Art of this World by John Nixon

Vale John Nixon

19 August 2020
1949 - 2020
The artist John Nixon, who died earlier this week, was a seminal figure in Australian art over the last five decades. Several of his major works from the 1980s were acquired for the Power bequest collection. In memory of John we print a short extract from Linda Michael’s new essay on one of these works.

John Nixon’s Self-portrait (History painting), 1984, pictured top of page, is set to be exhibited next year in the Chau Chak Wing Museum. The collection of objects and paintings that make up this piece is closer to installation than sculpture. Two brown and two black paintings sit on the floor and lean against an old painted steel wheelbarrow, articulating its four sides, while a monochrome placard lies obliquely across the top of the empty tray. The work has an earthy materiality, with the rough, weathered surface of the rusted steel, and hessian and cardboard supports that lend distinctive texture to two of the paintings. Its forms are archetypal: the primitive barrow standing in for a history of heavy labour, and the placard for centuries of protest; Nixon would consider all its components to be paintings.

Art of the World by John Nixon

Above: John Nixon’s installation in Art of this World, at Museum of Contemporary Art, in 1993, curated by Linda Michael, Nicholas Baume and Sue Cramer.

Top: John Nixon, Self Portrait (History Painting), 1984. Purchased with funds from the J W Power Bequest 1988. J W Power collection, The University of Sydney, managed by Museum of Contemporary Art. PW1988.12.1-6

In 1989 Nixon summarized his worldview in a diagram using the words ‘constructivism’, ‘conceptualism’, ‘dada’, ‘minimalism’, ‘Beuys’, ‘Duchamp’, ‘Schwitters’, ‘Malevich’, ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, conveying a resolutely international outlook. The emblematic abstract forms in this work, for example, though drawn from and reflecting his everyday environment, recall early Soviet constructivist art, as well as peasant and folk art. Nixon’s readymade objects are basic and plain, sharing the reductive aesthetic of the monochrome. Like the wheelbarrow, they are often drawn from the world of manual labour and suggest an ethic of production. While his art may be conceptually based, his work has an austere tactility rooted in things of human use.

This work is titled History Painting because the monochromes have been painted over earlier ‘rejected’ paintings. It thus represents a particular history within Nixon’s oeuvre. His art is always turning back on itself, re-presenting or re-interpreting the monochrome in each new installation. Constructed as an amalgam of radical modernist practices that have tested the conventions of art in the twentieth century, Nixon’s oeuvre paradoxically acquires authenticity only as an expression of his own lived experience: constituting a kind of self-portrait. This provocative link between the title and the work offers much for speculation. The monochrome, empty of illustrative content, is open to multiple interpretations. For Nixon perhaps it is therefore the most liberating representation of self, one in which the self is partly absorbed into the environment.

Written by Linda Michael

Extract from an essay to be published in an upcoming Chau Chak Wing Museum publication.

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