Ham Darroch | Kestrel
HAM DARROCH – ACTIVATED SPACE
I create works that explore a set of concepts which lie somewhere between painting and sculpture, figuration and abstraction, yet with a particularly Australian inflection.
Ham Darroch, November 2022
Ham Darroch is a contemporary Australian artist whose creative output is driven by an unwavering intellectual curiosity, rich use of colour and masterful technical ability formed by a practice that spans more than twenty years. His large-scale, site-specific wall paintings, works on canvas and paper, wall-mounted objects and performative projects are at once conceptually rigorous, lively, colourful and uplifting. They feel familiar in that they recall moments of modernist art history, yet they are fresh and full of the potential of a new relationship.
Kestrel at Meakin + Parsons x Hannah Payne, is Darroch’s second solo exhibition in the UK with the Gallery. This selection of paintings derives mostly from the artist’s recent large-scale wall works incorporating geometry, perspective and scale with a sensorial use of colour. Darroch works intuitively with form and colour, analysing their effects on perception and their ability to create a phenomenological sense of dynamism within a pictorial space.
Since 2015 Darroch has realised a number of site-specific wall paintings in Australia. The largest, Counter Attack, a visual and conceptual exploration of Paolo Uccello’s three paintings of the Battle of San Romano is impressive at 12 metres long and 3.5 metres high. It was painted for the artist’s solo exhibition at Canberra’s Drill Hall Gallery in 2020. Synth (2022) is a permanent commission painted on a wall within an office environment in the heart of Sydney’s business district. At 6 x 2.5 metres, the painting invites the viewer to contemplate its pictorial depth through creating abstract geometry with gradients of colour set in dialogue with the unpainted white fields of the wall. And for a curated exhibition at Canberra Contemporary Art Space titled Cageworks (10 September to 23 October 2022), Darroch painted five ‘chambers’. Individually they evoke imaginative portals to labyrinthine realms, yet across the room they interact and set into play a range of spatial questions. The artist describes them as acoustic, ‘containing colours which visually sound, advance or recede inside a rhomboid window. They are all intentional members of a group; some are more silent, yet they are all present like musicians patiently awaiting their part to play in the score.’
For Darroch, the act of creation is both conceptual and physical. Making work involves as much thinking with mind/eye/hand aligned, while remaining acutely aware of the space his work occupies. Placement of key motifs is determined through a process based on the dimensions of the artist’s body. For example, the ‘chambers’ in this exhibition can be spaced out according to Darroch’s outstretched arms, conforming to his personal measure, as timeless as Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. This notion of personal scale is a recurring feature for Darroch – it makes the works both relatable and harmonious, along the lines of the great Renaissance paintings and cities, scaled for human measure.
Similarly, the fan-shaped motifs in the paintings here – Kestrel (dancing like I know you forever) (2022), Letter (2022), Melodious Plot (2022), Warm Relic 1 (2022) and Measure for Ra (2019) – derive from an ancient unit of measurement known as a ‘cubit’. It is an in-built ruler that extends from the tip of the artist’s elbow to the end of his middle finger; he swings a forearm in an arc to create his radiating, signature elements.
Darroch’s paintings, therefore, literally sway into being across the surface through line, form and colour determined by the artist’s acute sense of the body’s relationship to the pictorial space – ‘dancing like I know you forever’.
This dynamism is further emphasised through colour. The colours push forward or recede, strong or muted, signalling vibrancy or depth. They quicken our senses as we look – and we must look again – to grasp this agile shift and shimmy before us.
Darroch also utilises seriality as a way of organising space and suggesting limitlessness. In Warm Relic 1, also Mantis 6 (2022) and Mantis Serrata (2020), the forms are suspended and amplified, with the artist testing our perceptions through the juxtaposition of image, colour and negative space. In Serrata, a close relative of an earlier work Wink (2016), movement and change are represented through the triangulated teeth of the ‘saw blade’, striated alternately up and down, the verticals flip between the almost complementary pink and yellow; accentuating contrast and introducing a musical quality to the work. The eye strives to make sense of the image, to differentiate background from foreground. Initially the composition appears static, then with careful scrutiny, the direction switches; a phenomenon caused mostly by peripheral vision.
By contrast, Mantis 6 is multi-directional and more sculptural, open yet entwined. Surrounded by white, its serrations incline erratically outwards and upwards; perhaps grasping, mantis-like, at space.
Darroch has worked as a studio assistant with renowned British artist Bridget Riley for more than a decade; their close working relationship has undoubtedly made a valuable contribution to his thinking and approaches to art. The new and recent paintings we see in this exhibition not only attest the mastery he brings to his own practice: the power of this work resides in its ability to interrogate what is real and what is perceived.
By Judith Blackall
Judith Blackall is an independent writer and curator based in NSW, Australia. Previously she was Curator at the National Art School Gallery and Head of Artistic Programs at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.