Collection: Daniel Mudie Cunningham
Ildiko Kovacs uses the paint roller to measure and map distance, wending pathways in paint. A line is markmaking at its most rudimentary; an emotive act from the hand, granting language where voice otherwise resides. Fist gripping the roller, pushing paint into the ground plane, Kovacs is a pilgrim whose trail is a passage of time collapsed in on itself, a shape of return. The line renounces linearity as it doubles, intersects and knots, forming contours that fuse and confuse time with memory. Traces in a psychic landscape, Kovacs’s roller derby circles back and covers its tracks; lines let loose but controlled by a pendulous back and forth. Pulsating hypnosis each step of the way.
It has been almost a decade since Kovacs adopted the paint roller, marking time with line. As curator of Kovacs’s first survey exhibition, Down the Line at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre in 2011, I plotted the way her practice had evolved over a thirty year period – 1980 to 2010 – in almost 60 paintings. I recall being struck by the introduction of the roller in her practice, naming the exhibition after one of her first works to use the paint application tool. Upon reflection, the exhibition journeyed ‘down the line’ of the artist’s history from the perspective of how the most recent development in her practice, the roller, could be held up, or pushed down, as an implement used to measure a body of work produced during a set timeline.
Invented in 1938 by David Welt, the son of a commercial house painter in New York City, the first paint roller was made from bent steel joined to a carpet-covered wooden dowel. While this earliest paint roller was crude in its application of paint, it was effective at ‘stippling’, forging a surface area from almost imperceptible dots — ‘pointillism’ made easy. One of Kovacs’s earlier paintings, Snail Trail (2002) depicts a slender line rendered from compact gradations of golden brown dots – a pointillistic thread. The beaded line appearing in works from this era, like the ambiguously abject secretion of a mollusc, is a natural precursor to the roller works that followed. I like to imagine these paintings were made with a miniature paint roller Gulliver might have found in Liliput. The circular instrument compacts and unfolds, embracing stippled formations into a tightly trampled desire line, like a well-worn ribbon of dirt cutting across the land.
Desire lines are trails worn into the ground, alternate routes formed from collective civic resistance to purpose-built pathways, a shortcut for the time poor. A consciousness of time is central to navigation. In mapping travel, we look for ways to truncate time and carve out expediency, packing in as much as we can in the limited period available. As it moves through the landscape, the human body is engaged in a constant process of measurement.
The marks we map and the physical or psychological residue of that journey are intersecting layers of time and measure. Kovacs’s paint roller, then, is like a trundle wheel measuring the landscape with paint, conflating distance and duration.
Kovacs’s push of paint swaps out particular measures of, say, the trundle wheel for impulse and revision; exchanging perfect scientific or clinical measure for the desire lines of an imagined field of vision, one brimming with the drama and emotion that comes from her visceral, crackling use of colour. Paul Klee’s famous quote, “the line goes out for a walk so to speak, aimlessly for the sake of the walk” is literally walked into being by the tool. Kovacs uses her body (hands, feet, legs, arms) to walk and crawl the line into existence on plywood. The roller becomes an almost cyborgian extension of the limb that animates it. Paint rollers, with their oblique and rectangular impressions, take the plane for a scenic walk. In time, Kovacs lets the line walk all over itself, building up and shedding layers – a constant process of becoming and unbecoming.
There is no start or finish to this line, a secreting of A-to-B propositions. Achieving cartographic abstraction through action, Kovacs’s work is a muscular affront to the privileging of the heroic male painter. In its feminist push of time through tool, Kovacs revisions the line though a land trammelled by ‘man’, if you believe the dominant Western art historical narrative.
Importantly, the land of her imagination is based in a lived experience of having travelled throughout remote Australia, while also connected to a home made by the sea in southern Sydney. Despite her Hungarian heritage, Kovacs insists that her paintings are unique to Australia, they abound from a country where the land is deeply spiritual and intrinsically connected to an Aboriginal sovereignty that has never ceded.
Awash in colours of the land, of the sea, of the heart and the hand, Kovacs is a poet with paint and ply, her downcast roller in full flight.
Essay for book monograph published on the occasion of Ildiko Kovacs: The DNA of Colour at Orange Regional Gallery, 18 April – 9 June 2019.
Published by Orange Regional Gallery in 2019.