Baroque Minimalism

The late, great artist Robert Hunter was often described as Australia's most successful minimalist artist. This was a distracting description. Whilst predominantly executed in whites and minimal from a distance, up close Hunter's paintings were complex to the point of the baroque.

The same essential mistake has been made describing the work of David Wallage. Minimalism suggests reduction, often to the point of sterility. Compared to most minimalist painting, Wallage's work is hallucinogenic and unclassifiable. Like Robert Hunter, it is baroque, complex and all-engrossing. One could just as easily describe these works as landscape painting as aptly as minimalist painting. They are essentially both, and more.

A number of factors contribute to this mesmerising cacophony. One is the sheer, mind-boggling technique undertaken. One can feel the depth undertaken in these works. There is something borderline masochistic in the process committed to: Up to 100 layers of paint a side on each canvas, meticulously sanded back to minimalist, faded colours and then reapplied time and time again until the perfect finish is achieved, much the same way the waves of the ocean will hone a ragged rock into a perfectly smooth stone.

Again, like Hunter, there is much taping, measuring and ruling to achieve Wallage's geometric bricolage. However all this meticulous calculation disappears beneath the shimmering results.

Writing in 2013 on Wallage's exhibition Reasoned Explorations, curator Frances Lindsay noted the way in which a trip to Taos, New Mexico impacted on the artist.

Amongst his experiences, Lindsay notes the impact of seeing Agnes Martin's works at the Harwood Museum of New Mexico, but also, she notes, of equal, if not greater import was the landscape of New Mexico.

"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," she notes. "His appreciation for the varied nuances of the colours of nature was channeled too, through the water colours of Albert Namatjira and Hans Heysen, and further afield, the beauty of water stains on rock faces in the Kimberley region of Northern Australia."

This is, I think, the key to Wallage's oeuvre. Are these then landscape paintings or are they, strictly speaking, minimalist or abstract works? Despite the painstaking hours involved there is a spontaneity here, a feeling of immediacy and even, despite their meditative quality, an urgency. That sense of trying to recall a stunning landscape as one passes through it.

It is perhaps, Wallage's technique of layering and expunging, building up and then wearing down again and again like the paled shadows of exposed rock paintings, worn to a perfect ghost-like shade by sun and rain. I am perhaps reminded of a classic line from the film Blade Runner, these paintings are like memories, faded like "tears in the rain."

Contemplating these immensely complex works one realises how little categories like abstraction and minimalism are really relevant. David Wallage, with his palimpsest of colours and arcane hieroglyphic forms has created his own language and is telling his own stories.

Ashley Crawford

May 2015