Adrian McDonald

Posted: 19 Dec 2012  |  By: Joseph Brennan

In his 1978 essay ‘The Parergon’ (translated by Craig Owens), Jacques Derrida argues that every philosophic discourse on art (from Plato to Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger) has been concerned with a permanent demand “to distinguish between the internal or proper meaning and the circumstances of the object in question”. Of particular interest to Derrida is the parergon, that which is “not interior or intrinsic … but whose transcendent exteriority touches, plays with, brushes, rubs, or presses” against the object itself, such as drapery on statues or frames around paintings. Derrida describes this attention to “the limit between the inside and the outside of the art object” as a “discourse on the frame”.

Sydney abstract artist Adrian McDonald interrogates the impact of the parergon (and specifically the frame) on the art object, which he describes as “the importance of the leak”. Another key interest is the function of geometry as it applies to art. His work to date includes three distinct stylistic periods (field paintings 1996–2006, sculptures 2007 and geometric paintings 2009–present) that when considered in relation to their use of geometry and as part of a discourse on the frame, reveal a continuous artistic project.

Having a background in classical music — and in turn an appreciation for the importance of technique — McDonald describes his early works as the development of a visual and technical repertoire and a means by which he discovered what he could do as a painter. “I began looking to the history of abstract painting as the development of a kind of grammar that I could use to help me find my own voice,” he said. What resulted were “field paintings that sought to dematerialise the paint”. This was inspired by “[Clement] Greenberg’s simultaneous emphasis on the importance of the materiality of paint and the flatness of the surface” and achieved by “sanding back the layers of paint application to the traces of gesture, thereby achieving a perfectly flat, even shiny surface that far from appearing as something flat, emphasised the depth of field”.

He considers his move to sculpture in 2007 as an “act of subtraction” that stemmed from a desire to know what would be left if he took away the painting to focus on the frame, “to make the periphery the centre, and the centre the periphery”. By moving the periphery to the centre — making the parergon the art object via “a series of wall sculptures that were just frames” — he made clear the role of the frame (both physical and conceptual) in aesthetics, while moving the centre to the periphery — subtracting the painting — revealed, to paraphrase Derrida, that no art object is simply interior or exterior, and that painting itself (even when absent) presupposes a process of framing.

On his return to painting in 2009, he says, “I did away entirely with the field painting that had previously been the ground that I had to work with and just concentrated on a more finely conceived and articulated expression of enframing itself.” The result is a series of open-ended geometric propositions that “appear as objects for aesthetic contemplation”. By this he means, while his latest work may appear technically precise (geometrically true and balanced), his preoccupations are primarily aesthetic.

“Geometry as art is not equivalent to geometry in the service of mathematical purposes,” he said. “Geometry as art proves nothing in the way that it is intended as a mathematical construction.” Central to the creation of his geometric propositions is the knowledge that in art “a line can just be a line”. For McDonald, to achieve something beautiful, magical or truly transformative requires a certain amount of deception. He explains this with reference to Plato, who described poets as good liars. “Freedom comes from not needing to make a claim,” he said.

Another interest for McDonald is the relationship between truth and beauty, which, like Keats, he believes ultimately “amount to the same thing”. He explored this during an artist talk for the 2007 Amelie A. Wallace Gallery (SUNY College) exhibition Finite in/finite. “Beauty, like geometry, is at least a point of reference,” he said. “It’s an axial point whereby we might orient ourselves to find some direction through this world or any possible world that we might imagine.” And while postmodern discourse — which “presupposes the absence of God or the absence of any absolute” — might make it difficult to have a discourse about beauty, he believes at its most heroic, postmodernism “might suggest that we don’t need beauty, we don’t need absolutes, to understand ourselves”.

“It is enough to simply concern myself with the problems of making pictures,” he said, “and perhaps, provisional solutions. Beautiful? True? I don’t know.” McDonald is a PhD candidate at Sydney College of the Arts and exhibits regularly in group shows at Sydney Non Objective.

Images from top:

Adrian McDonald, Square Dance, 2012, Flashe on Claybord, 90 x 90cm.

Adrian McDonald, Gestell Series, 2009, acrylic on plywood, 20 x 20cm. Artbank.

Adrian McDonald, Foxtrot, 2009, Flashe on Claybord, 25 x 25cm. Private collection.

Adrian McDonald, Gestell Series, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 160 x 160cm.

Adrian McDonald, Ice Breaker, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 150x 250cm.

Adrian McDonald, Standard Deviations, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 130 x 210cm.

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Issue 38