Terence Maloon on Ian McKay’s 1983 show at Rudy Komon Gallery
SMH 17/9/83

There are dogs, which have been given a bad name, and also names, which have been given a bad dog.

One Name with a very bad dog is Formalism. Mention the word and you’ll find the whole art world striking attitudes, raising hands in mock horror, taking up cudgels on behalf of content, relevance, political commitment, human interest, expression, and other self evident virtues.

We have all found the word useful at some time to disparage art that leaves us cold. I have occasionally used it to refer to basic design exercises, works which use a mathematical basis, some particularly sterile neo-classical works, photographs whose rationale is little more than pattern-making, and other works I haven’t liked.

But for other people, formalism may mean academic art, modernism, abstract art, constructivism and minimalism, classicism, or the entire mainstream of Western art history from the ancient Greeks onwards.

Everyone who uses the word seems to assume that their audience knows exactly what they mean, and what kind of art is being referred to.

But forgive me for sounding like an idiot: I am confused.

Does as aspiration towards clarity and organization mean that an artist is thereby formalistic? Are the non- naturalistic distortions of Van Gogh, Picasso, etc, formalistic? Does Mondrian fit the bill? (“Such work can never be empty,” he wrote, “because the opposition of its constructive elements and its execution arouse emotion”).

What about the American Abstract Expressionists, who insisted that their paintings were symbols of Man, Nature and the Modern World?

If we discount the artists’ express intentions (and many do – today’s art world is rotten with cynicism), and disbelieve that all art is, or should be, expressive and meaningful, pretty well anything can look formalistic.

It is the consensus of the Sydney art world that Ian McKay is a “formalist” sculptor. I like his current exhibition at the Rudy Komon Gallery but, as I’ve explained, my brain becomes addled at the sound of the word.

I’m not sure McKay likes it much either, although it didn’t crop up in the course of our conversation. Most of it was spent discussing his working process, at what stage he decided on the titles for his sculptures, and about his “ploughing about for a subject,” which he saw as a crucial stage in his works’ development.

“Ploughing around for a subject,” doesn’t sound very formalistic, does it? The works in the gallery are also a far cry from the simple design-exercises you’d expect.

The earliest work in the show, 2nd Banner (1981), resolves into decorative arabesque billowing in space, but their rhythmic momentum is so lyrical in effect that we are clearly dealing with a very different class of phenomenon from, say, Bridget Riley’s ubiquitous Woolmark design.

2nd Banner is composed largely of steel hoops – found object which the sculptor had only slightly modified. Yet the configuration is like a three-dimensional drawing inscribed in the air with a wonderful accuracy and grace. Is McKay a formalist, then, by dint of being accurate and graceful?

The forms of the other sculptures in this exhibition are too ungainly to register as decorative or graceful in any obvious sense. Exhibit number three looks as charmless and intractable as a beached whale.

Examine the work carefully and the shapes of its components have all manner of nautical associations: a keel, a yard-arm, a rudder, a fish tail, a surging pair of shoulders. Before you have read the title you will have guessed more or less what its subject is. The sculpture is called Swimmer.

McKay wants to achieve an effect of wholeness and co-ordination in his work. Just as when we close our eyes, our awareness can encompass the totality of our body, so these complex sculptures can be held in the mind as clear, single, body-like things. “I don’t think there is such a thing as completely abstract art,” he said.

McKay starts by tacking together random configurations from bits of steel. He goes on changing them until he finds a form, which evokes a subject. Work starts from this discovery. The subject may be a bodily action, a place, a mood, or an incident. This becomes a key to the sculpture’s character.

Accidentally juxtaposed elements from the scrap-yard gave off the raunchy suggestions, which have culminated in the small, highly charged sculpture, Desire.

At the entrance to t he gallery a huge, exuberant work greets us, looking like the visual equivalent of a blast of music from a baroque organ or a sunburst in stratified clouds.

McKay is an impressive artist in the way he manages to articulate an image and a character from ostensibly abstract forms. Is it really such a crime that the relationships between part and part, and part and whole, are so carefully considered in the work? Is it so damning that his formal decisions can be assessed in a rational way?

Unless we reach an agreement about exactly what we mean by the term Formalist, it will continue to signify either a reductive, impoverished way of looking at, and thinking about art, or a vehement dislike of an artist by a critic. Work like McKay’s, which responds in such a lively way to our imagination and to the act of looking, is done an injustice by being written off with a word neither meaningful nor appropriate.