“Mathematical expressionism”, a term invented by the Argus Gallery in 1961 to designate Edwin Tanner “the sole member of the class”, could well be the most useful approach to understanding the systems that govern our lives. It’s deliberative, precise and terribly earnest. It can solve problems, or expose entirely new questions. Such powerful clarity can exalt – and it can also damn.

With deep focus and across many decades, Tanner pursued an artistic practice of drawing, painting and poetry, alongside his work as an engineer, a public servant, a pilot and a champion cyclist. A highly accomplished practitioner across multiple fields, Tanner was largely overlooked both within his time and since, with no survey of his work presented since 1990. And yet, with today’s favouring of the gig economy and the portfolio career over a understanding of the ever-more precarious work of sustaining a creative practice, artists negotiating multiple disciplines are readily prized as offering the working model to which others should aspire.

Which makes it all the more important to examine those systems that enrich our culture, or risk emptying that culture of its value – as Tanner invites us to do.

As an engineer in the 1950s working on hydroelectric plants, Tanner experienced the public service as a functional element of a unit producing functional elements for a nation of functional elements. His work shows a fascination for the circuitry, the machines, the departments and the systems of that new post-war ethic. Famously, his 1953 work The Public Servant and his 1954-56 The Professional Engineers were greeted with outrage – from the public servants and professional engineers themselves, calling the works cynical, offensive and even libellous. While ostensibly an era of confidence and self-expression in defining Australia’s new national identity, Tanner’s experience was of a “narrow-minded”, “unimaginative” and “stifling” culture, as curator Anthony Fitzpatrick quotes in TarraWarra’s beautiful catalogue – itself an important guide to understanding the Australian culture of that period.

Works such as The Engineers (1954), Board of Directors (1955-56), and The Electrical Engineer’s Family (1956) abstract complex working relationships into earnest circuitries in muted colours, emptied of value. Works such as Assorted Souls in Storage (1962), In My Father’s House There Are Many Departments (1962) and Moral Philosophers (1963-64) extend that devaluation into a direct critique of religious values. It wasn’t a new secularism that Tanner was reading into the bureaucracy, but one creating ever-new gods, ever-new modes of worship. A scholar of philosophy, Tanner explicitly rejected the quest to reframe post-Enlightenment perspectives into new religiosities such as those attempted by Leibniz and Spinoza; heliocentric world views and subsequent atomic systematisations could be objects of fascination in their own right, exposing the structures rather than the invented values that make us who we are.

Here, Fitzpatrick’s curation reveals the strong intelligence of its approach. Presenting James Hullick’s The Arbour and the Orrery alongside Tanner casts a dazzling set of provocations into the space: all the light, sound and movement implied in Tanner’s work is presented as a working lab of sophisticated experimentation in Hullick’s work.

An orrery is a mechanical model that articulates planetary movements previously worshipped as heavenly bodies, or misunderstood as fundamentally geocentric. Understanding the sun at the centre and the movement of the planets through clockwork mechanisms is an engineer’s response to a set of questions of great moment and value. Hullick’s machine is The Orrery of Human Desires, a set of objects sweeping across a clean expanse in response to your movement, placing your intentions back at the centre of its neatly articulated universe. As each element sweeps across its plane, a score is played, and that work is depicted in neatly articulated diagrams, offering an account of a system yet to be understood.

Alongside the orrery is the arbour: The Arbour of Doors, into which Hullick welcomes us by offering self-playing instruments in place of climbing plants. A video camera and screen, a violin, a double bass, a nest, and a poetry reading: most aptly, it’s Tanner’s We, The New Creators, a future of environmental devastation in favour of bureaucratic exaltation in which “Our voices will be the last to be heard.”

The debilitating effects of a car accident and a stroke in the late 1960s transformed Tanner’s life and his work. Devoted entirely to his artistic practice, it is perhaps an unsurprising irony that from that point, the work seems to leap from the page, exploding mathematical formalism into abstraction and representation of broad scope and rich palette. Work that was previously misunderstood or attacked became even more richly autobiographical, elaborating his “lines that think aloud” into new adventures across the spatial and the personal.

A life’s work presented alongside a living machinery is a complex curatorial proposition, one rewarded by multiple visits. The systems that frame our lives are not inert operators; their functional elements subsume us into circuitries so elaborate as to seem natural, unquestionable, and devoid of ideological intent. Both Tanner and Hullick invite us to stop and consider our own complicity as functional elements, actively questioning the values that those systems create or destroy, expose or hide, desire or deplete.

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Edwin Tanner: Mathematical Expressionist and James Hullick: The Arbour and the Orrery.
At TarraWarra Museum of Art 12 May to 15 July 2018.

Header image: Edwin Tanner, The Electrical Engineer’s Family (1956). © The Estate of Edwin Tanner. Courtesy Charles Nodrum Gallery, Melbourne. 

Slideshow images: Edwin Tanner: Mathematical Expressionist installation view, TarraWarra Museum of Art, 2018. Photo: Andrew Curtis. © The Estate of Edwin Tanner. Courtesy Charles Nodrum Gallery, Melbourne. James Hullick: THE ARBOUR and THE ORRERY installation view, TarraWarra Museum of Art, 2018. Photo: Andrew Curtis. Courtesy of the artist. The photo of Esther Anatolitis in The Arbour is a selfie.