WTF is Art?!

Photo by Myself (Emily Cody)

As long as I can recall, I have always been a gallery goer. I would often go along with my grandma to all sorts of exhibitions (who was a guide at the National Gallery of Victoria for many years), stare at walls and wonder what I was really looking at. A lot of the time, I would think quietly to myself, “well I could do that, even that kid over there could”, in fact those squiggly lines (or just strange lines I thought) resembled how I once drew in kindergarten, sans the price tag. 

Through my years of popping in and out of galleries to immerse myself, I’ve started becoming skeptical about how unimpressed I found myself. Perhaps I was looking at the wrong walls, so I wanted to know why modern art was doing that to me. 

I recently went alone to the NGV at Federation Square. I’ve heard that the key way to view contemporary walls is to go alone, no distractions and wearing all black “as all the attention is to be on the art” my grandma would say. I climbed up to the third floor to see Robert Hunter, contemporary Australian minimalist artist 1947-2014. To my surprise, the first room was his famous blank white on white canvas paintings titled ‘untitled’ – what a surprise.

Robert Hunter – ‘Untitled’. Photo: Emily Cody

This was the moment that really got me, okay seriously now, WTF is Art?! 

The NGV Art labels beside the ‘Untitled’ paintings read, “From his earliest near-white square canvases, the wall paintings that dominated much of his output in the 1970s, and the finely nuanced white-on-white compositions of the mature works for which he is now best known, he produced a remarkably consistent body of work that tests the very limits of visual perception.”

I understood even less. All I read was the word “mature” and thought how immature I was. 

Instantly, I thought about all the struggling artists out there trying to sell their works and it really got to me. I was raging (okay well not really but the security guard was watching me watching the nothing-ness), but why? As I stepped a little closer I experienced my ‘uh-ha’ moment.

Up-close and personal with Hunter’s ‘Untitled no. 8 1968’ the NGV label reads, “Hunter’s paintings trace a fine balance between apparent contradictions – complexity and simplicity, colour and its absence, excess and reduction, the everyday and the existential. Notoriously resistant to photographic reproduction, they test the very limits of visual perception, slowly revealing their intricacies to an actively engaged viewer.”

And that’s exactly what it was. Complex yet simple. Everything and nothing, all at the same time. And evidently resistant to “photographic reproduction” as you can see here. It’s not easy to capture, rather one must go and see the works in the flesh. 

Robert Hunter – Untitled no. 8 1968
Photo: Emily Cody

I finally (somewhat) understood contemporary modern art. That’s what art is meant to do, isn’t? Provoke emotion in us, whether you like the visual or not. I realised then and there, it’s not only what you’re always looking at but it’s the intention behind it – the feeling it gives you is arguably the most important; the exploration of its deeper meaning through the way it’s presented. A moment once captured in time unable to be changed with each brush stroke or steady line seems humanly unachievable in Hunter’s case and a dedication to years of practice. As I went up close I became in awe of the mature geometric genius, but to be sure I wanted to speak to some artists because art as we know it is always up for personal interpretation. I also wanted to confirm my sudden uh-ha moment. 

Geometric Melbourne street artist ‘Brody X’, when viewing Hunter’s paintings was in even deeper than me saying, “I feel like I could speak on a deeper level about these paintings but nothing I come up with will articulate the feeling I got when I first saw that back room at the NGV. If anything it was awe inspiring to see such humble paintings have such an effect on me.”

“Using a basic geometric lexicon and everyday materials such as house paint and masking tape, he endlessly reinvented the modernist grid.” NGV artwork labels.


“I have never looked at paintings for that long before, they really struck me, maybe because I found them to be subtle, simple but intricate and strong all at the same time. They really are a deep contemplation of perception. A concentration and/or meditation on form which I relate to in the making of my own work.”

Robert Hunter – ‘Untitled’ exhibition at NGV. Photo: Emily Cody

I’ve learnt nothing is ever how it seems at first glance; paradoxical of life and particularly true with modern art. However, I have found a new appreciation through understanding modern art a little more, which before I just thought looked aesthetically “cool” at times.

Melbourne artist Heath Newman, who recently had his own exhibition at Otomy’s Abbotsford gallery, paints using colour and drawing inspiration from nature, almost in an effortless childlike sense. Despite this, his reflections on the meaning of art and Hunter completely intrigued me. “I honestly think everything is art to a degree,” Heath said. “The universe is an expression of existence and on a more human level everything we do based on our ability to imagine and express becomes art too. Taking an idea from a metaphysical place such as the mind, subconscious etc and applying that into a physical world is art. I don’t narrow art down to mere fine art mediums; it’s the ability to externalise the internal and even things as basic as communication become art in this way. 

“I think Robert Hunter’s work comes as a critique to art, so yes I do feel he has achieved ‘what I think art is.’ His work takes considered understanding of the placement of art (particularly painting) at a particular time and reduces it to its core elements: surface, light and form and in doing so asks the viewer to see a more etheric and in my opinion spiritual world beyond preconceived ideas of painting (at the time.)
“I don’t think particularly there is a rule for good and bad art, but of course because due to its subjective nature people (including myself) react differently to works. I personally enjoy works of any medium with an informed nature, taking their cues from the plight of existence and ideally stepping over the boundaries to expand our current perceptions of the world and beyond. There is no particular role to take as an artist; mealy means to express, I just personally enjoy some art more than others. 
“I absolutely find Hunter’s work inspiring – his ability to reduce and distill a simply quality of paint is wonderful. I love the deep conceptual plight and the consistency of exploration. When you have the most basic of materials the true macrocosm of the universe can be explored through it. Everything is built of the same fundamental particles and I feel Hunter’s work asks us to look into that. It’s potentially not his intention but I absolutely feel that as a strong element of his practice.
“I’m not exactly sure, part of me feels as though I’m not potentially responsible for it either. Inspiration is a strange thing. I guess I create because I’m not sure what would happen if I didn’t, it’s an integral part of my existence and I feel everyone’s really. Life is expression; life is art.” 

So perhaps I am more “mature” since viewing such “mature” works, and maybe that’s what Hunter wanted for us all? We’ll never know; and that’s kind of what art is. The mysterious hidden unspoken relationship between artist and viewer, the paintings all titled ‘Untitled’ because he intends to leave you guessing. Art forces you to feel before you think and then go beyond what you see and question what you feel, think and see all while trying to relate to the artist’s intention at the time.

Curious human beings staring at walls. I wonder why we’re doing all this?

It’s not just the thought “oh I could do that” but it’s the why. Next time, you’re like me, and just don’t get “art, forget what it is and instead, ask yourself in the moment how it makes you feel. 

The more I think about Hunter’s minimalist white on white ‘Untitled’ series, the more I grow to have a deep appreciation and admiration for how they make me feel and I will forever think differently about contemporary art and the lack of simplicity in the modern world. Hunter has shown me is a new perspective, when you go back to basics in a chaotic world where everything is about having “more”, you realise beauty exists in simplicity and less truly is more. Da Vinci said it best, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”



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