Artists: Hossein Valamanesh—In Love—ACE Open, August 8—September 28 • Louise Haselton—Like Cures Like—Samstag Gallery, August 2—September 27 • Andrew Petrusevics—Dissonant Nation—Southwest contemporary, July 28—August 24 • Matt Huppatz—High Society—and Shoufay Derz—The Face of The Deep—Greenaway Art Gallery, July 3—July 28 • Mortal Close Ups (Andrae, Barbour, Concierta, Kirby)—Southwest contemporary, May 7—June 28 • Margie Sheppard—Translucent—and John Foubister—Belief in Doubt—West Gallery, May 3—June 9 • Anna Gore—Essential Forms—Greenaway Art Gallery February 6th—21, 2019.
by Ken Bolton
“Hullo, you again?” I hear the reader remark—or “Back on the job. Wonder why he stopped?” I used to write art criticism and now I’m writing it again. Doing it because I like thinking about art—I enjoy the art itself more that way—and trying to write means finishing, developing that thinking and extending that experience. The difficulty is the fun. As for stopping, there were more than enough reasons. For a long time I had written for the Experimental Art Foundation whose website carried the work. But I left the EAF and a few years later the ‘Eaf’ led an amalgamation between itself and the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, and the resulting new organisation, ACE Open, dropped the website and its contents, along with the Formguide reviews (the art writing I’d been doing) and most of the cultural capital of both ancestor organisations. So, no venue. There were other reasons: I was travelling; I had literary work to complete; and the local art scene seemed in terminal decline—had long done so. Who wants to write, regularly, in a negative vein?
The coming of Southwest contemporary provides a public space to write for—and some inspiration: its inaugural exhibitions—three to date, as I write this—have had a more serious and focused tone to them than most of the exhibitions around town and the gallery is steered by artists whose work I have admired in the past. However temporarily, the clouds seem to have parted—why not have a go?
These new reviews will head up that resuscitated archive of art writings—in a chronology that runs backwards into maybe the late 1980s. Such is the plan. The first review heads off with an account of Hossein Valamanesh’s August 2019 exhibition at ACE Open. ‘Formguide’? The Formguide title—as used during the EAF period—is deployed again here. (The Visual Arts Board had taken exception to use of the word “punter” in relation to members of the visual arts public, hence the attraction of the term.)
“Sorry. We were just tuning.” — Lou Reed
Hossein Valamanesh’s In Love (ACE Open, August 8th—September 28th) showed two works principally, a two-screen film installation, ‘Passing’, and a pavilion-like quasi maze, ‘Enter’. A third piece was a single postcard that carried a copy of a a poem (or perhaps just a ‘text’) in Farsi. There were multiple copies of the card—writing Valamanesh had come across by accident and been struck by. The artist had reproduced it as a postcard with the story more or less as I have told it and the recommendation to have someone who speaks Farsi translate it for you.
It may have been the same writing printed on the translucent material of the screen panels that made up the maze. The maze hinted at the possibility of disorientation, surrender, of being lost, of an impression of endlessness, the fluidity of space—features of classical Persian architecture and decoration. By convention a metaphor, I think, for a view of reality as beyond rational understanding. I think. As its walls were transparent (a lemon yellow with pale, honey-coloured writing in the calligraphic script of Farsi), and as the pavilion was not in fact so large, disorientation, endlessness could only be hinted at.
This pavilion occupied the more open and larger space of the ACE Open gallery, standing free in the middle of it. The other half of the show had a semi-darkened room to itself. At either end were moving-image projections. One showed the progress of a train through Australian bushland, camera facing forward down the track. The other, opposite wall showed the same scenery receding, as from the rear of the train. If you were a Futurist you looked forwards. Those more given to nostalgia looked back.
Both works—the locomotive movement through bush scenery and the pavilion—were I would guess occasions for some surrender of self—to time, to a surrounding vastness or complexity, to beauty or variousness, and maybe to intuitions of something mystical, probably to some reduction of ego, possibly to some numinousness. They were occasions for it. The bush scenery of ‘Passing’ was very beautiful and endlessly watchable—but not quite compelling. The pavilion—to call it that (stately, calm, beneficent without being too nannying)—was even less able to compel or subjugate the punter meaning to give themselves up to (the) experience. Both pieces, then, were more like signals of a deferred but possible work—prospectuses for what you might ideally be offered, or which could be notionally offered. Valamanesh’s work is often conceptual in just this way: it gently or politely indicates or outlines a notion, a world, a view, attitude or mental state. They are statements, functioning as things to be thought about, well after the experience of meeting them in the gallery. They are instances of the governing idea and they refer to it.
It can make them a little bloodless, unembodied. But then the blood, the bodiedness, utilitarian calculation—capitalist consumerist neo-liberalism—are what the work stands against. And of course mental clutter and the noise of polysyllables—capitalist, consumerist, neo-liberal and the rest—is to be kept at bay as well.
Underwhelming, we might feel, in the gallery—yet the works can grow in one’s estimation after.
This is all truer of the maze-pavilion, ‘Enter’, than the moving image piece ‘Passing’—shot, this last, in conjunction with filmmaker Nassiem Valamanesh, the artist’s son. Materiality is a big part of Valamanesh’s artwork generally and is often remarked, but it is often tied—translates very quickly to—’idea’. With such works what is recalled later is the experience and feel that might have been had—had we allowed the time. Or had the artist opted to give the fuller experience. But for a conceptualist the idea is paramount.
In Love, then, showed two significant pieces—austere, forthright (maybe characteristic of a ‘late style’?)—yet not major within the context of Valamanesh’s overall oeuvre. But something of a lesson from the master.
Louise Haselton’s Like Cures Like (Samstag Gallery, August 2—September 27) was in large part a mini-retrospective or like a poet’s New and Selected Poems volume: a large sampling of the best work, giving some outline of the career as a whole—the earliest work typically thinly represented—along with a body of new work. In Louise Haselton’s case this newer work was shown downstairs and much of it had been made, you would guess from its uncharacteristically large scale, to cope with the cavernous exhibition space.
Exhibition at Samstag confers status—the site is prestigious—but it can also diminish the art, defeat it in many cases. Exhibition upstairs has less of this effect. Even so, the ceiling height has a tendency to dwarf works that would fully possess the walls of any normal gallery. Some of this effect was to be felt here too, but Haselton’s pieces still looked fresh and had the ability to cavort and dance against the main long white wall. These were pieces from a knockout show at the EAF—Outsides, in 2014. They were still startling in their audacity and concision: a piece of great impact and formal unity made from cardboard ply, the sort used in cardboard boxes, and roughly torn and broken white styrofoam (again, packaging, a waste material), ‘Seven pieces for Chauncey Gardner’. This piece no longer looked as big as it did. (One wants to say “as big as it is”. The ‘standard’ size of a large painting.) But it looked good. As I travelled along this line of works I was thrilled again and then realised that exactly the same reactions—a kind of joy and exhilaration—as I had had years before were being called forth. Many of Haselton’s pieces make one almost grateful to them for the lift they give.
[My reviews of this earlier exhibition will be available: see Formguide ‘Louise, Jenny, John’ of December 2014. Reviews of still earlier shows, too—and a ‘profile’, ‘Louise Haselton: Of Material Importance’ from 2003, done for CACSA’s Broadsheet.]
The aesthetic is combinatory and looks for a unity that binds together contradiction. The whole, the translation, is the joke, the smile the work offers the world. Hence the wonderfully serene or energetic formal coherence of the styrofoam and cardboard, allowing it to read as a brown and white abstract (of a late Tuckson-like verve and authority) or a cardboard and foam assemblage. Hence the contrast of piping and cardboard that makes up a work I always think of ‘Bury My Heart’ or ‘Wounded Knee’—a seemingly negligible combination that quickly reads as an instance of comic pain and danger: knee trouble.
A third instance on this wall, near the end, makes a wonderful grapey purple painting or collage—unsatisfyingly disparate then suddenly satisfyingly unified, as its gestalt morphs from ‘things’ to ‘painting’, ‘composition’ or Arp-like collage.
On the same floor were pieces from earlier exhibitions—at SASA, the EAF and CACSA, possibly Greenaway. More of these would have been good to see. (Samstag has more size than capacity.) Haselton has been operating at a very high level for quite some time. An actual retrospective will feature the work elided here—a Google search will suggest something of the depth of the back catalogue and also the kinds of densely imbricated layers of thought and felt connection that underlie the works. For viewers with a history of viewing that is only a decade or so long, that retrospective will be an eye-opener.
Downstairs were pieces that once looked over-large—in Feltspace and Greenaway Gallery?—two works using blue jeans as their unit of manufacture. These were witty, but not of lasting effect visually. The pun, here’s a blue shape—and look, it’s a pair of jeans! gave up its hold more or less upon translation or realisation. Downstairs my preferred piece was ‘dance, sing, or speak’—gnomic, hermetic, turning always a hunched shoulder or a closed corner to the viewer. It appeared unitary yet made of disparate things; balanced yet permanently and perversely asymmetric; neat yet arbitrary: resembling a barbeque, an incinerator, a tiny shed or mausoleum, a shelter for a gas meter and plumbing and piped apparatus. It was intriguing and refused to give up its secret—almost loveably. Maybe its title was what it said to us, an invitation to impress it? Like the tar baby the piece itself said nothing.
Louise Haselton’s influence has been all about town now for some time, but it does not go well for most practitioners, reducing to formula and a very ‘mere’ formalism in the hands of anyone pursuing too doggedly the Haselton practice. Almost a mode of decor or novelty art. Not Louise’s problem though. Something is behind Haselton’s pieces (as evinced in the small glimpse Samstag gave of her early work), something other than the mere this-goes-with-that procedure Haselton might seem to be working so magically. The contrasting terms Haselton yokes together are weighted somehow, and mask a truth, or a nexus of connection, that has gravity: it is more than we might expect and more complex than the evident binary on which any Haselton piece at first seems to depend. There are logics and intuitions, counterintuitive dialectics in their engineering.
Dissonant Nation at Southwest contemporary was an installation that could be taken to simulate a crowd scene, the ‘crowd’ being made up of two-dimensional characters (representations of actual human figures, but also humanoid memes or expressions or attitudes), a sort of shallowly three-dimensional frieze, then. The vocabulary—or cast—were familiar in their style: Petrusevics’ long perfected distillation of cartoon advertising styles, suggestive of much of the twentieth century, say 1920s to more or less now, but always (‘always’?) with a deliberate dated, failedness, tiredness, attaching to them. Loveable hucksters and failures and crooks. Advertising, but not Big Time advertising. A little Pop, a little Bauhaus, a little Tin Pan Alley (or Weimar) desperation. Grosz and Dix, the Jetsons and Hanabarbera. These were modes quoted as much as used.
Andy’s show looked very good: it conveyed the spirit and visual style of his work—and the style itself still works, to be pleasing, but also to seem reductive and cynical and yet realistic, and it lifts the viewer into that same realm of slightly black mirth. Dissonant Nation was an exhibition for the lost federal election. The long landscape painting behind it, anchoring it, seemed so much more humane than the characters, and slightly tragic and betrayed. The black graphic line seemed to sigh at the pointlessness of representation—it was much looser than his outlines often are, sort of fitful as a describing or bounding line, almost a net thrown over the colour that it ‘controlled’. As a playful, ‘abstract’ line it functioned cheerfully enough. The sculptural pieces were nearly all personas—and shifty, undependable—or else they were fall-guys, puzzled victims, marks.
The pieces were knowing and sly. Deliberately tired, trumpingly effective and functional: signs given a personifying existence as ‘players’, as quasi-characters (‘faces’—of a sort Jawlensky would have been surprised to see dragooned to these functions)—standing on little feet, occupying space and each offering its one word mantra, performing its cajoling directive: win! lose! look up, down, across: ‘new’ expressions of disappointment, anger, stupefaction, rube-like eagerness, consternation.
Vintage Andy P—of a piece with his work of the last decade. Some viewers might remember his startling and amusing assemblage of similar figures, gambits and gizmos—‘Buzz, Fizz Pop’—at CACSA’s NewNew of 2010.
On the wall, stage right from the assembled melée, was a mural in effect: abutting panels that were never going to be easily taken in with so many items coming between the painted image and the viewer. Of course, one could plant oneself amidst them and move carefully to read it all from left to right or right to left, but at fairly close range.
To see it all one needed to be pressed against the all opposite, deep within the array of joking signs and automatons. I think the painting was done very quickly, even by Petrusevics’ lightning standard—very largely just so as to fill a wall that would otherwise have seemed lamely blank. painted it enclosed’ the objects on that side, extended the installation to the whole gallery not just to an uncertain most-of-it. It’s manner—the very fact of its being painting—recalled the Petrusevics of another vintage that ran from the late 80s thru the 90s and which was extraordinarily and deservedly popular and, perversely, not sufficiently highly rated for seeming so easy and so easily likeable. This, even tho it was not always without critical edge: vast dollops of irony and sarcasm about taste, fashion, iconicity, race even. The mode may even come too easy for Petrusevcs himself to value it or to find it any challenge. This painting could not help having much of that Dufy-esque charm. Rhetorically it contributed the overall work an important counterbalance. Where the installation showed a representative population—of crooks and shysters, and villains and saviours (all hardy perennials), and advertising or political prompts and emoji-like symbols to do with ‘political life now’—the panting represented the larger, more total life-world that these things mis-governed, competed over, fouled up: a notional city or polis, looking lively, busting, but also inefficient and taxed and handicapped by their workings. Beautiful—especially as inspired graphic painting and graphic line—but also tangled, enmeshed. A lever on one side of Dissonant Nation, by a series of pulleys and connections, moved a sleeve across the room (bearing the label ‘policy’) that pointed to this outside, larger world. Dissonant Nation was one small installation, but very on the ball. Acerbic, funny, sour, even (affectedly) mindlessly cheerful: depressing, but since Who wasn’t? you had to laugh—laugh and regret and laugh again. It was nice thinking about it—and seeing it was sort of exhilarating.
Matt Huppatz has shown work for a number of years, much of it marked by a very canny reticence. The works invoke, but also appeal to, numerous codes of design and design-affiliation. For some viewers it will be clear exactly which codes, which affiliation. For me it is enough simply to know that it is so and to make allowance for resonances I can’t quite sense, can certainly not ‘read’. The amusing and slightly cheeky paradox is work that purports to be dealing with emotion via a vocabulary of simple, ordered circles and grids all of uninflected colour.
The payoff is that the works do seem to have distinct different emotional weights. And in High Society (at Greenaway, July 3—July 28) they have different degrees of stability, some tending to appear fixed, others ready to float or swim left or right. These paintings were probably technically collages: pre–printed flat cotton discs of colour mounted on a ground that was equally unemphatically a matter of ‘design’—but tantalisingly and knowingly drifting into the field of ‘painting’. The colours were muted versions of Warhol’s flower pattern range, distributed over awning- or deckchair-patterned stripes of like colour and subdued intensity: lines of dots that pulled right or left, up or down, that floated forward or back just minimally. Stripes always say, to me, ‘Kenneth Noland’—but I doubt Huppatz was making anything of this, beyond saying, perhaps, ‘Thanks for that.’
Will more accrue to them over time—more weight, reference, expressiveness—with elaboration, development , familiarity—with variations in size, format? They are still close to earlier Huppatz work which enacted self-identification with certain aspects of gay rave culture, and with a specific gay sensibility—slightly utopian, slightly ingenuous. They are not unsophisticated. Nor are they undisciplined or not, it seems, carefully thought out. They do not have their sleeves rolled up, that’s for sure—careful not to raise a sweat. They can appear anodyne, mute—and remote, though ‘remote’ is not such a crime.
Showing with Huppatz at Greenaway was Shoufay Derz—The Face of the Deep—with work that had quite a problem with the Intentionalist Fallacy. Her works didn’t mean what the artist thought they did.
Mortal Close Ups was Southwest contemporary’s second show—though it might be taken for their first really. The gallery opened with a single work from each of the principal partners—but the emphasis was on the fact of the space’s opening and the inaugurating of a program. It is convenient for me to think so, because I have more or less forgotten those first three works.
Mortal Close Ups (May 7—June 28) was curated by Anton Hart and showed single pieces by each of Craige Andrae, John Barbour, Paloma Concierta, and Shaun Kirby. Kirby and Andrae were represented by old pieces, but pieces right on theme. Shaun Kirby is an Adelaide artist long absent from South Australia and not now showing regularly. Craige Andrae’s piece, ‘Fly’, was from the 1996 Adelaide Biennial, itself focused on mortality. The work had change but was still on point: a perspex, wall-mounted box, it had originally contained a myriad fluttering moths, batting their wings for dear life, frantic, and dying of course, over the course of of the AGSA exhibition’s run. Now, at Southwest, they were still—a layer of decomposing yellow at the bottom of the enclosure.
Kirby’s piece, ‘Blowhole (Gasbag)’, was a sealed, glass topped shallow box, about the proportions of a small door. I the bottom of the box was mounted, like a shallow dish, an opened skull—just the top of the head. The genuine article. At first it seemed to undemonstrative, but the reality of it soon produces a chill. I remember it doing so in 1992 when first shown too.
Paloma Concierta showed the only recent piece, ‘Still’—the photo of a glass or plastic cup—of the sort ubiquitous in hospitals and emblematic therefore of the medical system. Of the process dying, you might say. It was an effective piece dispensing with any high rhetoric. Perfect in the show.
John Barbour, a locally influential artist now a few years deceased, was represented by ‘Untitled object’, a small heart moulded in lead. In a sense high rhetoric, in another sense obdurate fact: a representation of life, a memorial or memento mori, a warning. I sometimes found—maybe I should talk in the present tense? ‘find’—Barbour’s work slightly sentimental and this might be a case in point. Not all of it. Perhaps not most of it. He could be terrific. His best work, I think, dealt in and with issues of meaning and (the object’s) facticity and with the arbitrary and existential. Such more forthright signals as the lead heart seem not quite in that mix and to operate a sort of special pleading. Still, the work coming ‘from the grave’ as it were, it had plenty of presence. It should be noted that it was circumstantially loaded: Barbour’s being dead but still a felt and missed presence, his name often invoked as an example of what has been recently lost, as a marker of recent decline, and so on, and as having represented a sort of integrity and seriousness. (A lot of these are not permanently affixed to his work: dead artists fill the AGSA for example, feelings around his name and memory will fade, and so on. True of all of us though: a chill factor that came with the show.)
As though the art had promised to make you happy: it hadn’t promised. Except that what else is art’s job but to at least live up to the occasion? Margie Sheppard, John Foubister, Anna Gore for example, seem to take on paradigms of the past but to toy with them tentatively, at about half the scale that the originals operate at (in John’s case, in his Belief In Doubt outing—and a third or quarter-scale in Sheppard’s or Gore’s). (The originals, in connection with Foubister being Whisson, and a whole range of names in Sheppard’s and Anna Gore’s cases: Jack Bush, Robert Mangold, might be candidates—but any of a range of ‘post-painterly abstraction’, ‘color field’ etc.) John Foubister’s can be lyrical, mildly intoxicated and intoxicating, giving a pantheistic feel of swooning communication, communication both with the landscape represented and with specific re-lived periods of Australian painting. They can also seem safe, though regularly saved from this by their courting of the bizarre, which tends to let them off the hook.
Sheppard’s non-figurative work can seem ‘oomphless’ after one’s initial attraction to their colour and design. It is mostly a matter of size: the works come across as precious artefacts rather than … well, the arena that the New York 50s saw the painter ‘acting’ in. Anna Gore’s works seem anaemic. Again they are too small to seem in any way a bold assaying forth. In Sheppard’s case no part of the painting has any duration, any weight or weather of its own. They are designs, totally available to the eye at a glance. ‘Outside In’, ‘Grid For Joy’, ‘At the Margins’ and others. They are attractive, but very much products of deliberation, executed rather than achieved or won. Anna Gore has been shaping as a likely painter of abstraction. I missed her Out in Style show a good while back and have really not seen enough of her work. At her Essential Forms Greenaway show in February this year (shared with Sam Gold and Emmaline Zanelli and curated by Harriet McKay) one painting seemed a contender—but stymied, I thought, by indecision. There were two main constituent parts or actors. More was needed. But what to do? It looked like a failure of nerve.
John Foubister has been seriously at it for a long while, part of the same art school generation as Craige Andrae and Andrew Petrusevics. Coherence & incident are more steadily present in his works than in Anna Gore’s. Sheppard’s abstract works seem to have both those things, but too carefully managed and served up to allow for any surprises to herself along the way, too suavely manufactured to embrace and carry visual incident that should come (for both artist and the hungry viewer’s eye) with the process. Sheppard has coherence alright but not a lot of incident (though, but for the small scale, the formal confrontations of shape and line were genuinely dramatic)—and not a lot to manage in bringing about that coherence. I far prefer Sheppard’s abstracts to her figurative work, which is loveable, cute, but not playing the higher game. Still, the paintings are so far failing in that game.
Foubister is less graphic or line-based than Whisson. Foubister’s works are much less rigidly tensed in the relation between three-dimensional scene and the rectangle of the painting, which seems the organising struggle Whisson’s working enacts, sometimes humorously, sometimes startlingly a matter of fluctuating trade-offs between flatness and a cubo-jugendstil register of detail-within-format. (Within Whisson one often sees squares within squares, frames within the overall frame—a form of control—and of game, with the eye that seeks both pattern, abstract qualities, and representational reference.) Arguably Whisson pursues a bigger prize. Less tense than Whisson’s work, Foubister chases and revels in a lighter and more lyrical colour range. Prettiness is available to him as well as ‘beauty’. Before his work one sometimes thinks, Paul Nash, at others Helen Frankenthaler. This particular exhibition, though, was ‘browner’ than Foubister has been in the recent past—Belief in Doubt worked a calculated simulation, I think, of a notional ‘forties-Australia’ style, almost a reclamation.
It is curious that so much local abstract painting seems to return to, or find its way to, the 70s cul de sac or coalface, with little sense of its origins in De Kooning, Pollock, Picasso even. Paintings of authority still come out of that problematic. But the locals seem to arrive at the coalface and not see the problem. It is odd that no-one seems drawn to work from anything more recent: from Richter’s position, or Sigmar Polke’s, Peter Halley’s or Stanley Whitney’s, or Sean Scully’s. Or Beatriz Milhazes’s or Christopher Wool’s. Nor from Dale Frank’s. Not from Paul Hoban’s.