Open to Influence: Exploring art history in practice

Ruth Waller
2014 Conference

While many university art schools now offer cross-disciplinary programs, at ANU we remain committed to discipline-specific teaching. Unfazed by what Jed Perl elegantly termed painting’s “fall from grace” in recent decades, at ANU Painting is vigorous, diverse and pursued with undiminished conviction. We explore all the things that painting can be now.
This paper discusses an approach to studio teaching recently introduced into our Painting curriculum. This initiative reflects my experience, both in practice and in teaching, of how, from the perspective of the studio, artists develop their own relationship to art history, their own sense of lineage, one which often departs significantly from the conventions of art history and theory. This is certainly not to dismiss the importance of art history and theory for practice, but it is to acknowledge the kinds of lateral thinking that can drive an artist’s association with our history, exploring how this might constitute what Raphael Rubinstein has termed an “alternative genealogy for contemporary painters.”
In the studio,​ all art is contemporary: what was history is present as a field of possibilities. The history of painting across time and cultures delivers us evidence of the whole gamut of things that painting can be, do, mean and represent.
As painters we respond subjectively and intuitively to this heritage, sensing affinities and associations across time and space. Historically this is often how artists have radically reinvented the practice and potential of painting. I outline this approach to studio teaching, contextualised by examples and commentary from artists and writers.

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About the author

Ruth Waller is a painter and the Head of Painting at the ANU School of Art in Canberra.

She was born in Sydney and studied there in the 1970s. She is represented by Watters Gallery in Sydney and Nancy Sever Gallery in Canberra. In 2010 Canberra Museum & Gallery featured a Thirty Year survey of her work curated by Deborah Clark. In 2009 a selection of works drawn from across her career were included in Making it New at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Her latest solo exhibitions were Mineral at Watters Gallery, Sydney and All that is solid at the Nancy Sever Gallery in September 2014. In recent decades her painting practice has drawn variously on art historical influences ranging from early European painting to Islamic patterning, Australian Indigenous painting, plantforms and geology.