DAWSON, Janet; Coffee table
In late 1960 artist Janet Dawson returned to Australia from Europe, buoyed by contemporary developments in abstraction. She opted to work with the innovative exhibition, retail and project space Gallery A, in Melbourne and later Sydney, and became part of a vibrant milieu that developed into a significant force, alert to the latest developments in contemporary art, design and exhibition installation.
At Gallery A, Dawson worked with dealer Max Hutchinson and furniture designer and artist, Clement Meadmore, who had both originally trained as engineers, and there she coordinated the major exhibition ‘The Bauhaus: Aspects and Influence’, opened by architect Robin Boyd in 1961. While working as the gallery manager and technical assistant, Dawson developed her own practice, bringing a distinctive approach to abstraction, often working in acrylic paint and later on shaped composition boards.
At the invitation of the Australian company, Laminex, Dawson developed her ‘Living Art’ table top series in 1964. Made by Steven Davis in Melbourne, the tables demonstrate her innovative thinking and the remarkable crossing of disciplinary boundaries enabled by the Gallery A scene.
While other artists around the Gallery A environment, such as Meadmore, were also interested in the development of mass-produced furniture, Dawson’s tables are singular in Australian art: they oscillate between design and art, uniting function and aesthetics. Her use of Laminex’s strong flat colours echoes contemporary American abstraction, particularly Jasper Johns’s late-1950s ‘Target’ paintings and Frank Stella’s ‘Protractor series’ of the 1960s. But in the form of coffee tables, these table tops become both arresting abstract works as well as musings on the reductive methodology of abstraction, indeed even suggesting playful criticism of the use-value of abstract painting.
Dawson was one of only three women included in the National Gallery of Victoria’s watershed exhibition ‘The Field’ in 1968. Like many of these artists, her interest in the colour field movement did not last, as she eventually found abstraction too limiting for her practice. While she has since experimented in a range of media, Dawson has consistently returned to the problems posed by painting.
These playful tables are extremely rare, and this example has come to the Gallery from regular use in a private home, embodying the Bauhaus’s twinned principles of art and function.