Matt Henry's exhibition 'From the series 16:9' opens today at Sydney Non Objective. The works in the show were produced during a three-month residency at SNO in 2011.
Phillips, Bruce E. (2012, Feb 1). Painting Obsolescence [exhibition text]
The desire of innovation and consumerism is an insatiable drive that finds its justification in both market trends and the hunger for technological advancement. Our consumption of products is sold to us through the promise of attaining symbolic cultural status, inclusion or enriched lifestyle. Yet the acquisition of such intangible outcomes are always fleeting, for every season or year we witness a new product or fashion that redefines these socio-cultural codes. In this system the new and refined are celebrated and the old and redundant are shunned. This is no more apparent than in the recent developments in television design. In its present incarnation the flat screen television presents a veritable intersection between art and design and the language of minimalist painting. Hanging on a wall with the monochromatic sublime of an Ad Reinhardt and the gleam of a Donald Judd, there is no question that the minimalism of the 1960s onwards has influenced the design of these objects. However, rather than attempting to attain a refined gestalt or some sort of ideal Platonic form, the drive for this design aesthetic is to be an adornment of sophistication and technological innovation.
By re-absorbing modernist and minimalist influences from mass-produced products, Matt Henry participates in complex systems of cultural and commercial value. In this process, a distinction is made between that which is appropriated for symbolic value and that which is designed with understanding. This distinction recognises the hand-in-hand role that artists and designers have had in the development of modernism and minimalism, but also considers the shift in ideological significance due to mass production. Modernist and minimalist influences found in consumer products, more often than not, are used as a veneer in which symbolic cultural capital is invested rather than formal enquiry.
It is in this conflict of aesthetic motivation, between minimalist art and industrial design, that Henry's practice intercedes. Taking interest in various forms, from humble architectural fixtures and domestic appliance design, Henry creates hyper-real abstract paintings. His chosen forms which range from ovens, hi-fi systems, fire alarms and circuit board casing, are critically considered for their reductive integrity.
Henry transforms these familiar objects into the ideological 'purity' of hard-edge modernist abstraction using only the materials conventionally associated with painting. These paintings are not only to be regarded as autonomous objects. They also engage with space in a similar way to early minimalism. Through considered placement, Henry groups paintings to act in site-specific capacities by intervening into the given architectonic logic of a space, often exposing inherent imperfections or idiosyncrasies of the space.
The inquiry into the tainted ideologies of modernism and minimalism is now well familiar, due to the parody by post-minimalist artists of the late 1990s such as Damien Hirst and Tom Friedman. In comparison, Henry's approach is more akin to those artists whose enquiries came to see the obvious sympathy between artistic ideology and the commercial. Key influences include New Zealand artists such as Billy Apple and Julian Dashper, whose practices added greatly to the commercial and institutional impact on painting. More closely aligned to Henry in generation and approach is the work of Francis Baudevin, whose paintings 'faithfully replicate [at large-scale] abstract geometric motifs culled from industrial packaging,' primarily pharmaceutical goods.1 Akin to Baudevin's approach, Henry's work investigates the conversion of aesthetic value as it undergoes semiotic translation between art, design and consumerism. This position is empathetic 'towards the cultural product of modernity' and neutralises any attempt at idealistic mystery behind the abstract.2
The 16:9 series encapsulates many of these nuances. Since 2008, Henry has expanded the series to investigate the ability to create believable mimesis as well as unpacking the design and engineering logic of these desired consumer products. In these works great investigation into limited materials has taken place. Custom machined frame mouldings, bulletproof glass, methods of mounting canvas stretchers and various hues and pigments have been experimented with to achieve the illusion of depth and sharp geometry that are synonymous with industrial manufacturing. These investigations have revealed interesting anomalies of the technology and the material conventions of painting. Of this, the development and invention of different picture aspect ratios used in the film and television industry deserve mention. In abstract form Henry draws attention to the visual impact of these arbitrary formats within the frame of a television's native ratio. The black banding or cropping that occurs on real televisions is highlighted in crisp contrast between incandescent yellows or greens and carefully chosen dark grey. A wry gesture that associates the compositional restraint of colour and shape in the history of abstract painting and a brash technological foible that most would overlook.
Most importantly the 16:9 series, considered in its entirety, explores the notion of obsolescence both in terms of redundancy but also progress and desire. Indeed, the trend for flat screen televisions is a textbook example of consumerism. The 16:9 series charts this insatiable consumerist drive through the development of the flat screen television - from the bulky plasma monitor and home theatre system to the latest slim-line LED screen. However, as an artistic enquiry it is intentionally problematic, as it is only as relevant as Henry's ability to convincingly replicate and riff off the new technological advancements within the convention of painting. In this pursuit the artist will always be painting in the shadow of obsolescence determined by market trends and the unsustainable desire for the new.
Bruce E. Phillips
1 Stroun, Fabrice. "Francis Baudevin." Frieze Magazine. Issue 75, May 2003.
2 Nickas, Bob. Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting abstraction, p184. New York: Phaidon Press Ltd, 2009.