Travel Buildings (if you want it) etc


Tobias Richardson
Enamel and acrylic on board
Installation view, Cross Currents Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
Image: Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

‘Tobias Richardson’, Cross-Currents: Focus on Contemporary Australian Art

Modernism’s supposed death, like that of God nearly a century earlier, has left a hole that nobody quite knows how to fill.1

There are, as Willem de Kooning observed, ‘many mansions in the house of art’ – sites we choose to visit or inhabit, often in times of chaos or uncertainty. In a turning away from institutional religions, the experience of art in secular spaces offers a substitute for conventional practices of worship, an opportunity for commonly-held beliefs and values to be reaffirmed, and for the individual to re-focus or be transformed. The architecture and ‘high church’ aspects of art are, by now, familiar: the pristine white cube of the gallery acts as a shrine of assembly and exhibition, with all its attendant rituals of public recognition and sacrifice, a rarefied projection of the studio space where the act of inspired creation occurs in private. It is a temple as much as a market place, both haven and home for the throng of anointed and appointed individuals who congregate as the ‘art world’.

The built environment of Eastern and Western cultures, both secular and sacred, and the rituals and activities they enshrine, have been a source of inspiration for Darwin-based artist, Tobias Richardson, since he first put pencil to paper as a child. His collection of sketchbooks, assembled over many years of travel and shifting domiciles, function as graphic records of architecture, landscape and life at home and abroad, as collages of his experiences, and as workbooks for creating, interchangeably, paintings and sculptures in interrelated series.

For Richardson, drawing is both a discipline and a ritual, essential to finding his creative bearings, both in the studio and in life: ‘I draw where I am so I know where I am’2. Drawing also defines how he collects and reconstructs his materials and ideas in formal terms, setting co-ordinates for individual works through placement of line, scale and edge. Beyond the studio, the ‘blank space’ of the exhibition venue is itself redrawn spatially and visually, redefined through the number, selection and installation of works. Reconfigured in situ, his paintings and sculptures become connected links in an optical and thematic circuit which surround the viewer with multiple focus points, compelling reflection on the physical act of viewing itself.

The Kabah series of paintings (2005-06) has its origins in journeys to Burma, where Richardson’s curiosity was aroused by photographic poster images of the ancient Islamic shrine, sold by street-vendors at Yangon. The hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and its associated mass-ritual of circumambulation, appealed to the three-dimensional sensibility of his own practice. The minimalist granite cube, shrouded in black cloth with vertical and horizontal strips of Koranic inscriptions, was a concentrated, abstract expression of spiritual and physical intensity – iconic subject matter with compositional and symbolic focus, and gravitational pull. Translated into an emblematic tableau of paintings, restricted in palette but relishing in expressive gestural marks and enamel drips, an experimental use of supports, surface textures and collaged elements, it could recite, metaphorically and in seemingly infinite variation, contemporary art’s missing link.

In the Kabah series, the memory of Modernism’s high ambitions is drawn homeward, back into the white cube, absent the ironic detachment of Post-Modernist gatekeepers. Richardson’s ‘Malcolm X of buildings’3 acknowledges that through the creative intercession of artists, and their re-investigation of cultural symbols and practices, the vacuum which exists – within ourselves and the exhibition space – may, with a leap of faith, be filled.

Anita Angel
Curator, Charles Darwin University Art Collection
2 July 2007

1 P. Timms, What’s Wrong with Contemporary Art?, UNSW Press Ltd, Sydney, 2004, p.85.
2 T. Richardson, interview with the author, 25 June 2007.
3 Ibid.

Source: Anita Angel, ‘Tobias Richardson’ (catalogue essay), Cross-Currents: Focus on Contemporary Australian Art, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2007, pp.90-97. Exhibition dates, 18 Sept – 26 Nov 2007. Guest curated by John Stringer.

This essay is reproduced with the permission of the Museum of Contemporary Art and the author.