Life is Art: Works by John Nixon from the collection of Susan Taylor and Peter Jones

Reflecting on "Life is Art: Works by John Nixon from the collection of Susan Taylor and Peter Jones" at Canberra Museum and Gallery, H.R. Hyatt-Johnston explores the practices of display available to private collectors, the long-term relationship between Taylor, Jones, and the late John Nixon, and the artist's voracious multi-media works.

The Open Collections Gallery at Canberra Museum and Gallery (CMAG) has been operating since 1999. It functions as a discrete space within CMAG for collectors from the Canberra region to display their personal collections. Previous exhibitions have included teapots, radios, model ships, pulp fiction books. and antique scientific and mathematical instruments that one might associate with the original “cabinets of curiosities.” The gallery provides a fascinating opportunity to understand how, why, and what people are interested in collecting. This personal approach to collecting is described by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin in the 1968 English translation of Illuminations: Essays and Reflections: “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories … For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order.”

This time Susan Taylor and Peter Jones have presented their complete collection of John Nixon’s (1949–2020) artworks with assorted ephemera taken from their much larger collection of non-objective and abstract works. The collected works are installed in a manner similar to the salon style that Nixon strategically employed over his fifty-year career. The configuration of works pays homage to his reductive approach and the relationship between “art” and deceptively impoverished ephemera. The variety of materials in the collection illustrates the volume and importance placed on every detail no matter how seemingly insignificant. The exhibition lighting, while not quite as flat as Nixon’s preference for fluorescent tubes, is an evenly lit surface that doesn’t highlight or single out particular works. Nixon considered the typical gallery’s or museum’s use of spot lighting of works too theatrical.

Virginia Rigney, Senior Curator Visual Art at CMAG, writes in the accompanying publication: “Just as in Nixon’s own practice, in the structure of this display, there is no sense of privilege distinguishing posters, DVDs, paintings on enamel, prints, assemblages, printed ephemera, hand drawings or photographs.” 

Everything counts. Everything matters. Everything is equally important. Taylor and Jones have considered this when designing the overall presentation of Nixon’s works. When Jones saw the long wall in the space, he immediately visualised how the work would be installed. As Jones said: “It was just a question of organising it around a centre line and doing an early-to-late hang. Of course, the wonderful thing is then you start to see all sorts of relationships and dialogues between works that you weren’t quite aware of until they go onto the wall.”

The works in this exhibition exemplify Nixon’s interest in what meanings and sensations various materials could produce just by their presence, and by association, as components in his work, collected from a variety of sources. That deceptively mundane objects often disrupt prior constructed meanings belies the fact that they were precisely selected. There is nothing overtly precious about these objects. Nixon just preferred using ordinary everyday materials. They are aesthetic in themselves and often foraged from the artist’s surrounds or found on one of his walks. For instance, Konstruction with Hammer, 1993, includes a hammer on masonite and canvas board, Orange Monochrome (with Blue Dish), 2003, consists of enamel house paint on board with a found object, and Untitled, 2014, is also made up of enamel paint, together with a folding ruler on canvas. The works represent a marriage constructed of the ready-made and the monochrome.

Nixon’s experimental painting workshop (EPW) explored the possibilities for painting using the principles of minimalism, the monochrome, non-objectivity, and constructivism as an intellectual proposition. Nixon in his writings also referred to “block paintings, cross paintings, object paintings and ‘konstructions.’” This approach was heavily influenced by the Russian avant-garde’s idea of the art laboratory, with the influence of the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich looming heavily. However, while not often cited by critics writing on Nixon’s work there is also the resonance of certain Fluxus artists who in the sixties produced manifestos, staged art performances or events, and produced visual and concrete poetry. Interestingly, Nixon’s EPW: Orange project began in 1995, originally as a five-year project, with orange selected because, in the artist’s words, it was “bright, uplifting, positive and declarative.” Perhaps because the colour orange become a signifier for Nixon the project had an extended life well beyond his initial intentions.

Returning to Taylor and Jones, who were both collectors even before they became a couple in the mid-nineties. Jones had his records and Taylor was influenced by her family’s interest in the design aesthetic of mid-century Scandinavian pottery, and jewellery. Both had tastes that were stripped back and minimal and so it was a natural progression for them to become interested in geometric abstractions.

It was after attending an exhibition in 2000 of the New Zealand artist Craig Easton at the Ben Grady Gallery in Canberra that they bought Easton’s Loaded,1999. This painting was their first acquisition and the genesis of their art collection. Ben Grady would give them advice on how to build a collection with mindful use of a budget so when they did buy it was not a splurge but an “intentional” purchase.

Between 2000 and 2004 the couple would travel to Sydney regularly to visit galleries such as Sarah Cottier Gallery and SNO in Marrickville. It was at Nixon’s EPW: Orange exhibition at Cottier in the middle of 2002 that they first saw his work and would later purchase Orange Monochrome Construction (with 5 Colours), 2001.

Taylor has commented on the experience: “It was mind-blowing for us. It set the tone for everything else we were interested in and that we wanted to collect. We couldn’t believe that it took us so long to realise that this is the person we should have been collecting.” 

They eventually met Nixon at another Cottier opening in February 2003. The following month they travelled to Melbourne where at Anna Schwartz Gallery they were shown “this amazing dark bleak work with an oblique black cross on brown.” This work, titled Self Portrait non-objective composition, 1987, would be the second large work that they would purchase and was the beginning of a long friendship with the artist.

Currently, Taylor and Jones run SpareRoom33 at their home. They had planned to build a more appropriate space to show their collection, but these plans have been interrupted by various events. They had also promised Nixon that his work would be the first exhibition in the space. So, the exhibition at CMAG is a way of honouring that promise.    

This review was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 61, 2022.
Images courtesy estate of the artist, Canberra Museum and Gallery, Canberra, Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney, and Susan Taylor and Peter Jones Collection.

Life is Art: Works by John Nixon from the collection of Susan Taylor and Peter Jones
30 July – 19 November 2022
Curator’s talk, Collecting John, 9 November 2022, 1:00 p.m.
Canberra Museum and Gallery, Canberra

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