Catalogue Text - Woodwork exhibition
In 2000, following the publication in Australian Art Collector magazine of Edward Colless’ article about an early matchstick painting by Steven Carson, the artist was contacted by the director of an online gallery based in the United States. The gallery director wanted to place an order with Carson for one hundred and fifty large-scale works of the kind featured in Colless’ essay. The featured work, titled From 39,001 – 65,000, was constructed using around 25,000 dyed matchsticks glued one at a time to a wooden support. This may now seem like an amazing opportunity, however at the time it posed a major challenge for the artist. Based on the time it took to produce a single work, Carson calculated that to fill the order it would take around 25 years.
The individual pieces that comprise Steven Carson’s Woodwork series continue to explore correspondences in the generative and creative potential of labour and its measure and value. The application of thousands of coloured matchsticks to a wooden support to form vibrant geometric patterns has resulted in a collection of painted objects that both reflect the process of their creation as well as provoke dialogue focused on how they may be understood or valued.
The works seem to assert a formal independence, yet they comfortably exist as hybrids placed somewhere between painting and sculpture, design and décor, fine art and handicraft. Carson’s Woodwork paintings/painted objects derive from simple repetitive patterning undertaken over hundreds of hours. The matchsticks used within the works are painted by hand with layers of acrylic paint. Once dried, the coloured matches become the palette with which the works are created.
Of the earlier matchstick works Colless (2000, p.62) suggested that it was with “the dedication of a daft and masochistic hobbyist” that Carson approached these works. Admittedly, within the current series there may seem to be daftness in creating geometric abstract paintings with materials of the kind sometimes chosen by outsider or amateur artists, yet Carson achieves a balance between obsessive repetitive application and choice of an unconventional ‘art’ material to achieve a formal complexity and measured restraint.
While the pieces in the Woodwork series may have a kind of craftsy, hand made quality about them, they also suggest that they are the product of a cool awareness of mid 20th century geometric abstraction. Through a provocatively simple process, Carson establishes connections between his art-making, the creative activity of hobbyists and the everyday work of trades people. His approach to geometric abstraction is a wry gesture to an inclusive practice that draws upon basic carpentry skills as well as on the sort of activities designed to develop hand-eye coordination in children.
The matchsticks are intentionally ‘low’ art and whilst each matchstick has been painted by the artist, the paint was not applied with a brush wielded by the hand of a real painter. In fact brush and paint never came into contact with each other during the production of these works and Carson’s virtuosity with a brush might only be admired in the manner with which the PVA glue has been distributed across the surface of the wooden supports onto which the painted matchsticks are adhered.
It is Carson’s dedication to formal concerns that distances these works from the work of “daft hobbyists”, children or amateurs, although such references are welcomed by the artist into a reading of these wooden paintings.
There have been suggestions that the hours of labour that each of the current works represents might have been undertaken by a studio assistant in order to streamline the manufacture of the works. Carson notes ironically that to produce the instructions it would take longer than for him to do it all himself. The order of one hundred and fifty works remains unfilled, although the works in the Woodwork series expand the number in total that Steven Carson has produced to date.
Colless, E, 2000, ‘Steven Carson - Artist Profile’, Australian Art Collector, Issue 12, April–June 2000, pp.62-63.
Steven Carson’s Peel exhibition was presented at Dianne Tanzer Gallery, Melbourne 09/07/2005 - 06/08/2005.