FROM THE RIGHT ANGLE
Feature Article by Lucinda Strahan.
Publication- The AgeReview Art.
January 17, 2004, page 7.
Don't call artist Natasha Johns-Messenger a square peg in a round hole - for her, only rectangles will do. Lucinda Strahan reports on a shapely obsession.
Natasha Johns-Messenger is obsessed with rectangles. She loves those "really quite beautiful" blue ones stuck to telephone poles that no one else ever notices. Windows float her boat, as do doorframes, and all the other geometric fetishes of architecture.
"I'm always about rectangles. How so much of our culture has gone through this rectangle. There's no rectangle in nature anywhere but it's just this really utilitarian shape. You know, movies, painting, it just keeps going through this rectangle. The rectangle has held this whole world of thinking and that just always amazed me."
It's a perverse attraction considering the amount of energy the 33-year-old artist has spent pushing the boundaries of the sturdy shape. As a painter in RMIT's undergraduate program in the '90s, the limitations of the rectangle antagonised Johns-Messenger. In third year she chucked in the canvas for the more intrepid process of "finding" paintings in the random marks on the walls and floor of her studio, left by the dozens of artists who had been there before her.
"That was huge," she says of the move off the canvas.
"I always thought what a luxury it would have been to have a canvas as a revolutionary space to work with. Someone like (Jackson) Pollock - it's still about what goes through that rectangle. How amazing to just have a rectangle and go 'Wow, I can start a revolution, just here'. Just by splatting. For me, that would have been a luxury. It's like, they had it so good."
Johns-Messenger is best known for her walk-in installation works that use mirrors, video and built structures to stretch and redirect our perceptions of art, the gallery and architectural space that holds it.
After continuing with painting through her honours year (like a smoker, she thought she could still "paint socially" after deciding to move on) she now works almost exclusively with installation and its photographic documentation.
Having just finished a two-year stint in one of the Gertrude Studios, Johns-Messenger's new studio space in Fitzroy is a step away from the messy-art mode of studio, to a tidy, carpeted room down the road in George Street, complete with two computers, a keyboard (for her current songwriting and producing with her sister, Julia), well-ordered filing cabinets and shelves of scrapbooks and documentation of previous work.
An empty car space in the garage serves as the area where she can get out the jigsaw blade when required. On the horizon is a solo show at Nellie Castan Gallery in South Yarra. She estimates that mounting a new show would cost around $20,000 that she has to come up with herself. Her art is a "serious habit" she says she's had for about 10 years.
First impressions of Johns-Messenger's work are often that it is architecturally or sculpturally based. In fact, it is her painting background that has led Johns-Messenger to the radical reconfigurations of physical and representational space that characterise her work.
Viewers of her installations see impossible reflections of themselves in strategically placed mirrors and viewing boxes mounted on the walls of the gallery. Built structures and reflective panes redirect familiar corridors and passages, while real-time video projections merge real and virtual time frames.
"I always imagine that someone with a sculptural background wouldn't have come up with what I am doing in my work, because it's a pictorialisation of space which then becomes three dimensional," she says.
"I guess the mirror works, or the really architectural works, just started out as a leap from the canvas, as a concept. I started saying 'the wall is my canvas', basically. So that's where the architecture really first came in."
There is a simple but radical motivation behind Johns-Messenger's work that springs from her activist heart. You get the impression that if she was not an artist she might be a formidable addition to the environmental cause or an advocate for social justice.
Her complex project in the gallery, to use it to turn the whole thing in on itself - the art, the people, the building - in a reflexive critique, she likens to the tactics of the new activism: "If you want to organise a rally against a big multinational that's destroying the environment, then it's best not to wear dreadlocks and stink."
Although reluctant to name any one particular influence, she repeatedly mentions the minimalist and conceptual artists of the 1960s and '70s in reference to her work - James Turrell, Michael Asher, Frank Stella - or how remarkable it was to stumble on a show of the most significant American Light and Space artists - a further offshoot of minimalism - when she was in Venice.
Things like Stella's simple but provocative mounting of shapes other than the rectangle on the gallery wall in the early 1960s strike a chord with Johns-Messenger, who is the kind of artist who, in her heart of hearts, still pledges an alliance to the avant-garde notion that art can change the world.
At the most basic level, her installations answer the simple question - how can we look at things differently? - and make you wonder what the world would look like if we could see around corners.
"I'm not sure, but I think that being an artist, it's about being an awake state, an awakening of some kind that you take someone else to. Not in a religious way, but trying to work out what art is all about - I think it's to do with initially seeing something differently and then taking someone else with you to that way of seeing it."
But even for a dyed-in-the-wool revolutionary, innovation is a complex strategic battle these days. "It's almost like to be innovative you have to go back - to wear the suit again," she muses. "I mean someone could even be innovative in painting now, probably. Not me, but someone else might be."
Natasha Johns-Messenger's work is showing at Billboard Park, corner Smith and Gertrude streets, Fitzroy, until early February as part of the Midsumma Festival.