The nine artists in Going Steady all studied in the ANU School of Art Painting Workshop late last decade. In these years, and under the guidance of their Lecturers Ruth Waller, Vivienne Binns, Raquel Ormella and Peter Maloney, (and also Robert Boynes, who was Head of Painting until 2006, and painting tutor Noel Ford) interest in abstraction surged, gaining attention in a way that is unusual in Canberra’s pluralistic contemporary art scene.  This Way Up, a series of exhibitions curated by the Painting Workshop at the ANU School of Art Gallery, M16 Artspace and ANCA Gallery in 2010 showcased established and emerging artists connected to the Painting Workshop and working with abstraction. Most recently, Word of Mouth at CMAG in 2012, curated by Mark Bayly, was a comprehensive survey of Canberra-based artists working with abstraction in a range of media. 


Going Steady adds to this history and looks at its ongoing legacy, with a focus on early career artists. Emma Beer, Julie Brooke, Chris Carmody, Fernando do Campo, James Lieutenant, Natalie Mather, Suzanne Moss, Elena Papanikolakis, and Dionisia Salas have all cruised out of the conventionally observed ‘emerging artist’ bracket of around 5 years of practice after graduating. They have worked steadily to establish a solid art practice, exhibiting interstate, and for some, moving interstate and/or exhibiting internationally. Brooke and Moss have also completed PhDs in Visual Art, and do Campo is currently undertaking postgraduate studies at Parsons The New School for Design in NYC. This is a tight sample of artists whose development has in many ways been in parallel, with preceding and succeeding peer groups and generations of artists providing a context for their work.


The artists in Going Steady have a contribution to make to an ongoing discourse around painting and abstraction. After reaching the ‘conclusion’ of minimalist art in the 1960s, not to mention the many ‘deaths’ of paintings since the 1839 invention of photography, artists slowly began to build a case for modes of abstraction which engage with much more than itself as an iconoclastic, object-focused, universalist and self-referential practice. There is now a generous history of abstraction to engage with, and it is part of a multi-layered history of painting and of visual art. Adding to this, the capacity of non-representational painting to engage with a broad range of ideas in novel ways means thatthere is still a lot of new ground to cover. 


Emma Beer and Dionisia Salas engage with the act of painting itself, the product almost a performance document, the artist becoming part of the work and vice versa. Beer’s paintings are formal investigations of line, edge, colour, depth and luminosity, in the tradition of Modernist abstraction, but they also highlight pictorial illusion as a key function of painting. They are thoughtful and methodical, the sheer layers revealing a slow and masterful process of engagement between artist and surface. Beer’s paintings are unashamedly linked to herself as artist (quite a feminist act, as the ‘cult of the artist’ has traditionally been a male prerogative), with bold self-referential exhibition titles and work titles imbued with subjective experience. 


Salas is also interested in formal investigations in painting, particularly concerning bold colour, texture and pattern. However, her process is a more chaotic one. Salas works at a fast pace to wrangle a painting into existence, stopping at the point when decisive actions and chance occurrences have formed a finished work. Fields of humid texture and freeform blobs of colour are held together by nets of line and pattern, often drawing on patterns from textiles. Like the development of new languages, spoken and visual, Salas’ paintings are revelations which could not have occurred until the moment they are complete and recognized as such. 


Process is equally important to Julie Brooke and Suzanne Moss, however theirs is rooted in academic and spiritual concerns, respectively, the making of each painting contributing to their understanding. Brooke’s research and painting practice draw on parallel innovations in science and mathematics, including the fascinating concept of the ‘entangled labyrinth’ which “provides a soft template for the formation of structures inside the wing scales of a butterfly during metamorphosis”. Her use of colour and pictorial space map and develop her understanding of this concept, as well as evoking the flutter and shimmer of butterflies’ wings.  


Moss’ investigations are spiritual and philosophical, posing questions such as ‘Do you ever feel like the sky?’ Her painting The weight of light, one of two featured in Going Steady, was created from a diagram drawn in response to watching the sun going down looking west. It is a meditation on the significance of light ‘falling’ to conceal or reveal, and the perception of the heaviness of the sun as it drops into the Indian Ocean. With their high-key colours and expansive forms, Moss’ paintings are meditative for both artist and viewer. 


Chris Carmody and James Lieutenant both play with the blurred line between abstraction and representation. Carmody’s paintings, part of a diverse practice that draws heavily on found objects, treat the library book as readymade subject, reproducing the surface of the book cover in the form of an abstract painting, with faded layers of colour and small details which are only discernible once you know that the painting refers to a familiar object. Each work is titled with the library call number of the book it is based upon. 


Lieutenant’s work has a refined pop sensibility, presenting everyday objects and images via digital and analog technologies to create paintings that are flat, dense and quietly textured. In some of his intimately small works in Going Steady, images of common objects – a plastic bag, a tub - simmer in a monochromatic surface, presented as icons harking back to Pop Art and early Christian icon paintings. 


Elena Papanikolakis and Natalie Mather each layer a wild array of colours and pattern into their paintings, which respond to phenomena in the world around them via abstraction. Papanikolakis creates new environments in her paintings, re-processing a plethora of visual and other source material through a process of abstraction incorporating collage and exploiting the material qualities of paint. Mapping these new environments brings together disparate references to time, place and experience, and produces a totally new experience. Viewers of Mather’s paintings must similarly navigate her layers of bold striations, lines methodically created using masking tape, unpacking an appealing surface to reveal the darkness within. Candy colours and gloss barely conceal all manner of violence and chaos; landslides, collisions and toxicity can be found on the raw, industrial plywood surface.


Fernando do Campo’s Post-mortem study of One times two times four times two (then eight times eight within each) with a third borrows elements and rules from a prior site-specific work by the artist. These circular works float free from the originals’ context and form, but colour and size follow the parameters already set, dissecting and simplifying the artistic process and creating new form from old. For these works, context is vital- they are part of an ongoing conversation within do Campo’s broader artistic practice, also encompassing his curatorial concerns. 


Context is important for all art- social, political and art histories, each exhibition and collection, and the artists’ ouevre. As these artists establish themselves they continue to enrich the context of their work, as part of their outstanding individual art practices, and more broadly. An interesting conversation occurs when the work of these contemporaries is placed in the same room. Going Steady asserts that for these early career artists,  there is still a lot to say through engaging with abstraction, both globally and locally, andthat painting remains relevant in an era of ephemera and screens. 


- APRIL, 2015.