Peter Adsett, October

4–31 OCTOBER 2019

Another Endeavour

Coinciding with the 250th anniversary of James Cook sailing into the misnamed Poverty Bay in 1769, PAULNACHE hosted an exhibition by Gisborne-born artist, Peter Adsett.  In the gallery entrance is a series of ten paintings, collectively titled October, commemorating loss, which is a widely experienced response to the historic arrival of the British in the Tūranganui-a-Kiwa area.  

The main wall of the larger gallery has, meanwhile, been transformed into what the artist calls “the wall of erasure.”  It comprises black canvasses, which navigate their position amongst erased drawings and angled black cornices of pasted wallpaper.  


The title, October, is intended to evoke not just the events taking place this month around the first landing sites in Tūranganui-a-Kiwa, but also Russian abstract painting from the time of the revolution.  The little diptych facing the viewer above the word October presents a (half hidden) black square, the ensign of Kasimir Malevich.  Adsett also refers to the influential art journal October, which has re-analysed art practices and debates of the last century in its pages, especially the fictional ‘death of painting.’  For Adsett, it is not painting that is moribund, but the capacity of many to understand it.  As art becomes spectacle, the viewer is rendered passive.  There is no requirement to think.

Constructed from the least number of elements - raw canvas, plus black, white and grey acrylic - the October works sit quietly against the wall like a selection of blank treatises.  The careful observer, studying the left-hand edge of each stretcher, will discover a pencilled date, nearly illegible, alluding to ten tragic events that were consequences of the early expeditions and settlement of the East coast.

The socio-political aspect of this exhibition is not intended to dominate the viewer’s appreciation.  Being abstract, and minimalist in their vocabulary, the works are not substitutes for a demonstration.  Rather, they provoke reflection on the nature of western painting practice.  For each one offers a subtle variation on the theme of ‘framing.’  In fact, the sole ‘figure’ in each work is a frame of some kind, one that does not fully complete its task, but sets up rivalry with lines that are also potential frames, be they black, white or grey.  The central section is raw canvas, which can remind you of sails or tents, if you like to dwell on the apparent theme.  For Adsett it also signifies the voiding of our ability to see the vast potential of painting in the period post Pollock.

In effect, textured canvas-weave is reduced to its materiality, taking its place alongside paint as another colour, or, more correctly, tone, in the meticulously structured whole.  The small diptych mentioned earlier serves as a key to unlock the series, offering not just a real frame in the form of a stretcher, but its reverse, complete with stapled canvas edge.  The raw guts of painting, one could say.  But sliding across from the other half is the face of painting, a black square, containing nothing and – if you see it as the symbol of abstraction – everything.  Adsett, who is always aware of the presence of Gordon Walters at his shoulder, calls it “the sliding door of perception.”  I would conjecture that he refers to both the history of painting, and the history of New Zealand settlement, which depending how they are framed, are simultaneously hidden and revealed.

Navigating a white wall

The contiguous wall of erasure dovetails with October in its sober monochrome abstraction.  Paintings and drawings alike operate as cuts into the white wall, reminding Adsett of Maori carving he first saw whilst a student of Cliff Whiting.  Here the empty centres of the ten canvasses are echoed in pale grey squares left on the wall following the erasure of lead pencil and graphite.  As the masking and erasing process leaves behind a fine, crisp outline, the effect is that of a drawing, or a sheet of dirty paper.  The addition of black angled corners that act like shadows or bits of frame, some attached, others moving away, sets many drawings in motion.  Whilst several disappear through the ceiling or floor, another up-ends its contents like a book losing its pages.  Since nails have been driven through a few of the ghostly squares, Adsett repeats the theme of paintings removed, or lost, alluding to the disappearance of Painting, in the universal sense.


Born in Gisborne, New Zealand, in 1959, Peter Adsett has lived and worked in Australia since 1981, developing his painting practice. He exhibits regularly in both countries, and has had shows overseas in New York and Boston. 

His academic credentials include an MFA from the Northern Territory University, and a PhD from Australian National University.  In 2001 he was awarded a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and enjoyed residencies in the International Studio and Curatorial Program in New York, and the McDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Adsett’s work is held in institutions and museums in Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

Adsett has devoted twenty years now to an investigation of abstraction, and like such iconic figures as Richard Serra and Robert Ryman, he proves the enterprise to be one of great, untapped potential.  One could even view Adsett’s art as a critique of abstract painting from the early 20th century to today, a task that became further complicated when he confronted the art of Indigenous Australians - what many believe is the most powerful painting produced today.

In 2000 he completed a series of large-scale acrylic paintings in collaboration with the Gija artist, Rusty Peters.  The resulting exhibition of fourteen works (seven each), titled Two Laws, One Big Spirit travelled around Australia and New Zealand.

In 2009, Adsett built a house/studio in southern Victoria that was the fruit of another collaboration, this time with a New Zealand architect, Sam Kebbell.  The innovative and much admired building (now housing Adsett and his family) is regarded as a “dialogue between painting and architecture.” 

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