Robert MacPherson

Oldfield, 1977
acrylic on canvas - 8 panels
31.0 x 31.0 cm
each panel signed with initials, dated 'June 77' and numbered (on the reverse)

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Ray Hughes Gallery, Brisbane
Private collection, Brisbane

'Robert Macpherson', Ray Hughes Gallery, Brisbane, 1977

‘Things happen in process and are left. I am surprised.’
(Robert MacPherson, ‘IMA Bulletin’, Vol. 1 No. 1, 1975)

In the 1970s Robert MacPherson was interested in pure process. Many of his images featured titles like ‘Rituals of the hand’ or ‘Enclosed gestures’, which were openly descriptive of his practice and the art work it produced.

MacPherson’s drawings and paintings of the early-mid 1970s, were the result of a particular nomination of labour and an exploration into the inherent qualities of his tools – which could be anything from his paintbrush to the scale of his body. These two conditions would control variables like size, colour and type of mark. At this time MacPherson was using only black and white paint, feeling that colour was a cheap trick used too often to seduce an audience. If painting or drawing was both an act and an object, MacPherson was testing the absolute limits of how and why this was so.

Conceptually he was responding to the New York theorist Clement Greenberg’s ideas about medium-specificity (that the artist should critically engage with his medium of choice) and the legacy of the iconic Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, who proposed that a painter could be ‘making a Readymade when he paints with a manufactured object that is called paints.’

This work is named for the Oldfield paintbrush that made it. It is comprised of eight panels, each 31cm squared, with black or white acrylic paint applied from the top down. As Trevor Smith wrote (in his essay ‘The World in My Paintbrush’ for the 2001 Art Gallery of Western Australia monograph and exhibition ‘Robert MacPherson’), exploring different systems of mark making in this manner introduced an ‘element of aesthetic surprise’ to the end result of an act of painting. In this series of images ‘incident’ has become a factor with the bleeding and soaking of wet paint forming indelible patterns in unprimed canvas.

MacPherson would later take this serial arrangement of canvases to magnificent proportions in whole room installations.

  • Oldfield

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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.