Home and Away: Contemporary Australian and New Zealand Art for the Chartwell Collection (Auckland: Auckland Art Gallery with David Bateman, 1999).
Stephen Bambury’s paintings have been called elegiac, even belated. They operate in the wake of the discredited utopian programme of the historical avantgarde. Certainly, Bambury’s crosses can be read as death—the crucifixion of modernism. But they can also be understood as hopeful—a resurrection of sorts.
These days, modernism is routinely cast as univocal, dogmatic, and exclusive, and yet Bambury’s paintings touch on a diversity of art philosophies, histories, and technologies. They connect with Malevich and Mondrian, obviously; but also with icon painting, Navajo sand painting, alchemy, yoga … They also nod to other contemporary artists—Colin McCahon, Helmut Federle, Imi Knoebel, John Nixon—but without aligning themselves with any camp. Bambury’s paintings aren’t simply formalist, there is too strong a suggestion of symbolism in the motifs (crosses, I-forms, ladders, the word Hi-Fi) and too much investment in idiosyncratic materials and processes. On the other hand, they’re not exactly discursive either—what is their issue? They seem to imply a range of possibilities, but also keep them at arm’s length.
Bambury is dogmatic when it comes to not being dogmatic. He frequently resorts to a contradiction-in-terms to explain himself, describing his approach as ‘porous hermeticism’. I take this to mean that, though his abstract paintings may appear formal, self-referential, exclusively visual (in that arch-modernist vein), they also absorb the world, asking to be read in relation to the diverse things, histories, philosophies, and opportunities around them. They flicker open and closed. Does that make the artist a fence sitter? Not at all. It would be truer to say that Bambury prefers—even constructs—a space between.
Not surprisingly, writers have made much of the porous aspect of Bambury’s work—it enables their displays of art-historical and philosophical proficiency. However, Bambury’s work is equally compelling for its stand-alone qualities: its hermeticism, its lack of complicity with what it absorbs—its elusiveness. Exceeding, even countering, the work of the writer, Bambury’s painting also evacuates meaning—exquisitely. In emptying themselves, and our heads, his works belong to a meditative practice, meditation being precisely that blissful and contemplative state of mind where ideas may float in and out of consciousness without judgment, opposition, or approval—without touching the sides.
Bambury’s practice is a careful balancing act. He is constantly deterritorialising his work, deranging any position or dogma he might appear to be setting up, subtly disrupting the emerging coherency of his project in a series of ‘necessary corrections’. Take Chakra (1994). This work follows a series of ‘ladder’ works in which seven Maievich crosses are stacked vertically. In Tantric thought, the seven chakras are energy centres along the human spine arranged in an implicit hierarchy from low to high, from base to crown. Tantric practice involves aligning the chakras to enhance the circulation of energy. In arranging the crosses here horizontally, Bambury dehierachises the chakras, offering them as interchangeable, near identical. Similarly, in representing the chakras with Malevich crosses, he promotes the near identity of Malevich’s metaphysics and those Eastern philosophies thought to have inspired him.
Moreover, he does this beautifully.