Matt Arbuckle, Andrew Barber, Sandra Bushby, Lara Merrett & Grace Wright
Inhabited Space
July 19 - August 22

Parlour Projects is delighted to present an online group painting show featuring the work of five artists working within the realm of abstraction: Matt Arbuckle, Andrew Barber, Sandra Bushby, Lara Merrett and Grace Wright. Titled Inhabited Space, the exhibition is accompanied by an essay by Andrew Clark.

"One byproduct of recent events has been a shared experience of the malleability of time. Enforced separation from the milestones of daily life during quarantine resulted in a sense of time both passing and standing still while becoming somehow private, following an internal logic rather than being regulated from without by clocks and calendars. The sedentary nature of locked-down life also pointed towards a deepening of the experience of place, an unfolding of space echoing an unfolding reflection on, and recognition of, the self. 

For artists, these experiences may have felt more than a little familiar. The time spent in the studio, in often-solitary production, likewise leads to a gradual sense of temporal unmooring and a sensitivity to domestic space. As Jan Verwoert points out, the modernist narrative of the artist as a solitary figure working outside time to undertake a heroic act that would conclusively answer the question of painting is fundamentally at odds with the lived experience of creativity. Verwoert suggests that a mode of discourse he describes as “radically inhabitable” may be a more honest alternative to the modernist pursuit of the final gesture. This way of working acknowledges the domestic and repetitive nature of art, and employs craft as a way of inhabiting time in an iterative process of living, play and experimentation. 

This exhibition brings together the works of five contemporary abstract painters from Aotearoa and Australia who address themes of repetition, memory, biography and place. Bachelard writes glowingly of the “values of inhabited space, of the non-I that protects the I,” gently chastising those who “know the universe before they know the house, the far horizon before the resting-place.” Viewed together, these works might present some idea of what it means to be able to inhabit a painting: to live with, in and through it.

In Matt Arbuckle’s Elevated Emotion, controlled folding and staining of the polyester support produces a dreamlike, ephemeral image, seemingly dissolving and precipitating at the same time. This work is also, in a real sense, a palimpsest or trace; Arbuckle employs the pooling of the paint against the corrugated cardboard protecting the surface on which it was made as a mark-making tool. His paintings thus directly incorporate the lived time of artmaking and the space of the studio, each their own autobiography. Here, as in many of Arbuckle’s works, there seems to be a narrative component, a sense of a lived-in space, experienced and remembered simultaneously. As well as being a trace or vestige of the inhabited studio, Arbuckle’s painting is also a landscape of a sort. Fragile tissues of colour frame a visceral stained mark, creating an eerie, ethereal dreamscape that invites a meditative experience of time.

Sandra Bushby’s works Blue Stacks and Fading Lines operate as a pair, each painting echoing or reflecting the forms of the other. In both works, blue marks delineating the vertical edges of the canvas are connected by faint horizontal traces, the bounded composition creating a sense of interiority and self-reflexivity. The repetition both within the works themselves and between them, one seemingly operating as a kind of shadow or impression of the other, suggests a spatio-temporal as well as structural concern with stacking or layering, iterating in time as well as space. These paintings have a liminal quality, operating on the boundary between presence and absence. Although her work is stylistically and structurally very different from Arbuckle’s, Bushby’s limited palette and reserved interventions on the canvas likewise create an opportunity for meditation, reflection and remembering.

In a different but related mode, Andrew Barber’s works engage directly with issues around land use and the difference between ownership and stewardship of place. His studio, situated within a regenerating forest in the Coromandel, has a direct bearing on his works, which function in a sense as echoes of this terrain. In Study (stiff blanket, english blood), an all-over pattern evokes the red-and-black tartan of a Swandri, recontextualised as the grid of property boundaries that converted a continuous wild space into discrete parcels of capital under the colonial system. Likewise, in Study (bloodlines), painted with clay pigment from the land on which his studio sits, Barber deploys the linear forms of a tennis court to create an image of landscape as a site of competition rather than cooperation, where arbitrary rules and circumscribed movements are superimposed over the primordial ochre.

Lara Merrett’s works are, like Bushby’s, doubles of themselves; each consists of a layer of canvas stretched over a painting on linen, creating a liminal, almost-present shadow-image that underpins and informs the swirling, explosive colours of the work’s surface. Making out in The Hours features ghostly linear outlines and stains echoing the borders of other, absent paintings, suggesting that this work, like Arbuckle’s, contains and carries with it a trace of the studio. The title, too, indicates a connection to private memory or autobiography, another type of trace defined by absence, distance and, perhaps, loss. Merrett’s local environmental activism also, perhaps, feeds into the creation of these works, fostering a different type of connection to place, one that, like Barber’s, is concerned with the duty of care that inhabitation engenders.

In New Equilibrium, Grace Wright creates an elemental, fantastic space in which billowing, intestinal brushstrokes cluster and float like cherubim on a Renaissance ceiling. Her overt gestures towards art history, and her embrace of the visceral pleasures of painting, necessarily carry a connection to landscape and bodies, the primary subjects of representational western art. The work’s large scale (although difficult to parse in the context of a digital exhibition) makes apparent both the bodily exertions of the painter and a sense that the viewer may be overwhelmed or absorbed into the work. Wright has discussed the way her colour choices were influenced by walks taken during lockdown; a different experience of time led to a re-examination of the once-familiar land- and sky-scapes. In both Wright’s and Arbuckle’s works, a dreamlike vista invites the viewer to share in an autobiographical or private space.

Lastly, it is worth noting how the digital format of the exhibition might change how it is experienced. Rather than a delineated visit, isolated within the neutral space of the gallery, this exhibition inhabits the private zone of the browser window. Squeezed, perhaps, between a tab of emails clamouring for attention and a half-filled shopping cart, it can be gradually absorbed at the pace of the everyday, and may even become a part of the battered furniture of the mind. It can easily find its way into the viewer’s pocket, pulled out in an odd moment. Left open, returned to, mulled over, it may prove itself inhabitable." 

– Andrew Clark

Sandra Bushby and Lara Merrett's images are courtesy of Sumer Gallery, Tauranga.

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