work / CLEMENGER AWARD NGV - DISNEY COLOR PROJECT 2009/10
Clemenger Contemporary Art Award.
National Gallery of Victoria, 2009 - 2010.
Essay by Alex Baker
Senior Curator of Australian Art, NGV.
For nearly fifteen years, Peter Atkins has been painting forms on tarpaulin canvases which are appropriated from a range of sources including outdoor advertising, product packaging, record albums, book covers, and street signage. Atkins reduces the essential forms of selected designs by deleting accompanying text and focusing completely on the graphic qualities of the image itself. He refers to his practice as “readymade abstraction”, a reference to the appropriation embodied in Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, that is, objects that have been lifted from a utilitarian context and displayed as art - Duchamp’s urinal or bottle rack, for example. In Atkins’ case, he appropriates taken-for-granted elements, from mundane or sometimes out-of-date graphic design sources (which evoke a kind of formal, Modernist appearance) and transforms them into large-scale paintings. Atkins also creates suites of small-scale studies on plywood panels called ‘Projects’. Sometimes these studies take the form of miniature versions of the tarpaulin paintings and in other instances, they function as visual journals—collages of various resonant materials, primarily found objects. Atkins has visited locations throughout the world, documenting and collecting designs and found material that represent particular places, performing a kind of visual anthropology. Los Angeles, California is the most recent city that he has investigated; cities in the recent past on which Atkins has created a body of work include Bangkok, Cairo, New Delhi, Hong Kong, Melbourne and Barcelona.
For the 2009 Clemenger Contemporary Award, Atkins presents thirty studies of Disney paint colour samples that he encountered on his Los Angeles residency in one of the meccas of American retail consumption, Home Depot (Bunnings is perhaps the Australian equivalent).[i] Disney is an American brand most associated with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck cartoons and amusement parks, but its marketing strategy is more pervasive than just entertainment. Disney marketers (called “Imagineers” in Disney corporate speak) have managed to extend the brand into the home with the slogan “where your imagination and the magic of Disney come together to create family spaces that are colourful, timeless and inspiring”.[ii] One element of Disney’s infiltration into the domestic sphere are paint colours designed for children’s rooms, ensuring that consumers are literally living the brand. It is particular fitting that Atkins chose a Disney product for a series exploring readymade abstraction during his stay in Los Angeles. Disney is a company with a long history in Southern California, opening its film studios in Hollywood in 1923 and its flagship themepark, Disneyland, in nearby Anaheim in 1955. Atkins paintings of Disney paint samples in some regard take the Disney brand full-circle. Walt Disney founded a prestigious art school, California Institute of the Arts (often simply referred to as CalArts), in the early 1960s where some of the most respected American contemporary artists have trained and taught, including Mike Kelley, Sam Durant, Laura Owens, Tony Oursler, Liz Larner and Michael Asher among many others.
In Atkins’ paintings of Disney colour samples, entitled Disney Color Project/Readymade Abstraction,[iii] one will notice that the icon/mascot of Disney, Mickey Mouse, appears in the upper left corner of each painting which along with the titles appearing in the opposite corner such as ‘Enchanted Coach Ride’, ‘Princess Pink’ and ‘Atta Boy Blue’ evoke not only gender stereotypes but also act to reinforce the carefree optimism of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. The viewer has the opportunity to cross-reference the actual Disney paint samples with Atkins’ versions as the samples are attached to the wall adjacent to the installation. The tactile/visual exercise of handling the samples will be familiar to anyone who has ever shopped for paint. Atkins always displays the visual references alongside his readymade abstractions - they “become an important and necessary device as they provide a clue to the relationship between the paintings, the collected objects and the environment”. [iv] True to the conceptual scope of his project, Atkins made the decision not to use the actual Disney paint colours as the basis for his paintings. His artistic process has always been one of distillation not wholesale appropriation. Thus, Atkins worked with his local hardware store paint specialist in mixing the Disney colour samples to best correspond to the original as possible. In the end, Atkins’ Disney Color Project/Readymade Abstraction functions on several interesting levels: an oblique commentary on the branding of everyday life, a quiet subversion of that branding by replicating Disney colours through the use of non-Disney paint and as a study of the affinities between the design elements of consumer culture and abstract painting, which the German artist Gerhard Richter has also subtly evoked in his colour chart paintings of the mid-1960s.
[i] At some stage, Atkins will develop several tarpaulin paintings based on the Disney studies; Atkins decided to focus exclusively on the studies for the Clemenger Award.
[iii] Note the American English spelling of the word “colour”, as Atkins wanted to maintain the integrity of this truly American product.
[iv] Peter Atkins, Welcome to L.A./Readymade Abstraction, unpublished essay.
Installation - 'Disney Color Project' Clemenger Contemporary Art Award, National Gallery of Victoria, Federation Square 2009/2010 2009