Frieze, no. 36, September–October 1997. Review, John Nixon, EP + OW (Experimental Painting + Object Workshop), City Gallery Wellington, 1997.
The art world is rife with stories. Artists, dealers, critics, curators, and education officers routinely spread rumours, disinformation, contagious mythologies; they lay false trails. Often the stories gain such currency that it seems as if there might be an unconscious conspiracy to which the whole scene is party. Sometimes they are essential to the artists’ projects: they provide fictions for the works to dissolve in—the works simply couldn’t function without them.
Australian artist John Nixon has perfected a cover story for his work. For something like twenty years he has reprised a small group of classic modernist strategies and motifs: minimalism, the monochrome, constructivism, non-objective art, and the readymade are key reference points. According to the artist, the work is not parody—irony has nothing to do with it. In fact, Nixon and his champions contend that his project advertises the ongoing viability and relevance of the utopian aesthetic and the political and social programme of early modernism. Cultivating the manner of an itinerant evangelist, Nixon travels from gallery to gallery spreading the good word of abstraction; he sets an example for others to follow. His work is like a pledge of faith, repeated daily.
For EP+OW (Experimental Painting + Object Workshop), Nixon installed a selection of works from the last ten years. One wall was painted flat red. Simple geometric abstracts, cross paintings, monochromes, and constructions were hung on walls or rested on plain trestle tables. There were everyday objects: big steel cooking pots, an old-fashioned bicycle, and an aluminium ladder were placed on tables, while hand tools were incorporated into paintings as collage elements. Nothing was overworked. The found objects and paintings alike were stylish in their lack of gratuitous design features: the paintings evidenced no virtuosity, no flourishes. And yet the whole effect of the exhibition was so rarefied.
With its productivist aesthetic, the installation might seem to argue the equivalence of artworks and everyday things, and the dignity of the honest toil that goes into manufacturing both. However, this argument, routinely reiterated in the literature, does not explain the overwhelming preciousness of Nixon’s installations. These shows may not be about expense or craft, but they are all about taste—a highly tuned and fetishised aesthetic, a mastery of the rhetoric of installation. Nixon picks this red, the perfect nails, the right pot. As much as he plays the humble worker, he is an aristocrat in such matters. There is nothing vulgar, low, or transgressive; nothing is out of place. In this, Nixon exemplifies a type of dandyism.
Many dandies of the nineteenth century were not flamboyant, in fact they often wore ordinary clothes, but ‘just so’, with maximum attention to detail. They preached an ethos of subtle restraint that raised dress and deportment to the status of moral imperatives, conflating art and life. For Beau Brummell, a man was only well dressed if he could walk down the street without attracting attention. Similarly, Nixon’s arch-modernist exhibitions are not flashy, but sedate, prosaic, familiar, restrained, apparently effortless. It never looks as though he is trying too hard or seeking to be fashionable. Instead he compels us with his enduring, personal code of style: consistency. While nineteenth-century dandies perfected the use of black mourning dress as a chic uniform for every day, Nixon is similarly caught in a protracted and stylish performance of grieving. He’s fixated. A melancholic. Nixon denies the passing of the historical avantgarde by lingering on it, by making it his life’s work. As an aesthete, he courts beauty under the alibi of the politically and aesthetically radical, taking pleasure in stasis in the name of progress.
Nixon sponsors an argument for his work that is essentially at odds with it. Rather than stretching the envelope, Nixon reruns a set of early modernist strategies not as bones of contention, but as truisms, dogma—the dead letter of early modernism. Always simply a further variation on the same idea, each new Nixon exhibition serves to underline that which is common to them all: there is nothing experimental in the ‘Experimental Painting Workshop’.
Nixon is a devoted taxidermist. A kind of art-world Norman Bates, he appears to believe he is preserving life while we are enthralled instead by the artifice, with how lifelike it all seems. Perhaps he has fallen for his own story.