Straddling art-forms, Melbourne artist John Nixon describes how he once had a musical ensemble "play" the works in his exhibition. "It was interesting as a method of musical composition. In the paintings a circle represented the trumpet, the square was a violin, and so on. The colour of each instrument was represented both in the painting and on a keyboard by a restricted number of notes played by each musician."
Nixon is in Perth for his equally epic EPW: Applied Paintings - Project for a Kindergarten I & II at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, a major work of more than 100 paintings, assemblages and drawings.
It's his first exhibition of this scale in a public gallery since 2007, and the first time the work has been shown. One of Australia's most respected artists, Nixon's career spans 40 years and 60 solo shows, from Australia to the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Denmark and The Netherlands. His works are in major collections both here and overseas, including the Guggenheim in New York.
PICA curator Leigh Robb says Nixon has influenced generations of painters in Australia. "He's worked continuously and prolifically in the abstract vein with a singular vision," she says.
Best known for his ongoing EPW (Experimental Painting Workshop) series, the exhibition features a pair of related projects created five years apart. Inspired by a book about the design of a kindergarten in Zurich by Swiss architects in 1932, Nixon set out to produce an imagined commission based on a mural photographed in the building. Using nature as his guide, Nixon created a schema of colours, such as brown for the earth and green for plant life, abstracting them as bands of colour.
Years later, he found an image of another kindergarten designed by Swiss architects in 1994, but built in Austria. "I thought here's my chance to do a series. The second kindergarten was situated in a mountainous area so I took the motif of the mountain. It's turned on its head, sideways, mirrored and alone." Rows of paintings presented chronologically in the order they were produced are "read" from left to right as a form of visual language.
"I think it's interesting for people to see how an artist develops an idea," he says.
Nixon is also a member of the Perth-based Australian Centre for Concrete Art formed 10 years ago to paint on the exterior walls of buildings in Fremantle with the permission of owners.
The group was responsible for the dramatic transformation of the Queensgate carpark, garnering both support and disapproval among locals. "Queensgate is the jewel in the crown," he says.
While Nixon's works quietly and elegantly seem to burst from the walls of the first level West End Gallery of PICA, downstairs, artists following colour along a different trajectory, link light, movement and sound.
First Amongst Equals (Part II) follows Part I shown at Gertrude Contemporary in Melbourne in July. Curated by Robb, the exhibition features work spanning practices from 1936 to 2012 from Switzerland, the USA and New Zealand.
Included is up-and-coming British artist Elizabeth McAlpine and Perth installation and performance artist Rebecca Baumann. Under her design, the entire ground floor gallery has been repainted in numerous bands of colour. Robb says she once asked Baumann what her ultimate artwork would be.
"She said it would be a work where confetti was falling around you all of the time," Robb says. With bold colours soaring up the high walls of the gallery, works where clocks tick and film moves, metaphorically, this could be it.
EPW: Applied Paintings — Project for a Kindergarten I & II and First Amongst Equals (Part II) are showing at PICA until December 30. Fielding Colour, a free floor talk by Curtin University academic Paul Green-Armytage, will be held on December 4 at 6pm. RSVP essential at firstname.lastname@example.org.