by Chantelle Mitchell
Presented at RMIT’s First Site Gallery in August 2017, Conversations - A Visual Language presents six paintings and a time lapse video that constitute a collaboration between two artists, Karima Baadilla and Joseph Fonti. The six canvases in the exhibition space speak to vibrant, electric tones, marks made by the brush, palette knife, or by excavation into the surface. At the centre of this exhibition is the notion of ‘conversation’, which materialises in painterly collaboration, with the artists taking turns to respond to each other, not through verbal means, but through painterly practice and the canvas. The time lapse video provides the audience with an insight into this process: one moment it’s Baadilla with headphones on, approaching the unstretched canvas tacked to the wall, painting and marking the surface, gestures hastened by the time lapse, and then, Fonti, approaching the same canvas or a different canvas or the same canvas as prior iteration… The gallery, a long, almost bunker like space, contains no natural light, however the time lapse video shows a wintery sunlight entering the studio space - the video screen acting like a portal not only to another place, but also as a rupture, intruding on the temporal continuity of the exhibition as a whole. As you view the stretched works, equally spaced, and lit by artificial lighting, previous iterations of the works are materialising, changing, being formed, and, due to the nature of the video loop, unformed and unmade. The conversations, then, are in dialogue not only internally and with other pieces in the series, but also with their moments of becoming and realisation. In this way, the exhibition expouses a subtle Deleuzian undercurrent, one that sees time not as a pure ‘receptacle of being’, but rather time itself as the real, ‘the power that constitutes life as becoming … existence is understood in terms of the event’.
The fluidity of these conversations is made all the more apparent by the choice of medium, primarily oil on canvas. Rather than selecting a medium with greater immediacy and permanence, the artists work mostly in oil, a durational paint. Particularly when drying times are drawn out by a long Melbourne winter. This sees drips of diluted paint moving down, up, or across the canvas, depending on the way the surface has been turned and rotated during the collaborative process. Even though Baadilla and Fonti approached the canvases at separate times, each waiting for the other to finish and leave, before responding, speaking back, silencing or questioning anew, the materiality of the surface allows for the shared language and coming together of the artists through mark-making to be realised in a heightened, fluid sense.
Tending toward the abstract, except for strange interventions by humorous and sympathetic pig or worm like creatures, the works are highly gestural, bar the odd grid structure or dotted line. However, it is difficult to tell precisely where the language of one artist ends and the other begins. Instead, the surfaces feel somewhat the cacophonous but in an inviting, animated and celebratory way, with moments of intimacy read in excavations into the surfaces, or noticeable overpainting, obscuring a hidden message from view. As conversations, these paintings employ the mark as part of a semiotic relationship. Semiotician Abraham Zemsz was a proponent of language-painting in semiotic theory, which lead to visual plastic semiotics -- whereby a work is analysed not for referential or figurative significance, but rather where the material creation of the work collides with impression, not producing a formal or universal structure of semiotics but something intimate which can be read and intuited on the personal level. A personal semiotic gestural language therefore can be read in the marks across the surfaces of the Conversation pieces; similar marks, interactions and colours forming the foundation of an analysis that positions these works as speaking an intimate, coded and vibrational engagement, where two independant visual semiotic structures are brought together, learning to converse and engage. Whilst this consideration engages with the strict, philosophical and fundamental notion of language at play, it is also reflective of a natural inclination to read across the works, to listen to who is speaking which gesture, and what, perhaps, the artists are saying, perceiving and responding to. A semiotic, painterly-linguistic order forms both the conception and reception of this series, a structure that invites decoding. One that invites listening.
It felt fitting, that while the vibrant, vivid, and electric surfaces of the Conversation pieces occupied one part of RMIT’s First Site Gallery, an exhibition titled The Space Between Us, curated by Wilson Yeung and featuring works by Estefania Salas, Agustin Moreno Moreno and MAria Camila Quintero was unfolding in the space opposite. This exhibition saw bodies submerged in milk, the white liquid highling pelvic bones, ribs, elbows, or seeing two nude performers struggling to emerge from a nylon cocoon. The Space Between Us saw intimacy often rendered in haunting, erotically charged and emotional bodily terms. Collaboration in performance rendered intimate, trusting, powerful and natural. However, the dynamic between two very different exhibition spaces highlighted not only the vibrancy of Baadilla and Fonti’s collaborations, but the reverberations of their shared conversations in a medium so often removed from the body and the voice. Whilst two performers struggled to emerge nude from their flesh coloured cocoon shocking yellows, pinks, muddied greens and rich blues spoke another kind of intimacy, one not often shared in painterly forms.
Painting is often a medium associated with art historical and institutional reification, a medium linked to notions of mastery, icons, and often, the myth of the solitary, tortured, male genius. This master narrative of painting has been made and unmade across centuries, and critiqued for the exclusionary narrative of the white, male master of the canvas. By transforming the site of the canvas into a collaboration, particularly a gestural, bodily language of collaboration, call, response and remaking, Baadilla and Fonti challenge the historical foundations of the medium. Rejecting the sterile, solitary sphere of painterliness and the studio, these two artists come together in a collaborative sphere often reserved for the performer, the weaver, or the community. It must be stated the conception of the painter as solitary genius erases the painterly contributions of indigenous communities, where painting acts as conversation, memory, language, mapping and community making. As David Barrett states, ‘new modes of working - such as video, installation … archive and documentary-based work, etc. - all [have] less reliance on the notion of the single artist-author than traditional painting’. Rather, the rejection of the single artist-author and the traditional value structures that reify this status allows for practice that explores the emancipatory potential of non-hierarchical structures, decentralization of practice, and the critique of the solitary genius model of practice.
This becomes increasingly significant when locating these conversations as occurring in the contemporary sphere, where the curatorial, educational and participatory turns in practice increasingly focus on openness and breaking down not only barriers to access and participation, but barriers in terms of representation. By presenting collaborative work in a medium long dominated by the myth of the solitary [white] male genius, Baadilla and Fonti instead challenge value structures and open up conversation to new ways of working in which hierarchies and value structures are unravelled. By pressing an ear to the surface, the viewer is invited to intuit vibrational frequencies of the gesture, to ascribe meaning to individual languages and gestures, and to consider what conversation entails - speaking, listening, learning and making anew.
Karima Baadilla and Joseph Fonti
RMIT First Site Gallery
09 Aug 2017 - 18 Aug 2017