The Consciousness of Object - Catalogue Essay from Commission 8 of the Mark Howlett Foundation
When we look at something, do we look for meaning or do we scan the surface for structure? It would seem that the recent work of Theo Koning produced over an intensive period of a year, poses this question both elegantly and in some depth. From the early part of his career, Koning's constructions of driftwood, collected on frequent rambles along Perth's beaches and during his active surfing life, reflected a deceptively simple 'hands off' approach to both his materials and the act of making.
A major early work "From the Winter Storm": a 1970s, City Praxis installation (created from driftwood, flotsam and jetsam, old socks, and the common, human detritus found on the seashore), signaled many of the core parameters that he has subsequently continued to explore throughout his later career.
For an artist trained as a furniture joiner before undertaking his art studies, Koning's approach to his art reveals, at first viewing, few indications of the precision and 'skill' associated with this craft. His main drive, instead, could even be characterized as a focus on the de-emphasis of 'skill'. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss the precision and significant manual skills acquired during his apprenticeship that the artist brings to the physical construction of his art pieces.
The materials in this exhibition, produced during 2002-2003 under the auspices of the Mark Howlett Foundation, have been largely sourced from scavenging expeditions. The potential raw material has been collected from serendipitous encounters with objects left as roadside household 'junk', from op-shops, or occasionally from second hand shops (Trash or Treasure?).
The finished compositions have finally been arrived at through a gradual sifting process involving many hours of experimentation, and a sort of 'moving things around' in the studio, until the various elements seem to come into a resolved conjunction. As the result of these deliberations progressed through the year, the general feel of the exhibition suggests both a careful re- examination of many of his earlier directions, and a shift towards a more fundamental exploration of the questions and tensions of the 'man-made' and 'the found'.
In contrast to any grand vision of materiality, and perhaps subconsciously recognizing the futility of adding further 'high fashioned objects' to the world's already considerable store, Koning's artworks often appear enigmatic in their deceptive simplicity and 'unfashioned' appearance. As a counterpoint to the mainstream, he has followed a direction of enquiry that both defuses and transcends many of the finer-pointed, phenomenological questions. As an indicator of this shift, his earlier use of elements of toys and brightly painted surfaces is, in this exhibition, largely replaced by plain surfaces. Many of the works resonate with echoes of early Surrealist constructions and compositions in their combination of discordant elements and the juxtapositioning of materials and fragments of manufactured objects.
The selection of the materials and their incorporation in different artworks suggests an almost elemental proto-taxonomy of the manufactured and pre-shaped, but made redundant by being discarded. However, in revisiting the fragments of materials, and transforming them into the finished artworks, Koning's intentions do not lie in the political questions of recycling or the excessive use of raw materials, or built-in obsolescence. Instead, the artworks suggest a search for critical points of balance and the underlying truths of geometry and its elegance, even if they have originated from the unlikeliest of sources. There is a sense of sorting and the ordering of objects, surfaces, and the tension of contrasting materials both manufactured, and in their state of slow decomposition back to their organic, constituent elements. Collected everyday items, displaced from their normal, social functions are re-presented by Koning for fresh scrutiny. The assembly/installation work "Gatherings" is a summation of the artist's approach, representing a literal gathering of widely disparate materials. Multiple groupings of peach stones, underwater hockey paddles, shards of broken glass, bone fragments unearthed from garden beds, the burnt remains of office file pages, safety pins, plastic spoons, and snail shells are presented in baskets and containers in a loose arrangement.
However, in the selection and combination of fragments or complete objects, the artist is not attempting to offer some definitive conclusion there is no privileging of a particular material or distinction drawn between 'manufactured' versus 'from nature'. Rather, the artist is concerned with the 'intrigue' of possibilities, and dimension of chance in finding the objects. A container of toothbrushes sits alongside a group of quartz crystals in equal disposition with no hierarchy of intent. Here is no further intervention other than to arrange in a random setting the detritus of his scavenging and collecting expeditions. And yet, almost each group of items attracts a dialogue as to its past history, its physicality, and the possible relationships between the items. Despite the formal and often abstract, geometric ingredient in many of the works created over the past year, Koning has maintained a link with earlier works where narrative was immediately accessible. All the individual parts of the works are fragments that have been manufactured, painted, pre-owned, discarded, horded or collected by someone, before the artist himself acquired them. There is therefore an abundance of 'human' history innate to the artworks. The story of finding the pages of burnt files is in itself worthy of the opening paragraph to a mystery novel. This element of narrative exudes from every group of objects in 'Gatherings'.
The series of 'Construction' artworks, in contrast, are more pared down compositions. Although Koning continues the emphasis of found materials and recognizable fragments (e.g. tennis racket presses, a cello head, picture frames, a doormat, twigs & chicken wire), there is a significant departure from his earlier essentially two-dimensional approach. The 'Construction' pieces are free-standing, and can be viewed from any position. Geometry and counterpoint (both of materials and angles) become a strong sub-theme to the juxtapositioning of discarded pieces of wood that Koning has reassembled and pegged and glued. The three-dimensionality of these works enables the artist to explore the possibilities of positive and negative space, as much as the mechanical possibilities of combining the constituent elements in some acceptable balance. The 'emptiness' of spaces, innate to several of these constructions, suggests architectural comparisons, (with, perhaps, subconscious resonances relating to elements found in De Chirico, Max Ernst, and the early Russian Constructivists). This focus by the artist on poise and the tension between shape and form are explored at some depth across the whole series. In this direction, Koning has moved considerably from his more familiar territory into a perspective that is less playful than earlier masks, figures and assemblages of toy fragments and coloured play blocks.
The final segment of the exhibition, 'Mouldings,' shows another side of the artist's fascination with the possibilities of transformation. For several years Koning has been producing these post card size works in pencil and watercolour. Koning has selected five small suites in pencil to create a limited edition print run. Enigmatic but powerfully suggestive organic proto-forms emerge and coalesce into human shapes, diverge, merge and transform. These mysterious, consummately drawn images explore a series of intriguing shape-changes suggesting the subliminal moments of the human condition.
To arrive at some formal conclusion on the diverse range of the exhibition is perhaps as slippery as the artist's own reticence to impose a central or predominant meaning to his works. What is, however, abundantly clear, is that the artist has made substantial explorations in new directions during his Mark Howlett Foundation award year. To paraphrase Carl Jung, an encounter and engagement with these latest works offers an opportunity to profoundly reverse our way of thinking and doing, and, perhaps for a short moment, helps us break out of the trance of normal everyday life.