DAVID SERISIER: WHITE DOGS, HOARFROST, SILVER + GOLD

BATHURST REGIONAL ART GALLERY, APRIL 2018

The Square is not an image, just as a switch or a socket is not yet an electric current. Kazimir Malevich[1]

In The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings ‘0.10’ (Zero-Ten) presented in Petrograd in 1915, the Suprematist Kazimir Malevich hung his painting titled Black Square high in the corner of the room, in the place of traditional religious icons commonly seen in Russian homes.[2] With this single act, Malevich took painting beyond the realm of mere representation to something more akin to sensation, perception or indeed experience, embracing “zero” as the essential core of painting, denoting both an end and a beginning.[3]

The concept of zero, as embraced by the Suprematists, does not equate to nothing but rather it is something that is definable and undefinable, illusive, and slippery. It denotes a beginning but also alludes to infinity, to a sensation of openness and an expanded sense of space much like the endless stars in the night sky. As a non-representational painter, David Serisier naturally looks to Malevich—as a founding artist of the modernist monochrome—in his renditions of a painterly language that can be thought of as a process that reduces the painting to itself as a “unique contrast of feeling [Stimmung] in colour,” as Wilhelm Wundt puts it.[4] Sensation, perception and experience are words that emerge in conversation with Serisier about his work for this exhibition and its intimate links with place; in particular his current surroundings in the vicinity of Orange, a large rural town in New South Wales.

In George Orwell’s 1939 novel, Coming Up for Air, the main character George Bowling returns to the town of his childhood only to find that much has changed. It is only over time that the place of his past becomes apparent through the present, a sensation that Serisier relates to in his return to the town of Orange, where generations of his family have made their mark. The concept of return permeates both our conversation and the work—a return to place, a return to memories, a return to paints that have waited for a decade, and a return to colours long lost in his oeuvre. In preparing this new body of work Serisier found a new “impulse to use some paint which I hadn’t used for years,” and in so doing he made a new claim for the paint.[5] As he started using some of these old paints along with the new he came to realise that the changing tones in the whites were connected to different times of the day in the studio, the works became “paintings of perception and very much about place.”

This place called Summer Hill, just outside the town of Orange where he lives with his wife Gillian and their two large white dogs, Milo and Borgia, imbues these new works with a particularity of place that adds something nuanced, unknown and mysterious. As Serisier himself notes, the works are an action and a reaction to the location, an accumulation of experiences over the last twelve months that formed an impulse to make works using colours that connect to the past and to the present, to memory, and to this particular environment. These experiences are filtered through memory, through connections with friends, family, places and events; they are moments glimpsed from the corner of one’s eye. For Serisier’s painting practice, this means at times using colours that reference or recall favourite movies, walking, the sky, swimming in the sea, the clouds, light as it reflects off a surface, or the dogs; each experience being both tangible and intangible.

For example, the return to using silver is intimately connected to winters in Summer Hill when the hoarfrost settles on the old willow trees producing an icy-cold white, silvery colour. It seemed immediately appropriate for Serisier to start to use this type of non-colour on his canvases.[6] The combination of what he refers to as stable white and unstable silver creates a tension, a contradiction that makes sense given the natural events occurring just outside the studio, framed by the windows. Nature here is dramatic. In winter, the landscape is cloaked in the whites and silver of hoarfrost, of snow, of vivid greens, highlighted by hovering mists and moody skies. The gentler seasons of blossom and falling leaves are underscored by blistering hot summer days when the light is harsh and the greens of the trees are tempered by the weight of the heat; the view punctuated by vividly bright splashes of irises, and the golden hues of the setting sun.

Gold

The gold paintings in this exhibition are puzzling entities; ephemeral, reflective surfaces that seem to suck the light in and spit it back out.[7] The changing ambient light, much like the setting sun, produces a constant visual mutation, which along with the paint’s intrinsic qualities of the known and unknown, hold the works in scopic suspension. In the studio, the raking light accentuates the luscious brushwork, and the colours seemingly throb back and forth through the many layers of paint. In their reduced form, the expansive fields of colour bring the works in a self-referential loop to the very medium of paint and its endless possibilities.

To say that there are five gold paintings in this exhibition is to imply some kind of likeness, a series, a cohesive whole, and while in a way this is true, it is also the opposite. This is typical of Serisier’s work. It is both one thing and another; the moment you think you have a grasp on what you are seeing or feeling—it evolves, disappears, reappears, and undulates. The gold paintings cohere in their connection to a format based on archetypal examples of painting structures, for example the square monochrome, which adheres to a painting convention. In this way, they imply a system of sorts that sets up a process of variation in which they work as both isolated canvases and as a series, an effect common across the paintings in this exhibition. But while Serisier may have an elusive hold on a defining process—what he refers to as intention—much is determined by chance, such as the source of the paint, the differing batches, the abnormalities of paint drying, the brushwork, or the flaws in the canvas. Chance is also determined by the time of the day, the light, the feeling, the memory, the ready-made paints or the individual strokes of the brush.

As the viewer encounters these works, a process that for Serisier completes the painting, one becomes immersed in the surface and depth of the object, which sits on the wall as if weightless. The viewing experience itself is active and physical—encompassing the action of walking toward the painting and stepping back in order to see what is in essence—elusive and ephemeral. Looking deeply into the depth of the canvas one searches for something yet to be revealed. The anomalies in the surface of the canvas, the variations in the warp and weft of the thread, the act of priming the canvas, the layers and layers of paint applied over days and over weeks, are all held within its own object-ness and within its own time. Each process of making leaves its trace in the body of the paintings, made evident in the surface, depth and edges, evoking a sense of the works’ own history.

Graphite

While the gold, silver and white paintings tenuously reflect light; the graphite works absorb it into the void like a black hole in space. Ad Reinhardt thought of the colour black as the medium of the mind; it is perfection, cohesive and purifying.[8] As the surface in Serisier’s Graphite Black Oxide Painting 1, falls away and gives in to infinite depth, the work opens up into a paradoxical sensation of near and far—the sense of space and also of time twisting, bounding and then settling into the feeling of a warm bath or floating in the sea in the dead of night. Serisier’s grey paintings are also reminiscent of the sensation of water, the moment of swimming across the surface of the sea where the tonal qualities of the water meet the horizon and the sky on a murky day. The density of this work, and the graphite and silver paintings, is startling in the duality of simplicity and complexity, becoming void and projection simultaneously.

An enduring memory of this place of Summer Hill is the intense blackness one experiences when walking along the road toward the gate; it is as if you are walking into nothingness and yet every sensation is heightened. The brush of a tree branch across an arm, the feeling of dirt underfoot, the sounds of steps and quiet murmurs, of the gentle breeze, all enhanced by the endlessness of the blackened sky punctuated by bright silver and gold stars. It is total immersion, much like the experience of encountering these works.

In the 1950s and 60s post-war American artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt followed in Malevich’s footsteps with their own experimentations in black monochromes. Rauschenberg thought of his black paintings, constructed between 1951 and 1953 to have “complexity without their revealing anything—the fact that there was a lot to see but not much showing.”[9] On recalling what he felt like painting an entirely black painting titled Abraham as early as 1949, Newman said “the terror of it was intense…I call it terror. It’s more than anxiety…Where do I get the nerve…”[10] Newman tried to paint anything but a pure black painting, but he couldn’t. “I had to make it black,” he declared, “I think that every stroke one makes is violent; because once you make it, it’s there and…you’ve got to move with it.”[11] Serisier’s own atmospheric renditions of blackness are, as William Wright once noted, “analogously reductive… a subtle, reflexive, intuitive investigation.”[12] And yet, one would have to say that like Newman, Serisier’s graphite black paint was brought forth almost by its own volition into sensorial existence.

White

The surface tension present in these paintings continues in the white works, which with their iridescent pearl-like qualities carry a different mass, the weight of non-colour and a density that defies their apparent weightlessness. The brushed or lagged surfaces reflect and carry light as an amorphous quality that defines the work in a simultaneous process of making and unmaking, their frontality bearing a corpulent presence that is both comforting and unnerving. In keeping with the visceral qualities of the gold, silver and graphite paintings, the surface of White Mica Painting is lusciously inviting, its plane of apparent emptiness caressed by marks and tonal variations that evoke the fur of the white dogs, the hoarfrost or the glint of the hot summer’s sun on metal.

White White Painting recalls Malevich’s own rendition from 1918 in which an uneven, white square floats atop a white background, defined not by line but by tonal variation. This radical attempt at reductive pictorialism reinvented the medium and the space of painting, alluding to infinity and the limitlessness of the canvas. White for Malevich signified a realm of higher feeling, saying, “I have overcome the lining of the colored sky… Swim! The white free abyss, infinity is before you.”[13] In 1951, Robert Rauschenberg extended his painting practice with several versions of modular panels of white paintings, their surface reduced to pure colour with little evidence of the artist’s hand. In 1961, the composer John Cage, known for his minimalist music and experiments in silence and endlessness famously and ironically referred to Rauschenberg’s White Paintings as airports for lights, shadows and [dust] particles.[14] In so doing he understood the works as receptive surfaces that respond to the world around them. Cage met Rauschenberg the year after he made the white paintings and so enamoured was he by these works, which Rauschenberg himself identified as emoting “organic silence,” that Cage composed his famous silent score 4’33”.[15] Rauschenberg himself thought of these works as clocks saying that their surfaces were sensitive enough to tell what time it was and what the weather was like outside.[16] Serisier’s white paintings, in their lack of gravitational hold, also seem to evoke time and the weather with light itself mediating the viewing experience.

As much as paint is the medium of each of the works in this exhibition, these physical and visual apparitions are equally determined by other factors, such as light, time, and the tension created both in the individual works’ surfaces, and between them as they hang together on the wall. Each grouping creates a new sentence or stanza; indeed, in their state of togetherness they become symphonic. Just as a conductor brings together known and unknown elements into the rendition of a piece of music, so too Serisier orchestrates a visual symphony of colour that plays on variance, and on the tension between predictability and unpredictability. Each work plays with and against each other, one minute forming a soliloquy, the next a cacophony. Harmony and dissonance become the musical score for the paintings as they move and shift according to the accompanying works, the light, the time of day or with the viewer’s perception, mimicking their creation in the studio.

Silver

This becomes clearly apparent in the White Silver paintings and the White Silver Phase paintings, in which white paint floats above the surface of silver enamel, the tension between the two surfaces becoming apparent over time. The square within the square has a multitude of variances, from cold to warm, from opaque to transparent, creating a fluctuation in tonal differences that make some of the phase paintings clearly present while others mutate back and forth. Some seem to slip out of visual register in an alarming manner. The grid formation grew from the repetitive production of the paintings; in as much as they demanded it, drawing additional works together to form not just a series but also a singular entity. Hanging together they seem to form a musical score, reaching a crescendo punctuated by pauses, high tones and low. Much like looking at hoarfrost on the willows, highlighted by the crisp winter sun, or the movement of white dogs across the field, these pictures refuse to stay still, they may be quiet but they are certainly not silent.

The vibration between the white and silver is palpable, with the crisp edge of the white square in the larger paintings denoting the frame of silver as if a majestic mirror or a gilded renaissance painting. Here the square is doubly defined, first by the white central shape and secondly by the edge of the painting, with the two surfaces acting in harmony whilst simultaneously establishing a rhythmic motion, much like a shudder. The silver enamel is startling in its presence, even more so in the large monochrome where it melds into the threads of the linen canvas accentuating the rippling surface. The silver paintings in oil, on the other hand, have a subtle sensuousness and quietude that highlight the extraordinary textural encaustic surfaces that like the gold and graphite paintings both unveil and reveal their making.

Punctuating the large works in the exhibition are small, highly textured gold and silver works that act almost as hyphens. Painted over a fifteen-year period these floating jewels of heavily impastoed colour connect the past to the present. Despite their hefty presence of gestural mark-making these works have a distinctive sense of unfinishedness as if they are still in the process of forming and making. Out of all the paintings, each of which convey differing affects or feelings, these seem highly emotive recalling Brice Marden’s thoughts on his own early paintings that they should not be admired for any technical, nor indeed intellectual reason, but rather to be felt.[17] So while one can analyse and think about Serisier’s works in terms of their formal strategies and position them in terms of the post-painterly and colour-field abstract painters of the twentieth century, we can also think of them in terms of their subtle emotive referential qualities.

Summer Hill

As we drive through the rolling hills of the countryside heading toward Lithgow, Serisier momentarily rolls down the windows to let the crisp air of the morning mist float into the car. Breathe it in, Serisier suggests. Looking across the valleys with the morning light penetrating the mist and gently highlighting the complex greens, greys, charcoals and whites, one can see the attraction Serisier has for this area. He shows me a photo on his phone of his white dogs lounging happily on the grass with a light of a thousand different tones of gold enveloping them as the sun sets over the garden. I comment that the paintings will always remind me of the dogs. “Well,” says David, it’s about the dogs, but it’s not about the dogs. It’s about the light, the memory of the sunlight shining on the dogs, the moment… but it’s not even that. It’s what happens to the memory of that moment, in the studio, the changing light, the sensation…. actually, it’s the paint, it’s all about the paint.” Robert Ryman also aimed to emphasise the objecthood of a painting by using paint saying, “I wanted to make a painting getting the paint across. That’s really what a painting is basically about… I wanted to point out the paint and paint surface and not so much the objectness.”[18]

The essence of time also becomes an agent of radical viewing in these paintings, in its ever-changing nature and its temporal capacity to encompass the past, the present and the future. Time, like the paintings and the act of viewing is mutable. It is the time of making, the stretch of the day as light makes it mark across the studio, designating moments and seasons; it is the framing of the outside world as it passes from summer, through autumn, winter and spring. It is the white dogs, the white and silver of the hoarfrost, the gold of the sun as it caresses the landscape and the pitch black of the sky at night punctured by silvery and golden wavering stars. It is Summer Hill. 

DONNA WEST BRETT, 2018

[1] Achim Borchardt-Hume, “An Icon for a Modern Age,” in Malevich (London: Tate Publishing, 2014), 24.

[2] Suprematism linguistically found its Latin roots in the Catholic liturgy Supremacia, meaning superiority. Reportedly Malevich altered the date of the Black Square to 1913 to coincide with the production of the futurist opera Victory over the Sun, which premiered at Luna Park, St Petersburg on 2 December 1913. See Borchardt-Hume, “An Icon for a Modern Age,” 24.

[3] See Christina Lodder, “In Search of 0,10 – The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting,” The Burlington Magazine 158 (2016): 61-63.

[4] Wilhelm Wundt, Principles of Physiological Psychology, 1874. See also John Gage, Colour and Meaning: Art, Science and Symbolism (London: Thames and Hudson), 252. Monochrome painting in a representational form has a long history back to artists such as Jan van Eyck, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. See Lelia Packer and Jennifer Sliwka, eds. Monochrome: Painting in Black and White (London: National Gallery, 2017).

[5] All quotes are from a conversation with the artist at Summer Hill, 10 –11 January 2018 unless otherwise noted.

[6] Martin Kline, Lucio Fontana and John Nixon for example have made various series of silver monochromes and more recently Cohen Young has worked with silver monochromes using painting and photographic techniques.

[7] Robert Rauschenberg made a series of gold monochrome paintings in the 1950s and is also credited with some of the earliest black monochromes of the post-painterly abstract movement. Yves Klein and Lucio Fontana also painted gold monochromes. Fontana experimented with white, copper and other metallic surfaces.

[8] Ad Reinhardt, Art as Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 90.

[9] Andrew Forge, Robert Rauschenberg (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1968), 64.

[10] Interview with Karlis Osis, transcript, 1963, 15 and 20, Barnett Newman Foundation Archive. Quoted in Richard Shiff, “Whiteout: The Not-influence Newman Effect,” in Barnett Newman, Ann Temkin, ed. (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2002), 81.

[11] Interview with Karlis Osis, 15-16. Quoted in Shiff, “Whiteout,” 82.

[12] William Wright, “A Matter of Light,” in David Serisier: Colour, Real and Imagined (Canberra: Drill Hall Gallery, 2015), 21.

[13] Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1918, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Quoted in Larissa A. Zhadova, Malevich: Suprematism and Revolution in Russian Art, 1910-1930 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982), 124, n.39. Other white on white painters include Brice Marden, Robert Ryman, Barnett Newman and Agnes Martin.

[14] John Cage, “On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist and his Work, in Silence (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 102. See also https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.308.A-C

[15] See Kristina Stiles, Concerning Consequences: Studies in Art, Destruction, and Trauma (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 303. See also page 433, n.84 where Stiles considers the wry sarcasm and competitive nature of Cage’s comments on Rauschenberg’s works. 4’33” (Four minutes thirty-three seconds) was composed as a three-movement silent composition composed by John Cage in 1952.

[16] See interview with Robert Rauschenberg, https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.308.A-C/research-materials/document/WHIT_98.308_005/

[17] Brice Marden: Statements, Notes, and Interviews,” in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, ed. Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 138.

[18] Phyllis Tuchman, “An Interview with Robert Ryman,” Artforum 9, no. 9 (May 1971): 44–65. See also Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 27