A child’s canoe, home-made for a muddy dam, now floats beneath sleek blond boards and black-on-gold lettering fresh from a hardware store. The words are from a strange, specialist language of hybrid Latin names used in the natural sciences.
We respond to the innocent boat-building child, the confident tradesman and the scholar wordsmith behind what we see. The art-maker also assumes at least two specialist art-viewers’ responses: we should recognise references to the Surrealists’ favourite simile, ‘Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table’ and to the look of MacPherson’s own formative moment in 1960s New York Modernism. Greenbergian theory emphasised the specificities of good painting, such as flatness, opticality, edge-consciousness, objecthood, presence, so here a fastidiously proportioned upright rectangle generates a minimalist composition of horizontal stripes, in elegant tones of silver and grey, black and gold. Its descent to a same-width objet trouvé offers a satiric comparison with Mark Rothko’s smouldering paintings in which a colour-cloud cushions the bottom of the field.
The title, “15 Frog Poems: Double Drummer (Creek Song), for Bob Brosnan”, is not as unhelpful as it seems. Count the boards; 15. The natural-science names must be frogs’ names. And the name at the centre, …terraereginae (…of Queensland), is easy enough to interpret. If we hadn’t guessed already that MacPherson was making art out of his own life in his own place as well as out of international Modernism, here we leap from New York art theory to a small-town childhood at Nambour in subtropical Queensland.
The quotation marks are a literary convention for indicating a poem title. Also, in Japanese poetry there is a particular tradition of frog poems, for example:
Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumps in —
For ten years almost all MacPherson’s works were ‘Frog Poems’. This is one of several that hold conversations between wall-hung words and floor-based folkcraft objects, and the artist volunteers they are ‘like haiku poems, the floorpiece being the cushion line’2
As to their content, MacPherson said of a Frog Poem containing an obsolescent low-life vocabulary: ‘This jargon I find beautifully descriptive, rich, wonderful metaphorically, poetry.’ Also: ‘The childhood experience of talking to two bagmen camped under a local bridge…I’ve always associated…with Litoria caerulia the green tree frog and its abode.’3 The Frog Poems are about childhood ease with underdog humans and shy animals, and delight in the whole natural world.
“15 Frog Poems: Double Drummer (Creek Song), for Bob Brosnan” is the first in a ‘trilogy’. The corrugated galvanised-iron canoe was made at Mullumbimby in the 1970s by a child relation of MacPherson’s, and the artist had once made similar corrugated canoes for the tranquil creek at Nambour. (In 1931, the 15-year-old who would become the artist Donald Friend told his diary that he flattened the corrugations to make canoes for a fast-flowing inland river.) The material is ubiquitous in Australian life, light and flexible for long-distance transport and inexperienced tinsmiths.
The other two works in the trilogy incorporate home-made boxcarts. In “Tree Rain: 16 Frog Poems (Yellow Monday), for J. C.”, 1989–90, there is a pushcart for errands to woodshed or shops. The most personal is“Frog Poem: Hill Song (Floury Baker), for G. B.”, 1989–92, which displays a fake found object, labelled as Robert Pene’s championship billycart that raced on the steep slopes of Reilly Road, Nambour. Pene is MacPherson’s ten-year-old persona.4
Hill Song, Creek Song and Tree Rain evoke sounds to reinforce the physical bliss of engulfment in air and water. Double Drummer, Yellow Monday and Floury Baker further evoke ecstatic sound; they are cicadas, shrilling insects that schoolchildren collect. The adult MacPherson continued collecting childhood creativities for his “Green Singer: 58 Frog Poems, for J. S. N.”, 1987–97, an artist’s book of fifty-eight cicada names.
Finally, we are not expected to identify the dedications “for Bob Brosnan”, “for J. C.” or “for G. B.” Most dedicatees are outsiders, MacPherson’s proletarian mates whose “secular” creativity he wishes to honour within the “sanctified”5 institutions of high art but without exploiting or embarrassing them. Nothing if not considerate, this satirical, funny, warm-hearted master of Conceptualism, characterised by European and American critics as a Marxist heir to the dandyish Marcel Duchamp and maybe as significant as Jeff Koons6, insists his low-life Australians can sing as well as any high-art insider. 1960s abstractionists said aesthetics, art history and theory were like “Ornithology to the birds”7.
Daniel Thomas 2002
1Trevor Smith, Robert MacPherson, Perth:Art Gallery of Western Australia, 2001 (exhibition book), p.71 quotes this poem by Basho.
2 Daniel Thomas, ‘Everybody Sing: The art of Robert MacPherson’, Art and Australia, vol. 33, no.4, winter 1996, p.494.
3Smith, op.cit., p.119
4Smith, op.cit., p.153.
5Thomas, op.cit., p.487.
6Smith, op.cit., pp.133-34; Thomas, p.486.
7Variations of the wisecrack were heard by the present writer in New York in 1966, sometimes attributed to Barnett Newman, and can be found in the literature of Abstract Expressionism as ‘Art history [or Aesthetics] is for artists as ornithology for the birds’.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002