In Paul Valéry’s words, a poem is ‘a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense’; a gap between form and content.(1) The gaps are both formal breaks and spaces where previously fixed signifiers have detached from their chain of referents. This unmeeting, which Giorgio Agamben calls an ‘endless falling’ and Valéry named his ‘starting point’, is silent potential. Gorman re-opens appropriated imagery in a constant return to means rather than ends.
Like Jean Arp dropping shreds of his old collages onto a sheet of paper and fixing them where they fell, or Twombly and De Kooning working blindfolded, or Brice Marden drawing at arm’s length with a crooked stick, Julia Gorman has allowed a touch of chance to animate this new series of screenprints. Working in a loose, improvisational way with cutout pieces of coloured vinyl, Gorman arranged them onto large sheets that were then used as the basis for screenprints, areas of which were then cut out and worked on as individual compositions. This method results in works that generate compositional surprise through the delicate balance Gorman creates between incompleteness and resolution, arbitrariness and order.
Look, for instance, at Free Expression 2, where, in the manner of a Mondrian painting, a dynamic compositional balance is achieved without recourse to simple symmetry or centering. Seemingly thrown off-balance by the emptiness of the bottom left corner (an emptiness accentuated by the vibrant patch of red that fills the upper right corner), the image miraculously manages to right itself through the curves of the blue linear form on the lower left, which mirror those of the red and blue forms toward the upper right (suggesting a series of implied circular and ovoid forms). Perhaps because the lower blue form, unlike all the other forms in the image, is not interrupted by the edges of the sheet, it occupies its space more definitively, managing to give the sparse lower left diagonal half of the image an equal weight to the busier upper right half, seeming almost to pull the image down into the empty space.
Gorman has used adhesive vinyl extensively in her work in the past, using it to create site-specific wall drawings of colourful looping lines that spill out from the wall to the gallery floor (or rise up from the floor to the wall). This direct engagement with the exhibition space stands in contrast to the self-enclosed density of much of her recent painting, where lumpy worms of colour are often packed together into airtight biomorphic jigsaw puzzles. Borrowing a compositional device from Jasper Johns and Mary Heilmann, Gorman often sharply divides the canvas into areas of different patterns, which often suggest radically different scales. This internal division of the canvas submits these roughly consistent repetitions of looping lines and irregular grids to a compositional logic that owes as much to collage as to painting: the sections of the canvas read almost like random cuts out of preexisting sheets that have been crudely forced together. Importantly, this simple compositional tool emphasises the role of the picture as a unifying force that manages to hold together disparate forms in a coherent work, a formal autonomy at the furthest remove from the site-specificity of her installation works.
Gorman’s new screenprints sit between these two poles, suggesting a dynamic interaction with the world outside the picture without literally leaving the frame. In following the lines that are cut off by the edge of the page, we cannot help but see them as carrying on into the surrounding space. Thus, much of what we see when we look at these prints is not strictly visible; and it is the contrast between lines that shoot off beyond the edge of the page and completed forms that sit more simply on the surface of the page that creates much of the dynamism and energy of these pieces. Here a comparison with Mondrian is again justified. Meyer Schapiro pointed to how the frequent interruption of the geometric lines of a Mondrian canvas makes them appear ‘as parts of a virtual object in larger and deeper space’, and suggested a comparison with the seemingly arbitrary cropping of depicted scenes by Manet and Degas, which plays on our ability to imaginatively ‘fill in’ what we do not see in the painting. In a sophisticated riff on this same idea, the forms actually present on the surfaces of Gorman’s prints seem to spill out not only into the empty space outside them, but also into the pictures they hang next to. Particularly in Free Expression, we can follow lines from one print to the next because the three parts of the series were cut from a much larger single sheet. However, these forms refuse to flow seamlessly from one part into the next, as we can see from the triangular point of red that sits at the far right of the first part of the series, which clearly carries on from a red line interrupted by the left side of the second but is actually too wide to be the pointed end of this line. By means of these subtle adjustments, Gorman not only establishes the formal coherence of the individual parts of the series; she also nudges her work from literalism into a gentle suggestion of illusionism, ensuring that, contrary to Frank Stella’s famous dictum, what you see is not simply what you see. Rather than the reduction of the artwork to a mere material object, Gorman’s abstraction is a playful exploration — characterised by dynamism, paradox, and ambiguity — of the minimal conditions for making a picture into something more than colours on a flat surface.
Francis Plagne is a writer and musician from Melbourne.
1 Meyer Schapiro, Mondrian: On the Humanity of Abstract Painting, George Braziller, New York,1995, pp. 33–34.
It is difficult to pinpoint when and where I first saw Julia Gorman’s work. It might have been a group show called Octopus at 200 Gertrude Street, yet I have thumbed through the bright yellow catalogue which accompanied that show so many times, perhaps I just felt I had seen it. Similarly, I remember looking repeatedly at the images of her solo shows at Sarah Cottier Gallery with admiration and a tinge of jealousy; it is humbling to recognise a skill you covet but feel is unattainable. At the time, Julia’s work felt like a jolt of raw talent, brusquely applied to whatever surface it would adhere to – canvas, walls, even car doors. Now, years later, having seen this well-spring of inspiration never run dry, I realise it was a rare combination of something innate mixed with sweat and dedication. What appeared to my youthful eye as an unmediated expression was the result of hard work and trial and error. In the ensuing years, I have come to understand that each drawing, painting and sculpture is built on previous efforts, each new work expanding our universe of colour and form.
Julia’s skill in making colours and shapes vibrate is quite remarkable. To try to describe in words the energy of her drawings would only lead to embarrassment and failure on my behalf. Thankfully, this book contains many reproductions of her exquisite abstractions, which evidence her power as an artist. For those familiar with Julia’s work, these sketches might be recognisable, much like the posture of a dear friend. They have a specific accent with a rhythm and tempo that creates an instantly identifiable lilt. The saturated colours suggest the heat and humidity of the equator; the shapes that recur look as if they might burst like overripe fruit with seeds spilling out onto the forest floor. Her compositions induce a visual ecstasy similar to photos of celebrities and empty beaches – looking at her work is addictive. Twenty years after my early encounters, I still find myself searching the internet and scrolling through Instagram seeking out more artworks by her.
It feels important to state that Julia is best-in-class in the highly competitive field of arranging paint on paper and canvas. Her past efforts have elicited unknown and unexpected emotions, and we are lucky to have these raw notes published here – the ingredients for her recent research. Everyone who holds this book is a participant in the experiment; in turn, the reactions to these reproductions reflect a special form of empiricism, and the current study shall continue for as long as this book exists. The results will only be known at a time far into the future. If you happen to hold the last copy of this book in your hands, please make sure to write a summary that can serve as the afterword. It is with optimism that I anticipate this final report.
Julia Gorman’s solo exhibition Something About Something Else, is the product of a 2020–21 residency at the Billilla Artists Studio Program, which is housed in a late nineteenth-century art nouveau mansion. The resultant works take their cue from the art nouveau motifs abundant in the mansion and suggest the logic of non-linear histories, while also mediating upon the binary concept of visibility and obscurity.
Loose links between moments in history are grounded by Gorman’s invocation of art nouveau, whose demise coincided with the outbreak of World War I, and, as Gorman says, ‘everyone just wanted to be modern after that’. Following the war, avant-garde and modernist practices[JG1] [AW2] such as Bauhaus and de Stijl superseded the highly decorative style. When this body of work was made, Gorman was thinking about the fact that we too are in a moment of historical crisis and rupture, catalysed by the COVID pandemic.
An abstracted, decorative floral pattern chosen by Gorman for its art nouveau characteristics is a leitmotiv throughout Something About Something Else, operating as a metaphor for the ever-sprawling, opening out of history and time. Significantly, the motif is slightly different between paintings, since Gorman chose a different colour palette for each and because the works are obviously produced by hand, with the scratchy application of oil stick evident throughout. What the viewer also sees in this finish is the speed with which Gorman applied the oil stick. Of course, these works were created between lockdowns and Gorman was obliged to produce with a sense of urgency every time she was granted access to her studio[JG3] [AW4] .
To add complexity to this question of historical time, Gorman also introduces a play between visibility and obscurity – this binary is most evident in Gorman’s clay sculptures which, embedded with mesh or shards of coloured glass, grant the gallery visitor only an incomplete, altered view of what lays beyond. If Gorman’s paintings represent the sprawling sense of time, then her sculptures complement this in suggesting time as a kind of sift that lets certain things through and leaves others put.
Repetition, speed, slowness and rupture coalesce in Something About Something Else. Ultimately, a varied temporal logic is the exhibition’s central element. Right from the beginning, Gorman’s works inhabit several speeds. Her paintings and sculptures are executed relatively quickly but they take much longer to dry and reach a point of exhibition – the paintings alone take about six months. And then, of course, there is the concept of reaching across time. If art nouveau was the endpoint of a slower (i.e. not machine driven) fashion that was killed by the crisis of the war, then we can jump forward approximately one century to our current period to consider how this pattern might be playing out before our eyes.