You know that line, "writing about music is like dancing about architecture"? There's also an older variation, "…like singing about economics” and a rather more impolite one "…like talking about fucking". I've always assumed the point of the simile was simply to rubbish music critics, an anti-intellectual dig at people who talk about and analyse creative things when they should just, you know, feel it man. After speaking to Antonia Sellbach – musician, painter, writer, all-round polymath – about her current show (at Daine Singer until 2 May), I've started to wonder whether the phrase could mean something slightly different. Specifically, that translation is always imperfect. You can never fully express something in one language using the words of another.
Music, writing, dancing, architecture, economics, talking, fucking – and we can add to that list painting and contemporary art – each can be thought of as a language. That is to say, each consists of a large but finite number of individual elements which can be moved around in an even larger but still finite number of arrangements, all governed by a logic that is both explicit (rules) and implicit (rules of thumb). When you think about language in that way – in terms of pieces, moves and rules – it starts to resemble a game. At least that’s how the mid-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously imagined it in Philosophical Investigations (1953).
To the outsider who doesn't know how to play, games seem random and illogical. Likewise, to the outsider who doesn't know the rules, languages are just gibberish. Context is everything. Unlike some theorists of language, Wittgenstein doesn't think here is the real world and all the things in it (dog, chair, painting) and there are the abstract symbols we use to refer to it (the words 'dog', 'chair', 'painting'). No, for Wittgenstein they're all wrapped up together; language and its rules of expression shape how we understand life, and vice versa. That’s why Wittgenstein says to describe a language is to describe a form of life. "His approach is really poetic," says Sellbach, who’s working on a PhD that applies the philosopher's theory of language-games to traditions of abstract painting. "It comes from a playful place, which resonates with me as an artist."
As per Wittgenstein's concept of language-games, Sellbach's paintings are conceived as a series of possible pieces, moves and arrangements all governed by rules of play. The paintings in Forms of Life are roughly the same size featuring fat lines of colour about two inches wide, applied with the aid of some timber slats, which divide the canvas up into grids and diagonals. As Sellbach explains, the earliest paintings in the show were the result of strict rules of production. "The bars were precisely the width of timber slats, the same dimension, clear edges, as square and ordered as I could possibly make them." They were also designed to be modular. There’s no right way up, they can stand-alone or they can be arranged in different combinations. Sellbach says she sees them less as paintings, rather "I see them as objects that can be placed next to each other."
Meanwhile for the newer works in the show, those same rules seem to be unravelling. The painted lines are just approximations of the original timber planks, the colours milkier, the edges blurrier, marks have been made and then redacted. You can, if you look closely enough, see a ghost of the game she played on the canvas. "I’m interested in the decision making process, in what gets added and removed," says Sellbach, "I like the trace that is left behind. I think of it like the timeline of the painting."
Forms of Life is using the language of abstract art to talk about the language of language. Or, to put it another way, Sellbach is painting about human communication, which if you think about it is rather like making music about writing or fucking about talking or constructing buildings about dance.
>> Maura Edmond
>> 8 April 2015
GO SEE IT:
Forms of Life
1 April - 2 May, 2015
Basement 325 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Wed - Fri 12pm - 5pm | Sat 12pm - 4pm