REBEL PAINTING by Dr Margaret Roberts, 2011
As it was shown in October 2011, Beata Geyer’s site-specific MONUMENT is six identical green paintings leant together around the join of the two long showroom walls of Factory 49. While it would rely on the physical space of any location it was given, the particular context provided by Factory 49 emphasises that spatial relationship. The low colour of the ex-factory building contrasts so much with the high saturation of MONUMENT‘s green that it begins to occupy a differently-lit space, creating a sense of spatial disjunction. The procedural routines associated with factory work also suggest a temporal one, as the normal procedure to deal with paintings (to be hung on the wall for exhibition) is incomplete. The artist seems to have paused it by leaving them unattended just across from the roller door, as if they have been delivered out of the back of a truck and then forgotten about. After a while you realise that the work seems to be so fixedly occupying that gaping hole in time and space that it becomes the subject of the work.
This hole is not a literal slash like Lucia Fontana would make, nor the sort of deep spatial illusion that perspective is designed to construct. It is more like the dormancy of Imi Knoebel’s Raum 19 when it is ‘stored’ at Dia: Beacon, only less self-contained. Because the temporal and spatial disjunction is so important to the work, and because this disjunction is with the familiar space and time in which viewers are immersed, the work’s illusion does not spirit us viewers away into it, but rather leaves us asking how can two spaces co-exist like this? What other space and time could be hidden within the plaster walls and cement floor, and the production procedures, of a factory showroom? Whatever it is, MONUMENT’s title suggests it is made to commemorate it. Henri Lefebvre theorised that the pre-modern space that was gradually subsumed by the abstract space that formed as modernity emerged in Europe at the close of the Middle Ages persists into contemporary Western culture, albiet in modified form—perhaps it is this that MONUMENT reveals.
I think of that space when walking around city streets and notice spots where weeds grow, cement cracks and tin bangs loose on walls, and wonder about the bankruptcy or contested estate that might have caused this temporary but delightful ‘neglect’. (How good it is to see that dominant spatial mores have some competition.) No weeds grow in Geyer’s MONUMENT, however—quite the contrary, its colour vibrancy is more a reminder of the first leaves that appear on deciduous trees after a long Northern Hemisphere winter. But it is good to think of it as a spatial weed, able to grow in the cracks formed by aris such as Factory 49 that actively neglect dominant spatial values through the art practices they foster.
For Factory 49, these are contemporary non-objective art practices that have grown out of the emphasis in early 20th century abstraction and later minimal art, on avoiding the illusionism that even in the 1960s Robert Morris saw as the ‘default’ mode that artwork needs to resist. This default mode is the habitual ‘pulling’ of viewers ‘out of the space in which the object exists’ and into an interior space of illusion. He claimed that artworks constructed as ‘unitory forms’ could break that cycle by insisting on external relationships at the expense of internal ones. By identifying these strategies of early minimal art, Morris showed how art practice can experiment with new ways of valuing physical space through the language of their construction.
MONUMENT also works in that non-objective/minimal ‘tradition’ and with an artwork’s relationship with its physical location – but by using illusion as a strategy rather than as something that still needs to be avoided. MONUMENT‘s use of the traditional painterly technique of contrasting light absorbencies of differently saturated colour to suggest differently-lit space, suggests that different actual spaces exist side by side in the space of viewers. It still creates an illusory space but one that emphasises MONUMENT‘s (external) relationship with its physical location rather then undermines it—because it is a space that MONUMENT appears to occupy, rather then one that seems to exist elsewhere. The illusion is thus of two spaces co-existing simultaneously, neither needing to be denied for the other to be recognised. My hope is that just as MONUMENT‘s space is produced by the clever use of traditional painterly techniques, its relationship with its location may reproduce that familiar space slightly differently because of the new value it gives it.
 An ari is an ‘artist-run initiative’.
 Robert Morris Notes on Sculpture, Part 3 (1967) in Continuous Project Altered Daily MIT: Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England, 1993, p 27
 Robert Morris Notes on Sculpture, Part 2 (1967) in Continuous Project Altered Daily p 15
 Robert Morris Notes on Sculpture (1966) in Continuous Project Altered Daily p 8
In Conceptual Beauty: Writings on Australian Contemporary Art 1994-2009, Artspace Publications, 2010 by Dr Jacqueline Milner
Beata Geyer: Polychromatic (not an unproductive fiction): April-May 2006
Beata Geyer works as a painter or a digital compositor might, assembling individual brushstrokes or pixels of colour, except that her canvas/screen is space itself. Her basic unit of colour comprises a standard-size MDF board, painted in a polychromatic variety of tones straight from the can, selected from a domestic paint colour chart. The artist transforms her chosen sites with an amalgam of dozens of such boards, configured so as to compel us to experience the space’s given architectural features in different ways. Suffusing our senses with colour, the works disorient us in space, make edges and corners disappear, and invite a playful disposition. Geyer’s installations are akin to self-generating systems — non-hierarchical, open-ended and endlessly adaptable — that ultimately comprise of the relationships created between viewer, architecture and colour.
Polychromatic (not an unproductive fiction), Geyer’s current installation at Artspace, is the latest in a series of works where the artist uses some of the same basic modules to respond to different sites. Earlier works include Nephology (2000) at First Draft Gallery, Sydney, Untitled at Artspace (2001) and Untitled (2001) at Sydney College of the Arts Gallery. This way of working developed out of Geyer’s practice as a painter. Exploring means to heighten the material presence of painting, Geyer began layering hand-cut wooden panels painted in different shades of the same colour; these were then affixed to the wall. One such work is Indifference (1999). Gradually the panels grew larger, coming to sit on the floor and lean against the wall. The growth in scale also prompted a move away from biomorphic shapes to standard rectilinear panels that were more easily integrated into the rectilinearity of conventional architecture. Such standard panels also enabled the works to remain open-ended and unfinished, endlessly rearrangeable, stretching forwards and backwards in time and space.
Geyer’s work provokes a series of anxieties: is this art or décor, painting or sculpture, site-specific installation or self-contained object? Is the work rigid and geometric, or organic and intuitive? And does the artist seek chiefly to gratify our thirst for visual sensation, or does she invoke the modernist tradition of abstraction as a project for social betterment?
Geyer studied architecture in her native Poland before migrating to Australia in the 1990s. Her concern with how space is delineated, and with the social effects of such demarcations, has been honed both by her early training, but also by her original homeland — a country beset by battles over terrain and the continuous redrawing of borders by its powerful neighbours. Her Polish heritage is also significant in terms of the influence in her work of two founding figures of Polish modernism, Katerzyna Kobro and Wladyslaw Strzeminski. Kobro and Strzeminski forged an innovative form of Constructivism during the 1920s and 30s, powerfully synthesised in their theory of Unism published in 1931.
The central proposition of Unism is that sculptural form and the surrounding space should constitute a whole: there ought to be a unity of what has arisen with what existed prior to the work of art. Under Unism, the artist strives to render the artwork an organic part of the space it occupies, to match the infinity of space with the infinity of the artwork’s own shapes. Also central to Unism is the idea that time — in which the sculpture unfolds for the viewer — is an integral element of sculpture. This conception of sculpture led Kobro, for instance, to create works that comprised of a regular sequence of spatial shapes, based on the human rhythms of movement, sculptures which were open-ended and capable of growth in both directions. Moreover, unlike the Russian Constructivists, Kobro applied colour to her sculptures in the belief that otherwise the sculpture would remain isolated from its surrounding space and appear as a complete, rather than open-ended, form. In opposition to the conventional understanding of sculpture as essentially concerned with mass and solids, Unism stressed the importance of the rhythms of shapes and colours to sculpture, to enable the artwork to interweave with the surrounding space.
Unism and the sculptures of Kobro provide important points of reference for considering Geyer’s work. Geyer creates installations that strive to integrate with site so as to cultivate a critical reflexivity in the viewer about the politics of space more generally. Geyer’s use of modular shapes, that allow her to create a work as large or as small as necessary, in whatever configuration, and implies the possibility of an artwork extending in time and space into infinity, resonates strongly with the project of these pioneering modernists. Of course, her approach also recalls the work of certain Minimalists, most notably Carl Andre and Donald Judd, who arguably expounded on the concerns of Kobro and Strzeminski many decades after Unism. According to eminent Polish art historian and museum director Ryszard Stanislawski, the Polish modernists’ exploration of the tension between open and closed sculpture was ‘unprecedented and isolated’, and really only taken up by the Minimalists in the 1960s.[i]
There are, however, important ways in which the work of Geyer departs from that of her erstwhile predecessors. Unism, while aspiring to an organic unity between artwork and surrounding space, depended on exact mathematical calculations to achieve this. And while it urged the use of colour to integrate the work into its living context and to highlight the dynamism of form, the colours it endorsed were of a limited spectrum, such as the red, blue and yellow, black and white, silver and grey, that we associate with the formal abstractions of Mondrian and the hierarchies of colour devised by Le Corbusier and Ozenfant in their manifesto for Purist painting.[ii] These so-called ‘active’ colours were considered in distinction to all other shades that ‘belong to an optically uniform colour range, which goes against the open character of a Unistic sculpture, which strives for the natural connection with the open space’. [iii] According to the Purist manifesto, the further one drifts from the ‘major scale’ that comprises of this limited palette, the further one drifts from the architectural aesthetic to the ‘aesthetic of the printed cloth’ — the modernist anathema, pure decoration![iv]
Geyer takes Unism as a point of departure to explore the possibilities of transforming space through the addition of colour. In her case, however, colour is adulterated and impure, readymade from the home-decorators’ colour charts. Geyer’s process, moreover, is not grounded in carefully reasoned mathematical formulae, but in intuition and randomness. The artist never plans the exact positioning of each module of her installations, but assembles them on site, experimenting with the interrelations between colours, and between the coloured boards and the architecture of the site. She looks not for the certitude of reason, but seeks out the contingency of the arbitrary.
The use of a potentially unlimited spectrum, and the privileging of colour as an essential sculptural component, are central to Geyer’s work. In part, the artist is responding to the repression of colour in much contemporary art and visual culture. British artist and writer David Batchelor suggests, for instance, that ‘colour has been the object of extreme prejudice in Western culture’.[v] He argues that this repression masks a fear of contamination and corruption, colour frequently being associated with devalued terms such as femininity and infantilism, or relegated to the realm of the superficial. As he succinctly puts it, ‘colour is dangerous, it is trivial or it is both’. White, on the other hand, is associated with purity, order, rationality and the precedence of form. [vi]
Geyer actively courts these ‘devalued’ terms. She luxuriates in the seductiveness of colour, its ability to immerse our perception and excite our senses to a state beyond rational cognition. The colours are let loose to trigger personal associations, to engage us in narrative formation, in contrast to the notorious muteness of Minimalism. Geyer is also interested in the link between creativity and colour, intrigued by the research that clearly establishes that our responsiveness to colour decreases with age. She thus purposefully evokes the aesthetic of a children’s playroom: her monochromatic panels might be children’s building blocks that the viewer is invited to — virtually — mess around with.
One of the reasons Geyer uses commercial colour charts as her source is on account of their non-hierarchical nature. As opposed to the traditional artist’s colour wheel with its hierarchy of primary, secondary and tertiary colours, on a colour chart every colour is assigned the same value: ‘each strip of paper is a perfect abstract painting in miniature’, each colour a self-contained event rather than part of the continuum of the spectrum.[vii] Geyer’s process debunks the hierarchies of colour inherited from modernism and still so pervasive in Western visual culture, particularly in design and architecture, but also in art. Of course, most of the spaces that have hosted Geyer’s ‘interventions’ have been archetypal white cubes — galleries of contemporary art — sites where her colourful work goes to highlight the whiteness of the walls, along with the cultural assumptions inherent in white.
The colour chart — and its corollary, premixed industrial paint — also evokes non-art processes of decoration and construction, and connects Geyer’s work with the late modern abstract painters and Minimalists. Geyer’s work is clearly in dialogue with Minimalism, its painting as much as its sculpture. It is a dialogue filtered not only through postmodern, including feminist, critiques, but also through the artist’s historical excursion to Unism, an evocation of Minimalism avant la lettre. Hence Geyer playfully, yet also critically, mixes up Minimalist strategies. In contrast to the ‘feminising’ of Minimalism in the soft edged, organic and process-based work of artists such as Eva Hesse, Geyer retains Minimalism’s hard edge, architectonic scale and austerity of form, but ‘feminises’ — ‘trivialises’ or ‘infantilises’ — the space with colour. The result is a riot, a mobilisation of those aforementioned anxieties, around the boundary between décor and art, painting and sculpture, colour and form that still pertain.
Geyer’s work manages to harness those anxieties in a productive way: we as viewers are predisposed to think about the politics of those boundaries and their resonance in aspects of our lives beyond the gallery. For we are always in interaction with the silent delineations of architecture, our bodies are forever negotiating subtle and not-so subtle compulsions of movement, and with it, thought. Geyer’s strategy of deploying riotous colour to heighten that awareness goes to underline that aesthetic pleasure does not preclude, but can indeed be inherent to, a critical sensibility. In her invitation to (mentally) play around with the basic building blocks of art and architecture, she gives us the opportunity to reconfigure and reconsider, to remember alternatives and to have confidence in our ability to craft them. As the artist recently remarked, despite taking on board many of the critiques of postmodernism — including its scepticism of grand narratives and its exposure of the pretensions of much abstract art — for many artists the notion of a social Utopia, and a belief in the social power of art, is still strong.[viii]
[i] Ryszard Stanislawski, ‘Finiteness-Infinity’, Katerzyna Kobro 1898-1951, http://www.ddg.art.pl/kobro/finiteness.html
[ii] In Purism, a manifesto for painting written in 1920, Le Corbusier and Amedee Ozenfant devised a hierarchy of colour, to keep the potential irrationality of colour strictly under control. At the top was the ‘major scale’ comprising red, ultramarine, yellow, black and white; next came the ‘dynamic scale’ comprising ochres; and last was the ‘transitional scale’ comprising certain greens and madders: David Batchelor, Chromophobia, London: Reaktion Books, 2000, 48
[iv] Batchelor, op. cit., 48
[v] ibid. 21
[vi] ibid. 23
[vii] ibid. 104-5
[viii] Beata Geyer, in an interview with the author, 3 November 2006.