THE WORK OF RICHARD VAN DER AA
‘Nothing is itself taken alone.Things are because of interrelations and interconnections.’
- Wallace Stevens
The poet plies the waves of metaphoric connections while taking in the troughs and gaps between meanings trying to build a raft, a place of significance, a vantage point to map and orientate. On opening one's eyes there is around the rim of that expanse, that place of peripheral vision, the flotsam and jetsam of innumerable references which are the material possibilities of meanings made visible.
Richard van der Aa works around the edge making connections. That language is a familiar one for it evokes memories of spaces with dimensions wrought in height and width and distance and scale and weight. An intimate view gives way to memories about texture and materials and process and history. In their presence the works do not draw attention to themselves as 'objects' catalogued by the significance of a history or more properly a provenance. As an ensemble they begin to operate on the given dimensions of a space and provide references outside (or inside) to other distances, spaces and weights. They begin to operate as doorways and windows to more slower moving measurements of significance.
In his recent work van der Aa has placed an ensemble of individual pieces within a given space. The effort to locate objects that erupt as materials from the artist’s imagination is frustrated. There are no points of admiration for the artist's skill or the heroic gesture, an act characteristic of grand modernism. At the point of arrival where the imagination seems to have 'Iocated' the work in a geography of meaning it slides away.
In re-visiting the material conventions of minimalism van der Aa has created the subtle conditions through which one's attention is drawn more to the shadow of the work or the slippage of its meaning. There is always this apprehension of the peripheral, the bend in the horizon. This is an elusive or illusive game which annoys the seeing and ownership of the work as an art 'object'. This play is sometimes ironic and at times edges on the malevolent, the repressed or the unknown.
As the works find their life in an ensemble installed in a familiar space they operate more clearly on the life of the body. The viewer is constituted not as an intellectual raider on the field of vision that is ripe for the plucking of meanings but as a body that breathes, that walks 'through' that is itself measured and scaled and weighted by the space stretched tight across its significances. Peripheral information such as being near and far, being bored or anxious, being watched or measured become of paramount importance. The space itself begins to signify its participants. One is feeling for the map, the contours in the dark, where the bumps and depressions granulate the surface in a space which appeared initially as self evident, rational, cool and clear.
This slippage of meaning and the resultant speculative effort to cast around for referential meaning is an important process in the apprehension of the work. One possible discovery in this process is the realisation of repression and selection in the process of articulating the experience of looking at art. Art theories like all discourses are open to fashion, power and politics.
Rosalind Krauss in an important essay written in 1978 pointed to repression of religious or metaphysical concerns in the great canon of modernism. In discussion of the signification of the grid in modern art, she claimed that art had held the residue of a 'secular form of belief', or at least a place for speculation about the nature of ultimate references. Under the appearance of high modernism much of this material had been repressed 'so that by now we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence.' (1)
Van der Aa is playing into this material opening up the possibility of mystery (if that is in fact a bone fide category of art history). AII religious systems deal not only with ethical rules and cultic habits but they also seek to explain through 'exploratory' language the meaning/s of the universe. Evidence of this language has come down to us in such visual forms as sacred geometry where the fundamental order of things has been expressed in primal geometric relationships. The important exhibition The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 (2) has been widely influential in drawing attention to this interest among abstract expressionist artists in particular to those great innovators early this century whose formal inventions have been deified as representing the onward and upward march of progress inherent in the modernist exercise.
Van der Aa does not, however, belong to any particular family of sacred geometry. His works resist such categorisation. His work lies more closely with the impulse present in religious systems to be anti-iconic, to be suspicious at any attempt to 'represent', to eradicate the certain and to erase such references. In western theology this is the tradition of the via negativa. In visual terms he is interested in the wiping away, the scraping away of visual representation and mimesis. The speculative venture is the hope that it is in absence or silence that one catches the edge glimpse of those things that cannot be represented.
Whatever religious education van der Aa has endured, whether it be that of the warm suburban comfort of the familiar, or the sophistic speculations of his Dutch forebears such as van Doesburg, or Mondrian he holds open the possibility of the mystery that there is substance to the unsubstantiated and content to the absent.
In this regard there are no larger claims present in the work than that there is a door open in the wall, the floor is tilting and that there is a map going on in my head of which I have only the torn corner in my hand.
Rod Pattenden 1997
(1) page 12,'Grids', in Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, MIT Cambridge, 1986.
(2) Tuchman, Maurice, The Spiritual in Art Abstract Painting 1890-1985, Los Angeles County Museum of Art/ Abbeville Press, New York, 1986.
Rod Pattenden is Co-ordinator of the Institute of Theology and the Art Sydney Australia. He is a graduate of the City Art Institute and is currently involved in a research project on contemporary Australian Art and the re-emergence of the spiritual.