Elusive Objects

Recent Work by Neil Dawson


Beyond the aesthetically fundamental question of what a work of art is lies another of apparently more gnomic quality: the question, namely, of where a work of art is. Yet that question may be as basic as any in the attempt to come to terms with the condition of the arts generally: the attempt, that is, to specify the relations between art and the world, between art and ourselves.

Initially, the question of the whereness of a work of art may seem to have application only to what have been called the 'allographic rather than the 'autographic' arts (1) : to literature and music, for instance, rather than to painting or sculpture. For there is something obviously fugitive about the whereness of, say, a novel or a sonata. In neither case could one point to a particular object in the physical world by way of indicating where the novel or sonata is. This particular copy of a novel, that particular recording of a sonata, are merely contingent and dispensable transmissions of the work. Indeed, like the original manuscript or score, they might be lost or destroyed. But in a curious way, the novel itself or the sonata somewhere survives these accidents. The point is that the whereness of each as a work of art is independent of the space of the physical world. And this is one of the distinctive features of the allographic arts.

two views of Eyes 1982
fibre-glass rod,
stainless steel wire, linen thread,
4200 mm. high x 1500 mm. wide
x 1000 mm. deep

But with the autographic arts, with painting and sculpture, it might be thought that the question cannot arise. For the fact that a painting or sculpture is an object in the physical world - such that the loss or destruction of the particular object is terminal for the work of art - suggests that the whereness of these kinds of art is identical with the whereness of an object in the space of the physical world. So a robust claim might run. But the claim is not unproblematic. In particular with painting and drawing, the image which is projected in the work is an image which is not measurable in strictly mundane spatial terms. Where, for example, is the third dimensional depth in a two-dimensional painting or drawing? (The question here could be said to have had subversive bearing in inciting artists to aspire to the Greenbergian ideal of 'flatness' in painting.(2)

But even if not painting or drawing amongst the autographic arts, then, surely, it will be argued, there can be no problem of whereness in respect of sculpture. A sculpture just is a three-dimensional object fully fitted in the three-dimensional frame of the physical world.

Little Work I 1978
piano wire,
150 x 100 x 20 mm.

I think not. For certainly with some sculpture (though my inclination is to make a stronger claim), an image may be projected which is not identical with the three dimensional whereness of the object. And here no clearer examples come to mind than recent works by Neil Dawson. Dawson's objects and his installations are persistently and deliberately elusive on the point of their whereness. Indeed, the compelling force of the artist's work is that, despite its materiality, it somehow escapes the space which it occupies.

The sense that Dawson's art, though in the world, is yet not quite of it-that it is just out of reach beyond an untraversable border-is often conveyed in the titles under which the artist will present his exhibitions. In 1981, for example (an awesomely productive year), there was Echo (Christchurch Arts Centre); Here and There (Denis Cohn Gallery, and a reprise of Dawson's exhibition with Pauline Daly at the New Zealand Embassy, Washington, DC (3); Escapes (Peter McLeavy Gallery); Vanishing Points (Auckland City Art Gallery); Reflections (National Art Gallery); Boundaries (Brooke-Gifford Gallery). The concepts nicely render the characteristic experience of simultaneous presence and absence in the works. An echo lacks specific place, neither here nor there; while confined it escapes confinement; as a reflection it reflects something, but in itself what is it? And is a boundary a place (is a vanishing point), or is it merely that which notionally distinguishes a hereness from a thereness, a presence from an absence?

Interior 6 1979
wire, nylon mesh, acrylic paint,
250 x 150 x 150 mm.

It is in the idea of a projected image - an image, that is, thrown from or by or in a particular construction - that this curious simultaneity of presence and absence first registers for the spectator. Almost invariably in Dawson's recent works, aesthetic attention is drawn not by the object itself, but by the epiphenomenal image which it offers. And the object and the image can be radically different. In several cases-importantly among them works from Interiors (Elva Bett Gallery, 1979), Here and There and Boundaries - the object itself can be very much more difficult to read (if paradoxically simpler in form) than the projected image. (Here, an accidental encounter with a Dawsonian object as it lies undisplayed in the artist's studio can be a disconcerting and confusing experience: the characteristic transparencies and omissions of these objects seem, in those circumstances, to defy coherent visual assembly.) It is the image, one wants to say, which is the seductive element of the art: the image which, in the end, visually assembles the object.

The first consideration which follows from the centrality of the projected image in Dawson's art - apart from discomforting questions about where, if not in the object, the work of art is to be found - is how this artistic enterprise registers Dawson in terms of sculptural tradition. The artist himself makes illuminating comment on the point: 'I find it far more interesting if you try to do things that are totally opposite to what sculpture immediately talks about or what sculpture has done'.(4) The oppositeness here consists generally in the refusal of the artist to found his sculpture on the base of objecthood, of substantiality and literal presence.

Seascape Installation
Robert McDougall
Art Gallery 1979
stainless steel wire,
plastic meshes, piano wire,
cotton, customwood,
acrylic paint,
approx. 5000 x 5000 x 5000 mm.

Of course, post-object art has made a virtual aesthetic (and political) policy out of such refusal. But what is critically significant about Neil Dawson is that he is not obviously a post-object artist. That is to say, even if the focal point of his work is the projected, epiphenomenal image, it is nevertheless an image which is both causally and logically locked to some object or physical construction. And in that there is a subtlety superior to that displayed by several post-object artists. For them, the refusal of objecthood within the sculptural tradition amounts to a blunt refusal of materiality and the exchange of a spatial objecthood for a temporal equivalent (an event, a performance).

Neil Dawson takes a more considered pace. One could not say simply that there is a refusal of materiality in his work. What is important, rather, is his concentration on the possibilities of equivocation with materials. His refusal is, so to speak, not of materiality as such, but of the substantiality of materials. And this allows room for more sophisticated manoeuvring around the idea of objecthood - an idea which, in sculptural tradition, has not so much come to an abrupt end but has abruptly - I think too abruptly ceased to be a point for aesthetic exploration.

Escape (Spheres) 1981
customwood, wire, acrylic paint,
400 x 250 x 50 mm.

The equivocal nature of the materials of Dawson's works is particularly apparent in works from Seascapes, Interiors, Here and There. The fine mesh in these works - even the much coarser mesh of the chain-link fencing in a piece from Boundaries - is both a presence and an absence; a 'transparent opacity', to employ, yet another of the oxymorons which Dawson's art forces out; a stuff which, as the artist himself puts it 'is half there and half isn't there'.(5) Or the piano wire which regularly features in Dawson's works: the frailty of its materiality and substantiality is, in sculptural terms, the equivalent of the geometer's lines of no thickness (or points of no area-vanishing points). Or again, the fine green metal strip which is used in a piece from Boundaries: the greenness of the strip functions as the edge of a non-existent, shattered pane of glass - the edge of nothing.

Boundary (Norwester) 1981
corrugated iron, stainless steel
wire, enamel paint,
1200 x 1200 x 500 mm.

This play of presence and absence, of materiality and immateriality, of substantiality and insubstantiality, provides - or should promote - an important reappraisal of the idea of objecthood in sculpture. But there is a further, and more profoundly philosophical consideration. The philosophical issue, of course, is whether our experience is a function of existent objects, or, the other way round, whether existent objects are a function of our experience. Philosophically, Dawson inclines to the latter view. The object, for Dawson, is not a thing, but an experience: the experience of perception itself: our awareness of the world through the prides and prejudices of vision.

Hole (Plumb Line) 1982
brass, stainless steel
wire, enamel paint,
500 x 500 x 500 mm.

This fact is most evident in Dawson's exceptionally refined use of multi-point perspective. In Street Grid (from The Street Show, Robert McDougall Art Gallery, 1980), in Airspace (from the Hansells Sculpture Exhibition, Wairarapa Art Centre, 1980), in Vanishing Points, in Reflections, the perspectival complexities terminate in a thoroughly curious and disconcerting experience for the viewer. Perspective itself is not, of course, an object of perception. Usually we are aware of it as a virtuosic trick performed by a two-dimensional artist in an act of reparation for his lack of a third dimension. Yet Dawson employs perspectival devices within three-dimensional contexts. The viewer is somehow himself in the perspectival image, and not a mere onlooker or overlooker.

The Echo installation, to take the point further, echoes back a figurative image of the Christchurch Arts Centre. But from what point of view? Unlike the fixed point of view of, say, a line drawing, the viewer himself moves from point to point of view, and suddenly becomes aware of how much the eye is accustomed to importing in perspectival seeing, and how very confining that act is. But in moving around Echo, the very same construction has to be read successively inside out, outside in, back to front, front to back. The installation, Dawson maintains, 'is about the process of seeing - about getting in behind the drawing system and being inside it to the extent that you're just perceiving the dimensions which exist'.(6) It is commonplace enough to think of the sculptor as one who draws in three dimensions not two, but Dawson adds a new form of intrigue to this thought by suggesting that the sculptor is not so much giving an outside to a drawing as giving it an inside - being inside a drawing.

installation at
The National Gallery
Wellington, 1981
plastic tape, acrylic paint

Echo is, obviously, a work of Dawson's which occurs within and depends upon specific site. Vanishing Points and Reflections are still more clearly site-specific. But it should not be thought that this is a new or isolate feature of Dawson's works in recent years. For to the degree that the essence of his works is a particular perceptual experience, and insofar as perceptual experiences, if not objects, are tied to particular place, then virtually all of Dawson's works can be said to be site-specific. That is to say, even with the small, readily portable works, the site itself has to be closely specified - indeed, created - by the artist. A false or indelicate placement, a crudely directed projection of light, or an awkwardly restricted spectatorial point of view, can brutal ly eliminate the projected image and leave only the tangible bits and pieces of the objects. Dawson's meticulous awareness of the spectator in relation to his works and their placement is, in this respect, quite admirable.

two views of Echo,
Christchurch Arts Centre 1981
fibre glass tubing,
stainless steel wire
(The construction is 3 metres
in height and was suspended
8 metres above the centre
of the north quadrangle.)

It is admirable, too, that Dawson has increasingly addressed himself to the aesthetic subtleties of site-specificity. For certainly within New Zealand, the issue has been unclearly, or only casually understood.

Most often, art works of this kind have amounted to bold reorientations of specific site (as in several of Billy Apple's conversions - whatever his further aesthetic ambitions); or to more or less wilful importations into specific site. What is frequently missing-and what it seems to me to lie within Dawson's potential to achieve-is a proper reverence for site: a doubly-directed reverence insofar as it embraces both place and person-in-place.

Here and There 8 1980
customwood, acrylic paint,
400 x 400 x 200 mm.

At least in contemplated form, a site work proposed in New Plymouth shows up this reverence for site. Though truly monumental in envisagement, there is no sense that the work might compete against, or antagonise, or offend the chosen site. It is likely, indeed, precisely to enhance the site, in the manner of an artist who affords a close parallel to (and is much favoured by) Neil Dawson: the Californian, Robert Irwin. (in one of the best of Irwin's works - an untitled 1980 installation at Wellesley College, Massachusets-there is a delightful unobtrusiveness in a panoramic and majestic piece achieved through following, and at the same time quietly alerting the spectator to, the natural lines of vision within the contours of a specific site.(7) But a conclusion to the idea of elusiveness in Dawson's objects may best be articulated in terms of Port Hills, a work from Boundaries, and, for me, the most exquisite transformation of presence and absence yet achieved by the artist.

The work first appeared to me, as it lay on the artist's studio workbench, to be just an object. More than that, it appeared, against Dawson's custom, to be jarringly material. Its bulk is a sheet of matt black corrugated iron slanting down upon the (piano wire) contours of the Port Hills in Christchurch. It is a work which, seen merely as an object, would seem to risk all: its material substantiality, its literal weight and opacity, seem too overwhelming in the interests of retaining Dawson's fugitive aesthetic.

Seascape (sketch) 1979
piano wire, nylon mesh,
customwood, acrylic paint,
250mm. diameter

And then, entrancingly, a reversal is effected when the work is mounted, as it is designed to mount, on the wall, projecting out at an oblique angle. The corrugation becomes coruscation: a slanting, rain thickened light, weightless as a cloud. The wire outlines of the hills-an omission, an emptiness-suddenly become the dense substance of the figuration: a thickness of nothing which the literal density of the corrugated iron can only hover over, to be gusted away by the next sea-breeze. Laconically, but with perfect accuracy, Dawson remarks of that work, 'The thing is the space and the space is the thing'.(8) It is upon such paradoxes, upon such radical reversals of customary perceptual experience, that the essential elusiveness of Dawson's art finally comes to rest.

1. The distinction between the allographic and the autographic arts orginates with, and is discussed at length by Nelson Goodman in Languages of Art (Bobbs Merrill Indianapolis, 1968).
2. For a related discussion of this point, see my essay 'Milan Mrkusich: The Architecture of the Painted Surface' in Art New Zealand 19, pp 34-39.
3. The exhibition of Here and There at the New Zealand Embassy in Washington DC was reviewed in Art New Zealand 17 and further discussed in my essay 'Washington Behind Closed Sculptural Doors' in Action 18, March/April 1981.
4. Neil Dawson in a recorded conversation with the author, Christchurch, 11 February 1982.
5. Neil Dawson, recorded conversation, op cit.
6. Neil Dawson in a recorded interview with the author, Christchurch, 12 February 1982.
7. For an account of Robert Irwin's work see Melinda Wortz, 'Surrendering to Presence: Robert Irwin's Esthetic Integration' in Artforum, Vol XX, No 3, November 1981. It is interesting to note that in recent work, Irwin has, like Dawson before him, taken to the use of mesh: that stuff which 'is half there and half isn't there'.
8. Neil Dawson, recorded conversation, op. cit.