INFINITE LOOP CURATORIAL ESSAY
Infinite and Open-Ended: Abstraction between the Local and the Global
Catalogue essay by Dr Carolyn Barnes
The Infinite Loop presents the work of six abstract artists, Lars Breuer, Sebastian Freytag and Guido Münch from Germany and Justin Andrews, Stephen Bram and John Nixon from Australia, reflecting the bonds between abstract artists today across geographic distance. Making art centred on the formal properties of the medium was a main invention of modern art, becoming an emblem of advanced practice from the early twentieth century to the late 1960s. Yet a focus on the discovery and diffusion of new art ideas in art criticism and art history created the perception of unequal authority and status between ‘originary’ abstraction and the places to which abstraction spread. Today, it is better recognised that abstract art has had many histories, its rich adaption to different contexts reflecting conceptual development not dependency, the history of abstract art in the periphery being a case for rethinking the processes through which ideas gain currency and endure.
Indeed, The Infinite Loop reveals the existence of an ad hoc, international network of artists allied by the practice of abstraction and supported though artist-initiated exhibitions and venues. Why an alliance of abstract artists? To be sustained, art practice requires a support network no matter what the currency of the practice or the locality of the artist, there being countless centres and peripheries. Since the late 1960s, abstract art has been marginalized to an extent due to its integral connection to modernism. The international collaboration of abstract artists shows artist’s interest in self-positioning while attesting to the fact that the practice of abstraction is no longer about hierarchical relations between center and periphery. The work of Breuer, Freytag and Münch, who practice independently as artists, but who come together as KONSORTIUM to exhibit, can be read against the philosophical legacy of the European critique of cultural hegemony. The interrelated concern for visual rhetoric and deployment of the abstract in their work examines the role of aesthetic forms and relations in the production of symbolic meaning in neoliberal capitalist propaganda. The significance of experimentation in generating the new is a strong thread in the work of Andrews, Bram and Nixon, their ongoing reinvention of abstraction across conceptual frames and media gaining added meaning for arising against the problematic historical project to determine what is distinctive about modern Australia. Their engagement with abstraction reflects an outward-looking intellectual perspective, premised on the scope to adapt and build from the modern.
The Infinite Loop provides a window onto a fluid, informal, international network of abstract artists, whose interaction and collaboration establishes new forms of discussion and value around the abstract, while suggesting the diverse directions of its unfolding over its one hundred-year history. The snapshot offered reveals both the connections and divergence at play and the interdependent agency of the artists who make up the network, reflecting John Holden’s 2004 proposition of the ‘cultural ecosystem’ to explain the social nature of art practice.1 Participatory dynamics, of course, have become the signature of the present through the effect of digitally-mediated social networks that extend globally. Certainly, information available on the Internet about exhibitions and exhibition venues reveals patterns of relations between abstract artists internationally, demonstrating the kinds of opportunities and outcomes digital connectivity affords. But to focus on the virtual manifestation of present abstraction neglects the essential role of personal connections in the perpetuation of artists’ networks and the reasons for artists coming together across geographic distance and boundaries of culture, generation and history in the first place.
The formation of this network, driven by the will to share ideas, resources and opportunities, traces back to the late 1970s when art practices that merged the legacies of early twentieth century non-objective art with 1960s art critique were largely invisible to the wider art world and poorly understood. Alliances between artists in Europe and Australia were forged through recognition of the value of mutual support. As in the example of The Infinite Loop, artist-initiated exhibitions, publications and venues became aggregators of practices and meanings around the abstract, strengthening and expanding their impact. The linking of Australian and European artists in support of their intellectual investment in abstraction is a salient example of how the periphery as a condition or a situation — as the American sociologist Edward Shils conceived it in 1975 — unleashes important processes of cultural divergence and conceptual re-invention.2
In Australia, artist-initiatives in support of abstract art have been a rich vein of activity since John Nixon established Art Projects (1979-1984) in recognition of the need for artists to take an active role in the distribution and discursive framing of their work. Stephen Bram also ran CNR (1997-2004), a small gallery in his studio in Carlton. Justin Andrews was a co-director of the A.R.I. known as Mir11 (2004-2005). Travelling overseas, Australian artists have met likeminded artists whose situation is also peripheral to the narrow thematic currents of the international art system, starting the process through which scattered groups of artists have collaborated over the long-term on related interests. This process of aggregation enacted through projects reflects a readiness to share, explore and test both ideas about the abstract and know-how in conducting and positioning an art practice in the intricate web of effects and relationships that comprise local and world art systems.
1. John Holden, Capturing Cultural Value: How culture has become a tool of government policy, London, Demos, 2004.
2. Edward Shils, ‘Metropolis and province in the intellectual community’, in Shils, E. (ed.) The Intellectuals and the Powers, and Other Essays, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1988, pp. 355–371.
Associate Professor Carolyn Barnes (PhD Melb 2004) is Academic Director of Research Training in the School of Design, Swinburne University of Technology, where she teaches research methods for academic and practice applications. Her art writing focuses on artist-initiated activity, artist’s networks and the legacy of modernism in Australian non-objective and concrete art post 1980.