Ham Darroch Echoes, Essay by Tony Oates, 2016.
On the occasion of Heidegger’s seventieth birthday (26 September 1959), Braque offered him a gift of a lithograph inscribed with a dedication and the phrase ‘‘l’écho répond à l’écho, tout se répercute [echo replies to echo, everything is linked]’’ (H.W. Petzet, Encounters and Dialogues with Martin Heidegger, 1993, p. 146) Ham Darroch’s sculpture Echo 2015 began life as a basketball ring and backboard. Dislocated from its original utility, ‘knocked out of kilter’ by years of play, neglect and weather, it already sat abstracted and bent out of shape. Its form spoke directly of Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg’s Construction of a spatial apparatus, of which Ham had seen a recreation in the National Gallery of Australia collection. As an object, the basketball ring pointed towards utopian notions similar to those that motivated the constructivists: its social intent as the centre-piece of a game sat in delicate balance with its (over)engineered industrial-ness. While its structure preserves a certain archetypal tektonika and the juxtaposed painted elements are derived from the given components, it is Echo’s emphatic embrace of colour that dominates and defines the pictorial organisation. Echo has a playful intent. There is a reciprocity between the object and its analogue. Its history as a backboard, still implicitly reverberating with the rebounding of the surface, propels it to function within a new game. The object not only provides the painting’s ground; it determines the mechanics of the language employed. The given shapes of welded metal transfer to the centrifugal motif cascading through intervals of orange-to-white, set against an opposing midnight blue. The fractured forms infer a depth beyond the painting’s surface – a virtual space that reconciles the volume of a sculptural form with a two dimensional picture plane. Here colour functions as a spatial apparatus. We recall Delaunay’s approach: ‘Line is limitation. Colour gives fathomless depth (not perspective, not successive, but simultaneous) and its form and its movement’. Echo exists in an intermediate zone, situated somewhere between sculpture and painting. It signals a convergence in Ham Darroch’s art where the two disciplines inform each other and the ‘object’ functions as a facilitator. The object often provides the entry point in Ham’s painting. Take Wink 2016, its form inspired by a pairing of saw-blades that generates a zip of active space between opposing teeth. In the painting this form is magnified, repeated and saturated through a vivid contrast of colours. The intense vibration creates a volume; the jagged blades span the width of the canvas; the weight of each colour-form flips back and forth. While the composition still adheres to the original motif, it acquires an independent identity, revelling in the capacity of colour to behave spatially. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the object came into specialised focus, as artists, musicians, poets and philosophers began to question our comprehension: ‘what is an object?’ Through the abstraction and bracketing of the object modernist thinkers sought to develop a visual language that would adhere more directly to ‘reality.’ Augmenting representation with the re-presentation of elements of the material world, they could specify a greater material truth. The Symbolist poets equipped language with an aesthetic plasticity, calling on all facets of consciousness to build sensory evocations; the Cubists (Picasso and Braque) delighted in the syntax of the constructed object, to some degree imitating the flux of our perception. Duchamp’s readymades questioned or parodied the object by strategically altering its context; and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein warned against linguistic limitations hindering our ability to make truthful representations. In his text, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he defined the object as follows: 2.02 Objects are simple. 2.021 Objects make up the substance of the world. That is why they cannot be composite. 2.022 It is obvious that an imagined world, however different it may be from the real one, must have something – a form – in common with it. 2.023 Objects are just what constitutes this unalterable form. 2.024 Substance is what subsists independently of what is the case. 2.025 It is form and content. 2.0271 Objects are what is unalterable and subsistent; their configuration is the changing, the variable. We can perhaps apply Wittgenstein’s definition to the status of the object within Ham’s recent painting: the saw blade inserted into the fictitious world of a painting bridges the virtual and the actual. However, Wittgenstein’s definitions are intentionally obtuse. In his ontology an ‘object’ represents essential matter: atoms – the irreducible structure of an entity! For the philosopher, objects remain static and it is their bonds, relations and permutations that animate them. It is, as Braque eloquently phrased it, ‘the space between things’ that determines our understanding: You see, I have made a discovery: I no longer believe in anything. Objects don’t exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them or between them and myself. In other words, it is not the objects that matter to me but what is in between them; it is this ‘‘in-between’’ that is the real subject of my pictures. When one attains this harmony, one reaches a sort of intellectual non-existence – what I can only describe as a state of perfect freedom and peace – which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation. That is true poetry. Ham’s most recent series of gouaches, Colour Circles and Orbit 2016, achieve a poetic interplay: the objects and the spaces in-between. Taking multiple perspectives of a bowl (found while in residence at Jean Bellette’s Hill End cottage), Ham compels the linkages and integers to constitute a new object. Colour, as opposed to shape, is set in fluctuation, generating the semblance of volume and three dimensional space. Here we may question the given form and ask ‘what is a bowl?’ A pure shape? A container of space; a container of nothing; a phantom image comprised of invisible atoms? According to Braque’s friend, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, it is ‘the emptiness, the void… that does the vessel’s holding’. If we run our finger around the outer edge of a bowl, it hums. A receptacle for sound? As the finger traces the circle, the harmonic aggregate builds. This summons an echo. Within the Colour Circles and Orbits the nuances, shades and inflections comprise an echoing. The element of symmetry, maintained through multiplication, division and inversion, establishes the reality of the work. It is conceived harmonically. The rapports with the surrounds are defining. The refraction of light passed from one coloured surface to another forms a binding relationship and echoes are developed in terms of colour. The palette for Orbit 1 & 2 and Night’s Edge stems from an early experiment informed by the colour theory of Goethe. Ham placed a deep blue circle on a dark olive-green ground, and vice versa. Within the opposing colour a halo arises around the circular motif, intensifying the juxtaposition of colours. Orbit 1 & 2 confirms this impression through a parallax effect of displacement. The gradient shift in pigment from blue to green is disrupted by the exposed junctions of the bowl’s rim. The inconsistent weight of the white lip bends the circular forms out of alignment, warps the illusion of distance and creates an off-kilter internal movement. This inversion of space hurtles towards us and recalls the vertigo of the Stenberg brothers’ cinema posters, the vortex of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument for the Third International, and the pulsating alternation of positive and negative energy in Marcel Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs. Proximity – the space in-between – greatly influences the behaviour of colour. Goethe showed us that by placing bold colours alongside one another we infer the complementary of each within the other. Set a white void between the two colours, as in Orbit 1 & 2 or Wink, and the dynamics in-between become volatile. It is at the edges, where fields meet, that the greatest refraction occurs – that the echo is most visible. These ripples of interaction dematerialise into pure energy. It is here that colour transforms into a nonphysical entity. And so, what are the contents of a bowl?
Tony Oates Curator, Exhibitions ANU Drill Hall Gallery, Canberra May 2016