Midwest, no. 1, 1992.
As an exhibition title, Julian Dashper’s Greatest Hits suggests the ‘essential’ Dashper, a curated retrospective of his very best. And yet, Dashper’s exhibition confounded this expectation.1 Those who came expecting to see great hits were forced to confront this and other assumptions.
Greatest Hits was a sampler containing four mini-exhibitions. These were described in the introductory wall text as: ‘Cover Version: A presentation of Dashper’s recent project in the magazines Art New Zealand and Artforum International. The Drivers: This site-specific installation considers aspects of the Gallery’s history. Water Color: New Zealand’s smallest touring exhibition. Surveyor: A Dashper retrospective exhibition including two works by other artists.’
The wall text also explained that Dashper had assembled the show to ‘demonstrate the range of his techniques’, to ‘explain his versatility’. If, in the end, many were still left in the dark over such questions, it was all part of the artist’s strategy. What the project did clarify was Dashper’s fascination with side issues and supplementary devices. Greatest Hits continued Dashper’s project of deconstructing the art system, particularly its reliance on a notion of the autonomous art object. The show also confirmed Dashper’s concurrent desire to rewrite art history, advancing himself as a key player. If these aims seem somewhat incompatible, they are. Dashper seeks to deconstruct ‘the system’ and participate in it at the same time. It is this very tension that animates and distinguishes his work.
Julian Dashper’s exhibition in the advertising sections of Art New Zealand and Artforum International came in three instalments.
The first was in the Summer 1991–2 issue of Art New Zealand (no. 61). The two-page spread was an announcement, warning readers of an upcoming Dashper exhibition in the pages of Artforum. The second instalment was in the January 1992 Artforum. Dashper’s page imitated an Artforum cover, reworking the masthead so that, instead of reading ‘ARTFORUM INTERNATIONAL’, it read ‘ARTFROM JULIAN DASHPER NEW ZEALAND’. His cover also featured a detail of one of his slide-sheet works.
Artforum prides itself on its internationalism. In the early 1980s, the word ‘international’ begun to appear under its masthead. In 1985, that word assumed the status of a subtitle. Artforum is international, but on its own terms. Its internationalism takes in the periphery, but from its central position. It remains a New York art magazine. It may report on the margins, but it does so for its own reasons. It doesn’t open itself up to other perspectives.
By proposing a New Zealand supplement to Artforum, Dashper challenged Artforum‘s claims to international status. If Artforum needs a New Zealand supplement, it cannot be truly international. In making New Zealand a supplement to an ‘international’ which already claims to incorporate it, Dashper shows up Artforum‘s internationalism as a peculiar instance of a generalised provincialism.
Dashper’s choice to illustrate one of his slide-sheet works was also pointed. These works present slides of works as works in their own right, inverting the assumed relationship between the original and its reproduction. They suggest that the original exists only to be copied and circulated, that its real life is as slides. More important, the slide sheets comment on how distance has distorted our understanding of international art. In New Zealand, we have seldom been exposed to international art in the flesh. Invariably, we have had to enjoy it through reproductions in magazines like Artforum or as slides projected in lecture theatres. Dashper has written that international artworks ‘were held up to us as examples in slides. Now it seems obvious to me to start sending it back that way.’2 His Artfrom cover does just that, re-presenting, now at third hand, one of Dashper’s generic modern stripe paintings, itself (at least) secondhand, being modeled on images in books or slides. To the readers of Artforum, Dashper presents his New Zealand art as a simulation of someone else’s greatest hit, a veritable cover version.
The final instalment of Cover Version appeared in the February 1992 issue of Artforum. Recalling an Artforum review page, Dashper’s page offered a ‘review’ of Dashper’s intervention in the previous issue. In fact ,the review read more like a press release, clarifying Dashper’s interests rather than critiquing or analysing his work. The anonymous text was penned by Jim Barr and Mary Barr, elsewhere listed as the curators of the project.
Cover Version might seem irregular. Not only does Dashper pay for his own project to appear in Artforum, he also supplies a positive review, with the curators reviewing their own show. Artforum were not keen on running the ‘review’. They have an unwritten rule: they do not allow advertising that imitates editorial content. They can’t have it looking like artists or their dealers can pay for reviews. Artforum is understandably anxious to preserve the image of its independence, the idea that it cannot be bought. Dashper’s piece, however, points to the standard pay-off between buying advertising and getting critical coverage. Indeed, one might argue that art magazines, like most other kinds of magazine, exist less to get critical writing to their audience than to deliver its audience to its advertisers, making advertising the essence of the magazine and critical writing its mere supplement.
Cover Version complicates the question of what is inside and outside the work. All three instalments are part of the project, though one claims to advertise the project and another to review it. Dashper suggests that supposedly supplementary devices like advertisements and reviews are actually essential to the work and the way it functions. They are part of the project.
Julian Dashper’s work often considers the canon of New Zealand art history. But rather than address the artistic achievements of our great artists, Dashper prefers to dwell on the mythologies that surround them.
Artist Don Driver was employed by the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery from its opening in 1970. He worked as registrar, acting director, exhibitions technician, and, more recently, as an exhibition presenter. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Driver used the basement storage area as a studio after hours. Marti Friedlander’s famous photos of him in her 1980 book Contemporary New Zealand Painters A-M firmly place him in the basement with his work. The accompanying text by Jim and Mary Barr refers to Driver’s double life at the Gallery. Dashper’s installation The Drivers similarly comes in two parts.
For the first part, Dashper removed a gallery wall and replaced it with a giant pane of glass, revealing the usually hidden basement storage area. This carefully arranged ‘behind the scenes’ view took in a number of pieces by Don Driver, some from the Gallery’s permanent collection, others brought in specially. Two of these works had appeared prominently in Friedlander’s photos, the Gallery’s own Flyaway (1968) and Red Lady (c. 1968) from a local private collection.
Dashper also moved other works in the basement. He moved paintings by Colin McCahon, Don Binney, and Gordon Walters to more visible positions on the racks. But he also gave peculiar prominence to non-canonical works, such as Robin Swanney-McPherson’s papier-mache sculpture Fruit Tree Beauty (n.d.). Perhaps, in doing so, he was trying to suggest the artificial, constructed nature of the canon.
Dashper’s alteration resembled those glazed-in rooms found in historic houses. One had the sense of looking into the past, or some reconstruction of it. In this context, figurative works like Driver’s Red Lady and Greer Twiss’s Red Legs (1969) recalled the mannequins used in such displays. The installation was lit at the press of a button, for a minute at a time. One could not tell whether the lighting was of limited duration out of a conservator’s desire to preserve priceless masterpieces or whether Dashper thought a minute’s contemplation was all that was required.
Nearby, two copies of Contemporary Painters were opened to reveal Friedlander’s photos and a relevant passage from Jim and Mary Barr’s text. The second part of The Drivers was a stylish 1970s drum kit, all black and chrome, set up, ready to roll. The words ‘The Drivers’ were written on the outer skin of the bass drum, like the name of a band. The lettering was in a garish typeface, perhaps of the period, now seldom used.
The drummer’s job is to keep time for the rest of the band; the drums are seldom played solo. Thus, deserted, lonely, and silent, Dashper’s drum kit became vaguely melancholic. The drum kit is a bit of a museum piece, a dinosaur now superseded by the drum machine. Similarly, we find Don Driver’s works not on display but stashed away, while Dashper’s own work features in the gallery. Dashper’s piece is double-edged. Dashper may acknowledge Driver’s place in history, but he also consigns him to history. The Drivers‘ subject is obsolescence, the downside of fashion. It links the art and pop-music industries—both are fickle, obsessed with novelty.
In the lectures he gave as part of the proceedings, Dashper proffered a unique interpretation of The Drivers. For instance, he noted that drummers also play with brushes and that forty-gallon drums often feature in Driver’s works. He argued that the artist lays down a rhythm track for the rest of the culture. He spoke of the portable nature of the drums and of his art, the idea of touring art like touring a band, the exhibition as a gig. Dashper also mentioned an earlier installation of his, in which the word ‘DRIVE’ was written large and solitary, in that same typeface. On that occasion, he was careful to clarify, the word had nothing to do with Don Driver and everything to do with McCahon’s careerism. Dashper also made a lot of the provenance of the drum kit. The kit belongs to professional drummer Bruce King, who played it on early New Zealand TV pop-music shows like Happen Inn and C’Mon? These shows screened during Dashper’s formative years, the same time that Don Driver was making a name for himself.3
Dashper’s public readings of The Drivers were strangely at odds with the work itself, its haunting melancholy, its resistance to interpretation. The origins of the drum kit seemed singularly irrelevant to the way it functioned in the work. In his talks, Dashper treated the installation not as something to be explained, unpackaged, analysed, but as a prop, something to weave new mythologies around. Dashper’s lecture routine was a supplementary device, one that took over where the work left off, and made something new of it.
Water Color is a touring exhibition. It had been shown at Auckland’s Artspace before becoming one of Dashper’s Greatest Hits, and the artist has plans to send it to many more venues. To this end, he has had the assistance of Exhibitour MDF, New Zealand’s exhibition-touring agency, who have offered it to their members at a modest fee.
Water Color is a small show. It may be the smallest touring exhibition ever. It consists of a small watercolour, a label, and a catalogue. Dashper cuts the exhibition down to its bare bones, its essence. But in doing so, he also caricatures it. He grants its supplementary devices—the label and the catalogue—an unprecedented prominence. Thus, he forces us to think through the relation between the label and the work, the catalogue and the work, the label and the catalogue—that logic. Rather than the work itself being the main event, the play between the work and its supports takes centre stage.
In Greatest Hits, the work and label were hung far apart, so you couldn’t read the label and see the work at the same time. The work was evenly lit, but the label was spotlit. Instead of being simple and straightforward, Dashper made sure the label contained typographic and other innovations. He made it deliberately confusing, getting all the conventions wrong, forcing us to confront our expectations about how the label is supposed to work. For instance, the label lists the title of the work as ‘Water Colour’ (American spelling) but records the medium as ‘watercolour on paper with frame’ (English spelling). Several lines below, the real title is categorised as an inscription: ‘K Mart, Dundas, Sydney, 1987’. The label contains an exhibition history (a list of the public exhibitions in which the work has appeared) wrongly defined as a provenance (a list of those who have owned the work). The credit line—‘Courtesy Sue Crockford Gallery, New Zealand’—suggests that the work has never been owned.
Neither exhibition histories nor provenances appear on museum labels. They do, however, appear in listings in auction catalogues and the like. Provenances and exhibition histories add value to works. They are like pedigrees. Museums don’t make a thing of them, presumably to dissociate themselves from the art market and its commercial considerations. Dashper, however, conflates the museum with the dealer gallery, acknowledging the museum’s role in the legitimisation of art as a commodity.4
Intriguingly, it is also easy to confuse the inscription/title with the provenance. That the work might have done time at K Mart suggests that it’s not classy at all. Alternatively, Dashper may be suggesting that it is not the quality of the pedigree but having one at all that counts.
The Water Color catalogue is another matter. It features a heavily leaded essay by critic Francis Pound on a particular convention used in museum labels. Pound reminds us that the artist’s vital dates are often listed as their year of birth followed by a dash. The dash indicates that the artist is not yet dead but it looks forward to that time. Interestingly, however, this is not the convention used in Water Colour‘s label. The catalogue prefers not to reproduce the watercolour itself—the supposed subject of the show. It does however reproduce the label. The catalogue thus reinforces the suspicion that the label is more important than the work itself, not a side show but the main event.
Dashper works in the space between painting and conceptual art. As a painter Dashper might be concerned with the formal and expressive issues of painting, the space within the frame. As a conceptual artist, however, he seeks to interrogate the frame itself and illuminate the informing structures that lie beyond it. Dashper is mobile. He moves between these two contrary approaches, so sometimes it is hard to know where he’s coming from.
It is instructive, here, to compare Dashper’s use of the painting in Water Color with Daniel Buren’s use of stripes throughout his work. Buren’s stripes are intended to act as an algebraic placeholder denoting the work. Buren’s stripes have limited aesthetic content in themselves, because he wants us to focus on their situation rather than their substance, their position in networks of exchange: spatial, financial, and cultural. By contrast, Dashper’s watercolour is placeholder for the work and can function as a painting in its own right.
As we take a breather from the sobriety of Water Color‘s conceptual ruminations, we can enjoy the inoffensive harmonies of K Mart. Resting our eyes on its candy colours, label and catalogue fade into the background, resuming their roles as mere supplements.
The art world places great emphasis on the autonomy of the art object. We assume that the art can speak for itself, or, at least, that it somehow contains its own meaning. Writing may bring home the meaning of art but it is assumed to be following that meaning rather than actively inventing it. In Surveyor, Dashper tells a different story, once again offering the artwork as a prop around which meaning can be invented.
Surveyor looked like a curated show, albeit a small one. There were four paintings and a wall text. Two of the paintings were by Dashper—Young Nicks Head (1987) and The Empty Endeavour (1991). The others were by key figures of New Zealand art history — Michael Smither’s Rocks with Mountain (1968) and Colin McCahon’s Untitled (Is There Anything of which One Can Say, Look, This Is New?) (1982).
Museum wall texts—or ‘didactic panels’, as they are known—are normally unsigned and neutral in tone. Thus they serve up their judgements as scholarly, objective, beyond question. The wall text in Surveyor, however, placed a compelling construction on the works. Dashper appropriated the institutional tone of the Educational Panel to suggest that this interpretation was beyond question, gospel. But the interpretation he presented was unlikely. Viewers were confused as to where the text was coming from, whether it had been written by the artist or by the gallery staff.
The text placed Dashper’s work well. It offered him as a ‘famous New Zealand artist’, alongside Smither and McCahon. It explained that Dashper had based his works on those two particular works by his elders. The text discussed their works, but only to clarify Dashper’s place in an eminent tradition. Dashper’s text went on to acknowledge its wilfulness, defining ‘surveying’ as ‘the setting out of positions of proposed constructions’. It also related that process to the colonialisation process, whereby Maori land has been appropriated and put to use without just claim.
Dashper’s Surveyor provided an interesting take on New Zealand art history (placing him in the midst of it) and deconstructed the devices by which that art history is disseminated. In offering a text which appeared to serve his own interests, Dashper asked us to consider whose interests such texts normally serve.
Julian Dashper intervenes in the art system to set off a process of questioning. His works deal with side issues and supplementary devices, revealing how central they really are. In playing against our expectations of the art system and of the place of the work within it, Dashper’s works seem exceptional, yet they illuminate the typical conditions under which art works operate. Julian Dashper is a barium meal for the art world: he traces its passages and lights up its thick bits.
- Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, May–June 1992.
- Making a Painting that Says Everything (Auckland: Sue Crockford Gallery, 1990), np.
- In the Gallery’s reading room, Dashper offered an album of Bruce King’s personal photographs as ‘background material’ and had King come to the Gallery to talk and to perform.
- With every new showing, an additional venue is added to the ‘provenance’ on the label. Dashper’s strategy with his label recalls John Baldessari’s notorious A Painting That Is Its Own Documentation (1968).