Artists: Stewart MacFarlane, Ben Sando, Annabel Nowlan, and others—Better Together—Aptos Cruz, September 5—October 18, 2020; Eugeniusz Lipczyk and Aleda Laszczuk—We Kill What We Eat—SALA show at Epworth Bldg, City, August 24—August 29; Paul Sloan—Animal Kingdom—and Lucas Grogan—Late last Night—Hugo Michell Gallery, July 30—August 29; Aldo Iacobelli, Stelarc, David Noonan, Brent Harris—Monster Theatres, Adelaide Biennial, AGSA, 2020; If The Future Is To Be Worth Anything—SA survey exhibition (Sundari Carmody, Ellese McLindin, Kurt Bosecke, William Gregory, Aida Azin, Matt Huppatz, Yusuf Ali Hayat, Emmaline Zanelli, et al)—ACE Open, September 27—December 12; ‘I’ve Never Seen The Sky Like This Before’ —group show—Southwest Contemporary September 11—November 15.
by Ken Bolton
Yes, the regular apology: late again, incomplete and so on. I plead the lockdown, some travel, not enough art even—or not when I was watching.
Inevitably unsure of themselves, provincial critics worry always that judgements may not be correct, their experience not of the best, that the art they praise or censure does not support the one nor warrant the other. How did I feel venturing out of town to visit Aptos Cruz Gallery, Stirling, where the product sold is, in the main, furniture, design, decor—or art sold as the latter? The answer, Not so bad at all. The exhibition Better Together included work by Ben Sando and Stewart MacFarlane. Sufficient to my purposes.
Maybe much art anywhere sells at least partly under consideration as decor. Maybe most of it. In any case both artists were represented by characteristically strong work and the decorative and functional work their paintings were exhibited among seemed, in any case, good of its sort.
MacFarlane showed three large stand-out pieces—a small female figure tottering under the shadow of a concrete overpass, the distributor near the South Road-Flinders Uni junction, titled ‘Exile’; a Hobart scene (Mt Wellington in the background and a youth sloping by a slightly down-at-heel sales-room on his skateboard, dusk shading into evening)—‘Memoryville‘; and another picture (‘Evening’) of a more or less naked young woman, full frontal, legs crossed, on a chair, car keys on the floor, in the bottom right corner.
‘Memoryville’—a large painting (153 x 183): Mt Wellington, seen from somewhere up past North Hobart, past the State Cinema and on the way to New Town, at a guess. My guess, that is. What would I know, I’m not a native? A strong black vertical, almost in the centre of the painting, lowers the vibe and the temperature. Daylight is on the way out and never, in this painting, recovers from that black rectangle. The hit of black hides ‘in plain sight’, but it functions to key in—along with the black of a silhouetted tree’s foliage, the window frames of the shop, and the figure passing on the grey footpath—the painting’s abiding darkness. The picture is bright enough, but it is a bright picture of gathering dark.
So the light is passing. The slope of the mountain peak—lugubrious?—is a blue already ceding authority to the coming night. It is echoed—same colour, same slope to the peak—by the hoody the skateboarder wears. The same blue—a little brighter, but artificial—calls out from the shop’s sign: ‘affordable curtains’—(in fluoro? or perhaps a sign on the shop window’s curtain?), the shop’s own lighting revealing all the colours of the painting in concentrated full strength and against which the skateboarder is picked out. These things flatten the painting’s space quite a lot, in a way which echoes the closing in of the night. It is a terrifically smart painting.
A fourth picture, ‘The Long Road’, probably a self-portrait, was not hung to advantage at all. Positioned in the stairwell between floors, and the light and reflections bouncing about (at least at the time of day I showed up) it was difficult to judge properly.
In MacFarlane’s work subject matter functions a number of times over, on different registers—firstly as narrative situation; secondly as genre-type, as ‘already presented’, second-hand, recognisable, its commentary accompanying it, already supplied. Which leaves a third area for the artist and the viewer to play in—MacFarlane’s adventure with with form and stylisation. These last afford the third and most abiding visit to, or visiting of, ‘the subject’—more anaesthetised, more coolly appraisable, more delectable, more calmly unpackable—a kind of detachment. Which is ‘funny’—part of the joke or being, in fact, another joke: old time aesthetes held ‘the aesthetic experience’ to be a detached contemplation of beauty. Ha, ha, ha! we have thought for some time. Anyway, it takes no courage now … for us to have seen Clive Bell, say, as behind the times. No. But MacFarlane allows us to have this cake, eat it, and be very conscious of the fact too. Is this not both precious and easy? Maybe, though some viewers don’t seem to know how to do it. This might be their position and they’re welcome to it. I find this aspect a kind of catnip: the mix of Poussin, Beckmann, pulp fiction comix, Edward Hopper, Twin Peaks and David Lynch, Alex Katz. And more of course. The heavy, tranquilising black lines, the evening-out of treatment—a flatness that is ironic and teasing—offer the eye a stilled field to survey and measure and smile at: fabulous droll consonances of rhythm and contour, pain and humour, of narrative moment and stasis. How not to go on? Melodrama made oddly weightless, reduced to form—always I suppose tinctured with some flavour of the narrative situation.
You might argue that this received form and idiom are not so much used as observed, watched, parodied: the principle device (but is that the word?) is stylisation of an already stylised mode or manner. You might reasonably be irritated by a work which seeks to flatter your supposed knowledge—or be gung-ho about breaking out the full culture-savvy tool-kit. I think, though, the work wants you past that point—for a calmer appreciation of line especially, and colour—always, as I have said, tinctured with some flavour of the melodrama.
‘Exile’—a small female figure totters in the corner of the picture, under the shadow of an enormous concrete overpass, the distributor near the South Road-Flinders Uni junction. The woman is dressed in black jacket and black leather or vinyl pants, skin-tight, has sunnies on and high heels. She is exposed as an anomaly, as at risk or somehow at bay, looking about her and clearly out of place, a lone pedestrian threatened by a Jeffry Smart-styled concrete monster, a bit of lonely Ed Ruscha-styled garage in the middle distance behind her. The garage and its red horizontal lines (taken up on the other side of the painting by red signage and some strips of red that might be containers, trucks, railway or something other) close out the distance. Sky and cloud are brought forward as though on the same plane as the garage: so, no distance; claustrophobia. (The red sign—a joke—says Wrong Way Go Back.) The stillness (of all but the small figure) suggests airlessness. Having taken in the woman, the eye views the concrete overpass—and travels into the very foreshortened depth of the painting, following a path in full sunlight, to meet a barrier and move left, instructed by the red road sign, the pointing arms of the lights above on the right: and then to the (actually closer) petrol station and the woman again. A tightly circumscribed journey. An entrapment.
‘Evening’ was a (similarly large—167 x 122) female nude—a young woman, on a cushion on a colourfully tiled or carpeted floor, her back to a floor-to-ceiling window giving a view behind her of an urban night: black, with some brightly lit buildings and small dots of streetlights, lighted windows. She faces the viewer, her knees roughly together, hands on the floor either side. She looks directly at us and MacFarlane emphasises the various triangular symmetries: eyes, mouth below (then jaw line and bones below the neck); two nipples; her arms and head make an approximate triangle, as do her lower legs, car keys on the floor near her are splayed in a way that echoes these triangles, her legs most importantly, they being closed over what we can’t see. Eyes, lips and nipples are a high red. The light within the painting is rather harsh. Her strong face, her calm balance dominate. Her actual status is unclear. Is she a participant, does she make an offering, or is she a victim? You might eventually end up spending quite some time lost in the appealingly abstract modeling of the shins: the colours are wildly un-naturalistic. They ‘convince’, but they also makes shapes that exist strongly and completely as ‘abstract’.
‘Nipple-factor eleven!” a friend of mine once remarked on viewing a book of MacFarlane’s work. It’s true enough. You’d have to be living in a very different, past world not to find the subject problematic: “The nude is art, not pornography” sort of thing. If your mindset was that archaic you’d be objecting to MacFarlanes’s use of ‘commercial’ art, and comic book iconography. (Hullo, Mr Berenson.) On the basis of this painting you might argue that MacFarlane’s pictures are not designed to function as pornography, but that he is perversely pleased to have the discomfort of the issue tied to the painting. It might be that they are paintings of pornography, the heat syphoned off. This might be easy for me to say. They will still not escape censure. For many males the mild pornographic thrill that parallels the formal hold of the picture is casually acceptable, a small side-benefit. Women may find it less so. There are MacFarlane paintings of a more X-rated nature if you check. How many major artists these days paint nude women?
Above the front desk in Aptos Cruz hung perhaps the first work one saw in Better Together, Ben Sando’s small (96 x 77cm), cheekily cheerful ‘Navigational Aid’. The painting seems almost to swell with the viewer’s recognition or acknowledgment of the trick the picture works: it is no navigational aid. Sign-like it seems to float and rise, amused at our involuntary but pleasurable examination of what has happened—how and why the eye is tricked into a reading of the black-and-white form at the top, seeming to 1) make off with the painting, 2) (to) not cohere and yet to be a single thing, a unity, despite the casual and teasing black-on-white, black-over-white strokes that make it. The painting is ‘a nothing’—it proposes itself that way—and a cheerful victory over … Albers, say—any ethic of rectitude and grave formal solemnity. For what is it, after all—a diamond- or roofing-shape over an orange square, some red and yellow beneath—all within (but buoyantly, roughly within) the square of the painting? And structured like a sign, a road-sign almost. Hence the title.
‘Navigational Aid’ has the air of having been thrown off. I hope it was, though if it hides intense labour it doesn’t matter. The pictures ‘Journal’ (12 x 237) and ‘Untitled firebox)’ (169 x 217) are more clearly big statements—and they too share ‘Navigational Aid’s quality of confidence, triumph, of demonstration or proof.
Sando’s art—for more than a decade now—has prioritised decision, and needs a problem, a difficulty, in some cases a rule or procedure—with which to battle, something to overcome, or so as to demonstrate a process, towards sufficiency or closure. It leads the artist to revisit, revise, reinterpret most of the post 1950s conceptions of abstract painting. In Sando’s hands this is not revivalism—nor is he a neo-anything. He is not likely to be proclaiming, of any development, that This is the way. But he is an artist who needs the resistance of a situation, a ‘problematic’: a compositional difficulty or procedural rigour or delimitation. All of these things—or whatever number of them he works with at any one time—are necessary to him; but the artist would not regard them as situations logically imposed by Painting, the necessary coalface for “abstraction right now”. Sando, I think merely wants to get painting and wants difficulty rather than ease. The works can sometimes look triumphantly easy, the triumph seeming, though, a victory over paucity of allowed means or gestures.
‘Direct’ and ‘forthright’ and similar terms are applicable to much of Ben Sando’s painting. ‘Journal’ is a case in point—a long horizontal rectangle with vertical bands of colour (swatches, almost) ranged across it, abutting each other as if jostling slightly. They are of varying widths, approximately the same heights: blacks, mustardy yellows, ‘whites’, red, some beautiful-in-the-context greys. It is as if they are depositions. The colours refer the viewer’s eye back and forth between one and another, as if testing the relationships. We focus on different of them at different times and our evaluations of them change with the process. Every swatch of colour comes at some stage to be a welcome home for the eye. They reshuffle before us, their order of precedence, their relative weights always changing or asking for notice—colours associating with each other, across distance or with a neighbour, claiming allegiance or offering rest.
The major Sando piece in Better Together might have been ‘Untitled (firebox)’ or the more recent and wonderfully kinetic ‘Untitled (grey rods)’. This last (from 2020) is a forest of grey ‘rods’ or ‘sticks’—straight, fairly thin, entirely uniform stripes of paint, the majority in one or other of two greys, a medium and a pale, plus some white rods (far fewer) and some black. These last are mainly ‘under’ the rest, thrusting them to the fore, and a good number of the blacks form a sort of loose, bounding, partial ring behind the rest. The ring half encloses them (or perhaps it ‘would’, if it had its way)—but its encircling is incomplete. Still further back, reading as the ground on which the painting is built, is a yellow visible in the interstices. The yellow bounces through, its brightness and warmth pressing forward. There are also touches of a dark, rosewood red, a very few. These last are the tiniest of accents—dark but enlivening, and perhaps reinforcing the warmth of the yellow as much as they do the decision of the blacks. The painting is, overall, flat: we look into, or down upon this forest of spilled ‘sticks’—except that a shallow spill of them at the centre-bottom of the picture makes a small apron of foreground, suggesting a reading as a slightly recessed space. ‘Untitled (grey rods)’ is really on the move—though when you attend to it the effect is calming (calming the viewer and slowing, also, the painting). It is a very nice painting.
Are the rods surrogate brush strokes? If so, then, on top of all that, you have a kind of joke made: like a very happy drum solo.
The picture ‘Untitled (firebox)’ presents as more squarely rectangular. In fact it is slightly landscape in format though not so much so as ‘Journal’ or the ‘(grey rods)’ picture. But the main elements of the painting are squares within squares, rectangles over rectangles, some centred, some aside, and a few presences that are almost stripe or column. The colours are warm: the mustard yellow again; a red, a creamy white; black; a greyish blue; and they are applied so as to be inflected, patchily more or less dark, more or less dense: the red, the yellow, the blue particularly. By the same token, the same tactic, the edges of these quasi geometric shapes are roughly done, scumbled, perfunctory, bits of white showing through between them, so that many of the colours sit beside each other rather than upon or before or behind: in conflict with our reading of the colours as possessing different depths. It’s a big painting (169 x 217) but appears bigger. It ‘bulks large’ is the comical phrase. The painting fronts up with plenty of presence and the tension—and holding peace—between its parts are sustained as long as we look.
‘Untitled (firebox)’ is another instance of Sando’s working (among other things) against an opposition. In this case it will be one familiar to many artists: the need to affirm difference from that art with which it will most readily be assigned an affinity. This is partly an anxiety of influence, partly a wish to be taken at one’s own value, as original. The ‘firebox’ painting will seem to suggest (well, Albers—but that is in a distant past) Sean Scully and Peter Halley. Those names will propose themselves, but Sando’s painting will detach itself, shed these associations. Or maybe triumph over them. These are both artists I like, though I am not sure how much. Scully, though, seems romantic and sonorously moody; Halley flatly about composition, having much less surface quality than Sando. The Ben Sando work stands apart. It is both jolly, bluff, and up-beat—and one doesn’t grow tired of it.
Sando’s ‘Wild Season’ worked with similar colours, similar procedures or orientation as ‘Journal’ but is a lot calmer, more restrained, as a presence. A lesser work, but more likely to sell perhaps. ‘Untitled (green rods)’ looked not to be quite as good as its ‘grey rods’ cousin. But it was doing something else with its similar elements (rods differently arranged, different colours, a different field or format on which to work out). It employed less busy and relatively larger rods of colour—and the colours were a bluey green, an aqua and black, on a white ground that perhaps was not a ‘ground’ but made up of white rods (but in all cases?), then some black, and just two rods of a warm rusty red. It was not hung to advantage, light and reflections played some spoiling effect and designer-ware stood before it interfering with the view. One large painting chosen for the show was not, finally, hung at all: too brusquely bullish for the china, I think: a large black and yellow piece, ‘Key Painting’ (2011, 122 x 237 cm) was almost ropeable in its energy and temper.
Sando and MacFarlane make an interesting pairing to think about once you start. Are they both formalists? Is Stewart more so than Ben? Though you might think, as an abstract painter, Sando has to be?
MacFarlane employs ‘hot’ subject matter—which he cools and shapes towards the Apollonian. Sando seeks tensions and tasks dictated by the form and subdues them/defeats them, rises above them. Arguably they have (by analogy? by implication?) ethical or existential referents.
I wonder if I generally prefer Ben Sando’s ‘warm’ pictures: a certain heat seems always to surround the resolution of their elements. But then the ‘grey rods’ painting was entirely cool and it was terrific.
Sando presents a formal, usually exuberant, statement of tensions and compulsions, or necessities—and of chances taken. MacFarlane arrives at a cool subjugation (or statement of) a ‘hot’ subject. At a readily available but much lesser level of interest is the discrepancy between the formalist view and the conventionally troubling narrative subject-matter. A kind of joke, coat-trailingly obvious. MacFarlane may have little ethical content at all on some readings. The problem is a delicious joke, or an objectionable one, depending on your view, or it is simply a problem, something to live with.
I paid less attention to the other artists showing in Better Together. Much of it was decorative japonaiserie or exercises in the sumptuous. A piece by Annabel Nowlan, though, caught the eye. Nowlan’s work was more or less collage—or appliqué—and lightly decorative. One work, ‘The Long Paddock’ was more arresting. To some extent it could be said to depend on a gimmick: an aerial landscape view—almost an aerial map—of country property. Real or imagined, I don’t know. The work was made of old tarpaulin, with fence-lines described by the edges (and the slightly different colour quality) of the pieces of tarp that made up the picture, and by added stitching. It approached, overall, a green monochrome and looked at first glance ‘abstract’, a painting. For a moment, perceiving it so, I thought the comparison to make was with Alberto Burri, the mid-century Italian artist. That this piece might centre on a ‘gimmick’ is neither here nor there, I think—it was in no way trivial. (The high or non-existent horizon line and oystery, blobbed trees of Fred Williams could equally be called a gimmick.) The very material surface of ‘The Long Paddock’ (differently worn and faded or abraded tarpaulin and its weave) stood in for the prosaic, mundane reality of the country, for its impassive toughness and for its sweep and beauty. It was interesting and it was good.
We Kill What We Eat, from Eugeniusz Lipczyk and Aleda Laszczuk, was a SALA show running over late August. It was particularly likeable for being quickly done in response to the specifics of an opportunity: exhibit in a small office space within the CBD, the land of offices and ‘work’. Lipczyk and Laszczuk set about using the office space and its signifiers, and the conventions we understand as common to all in office employment—and sought to render them startling, more revealing of a world view that, unexamined, is acceded to, submitted to. Conventions of reward, of work pattern, of hierarchy, of value are made visible where they had of course been ‘hiding in plane sight’. Synecdoche and metonymy, those old friends—the direct quote by grabbing the object-culprit and holding it up for a good old stare. There were items of office slavery—most notably an office chair, modified to show actual restraints to hold the worker in place: work as a death sentence (it recalled gangland executions, torture, and the electric chair). There was a window sized view of the classic neighboring ‘wall of bricks’; tiny rewards like junk food (packet crisps, or the sort of food that can be heated and consumed in an office kitchen. Life outside the office was included—a suburban picket fence hung on the wall, cute, derisory; a wall of ‘achievements’ hung, as it might in a foyer situation: graduation photos, testimonials, certificates and qualifications, medals, portrait photos of the sort that mark attaining certain ages. (All of this a false representation of the life outside work—which we typically don’t get to live for many hours a week, beyond refueling and rest.) None of this was delivered heavily. The work was light, deliberately, often, slapdash—and amusing. It would seem to have been done on the basis of a quick reconnoitre of the room, to see what was available, what an office dictates or suggests. A key piece was the inclusion almost at floor level as you pass in to the main space, of a book, Rich Kids by Paul Barry, its subtitle “how the Murdochs and Packers lost $950 million in One.Tel”. Living the dream? None of your business? So, these are the people wage slaves carry on their backs. How heavy is it? (To take your mind off it, worker, the exhibits suggested, there were many dreams of sex.) (To take the mind off it, wanker?) Another key piece showed a small perspex box. Was it like, or was it in fact, a mouse trap—the humane, happy variety: no blood, no mess? Inside, instead of a mouse a tiny screen shows a cat-and-mouse cartoon, looped, repeating. That’s life, says the exhibition. An ode to the lumpen office-worker.
Paul Sloan’s Animal Kingdom—at Hugo Michell Gallery over August 29—was a knockout show: a small suite of five paintings in a ring around the walls of the second, supplementary space within Hugo Michell’s. A sell-out show, too. How often does that happen in an Adelaide gallery? Each work, each of them an animal painting, was somehow special within the set. And, bar maybe one, each of these—you might call them portraits?—ceded the animal power, presence, volition.
The first, ‘As Above So Below’, is an heraldic/talismanic/emblematic statement of aggression, of fury: a bird of prey attacks a model plane, a scene of aerial combat. The bird wins, clearly. The plane and bird form a more or less cruciform ‘X’ shape in mid canvas, and the action is almost entirely ‘in profile’, so the whole thing can read as echoing a tattoo design, a simple commemorative badge, a blazon. Bird and plane surely stand for Nature and Civilization as well, their intersection a classic opposition.
‘Maximum Shade’, a largely black painting on which graphic white and white-grey lines (eye rims, whiskers, and, ‘greying’ into blue, something of the cat’s muzzle and a hint of brow) give us a head. Appearing out of the gloom, it occupies the top half of the painting, and it looks quietly powerful and other. The feel is suggestive of Murder on the Rue Morgue: decadent-era pulp-noire illustration for the Revue Blanche readership and its artists: people like Felix Vallotton, very early Bonnard. Cats, black cats, were suggestive right about then: think Baudelaire, Manet, Poe. This image is terrific. It brings us so close to the cat—who is in a world of its own and hunting.
Third in the series is a comic—and slightly comix-like—dog-bites-man illustration, the dog’s head and neck, with the suited male arm, makes a curved diagonal across the painting, a blackish arc, an amusingly comic-book, white-gloved hand (the classic three-fingered glove of the cartoons) almost dead centre of the composition. ‘Bite the Hand’ is the title. The graphic simplicity is amusing, partly because it threatens to take the picture (and the series) out of the realm of high art.
Fourth is the only exception to the portrayals of animal sovereignty: a small bird, the lone vertical amongst all the compositions—it runs the length of the painting almost, from top to bottom and would be perched, static, though no perch or bough is shown. (This, too, renders the bird less kinetic, as possibly the product of taxidermy.) The ground behind it seems a wall or a surface; it enlivens the painting but it stills the bird, hovering, precarious. ‘When Thoughts Turn to Praxis’.
Last up—‘Ramaseer Ma Merde, (Karl’s Cat)’—an almost all white painting: white ground, un-modeled, a white Persian cat sits, back to us but head turned our way, on an ornate dais, tail hanging down in front of this last, which is drawn in unmodulated firmish black line, otherwise uncoloured. One of the cat’s eyes (fixed on us) is picked out in black. Looking self-contained, the animal (resembling an ornate, feathery feather duster) takes a dim view of the approaching viewer. The painting has elements you might find in Hockney (the early Hockney of line-drawn tulips, and sparing or no colour), and in minor US Pop (John Wesley, Joe Brainard), and in 80s or 90s Karen Kilimnic. The device—of near-white on white, and of the black, graphic artist’s line, used in only one spot, is very retro sixties. The very ‘pretty’ cat stands in strong tension with the cat’s daunting presence and reserved aggression.
Animal Kingdom revisits Sloan’s earliest work in Adelaide. It has his regular energy and visual wit—the bird-and-plane, the nocturnal, hunting cat, have the artist’s trademark dribbled paint lines running down them; dog-bites-man is almost laugh-out-loud; the kitschy Persian cat-meets-neo-classical baroque dais, is a not-atypical Sloan touch as well. But all here is much more carefully thought out: the subject matter—we like animals more and more, the fewer we have about, don’t we?; the execution is more deliberate and premeditatedly canny; the group of paintings looked designed to make a killing. Brush in hand I like all Sloan’s work I think, but this latest outing was very good to see. Its knowingness was effectively part of its meaning.
Concurrent with Paul Sloan at Hugo Michell was Lucas Grogan—an exhibition entitled Late last Night. These works, mostly to just one or two formats, all with the same look and blue on blue colouring, were well made and pleasurable: nice designs incorporating a symbology and other parallel worlds or spheres, that are innocently utopian and ‘right on’. But as expression they were very muted and more like cast votes for a better future—or codes marking one’s (the artist’s, the owners?) affiliations. The intricacy of design and its stylisation are more forward than the meaning. Effectively they are decorative objects, closer to craft than to art: nice blue ‘presences’ to fill a wall and which can be looked at more closely if you’d like to read the imagery. The artist is “optimistic that a new enlightened dawn is inevitable and not far off,” and these works have a crossed-fingers Pollyannaism to them. Hang them in the kitchen or the workplace to urge on the troops, keep morale up. Tasteful agit-prop. To be fair—hang on, that’s not like me!—Grogan has more or less the same enemies in mind as the rest of us, Lipczyk and Laszczuk and Sloan and everybody: “Social and environmental revolutions are at a tipping point. Though we’re still in the thick of it,” says Lucas Grogan, “I wanted to offer some sort of reprieve.”
Doc, I think I’ll need something stronger.
It was on for so long, that even with trips overseas and a long, long stay interstate, I couldn’t entirely stay away—though I’d been warned: “Not much to see.” I didn’t check the whole thing (though it may have been running still at its other venues), but I did see that bit of Monster Theatres, Adelaide Biennial, 2020 that was housed in the State Gallery.
I went hoping to see if Aldo Iacobelli’s work was as good as people said it was. I was rewarded. It was good. A series of pictures—paintings—grungy and sullen, curt and dismissive, angrily pessimistic, angrily impatient (at bottom, despairing one would guess) at the political failure, political hypocrisy, and lack of imagination or responsibility that Australia has witnessed, since the beginning of the Howard era, and continuing. This was high-handed, but that was part of its style. Who are you, an unelected nobody, to have these opinions? The answer is, Everybody has the right to these opinions, and the right to air them. Iacobelli is an interesting painter partly because he turns from one to another of the different modes he has developed, and from many of a range of different preoccupations. Not always successfully, not always with the same payout for the viewer—though I don’t think the last really matters. I was pleased to see something adult in a show that for the most part played to the trivialization that the exhibition theme always made possible. Adult.
The paintings exuded a mixture of concern, contempt and despair, alerting us to Australia’s kinship with failed and failing states around the world, the world of ‘other places’, ‘but not here’. I suppose there might be various sources for their look—and that Iacobelli would not, in this circumstance, place any premium on originality. (One could hazard Guston, Immendorf, Kiefer, Peter Booth, Kippenberger—and many others, and be wrong about these as sources. It does give some idea of the pictures’ look.) The colour scheme, as I remember it, was a dingy lentil green, lentil brown, the graphic style an inert, grumpy, sufficient-to-the-purpose line: Kiefer meets Dave Shrigley. The animus behind the work was strong, fully conscious. A tonic.
Monster Theatres was a theme … for failure, for the bar set low. The predictable fairground sideshow format tempted more artists than even the curator might have hoped for. “It’s a dystopia, right?” “Ha ha ha ha ha.” In most instances this left one with the task of identifying which bits were what and what it was they corresponded to. In some cases ‘dystopia achieved’ was enough—or, even, just the fairground look—with heavy sarcasm implied, to indicate content.
Stelarc’s work I often don’t like much: too much Spectacle. However, his Biennial piece I thought powerfully haunting. I did not see his performance, only the remaining installation: moving robotic sculpture and the huge shadow it threw onto the walls around. The interaction and intertwining of the sculpture—a robot stick figure in a metal chair (part dentist’s chair, part barbershop chair, part test-pilot’s seat) with the shadow it cast, enormously large and disruptively stretched and distorted by the angle of the walls and ceiling, was frightening, or daunting … and alienating. Or was it a picture of alienation? The robot-figure looked like a more complex, engineered version of the jokey figure that used to signify The Saint, the Leslie Charteris creation. Minus the endearing halo. But what awful thing was happening to him? It was visually complex and visually interesting.
There were pictures by David Noonan that I liked—and a large video installation that I didn’t. The latter required too much patience, for changes that were not rewarding enough and slow coming. I gave it a good, good while then cut my losses. The still photographs were strong. Each, though, seemed to rely on a similar formula—that of more or less imposing a version of Robert Motherwell’s ‘Elegy for the Spanish Republic’ on, around, between or behind the figures he had isolated from some original, ‘found’ I think, source. These Motherwell-like forms would add gravitas to almost anything. A bit too easy to rely on. Or to be impressed by. A first time, a second—but after a while, Hang on.
Brent Harris must always have been in mind for Monster Theatres. Not new to the world, his is a body of work that must be quite large by now and probably gaining in spookiness. Harris says of it that it is a dream world—his own—that he continues to paint and draw and attempt to understand: the value and weight of the players, the logic of their interconnection, their ‘meanings’. They do look truly frightening: hallucinatory (creamy, white rabbit figures, and ghosts, sliding in and out of black backgrounds, goat-headed figures, naked and semi-naked bodies, eerily sinuous, slightly deformed.) They seemed to me a child’s (unfavourable) premonition of adulthood. Or something like. We sense a grammar of the images about to arise, a secret to be divulged—or perhaps reclaimed and hidden again.
If The Future Is To Be Worth Anything—is a survey exhibition of South Australian artists, aiming to give some idea of the range of newer, or at least current, talent and directions and, importantly, responses to current issues. ACE Open is the venue and a large part of the curatorial and logistical energy behind ITF-ITB, as I will call it. The curators are Patrice Sharkey and Rayleen Forester. It runs from September 27 to December 12.
First or last in the show, depending on which way in you take, is Sundari Carmody—presenting what I read as a sculptural installation. It consisted of a large oblong dais on which were two darkly concrete-looking constructions: one a circular tower, staircase spiralling around its outside wall—or perhaps it was a well: stairs up to a circular hole. We could effectively peer down this hole, but not see the bottom without standing on the white, sequestering dais. At the dais’s other end the well or tower was balanced by a similarly dark and stoney grey rectangular open box, with sets of stairs in it, too, at one end, the box divided evenly down its length : so, two long rectangular enclosures within the box, each with stairs at the one and same end. Together they suggested something slightly medieval—this was down to the tower/well construction. Towers, wells, forts—and gaming scenarios, the imaginings of Star Wars and other movie-derived worlds; a bit of magic, a bit of astrology? In addition there was the scale: either a god-like view, looking down on tiny people (nowhere in evidence—that would be too Pop) or just sort-of-small, from our own god-like perspective, looking down. Abandoned worlds, lost worlds, have increasingly been in vogue since we began to realise we were riding for a fall. (Since when—the Romantics, Darwin; the sensed temporality of the British Empire, of the West? since Planet of the Apes, since climate change began to be noticed, since the rise of China?) But such melancholy is not what the work produces, there is nothing doomily gothic about the work. It might be more that, empty, the space is ours: we might explore, venture down these stairs. Or up. Attending as we do to the stone’s quality of catching the light and registering our movement.
Hanging above the whole was a large curtain, banner, or ‘sheet’—of diaphanous white material on which was a golden disk, high up. Hanging opposite, but lower, was a matching ring or circle, of a like gold shade. Same size as the moon-shaped disc. These give to the whole a ruminative, slightly dreamy feel: I mean they refer to stars and ‘signs’, time and planetary movement or alignment; but they also physically give the work an air of balance and lightness—the white shimmer of the veil’s material.
But these were all titled as separate pieces. Which cuts down my reading of it to some extent. If not the reading then my sense of interrelationships between the parts.
I was never sure exactly of the references the work made or of the syntax or whatever of the game or narrative, the allegory or metaphor that the work proposed or toyed with invoking. One did have a sense that these things were there. The assembly was deliberate and coolly laid out. Strong image and forceful enigma have characterised much of Carmody’s art in the past: think of her videoed performances or ‘actions’, which have had in tension a ‘High’ tone and an attendant ridiculousness: Carmody in oracular black robes, poling herself along on a skateboard, is one instance.
Entering the main exhibition space I passed by a number of pieces, not quite impressed, to Matt Huppatz’s work (three paintings, with titles like ‘Release’, and ‘Communicate’). At first these appear mild, underpowered: three canvases, each centering on a different, slightly citrus colour range—of greens and yellows, orange and yellows, bits of blue and pink, the colours a thin, pastille, citrusy blend, the composition a seemingly uninflected, even distribution and overlay—of words and lettering, the vocabulary or phrases likely, I think, to be derived from utopian rave culture of the past. I am not sure if this is still the irenic, liberatory Ur-text of Huppatz’s work. I think it is. The look has remained the same, probably been further and further refined. The paintings, given a little time, take a hold of the viewer, gaining in power. In fact one of the principle effects or experiences with Huppatz’s painting (and not altogether unlike the work of his sculptural arm as well) is the sense of power and rightness these works can have without any overt compositional bellowing or heavy breathing: calm, non-assertive symmetry, no sudden or decisive movements, no centre even.
The maze. Does every show have to have one? I’ve seen a number over the years, in exactly this same spot: Hossein Valamanesh’s ‘pavillion’ a little while ago, Mike Parr’s a good number of Festivals back, Deej Fabyc’s ‘Strawberry Girl’, also here, same building, same gallery, slightly Solaris in feeling—chill, threatening. And actually, all of these were good. Maybe we should always have a maze. This one, by Yusuf Ali Hayat, was excellent was excellent. Very impeccably installed, a kinetic, disco version, compared to Valamanesh’s rather stately and maybe perfunctory statement of the theme. ‘Disco’ also in that the colour scheme (generated by curved reflective panels of perspex-like material—and some depositions of colour) echoed that of Matt Huppatz’s triptych. The maze (‘Baab-As-Salaam’) was satisfyingly confusing or surprising, wonderfully transparent and light, with fun-fair mirror elements surprising you with a presence that always turned out to be oneself, not always immediately recognisable or signalled ahead of time. It threw arabesques and decorative, spacey swirls of colour, of single and paired colours, about the walls, all enticing to the eye.
The meaning? I don’t know. That is, I am always able to trot out one of the few things I ‘know’ about Islamic art and architecture (I taught the subject when it first came onto the high-school syllabus—so is it really knowledge, is it a fact at all?)—which is that a confusion, a disorientation, worked by the endless columns in many large mosques, is an intended effect meant to induce an experience of the world’s multiplicity, endlessness etc, and of one’s own insignificant place within it. I wonder how true this is—of Islamic architecture, and how true of Hayat’s maze, which apparently has Celtic elements as well, reflecting his own diasporic experience before coming here?
Next in my progress came a painting, highly coloured, highly ‘horror vacui’ in composition, outlines interestingly indistinct or interlocking, jigsaw puzzle-style. (Artist Kurt Bosecke—whose long title begins ‘A Hurolaurid Ancient Avairy Birds,’ continuing as a sort of potted story, losing its way a little—and giving a sense, I think, of the painting’s function for the artist). There followed a wall of pictures, paintings, sculptures of various sizes hung in a constellation. (The artist, Ellese McLindin.) The imagery: funny faces, funny people, old trucks and planes, and bits of equipment—made, the latter, of tin and cardboard and junk materials. These images were fabulous in their colour, always confident, sometimes very subtle and unusual, and their direct, uncomplicated depictions had enormous vitality and humour. They showed a range of people, and of implements, devices, cars and planes, housing, that is the artist’s environment or history. ‘A girl called Nancy’ featured the most stunning deep plum and rosewood colours. ‘King Kong’ handled blue and yellow and orange over a green ground wonderfully well. ‘A Troll’, which you might easily think of as just ‘the red painting’, had much more going on: six other shades working very precisely against that startling red—and a fabulous sense of balance.
Following Ellese McLindin came three paintings by Jackie Saunders—same size and format, paintings that seemed like decor style, designs, mosaic, but strongly stated—a triptych called ‘Family’. Next William Gregory’s series of depictions of a folksy Venus and her mum and friends—the Venus of Botticelli and Raphael and Titian—(and of Picasso, and referencing, too, I think, Matisse’s ‘Luxe, Calme and Volupté’)—all in a cartoon, afternoon-TV style that harkens back to the sixties and seventies but which might still be contemporary: Quickdraw McGraw and others. An amusing little utopia? or Arcadia? These were all artists associated with Tutti Arts collective, artists with learning disorders.
Finally, Emmaline Zanelli’s room with three-screen video installation—a kind of visual essay, ‘Dynamic Drills’. This work fell on one side of a divide that runs through the exhibition, between skills, procedures, knowledge and art-world awareness on one hand, and expressive, outsider/naive work. Zanelli’s piece could have come at any time in the last three or four decades. Not a criticism, and the work was not alone in this. It is a question for the curators to have considered. And they probably did. It is, after all, not their job to make change happen, that is for the artists.
Zanelli’s three screens show a succession of vignettes, with her elderly grandparents (the grandmother particularly) as protagonists and the artist as young presiding, sometimes enabling or demonstrating angel. The vignettes examine changes and existential threats to our ways of life and in places they try to compensate for them, or to consider them, adjust to them: noise pollution, climate change, energy requirements and so on. The grandparents are lovable—aged immigrant Australians who have adapted and successfully survived in suburban Australia. They play their roles in the various of Zanelli’s tableaux. Witty magic happens while they do so, courtesy of the artist-sprite figure. The piece is gentle and witty, loving and optimistic. And well-made. It is nice to watch.
As one left there was a wall of graffiti-like work, a quasi, two-dimensional, environment. The style was wildly anarchic. ‘Toodles Galore’ by Aida Azin and Carl Giorgio. This last was well done.
Still, graffiti simulated, quoted, acted out with permission just does not function the same way or have the same effect as the real thing. It doesn’t hurt to say this, after all that the work shouted down to us (that sexism was a bad thing, that racism was a bad thing, that they often went hand in hand as well, and hand in hand with beer), to all of which the viewer could bother to say, “Too true”. Or could not bother. Appearing, guerrilla-style elsewhere, we would applaud its having commandeered part of the urban cityscape to say these things—precisely where expression is suppressed. One of the work’s better thoughts was that the only way to be correct is to be corrected—so I know they’ll take this in good part.
If The Future Is Going To Be Worth was curated on unrelated premises or desiderata: one was to showcase new and developing talent, another was inclusivity, another was that current issues, attitudes and topics be addressed or revealed. One of these intentions was likely a wish to promote collective activity and, related, work based in community. These things pull the curators in different, sometimes conflicting directions. A survey show based on any one of these would be reasonable. In the administered world one wants to tick many boxes.
‘I’ve Never Seen The Sky Like This Before’ at Southwest Contemporary presented quite a contrast with ACE Open’s If the Future is to be Worth Anything: one curator; international rollcall (but Western for the most part—European, Australian, New Zealand, British, some Japanese); some thirty-plus artists; works to be—generally—easily generated at this end from jpegs and Tiffs (so a little like mail-art); and all focused on the COVID experience. Plus, a fairly level playing field in terms of artist intelligence and sophistication, though how could you know this really?
The focus is firmly on the Covid period and our experience of it. The exhibition brings some nimble minds reflecting on all this—a subject that is so much the main burden of news media everywhere, since around February or March this year. Compulsive—without being compelling, much fun, or anything but tiresome, chewed up already. All responses, we might feel, will inevitably be cliché. But no!
A first impression is of mostly white A-4 sheets fixed to the gallery walls—which would take you back to the 70s if you had been there. It was mostly conceptual, without being ‘Conceptual Art’. A lot of reading to do. A literate bunch.
One work, Yael Vishnizki-Levi’s ‘Exotic Location’, was a photo-essay examining a suburb in Warsaw with a brief, carefully written, but casually styled journal entry on the area, that the artist recalls now lovingly, for its Communist-era associations. This makes the exercise a kind of nostalgia—to be felt, now, only because its object may be passing, but ‘passing’ along with everything else possibly. And so the piece had an elegiac feeling. The tension and anxiety that may have accompanied the Cold War and one-party state rule is now gone: a big event in history now will have no meaning. (Except that it was your life, that was as good as it would get, or as good as it got and there were some happy moments.) The end of History: a new sense to that phrase.
‘Earlier’ in the show—if you started on the left and moved counter-clockwise: well, I did—Alex Gawronsky’s reliably Brechtian sense of humour and of history gave us ‘Last Days’, a large red square (650 x 530mm) and the two-line hand-written ‘everything-must-go’ announcement (a marking pen, in capitals) “FINAL DAYS! Huge $avings”. Not subtle? No, but who wasn’t laughing in recognition?
More whimsical—or more laid-back—was Richard Grayson’s photo—or Photoshopped picture—of items (balloons, models, children’s play things) floating in a wooded landscape, as if independent of each other (though you expect at first that they are suspended), making a mouth, and eyes, a nose. (A contemporary take on John Baldessari’s ‘Throwing Three Balls in the Air to get an Equilateral Triangle’?) Were the items a little corona-like, with their star-fishy spikes? the mouth a grin formed by a model of some genetic code? Grayson offers the ‘grim spectre’ scenario as goofy joke, as relaxed discovery. The title: ‘Weird Shit in Nature says Hi!’.
‘Three Pandemic Truths’ by Ian Millis (a veteran of the Conceptual Art years): WHERE THERE’S MUCK THERE’S MONEY, THIS TOO WILL PASS, and WE WILL ALL DIE EVENTUALLY. The work’s subtitle—”Sadly even the most overwhelming human tragedy / reveals no new truths, / but simply renews the banal truths of cliches.”
Joao Penalva’s photos showed close-ups of studio shelving (details, magnified in the A1 poster-sized images), a kind of close-encounter—with alienating boredom, with time? Or, as likely, a reference to long-term ongoing concerns of the artist, ambitions now not to be realised (‘ever’), or put on the backburner.
Bronwyn Platten showed—a (small) painting of—a capital C-shaped object—slightly womb-like, I thought—completed by the capitalised word, in vaguely ‘Roman’ script, “OVID”—poet of love, change, fluidity, the seasons. Metamorphosis.
Suzy Treister’s round constellation of interlocking finely-coloured lines had some of the same pretty and restful appeal as Platten’s piece. Sarcastic, I suppose, in both cases.
There was more to see, more to comment upon, but, as with If the future is to be worth anything, though with far fewer resources, the Southwest Contemporary show was No Friend To The Reviewer: no catalogue. ACE Open provided a book to accompany their exhibition—but with many of the works not illustrated, not even named in some cases I think.
The Southwest event felt far more grown up in its cast of mind, more informed, more intelligent—if not uniformly, then overall.
But. Finally. Finally, the contrast I was most conscious of, because it marks a divide between the two galleries, ACE Open and Southwest contemporary, one that neither welcomes: a generational distinction. Southwest’s guest curator for ‘I’ve never seen the sky’, Bronia Iwanczak, is in touch with her overall cohort: artists who have mostly been around a while. (Iwanczak began as an Adelaide artist, significant and promising in the late 80s and early 90s, moved to Sydney for many years and has since relocated to the UK. She is well-connected.) Covid was the brief.
ACE Open’s If the Future exhibition, curated in-house, meant to celebrate “art practice and critical perspectives emerging from South Australia’s artistic communities”—in “engagement with a world beyond art, … re-imagining self and structures, and creative tactics … for survival.”
There are areas of overlap—the exhibitions can be compared.
The artists’ ages in If the Future Is To Be Worth Anything were not uniform, ranging from old to young. Their relative newness might have been common to all. (In terms of previous reception, and exhibition-history, Huppatz might be the closest to ‘established’, but hardly.) By contrast, the exhibitors in Southwest’s ‘I’ve Never Seen The Sky Like This Before’ were generally older—and, problematically, this tends to be true of all Southwest’s shows.
The two galleries have distinctly different audiences. As a funded organisation ACE Open must attract a more general public, but it too has a core audience—younger than Southwest’s.
It is a problem for both galleries. Neither situation is healthy. It is a problem for Adelaide in fact. It means there is little prospect of continuity in Adelaide’s visual culture: no traditions can build, the ideas of any two generations are hardly shared between them, the practices of any two are unknown, one to the other. There’s no future—and there’s no past.
The divide between the generations—short generations of less than a decade—means no local culture is built. To be properly regarded in South Australia an artist must gain recognition elsewhere. No-one becomes known by working and showing here. Sydney or Melbourne can confer a reputation, maybe Brisbane. Hobart? Perth? Adelaide can’t? There is no intergenerational dialogue or critique: the older artists are thought failures (unless nationally endorsed). Why would you pay attention to them? They have failed. Then the young artist matures and becomes a failure as well. The provincialism of large art capitals (New York, Berlin, London, the Paris of many years ago) means significant art is thought to happen there: and the art produced is closely and competitively examined, evaluated, remembered, absorbed. These local cultures can be blind to what’s outside them. It is true. Work can be overvalued. On the other hand cities that think art happens only elsewhere … well, this guarantees nothing local can last.
I’ve probably said enough. There are criticisms one could make of this perspective, I do realise. But another day.