Tuesday, 1 September 2009

On Laith McGregor @ Sullivan + Strumpf Fine Art


Let’s be honest, Australia is a hirsute country. Beards are a part of the unkempt landscape in a way that would make a Middle Eastern nation proud. With this much facial hair it’s not surprising then that at least one artist should embrace and tease it into something interesting. Laith McGregor’s show at Sullivan + Strumpf , ‘Based on a True Fable’ is a playful and cheeky meditation on men and their dreams.

McGregor has his thing. It is creating beautifully detailed images of men with huge beards, in styles that might range from the bushranger to the bikie to the hardcore hippy. Here most of the images are large, you might say ‘fantasy life size’ and contrast swathes of white paper with dense, mainly blue, biro marks. It should all be a little glib and jokey, but McGregor is simply wearing his ideas lightly.

In choosing the biro over graphite of pen McGregor makes cheerfully egalitarian statement for the one mark making medium that most people who view these pictures will use themselves. But the biro is an aesthetic choice as well, the drag and unevenness of how it lays the ink on the paper enhances the hairyness. Perhaps more interestingly it reminds us of the doodles of an interminable meeting, these flights of fancy speak of a rich inner life sprouting into an outward expression. This gives McGregor's work a restlessness that belies the stillness of his figures. The works are highly finished but at the same time feel like works in progress, these might be men creating themselves.

‘Dreamn’ About A Place I’ll Never See’ shows a head in strange perspective, as if seen from the feet, perhaps like Che Guevara’s death portraits or Mantegna’s ‘Lamentation Over The Dead Christ’. The man’s beard has metamorphosized into something like a Chinese willow pattern. It aches with regret as the figures eyelids close and you know the title is true. The pathos McGregor imbues his figures with raises these pictures above the merely cute or smart more often than not. Some of the men have a quiet dignity, an almost hesitant pride, whilst others stare out in blank eyed resignation. And always their beards reveal what might be happening behind their eyes.

Whilst beards can be worn as virtual uniforms for McGregor they seem to symbolize a desire for freedom. They are extensions of the self and of a male yearning to be oneself, just more so. McGregor's characters don't appear to wear their beards as masks though, they reveal more than they hide. These benign and gentle characters show an uber-masculinity without the attendant machismo, it makes them very sweet and makes us think about the limited range of male figures we see presented in art and media. This helps make McGregor's figures appear more strange than familiar.

The two paintings on canvas are less successful. They resemble a more standard version of a pop art and verge on a Grateful Dead aesthetic. This also highlights just why the biro works of these men with their beards are so fascinating. You have to say that all those beards could begin to irritate. There’s a thin line between a signature style and a tired trademark and I hope he doesn’t cross it. McGregor has found a way to connect the fantastic with the mundane, which is exactly what happens as we imagine a life unshackled and unshorn.

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