Robert MacPherson

Scale from the Tool (3 panels), March 1976-1977
acrylic on 3 canvas
Inscribed 'R.M BRISBANE MARCH 76-77 Numbers 1, 2 & 3'


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The works measure 176.0 x 4.5 x 3.5; 176.0 x 6 x 3.5; 176.0 x 10.5 x 3.5 cm

Coventry Gallery, Sydney
Ray Hughes Gallery, Sydney
Malcom Enright Collection, Brisbane
'20th Century Art and Design', Phillips Auction, Sydney, 2 May 1999, Lot 58

'Robert Macpherson Survey Exhibition', The Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, September-October 1985

Robert MacPherson's ideas for art can be abstract, challenging and original, yet lucid and revelatory, often containing wry humour and wit. In viewing a seminal work like 'Scale from the Tool' the invitation to mirror the standards of intellectual detachment by the artist is paramount. An interpretation of the complexities and limits within apparently ordinary rituals, like those of the artist's stock in trade - painting, perception and language - is required. In this case a readymade painting, or more specifically, a painted image replaced by the image of paint, is fabricated through the artist's choice of tool - a 2', 3' and 4' wide Oldfields paintbrush - the limits of that brush loaded with paint and reach of the body. Scale and image become inherent in the tool.

What we see may not so much remind us of Lichtenstein's iconic frozen brushmark, or even that painting is a human process where a set of decisions is mediated by choice, chance and incident. Instead we may see painting for what it is, an actual record of the manner in which paint is applied. At first this seemingly Dadaist reductive formal strategy recalls certain aspects of modernism in Art Povera, 'process-based' and minimal art, where it was claimed painting was headed for its natural end sometime in the 1960s. Yet just as we suspect an emptying of art's potential, we may see an inherent contradiction known by the artist and viewer alike - that this is all painting can ever be, even in its most technically detailed rendering. For MacPherson the entire series of 'Scale from the Tool' is a galvanisation of idea and procedure that constitute a logic for the minimum requirements for art. Typically eschewing any precedent in Australian art except, perhaps, the austere 'process' drawings of Godfrey Miller, the artist senses the Duchampian possibility that to withhold is to expose, and the end result is that the tool itself becomes the art.

Other 'Scale from the Tool' works from the series are in the permanent collections of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Queensland Art Gallery, Wollongong City Gallery, and several private and corporate collections including Allen Arthur Robinson. (Thanks to Simon Wright, Brisbane)

  • Scale from the Tool (3 panels)

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Robert MacPherson's paintings, sculptures and installations can be seen as lively investigations into the language of Modernism. Incorporating the styles and motifs of roadsign signage, slang expressions and hand painted shop placards, MacPherson's work is often created using the humblest of materials, such as paint-brushes, pots, socks, shovels and blankets. Through these modest domestic materials, MacPherson creates works that are strikingly beautiful, humorous and decisively Australian: works that highlight the poetry of the everyday.

Born in Queensland in 1937, MacPherson worked as a ship painted in the 1960s before travelling extensively throughout Europe and the US during the 1970s, where he took in the history of modern art and began assimilating that knowledge into his own work. Interested in the environment and farming, his works frequently reference elements of nature and working the land in a variety of ways, from portraits of drovers and cattlemen through to large-scale text paintings and installations that reference agricultural work.

MacPherson's work has been the subject of several survey exhibitions, including his first in 1995 at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and, in 2001, a major survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth. In 2018-19, the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, exhibited BOSS DROVERS (1996-2014), an immense work of 2400 drawings all executed in the name of his alter ego, a Year 4 student named Robert Pene, with each work dated 14 February 1947 and stained to add to the illusion.