‘Navel-gazing’, curated by Brooke Babington and Melissa Loughnan, at Utopian Slumps
Andrew Liversidge, Agatha Gothe-Snape, Christopher L.G. Hill, Soren Engsted, Liang Luscombe, Melinda Harper, Trevelyan Clay, Janet Beckhouse
12 January to 2 February
In a quiet white room in a back lane in inner-city Melbourne, I got to see postmodernism reunite with the parent it once so vehemently disowned. Reflecting a growing undercurrent in contemporary art, this engagingly curated show presents work that slips and slides across categories as it dances with the ghosts of modernism. It’s as if conceptualism has found the dusty dress-up box in the garage and is happily playing-out reinvigorated modernist characters in a new cabaret.
Coming into the gallery you worry as you carefully swing the door open, hoping not to bump the large wooden screen that appears to obstruct the entrance. It’s a bare millimeter allowance. A bee’s dick springs to mind as I come into the gallery proper and feel enveloped by a dampened acoustic atmosphere. Andrew Liversidge’s I ALWAYS TRIED TO MAKE THEM PERFECT BUT I WAS NEVER THAT GREAT WITH TOOLS is a freestanding wall that dissects the gallery from the door to the furthest corner. It’s subtitle reveals its intent: the largest freestanding wall that would fit in the gallery space through the gallery’s entrance. Now that’s nominal clarity for you. It’s equal parts process and form. The act of measuring out the space, articulating the angle of entry through the laneway and finding enough assistance and assistants to get the work designed, built and put into place is imbued in the piece. It has two anchored ballasts of bricks wrapped in furniture removal felt blankets to ensure its stability and which makes it more screen than wall. Like Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc it activates space by disrupting it. It’s responsible for an acoustic dampening and echo, depending on where you move about. And not unlike a parasitic barnacle, an assemblage sculpture sits in the corner of the great wall, unsettling in its ambiguous relation to the wall. A pencil stabs into the floral head of a succulent, as if the pointed tip of critical inquisition. The plant rests in a tribal-figure vase, drawing reference to the famed engagement with this sort of ethno-iconography by the modernist avant-garde. My mind says, postmodernist critical analysis sharpens its point in the face of a domesticated nature born of colonial biases for the exotic. My feet say, shut up and check out the other works. You wanker.
Janet Beckhouse has a ceramic piece sitting rather precariously on the concrete floor. First instinct, in 2013, is to see a sea-shanty folk art nightmare only moments away from hard-rubbish collection or the shelves of some provincial ye olde opp-shoppe with an optimistic price tag sticky-taped to it in sun-faded ink. Fucking hell that’s harsh, huh. Well, you can then appreciate that the ensuing rapid transition from that initial reaction to the growing magnetic appreciation of it as an art object was an exhilarating ascendency of mood! The sheer skill in the material creation becomes evident quite quickly. The work bundles together Rococco flambouyance, Indo-chinese figuration, French renaissance pottery ala Bernard Palissy, and watery Grecian myths, threatening to topple over with the weight of reference and wriggle its way throughout the gallery like a bag of dropped snakes. It’s alive, as if breathing, and one of the most beautiful ugly things I’ve seen in ages.
Watching over all this is a wall painting by Christopher L.G. Hill whose very name flies in the face of the style of his art, which directly references graffiti. Surely more befitting of the literary canon than of graffiti artists with names like Twist, Reka, Ha-Ha and Rone, Christopher’s piece is … hang on a second … graf artists are WRITERS! Bang. Problem solved. Christopher’s work – keep the piece – is an abstracted form of graffiti painted directly on to the gallery wall. It references graffiti rather than being graffiti. It is faded and painted over in sections, evoking ideas of the archival recording of underground urban activities. It’s a palimpsest, a reminder that the very walls of a gallery serve as an ever-evolving history of images and broadcast names. It’s also an exercise in form and colour. It plays on the shapes of graffiti wording as a lingua-graphological discourse and threatens to morph back into the cave-painting ancestory from whence it emerged. Industrial paint-colouring throws economics into the mix, where socio-economic issues around urban decay and gentrification rise to the surface of the paint overlaid on the walls of a well-heeled gallery.
Once around Andrew’s dividing wall the animated conversation between modernism and postmodernism rises in volume. A solid wooden and steel table sits beside Andrew’s piece, and is in fact a partner to it, by Agatha Gothe-Snape. It’s reminiscent again of Serra and echoes heavily formalist outdoor sculpture once popular in Australia, especially with the solid weight of the wood. Sitting on the table is a large pile of A3 papers with what reads like a screenplay or stageplay. With poor grammar it’s just like a text message conversation or email. It finishes with the word ‘Exit’, and it’s about a fight at a party but it’s not very clear exactly what’s going on. Something about revolutions in art schools. Drunk men being belligerent. Breaking things. They’re probably modernists. They liked to drink and fight and measure each other’s cock by the sweep of their brushstroke or the reach of their steel. But they’re trapped inside Arial font in a digital printout now. They’re nothing but language on a plinth of their own undoing.
Next to this is a hybrid. Part pamphlet display, part Brancusian form it is a zig-zagged enigma by Liang Luscombe that churns with a constellation of connective referents. A painting of a sign that says ‘Save our TAFEs’ is a beautifully executed piece of humoured pathos. Given that it’s at TAFE where artists are most likely to acquire any actual physical skill or craftmanship for their art making, there is a concern that current funding cuts will make it less likely that future generations will be as deft as their forebears in the execution of material expression, whether casting in bronze, etching prints or, indeed, painting. Humour is amplified and extended in a painting/drawing of an envelope that is addressed to ‘artist residencies’ but the word residencies has been crossed out and replaced with ‘retirement village’. Perhaps, in an artist’s tick-a-box rise to the top of their career it’s residencies that sit at the peak of this ascendency. Once you’ve shown in the ARIs, starting at the little ones and working up to West Space and Gertrude, branched out of Melbourne and Victoria for a showing, been reviewed in the Age, got your art (or better still, your face) into an art magazine, scored a couple of grants (preferably an AusCo), and then been ‘picked up’ by a commercial, maybe then it’s off to pasture on a nice residency to continue pumping out the work you’ve by now refined into a unique voice of your own or to apply some sort of external stimulus to reinvigorate its staid regularity. On the ‘front’ of the piece is a gridded mesh of blue fabric, into which has been wedged 5c coins that have been doubled and glued and now appear as if they’re $2 coins. The least valuable coin masquerading as the most valuable. Where creative ingenuity hopes to leverage the greatest payout from the machinations of the system from the cheapest input.
Again it’s an abstract painting that watches over these scenes in this subdivided section of the gallery. Like a giant TV test pattern, emitting just as much electrical charge, is a work by Trevelyan Clay. It’s a painting of a painting on top of a painting but really, it’s just blocks of colour. It’s push and pull and blur and focus and the damn thing threatens to vibrate itself off the wall with all the optical sizzle it keeps pulsating with. Sharp lines play havoc with fuzzy lines as red sidles up to blue and green tries to run from orange. It’s a colour coded prismatic system of modernist tradition whose internal goings-on make it equal part choir of voices singing for you and cacophony of inner-dialogues arguing amongst themselves in self-reflection. It’s a thousand channels condensed into one that threatens to break into any one of the myriad programs that funnel around in search of a screen.
‘Navel-gazing’, gallery view showing the work of (l to r), Soren Engsted and Melinda Harper, (image courtesy Brooke Babington and Utopian Slumps).
On through to the second gallery space there is more coloured abstraction, this time in the form of drawings and paintings by Melinda Harper. Coloured blocks that hark back to last century but are flattened out in comparison to Trevelyan’s optical effects. And more intimate in scale so you feel the artist’s presence more, as if the ghostly record of Melinda’s action on the paper and canvas has only just dissipated. The paper works sit in that ambiguous zone between modernist reference and contemporary language. The forms begin to break free of rigid compositional concerns and threaten to turn organic. They also evoke the graphic visuality of maps, as situationist urban revision and satellite google-ography combined. These works are micro-macro pictures that speak of the intensity of looking, whether through the peephole of the microscope at blooming bacterial growth or at a screen receiving digital transmissions from a camera mounted on a space-ship floating high above the atmosphere. And yet, the pencil marks tell you in no uncertain terms that the hand of a person conjured these for us. That person is our filter, the micro-macro lens through which we’re stimulated to draw these connections.
The final work in the show is a print by Soren Engsted. It’s a piece of film from a found 35mm strip and is somehow already ancient. There is a big expanse of ‘opened space’ dotted with scratches and splashed colour as if the film has been burnt through by a projector. I’m seeing Gerhard Richter’s smear paintings and an exploded Willem De Kooning fighting with the moving image of cinema, and all of them dissolving in acid in the freeze frame of photography. The colours look like the magenta, cyan and yellow death throws of an inkjet printer. And the nature of the image as ‘found object’, re-mediated as C-type print, brings ever more ghosts to the room.
Aside from taking the pieces in as individual works by individual artists, there’s the overall relation of the body of works as a curated whole. Spring-boarding from the central fulcrum created by the semi-collaborative work of Andrew and Agatha, erratic cross-pollinating connections are triggered between artworks throughout the space. Painting talks to painting, masculine talks to feminine, form talks to material, artwork talks to architecture. But the loudest voices are those of modernist echoes on playback through the languages of contemporary imagination.