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.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Alchemical encoder or formalist?

Milan Mrkusich: Seven Colour Alchemical Spectrum
Sue Crockford
5 May - 30 May 2009

It is only a short while since the Mrkusich survey at Gus Fisher finished and Sue Crockford has cleverly capitalised on the momentum of that exposure with this dealer show. The seven, smallish paintings on display on her main wall are in essence about chromatic juxtapositions and horizontal sequences – though they are also rich in nuances of delicate underpainting. As an installed group, and within horizontal bands at the top and/or bottom of individual works, the artist uses rules of alchemy where hues are placed in blocks in rows, (mostly) in strict order.

From left to right the sequence goes: black, red, white, grey, green, blue and yellow, yet those names of colours are approximate. Various chromatic tweakings, plus calculated underpainting and inflections of rhythmical finger painting on top, introduce violet and gold for example.

The heights of the seven coloured panels also vary so that over half have double bands at the top, like strata. They are all aligned very precisely so that the tops and bottoms of some are flush with the horizontal strip-edges of others. A few of the bottom strips have a double thickness.

The various bars and blocks on the bands sometimes optically flicker, but usually they function as symbolic sliding doors or chunky barcodes. Mkrusich has mystical intentions. He believes his works are more than just assembled materials - that they connect to some deeper reality.

However he doesn’t rigorously always follow the alchemical spectrum. Principles of balance and spatial extension matter greatly to him, and so often the white blocks end up on the top righthand side – out of position with other colours in the series, but balancing. Here Mrkusich’s use of symbolism is pretty hard to separate from his formalist aesthetic, for the significance of the individual colours is their part in an evolving continuum. The process is not so much about turning the base and putrid into glistening gold (or the acquisition of prosperity) but more about intellectual growth and self-realization.

Derek Jarman, a film-maker and painter who collected Alchemical Treatises, explains it like this:

It was believed matter was animated by the soul. It took science to do away with that. Lead, for instance, was saturnine and melancholic. Mercury, quicksilver and the mirror of life itself….Sol the sun, masculine and gold. Gold was the aim of the pursuit, fired by learning rather than greed. In this universe, everything had its place though no one quite agreed on the order. The quest for the philosophic and incorruptible gold was a journey of the mind, mirror of the saviour. (Chroma p.75-76)

I think Mrkusich is a formalist, despite his denial of that in various catalogues over the years. He is a formalist to be much admired. You don’t need to grasp the early history of science and philosophy to appreciate the elegance and contemplative serenity of these works. The symbolic content is a footnote, not the main essay.

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