23 Apr - 18 May 2008


GORDON BENNETT  |  Exhibition Text

By Ian McLean, 2008

Gordon Bennett always tells a good story, and a major attraction of his work is its narrative structure. Not any more. His recent abstract paintings forsake the discursive qualities upon which he built a very successful career. Bennett has a history of abandoning successful modes for new ones, but nothing in his oeuvre matches the audaciousness of this turn. Be it radical, risky or simply foolish, what other artist in his position would (or could) make such a wild move? 

Bennett’s previous work may have shown an intense interest in abstract art (particularly the art of Pollock, Malevich and Mondrian) but it was always discursively referenced in elaborate postcolonial allegories that were implicitly cynical of abstract art’s esoteric claims. However his recent paintings, which primarily quote the early work of the American minimalist Frank Stella, have no obvious narrative, postcolonial deconstruction, or even parody. Instead he seemingly pays homage to Stella and, ipso facto, the creed of abstraction. In the context of his earlier work, it is not at all obvious what Bennett is doing or intending. 

By his own admission Bennett had exhausted his previous Basquiat theme, and was also exhausted by the intensity of his discursive mode. Hence I initially expected the abstract work to be a temporary therapeutic hiatus before some new onslaught. However this has proved to not be the case. Bennett has tackled this new direction in his art with his usual diligence and perseverance. He has been making abstract paintings for fi ve years (as long as the Notes to Basquiat series). 

In one sense all art is abstract, and Bennett’s graphic dexterity (evident since he was a student) reveals his understanding of this. However the abstract series have developed into a real commitment to the purely aesthetic pleasures of art, as well as to that 1960s dictum that less is more. Bennett reduces the graphic and compositional complexities of his previous work to relatively simple arrangements of form and colour. This is not familiar territory for Bennett. Despite his previous works being in a fundamental sense about various lacks, their narrative content was invariably in excess. 

However the abstract works do not seem to me to be about returning to a more simple way of doing things or of getting back to some core or essential truth. Bennett’s use of Stella’s art as a starting point signals this, for Stella jettisoned the metaphysical pursuits of the previous generation (such as Pollock and Rothko) for a more upfront phenomenological world—which is why minimalism developed into an art of surface appearances rather than invisible and unfathomable emotion, concealed meaning or spiritual longing. But nor does Bennett exactly follow this minimalist credo of ‘what you see is what you get’. The metallic gold and copper underpainting and the quivering way the stripes hold onto the surface (upon which, to me, depends the success of these works) suggest a haunting, a ghostly edgy presence—though it is not a presence that Bennett articulates or names (or un-names) as he did in his earlier work. 

If the abstract paintings can be said to be about anything, it is Bennett’s faith in the power of art. Or more pointedly, he might be testing this faith at a time when there seems little evidence to believe in art anymore. Is Bennett then searching for that purported originary power of the raw aesthetic moment Kant described and analysed? At a recent address at Mumbai, Thierry de Duve proposed the new relevance (in the emerging glocalised world) of Kant’s argument that the aesthetic faculty bridges the singularity and differences of individual feelings. i For all the apparent pessimism and resentment of Bennett’s earlier art, its very address or appeal to our (universal) humanity (‘you ought to feel the way I feel’) was imagined in Kantian terms as a platform upon which a sensus communis might productively work with these differences. Now, in the abstract works, this essentially Kantian dream is more patently laid bare, or perhaps more accurately, tested. 

The fi rst time this Kantian (or de Duvian) moment occurred in a very real sense in Australia was in the 1970s when Aboriginal artists based at Papunya made a deliberate appeal to the outside world through a purposeful erasure of their familiar iconography, laying bare an aesthetic rawness and intensity rarely seen in Australia or elsewhere. Interestingly—and perhaps this is one reason why Bennett turns to Stella—the Australian artworld interpreted Papunya paintings through the tropes of minimalism. But if in their evacuation of meaning American minimalists like Stella made artworks in which there was nothing left to reveal (‘no secrets worth keeping’), the evacuations of the Papunya minimalists were acts of concealment or even deliberate repression that increased the haunting presence of what had been erased. 

If the haunting quality of Bennett’s abstract paintings follows the example of Papunya rather than Stella’s minimalism, Stella is patently on Bennett’s mind. He quotes Stella’s work with the same direct and brash appropriation-like manner of his earlier art. Perhaps, then, Bennett’s doppelgangers of Stella’s work, like the Japanese artist Ushio Shinohara’s 1964 imitation of Rauschenberg’s Coca Cola Plan, are attempts to imagine modernism and its legacy beyond the confi nes of an exclusive Western system. 

It might be that Bennett’s project since he graduated from art school nearly twenty years ago was less a concerted debate with Australian history and its absent Aboriginal voices and more a searching for a way out of the historicism and Eurocentrism of the whole twentieth-century modernist project and its postmodernist endgames. This, at least, explains the constant shifts in mode and motif in Bennett’s work. He shows no loyalty to any particular aesthetic genealogy, as for example Juan Davila does to surrealism and Imants Tillers does to post-conceptual appropriation. This restless cosmopolitanism (of Bennett) is symptomatic of contemporary art since its globalisation in the 1990s, and signals the necessity to re-think the restricted Eurocentric commitments of twentieth-century Western art (including its primitivisms), be they modernist or postmodernist. 

Ian McLean, 2008

[i] Thierry de Duve, ‘The Glocal and the Singuniversal Refl ections on Art and Culture in the Global World’, Third Text, 21, 6, 2007, pp. 681-688.