying it all together was The Fourth Wall; a video projection on a large screen inside the gallery’s all-glass fourth wall that faced the street. This showed Newcombe performing the process of production of his largest painting over a period of about 8 weeks, always wearing the same clothes so it appeared as though it had been painted in one long session (watch it on: www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZ3cwELt4WY*).

The works in this exhibition – Compositions In Paint: This is the End – are from the same series. Without the video we need to imagine their production process, which entails a specific set of parameters: a limited colour palette; the repeated circular movement of Newcombe’s body and brush as he dabs each layer of pigment onto the canvas; and the forms he is painting: circles.

There are several differences between this exhibition and his recent one at G3 Artspace: there are more canvases in a range of scales and they have been installed in linear fashion along the gallery walls. On one side the circles are set on a white ground, and on the other they are almost mirrored but that the circles sit on a multi-coloured ground. Is one side perhaps “more finished” than the other?

In setting his parameters Newcombe’s works have no predetermined end so, like Pollock, he just finishes his canvases when it feels right. But unlike Pollock, Newcombe’s oeuvre entails the setting of new parameters each time he starts a new series of works, so there are elements of rigour and endurance involved in the continued deployment of each set of parameters until he feels an end of the series has been reached. And that is what we are witness to in July – August 2013 at 45 Downstairs: Compositions in Paint: This is the End.

© Kirsten Rann, April 2013