Curator | Billy Gruner, Graham Davis King
Stores Building – Projects | Sydney | Australia
The inaugural reductive and non-objective biennale event in Sydney Australia is subtitled ‘Coterie to Coterie’. That social way of naming comes from the organising artist Billy Gruner pragmatically reflecting upon how particular activity defrayed in recent years. Yet a first comment needs to be expressed towards all the contributing artists demonstrating great trust and generosity in their personal support of independent programs. For that reason ‘Coterie to Coterie’ is also used as the papers title while acknowledging of the same crucial point remarks in detail on the reasons why, and with whom, more modern reductive language forms of language have gained a specialised art-critical traction – within the post 20thc global contemporary arts arena.
What is to be discussed in these compiled notes from West Projects therefore directly concerns the autonomously produced ‘01 – Biennale of R & NOA – Sydney’. This appears from out of the hard work done by a great many internationally, as briefly mentioned. But important as it is to note that fact, it remains a linked event to other programs and projects driven by as many artist organisations within a larger frame, yet it has specifically come about because an association informally established some years ago at a pass into the towering Alps in a stunning circular 1970s brutalist restaurant.
That was in Grenoble in 2017 during the 4th International Biennale of Contemporary Non Objective Art when Roland Orepuk the founding director with his supportive town mayor Christoph Ferrari enjoyed a local meal with invited guests. Present was Billy Gruner of WEST/RNOP from Sydney and the three began speak of the contemporary genre of reductive and non-objective art of the present day, and how much it had grown in both significance and scale of participation since 2000. And with growing certainty of the many known circles of art makers that they were all openly networking with across as many cities globally since then, the idea of expanding the concept of an international biennale platform was muted. From that meeting the International CNOA Biennale that had been held locally for a decade in France, almost inadvertently began to expand.
The first development came via the construction of a series of satellite events provided by WEST – RNOP from Australia while working in Europe and America from 2019-19, and later an actual biennale platform expansion morphed its way into two other cities. In Kyiv via KNO’s ‘Big Circle’ survey at the M17 Contemporary Art Centre, and then in Sydney at the Stores Building. Importantly the inaugural Australian biennale project similarly opens with a communal title, ‘Coterie to Coterie’. With its equally analogous attempt to highlight the diverse circles of interested art makers from across the globe remaining key, the question of how these makers found each other in the post 20thc arena of contemporary art is made topical. Another aim is to explain why it is so many contributors have been consistently discussing their art-critical similarities and or cultural differences, all within a form of alt-history over the past two decades. The Sydney event when viewed as a participant within a relational series is no less focused on the post 20thc experimentation and developmental (visual and/or other forms) dialogues the known circles of makers may share and dispute. For these reasons it is a platform, and ongoing, and to be viewed as a genre specific survey at the very least. Or, form of culturally driven and freewheeling inter-discursiveness as Mark Starel from Silesia recently put it via another familial Eastern European based program – itself independently operational within the European theatre of contemporary arts today.
The language experience in Sydney, as in most of the related events, is both diverse and familial. A collective voice seemingly commenting by proxy upon the very nature of a wider post 20thc arena of practices in contemporary art. In a converse view perhaps its communal identity presents a dialogic position that places markers on the choices all art makers select, and quite pointedly on the post-contemporary connections to or with other art makers, styles and/or ranging dialogic debates simultaneously taking place. In summary, it comments via various practices on all the usual tensions manifesting in discourse locatable within an existing critical dispersal of languages, even when utilised less strategically though specifically within a genre. In redefining that comment, within an ever-widening almost completely self-fashioned international set of questioning participatory peer groups (or individuals), matters intersect regardless. For this ‘assessment’ form of reasoning, and because of the bespoke nature of the contemporary genre outlined, it may be better understood as a post 20thc movement, one that began a hundred years ago. That is, given it is and remained unusually unto itself, even in present day terms and albeit built developmentally speaking from out of historical matters. For many participants using or agreeing with any of this terminology is not what interests them at all actually, and just used here as pretty much outmoded descriptor phraseology or, devises.
Regardless, what the ‘Coterie to Coterie’ conception does allow a visitor to engage is a selection of specialised practitioners. Meaning, what they will find irrespective of tastes and especially in the ‘Road Paintings’ section (the RNOP satellites touring show re-presented) is a compact survey of modern reductive and non objective art makers sampled from a range of international cities and local people; a biennale characteristic. That view is in and of itself and once the actual art-critical intent of these makers is attained (at some level), of a unique experience made available. While these notes are not focusing on any particular artist or featured practice deliberately, what may be understood in the backgrounding or mapping taking place in Sydney (as elsewhere) is a sense of continuation and developmental thinking upon a flattened out platform. And that is where a defining post 20thc re-modelling of the mode of ‘paying appropriate homage’ plays a significant role across the board. Fans of something do that, as opposed to taking or masking others agency or ideas as a new contribution in some way.
What the three public events in Grenoble, Kyiv, and Sydney highlight thematically is the almost surprising arrival in the post 20thc market of a nowadays quite vast and essentially unauthorised or independently achieved network, a big circle as Serhiy Popov from KNO as mentioned has labelled it. Gruner has his own terms used earlier such as the ‘post formalist aesthetic rising’ or ‘the generic aesthetic response’, yet each infers similar things. Gruner’s academic comments like Popov’s later ‘Big Circle’ naming or Orepuk’s current and very poetic Grenoble CNOA Biennale title, ‘En avant comme avant’, nevertheless state by various inflections there exists an inter-connecting world of coteries. Of art makers very possibly much less interested today in dating contemporary art morays, sureties, and academic approvals nor business like conventionalities per se. Further, that they are probably far more concerned with what their peers find interesting, challenging each others practices, developmental debate et al. In a sense, a certain un public view and alt-historical positioning also appears into a critical frame buried within otherwise routine public exhibition formats.
It is in that unique sense the ‘01 – Biennale of Contemporary Reductive & Non Objective Arts – Sydney’ sub-branded ‘Coterie to Coterie’, continues a representative linking to the an originating program – in Grenoble, France. That program has been running for over a decade now, and the current ‘’Big Circle’ survey in Kyiv mentioned is amongst others likewise found in Poland, France, UK, Germany, Asia and the Usa engaging generic discourse. In brief, ‘Coterie to Coterie’ acknowledges this notion of a movement typically bound to the specifics of a shared dialogue, for the want of a better phrasing. And in Sydney it is a biennale program concerning itself in just the same ‘matter of fact’ way by straightforwardly acknowledging that these circles of artists, internal dialogues, style trends, and any art-critical concerns and tractions both local and international are matters that have their own validity in contemporary art, criticism, and in theory today as anything else.
Not untypically, the related events in Kyiv, Grenoble and Sydney have not been government agency funded, nor institutionally framed, nor academically supported as culture projects. In Grenoble it’s a town mayor supporting the circles, in Kyiv a private group of artists and curators collaborating, in Sydney basically the same story other than Western Sydney’s local Aboriginal Land Council providing the use of the Stores Building in North Parramatta – as found as an abandoned-use site located on the outer grounds of Parramatta Goal. It is in fact a series of interlocking events solely produced by one set of local artists both by and for other sets of national and international artists groups they admire. These groups formed much earlier in independent project spaces such as Teksas in Copenhagen, Saturation Point in London, EST Foundation in Leiden, KNO in Kiev, Cartel in Bangkok, Divisible in Cincinnati, Abstract Projects in Paris, Interdiscursive in Silesia, Five Walls in Melbourne, Raygun in Queensland, Factory 49 and SNO in inner Sydney, and West Projects itself in far Western Sydney. Amongst many others dating back into the 20thc these new projects remain autonomously operative and administered by equally committed artist/curated networks of their own design.
For the ‘Coterie to Coterie’ event, and in following a certain tradition within this longstanding developmental style genre, there is no allocated curator per se. Artist circles literally select their own works and freight at their own cost. In stating this prime factor, a level of curation nevertheless takes place for necessary organisational rationales, and the organisers of the Sydney event wish to announce a sincere apology to all those who should have been included and are not. The ‘Coterie to Coterie’ event is as much a celebratory event as it is a typical survey, yet when simply put, it is what it is! Even with over 130 artists presenting it could not possibly cover all bases, nor cater fittingly for the vast international network of the reductive arts in action today. That is a colossal undertaking that would share in as many and diverse dialogues or points of cultural and theoretic difference making any sensible goal impossible. As such, there is no one voice for the genre, and as the German artist and curator Christoph Dahlhausen previously noted “what characterises post 20thc reductive arts is the noise level”. Again, it is a genre today absolutely characterised by its own highly discursive content level. As a second thematic point of difference for the ‘Coterie to Coterie’ biennales across the board is a matter or demarcation, its also a redefined zone separating most post 20thc makers off from earlier traditions, of say Arte Concret for example. A point that provides a central defining argument for any acknowledgement that a new and more modernised
movement (that began around 2000) is well in play in its own right, where stylistic and theoretical silence really is not an option. What comes with the chatter as others have put it is the defining process towards intellectual collectivism. Perhaps this was introduced by foundational makers such John Nixon in Australia and Jan Van der Ploeg in Amsterdam, Tilman at CCNOA in Brussels amongst many others who would soon follow into them into further action.
West Projects of Australia in hosting the event as an independent international contemporary reductive arts program also needs background. West Projects was born around 2015 in the Blue Mountains within a small community utilising donated shop-space, but its raison de etre for its core members stemmed from earlier incantations of MAP, SNO, and MOP. All of those important programs and like Factory 49 another linked space remain ongoing as significant specialised Australian reductive arts programs that most of which had been designed, funded, and defrayed by Billy Gruner (from around 2003). Relationally, over the past two years West founders that currently include Billy Gruner, Sarah Keighery and Graham Davis King (and now separate from others who moved on) had developed and defrayed a new and particularly core project at that time.
That was simply titled RNOP or The Reductive Non Objective Project. Designed to only exist on fb RNOP however soon found itself co-curating shows internationally with other page members and followers of the new portal, as mentioned in the introduction. The so-called RNOP ‘coterie-based’ events began there. These were often sub-titled ‘New Modern’ and or ‘The Road Paintings’. The almost secret and technically un-curated or community driven programs produced a model of mobility and a fast mode of production that came about organically. Billy Gruner and Sarah Keighery were simultaneously working closely with the establishment of a new group in Kyiv named KNO (Kiev Non Objective) and further co- producing another range of collaborative intercity ‘satellite’ events for the September/Oct 2019 Biennale of CNOA, in Grenoble France, as previously outlined. That is how it is that an intense level of work began producing agreements between coteries, and why important and trusted connections from one circle to another led to the Sydney biennale production itself.
In detailing, RNOP during that developmental period was invited by M17 Arts Centre in Kyiv to participate in their truly massive ‘Big Circle’ international survey. Produced by Serhiy Popov from KNO it was another interlinking event recently held in the Ukraine in August/October 2019. As such the RNOP – M17 presentation for the Big Circle survey conjoined West with other significant programs and independent works by artist/curators representative of a global movement or, was it perhaps just that something special was occurring deep within contemporary art at large. Irrespectively, it seemed to qualify as a significant outcome. What is certain is that since 2000 (but also well beforehand) there have been many artist/curators and unauthorised projects similarly restaging the terms and conditions of specialised interests within the purview of contemporary art more widely speaking. In essence these surveys notate on a Secession of sorts, a shift that has actually been unfolding into public view since the 1970s. The evidence of this appears in some primary ways to be further discussed…from coterie to coterie.
For instance, in 2016 when West Projects initially created the RNOP media page on Facebook to focus on developing a new model they termed ‘artist co-curated – coterie driven’ projects, and mainly out of pure curiosity from Gruner’s farm in the Blue Mountains, they discovered that all that was needed was a cell phone. The success of the RNOP FB page or portal soon led to the idea that actually co-producing localised events for specialised members in other cities also made sense. By focusing on artists and not the public curators or critics the artist/curator model of RNOP they discovered they could begin a truly post 20thc engagement with other important local, national, and international circles completely independently. No committees, no funding grants, nothing to interfere in any way. This proved especially important to those interested in more relevant discourse on contemporary reductive practices, and for many other kinds of socio-economic and culturally restrictive reasons also. It produced an unhindered or unfettered mode of practice where contributors could find new words and systems to relate to. In particular, a close friendship between Gruner in Sydney and Popov in Kyiv, Peter Holm in Copenhagen, and Deb Covell in London soon developed. Privately termed memes appeared, and the notion that ‘new words for new systems’ or ‘New
Modern’ and the ‘Nonobject form’ became essentially humorous catch phrases – words certainly favoured over more serious terms that sounded outmoded.
As mentioned Gruner and Keighery’s earlier work as specialised artist/gallerists in the contemporary reductive arts genre began before the 2000’s. That was via a lengthy passage through various project spaces they founded which produced a unique purview onto a global network in its infancy. In working passionately over two decades with other artists project spaces located in Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Amsterdam and New York a connection produced some very important and now long-standing relationships. However Gruner notes, “…even at the late stage of 2005, we felt the genre of contemporary non objective art remained a disparate global circle, almost unrecognisable but nevertheless an influential and radical ‘genre specific’ post 20thc network And that belonging inextricably to a greater history dating back many decades. In brief, RNOP sought to engage with what Gruner defines as “…the alt-histories operative within recent contemporary art”. By continuing on with that work in the Sydney Biennale event, it should be noted that it was Gruner and Covell in London who first sardonically identified this supposed alt-history as the “New Modern Movement”.
In exampling, Deb Covell’s RNOP co-curation aptly titled ‘New Modern’ was an international event held in 2018 at Saturation Point in London, or later in 2019 at Five Walls Projects in Melbourne a vast co-curation with Aaron Martin was also co-titled ‘New Modern – The Road Paintings’. That Australian event for RNOP featured 76 local and international artists active on what Gruner also identifies as The Flat Platform. Similarly, a show at ACEC in Apeldoorn in the Netherlands came to pass, as did an event via Teksas Projects in Copenhagen, others at Saturation Point London, Reflex Wall International Projects Queensland at USQ, ISprojects Leiden, they all made incredibly significant coterie based co-curations that spoke directly to matters at hand. In the USA Jeffrey Courtland Jones via Divisible in Cincinnati and Jessica Snow in San Francisco at National Highway likewise excelled themselves. Curiously the initial RNOP event was devised for Amsterdam in collaboration with ISprojects and took part in the ‘100 Years of DeStijl’ festival. RNOP’s assemblage for the ‘Van Doesburg Fan Club’ installation marked a turning a point where fresh thinking really first ensued from earlier Assemblage works. The next was RNOP – Germany held by Werner Windisch in A9e in 2017. Soon after a larger German event RNOP – COLOGNE (Europa), as held at Bruch & Dallas early 2018. The later occurred during a summer festival and enjoying a1000 visitors. More projects soon took part engaging with the artist based ‘co-curated’ RNOP event system as more artists began to understand the simple, socially driven, alt-historical philosophy that had been placed freely into play.
During this time there were other achieved large-scale projects linking in as biennale satellites. Made by different groups these have included the city wide Australian survey titled ‘Abstraction Twenty Eighteen’ held by a local consortium of artist/curators Aaron Martin, Stephen Wickham and Stephen Mclaughlan in 2018. Or Bogumila Strojna’s ongoing program in the prior ParisConcret space in Paris. Just as significantly Mark Starels’ enormous ‘InterDiscursive’ Projects from Krakow mentioned all proved outstanding and popular with those involved.
Significantly all the RNOP events followed a similar pattern of naming, as it was thought the idea of the projects at that point mattered most, not a curators’ storylines or any individual’s career per se. That of course raised eyebrows with those seeking self-definition both culturally and professionally speaking. On this Gruner stated at that time…”It is for a ‘social contextualisation’ and form of ‘cultural reasoning’ that the events have need to be ‘artist driven’ and or, ‘coterie based’ productions from the outset. Delivered via simple verbal agreements as purely social contracts made between interested circles within communities, not through professional curator systems per se, academics visions or institutional frames. The special characteristic of any RNOP event has been based on an independence of production, without a priori towards any public audience.” Gruner further noted “… if the public were interested that was seen a gift. As rule the coteries in other cities retained their unique and sole producers provenance even when co-curated with RNOP, and all is done solely for the benefit of the art makers engaging”. Over the 24-month period and as featured
in the M-17 RNOP presentation in particular, the ideal of inclusiveness reigned. Just as the acknowledgment of the ‘peer recognised’ practitioner and the independence of these modern projects were drafted to stand out in a Secessionist way”.
It is without question the newly formed KNO group in Kyiv likewise proved important to the RNOP account, and West Projects in co-managing much of that business. As an unofficial RNOP event KNOs grand opening was curated by Gruner with KNO’s members. Gruner as a working as an advisor then curated a number of related events while coordinating the KNO collection donated by participating art makers, as was recently presented at M-17 in its own right. This Australian Ukrainian relationship came to pass because Serhiy Popov had contacted Gruner earlier in 2017 from Kiev directly on his mobile on his farm in the Blue Mountains in Australia. It was there and then while still sitting on a tractor clearing forestry debris the pair struck up a solid friendship and agreed to begin making newer kinds of events. As such other Popov Gruner presentations at the Bulgakov Museum like the all women’s show titled ‘W13’ happened quickly, and all due to the generosity of the participating art makers. That and other ‘Icons Series’ shows amongst not dissimilar events held at the Bulgakov Museum, rapidly followed.
Similarly the standout ‘Nonobject’ show in Kyiv with Peter Holm as curator and Kyle Jenkins editor and Billy Gruner as writer also began publicly arguing for an identification of the actual leit motif form, asking what is in play or at stake within an otherwise quiet post 20thc reductive arts genre. In purely productive terms their literation on and of what the ‘nonobject model’ implied for instance, does provide a rich insight into what the informing aesthetic may actually be like structurally, especially for those interested in further reading.
Gruner also noted at that time leading into the generous and trusting opening up of the biennale agreements that “…what rose above the informality of the Satellite events concept is a fresh and radically independent tone of voice continuing to be elucidated by many participating art makers, and a natural discursiveness now reflects upon a common approach and how new language development in the present may be literally underscoring the task of how more modern practices can be technically conveyed, and historically”. In short, the M17 Contemporary Arts Centre event of ‘Big Circle’ officially recognised a critical need for specialist systems that open out beyond usual contemporary arts routes, just as researchers can confirm that significant reductive art matters were just as heavily focused upon beforehand – as in linked spaces such as CCNOA Brussels, PS Amsterdam, early MOP, early stages of SNO, or MAP in Sydney, Minuspace NY, or Non Objective Sud (France) in naming a few forerunners”. In closing the ‘Coterie to Coterie’ in Sydney event notes we pay must homage to the work done by a great many from 2015 to 2019.
Please refer to West Projects, RNOP and KNO’s and many other projects mentioned on their web and FB pages where listings of the cities visited and interconnected shows undertaken. In referencing the spaces and projects mentioned readers can readily locate tables of important participants who presented independently within the covering 2019 Satellite program of the Grenoble CNOA biennale. Billy Gruner mentions in concluding he would like to say “…above all else I would personally thank all those involved, and the key figures that made 2017/19 into an astounding build-up and fitting expansion and augmentation for the 2019 R & NOA Biennales – with a final and especial thanks to all the artists who generously supported this program, sent works, and waited patiently for an outcome.