In his new solo exhibition at illegallery, S.W.Austin’s paintings read as iconic testaments to the idea of metamorphosis and transmutation: they exude a self-reflexive sense of time, a sense of being that is articulated by the processes and histories of their becoming. They speak of a journey that could have had multiple paths yet in the hands of the artist, arrival achieves a singular image or sequence that holds its constituents in a gripping formal and material tension, with each painting like an enigmatic and beautiful past and present, that appears as a perfect resolution of its particular journey.
If all art making can be seen as a metaphor for alchemy, Austin’s work raises the stakes. His materials are modest and everyday: they include paint, wood, wire, cable, metal, nails, usually “found” materials that, if we follow the metaphor, have previously lived a life as something else and are here repurposed to truly create significant art or “gold” from the “base” of common materials. So what could we see as this “gold”? In Austin’s work, there is no reliance upon any quasi-mystical sense of alchemic transformation: the materials he uses remain firm in their materiality, with no conceit of transubstantiation or symbolic import. The nature of his work is that the manipulation of his resources remains in the world and in doing so it achieves a language of powerful poetic presence.
Austin’s methods, include, addition, accumulation, assemblage, removal, cutting out, gouging, scoring, as well as mark making with paint (both “house” and “artists” paint) and more traditional drawing implements. In each painting all the elements are orchestrated into shifting acretions, pockets of detail often set against a flat painted or paint -removed wood or masonite surface.
Some of these works contain very little actual paint, so the question can arise: are these works, “Paintings”, or are they more akin to painted, wall-hung sculptures or assemblages? The answer to this is that yes, they are very much “Paintings”. They reflect a lineage in advanced western painting that was inaugurated with Picasso and Braque’s cubist and papier collé works, where form was deconstructed and found materials and elements, previously alien to serious painting, were introduced. If Picasso and Braque’s Synthetic Cubism marked the forging of a new art language, the opening up of art that their discoveries initiated throughout the century took on many forms that were often used to very different ends.
European art in particular showed a tendency to impute allusive meaning in such materials, beyond their materiality. Antoni Tapies in Painting and Joseph Beuys or Mario Mertz in sculpture spring to mind in this regard. To varying degrees, a sense of the metaphysical, of symbolic and metaphorical intent permeates such work. Allusions to alchemy have particularly been part of the critical discourse around Tapies.
Tapies is an artist admired by S.W.Austin for the material qualities of his work. As a Canadian artist however, Austin occupies a more North American sensibility, akin to Rauschenberg or early Johns, in their eschewal of the metaphysical. Rauchenberg’s desire to, “find the gap between art and life”, is echoed in Austin’s work, where the use of found materials in his art, re-contextualizes them. As Rauchenberg said in reference to his own work, ” the object itself was changed by its context and therefore it became a new thing”. Of course Rauchenberg’s use of found images extended to silkscreened photographs and together with Johns’ use of popular iconography, the early work of these two artists is typically regarded as a precursor to Pop Art.
Pop art, however, in terms of reference to popular imagery, is the antithesis of Austin’s work. The title of this exhibition is “New and Improved Materialism” and it is an ironic yet apt comment on Pop Art, which, in many of its incarnations, has had an ambiguous relationship with consumer society. The found materials in Austin’s work are very much the ancillary, everyday or mundane physical elements of our contemporary world; there is no found or appropriated imagery, there is no hint of the glossy pop fetishization of the new, no hint of gleaming retail desire. Instead there is a raw and often rugged quality to these works that testifies paradoxically both to an immediacy in their making and a long gestating thought process.
Colour is often subdued or pre-existing in Austin’s found elements, with whites, greys, and black dominating any applied colour. WolfHaus, a magisterial triptych is the largest piece in the show at 12 feet wide. It is a remarkable work, incorporating as it does, an earlier painting also titled Wolfhaus. In a largely paint-scraped surface of diverse materials including reversed canvas stretchers, the totality of paint is small. It has the look of a ravaged and complex, multi-layered wall with a totemic power that subliminally summons up Louise Nevelson.
In his “Window” painting series, Austin brings together elements that reconfigure his strategies of transformation. Rather than accumulations of reclaimed materials coalescing into compositions across a surface, the re-used elements are actual windows, reclaimed from his century home when he replaced all the windows. Consequently the window pieces vary in size and proportion and the shape of each work is determined by the window as “found object”. Paint is applied on the reverse of the glass giving a reflective outer glass surface in stark contrast to the rawness of the paint and the found textures on the window frames. Throughout his work, Austin’s paint formations and his drawn mark making are non referential if sometimes cryptic. Here in the “Window” paintings, there is a play of paintwork that forms a dialogue between the polarities of “seeing through” the “window” and blocking the view through, thereby holding different readings in enigmatic tension.
Austin’s work represents an ongoing reconfiguration of the idea of Painting as an exploration of material and conceptual possibility. On the evidence of this exhibition, he continues to push boundaries and fruitfully explore parameters of what a “Painting” can be. His paintings are essentially constructed. Decisions on form, material, composition, colour and concept are made throughout their development. Yet these are not formalist works. Rather, through visual and material language, they investigate how painting can constantly stretch its physical, historical, expressive and theoretical constituents and in the end, how Painting can interpret the world.
Geoffrey Nawn 2018
Copyright Geoffrey Nawn. All rights reserved