Robert Macpherson

Catalogue text for Singapore Biennale, 2011

Robert Macpherson uses reductive and systematic approaches to make expansive works. His starting points may be specific - what might be the least that has to be done to make a painting, or the permutations of a single repeated mark - but through his determined exploration of each stage of the investigation, extraordinary riches and complexities unfold. His methodology has its roots in his early engagement and dialogue with writings by Clement Greenberg on the essential nature of painting but has since expanded to embrace the relationships between the sign and the signified, the revealed and the obscured, between language and image.

If questions of 'art' constitute part of this exchange, the quotidian world and lived experience makes an important contribution. In an early work his investigation into the nature of a painting resolves itself into a consideration - and celebration - of the paintbrush itself: a tool used by both the worker and the artist. 'Relics of Boredom' sculptures 1978-81 displays a collection of found objects - rubber bands assembled into a ball, silver foil scrunched up into volumes, arrangements of paperclips - that had been left behind by people in the office block where MacPherson worked as a cleaner for three years. He notes that they are 'relics of the tactile need that makes everyone an artist'.

Many of his paintings use images and texts taken from the hand-made signs that populate Australian roads and highways advertising goods for sale, fruit, food or services: he has written that these black and white paintings allow him to explore 'a wonderful directness of means and an unselfconsciousness in the use of paint often lost in so called high art'. These works also brilliantly express a world of democratic signification where effective and direct solutions are found to complex issues of representation. Similar concerns animate the series of drawings he has made under the alter ego of Robert Penne, a pupil at St Josephs Convent, allowing him to represent a world (and an Australia) as ordered and understood by a twelve-year-old child.

Much of Macpherson's work travels under the banner of 'Poems' - as in the 'Frog Poems' a title that links many formally disparate works - and poetry is at the heart of his practice. Through the mechanism of combining different taxonomical indexes and focusing on seemingly simple acts that are so central to our lives, a vast engine of association moves into action. The grounding of the work in the every-day, in the way we understand and describe our world through words and listings, our groupings of information gives his practice a political charge and is also central to the sense of wonder that lies there: it is a celebration of our languages and quixotic understandings of the world.

© Richard Grayson 2011