Pouring Paint Uphill
John Hurrell 2006
[Helen Calder, Up, 64zero3 Gallery, Christchurch]
What strange images they were, these elegantly curved forms that looked like giant raindrops attempting to descend to the floor in slo mo. With the rhythms of falling commuters in a Magritte painting frozen in their downward mission, Calder’s paintings were made of black or white paint poured onto veneer covered panels. The forms looked like drops with their upper tips clipped off. Placed in groups on the pale grey walls of the 64zero3 gallery that Calder co-directs, and close to its large shop windows that overlook the footpath of Manchester St, most were hung as singles while the others were placed in pairs with one stacked above the other.
Called Up, Calder’s installation was in two parts. Its southern component, hung on a single wall, had two sets of paired panels positioned with white above black. In contrast, the northern section - seen through a separating door and the main window - used two walls set at right-angles to create a more fully spatial experience. The three pairs of black, static drops created an odd perspectival illusion, with one fatter set having their shapes almost touching, and another thinner pair seeming more apart. The solo white drops were different again. They usually interacted with wall edges and blended into the plane to accentuate the shape of the veneer.
To see Up properly the viewer had to walk around the walls bearing the paintings, and through the doorway that separated the two rooms. Sometimes the panels in both halves echoed each other. They were positioned either up high near the ceiling - against the top edge of the white mdf exhibiting wall fastened to an outer pink-grey concrete wall; or they were be tucked into the crease of a corner, or butted against the rim of a doorway or enclosing edge of a projecting wall. Those planar tensions were vital for the success of the work. The paintings functioned as markers which often delineated the inner shell that lined the gallery rooms by pointing to its edges. The paired panels provided an understated decorative component which resonated with the presence of the veneer. There was a rhythm in their distribution, a pitter-patter pulsing as one scanned from left to right and back again.
The veneer, highlighted especially on those works using white paint, had characteristic patterns of repeated knots and wobbly lines within each rectangle. Within the cadences of the larger installation these patterns provided more discrete and very condensed ‘readymade’ rhythms. They were too subtle to compete with the Resene shapes, but they did add a delicate nuance – especially the white ones which accentuated the U-shapes of the veneer as supporting half-frames with a ‘negative’ paint-poured form within them.
So how were these paintings made? At a quick glance Helen Calder’s paintings looked as if the viscous flat enamel had run from the top of each rectangle to descend like a glacier or lava flow to its bottom, finishing a few centimetres short at the bottom with a rotund base suggestive of a swelling breast. That curved bottom edge made them look masculine as well, like a testicle. Some presented on long panels looked vaguely like cocks or peakless ties or floppy wagging tongues that were licking the veneer. The thin horizontal line on their upper edges could have been traces of a lower lip.
If one insisted on a literal interpretation, probably the best approach would be to see the shapes as a reflexive commentary on their own making, as drops not of rain but of paint. Then that reading can be combined with other possibilities, the tongues that talk about the exhibition, belonging perhaps to writers like me. Just as Duchamp said that the viewer completes the work in a partnership, so this reading amplifies that, with paint ‘drops’ and long ‘tongues’ presented side by side. Symbols of Practice accompanied by Theory, shuffled together so they were interchangeable.
Ignoring these imaginative interpretations for a while, what you saw in these works was a process pointing to carefully poured paint, meticulously elucidated with all its ingredients detectable, but with the final result inverted. Chronologically the end of the paint’s movement was at the upper horizontal edge of each panel as it was positioned on the wall. Somehow the poured paint had started from the curved base and moved slowly to the top edge. The hardened enamel drips remained clinging to the cross-section of mdf – within easy range of the viewer’s eye.
In the making process, the veneer panels had been positioned in an alignment opposite to the orientation of their final hang, tilted so that when the poured Resene hit the hard surface it spread slightly upwards to form a beautiful curved edge before sinking back. It then slid down in a straight line to the horizontal edge below. The veneer of radiata was supported by a rectangle of mdf. That veneer was a thin wooden skin onto which another skin of enamel paint was added.
The title of the show referred to the turning of the panels suggesting that the paint was poured upwards, that it migrated towards the ceiling. Or that maybe the viewer’s orientation was skew-whiff, with the room being inverted, with the audience hanging upside down from the floor like bats.
Its point was to underline the paradox, for the method was not so much hidden but amusingly miscontextualized. Nothing was actually hidden, all the materials were displayed, but the use of gravity was misrepresented. No ingredients had been obliterated or covered over to avoid detection, but the turning of each panel 180 degrees confused [perhaps hoodwinked] the viewer. A lie hadn’t been told, but certain assumptions that the viewer might make had been manipulated. Expectations about the poured application of the paint and how exhibitions reveal process had been thwarted.
In an earlier commissioned work that Calder made for the apartment of Julia Morison, a deceitfully descending flattened blob of white paint was placed on a piece of gib that was then inserted into a wall with its edges plastered over, but again realigned so the origins of its spatial trajectory were at the bottom. In another other more recent series of paintings Paint Set Calder also used inversion/pouring processes, but combining them with a sequence of dark-light-dark colours systematically picked from Resene colour charts. Though motivated by an interest in the history of décor and wall colour fashions, the artist created calligraphic slivers of glowing line on her flat aluminium sheets that had mystical connotations, but which were not obviously about the walls and domestic living. The painting surface did not project out, being flush with the wall and lying tightly against it, as if a continuation of its shell and locating those slivered lines within it.
Calder’s interest in walls stems from an earlier project in 2003 using portable kitset wall frames with the conventional 2.4m stud, those wooden structures on which gib can be attached in order to construct seemingly solid, vertical, planar divisions within a dwelling. In a post-graduate exhibition in the Ilam School of Fine Art gallery Calder took those frames, placed single gib panels in their centres, and leaned them against the gallery wall. Sometimes she placed a single coat of colour over that gib panel. In a later work Kit Set  she added many layers so that the enamel coats thickened, bubbled, sagged, flaked and peeled away – exposing its own process. It looked diseased as though it had been pried off an exceptionally decrepit wall and reattached to a new support.
Calder is obviously interested in surface illusions of solidness, and how they are physically supported. The frame held up the gib in place so it could be painted in order to create the illusion of a densely compacted wall. By exposing the engineering of a wall and what it supports Calder seemed to be pointing out that a house is only a frail shell. Its appearance of solidity is deceptive. There seemed almost a religious or metaphysical element here, perhaps even cosmological, that went outside a house to far beyond it - a comment on surface and illusion and the transience of all things. This suspicion of a solid, reliable world was also found in Paint Set as described above with its hints of mysterious divine letters alluding to another reality. Kit Set too worried about appearance. It pulled at and gnawed at the ‘skin’ of illusion that might surround everything we see.
Working with walls as units was also part of Mr and Mrs Pink’s Fabulous Collection, a 2003 High Street Project installed as partitions there and at The Blue Oyster in Dunedin. The arrangements of the walls mimicked the architecture of each space. The gib panels in these installations were left smoothly plastered and pristine white – the centred rectangle both mimicking a painting and suggesting the absence of a painting, and referring to the title of the show which was more about painting’s traditional position on the wall and its history as a collectable object. The spatial relationship to the site was important as it integrated the work into the gallery so the walls appeared to have been stripped back to expose the rectangle of gib.
This whole area of interest in what is behind a painted layer, the deconstructing of the distinction between a painting and its support wall has been explored thoroughly by the French conceptual painter Claude Rutualt [b. 1941] since the early seventies. In his projects that focus on collecting and décor, he offers each collector a range of possible painting/installation strategies. For the selected project the artist supplies the stretched unprimed canvas and the collector must [where applicable – for it might not be painted] paint it the same colour as the background wall. Rutault is well known for his installations of monochrome stretchers [or pinned up A4 paper sheets] over walls of identical colours, and for making his paintings smaller and their prices bigger the longer the works take to sell. Sometimes he, like Calder, leans paintings against the wall. They and the supporting wall are the work.
Someone like Rutault is completely disinterested in any relational spatial dynamic between different components inside his work, but that aspect which he disdainfully ignores means a great deal to Calder who in turn, is not interested in playing games manipulating collectors.
For all the modernist pale grey walls around them, Calder’s abstract, pristine Up installation still hinted at the natural world and the elemental. The work was unabashedly formal, but with a bit pinch of humour about our species’ requirements for decoration and shelter. It was impossible to pry apart the cultural and the biological, or the serious and the comic. Nor not to chuckle at the use of veneer and sly inversion with their rejection of truth to materials or process. There was no need to deny the obvious fakery here, or its celebration. Why would you have wanted to?