Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Magnificent Mrkusich

Trans-Form: The Abstract Art of Milan Mrkusich
Curated by Alan Wright and Edward Hanfling
Gus Fisher
6 March – 2 May 2009

This remarkable exhibition is co-ordinated with the long overdue publication of a book on Milan Mrkusich’s painting practice put together by Auckland University Press. Both show and substantial tome excel, but the show, as a visceral and cerebral experience, is glorious. An absolute knockout.

For never has the Gus Fisher looked as good as it does right now, presenting twenty Mrkusich works. Each of the three galleries has an optically and numerically restrained selection, with every individual item perfectly positioned to resonate with the rest of the room. It makes you want to go and fetch your sleeping bag and boy-scout cooker so you can live permanently on the premises. It is painful to leave.

What is particularly exciting is the varied range of painting formats Mrkusich has invented within the fifty years he has been exhibiting work: unusual combinations of panel placement and spacing, distinctive treatments of surface, new ways of suggesting space and methods of confining that aether – he dazzles with his inventive and consistent investigations, his ongoing preoccupation with Jungian geometry and painterly process.

The significance of that theme as content is a matter of debate. This show’s curators claim, as has the artist always, that the work’s visual properties as design elements are firmly embedded within a symbolic intention. This is contrary to the usual popular reading of these works as ‘formal’, as here, but of course such protests have been commonly expressed by many artists such as Newman, Mondrian or Malevich.

Maybe at the time Mrkusich over-reacted – for since the late seventies his temperament hasn’t seemed particularly ‘mystical’ or transcendent. In hindsight it now seems more clinically rationalist if anything, with his colours and paintwork more industrial and poppy – less brooding and ominous – and more about surface and the immanent. Perhaps he was worried that the notion of ’beauty’, which he clearly was exploring, along with musicality, would attract criticism as ‘vacuous’. Yet one could argue that it is impossible anyway for art of any type – no matter how rigorously formal - not to have content. There is no such thing as art being ‘empty’ of subject matter. Its status as ‘art’ ensures content is always present. The residue of some kind of denotation always remains as a trace. It never totally evaporates. So he was being over-anxious.

In their meticulously researched book, Wright and Hanfling point out the artist’s frustration with the difficulties of gaining acceptance, how he perceived the public as searching for easy narratives, national symbolism or recognisable landscapes in their images. Yet it is intriguing that Mrkusich early on trenchantly insisted on his alchemical content. Aware of Duchamp’s criticism of retinality, he wouldn’t overreact against storytelling, take an extreme position and overtly embrace formalism. It is as if that could be a bad thing. As if visual pleasure for its own sake was harmful. His aims instead were to intuitively arrive at archetypal forms that speak of an underlying TRUTH, forms that alluded to harmonious mental states and which could be found in images like the Buddhist mandalas discussed by Jung.

I’m fascinated by the occasional role of the critic in this book’s discussion. With his very early exhibitions, some of the comments by Wystan Curnow and Gordon Brown about his brushwork being ‘aimless, ’uncontrolled’ or ‘ambiguous’ attracted the artist’s ire, and he fiercely responded in a later catalogue. Yet any commentary at all must have been even rarer then than what it is now. It is fascinating that pioneer commentators like those two attracted such bitterness for their honest observations. Great they were forthright and that their bluntness stung. Great also that Mrkusich responded. That’s the way it should be.

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