Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley: The Swerve of Art - Art Collector

Issue 31, January - March 2005

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Text by Justin Clemens.

In the catalogue to All That Rises Must Converge, their most recent collaborative exhibition at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne (2004), Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley provide a short extract from the great GK Chesterton: “It is this silent swerving from accuracy by an inch that is the uncanny element in everything. It seems a sort of secret treason in the universe.” The sense of a silent swerve that at once underpins and undermines the universe has a long history. According to ancient Epicurean doctrine, the universe began with atoms streaming downwards through the void; the problem was how to explain compound bodies, aggregates of matter. The Epicurean solution to this problem was the notorious clinamen, the swerve of an atom that collides with other atoms, and, in the resulting concatenation, creates the world. In other words, it’s as a consequence of a tiny swerve – unaccountable, almost imperceptible in itself – that the visible world emerges. What’s more, the clinamen is also the ground of freedom, the freedom of movement and invention in a material world.

So Burchill and McCamley – who had already begun to establish careers in their own right – swerved together in the mid-1980s, to form a singular collaborative duo. Whatever the current enthusiasm for collaborations, two women artists working together at that time was a little anomalous, perhaps even slightly suspicious. A risk. What such a collaboration did enable was a way of working that eluded both the temptations of self-expression and the subsumption into the flux of a gang (as can happen in larger artists’ collectives). Burchill-McCamley’s art happens as a swerve between the two, neither individual nor a mass. It is the beauty of the swerve of existence, that couples Burchill-McCamley as artists, and allows them to explore disparate forms and materials with spectacular ease.

The integrity of Burchill-McCamley’s projects cannot be reduced to a signature style, nor, on the other hand, to a simple evasion of defining features. On the contrary, it’s possible to discern certain recurrent motifs or interests in their work – above all, an interest in recurrence itself in the form of deranged doubles or series. One can identify their furniture series, their colour series, their linguistic series, and their neon series, which complicates and recapitulates the others. The chair recurs, for instance, in the perspex-tivalism of the Pre-paradise sorry now (chairs for reclining bodies) or in the photographs of the Turkish family chairs as Freiland 1992-1993, or in the questions posed by Equivalence (Barhocher). You might think of the composer Erik Satie’s Furniture Music, or just of your living-room couch. The condensation and formalisation of colours comprises another series: the colour-tone paintings and the paintings on projection screens are superb instances of their highly-condensed conceptual work. Then there are the erudite film pieces (McCamley is a serious student of film). And there are of course the fabulous neons, from the early abstractions that transmute the arabesques of drawing into an entirely different medium, all the way up to such recent pieces as AK47, the outline of the notorious machine gun glowing radioactively from its metal casing under the name-title AK47 itself.

In interviews dating from the early 1980s, Burchill had already begun to refer to her practice as a material conceptualism. This striking notion founds Burchill-McCamley’s interest in working with an extraordinary array of materials: wood, metal, paints, perspex, neon, and so on, are all taken up and deployed in their art. And they are au fait with an unnaturally large range of media and genres: photography, painting, projections, sculpture, installation, video … As even a glancing encounter with Burchill-McCamley’s work makes evident, this radically ecumenical approach to materials and genres is not a mere eclecticism for the sake of eclecticism. On the contrary, such an approach is governed by the interest in material conceptualism. This means, paradoxically, that they are far more involved with materials, with the differences of and between materials, than many other artists. But this involvement and interest in the potentials and powers of materials is also linked to their extraordinary sensitivity to formal problems. What can and can’t be done with this material? What are its limits? How is it possible to force a material to its limit, and yet sustain the most elevated of formal considerations? At its limit, can a material mutate into another, quite different? For instance, in All That Rises Must Converge, the rail-lines to which Burchill-McCamley’s twinned cacti were fused could not have been bent further without tearing, distorting the clean swerve of their metal base (Arc Landscape I and II).

With Burchill-McCamley, even language comes to be treated as a material like any other, with its own qualities and potentials. The pun, for instance, in which different meanings swerve together in a single sound, is put to work: “static,” for instance, which means at once “not moving,” “relating to stationary electric charges,” “noise interference,” and so on, as well as invoking other words in its electrical field, such as “ecstatic.” But they have other techniques of materialisation, too, such as in Burchill’s Stein Path at Heide (aside from the reference to Gertrude, Stein means “stone” in German) or their Printed Matter 1993-1997 and Sports Pages. Their titles regularly verge towards an elevated comedy, as with I am a system, Epiglottis or Aporia, or play on real and fictional proper names, as with the neon crispness of Moby Dick.

But this also means that what material is is placed in question by Burchill-McCamley’s work. Existing forms (e.g., works of art) become in their turns material for their experimentation. Their samplings of other artists and writers, whether Jasper Johns or Gertrude Stein or Alfred Hitchcock or Joseph Kosuth or Andy Warhol, don’t quite conform to traditional artistic procedures of allusion or appropriation. In fact, Kosuth is no more elevated a resource for Burchill-McCamley than the sports headlines or decaying chairs. And rather than treating their relationship to art as governed by rivalry or influence, or in any “dynamic of quotation,” Burchill-McCamley are closer to DJ Shadow, insofar as a vast array of art genres can function as a resource for creativity, for sampling. If I might quote Dominic Pettman and myself here: “sampling not only recomposes different elements, but different ways of recomposing elements.”1 But the sampling of Burchill-McCamley is a very specific procedure: their works involve the exhibition of a pure decision, a selective cut-out from the regime of art. This is one reason why, despite the temptation to think of their work as a godchild of minimalism or of post-modernism, Burchill-McCamley are engaged in something quite different.

At once hyper-materialist and hyper-formalist, it’s precisely in the secret tendencies seething behind the works of modern art that Burchill-McCamley pursue their researches into beauty. And their works are indeed very beautiful, providing an impersonal beauty, a beauty of forces without “I” (after all, there’s two of them). So if you want to know something about the force of beauty in art, even of the force of contemporary art per se, you should turn to Burchill-McCamley’s work without delay.

Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley will be exhibiting in Melbourne at Anna Schwartz Gallery during the first months of 2005 and at the Art Gallery of NSW in late 2005. An exhibition of Burchill’s work is planned for early 2005 at Yuill/Crowley Gallery in Sydney.

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