Thursday, 31 December 2009

On 2009 and all that

ArtKritique turns one year old today and whilst I have never been more excited about the future I can't help reflecting upon what I've learned. The blog you're reading now came about through an unformed and simmering frustration at the state of visual art and the way that people wrote about it, especially the way people wrote about it. As a modest collector and profligate reader I felt that art criticism bore such scant resemblance to how I experienced the arts, and as frustration is such a wasteful response decided to try to form an alternative that I imagined I would like to read.

There are two dominant strains of the virus: the pseudo-acedemic post structuralist theory based idea of criticism and the journalistic condescension of pleasantly rewritten press releases. It's infinitely rare for either of these schools to ever give one a sense of the visual experience of any given work or the mechanic between the visual and emotional or intellectual response. I've come to believe all the more firmly that if you're not doing either of these you're not writing about art, but using art to write about something else.
When I look to the work I responded to most strongly this year, Patricia Piccinini in Hobart, Intensely Dutch at the AGNSW, Tacita Dean at ACCA and Vernon Ah Kee all over the place, I see some common threads. It was richly layered and didn't give its secrets up easily, at the same time it needed no explanation or particular theoretical or contextual knowledge. Depth and opacity were never synonymous. In essence it was deeply human and the fact that it was quite so disparate made it all the more so. As someone who has been both voracious and discriminatory in all of my culture consumption I understand how being doctrinaire is much simpler than finding common currency and value. Our society suffers from the anxiety of quality together with the need for discrimination. We find the notion of universal values difficult and subsequently need to drop into the categorical. That's why it's easier to like sauvignon blanc and despise chardonnay, this year, than it is to find a common characteristic that we value across all wine. When that's applied to art we dismiss the old craft like ways, painting or sculpture, in favour of the abstract and conceptual. The flight from judgement is as weird as all hell, the craft or skill of an individual has almost been erased from our criteria for judging quality, in this privileging of the theoretical a self-defining supposed radical elite has removed a whole class from the potential benefits of art. That's as stupid as it is shameful.

Secret Stupid Art is based upon the admittedly banal observation that, just as empty vessels make the most noise, the works of art that claim to be the most intellectual are likely to be the dumbest. The urge to make art about art has always struck me as slightly dim, it's a bit like endlessly repeating a joke and one has to admit that Marcel Duchamp is subject to a rapidly diminishing law of returns. Conceptual art and its post-modern cousins scream as being based upon a colossal misapprehension: that art is, in and of itself, interesting. We all know that's not quite true, art is interesting because it is able to reflect, contest and explore the experience we have of being human.

Humanity is messy, complex, contradictory, brilliant and exquisite all at once and in a million different ways, that's why it's a subject that's so hard to master but so satisfying to attempt. Art is finite, academic and institutional, no wonder it's less satisfying. There is a lesson to be learnt from the cold hard formalism of Twentieth Century classical music, as composers work became more an more about the rules and history of composition thus their audiences became less and less engaged. Museum attendances suggest that the visual arts have not yet jumped this particular shark, however these also reflect a desire for a shared primary cultural experience which is different to an ideological affirmation. The ability of specific exhibitions to draw crowds still points to artists who engage in the human, the natural and the emotional as our preferred communicators.

I'm pretty firm in my belief that Samuel Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot' is the single greatest artistic achievement of the Twentieth Century. A play about the inability of language to carry the totality of human meaning just screams the absolute need that, despite everything, we must continue urgently violently to attempt to communicate. There pumps the absolute heart of why art is a human necessity and why humanity is an artistic imperative.

In 2009 I loved Linda Marrinon's sculptures and their Rembrandt dots of eyes as they formed themselves out of clay and bronze, Marc Standing's terror and beauty, Christine Eid's taxi driver anthropology and Marc de Jong's acute drawings. I discovered, late as an immigrant but that's a pleasure in itself, Mickey Allen's tender vision and Les Kossatz's compassionate surrealism. I loved the way a simple mark could be spastic and eloquent all at once. I loved the things that surprised me and I loved being surprised.

In 2010 I want to be moved to tears. I want to go back to see things because I can't get them out of my head, I want to see the world anew and see something deep and hidden in myself in the work of another.

Love, peace and happiness for 2010,

Friday, 18 December 2009

On Ben Frost @ Boutwell Draper Gallery

At which point did Pop Art become redundant as a commentary on both art and society?  I wish I had been able to experience both the nascent rush of early consumer society in the 1950s and the dazzle of an art that took it as both subject and form.  The strangest transformation that movement took was to become THE official art of the eighties and nineties, mixed with a little theory and low conceptualism Pop Art is the establishment.  Just ask Jeff Koons how he's holding up financially.  That might be why I shudder at the snarling kitsch of
Ben Frost's show 'Lost In The Supermarket' at Boutwell Draper.  It manages to be both pretentious and condescending while masked in the veneer of radical ugliness.

The best way to describe the work is as a series of high gloss painted collages of consumer logos, cartoon typography, manga sexuality.  It's hard on the eye and easy on the brain.  Each picture is dense with appropriated image, like the palimpsest of an angsty teenage collage.  It relies on staggeringly obvious juxtapositions and comes out as a less clever version of Adbuster's subversions of advertising.  On top of these accretions of commercial art come every street art cliché there are: aerosol tags, artful drips and stencilling.  If it were original it might be more interesting, if it were not so cynically tapping into so many vogueish styles it would just be laughable.

My biggest problem with the work is the implicit sneer at consumers.  The narcotic accumulation of images assumes a pretty high level of dumb receptiveness on the part of ordinary people.  You have to have a that low an opinion to be able to imagine that these dayglo explosions really represent the mental landscape of real people, either that or you have to be an artist.  My better half uses the phrase 'secret stupid' for people whose puddle like depth is hidden by confident rhetoric.  I now realise the war against Secret Stupid Art has been one of my key theme this year.  To be this stupid and grandiose an artist must need a breathtaking lack of insight.  

There.  I got that all out.  I've been avoiding ranting all year, but I've seen too much glib, dumb, lazy self-satisfied art that's been fluffed with Theory 101 that I can take no more.  Let's make 2010 the year of the War on Secret Stupid Art!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Del Kathryn Barton @ Kaliman Gallery

Sometimes in an exhibition you can find the most unlikely piece that allows you to see where an artist might have taken things.  Del Kathryn Barton's 'The Star Eat Your Body' is a restless exhibition that swerves between the familiar taken to a huge scale and the small but liberating thrash of experimentation.  The innate tension in Barton's work is between the big eyed graphic illustrative style, all fragile candy and a kind of tremulous sexuality that oozes out from bloodshot watercolours and direct stares.  As ever the most disturbing and rewarding work remains unresolved in that area.  Working along these borders is tricky, on either side lies something quite formulaic, to balance those trajectories takes something much more than just a formula.  That's why it's sometimes easy to find Barton's  work too cute to more than nibble at, whilst at other times we can be transfixed.

The two penis pieces demonstrate the dilemma most clearly.  In one series hung (and I really wanted to avoid that pun hazard) together six erects cocks are overprinted, in lush silver gelatin, with lace doilies.  The tiled effect looks like Gilbert & George, the medium like transgressive surrealist photography.  It's jarring in a kind of raised eyebrow way, and whilst there is a visual contrast between solid flesh and cobweb lace, between vertical and circular, it does scream 'look at how daring I am'.  

On the adjacent wall is a painted work, 'My Slow Body of Love' which, not that much more subtly, captures something far more interesting.  A phallic shape pushes up from the bottom of the frame and is engulfed in an intricate pattern, part cloud part vagina.  All of the visual echoes are direct and graphic, it's not coy, and yet the meaning is complex and opaque.  Barton captures sensation, the otherness of two bodies perhaps even transcendent sex.  It is vastly different from her other figurative work and yet seems like a natural progression, a contemplation of space and bodies.  She also makes it appear perfectly natural to assimilate some of the patterns and textures that feel familiar from aboriginal painting.  At her best she uses this to capture a sense of the blur between spirit and body, that effect of the physical and spiritual might be why aboriginal art can speak eloquently to us even when we have no sense of cultural meaning.  Its much to Barton's credit that this doesn't feel gratuitous.

The centrepiece of the show, a huge polyptych 'We too have been there, though we shall land no more' is a kind of stoner version of the Beethoven Secession frieze in Vienna.  The scale and scope make it a little bad made, which is endearing, but the grab bag of reference from David Cronenburg body horror, through star children and thylacines.  For all its incredible layers of detail it feels there's less here than meets the eye.  The manga plumbing and psychedelic washes and doodles seem to frame a piece where women, Barton's signature cow eyed and gaunt gamines, and nature are identified as having close simpatico, into this Garden of Eden come black serpents, a heavy metaphor for a maleness that's something less than benign.  It could give you a headache after a while.
There is a quality Barton's work that can be arresting, it might sit between the forensic linework and the gauzy colour, the neurotic detail and the big gesture, but it never quite ignites here.  For a show with quite so much exuberant penetration I felt oddly intact.   Del Kathryn Barton might be finding her future in these pictures, and that suspicion does make for interesting viewing, I just hope that the path chosen retains that ache of ambiguity and takes it somewhere surprising.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

On Michael Zavros @ GrantPirrie

Perhaps I need to revisit Michael Zavros.  Between seeing his show
'Calling in the Fox' at GrantPirrie I have undergone such a change in feeling about the work I almost need to check whether I really saw the works that left me so happily surprised the first time, so different on reflection.

Zavros is a conceptualist in a hyper-realist's body.  His signature works are oversized fashion portraits with faces erased or modern centaurs, monochrome suited men sprouting from the bodies of horses.  Their scale and black and white photographic detail remind one of Robert Longo's 'Men In Cities' but with a further twist of a post-modern raised eyebrow.  There is a slick shiny photoshop quality to his work, quite consciously so I imagine, as he works in the gaps between fashion imagery and male narcissism.

The first thing that strikes one about this show is the sheer range of work.  Not just of media or subject, his is a composed show, where size really does matter.  Thus in one turn we can move between microscopically detailed miniature copy of what looks like an eighteenth century portrait to a massive, wall-wide, fantasia of Versaille's Hall of Mirrors inhabited by pristeen weight lifting equipment.  Along side these pieces are a series of highly accomplished, mainly equestrian, bronzes.  Shown together these works appear to be a meditation on the visual image and status, seen in isolation they are little more than pastiche.

It's clear from seeing a little of Zavros's work that he is a seriously accomplished draughtsman, his facility in paint and charcoal is extraordinary, and if he's responsible first hand for the bronzes he is a talented classical sculptor.  This almost photographic ability is essential as he records surface so precisely.  So in his giant still lives of perfume bottles, shoes and sunglasses the proximity to the original advertising shoots together with the disorientation of these objects isolated on blank white canvas gives them a status of something like a fetish.  They seem entranced by the crystalline beauty of the fashion shoot and at once disgusted by it.

A second strain of work is the dislocated rococo interior or stately folly.  Again Zavros renders marble busts or the perfect order of an aristocratic garden in charcoal, across these hommages to a Sun King are sprayed (or so it appears) tag-like swathes of day-glo pink or green.  In these cases one suspects it means quite a lot but it's hard to say just what.

It might be the case that Zavros is concerned with the innate role of art in establishing a particularly male expression of status.  Louis XIV's mythologizing and and Prada glossies are presented in parallel and visually similar ways.  The seduction of the image is supposed to be jarred by its context, the bloodlike suspension in a giant perfume bottle or the rude spray across a manicured estate.  But I can't help but feel that so much of that response comes from the fact that it's such familiar and well trod territory rather than form any innate quality in the work or the idea.  It's as though we're programmed to respond to such beautifully rendered works when we see them in a contemporary art gallery (particularly of luxury brands or their historical equivalent) in an ironic way, that they can only mean that there's a worm hidden in that gorgeously shiny apple.  Maybe it's that feeling that as capable as Zavros is he's dealing in clichés, albeit fashionably ironic ones that left me so queasy so soon.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

On The Dobell Prize 2009 @ AGNSW

I look forward to the Dobell Prize. It's the antidote to the celebrity silliness of the Archibald and can be guaranteed to leave you feeling far more elevated. It's pointless to rehash old Florentine/Venetian arguments about the relative merits of 'disegno' and 'colore' but I can't help but feel that there's no accidental link between a prize for drawing and the range of ideas and experiments it attracts and a the innate qualities of the artistic method itself.

This year is happily mixed. The Dobell has embraced landscape which can lead to anything from the intricately drafted fantasias of Robyn Mayo to Anne Edmonds abstracted 'Light Waves Over the Pilbara'. This year I find it hard to get excited by the winner, Pam Hallandall's circular 'Tsunami', it's almost too easy to read, too one-dimensional. Far better are works by the predictably brilliant Godwin Bradbeer and Rina Franz, whose drawing and poem on wood 'A Time To Reflect' is gentle and touching.

One of my favourite works is Stephen Hall's 'Mumbai or Merry-Andrew always plays a straight bat and sheds a solitary tear in passing', despite my aversion to the 'title as essay' school. Hall might be dramatizing some personal mythology but as opaque as the meaning is the work is still striking. There's a man's jowelly disembodied head, looking like a renaissance pope's funeral mask. A horse seems to form itself out of charcoal, the hindquarters the preliminary sketches of life, the head stripped of skin and back to flesh. It's an image that reminds on of Dürer's horsemen of the apocalyptic, but here the splashes of red feel like carrion, this might be a much more immediate appocalypse, a Mumbai of terror and blood.

Dagmar Cyrulla is an artist I find endlessly interesting. Here her piece 'Keeper of Secrets' is like a slash of dream narrative in red and black. A girl, restless and angular, looks out at us with an implacable looking dog beside her, in the background through a door, two adults are by a bed, the woman in just her bra. The hints of narrative are loaded with ambiguity, the home is the site of both security and outrage and this unsettles. Cyrulla's smeary gouache highlights and obscures just those details we would require for confirmation of meaning, the girls half obscured face, the expression of the adults, the darkness on the flesh at the top of her thighs. Cyrulla easily reminds one of Eric Fischl, but I think that the comparison does her an injustice. Her ambiguous domestic narratives don't have the American's carefully judged voyeuristic shock value, instead they might be before or after and act and tell us that we can never know what to think about the lives of others.

Despite too much post-structuralism at a young age I surprised myself in finding I could still look at a work entitled 'Looking for Baudrillard' and enjoy it. Tanya Chaitow's large drawing and collage again seems to touch the sub-conscious, here a boy in pyjamas, perhaps sleepwalking, has his eyes covered by a man standing behind him, who has the head of a deer. the lines that run up and down two thirds of the picture both extend out the stripe of the boys pyjamas and give the whole image an upward trajectory, making boy and man (deer?) appear to float free. On the right are drawn and cut images of a tree. Obviously Chaitow is presenting symbols that are deeply culturally rooted but now, having lost their immediate meaning, serve to unsettle. It shows, and perhaps Baudrillard would agree, that signs with no implicit meaning still have power.

You get a fair bit of portraiture with the Dobell and on the whole it's not bad. I couldn't help noticing that some of the gigantism of the Archibald is creeping in, the pointlessly over-sized close-ups that seem to hollow out the sitter. Peter Marshall's 'Freya and a north-east view of the town of Sydney in 1812' maintains enough strangeness to lift it above being merely a very accomplished portrait, the sitter's expression and dislocation of place give it a layer of intrigue.

Just on the right side of too big is Mark Hislop's 'Revelator' a portrait from the rear of a woman looking at a drawing. It's a bravado piece of photo-realism but it also makes us wonder about portraiture and the experience of looking in galleries. I like the work a lot, tender anonymity must be a difficult one to carry off.

What the Dobell does this year is present a work that shows the restless brilliance of drawing, in overview it isn't exactly revolutionary but that isn't always a bad thing. It's worth time spent there are real challenges and pleasures here. Much of the work is immediate, emotional and immersive. Great drawing can do that.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

On Rupert Bunny @ AGNSW

I'm not sure I recall when I last saw an exhibition as genuinely strange as the Rupert Bunny survey show just opened at Sydney's AGNSW. Stranger than any contemporary show I've seen in it we see an academic painter wrestle with a range of figurative painting movements from the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries as he appears to try to create a style that might give voice to his own sensibilities. A stylistic journey is not that odd in and of itself, however this isn't a story where an artist blooms late after years of restless propagation. Bunny, it seems, never found his own voice so as we move from room to room, from movement to movement, there's a creeping sense of disappointment, made sad by the occasional glimpse of something acute and tender.

Bunny's beginnings as a kind of misty symbolist can only look profoundly strange to a modern eye. They have the titillating quality of Norman Lindsay but with brushwork that is far less precise an illustrative (or without the orientalist lecherousness), it is as though the traditional subjects of history painting, religion and mythology, were being translated through the lens of Impressionism. This might not be that strange, if you spent enough time with Velazquez or Rubens you might get a similar sense of loose brushwork animating the specific and concrete. However here it feels like an atmospheric veil, perhaps the first that Bunny donned.

His subsequent phase as a not very convincing Pre-Rapahelite shows a kind restlessness that might be the most consistent theme throughout his career. What's interesting here, as later, is that you see moments where Bunny might have come across a style that was both unique and his own, and then it's gone again. One picture, an annunciation 'Ancilla Domine', shows signs of life. Split down the middle with the virgin in a domestic setting on the left and the archangel framed against a solid sheet of red paint it separates the sacred and the temporal. The red tones in the background, in tapestry and drapery and even the virgins hair, should raise the emotional temperature. And yet the picture is disappointing, Mary is a limp Arthurian damsel, Gabriel as static as a mannequin. What seems to be an interesting stylistic detour is undone by a kind of bloodless academic style.

The problem is often that, perhaps harking back to monumental history painting, Bunny chooses to increase both size and the layers of trowelled on symbolism when he demonstrates ambition. 'Summer Time' is a tame fantasy in this manner that nonetheless has moments of intriguing strangeness. A group of women rest in a beach house, in a tableau of desire and propriety. In the middle two nudes achieve a kind of fleshy approximation of Rubens but the action is to be found elsewhere. In front of a blue wall, almost a shadow on the right of the picture, is a rough silhouette built out of red and black of a figure you could swear had horns, the intrusion of satyr like lust. To the left a woman, divided from the rest of the picture by a vertical post looks into a mirror. The only problem is that she doesn't look, her eyes are downcast, perhaps closed. We can only imagine that what sits to her right is her subconscious, a languorous frieze of sublimated passion. As I said, Rupert Bunny can be very strange indeed.

Of all the paintings in the show the works that are most striking are those where the intent, or at least the design, feels most modest. Three small studies of his wife hung next to one another show a woman caught in contemplation. The air of melodrama is minimized and a much more fluid impressionistic style conveys far more psychological precision. They remind you easily of Degas. Another study, of the Japanese actress Sada Yakko is a gorgeous tone poem in grey and pink where that might be by Whistler. It's no less good for its similarity but it is disconcerting if you believe, as I do, that art criticism should be something more than a list of influences and similarities.

What is it that Bunny is searching for? I think there are clues in some of his women. often but not exclusively, his wife. In certain paintings we see one of the subjects stare back at us, not novel in itself but shocking as they fix our gaze in the context of all of this decorum. There are two examples that stayed with me. In "Dolce Farniente" his wife is one of four women on a seashore, the scene is dreamy and vaporous, the tones of the the image of his wife in where she alone fixes the viewers eye. In another, a view of crab fishing on a Brittany beach a young girl looks back at us, as if she is the only one who realises she is in a picture rather than the water's edge. This image is made all the stranger by odd mix of styles. The back ground the figures inhabit is split horizontally between a watery field of blue and lumpy brown shore. It's disorientating effect might point at the avant garde were it not for the comfortable, Renoir-like, figures. The young girl on our left returns our gaze, it's almost as if she were saying "Is this what you want?" and I suspect that Bunny's stylistic restlessness might be saying much the same. It is that swing back and forth between the certainty in his wife's eyes and the question in the girl's that makes us at least carry on through the rooms.

That restless oddness never quite ceases. Bunny's mature style takes him through pieces that bathe in the influence of Gaugin, Cezanne and the universe of Art Nouveau to his final pictures that are almost pastiches of Picasso's big heavy sculptural women from his classical period.

It is a shame. It's hard to look at some of Bunny's works and not see that he does have a very real sense of empathy for women, that he can present them in quiet private moments when his palette suggests the tides of consciousness shifting. However I found myself keen to leave by the last room, the restlessness can make you sea-sick, the sense of an artist never quite finding his way is a little depressing and although this show is interesting it might be more disturbing than you imagine.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

On Happy Days @ Belvoir Street Theatre

"Another heavenly day" pronounces Winnie at the beginning of Samuel Beckett's 'Happy Days', dressed to the nines in peach chiffon and buried to her waist in rubble. The statement will always draw laughter from an audience, its absurdity is self-evident, and yet as the play continues that mood changes and the perfect internal logic of that statement becomes might bring the self same people to tears. It is in this that 'Happy Days' is a long way away from the theatre of simple glib paradox.

'Company B' regularly do Beckett proud, he suits a house style that at its best is humane and theatrical. This production directed by Michael Kantor is no exception. It is formed around a brilliantly rhythmic, sympathetic performance by Julie Forsyth whose control is magnetic. Here she is buried in a mound of black rubble that, mercifully implicitly, must remind us of Ground Zero all jagged planes like a crashed stealth bomber. The mound is like an accretion of culture. Together with Willie's Edwardian outfit, the music hall ditties and Winnie's fraying reminiscences it is the weight of the past that gradually engulfs the characters. It doesn't so much set the play in a post-apocalyptic wasteland as in a continuous stream of history. The mound is our world.

For the starkly classical theatricality of his plays Beckett is an intensely Irish writer, in English or French. He came from a culture steeped in the subversion of the English language and the repetitions of the Latin mass. There is both resistance and magic in words and Winnie uses them here to give shape and meaning to life and to defy the harsh monotony of this broken universe. For Beckett words are proof of life, and they are for Winnie too. She talks to or at her similarly buried husband, Peter Carroll as Winnie, their occasional conversations are independent non-sequitirs, but the effort of speech and the hope of its reception are enough. For Winnie speech is heartbeat necessary, even when her repetitions seem more like instinct than conscious thought.

There is a third character in Happy Days, 'Brownie' a service revolver that has an unspeakably brutal and terrifying presence. The gun is the temptation to end it all, not to persevere. It is the snake in the garden where Winnie and Willie, at the end of the world, are Adam and Eve at the beginning. It is the great dramatic engine of the play as we anticipate what Winni might do with that pistol, the crux of the play. We must overcome, our humanity insists that we give life meaning and that we at least attempt to share that with someone else. This is what makes 'Happy Days' so optimistic, and like life so gruellingly joyous.

It is difficult for me to withhold praise from play or production. I love the fact that the best piece of theatre I have seen this year, by a long and winding way, is by the most serious and intellectual of authors. It demonstrates the compassion of ideas and the tenderness of thought. Beckett, with help from Forsyth, Carroll and Kantor in this relatively short two-hander, makes most modern theatre appear stupid and redundant by compressing so much empathy, contemplation and razor logic into such a dense and jewel like mass. More than week hence and I'm still moved.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

On Sculpture By The Sea

It seems churlish to pretend that 'Sculpture By The Sea' isn't happening, after all it is on my doorstep and the influx of traffic and old ladies into Tamarama is hard to ignore. So whilst it remains a beautiful sun kissed day and I feel generous I might share (or at least take this opportunity to gratuitously inflict some of my photography on my patient readers).

This annual festival fills the beach and cliff tops around my home with everything from the sort of abstract geometric public sculptures that might adorn the forecourt of a municipal office through objects rendered oversized and out of place, like Claes Oldenburg's discarded doodles, to jokey installations that take their meaning from their ocean side location. It's easy to scoff at 'Sculpture by The Sea', God knows I do, but if you open enough oysters you do find the ocassional pearl.

It's futile to seek a theme in SBTS, but two equestrian statues do stand out. One, 'Subterfuge' is an assemblage of industrial rusted cast-iron into the form of a Trojan horse. It has a quiet grace and an enviable place, looking out over the northern tip of Tamarama. The equestrian statue was once the pinnacle of the sculptor's art so it seems fitting two accomplished examples should be here. The second, and stronger work, is Belinda Villani's 'Tribute To A Workshorse' it is a lifesize reed sculpture of a pack horse with a seated rider. It reminds one of the pre-Raphaelite desire to give dignity to labour and might have made William Morris happy. The horse and rider are beautifully modeled, with a quiet muscular dignity. The choice of medium, kind of wicker reed, places it in a pastoral idyll, but at once emphasizes the fragility of that particular mental place.

Tamarama beach is home to a not very classical nude 'Little Boy Lost' by Paul Trefry (which is unintentionally hilariously given a modest pair of Speedos in the shot on the SBTS website). It would be easy to dismiss it as a Ron Mueck impersonation and it is really, but trying a little to hard for empathy with its oversized and manipulative eyes, but on a quiet beach, admittedly that's only possible before about 6AM, it seems to look less for its parents than for a meaning out on the horizon toward which it faces.

Diamond skulls would usually raise my hackles but I found that the early morning light refracting through Phil Hall's 'Dying for a Drink', a large scale piece made from bottles, raised it from its appalling pun of a title. That's the thing with Sculpture by the Sea', if you plonk something down on a beach and wash it in the perfect light of dawn you can forgive it a lot of crimes.

This strip of coast becomes the land of public sculpture for a couple of weeks and often one can only wonder why some works want a place by the sea. One work that deserves it is Stephen King's 'The Eight'. I hope it's not just supposed to be some rowers shouldering their craft. In fact we have a large wooden place that evokes myth and history, it might be ancestors landing for the first time from a distant shore, caryatids from a pre-historic Parthenon or the sculptors of Easter Island finding a new home. These kind of confluences of our collective memory make for powerful art.

The most successful pieces interact with the land and ocean, that's not to say that the annual examples of pieces framing sky and sea or simply clinging to the deeply beautiful cliffs qualify. Some works can make the landscape look and feel new, they work physically and visually rather than conceptually. One work that does this beautifully is Satu Bushnell's 'Transition' are the series of large mirrored beach hits that cling to the stubborn undulations of the cliffs above McKenzie's Bay. During the day their imperfect reflective surface twists the rock even further, knowing that this geology is restive and alive, whilst at dawn they burn with the rising light. They are a brilliantly physical contemplation on light and space and a piece I'd be happy to have here forever.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

On Ricky Swallow @ NGV

Ricky Swallow: The Bricoleur. There, I've written it now, in all its dated cultural studies glory. Melbourne's NGV presents us with an exhibition of a young artist's career with a title that tries so hard to give us an intellectual justification it almost begs interrogation. Ricky Swallow is an artist, now based in California, whose works span sculptures (often in wood) of everyday objects treated monumentally or hinting at familiar art-historical themes and watercolours that borrow heavily from Picasso for style and Sixties and Seventies pop culture for subject. Despite the title bricolage is a practice rather than a position, the show could more accurately have been called "Ricky Swallow: The Pasticheur".

Some Swallow's works are profoundly good. His sculpture 'The Man from Encinitas' seems at once a death mask and gloriously alive. The white plaster is a virtual fingerprint of artist and subject, the ripples and scrapes from the sculptor's hand give it a sense of potential at rest that is dignified and graceful. Much of the problem here is that whilst some works are astounding others are so breathtakingly pointless that they make you wince. The series of watercolours that Swallow produces are really art school pastiche. They appear like sketches, like a conceptual artist having his cake and eating it saying "see, I can paint, but it doesn't matter".

Swallow disingenuously presents himself as nothing more than a hobbyist, as if playing down the artfulness of his craft absolves him of anything as tedious as traditional artistic production. Like a smart kid at school embarrassed to look clever in front of his peers. It's a cheap and unnecessary trick. Swallow is much more than a hack sculptor. He has a beautiful control of finish, at exactly the right times and places he chooses the hyper-realistic smoothness or a more fluid expressionistic effect where chisel marks speak in the wood. When he juxtaposes mass and lightness he might not be breaking new ground but he has a sure and delicate touch. Swallow is at his best when he's human. In 'Unbroken Ways (for Derek Bailey)' a disembodied arm that dangles like those in a pieta meditates on the fragility of flesh so eloquently that the back story it is given is unneeded. If wood can communicate the fragility and life of flesh then single entendre titles are a distraction.

Swallow is at his best when he's exploring ways to communicate through the innate qualities of materials. Thus a black power fist struggles and emerges from a log in 'History Holding' speaking more eloquently about the artistic potential than any artist's statement. Similarly in 'Caravan' a highly formal piece in which cast bronze balloons are speckled with angry insistent barnacles Swallow reminds us of the point of the object. This is always going to be more affecting than glib post-modernism, but he just can't help himself sometimes. So my deep dislike for portentous and ironic titles bristled up immediately here. 'Salad Days' and 'Killing Time' are only two of the jokey puns, the problem is that art that simply supports two meanings isn't very smart or complex. There's no room for subtext. Irony is not the complex and neutral form that ambiguity is. It doesn't invite engagement or interpretation. Art ought to aspire to infinite meanings, or maybe even only one. Irony doesn't make for good art, when irony is the defense mechanism against meaning, masking an anxiety about sincerity.

I wonder if Ricky Swallow feels being a genuinely powerful sculptor isn't art world cool enough, that it needs an arch and shallow patina for it to be critically proper. Perhaps Swallow's funereal imagery is his way of burying himself as an artist beneath a pall of secondhand references, or maybe the sombre intimations of mortality are supposed to make the punchlines funnier. It's a shame either way.

On Peter Greenaway's Last Supper

Peter Greenaway's work is full of, perhaps, unintentional ironies, firstly that one so interested in reviving cultural 'visual literacy' should make films that are so wordy. Secondly, here at the North Melbourne Town Hall's Arthouse, his multimedia installation of Leonardo da Vinci's 'Last Supper' explores paint and place through projection on a facsimile of the original. Image and object have become interchangeable.

The work is part theatrical set-piece, part wordless lecture it is interesting in part for its production values and also for the way it closes down the space in which we see the familiar diners but leaves their meanings open. The space created here in a Melbourne (in an inner suburban Town Hall which isn't a million miles away for the unprepossessing location of the original in Milan's Santa Maria Delle Grazie) is walled with black drapes, in the middle is a long white banquet table set with white porcelain detritus of the meal, as if it were a washed out vanitas. At one end is a facsimile of the last supper, complete with alcoves, arches and the invading doorway that cut off Christ's feet. At the other end, at least initially, is a reproduction of Donato's Crucifxion, which faces the 'Last Supper' in situ.

Multiple projections wash back and forth over the fresco. The effects are impressive. The brilliant illusionistic modelling of Leonardo's disegno is brought out as shadow is cast to emphasise the effects of perspective. We get a sense of the passing of time and daylight upon the room and into the picture, seeing shadow from the room's windows move across the wall and over the painting as well as the effects of the changing hours on Leonardo's internal pictorial light sources. That light appears natural and then spiritual, in doing this Greenaway doesn't attempt to give the painting a halo but he does remind us of its role within a monastic refectory.

It would have been easy to concentrate on the narrative of the image, creating a slideshow tableau vivant, but instead Greenaway's eye is analytical, searching for Leonardo's technique. The hands in the image are gradually isolated, showing how they direct attention and reinforce the groupings within the composition. This is a mercifully Dan Brown Free Zone.

The opposite end of the space is what makes this more than an Old Masters in Imax experience. The crucifixion dissolves and a camera zooms into the surface of the painting. We go down to the level of each flake of paint as it clings, agianst the odds and its creator's flawed technique, to the plaster. The effect is more than an essay in conservation light it helps us feel how images exist as objects, created from pigment on a surface. The fragility of the original ghost on the wall is heartbeaking but here we remember the power of the remnants that still retain Leonardo's intent.
I've been lucky enough to make the pilgrimage to Milan's airlocked treasure, and whilst Greenaway can't quite replicate how it dominates and integrates with the space he retains a critical sense of scale, although raised as if on a platform or a low dais the scale is so human that the passion and grace in the figures on the wall acts as a mirror on the diners below.

This 'Last Supper' isn't a perfect work. The table running down the centre is unnecessary set dressing, in fact as it is treated like an object of veneration itself, with repeated exhortations not to touch it, it reminds us that we're in the art world and not in a refectory. The music too, a kind of amplified portentous chamber music, suggests a drama in progress where Greenaway's eye is far more subtle and gentle.

The last thing the 'Last Supper' requires is further layers of interpretation, in understanding this Greenaway pays Leonardo a huge compliment, the absence of theory and backstory privileges the paint on the walls, the patterns it creates and their presence in a room. It is a loosely forensic approach but one that demands we look and think, rather than listen and believe. You might hope that it will catch on.