Rate of Change

By Mariam Arcilla

6 September, 2018

It’s impossible to experience a show at COMA Gallery without absorbing its surrounding environment: entering the gallery requires walking up a sloping footpath alongside a busy freeway, and once inside the space, a broad window allows the shadows of passing cars to flicker and swipe on the floor. It is this environment that gives Rate of Change—a group exhibition about gradients and their synchronicity with time and space—such potency. Curated by James Gatt, whose approach often considers the architectural experience of contemporary art, Rate of Change presents a roll call of artists known for their gradient-rich practices: Matthew Allen, Consuelo Cavaniglia, Nancy Constandelia, Will Cooke, Danica Firulovic, Adrian Hobbs, Daniel Hollier, Sean Meilak, Jonny Niesche, and Oliver Wagner.

I viewed the show at various times, with each visit replenishing my mood with its own visceral and psychological nuance. A few steps into the gallery during opening night, I found a trio of friends crime-scene-circling an area, comparing something to snow angels and finely-crushed eggshells. This crowd made me absentmindedly step into that ‘something’—‘The Material Flow (White Cube)’ (2018)—Oliver Wagner’s wall-to-ground assemblage of shaved house paint. On a wide pillar, Wagner has painted strips of snowy hues before sanding back its surface, subsequently exposing a duo-toned gyprock epidermis. Residual paint, pulverised into dust from laborious scraping, has then been swept up and neatly sprinkled onto a fade-out pattern on the floor. Throughout the evening gallery-goers ‘shared [the] authorship with the artist’, his carpet collecting their shoe prints—pokey stilettos and soles stamped with Nike insignias—and turning the powder into diasporic matter. [1] Hitchhiking on the bottom of shoes, the particles travel around the gallery space, tuning out their own tonal shift.

When I return a week later on a partially-sunny afternoon, I find Wagner’s work behaving differently. Bathed in swathes of natural light and glass-refracted rainbows, the floor emits a serene quality, a subtlety that was missing with the fanfare of opening night. The footprints (mine included) have vanished under a fresh blanket of ash. Knowing that this area previously carried shoe prints, now effaced, makes the site almost feel haunted. Harmoniously hung on the opposite wall is Matthew Allen’s soft-sheened ‘Spectral Variation (3 & 8)’ (2015), a duo of peach-tea-orange spumes of paint and resin layered on paper. There’s a faint exhale of pearly, smokey dollops and Allen’s work forms an apparition that matches Wagner’s eerie oasis.

Matthew Allen, Spectral Variation (3 & 8), (2015)
Rate of Change, installation view
Courtesy COMA Gallery

Lingering between both works, my mind reproduces the tobacco smells and memories of my grandfather—a chronic smoker who lacked the etiquette for ashtrays. I remember being mesmerised by the way he chomped on a cigarette stick, how it grew a cliff of fiery-orange embers, which then broke off and fell as peppery ash on the ground. It’s this sense of the passing of time, experienced through gradation and elements, that pulls me repeatedly to Allen and Wagner’s works.

Nearby, Jonny Niesche’s seductive aluminium sculpture ‘Coming in Waves’ (2018) prowls the floor with its radiant rollercoaster wave of peaks and dives. Drenched in harlequin lacquer, it corkscrews according to light and shadow, pulsating from yellow gold to chartreuse to a dim tone that resembles expired basil. This particular work, as relayed by Gatt in his curatorial essay, ‘accurately describes the phenomena of a wave gradient, and despite its static position in the gallery, [it] is dynamic and suggests continuum.’ [2]

Charting Niesche’s visual graph leaves me pondering my recent mood swings and heart rate. Lately, my hormones have been out of whack since I switched my contraceptive pill brand, sending me into stages of being jovial, anxious, frisky, and knackered. I’ve also had to readjust my colour-coordinated ritual as I try out a new set of multi-tinted tablets, which are lined up on foil-draped cards that, in my ovulating lifetime, have swayed between chilli-red, silver, grape, gummy pink, and gold. Here, transitional colours become metrics for routine, emotion, and abrupt change. Popping a pill is a pinpoint of the current time and day, and where I’m at with my cycle: the red zone readies me for potential cramps and chocolate cravings, while the gold stripline assures me it’s ok to hit the beach. This draws me back to Gatt’s observation on the ‘varying degrees’ of works in this exhibition, and how they give the gradient the currency to not only measure time and change, but to also feel those metrics. [3]

Overall, the works in Rate of Change remind us that a gradient is conscious, morphic, and ever-surrounding: it spills down skies, brightens cocktails, contours faces, and fades out denim. More than that, it bends time, amplifies landscapes, and solidifies temperatures.

The gradient is an agitator and elevator of colour, a possessor of light and depth, and a mirror of its own shadow. It can transform a space like COMA into a playground of illusions and bodily contortions—a few times I squatted, got up-close, stepped back, and skirted around works in order to better appreciate their shifting forms. Interestingly, this marks the last group exhibition at the retail-turned-gallery space. Soon COMA will uproot to another location that holds a drastically different floor plan. I’m curious to see how future artworks will respond or adapt to this new space, and vice versa.

For now, the automated colour display on my computer screen has shifted to night-mode. This shift in tone lotions everything—words, artwork images, websites—under a Tuscan-sun stain (making it counterintuitive to write a review about tints and shades right now). This transitional gradient also means that it’s 9:00 PM—it’s time again to take my beige contraceptive pill, the last unpunched bubble in the red zone, and buy chocolates.


[1] Instagram post: @_oliver_wagner (2018)
[2-3] James Gatt, ‘Rate of Change’, Exhibition Catalogue, COMA Gallery, Sydney (2018)