Between the lines

‘Geometry has nothing to do with it. It’s all about finding perfection and perfection can’t be found in something so rigid as geometry. You have to go elsewhere for that, in between the lines’. Agnes Martin (1)

As a painter David Wallage is ineluctably drawn to creating works that at first appear to be pared down to the most reductive elements of grids, lines and subtle colour. However, as with many abstract or minimalist painters - and one can think of the work of Mark Rothko, Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Hunter among others, the apparent simplicity that is comprehended in a first encounter, gives way with prolonged viewing to appreciation for the greater complexity and perception of the visual nuances contained within the work. Depending on the timbre of the work this inner prescient core can engage with both the mind and the senses. This is a rewarding process that in this ‘age of instant information’ has generated greater appreciation for spending quality time, especially with subtle works of art, enabling them to unfold slowly.

The nine paintings in Wallage’s exhibition Reasoned Explorations are part of a series of paintings that he worked on simultaneously, keeping a detailed daily journal, meticulously noting each step along the way. While the paintings are modular and share certain physical properties, for example the white horizontal bands across the surface, they were conceived as individual works and operate as such with each having its own luminous beauty.

Wallage conceived this series of paintings after he had travelled twice to Taos, New Mexico where at the Harwood Museum of New Mexico, he experienced the suite of seven works by Agnes Martin displayed in a gallery designed according to her wishes. In terms of perfection, cohesiveness and contemplative aura, this room, which contains only Martin’s abstractions of monochromatic colour, plus four yellow couches by the Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd placed strategically under the oculus, has been compared often to the de Menil chapel in Houston that contains Rothko’s profound plangent paintings.

Wallage was drawn to Martin’s symmetry, order, subtlety and the spirit that her works evoke, and he responded positively also to the colours of Taos with its faded adobe buildings, as well as the landscape of New Mexico itself. This struck a chord, resonating with him in terms of the light and atmosphere of the Australian landscape that he recalled from growing up in Adelaide. His appreciation for the varied nuances of the colours of nature was channeled too, through the watercolours of Albert Namatjira and Hans Heysen, and further afield, the beauty of water stains on rock faces in the Kimberley region of Northern Australia.

The works in Reasoned Explorations, bring together David Wallage’s interest in the experience of art and the nature of perception, underpinned at all times by his desire to achieve perfection. To achieve this state of classical grace, he uses geometry and mathematical calibrations as the starting point. His method of painting is painstakingly undertaken with endless layers of paint applied, rubbed back and then reapplied. Every aspect of the work is carefully tackled with a hands-on approach, with Wallage using the best archival products and extending his practical approach to making even his own boards and supports.

The white horizontal bands across the surface of each work have a reflective marble-like quality, which emanates from a mixture of marble dust and polymer paint, meticulously rubbed back and re-coated in a labour intensive process akin to French polishing. In total the works may receive almost one hundred layers of paint before the artist feels satisfied that his desire for ‘perfect order’ has been achieved.

However, beneath this lucid horizontal order that operates so powerfully on the surface, there lies a lyrical pattern of rivulets of subtle colours and hues that reference Wallage’s appreciation for nature. This sub-strata consists of streams of paint that have been allowed to find their own direction, even if on a prescribed vertical path, but nevertheless in a free-form of their own. Here the nuances of movement and colour, together with the different paint qualities and finishes, provide a poetic interplay between the obdurate horizontal bands on the surface and the vertical painterly lines beneath.

Once the viewer has gone in ‘between the lines’ and engages with the shifting focus oscillating from one layer to the next, the eye perceives not only the microscopic accidental blurring at the edges of the white bands, but the vitality and organic energy that pulsates from the delicate hues of the thin, flowing vertical lines.

The minimalism and subtlety of the works in the aptly named Reasoned Explorations series, thus proffer the viewer the comfort of reason, structure and balance, whilst enabling the joy of serendipitous discovery through exploration.
Frances Lindsay
March 2013

1. Agnes Martin in conversation with Michael Auping, 14 Sept.1988, Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth.