Iteration Arc, Tacit Galleries
The curving arc of the brush slides down the canvas. In measured replication, the thin bands of paint capture a slice taken from a gigantic circle. TJ Bateson’s subdued tonal range calls our attention to the whispered differences between shades and tones. He layers the marks and gestures heavily, utilising the strata beneath to echo memories of the journey back to the surface story. In this case, it is a voyage of parading bowed stripes across the canvas that provides the form of this latest chapter: layered in black, silver and greys, with threads of gold and humming blues or earthy browns in between.
This new body of work is heavily driven by process. It is machine-like, but not arbitrary. It is scaffolded by mechanisms but still shows the traditional hand-painted line of the brush. It functions as a healing and meditative activity in its repetition. It recalls the spinning circular grooves of vinyl records when seen up close, hypnotically drawing in the eye.
Like the sing-song rhythm of a metered poem, the squeaking sway of a park swing or a pendulum’s rise and fall, that feeling can be entered into in turn by the viewer who engages in the nuances of colour shifting in and out of similarity. They operate like sound waves with mounting crests and receding troughs that dip away as the energy lines pass across the canvas. Some of the small works are scratched with a tool sharply gouging minute scraped lines out of the surface to reveal what is just below the grey skin. Overall, they present a sophisticated vision of subtle variance as the tones retreat and advance before the eye.
Over the years, Bateson’s work has evolved from the obsessive layering of carefully angled drips and neatly placed hand-pixelated squares to the point where the artist’s hand has been reinforced by more mechanical means. Simple machines such as rulers or anchored wires, controlled by the hand, allow the slightly shifting lines to slowly migrate across the canvas. The wire apparatus for these iterations operates on two anchor points in concentric circles. These tighten the arc’s curve as the work is moved closer and relaxes and straightens out as the work is moved further from the centre. The artist’s uniquely considered placement of each individual mark thus gives way to the advance of an army of lines regimentally following each other like the seconds that make up a minute and eventually complete the hour.
Not that each line is perfectly identical. This is not a digital process. It is still paint and sometimes the brush line breaks up and scumbles, leaving windows between the crumbling pieces that enable us to see the layers of colour below. Each layered line follows a gentle curve, that partial arc of a giant circle. In the first instance, a run across the canvas produces the tracks bowed in a single direction; it is then shifted to change its course for the return pass. Like ripples on a pond where the stones’ initial circles are re-impacted by the returning vibrations that echo from the shore, it becomes a conversation of curves.
Each work displays a limited tonal range with layers of colour. The lower levels influence and change the top visible colours in stripes of greys, silver, rust-brown fleshy tones or, sometimes, even soft sky blues. Up close, the individual colours can be seen brightly - they haze together into mid-tone neutrals as you step backwards. The gold and teal become greenish when they meld; brown and white become pinkish grey. The effect of each hue in singularity is muted into relationship, rather like the atmospheric works of JMW Turner or the subtlest of the Impressionists. The colours used are kept to a limited palette in each of Bateson’s works but are no longer as monochrome as they were in earlier sequences.
Bateson chooses his colours according to a personal history with each, often related to surprising sources that he is fascinated with or those that pull at his heart with sentiment.
In this new iteration, some began with references to the body in flesh pinks and warm browns. The metallic aluminium sheens on the surfaces of his canvases are a reference to that previously mentioned anchored steel wire drawing apparatus. The colour silver originally arrived in his work some years back, referencing significant Noritake china saucers that were grey and pale blue with a distinctive silver stripe around the design. This particular colour scheme holds a personal nostalgia for the artist and was reawakened when he recently visited friends whose unusual chickens lay teal blue eggs. It is in the DNA structure of these chickens to produce blue eggs. The eggs are made of the same calcium substrate as bones that Bateson relates back, in circular fashion, to the bone marrow and stem cell transplants of his mantle cell cancer in 2014. He was fascinated with the concept that it is suspected this change in the chicken’s DNA might have occurred in history due to a virus – illness that has produced beauty. The reappearance of this colour was therefore a logical addition to this body of work.
In a similarly multi-layered reference, Bateson explains that the layering of lines and wires also relates to the work he has made for years in Lightwave 3D software. In this process, the structural mesh lines are used to define an object in space and then the surface is rendered with prescribed texture and light. The wire mesh therefore equals a 3D object in a mechanical way, removing the artist’s physical touch to become a series of co-ordinates. At the same time, the steel wire ‘machine’ he has set up in his studio helps support his hand that has limited flexibility since his chemotherapy. The wire is therefore an anchor point for the natural process of painting as well as a conceptual reference appearing on the canvas as striped silver ridges and lines.
In relation to the rather obsessive nature of his working method, Bateson explains that painting this way is a meditative activity developed during his stays in hospital. The time spent painting each work speaks of immortality and, at the same time, highlights the frantic journey of realising inevitable impermanence. It is poking fun at time by doing an extraordinarily labourious time-consuming activity. He mentions the sense of affluence of having that time to spend.
In past generations it was linked to wealth. This has been noted particularly in feminine aristocratic pastimes such as embroidery, the in-home labour represented by the number of decorative beads added to a purse or even the ostentatious display of someone else’s labour outworked in threads of lace. In countless hours each early morning, Bateson’s routine is to layer and layer in passes like a weaver until his body cannot engage in the task any longer. There is a sense of defiance for him in this, the need to prove something. At the same time, it is restorative emotionally and a way to transcend painful medical complaints through the ego-driven insistence of his work. Ultimately it is a privilege to be able to labour, and to use ingenuity to discover a way to make it work. It is a healing process to still be here making beauty without ever skipping a beat. The resulting works you can delight in. Slide the eye across the canvas line by line, follow up and down the trajectory of each arc or simply marvel at the shifting colours and layers as they mesh.
Bateson cites the importance of the recent ‘The Field Revisited’ exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria along with the showing of a retrospective of Robert Hunter (1947-2014) at the same time – regarded by many as the preeminent Australian minimalist painter.
Hunter’s painting spoke to Bateson’s interests like the voice of a kindred spirit. Here was a painting ancestor of the same family of thought who has also walked along the road of non-figurative abstraction and the subtlety of a monochromatic palette. Hunter’s paintings were white on white works, utilising commercial paint rollers on plywood and making use of simple variations in a limited tonal range. Hunter’s interest was in making compositions that did not prioritise one element over another as a way to achieve a balance of forms and shifts in chroma. By narrowing the available options, Hunter was able to free himself from the need for ongoing conscious choices and enter a more instinctual state as he painted. The wall labels accompanying the paintings explained it succinctly
“The simple materials, workmanlike process and restrictive parameters enabled him to remove conscious decision-making as if he were a conduit to an unseen force.”
This method suggests a spiritual or intuitive space is being tapped into and this parallels Bateson’s experiences of transcendence and freedom within such a constrained framework.
Robert Hunter’s intention of organising his canvas to ensure all elements are treated equally resonates with Bateson’s treatment of the canvas plane as a field of space with each line mimicking its neighbour. All over similarity and yet not one stripe is exactly the same as the next.
Bateson also works in groups of images, in iterations on a theme and paints until the surface has sufficient layers to develop the richness his works are known for. They become a process of transcendence for him also, with each activity becoming a way to engage his hand with the process of making, while he contemplates the work unfurling until it is fully built and wholly revealed.
There is an aspect of performance in this work, at least in the way that it is made. In setting himself such rules and methods to follow, Bateson is engaging in a sense of enactment for each work he makes. It is a scripted performance where all the mood and character of each work comes from his interpretation as an actor on the stage he has set. The artist becomes the architect of the concept and the method as well as the maker of the work. It is rather like choreographing a dance to fulfill repeatedly and then muse upon each experience and present us with multiple versions of his recital.
‘Iterations Arc’ represents the latest telling of a narrative of paint. The simple replication of a line following a partial arc until it becomes a field of immersive colour and tone. It is ultimately a journey of freedom and triumph as much as it is a production of subtle beauty. The elaborate richness of the surface is a testimony to what can be done with one simple line if you repeat it often enough.
Kerrilee Ninnis 2018