NATASHA JOHNS-MESSENGER: HERE

Review by Craig Easton
Publication - Eyeline Contemporary Visual Arts,
No 47- 30 June 2001, pages 51-52.

Natasha Johns-Messenger makes everyday art. Not that is, art that reflects some selfstyled vision of the everyday as site of retro, low-fi culture. Instead this is the everyday we all experience, the one that somehow gets lost in critical writings. This is the everyday made up of the stuff that truly surrounds us-the real, the here, the now. So how exactly does Johns-Messenger present or more precisely re-present, this most beautifully mundane of subjects?

From the street, the expansive front windows of 200 Gertrude Street have been turned into an opaque field of pale blue, carefully matched to that of the surrounding architecture. Almost a high gloss colourfield painting in its own right, the window, like so much within, is given multiple functions. Some carefully positioned geometry/viewing-slots signpost the invitation. If you take it the first thing you will be greeted by is a larger than life video of yourself looking at yourself looking. Once over the initial disorientation and inside the gallery, a series of coloured, upright folding planes (or are they monochrome paintings?) compress the physical space of the site into a viewing unit with which one is hard-pressed not to engage. Upon entering the tight maze that is Here, what begins as an abstract relationship of lines and planes of flat colour quickly becomes transformed into vectors in the construction of real and reflective space. Realtime image capture occurs in body-scaled mirror and projected video-such that the use of digital technology appears to be in a symbiotic rather than oppositional relationship with the old. In fact, such is the sense of dislocation engendered in some of the folds of ‘Here’ that there are brief moments when reflection, video, and the real, simply occupy the same field. More than art world divisions and questions of arcane versus new technologies, Johns-Messenger appears to be prying at a much stronger divide - that of art versus science. Here the science of vision is pitted against an art of perceptual play that has the viewer continually re-addressing his/her established ways of seeing. But rather than risk creating bad science, or bad art for that matter, Johns-Messenger neatly sidesteps the burden of proof associated with the sciences and revels in the use of loose logic, and yes even mathematics, to construct an inbetween space she has labeled the 2.5D.

It is here, in this place that allows for collapse of orders and where new possibilities are most likely, that Johns-Messenger is most clearly at home. This collapse occurs not just in the lines between physical (actual) space and perceptual space, between viewer and object, but also in that which divides conceptual and art historical models. So while there is more than passing familiarity with the tenets of formal abstraction in the composition of flat vertical planes that makes up the internal structure of ‘Here’, the colours and materials chosen are in fact generated by the surrounding architecture. Equally, the lack of any direct narrative content aligns her with elements of a Formalist model just as this same 'lack' replaced by a concern with viewer and architectural space thereby relates her project to what Michael Fried derisively termed the 'theatrical' concerns of Minimalism. To reach further back still, in navigating the various folds, cuts, and loops of ‘Here’, there is a sense that Johns-Messenger might even be working away at some of the unfinished business of Cubism. It is as if Picasso's and Braque's Cubist space has been cut up and made real in an effort to suggest that Cubism was more than a pictorial problem after all. It was about dealing with the actual, defining what it means to be both constructing and viewing in the here and now - the stuff of everyday existence. ‘Here’ then is a place capable of inhabiting and re-framing multiple sites within the dialogues of art history, just as it re-frames-the viewer's perceptual experience in the present.

Another key to unraveling Johns-Messenger's multiple aims is that she does not fill the whole gallery with ‘Here’, instead using the surrounding space to frame her art object and make no mistake, ‘Here’ is an art object complete with attendant due care to compositional aesthetics. Regardless of how the site might generate formal choices, those choices are clearly never going to over-ride her interest in aesthetic content if the object and its attendant aesthetic have been the bane of much site specific art of recent years, then Johns-Messenger furthers her transgressions in a growing body of small discrete perspex and mirror glass objects which hover in a self-defining space as a kind of mobile, mini installation/sculpture. Although not featured within this exhibition, it is important to note such interests as they assist in demarcating the various territories Johns-Messenger is attempting to mark out. Just as a growing number of painters are trying to deal with how painting can extend through spatially derived practices, it seems Johns-Messenger is using an inverse logic in reconciling the experience of space with the lasting object, the transportable, self-referential Modernist object even. In fact, ‘Here’ itself has been designed to fold up and fit in the back of a Ute in the best traditions of modular living.

In this reconciliation of opposites ‘Here’ becomes a mobile or 'nomadic' site, further problematising the now institutionalised modes of installation art that have dominated conceptual practice of the last decade. It is encouraging that Johns-Messenger does, to this viewer's sensibilities at least, suggest the possibilities for new territories without taking an overtly doctrinaire stance. In combining a rigorous re-examination of diverse historical codes with multiple perceptual strategies for extended viewer engagement, a framework for the move from site specificity to site mobility is constructed. Most important of all, Natasha Johns-Messenger shows that in getting from Here to There you really do not have to ditch all your baggage along the way.

CRAIG EASTON