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This Work Was – 1985 Review Revisited

By Peter Anderson


What follows is a retyped & ever so slightly edited copy of an unpublished review I wrote of Brian Doherty’s exhibition at THAT Contemporary Art Space in October 1985.


The exhibition was a collaborative project, but the core focus of the review was on Brian’s work. The incomplete review, which is mostly typed, but also includes sections I’ve crossed out, as well as a final paragraph written in pencil, was filed away paper clipped to the back of the catalogue for the exhibition.


I have no clear recollection of the publication to which I’d intended to submit the review. On re-reading the piece after I unearthed it during the research for ephemeral traces I realised that in it I was making one of the key arguments that has driven my thinking for this current project – that to properly understand artist-run practice, we need to consider not just art works, but the creativity involved in making a context for creating. For me this exhibition sits as a foundational moment for my thinking about what Terry Smith calls ‘infrastructural activism’, which to unpack fully requires us to develop what we might think of as an expanded view of art practice. I suspect that I did not complete the review due to time constraints, as at the end of 1985 I was in the process of completing an Honours degree at Griffith University, and would have been in the final stages of preparing my dissertation and final assessment.


(Peter Anderson, February 2016)


(Unpublished) review of “THIS WORK WAS: an exhibition by Brian Doherty, John Waller and others, at THAT” (October 15 – 26, 1985).


Although the particular exhibition which forms the basis for this writing included works by other artists, it is primarily the work of Brian Doherty that I wish to look at here. Originally the exhibition was to have consisted entirely of material by John Waller, but as a result of various health problems he was not able to fully utilise the space and so offered it to Brian.


The eventual exhibition, “THIS WORK WAS an exhibition by Brian Doherty, John Waller and others at THAT”, was made up of over seventy works. The bulk of this very varied collection consisted of three installation pieces by John Waller, twenty-three drawings and documentation from three group drawing performances organised by John in 1983, and what amounted to a Brian Doherty retrospective of over fifty works dating back over almost ten years.


Brian’s work does not present either a uniform or evolutionary surface to the viewer, rather it plays with style, medium, and the processes of production and display. Included in the exhibition were a number of items which raise questions concerning the nature of art practice, the division between an area of activity labelled “art”, and some other realm of “non-art” activities. For example, three issues of Art Walk Magazine (Brian was a member of the editorial collective), Bursars Reply (a letter from the Uni. of Queensland bursar to the Qld. Artworkers Union secretary, Brian Doherty re. artist’s fees), and I.M.A. Bulletin October, film program 1983-1985 (Brian initiated and ran the IMA weekly film program from mid-1983 to the end of 1985).


These items (among others) operate as traces of a practice that goes on outside the exhibition space, as documentation of activities which Brian asserts are as much “art” activities as drawing or making prints. As objects these things also have a life of their own, and even within the framework of a medium based conception of what art is, certain tensions emerge.


Included among the works exhibited are a few of the many posters and other graphic works Brian produced as a screen printer for the University of Queensland Students Union. However, there is no necessary shift in value between any of the items exhibited. For example between Activities Workshop Poster July 1980 (screen-print ink on paper: bitumen, water-sol blockout, potato print and rubber stamps) and untitled (3 parts) 1983 (screen-print ink on soap powder boxes). While the manner in which these items function within different contexts may well be of a totally different nature, through their non-hierarchical organisation, this exhibition locates them all as vital elements within an individual’s (art) praxis.


While carrying out a legitimizing process, such as this (where ‘this’ equals writing a review), a common practice is to critically note the presence or absence of stylistic uniformity. In the case of this exhibition, style, particularly graphic style, can be taken as one of the many concerns. Thus to either praise or damn the lack of a uniform “voice” would be to miss the point.


A theme which could be developed in relation to a good proportion of the work relates to the recognition of objects through familiarity with their style, their graphic “look”. In the case of the already mentioned Untitled (3 Parts) 1983, the tension of the work emerges on two main levels. On the one hand, between the colours and ink textures on the surface of the cardboard, as an abstract print, and on the other, between the added screen-print ink and the style of the ink already printed on the soapbox. In addition to this tension there is the further question of the aesthetic value of the new work.


Followed through, the full examination of such a theme could well lead to questions concerning the possible legitimization and hierarchical ordering of material simply on the basis of its style. A case of we know what art is because it looks like art, rather than something else. The problem is that not all art looks like art, perhaps some of it doesn’t look at all.


Brian uses a good deal of “junk” material in the works he produces (newspaper, junk-mail, etc.), and rather than framing it he hangs each piece by attaching it to one or two small bulldog clips. For works that are in series, the clips are strung on wires. The current standard method of hanging, in a single line at eye level, is not followed. Rather, works are hung more randomly up and down the wall a number of works deep. Hanging from their bulldog clips there is the suggestion that all the pieces operate as notes, as reminders, as an accumulation of things that have been rescued from somewhere for some reason and are in the process of being followed up.


Clearly the many issues raised, played with, and fought over in Brian Doherty’s work of the past ten years have barely been touched, and the works displayed only went part of the way towards exposing their range, depth and relative importance. To emphasize the continuing process of his various (art) activities, Brian worked from a desk situated in the gallery during the exhibition.


The strength with which an issue can be dealt with varies with the materials pressed into service. These often depend very much on what happens to be at hand, and what it is you are trying to say. Each piece of work has its natural limitations, depending on what you are doing, be that building a screen-printing workshop, organising a film program or making a picture.