Rose Nolan, ‘With all one’s might and main’, Project Space, RMIT, 1996

Project Space is a modestly-scaled, street-level gallery with a full-width shopfront window. Nolan’s juggling of ambitious and diminutive scale in her work turned my attention to Anna Chave’s trenchant critique of ego and gender in minimalism. (For readers not educated within the Victorian school system, ‘Clag’ is a non-toxic craft glue with a magnificently onomatopoeic name.).

Rose Nolan’s installation was pathetic. But she wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

On the floor, in the middle of the room, Nolan propped a small, white paper sculpture so light that it wobbled as you passed it by. The spiky planes out of which the conical structure was shaped circulated in a way reminiscent of Umberto Boccioni’s Dynamism of a Bottle in Space . . . but let’s not get carried away here, this was an exercise in Kinder Konstructivism, not world-historical modernism. All Clag and cartridge paper, neither robust nor monumental, it was a meek, mild-mannered effort if ever there was one.

Yet there were signs that Nolan’s sculpture had an alter-ego. Springing from it was an enormous triangle of fabric stitched together from patches of hessian, painted red, with the word ‘mighty’ crudely blocked in across it. Reaching up to the ceiling of the space, this cape was a desperate attempt to dress up a 90 gsm weakling as a superhero.

The strength of Nolan’s installation lay in the very pathos of this gesture. The most basic expectation of an art exhibition was half-met in her attempt to transform rude materials into a transcendent spectacle. The cape and its slogan made a bald claim for the stature of her art, as if daring the viewer to disdain the scraps of paper at its apex. And by extension, Nolan dared the visitor to question her own status as an artist. She had occupied the gallery on a grand scale, put her work and reputation on display . . . but was the work really mighty?

As with Nolan’s earlier exercises in scrap-heap Suprematism, this installation staged the business of exhibiting as a theatre of egotism. While it’s said that the meek shall inherit the earth, art exhibitions are the exception that proves the rule. Ego has never been a dirty word for the art scene, obsessed as it is with personalities, proper names and signatures. Of course, male artists have always been more willing to strut their stuff, and audiences more prepared to accept, even admire, such behaviour from them. What’s good for the gander is emphatically not good for the goose. For women artists, as Anna Chave argued in her study of Agnes Martin, the acceptable route to success lies in egolessness. Any signs of ego on the part of women artists are immediately labelled as pushy careerism.

So the grand claims that Nolan made for her installation were a way of acting out what she saw as a contradiction inherent in the gendered realm of display. The masculinism of art-as-ego held no appeal to her but neither did the masochistic, self-abnegation of the feminine wall-flower. The solution, under the circumstances, was a kind of egotism in quotes. To play the game of exhibiting as a game might name the two options while steering a path between them. For Nolan, then, exhibiting becomes not so much a matter of showing her work as showing off.

Original publication: ‘Rose Nolan’, Art and Australia, vol 34, no 3, 1997

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