No Fixed Answers: on Nick Austin

Art News, Autumn 2014


“I think it’s about worry,”

Nick Austin paused.

“I think it’s about bad news.”

Austin held the microphone at a right angle.

“I think it’s about worrying about bad news.”

Austin looked at his painting of a shark fin, inside the window of an envelope. “Bad news, circling around.”

I saw Nick Austin speak at City Gallery Wellington last year as one of four artists included in the group exhibition New Revised Edition. Curated by Abby Cunnane, New Revised Edition was a show about contemporary painting, but as I watched Austin talk that day I couldn’t shake the feeling I was witness to an obscure performance. Austin ruffled his hair, adjusted his glasses and paced before his paintings as though befuddled; his talk was punctuated by pauses, elastic sentences that stretched on and on, yet Austin left nothing about his work over-explained. If he hadn’t emailed me prior to this talk, recommending a Julie Hecht book about the career of American stand up Andy Kaufman, I might have just taken his performance at face value. I might have concluded that Nick Austin is an awkward – albeit hilarious – speaker. Instead I realized that like Andy Kaufman, Austin is an artist who knows how to play the silences for longer laughs. Comedy hinges on tragedy; the abyss of failure.

“Good comedy is utterly serious,” Austin says.

I agree. Austin’s work is often funny peculiar, rather than funny ha-ha. His art abounds with visual metaphors and similes. A series of Aquariums painted in acrylics on newspaper conjure the interiors of goldfish tanks but the newsprint keeps seeping through; in Reading and Driving a snail inches along a ledge of paintings and a book transforms into a shoe. Austin is interested in the visual delivery of each artwork, “specifically the idea of a flatness of delivery, the sense of timing and mistiming…” His sculptures poke and pun. In his 2012 exhibition Notebook of a Spider the messy signature of a steel wire evaded abstraction and became the Death of a Mosquito by virtue of its title and one blood red dot. Austin’s idiosyncratic art invites and resists interpretation. Other exhibition titles include: Interesting Chewing Gum and Not Haiku. Many of his favourite artists have worked with text enigmatically: Ree Morton, Stuart Sherman, John Baldessari, Al Ruppersberg. Austin is the kind of artist reviewers love to review.

Allan Smith wrote of his 2006 exhibition In A Room: “These works are hidden in plain view.” Smith’s observation still remains true. Untitled is a recent painting of a closed cardboard box. Austin’s work has also been called, “vaguely surreal” and “hermetic.” His early painting Ought to Call depicts three grey stones on a beige background. The stones grow in size like thought bubbles. On the largest sits a mobile phone. The shape of the phone echoes and answers the stones. Pick up.

“My work uses the rhetoric of clues but there is no fixed answer,” Austin says.

Since graduating from Elam with his Masters in 2004, Austin has exhibited regularly nationally and abroad. A member of the artist-run project Gambia Castle, he’s now represented by Hopkinson Mossman in Auckland and Peter McLeavey Gallery in Wellington. 2013 was a busy year for Austin: in February he completed the Frances Hodgkins fellowship at the University of Otago and presented The Liquid Dossier at the Hocken Gallery; in August he held solo exhibition, Total Dread at Hopkinson Mossman, and in September he was included in group show New Revised Edition.

“I didn’t fully realise it then but I think now that the Hocken exhibition was a distillation of time, representing some quite productive moments over the twelve months of the residency. Equally significant though were the empty spaces in the exhibition that I think potently reflected all the ‘down time’, the silences, the negative production, that was a critical part of the period.”

Down time reigns supreme in The Liquid Dossier. At the Hocken, Austin exhibited an acrylic painting of a two-seater sofa and a Gulliver sized sculpture of a blue coffee mug, balanced on two tiny coffee tables. His first slide show, Dentists on Holiday was projected from a dental chair. A man ­on a jet ski – the dentist? – zipped along blue waves accompanied by a soundtrack of jazz muzak, overlaid with chainsaws. “Sometimes there is a reason to make a work; sometimes there is no reason to not make a work,” Austin concludes. The Liquid Dossier was also the second outing for installation Morandi Beach, first presented at Artspace in 2007. A line of sand ran along one wall of the Hocken gallery. Sprinkled on top of this unlikely shore were pages torn from a book of still life etchings by Georgio Morandi. An Italian artist, Morandi, rarely left his hometown of Bologna; he died in 1964.

“The work is a consideration of distance,” Austin tells me. “You might think this is a rather dated subject for New Zealand art, but half the time the Internet makes me feel further away from ‘things’ than closer to them.”

Austin is weary of romanticizing the idea of the artist’s artist, pointing out that Morandi was well informed about cultural events. Austin is also well informed. In New Revised Edition he exhibited App Idea: a painting of a butter knife on the background of a triangular breadboard. The algorithms of Austin’s paintings are analogue; the paper envelope has become his recurring symbol. Several Travelling Envelope paintings lined the walls of the Hocken during The Liquid Dossier; each image personified the envelope as a hitchhiker in landscapes of rain, snow and desert sun, thumb outstretched, looking for a ride. In Total Dread, his show at Hopkinson Mossman, a ring of gigantic painted envelopes circled the gallery walls. Inside the window of each envelope: an ominous grey shark fin. The shark fin seems emblematic of troubled distribution. In the age of electronic communication the post is in peril.

“I can think of a few reasons why I am interested in the envelope: an emblem of mystery, surprise, disappointment; a form of personal address; vehicles for information, how form carries content.”

How form carries content is key to appreciating Austin’s art. He uses materials that viewers are familiar with seeing on Play School and after school children’s television shows. In his last Hopkinson Mossman exhibition a painting called What? used string and egg on wrapping paper to form a pictogram. Austin frequently replaces canvas with the fragility of newspaper or paints directly on to denium pockets. There’s a delightful sense of austerity in his practice, a making do mentality. Acrylic is a utilitarian paint; unlike oils it doesn’t have a connotation of high status. Austin’s materials evoke the corduroy recesses of a nineteen seventies childhood, but his art isn’t nostalgic. Instead, his paintings pull the viewer up short. The shark envelopes in Total Dread are delivered deadpan. For this series Austin employed a circular style of brushwork he originally saw in the background of a Mog The Forgetful cat picture book. The circular motion created a ruminative texture, encouraging the viewer to dwell on small details.

“I made the Shark Envelope works thinking about worry, and the circular action seemed right,” he says. “Some of the works were hung over the gallery windows as if the windows weren’t even there.”

Each image becomes a flat screen, a document. In the New Revised Edition catalogue curator Abby Cunnane writes; “The everyday experience of digital images on screen, 3D animation and projection has rendered the picture plane strange.” In Austin’s paintings the picture plane is strange – a hinterland between representation and abstraction. Austin offers the viewer likenesses, but his illusions are so sparsely created. Not Sure is a painting that depicts a match and a black walking stick at opposite ends of a staircase. The cursory outline of the staircase recalls the conundrum articulated in Magritte’s infamous painting The Treachery of Images; “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

“When you look at a word long enough it begins to melt and become a very unfamiliar thing and kind of undoes what it is meant to do,” Austin says. “The way some of my works use language, creates a distance between the images and words that gives the viewer room to think.”

Look through the window: a line of string cut into apostrophes becomes the grammar for rain falling. Fallin’ is my favourite Nick Austin painting. The colour palette is drab, hum drum. It is a sad picture, but also cosy. Rainy days are good days for reading indoors. After the rain has fallen the snails come out and doodle slime trails over the concrete. The snails will drown if they stay underground.

“There is something about disappointment in my work. I think that is a good subject for art.”

In 2014 Austin will exhibit new work in a group show at Hopkinson Mossman. His second solo show at Peter McLeavey Gallery opens in April and will be called Time’s Sieve. The show will feature new paintings and collected poem-objects.

His last email to me ends; “I painted a Maui’s dolphin today. Bye now.”

image: Nick Austin, Travelling Envelope No.2, 2012. Acrylic on newspaper.