Mitch Cairns | Bass Principles

10 May – 2 June 2012

Mitch Cairns | Bass Principles (installation view) 2012


Susan Gibb

"When are pictures freed from phony ‘artistic’ pretensions so that they can become better pictures?”- Ad Reinhardt cartoon 
I first visited Mitch Cairns’ studio twelve months ago. He had just moved in and was busy with the finishing touches – feeling through the feng shui. Located in the inner city suburb of Chippendale, behind a heavy roller door, the space was aloof from the world. It was a marked change from his previous set-up, a home in Rozelle out of which he had lived, worked and hosted ‘The Cosmic Battle For Your Heart’ – an artist-run-initiative co-founded with Agatha Gothe-Snape, Brian Fuata, and Kelly Doley – since 2009. There the outside world had been invited in for exhibitions, performances and dinners, and in response, the domestic influence had projected itself outwards through the work Cairns produced during the period - modest in size, banal in tone, domestic in subject matter and historical reference.[1] 
In this new studio, the objects that had dominated attention in Rozelle – a Persian rug, a cane daybed – were secondary to an easel, freshly stretched canvases, a tray of brushes, a bag of rags, a paper drawer – and the smiling, slightly drunken faces had been reduced to pocket-sized snapshots caught in the unwavering objectivity of fluorescent light.  This new space was clearly about work. The most noticeable object of all reclined gently on a table surveying the scene. A plaster study of a woman, this sculpture was the result of a recently completed life-sculpting course at the Tom Bass Sculpture Studio School.[2] Titled Bass Principles, the figure would oversee the development of his latest body of work, and echo in One Half of a Woman’s Waistline Repeated
It is often noted that Cairns studied at the National Art School. Known for its commitment to the Atelier model of teaching and steeped in the history of Australian modernism, these days it stands as the least radical of the tertiary art schools on offer, having refused to adapt to shifts in artistic practice ushered in by conceptualism. For Cairns, who "wanted to learn to paint”, the National Art School was an assured selection. Painting, or ‘picture-making’, is at the heart of his practice: the line of enquiry, the enduring problem of filling the frame. In our earliest conversations about this new body of work, Cairns floated the idea of "sensitive art” as a working concept. Perched behind him on an easel at the time was a cartoon study of Poor Mum – a portrait of a woman, namelessly, and somewhat humorously, at grief in the world. Drawn with an economy of line, and resonating for its clarity of expression, the cartoon would later develop into a painting for the exhibition.  
Coinciding with his study at the Tom Bass Sculpture Studio School, Cairns also undertook the Alan Moir Advanced Cartoon Classes[3] - a ten-lesson over the Internet package. Originating in the Middle Ages, the term cartoon was first used to describe the preparatory sketch for a work of art. Subsequently, in the 19th century, with the invention of the modern print press, it was adopted for its more contemporary use - to describe humorous sketches in newspapers and magazines. In Bass Principles, Cairns employs the cartoon for both purposes, as studies for paintings - like Poor Mum – and as standalone expressions. 
It was in the 1960s that cartoons reached a peak in their popularity, a point existing alongside other major cultural and political shifts, including the problematisation of the modernist legacy. In Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History, he muses on the most popular cartoon of them all, Peanuts, stating, "Individual faces may vary greatly but a smirk on one is a lot like a smirk on another. Smirks are conceptual, not pictorial. Our brains are like cartoonists – and cartoonists are like our brains, simplifying and exaggerating, subordinating facial detail to abstract comic concepts.”[4] Poor Mum with her frown is not illustrative, it is an idea. A point extended, or reached in reverse in Smokey Sad Square, where the picture is formed by Cairns, through the arrangement of individual cartoon studies of facial features and expressions on a monochrome square. 
For Cairns pictures are concepts, a notion humorously referenced in the cartoon Painting Gag (Cartoon XIII). Anthropomorphising a door and window through the addition of eyes, the door asks the window "And who is this?!!!”, pointing to a hard-edge abstraction hanging on a wall.[5] In the cartoon, Cairns puts to play various ideas of pictures and how they court each other – the clichéd description of paintings as illusionistic windows or doors into other worlds; the formalist idea of the hardedge abstraction as a reference to nothing but themselves; and our anthropomorphic ability to bring these objects into conversation with us, through the projection of our own ideas and readings on to them.  
In the painting Collector with ‘Bass Principles’ the hardedge abstraction from Painting Gag is reprised. Here it sits above a figurative representation of half a man’s waistline. Both are being viewed by an anonymous man – a stand-in for us, the viewer. Returning to the idea of sensitive art, one might ask what this means and what this might look like? The history of art may not be known to all, however, it is through pictures that we continue to understand the world, a fact Mitch Cairns is sensitive to and a sensitivity that he asks us to share. 
Reflecting on Bass Principles, Cairns’ return to the studio, the completion of the Tom Bass and Alan Moir courses, or his consideration of the artists Ad Reinhardt, Eric Thake and George Molnar – all who utilised cartooning as part of their larger oeuvre – can be understood as studies in constructing pictures, in how these artists have resolved the problem of filling the frame. In this series of works these references, alongside Cairns’ ongoing use of self-imposed limitations – palette, paint type and motifs[6] – form the base principles, for questioning and generating pictorial results.
Susan Gibb is a curator based in Sydney. She currently runs a twelve-month independent curatorial project, 'Society', from her home in Redfern. Previously Susan worked as the Visual Arts Curator at Carriageworks, an Associate Curator and Project Manager at Campbelltown Arts Centre, and as a Curatorial Assistant at Penrith Regional Gallery & The Lewers Bequest. A recipient of an Asialink Arts Management Residency, Susan has also worked as a Curator-in-Residence at Green Papaya Art Projects, Guest Editor for and curated an exhibition of Australian and New Zealand video art at the Ishmael Bernal Gallery, University of the Philippines Film Institute, in Manila, The Philippines. She has also written for national and international art publications including ArtAsiaPacific, Art & Australia, Artlink and Artist Profile.
[1] Cairns’ last series Man Rose, presented at BREENSPACE from 20 August – 18 September 2010, looked toward the relationship and work of artists Pat and Richard Larter
[2] Tom Bass (1916–2010) was an Australian sculptor known for his public sculptures. Importantly, he was a figure not in vogue with the contemporary art scene of the time. The Tom Bass Sculpture School was founded in 1974, and teaches sculpture in the Master and Apprentice model.
[3] Alan Moir is an Australia-based cartoonist. He was editorial cartoonist at The Bulletin from 1973–79, the Brisbane Courier-Mail 1979–84 and currently for the Sydney Morning Herald.
[4]Jonathan Franzen, The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History, Picador, New York, 2006, p. 35
[5] This picture has become a shorthand for paintings in Cairns work
[6] In Bass Principles the palette is blue and yellow. The paint has shifted from Cairns previous use of enamel, then acrylic, to oil, which he works back into with mineral turpentine. Smoke is a recurring motif. Coincidently, smoke is also featured in work by fellow painters Mary MacDougall in Sign for Smokers 2011, (ceramic paint on tile, 22 x 22 cm) and Trevelyan Clay in Square Cigarettes 2011, (oil and acrylic on linen, 76 x 56.5 cm) and Smokin’ DNA 2011, (oil and acrylic on linen, 76 x 56.5 cm). A further coincidence is that all three painters were born within twelve months of each other. And further still grew up in regional centres.