Tim Maguire’s series of paintings inspired by 1960s Spatialist works by Lucio Fontana are relatively unknown in Australia. The paintings are decidedly European – and not only because of their ‘subject’. The works were mostly painted in France, where the artist has a second studio, but more importantly, they display a theoretical engagement with the medium of painting that has never found the same level of appreciation in Australia as it did in Europe and the United States.
This extraordinary body of work has the rare quality of being simultaneously “abundantly simple and maddeningly complex”, a phrase used by the late John Baldessari to describe his own practice, and one that seems particularly relevant to Tim Maguire’s work. At first sight, Maguire’s slit paintings could easily be mistaken for Lucio Fontana’s canvasses (and they were in fact mistaken as such by Italian customs officials, when one of the paintings was confiscated on grounds of illegal export of cultural heritage). The small scale, monochromatic canvasses, with Fontana’s iconic tagli (cuts) and buchi (holes) are easy to recognise. Where the ruptured canvas protrudes towards the viewer, a subtle shadow is cast next to it, whilst the opposite side of the slit reveals a subtle reflection of light. But that is where the abundant simplicity ends, as the viewer soon realises that the paintings are not by Fontana, and more surprisingly, that there are no cuts, no shadows, no highlights. What seemed so obvious at first now reveals itself as illusionary depth on a flat surface.
This is where the complexity of the paintings starts. What does it mean to flatten Fontana’s three-dimensional canvasses? After all, Maguire does not appropriate the Italian maestro’s own technique – slashing the canvas would have been much quicker than painstakingly creating the illusion of three- dimensional depth. Although appropriation certainly had become a hallmark of 1990s postmodern painting, there is more at stake here. Lucio Fontana’s paintings were so radical precisely because he treated the flat canvas as a three-dimensional object; he wanted his art not to be a window to an imaginary world but to be physically part of our three-dimensional reality. Maguire’s rendering of this radical breakthrough back into a flat illusionistic space should not be seen as parody, but as a reflection on how contemporary image culture has impacted our experience of these works. Lucio Fontana’s paintings are so iconic that even when their whole purpose is undermined, even when they are rendered completely flat, the cuts are still recognisable signifiers for Fontana’s radical gesture.
Tim Maguire was not the only artist who was interested in this flattening of the surface. In similar vein, Glenn Brown had painted copies of thickly impastoed paintings by Frank Auerbach and Karel Appel; Andreas Gursky produced blown-up photographs of textural details in Vincent Van Gogh and John Constable paintings; and Gerhard Richter painted flattened copies of his own gestural canvasses. Each of these artists was interested in the significance of the physical nature of painting in an age of mechanical (and now digital) reproduction. Over the course of the twentieth century, art has become increasingly consumed through reproduction (books, television, and today over the internet), and as a result the flattened, photographic image became more prominent than real paintings. This phenomenon was labelled the simulacrum by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, defined as a situation wherein representation takes precedence over reality.
Tim Maguire’s work should be contextualised within this same postmodern tradition that occupied artists in Europe and the United States. In fact, the slit paintings are a direct product of the simulacrum – Maguire knew Fontana’s work from reproductions, but had not seen the paintings in the flesh (they are largely absent from Australian collections, with the exception of one painting at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne). Interestingly, Tim Maguire’s paintings were not copied after real Fontana works, but imagined, based on images he had come across in books. And whilst some look exactly like Fontana’s paintings, others are more loose interpretations of them. This adds another interesting aspect of the series, namely the distribution and consumption of culture in a globalised world. Painted in the 1990s, before the internet made images instantly accessible across the world, printed reproductions of foreign artworks were the closest to the real thing. Tim Maguire’s Fontana paintings therefore also embody the Australian condition – a strong intellectual link with the European tradition, paired with an immense physical distance.
“To some extent I conceived the Slit paintings to frame more effectively the proposition I was making, the play between illusionism and the materiality of the painted surface.”
in conversation with Jonathan Watkins, ‘What Is It ‘As It Really Is’, Tim Maguire, Sydney 2007, p. 100