Nathan Gray – Attack Decay Sustain Release

October 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: UHH, October 11, 2009.

—  words DAN RULE

There’s something unhinged about this space, something indefinable, arcane. Whispers and traces are just that; echoes and resonances disperse, only to lead back to their starting points.

A scattering of oblique, rock-like Styrofoam formations perch atop a substructure of plinths and angular architectures; swirls of acrylic and spray paint bleed from joins and edges and shadows. Suspended line work – made from colourful, frayed string, wires and petite, curled ribbons of paper – floats upward, hinting at the organic, at plant-life, before diverging into tangles of abstraction. Pulses of sound float unhurriedly about the space; shuddering bass tones bounce off sinews of top-end synthesiser frequency.

The latest gallery outing of Melbourne artist, sound-maker and experimental musician Nathan Gray lends itself to both evocation and esotericism. Comprising sculpture, painting and sound – and winding its way across all three gallery spaces at Craft Victoria – Attack Decay Sustain Release is a landscape of process and untethered allusion.

“I wanted to have these pieces as open signifiers,” says the 35-year-old in his quietly spoken way, “as elements that really didn’t have a concrete meaning and could be interpreted in whatever way the viewer felt like – it would really depend on the personality of the viewer more than anything.”

We’re sitting in one of Craft Victoria’s back offices, the muffled oscillations of the sound work ricocheting about the space. “I guess there’s something about the scale and the level of detail that encourages people to think of things in the miniature,” offers Gray, mulling the thought for a moment. “I think that immediately lends itself to ideas of landscape and ecology.”

“I draw influence from a lot of things, like a lot of geology and different kinds of rocks and so on lately, but I’ve also been studying tradition dye techniques and stuff like that. So I’m constantly researching materials in those terms.”

Notions of figuration run counter to Gray’s work. While his sculptures espouse a kind of reminiscence of form, on closer inspection their cues become anchorless and void. The focus shifts to materials, processes and their configuration, whether sculptural or sonic. “I generally work with music and art quite simultaneously and I tend to go through phases where they’re really quite linked,” he explains.

“This exhibition is really characterised by me getting an analogue-esque synthesiser and engaging with that whole idea of synthesising things from scratch and creating really artificial things, which sort of carries over to my use of materials – just the Styrofoam and the really intense, fluoro colours and also thinking about the modular nature of creating sound in that way.”

As Gray explains, his objective was to use the same set of means to achieve strikingly different ends. “With a synthesiser, each sound you create is generated and then modified using the same processes, so I wanted the exhibition to be episodic in that way. So you would see the same sets of processes applied together and then evolve in different ways. It just sort of becomes a canon of different techniques that you use in the same fashion each time – it’s all about the way you combine them.”

It’s no mistake that the show’s title, Attack Decay Sustain Release, denotes the inner workings of the analogue synth. “It kind of refers to the amplitude envelope, which just gives you the shape of the sound volume-wise,” explains Gray. “How fast it comes in, how long it goes, how quickly it goes out.”

“I just began thinking about those four terms in relation to creative process – how it comes on really fast and the different lengths it sustains for and how things are eventually released, you know – that whole thing of how long to work on something, or how you can just destroy something by working on it too much. I just thought that those sort of terms, together, made a really beautiful description of making art.”

In Gray’s case “making” is the operative word. Reserved, even diffident, he’s not one for the often-effusive interface between creative practive and academia. In a short though prolific career, the Fitzroy North-based artist has built a body of work that engages with craft, folk-art and “hands-on stuff” ahead of theoretical justification. Encompassing illustration, painting, sculpture, collage, sound and various modes of installation, Gray’s practice is defined by tactile investigation and trial and error. “I really sort of learn by doing and believe in the intelligence of the hand,” he says. “That familiarity with materials is a really important part of my work.”

The delicate ink lines, renderings and seeping watercolours of early collections like 2005’s Rock Bottom (one piece of which was used for the cover art of fel My Disco’s debut record Cancer) channelled German etchings of sea-life and recalled a kind of psychedelic take on botanical illustration. Terrarium, Gray’s 2006 debut exhibition at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, saw a coalescing of illustrations and mobile sculptures, which invoked Australian botanical motifs, found objects and meticulously detailed line work. His Aggregation series – which showed in various spaces throughout 2006 and 2007 – meanwhile, witnessed his work expand into rangy paper and wire sculptures, clay offerings, and collage and painting installations. In each case, Gray has altered and added to his palette of techniques.

“It’s kind of about seeing something and going ‘Wow, how do you do that?’ then sitting down and working it out,” he explains.  “It’s got to the point where I’ve got this collection of skills that keep getting used throughout my work. Each exhibition I’ll add a couple more, just until I know more than I need.”

It wasn’t an approach that Gray garnered via formal means. Having grown up “a bit of a nerdy kid” in Perth, his art education – Gray completed a Bachelors degree at Curtin University – was hardly a fruitful experience for the young artist. “I found that there was a really strong intellectual reaction to being so isolated and feeling so out of the loop that the works that the lecturers pushed were sort of hyper-conceptual,” he shrugs.

“There was sort of an embarrassment about making things, which was definitely not the right kind of environment for me. So I really floundered in that environment and it took me a while to get over it.”

Gray “opted out” for roughly the next decade, having a child, playing in bands and shifting to Melbourne, where he moved in with fellow West Australian ex-pat and now long-term collaborator Dylan Martorell. The pair originally formed a “screamy indie band” called Fong, along with Martorell’s younger brother, but before long their approach began to mutate, eventually coming to rest in Snawklor, the experimental music and art collaboration for which they’ve become so renowned.

“There was a certain point where we just began to get exposed to some really crazy music,” urges Gray, his eyes lighting up. “Like The Boredoms were a massive turning point for me, and Dylan too, and it just became apparent that we wanted to listen to stranger and stranger things and make stranger and stranger music.”

“That’s what Snawklor intended to do,” he continues. “It’s always shifted instrumentation, so every couple of years we’ve got completely different gear, usually the worst quality,” he chuckles, “and so it’s always been about exploring those different strategies for keeping it really exciting.”

Indeed, it was the sheer potentiality that Snawklor and experimental music offered that dragged Gray back toward art practice. “I think it was the spontaneity and just the massive potential for transgressing and being really kind of insane,” he smiles. “It’s just really exciting to see that new and constant breaking down of conventions.”

“That’s definitely something I try to do within my current works,” he continues. “For instance, in this show, there’s the line that comes out of a hole in the wall and ends up going out the window and into the alleyway… It’s constantly about building a box for yourself and then breaking it down, then that’s the new box and that has to be broken down too. It’s sort of endless.”

A fascinating incarnation of Snawklor’s cross-media practice was their 2007 Station to Station work as part of the Viewmasters exhibition at Osaka’s Hamadera Koen Station Gallery, which incorporated temporal structures covered in intricately painted paper works and concert on a tram. The work preceded a period of travel, which saw Gray journey throughout Japan, Southeast Asia and Australia collecting images for his self-published photographic resource book people, plants plants, plants plants, people.

On his explorations around Victoria he came across a dense forest site in Kinglake, which has since been destroyed by February’s bushfires, where he would complete his stunning The Fruiting Body. The work featured a series of fragile paper assemblages that Gray then sacrificed to the natural environment, burning or submerging the biodegradable works.

“It was basically a series of offerings that were kind of transient and that I would document, would either be rained on or burnt,” he explains. “It was kind of a response to the idea of me beginning to sell my work and feeling conflicted by that and wanting to make something that was completely disposable and destroyed.”

Nonetheless, the works consummated his engagement with the organic. “I love that thing of when you go out bushwalking, you’re so sort of bombarded by detail,” urges Gray, who went onto complete a Brazilian residency following the project. “There is so much to take in that you can’t possible absorb it all. Even just looking in one direction, it’s pretty much amazing. That’s really become one of the intentions; just that level of detail and kind of the fact that the viewer or listener or bushwalker can become lost and hopefully spend as much time as they want without getting bored or coming to the end of the relationships within the work.”

The statement speaks volumes about Gray’s work. Wandering about Attack Decay Sustain Release’s snarl of esoteric landscapes, sonics and minutiae is little short of immersive – a world of endless evocations, propositions, tangles of mysterious cues and “open signifiers”. And for Gray, that’s enough.

“I guess I’m interested in achieving the right level of balance and imbalance,” he says, pausing for a moment. “That kind of balance of order and disorder is the key.”

“I can put up with any amount of noise and chaos and disorder as long as there’s one tiny kernel of melody or sense or payoff buried somewhere in there,” he smiles.

“That’s when work is at its absolute best.”

Some Matters of Interest

Nathan Gray’s Attack Decay Sustain Release is on at Craft Victoria until October 18.
Nathan Gray’s work can be viewed here:
Nathan Gray’s people, plants plants, plants plants, people can be ordered here:


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