KATE VASSALLO & JAMES LIEUTENANT
Mistints is made of stripes. It’s on the walls of Archive Space, a room that manages to live a 9 to 5 existence as an art space.
There’s a hint of fifties suburban zen in the plaster flourishes on the roof and cornices, but on the whole it’s a medium lounge room-sized space with a door in at the corner and very, very white walls. It’s what fictional artist Gulley Jimson might describe as a “good wall”. That is, it’s in need of a good painting.
Which is what James Lieutenant and Kate Vassallo have done with it for Mistints. Running with the idea that it’s impossible to be completely abstract, they’ve tried to be completely abstract. That is, they fail. And they fail on purpose.
Mistints doesn’t exist before it gets slopped on the wall. The are conversations and there’s planning, but there’s nothing really to see before it all pops up in situ a week before opening. Rays of colour infect the space’s walls, dripping down in stripes of off green, purples, quasi ochre, beige and brown; like these colours had been hidden in the walls all this time and Kate and James simply turned up, found a cord and pulled them down into being. They didn’t.
When I first go and meet them, James apologises for the mess and Kate is up a ladder putting some stripes on along the back. It looks like a final paint up before handing the apartment back to the landlord, but it feels much more like an artist studio. There’s no canvas here. Just walls. The cold autumn air nips, fighting with the impression of wooden floorboards, loose-fitting painters’ clothes and the parlour atmosphere of the room.
Kate and James work in the abstract, but talking to them is plenty down to earth. Their work is different when they’re apart, they tell me. Kate does meticulously planned performance art, James, self-aware commercial painting. But for this piece their plans are pretty simple:they want to make something grotesque.
Abstract art is fine as a movement, reckons James, but it’s too often seen as a “holier than thou, purer way of looking at the world”. In Mistints, James and Kate leave the evidence of the far-from-abstract real world on show, in rough brush strokes and unsteadiness of line. They want their abstract art to be earthy and imperfect.
They’re playing with Liam Gillick’s idea, in Abstract, that nothing real &mdash like, say, a piece of abstract art &mdash can be really abstract. Because it’s real, and littered with the wrinkles and scratches of real things. Like, say, a room painted in gaudy colours by two pair of expert, steady hands.
So many artworks like this, James tells me, are mathematical and repeatable. Sharp-edged, abstract makers like Sol de Witt will lay out their abstract art with instructions, making them easily remade and posthumously do-able. Mistints is designed to be completely unrepeatable.
The colours are dull. Each taken from actual mistints. These are hardware shop mistakes, their hues failed attempts to mix the paint right on site. Most mistint paints sit up the back of the shops for yearswaiting for a generous buyer. After so much time to stew, the way they behave when they land on the wall from the brush can be a bit of a surprise. These are the paints that Kate and James have been working with.
The night before launch, the walls are covered with strips and stripes of narrow insulation tape waiting to be ripped off from between the still-wet lines to reveal their sharp edges. Coming back an hour before opening night, the walls have taken shape. There’s something warmer about the colours than I expected. Like the heat of a familiar sitting room.
Far from its white-walled beginnings, the room’s been doused in lounge-tinted pinstripe. It’s like the pair have slipped off the room’s skin, revealing a sinew of rough, aesthetic coloured pipe. If only you could always show this under-layer of Archive. In a couple of weeks it’ll be painted over. Which is a bit of the point.
At the launch, people stare at it from across the room. Their eyes play over the colours one after the other like piano keys. In front of the walls, they shift from foot to foot. This shift in their shoulders make the stripes seem to move. Colours leap out to match: dull red for a red cardigan, butter yellow for a yellow jacket and mere black for a dark jumper.
What’s transitory in this is not just the pigment on the walls, but the flow of people against the wall, moving it with their figure and shadow. The motions change the work, rattling against it like sticks against a fence. After a few weeks no one will ever really see this again. Only imperfect photos will be left.
The stripes respond to the space’s walls: its dent, its light, its fold. They’re not on a canvas, nor a panel. They’re not staying up. They need to be enjoyed, fascinate the eye and then disappear into memory. Which afterimage, I suppose, is exactly the kind of abstract existence they were all so against in the first place.
-by Zacha Rosen