Please note, due to COVID-19 restrictions Marlee McMahon’s exhibition at STATION can be visited online only. We are committed to covering the arts Australia-wide, so Art Guide Australia will continue to share articles and stories on artists and exhibitions during this time, encouraging viewers to experience art online.
The challenge of abstract paintings in the formalist tradition is rendering them interesting and alive. Arrangements of shape, line and colour can, in the hands of some, exude an original harmony. But in other hands the same elements appear lacklustre or plain boring. Success can come through a variety of means and unexpected ways – an off-kilter element in an otherwise balanced composition or the hand of the artist evident in a lone brushstroke, for example.
Marlee McMahon’s small exhibition Digestif at STATION Gallery in Melbourne showed a young artist successfully making this genre her own. The suite of five modest paintings showed two visual techniques that created intrigue: rhythmic tension and a baroque minimal illusion, bound by a particular quasi-architectural sensibility or ambience.
In 2019 McMahon was awarded the Cranbourne Fellowship at the British School in Rome resulting in a three-month residency. Snippets of urban details spotted while taking walks through Rome formed the starting points for these works, which took the form of sketches and collages that were developed into paintings when she returned to Australia. In Julia Roberts, 2020, a tile from a pizza shop becomes a floating abstract shape and Bella in Busta, 2020, has a fresco-like appearance gleaned from historic architecture in the city. When this fact is known, the suite of paintings exudes the flavour of contemporary Italy with a blend of banal commerce and modern and historic architectural style. Although, overall, they exceed these references operating primarily as abstract compositions.
McMahon’s palette could perhaps be described as disgestif-like exuding a herbal syrupy dull vibrance, containing pale lemon, reddish browns and off-whites, to name a few colours that have also been described as ‘retro.’ The titles in these paintings are random, including some playful alliteration that has no obvious connection to their contents, its purpose perhaps to undercut the sometimes serious and sombre nature of abstraction as a genre.
The small work Decaffeinated coffee with cream, 2020, contains rhythmic pressure through forms and containment. McMahon creates her sharp lines with the use of masking tape and here they form angular blocks creating a jagged downwards rhythm, the composition held in loosely by the vertical strips at the right and left hand edges of the painting. Tautness in this work is also achieved through colour choices that are monochrome but also clash somewhat: scarlet, wine and mahogany reds. Elsewhere, Pistachio for Pinocchio, 2020, is a disturbed framed monochrome, the frame is within the painting itself. The composition is cut in half and both parts pulled in opposing directions recalling the cutting and pasting of collage, resulting in lines that slip.
In Bella in Busta, 2020, and Clear Sky, 2020, realism creeps in through illusion informed by architecture. The success of these works lies in their confluence of minimalism, the decorative with a hint of the excess of the baroque. Bella in Busta appears as a window enclave with depth in the central composition, a vertical tile-like column to the right, and trims containing zig-zag patterns. Contrast is also achieved by McMahon through using both oil and acrylic (a feature in all her paintings) adding subtle texture. Bella in Busta, the largest painting in this exhibition,is an unusually satisfying limoncello yellow monochrome. Appearing as a construction of different forms of tiles, a darker yellow trims three edges patterned with fine lines, and the centre composition appears again as a collage with four blank forms floating in space in its centre.
These paintings have the qualities of modernism but with zing. As a ‘digestif’ they are a palette cleanser for the formalism of the past but with the subtle energy of what’s to come.