Thursday 9 February 2012

On Picasso @ AGNSW

There is a picture that's more or less the last thing you see in the Art Gallery of New South Wales's Picasso exhibition. It's a gentle watercolour self portrait of the youngartist, painted as an old man. It reminds you of Van Gogh's sketchy self-portraits that, in turn,remind you of the black dotted eyes of Rembrandt. It seems not much more than an amusing doodle but in it we see echoesof a history of self-revelatory art and a sense of nostalgia without regret. That's the thing about Picasso, for allthe essays and the debates around biography and ideology, his work retains akind of cheek and charm that comes from play. Picasso’s often beautiful but his work's often funny too. Not smartarse nihilistic funny but punning andgentle showing it’s possible to create serious things without taking one’s selfseriously (the mode today seems all too often to be taking oneself veryseriously and creating something flippant and facile). So the first thing to say is that this show is an utter pleasure.
You can't escape the irony that someone who dealt in totems and fetishes has his own work, say 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' or any 'Weeping Woman', turned into shorthand for ‘Modern Art’ and all the assumptions we have formed about it in the last 100 years. This imaginary Picasso is different to the one we see if we actually spend time with a range of his work. The famous 'Picasso' means cubism, deliberate opacity, difficult, even ugly art. At the same time 'Picasso' also exists as a shorthand for 'genius', for the mercurial individual creating something with paint that's beyond the understanding of the hoi polloi, who must simply bow to it. ‘Picasso’ also stands for the artist as celebrity, as a cultural industry with a vast output and an indiscriminate approach to licensing. All of these are unhelpful and probably reflect the dislocation of art from contemporary culture. The beauty of this show is that it has enough in it to allow you to see Picasso's art for what it is.
There is another rude, crude assertive self-portrait that looks like a statement of intent from a painter of things. It's almost carved from paint, flat fleshy planes are cut by dark lines. Picasso uses hard lines constantly, perhaps one way his work translated so well onto the etching plate. On a cursory view this can make pieces seem graphic and cartoonish, but look again (and I suspect this accounts for some of the work's longevity) and those dark clefts of paint look like nothing less than chisel marks. Picasso is a sculptural painter, the lines are carved out of the ground, dug into the chalky surface. The flesh has a pink quality of fleshiness to it without actually trying to replicate flesh naturalistically. The smooth bare chest and thick neck do look like those of the earliest Greek kouroi, it's like someone has tried to paint what a chest feels like or is and not just what it looks like. Picasso doesn’t appear to be interested in paint or light or the things that Impressionism chased after, he’s obsessed by the thing itself, the subject as essence.
The physicality of the work makes it enormously sexy, not necessarily in an explicit way but because you get a sense of the erotic frisson of details and the ambiguity of sexual obsession. So when Picasso paints a wife or mistress you see a gazelle like neck or a blonde cap of hair and you get a sense of how erotic memory works. There's a portrait of I'll leave the psychology and sexual politics of Picasso's portraits to others but when you look at a room of them you're never in any doubt that these women were his lovers and not just his sitters. He captures the 'bodyness' of bodies, not the fleshiness of a Rubens but the corporeal space we fill in the world. The genius is that somehow his dissections recreate a sense larger than the whole, a cylinder become a torso or at least the space that torso fills or the feeling of living in that body. Early works in the blue and rose periods drawn out thinness, skin hanging on bone like paint to canvas whereas later figures take on a sculptural monumentality. As elements are isolated and distorted they become more themselves, we become more aware of what it is to be in a body not just to look at one. I think that's part of the power of Picasso, he isn't an aesthete or an intellectual, everything feels driven by an essential humane urge to know what it's like to be alive.
Going through a chronological display of Picasso's work is like cutting through strata of the archaeological record, not only of his own work but the history of art itself. However it doesn't feel like post-modern appropriation and quotation. Sometimes the layers of memory and image remind me of the way builders, for thousands of years, have picked over the ruins of what went before them re-used the stones they found, where ancient columns might become lintels over doorways. That process gives use and life to history. The mythical horns of bull loom large again and again throughout the rooms of the show. Whether it's etchings of rutting minotaurs or the witty modification of a bicycle seat and handle to become a bull's skull. The old bull places us back into the heart of classical mediterranean culture and beyond. When I look at his work (and I mean ALL of his work) I see the bulbous fertility symbols of the stone age, the flaking pornographic frescoes of Pompeii, the bull artifacts of the Minoans, the ruins of classical civilizations that encrust the Mediterranean. It's everywhere, even the geometric cubist still-lives look like nothing so much as tumble down ruins of slate and marble.
I can't help feeling that academia and the art world have done Picasso a huge disservice. The idea that someone's a serious artist, a genius even, because they're dense, complex and academic permeates art. I would urge people to visit this show to see how immediate, rude, funny and moving Picasso is. I don't think it's a coincidence that Picasso can remind us of the totems and icons that made up our earliest forms of art. These were objects and images that didn't live in galleries and museums, quarantined from daily life, they had living social and personal roles. Picasso is powerful precisely because his art is that simple and tangible. When I see the bronze of his sculpture longing to become flesh I realise that this is a show to be seen and felt and not thought about.

I've been twice to the show now, and expect I'll go again. There's just so much to find there that even remembered fragments excite me: 'Etudes' issomething of a memory castle or a trinket box, like a two-dimensional JosephCornell; 'The Race' (which is shockingly and delightfully small in the flesh) and its ritual abandon; the two brothers, one carrying the other, across blasted terracotta earth. The whole 'artist as superstar' fixation we have can get in the way of sheer pleasure. Forgetting art history for a moment I can see why Picasso became, and I'm quite sure still is, the most famous artist in the world.
Something extraordinary that you become aware of quickly inside the galleries is how through painting alone Picasso can remind you of the best of every other art form. There's freeness and joy to the painting that feels like what jazz must look like, there are echoes and rhythms of poetry everywhere and the pulse and warmth of dance. I'm reminded of another genius hijacked by academia, James Joyce, whose Stephen Dedalus speaks of literature as "the eternal affirmation of the the spirit of man". That craving for the essential and universal strikes me as a noble cause. Picasso reminds us of other art forms not because he quotes from them but because he seemed to be searching for things we could all understand. That's not utopian, just human.

Sunday 25 September 2011

On The Mad Square @ AGNSW

I think it's fair to say that AGNSW's show of inter-war German art, 'The Mad Square' is not a bundle of laughs. Covering the period from 1910 to 1937 was never going to yield anything bucolic or uplifting but the sheer cumulative claustrophobic effect of jagged asymmetry and post-mortem colours is quite draining. When my other half and I left toward the exit she wondered aloud if we had time for another scene of rape and mutilation before we left. The truth of course is that we know only too well what happens when Germany steps out beyond that closing year of 1937. The work here is a pre-cursor to something clearly terrible. Early on in the show we see 'The Suicide' by George Grosz. In it sharply drawn dogs that seem to have been skinned roam the streets sniffing out life, a scarecrow of a man hangs from a lamppost while another, still holding a revolver, lies dead in the street a cloud that may be his soul departing as a jutting chinned, graze nippled prostitute looks out from an upper storey window. The dominant colour is red, the corpses skull face, the roads and pavements are a differing dark tone soy bloody scarlet. The effect is suffocating, violent, and it might sum up the feeling of the show as a whole.

The waft of Sigmund Freud reaches from Vienna to Berlin, faces morph, murderers and secrets are below or behind. There's something overindulgent here. The exaggerations and contortions, the splenetic angst all remind me of method acting. Much gets lost in the layering on of effects bodies are twisted AND discoloured AND the colours are vivid and queasy. A social, political and inner world is played out with the big capital letters of technique. In 'The Suicide' a symbolic world is played out in a blood red light. One is reminded of nothing so much as Heironymous Bosch, the sinister meeting the opaque. Sometimes the neurosis is disturbing and comical, 'The Sex Murderer' by Heinrich-Maria Davinghausen is a seedy Freudian replay of Henri Rousseau's dreamscapes. The naturalistic body of the would-be victim contrasts with the grotesque mask of a face and the cubist angularity of windows and the folds of a bed sheet make the peach soft flesh seem all the more vulnerable. What's striking about this and so many other of the works here is how intertwined social and sexual anxieties appear to be.

The printmaking in the show is often the most powerful work in any given room. The medium encourages a formal retrain and subsequently maximum affect is caused with minimum effects. The prints here , some of them now iconic images, mix a the stark objectivity of near reportage with a sharp and steely line. The prints here, street scenes, detailed examinations of obscenely disfigured war veterans, the living skulls in the trenches are at once cold and deeply touching. Otto Dix's 'Stormtroopers (Assault Under Gas)' benefits from the level of control that allows the bone white paper of the gas masks shine through and remind us of skulls, whilst the slightest scrape across the surface of the printing plate evokes the seep of gas. Economy of technique yields results as shocking as a Wilfred Owen poem.

It's hard to look at the prints on show and still subscribe to the decadence chic image of Weimar Germany. They represent a more complex picture, one of victims rather than ogres, of organised resistance rather than simple reflex disgust and of people attempting to be objective recorders. The print was the earliest form of mass media, the vehicle for propaganda and persuasion from the Reformation onward, and when it is used here it retains some of that didactic power. The woodcuts of Kåthe Kollwitz combine the simplicity of an icon or a holy medallion with the strong impression that a human hand was involved. The left wing printmakers are not the only artists with a manifesto here, and it's the absence of that visible human hand is what makes the Constructivist parts of the show so arid. Given the frailty of broken human bodies and human greed and hatred it's not a great surprise that there should be a response to the organic writing of expressionism that believed in the utopian power of geometry and machines. Of course that mechanical certainty gave a scientific gloss technocratic murder, but at the time any answer must have looked appealing.

It's difficult not to draw political conclusions in work like this. Between the apocalypse of the First World War and the Holocaust of the second Germany is torn by economic and cultural forces that seem to have an altogether destructive edge. What's interesting here is how the images of resistance, coming in this compass-less world from what we might traditionally think of as the Left, are anguished and violent in form and palette. Much of the work from the left demonstrates a revulsion at the squalor beneath the Weimar jollity, it's a healthy antidote to the romanticised view we have today of cabarets and bohemians in old Berlin but it's a cracked and smeared mirror. The right, or at least the anti-Bolsheviks, are no less dark but they demonstrate the rat cunning of focus in what and who they choose to vilify. Throughout one is left with a feeling of inevitability, that Germany were to descend into a genocidal spiral is no great surprise when so much of the work has such a palpable dehumanizing sense of self-loathing.

Max Beckmann's art seems to find a link between the psychic contortions and the political landscape. Full of uniforms and hierarchies, the vertical compositions are striking. Beckmann creates hermetically sealed worlds where the protagonists seem to obey their own perfectly logic and physics. The figures in their hard outlines seem to occupy real space as they jostle for position on the canvas. The clear stratification and the love of uniform hint point to a militaristic society where only the immediate game is important. Through the circus performers in 'The Trapeze' Beckmann captures a blank eyed madness, the acquiescence and conformity that can doom a society. The figures, in complex twisting motion reflect some of that freikorperkultur that Nazi artists like Leni Reifenstahl would celebrate, but the pale skin and the sickly green of the leotards suggest something rotten beneath the flexing musculature. Beckmann's solid figures capture the power of will but also the precariousness of living in an arbitrary dictatorship, that mix of allure and anxiety is perhaps the most nuanced psychological portrait in the show.

John Heartfield's work looks like what can happen when nihilistic DaDa grows up. Here the appropriated imagery cut into photomontage has a purpose, the cheap newspaper images cheapen their nazi subject, Heartfield finds a way to demystify the Nazis by refusing to memorialise them with something more artful. What Heartfield did brilliantly was to allow leave his images cool and objective, thus in 'Adolf The Superman: Swallows Gold and Spouts Junk' he adopts the clinical mode of the X-Ray, in juxtaposition to the overheated rhetoric and twisted face of Hitler. The critique is scalpel sharp and makes both his contemporary avant-gardistes and modern satirists look like indulgent dilettantes by comparison. I find Heartfield's work the most hopeful here, and I don't usually look tab history through a Panglossian lens, as it has a precise and brilliantly sharp response to evil. By comparison so much of the earlier work in the show feels like a pre-conscious reflex, an unformed and garish loathing.

I would be lying if I said I liked much of the work in 'The Mad Square'. All of this jarring, often repulsive, imagery makes for a curious experience. Through any regular lens much of the work is ugly and alienating, the paint often seems to crawl and slither with revulsion. However it is undeniably interesting historically (the AGNSW has specialised in 'interesting' in recent years with many shows feeling like extended lectures) and many of the impulses of DaDa and expressionism are at the heart of the established notion of the institutionalised avant-garde today. It feels like the gallery has missed a trick though, the hang is based around art school movements so we shift through Expressionism and DaDa and Constructivism and the Bauhaus. As a result the work looks highly formal in a way that a more thematic or a chronological organisation might have avoided. I'm not sure what lessons you draw from art like this and whether they seem flippant in the light of genocide, however I can't help but think that when societies are so able to imagine themselves and others as monsters or machines the imperative we have to treat one another as human beings is easier to forget.

Friday 16 September 2011

On Life and Art

I can trace it all back to a moment, when writing ArtKritique became too heavy and so vapid as not to matter. We were at the Australian Centre for Photography, which was decked as an Alice-like warren for a retrospective of Polixeni Papapetrou photographs. I reviewed the show, moved by the way it vibrated deep through culture and psyche, but I couldn't bring myself to write about the most recent sequence of work 'The Dreamkeepers'. These were vivid dislocations, fragile human figures with oversized papier maché heads redolent of grotesque Punch and Judys, placed on rocks, beaches and hilltops where nature's power hides itself least. These people's bodies seem all the more frail for the size of the masks, they wear charity shop clothes that are a register too bright and age has made them caricatures. It was as if we were looking at age, at human frailty, through the eyes of a youth obsessed media (the large scale prints have the production values of advertising or an editorial fashion shoot, and that callous dismissal makes the characters figures of immense sadness and sympathy). It wasn't that I didn't like the work it was that I couldn't find words or even feelings for it or for that matter for anything since. Two days prior to posting that review I had learnt that I was going to be a father for the first time.

Now it's been over six months since I last wrote (the only other piece I've posted since then was written much earlier as a catalogue essay) and I feel I owe myself an explanation. Those early days feel strange now, a jumble of thoughts and feelings that I didn't imagine I'd have to call upon. Images and positions that seem so clean and clear in the abstract took on a new blur, choices became seismic and irrevocable and a rock had been thrown into the mirror pool of our future. The biography and psychology around all that doesn't matter here. Now we're four weeks away from being parents and live in a state of nervous excitement. The mental space that isn't taken up with the preparations for a new life has been flooded with thoughts about care, love and values, I spend an awful lot of time thinking about how to live in the world. At the time of that exhibition I looked at that those photographs, how they dealt with the subjectivity of age, the reduction of a life and a person, and felt that art about living was too hard to write about, scraping too close to the bones of my present anxieties. Since then, as this child has become a presence in our lives, I've come to feel that art, the art I respond to, will help us and remind us of what matters. And that's why I need to start writing again.

In the time being I haven't stopped looking or talking or even laughing at art. One attempt to write about the AGNSW's Anne Landa Award show was a real low point, it made me question whether I wanted to write about things I didn't like at all. I've written about work in this biennial prize show before and enjoyed it but this time it wasn't going to happen. The title 'Unguided Tours' is probably enough to warn off anyone less optimistic than myself. There's something painful in that oxymoron, a student cliche with a ring of radical chic situationism. It's meaningless although, if that was the point, that's not a bad summary of the show. Someone called Charlie Sofo had shot deliberately banal and artless video footage of walks around Melbourne and collected, and at this point I actually roared with laughter and blurted "you are shitting me?", the pebbles that were caught between the grooves in the soles of his shoes as he walked round. It's all comically weak. There are more poe-faced practical jokes, junk art that claims to question surf and muscle car cliches, but misses the point that these cliches are regularly deconstructed and reappropriated in popular culture as they have been for forty years or more. I went to the Anne Landa award hoping to find something magical or charming or challenging and instead all I found was a series of rusty old avant garde poses recycled through a different medium. I would say a 'new' medium but that's not really true since, unlike the 'contemporary' art world, I've using video since I first saw 'The Shining' on a neighbour's betamax in the early eighties. The problem is that I had all of my buttons pushed at once and I really hate giving people with such limited ideas or ambition the pleasure of doing that. For art that hopes to be seen as modern I see an awful lot of old ideas, I see a belief that opacity, juxtaposition and irony are indicators of artistic worth. What really annoys me is that, and I grant you that this might be a moment of paranoid projection but I'm relaxed about that, someone somewhere thinks that because I think this is risible rubbish that they have achieved a moment of avant garde confrontation. They haven't. I think its crap on any terms, not just mine.

But lights in tunnels needn't be trains. During a visit to South Australia we (that 'we' isn't royal, it's two, almost three, of us) we saw a Patricia Piccinini retrospective. All it's naked fleshy vulnerability reminded me that the challenge of art was the reason I loved it. I've written about Piccinini before (and much of the work in Adelaide was tyne same) so won't go into detail here but what makes her extraordinary is this restless going over of flesh and otherness. The strangeness of her mutant creations is belied by their familiar pink vulnerability, there is a corporeality that make sit impossible to dismiss them as monsters. Piccinini explores what it is to be human and is significant because she does' t present reductive answer, it is as if she can't answer but the act of trying is an answer in itself. That's confusing perhaps but it rings true to my life now. Art and life are about uncertainty, it’s why corporate power architecture or Tea Party fundamentalism are so scary, that level of certainty, of impervious finite certainty is unnatural. From Picasso I get a sense of someone looking and tellingly restlessly re-looking, painting to try to understand. This might be why Michelangelo leaves me cold, those crystalline forms and icy contraposto seem to be too programmatic and ideological. I'm not sure I need that much more certainty in the world.

I felt robbed when I heard Cy Twombly had died. Twombly’s work was like an obsessive scratching through the accreted surfaces of Western culture. I've not seen enough of Twombly's work in the flesh, I love the references but it's the paint that sings. There's something graceful in his work a balance between the density of the marks he made and the white fields they exist in, but that balance is hard won and restless, that's what makes the abstract feel so human. Mark making is evidence of life and as such it carries a human stain. The aura of the producer is not the same as the status bestowed on saints relics. The marks we make are the signs of us trying to break through the walls of otherness between us, the curtains of individual consciousness being pulled back.

Lucian Freud might make people feel uncomfortable. A profound lack of irony, an exposed candor in the paint. There's a care there, something that states it's intention, makes it's presence clear. Freud might fail on occasion but you know he's attempting using paint to find the person through their flesh. It's not a sentimental art but it does seek affect, it seems to strive for an empathy that doesn't come automatically. There's a tension in Freud's work between the cold clinical light of the autopsy and the warmth of blood beneath skin. It's not a sentimental art but it does seek affect, it seems to strive for an empathy that doesn't come automatically. When it comes to Freud's I'm more Lucian than Sigmund can't help feel that art that claims a therapeutic value is pretty limited if not dishonest. That said art that tries to show us what it might be like to be inside another individuals head or skin seems to me to have a major claim on our attention, no matter hope successful that wrestling is. If we think art is satisfying if it can raise an eyebrow or provoke a snigger then we don't have very high expectations of it at all. One doesn't have to ascribe art with any transcendent or spiritual quality if one is to believe that it should move us.

Since then I've been into the AGNSW at times to look at the Bonnard and Rubens self-portraits. The rheumy film in Ruben's eye is one of the most beautiful things I know in art. This knight diplomat, at the peak of his artistic powers, defining an age and shaping the image of kings and queens, is an ageing human being. Something similar happens with Bonnard, he's not a young man and the gradual entropy of molecules of colour of remind you of that. The striking domesticity of the scene in front of that mirror, the smallness of a man in a blaze of yellow light are immensely moving. Art needn't be a mirror, and in a narcissistic age we don't need any more of those, but self contemplation is different than vanity. Scorates' notion that 'the unexamined life is not worth living' might be an invitation to navel gazing but great art reveals itself in the honesty of that examination. Great art is us wrestling with what is is to be ourselves.

I'm not a catastrophist and whilst there's much that worries me in the world, the cynical grip of finance on politics, the vicious dogma of religious and ideological fundamentalism and the ease with which civil society discards the concerns of the poor and frail, there's too much in this world that's hyper ideological whilst hiding behind a fallacious veneer of rationalism. Humanity and the humane demand more than glib punchlines and theories, theory isn't going to love you when you're cold and hungry.

Now I feel differently. I do believe in something more profound than art as an hermetic critique of other art or an ironic counterpoint to mass media. I believe in love and flesh and death and care and beauty. Frustration without a response doesn't seem like a healthy or positive place for prospective and opinionated parents. I look to Auden's observation that 'we must love one another or else we die' and think life does matter and art that's committed to that idea is worth fighting for.

Thursday 24 March 2011

On Tony Ameneiro @ Sturt Gallery

The Gymea lily, deep scarlet and fleshy atop a defiant spear of stem, has the mark of the Australian bush as fetid hothouse. It pierces the sky as it grows upwards, often twice the height of a grown man, it’s bloody flowers signaling an ancient and untamed biology. Australian artist Tony Ameneiro has been caught in the spell of this singular plant and produced a body of work that returns to it obsessively only to show it anew and give the viewer a sight of something deeper and more personal.

Ameneiro, who works with an equal facility across oils, drawing and multiple printing methods, has found his subject in the lily just as a painter like Giorgio Morandi found his in simple ceramic pots bowls an vases, the repetition of subject allowing him to concentrate on technique, on how different marks made in different media might offer different potential. It’s an intense and true ambition for an artist.

These works take out the extraneous. There are no backgrounds, no foliage, no context just the tightly cropped heads of these alien looking flowers. But the flowers are not the only only heads we see here, as petals can morph into the human. Ameneiro’s echoes og human physiology are more than visual tricks and whilst they might be reminiscent of Arcimboldo’s renaissance fruit salads their pulse and flow never lets them feel contrived.. Instead what we see is an extended meditation on things that are brief and mortal: flowers and human lives.

‘Flowering Head II’ has some of the blur of Seurat but none of the gentleness of pointillist space. The petals writhe like a feeding frenzy of blue and red fish and in doing so seem to form something like pumping and bloody guts. Flowers aren’t supposed to be this visceral but Ameneiro knows that nature isn’t supposed to be polite. That gives him access to a vibrating and messy life force on the paper.

Great printmakers can be taken for granted, they show their art and craft is more than the transposition of drawing to plate. Ameneiro’s success as a printmaker isn’t purely technical, he also has a strong and decisive line that marks can be seen across media, the tension between this and colour or shade is what gives his lilies life whilst making them anything but ‘still’. Here we see that mastery in single colour etchings, stripped back to technique and vision. ‘Gymea Lily Head #2’ crawls off of the paper in a multitude of greys, spits of burnt petal seem to cling to the surface and whorls of texture make the image look like a solarized photograph, something Man Ray may have pulled from the darkroom in shock.

If Ameneiro’s etchings have an earthy mortality his coloured pencil drawings of the same subject are celestial in lightness. These lilies are both dense and weightless. They might have been photographed by the Hubble telescope as they have that delirious colouring, where space dark petals might be enclosing ancient galaxies, and create that same sublime wonder. They do something that touches on a deep romanticism too. These organic wisps of line feel corporeal, almost like James Gleeson’s fleshy clouds whilst always remaining botany. In coming close to a surreal portraiture they remind us of our proximity to nature just as they awe us with its complexity and beauty.

Themes of life and death have long been explored through still life painting and through vegetable matter in particular. There is something that seems to be coalescing in so many of Ameneiro’s images, it isn’t an optical trick rather the feeling that the marks he makes on paper or plate have been wrung and wrestled from a powerful and sentient nature and like nature the images seethe and mutate into and often strange beauty. Tony Ameneiro doesn’t make any didactic claims of intent and that adds to the power of these works, simply by looking and making marks he is finds and makes meaning that never sits still. If art is anything it is the ability to allude to something universal and ineffable through something finite and particular, each time Tony Ameneiro creates another flower he is doing just that.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Polixeni Papapetrou: Tales from Elsewhere @ Australian Centre for Photography

There is one truly beautiful and fascinating photography show in Sydney right now, and it isn't Annie Liebovitz. The Australian Centre for Photography on Oxford Street is home to 'Tales from Elsewhere' a gorgeously hung, vivid and provocative retrospective of works by Polixeni Papapetrou. Like the fairy tales she plays with (the dominant and recurring theme in her work) Papapetrou presents scenes of apparent whimsy that even with the slightest pause seethe with undercurrents of ambiguity. Again and again we are pulled below surface and between so many images and ideas in tension, between the innocence and sexuality of children, the dangers lurking between fantasy and reality and the questions between meaning and response.
The title 'Tales from Elsewhere' is apposite for the show.  It's hung in darkened rooms where light picks out big luscious photographs and you feel transported from the harsh summer light outside.  What's clear is that 'Elsewhere' isn't and external place though, it's very much an interior landscape, specifically that of children and our own memories of childhood.  The first room of note shows a series of black and white portraits of children wearing masks and fancy dress outfits. Together with the costumes the children wear the blacked out studio and the silvery black and white place the images somewhere timeless and indeterminate, between the Victorian child exploitation and the sexualised tots of today's child beauty pageants.  Papapetrou creates a sense of dislocation by placing the children in lush featureless black backgrounds, each child has a costume but what makes them disturbing is the masks, oversized and of adult eyes, that each wears.  The difference in scale is disconcerting, it demands you look again and recalibrate and that's the point at which the very adult gaze out, the child's body and the pantomime of adult posture come together.  Little girls in harem outfits are not intrinsically disturbing, even in a world where the dress-ups chest has become a sinister Pandora's box.  These pictures aren't that either, they're just slightly off, they're displaced and at once lush and cold.
Polixeni Papapetrou creates worlds that, even as they are fantastic or contrived, are intensely affecting thanks to their colour.  The ability of pigment to effect us very directly is often overshadowed by the symbolism of colour, Papapetrou is better than that she has such an eye that images can hum or clatter with tonal washes and crashes. The sensual saturated colors reveal mental shadows and even that brightness has a sumptuary lasciviousness that scares us. The imagination and the senses are unruly, it's why they scare bigots and puritans of every stripe. A line of red in the piping around the pocket of a schoolgirl's blazer is so subversive it could be can enough to set off populist palpitations.  This subtle accretion of provocative detail loads each image with meaning, but it's the human presence that translates it into something meaningful.
Countless adaptations and retellings of Lewis Carroll's Alice books have never managed to erase the presence and power of the original's characters.  In her 'Wonderland' series of pictures Papapetrou creates tableaux from these books, built up with vivid stylized painted backgrounds and one or two figures.  The effect is charming but that shouldn't take away from how effective it is.  The Alice figure. Papapetrou's daughter Olympia is played straight, the girl poses with the just the right amount of seriousness and one can't help but note that she's not the classic blonde Alice but rather an intense dark haired girl who reminds us that this is a child playing a role.  The painted backdrops add are another link to the ideas of dress-ups and school plays, but their primary colouring and the just rough enough brushwork help retain an air of unreality.  These aren't just artless puns though, the interactions of girl and image are a crafted blur, in one the face of the Queen of Hearts oddly echoes that of Alice and you are left knowing it can't just be happy accident.  The girl playing a girl in a fantasy world, or even, a girl playing a girl playing past representations of that girl, in such a sombre way reminds us of the way that even our imagination is subject to complex mediation and also the serious business of fantasy.
The pretty constant presence of Papapetrou's daughter, the tenderness of some treatments of her and the strangeness of others, helps this body of work retain a personal dimension rather than disappear into structuralist rabbit holes or other theoretical cul-de-sacs.  As a model she is a still and deep centre to many of the images, so that the child characters she represents seem to have a flesh and blood presence whilst it is the set-ups and backdrops that swirl.  That centre allows the dominant conceit to develop, the odd, askew, loaded landscapes around the girl are representative of both her internal worlds and the lens through which others see her.  Without making the work specifically biographical we also watch this girl grow through the course of the retrospective Papapetrou follows this and themes shift and evolve.  It makes the images feel very intimate, like a conversation between two women full of care and fascination.
It looks like no accident that many of the images in the who touch on, explicitly or otherwise, the Victorian era when childhood was first romanticized. It's more remarkable that Papapetrou manages to use that era without creating some kind of photo essay. Measure of Papapetrou's craft is the affect she creates from an economy of means.  When we see girls in Victorian smocks fainting on stony outcrops in the Australian bush it's easy to see 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' and assume these are nothing but pastiche.  However, when one looks again it's plain to see that so much is achieved through subtle means.  In her series of works that explore tales of lost Australian children Papapetrou manages to touch on cultural archetypes and current anxieties, but her work is never dependent upon these contexts alone.  When the booted and bonneted children are replaced by sullen, modern teenagers  it's inevitable that we reconsider our assumptions.  Quaint historical children are in danger from something unknown, whilst messy warm-blooded contemporary kids are a threat to us.  If this makes the works sound like cultural studies lectures by other means I'm doing them a huge disservice as they work in their own right as beautifully balanced and composed frozen narratives without the interpretation.
Later works create fantastic characters, masked, role playing, part-human, part-animal they can be amusing or deeply moving and their protagonists have the presence of characters in fairy stories.  Folk tales have proved a ripe and fruitful source material for many female artists and writers, and Papapetrou works in some of the same spaces explored by Angela Carter in fiction, Marina Warner in popular cultural studies and Paula Rego in painting.  What all of these have in common is a sense of the danger and sex that rub up so insistently against female childhood.  The format of the folktale allows artists to apply the sane distance of metaphor to that subject, it allows us to escape the tabloid hysteria about bad girls just as it rejects the titillation that the same media thrives upon.  Whether hyper-real or stage set daubed you see something of the heady strangeness of childhood here. What is always notable is the impassive nature of the girls in the photographs, as all this weird shit happens it is almost a challenge to the adult viewer, and let us be honest they mainly will be, to deal with and process the ambiguity that suffuses childhood.

Friday 14 January 2011

Justin O'Brien @ AGNSW

I've found the AGNSW's summer exhibition of the work of painter Justin O'Brien, subtitled 'the Sacred Music of Colour' curiously difficult to write about. It's a show I should love, a modern painter working with the iconography of the early (and pre) renaissance attempting to find relevance in traditional religious set-pieces and yet it there is something oddly unsatisfying . There is much to be charmed by in the beautifully hung upper rooms of the Sydney gallery but one is constantly struck by a contradiction between the restlessness of O'Brien's stylistic shifts and the stillness in the work itself.

The earlier work of O'Brien takes us through a search for a style, and whilst it's not entirely helpful (or terribly interesting) to take a trip through that restless search for a style it does show O'Brien looking for influences with painters who favoured extreme colour palates. Hence its of Cezanne and Matisse poke through even when the post-war dowdiness remains dominant. So it's not exactly surprising when you find a kind of Gaugin enthronement, It could be the garden of Eden or the Botanic Gardens 0f Sydney. Eve and the baptism are echoed in colour, but its Australian rather than genuinely tropical origins are betrayed by a predictably prudish fig leaf on the Polynesian Adam and Eden seems a very modest place.

Four portraits hung together are instructive, the subjects are treated so closely that it's a surprise to find they're not all self-portraits. These young men all have long stretched ovoid faces, wan and pale, chalky complexions and full lips they exude a certain sadness but little else, even as washes of wall swirl or scarlet clothes bleed into the frame. It's an odd effect characteristic of a visual tension in much of O'Brien's work between formal control and colourful abandon.

It's seen clearest in the fight between those fleshy mouths and the geometric planes of cheekbones, the stylisation (not unlike Modigliani) seems to suppress the individual force of faces and bodies. Colour, blocks and abstract swathes, seems more candid, but when in a portrait of one boy the split background suggests a split between purple storms and yellow lulls you are left with a disconnect between it and the serene face. I will generally run a mile to avoid an amateur psycho-biographical reading of painting but the tender restraint and studiously avoided carnality of some of these images made it no surprise to learn that they were painted by a young gay man in post Second World War century Australia.

It's not a boring exhibition by any means. Amongst the lushness are constant echoes, here we glimpse, Raphael's virgin, repeatedly Fra Angelico's blue and gold Enthronement, a kiss of judas every bit as strange as de Chirico but with the statuesque quaities of Mantegna or a Venus at here batch that might have been painted by Rousseau but with bodies of fleshy spheres and cylinders that are idealized exercises in solid geometry. The visual and iconographic restlessness of some of the work here also brings some sense to his settling on a few subjects (the dormition of the virgin, the miraculous draught of fishes amongst others) and a gently stylized almost Romanesque cubism (feel free to see it and describe it better, I see something of both). O'Brien values harmony, tonal and compositional, but he also represents moments of grace, acceptance and quiet dignity. Even in his Pieta, a tiny deflating Christ draped across a sculptural doe eyed virgin, the signs of his death a single faint stroke of the brush in a brown only a shade or two lighter than the skin, O'Brien finds peace in loss.

One thinks of modern artists appropriating the formal traits of the Renaissance and one expects a subversion or perhaps at least a constructive tension between that historically specific style and its codified subject matter. For instance Balthus frequently used Piero della Francesca as a model but released the dangerous heart of sex along with angelic longing. That doesn't happen with O'Brien in fact the opposite is true, the paintings seem to breath in and hold themselves tight in the hope of a graceful reception. It's almost the reverse of tension as compositions are politely balanced and colours are layered and complementary. O'Brien chose to paint things that sit on the cusp between medieval and renaissance style but doesn't even capture the tension between beauty and suffering, salvation and pain that we see in works by Giotto and Cimabue. O'Brien is clearly enchanted by the shapes and colours of this period but without the underlying tension between the human and the celestial that we feel in their original application these paintings seem little more than decorative.

And yet these works have a subtle and discreet power so it sin worth asking ourselves what else O'Brien might be trying to do. Many of O'Brien's images unfold as gentle sombre pageants, and soon you notice that typically most characters are there to bear witness rather than to act. That passiveness is further borne out by the smoothed line and imperceptible brush-strokes. Rather than bringing the expressionist whorl of modernism to an antique subject. These stretched figures can seem like bleached out El Grecos and perhaps that lack of mannerist drama is what makes them feel peculiar to a modern eye, especially when one considers the influence of El Greco on so many strains if modern painting.

In a show that shines with gold and lapis blue the most touching works are his subdued stations of the cross, pastel tissues of wash give life through restraint. There's a surreal minimal landscape, a washy polygonal delerium and a minimum of figures. The more restrained palette seems to release more gut spirit, a sadness and a clinging to life rather than a jolly gloss of pigment. The under drawings are penned in the firm sinuous lines of an engraver and their clarity also lends them a fragility . The Christ figure dominates, and although he's no less stylized than O'Brien's other figures he is far more physical thanks to the choice of pose, he falls and bends and each diversion from the perpendicular feels critical, a structure falling under stress. Viewed as a sequential series the work grows in power, it begins brighter then light fades from the polychrome of Pilate's condemnation to the bone bleached blue of the sepulchre. Hung in a U-shape in a gently lit room the sequence is gentle and meditative even as it is wracked with an inevitable path to the cross. It is a fine work in any context.

If you look beyond the subject matter and the blues and golds you get a sense that O'Brien painted light. Not the chiarascuro that needs shadow to bring it alive or the directional light as it flickers across impressionist water but the way that light bathes our overall perception. The chalkiness of the later still lives and the bone bleaching of some of the Greek landscape suggest less objects struck by light but the way it occupies the air. A Baptism on a Greek island might be set in a swimming hole, with its summery nostalgia for casual male nudity, but the gold above the pinky blue mesmerizes and you feel the warm soak of a summer day. This isn't the light of revelation or of the theatre, far from it as even in a scene of the taking of Christ in Gethsemane a lantern fails to emit rays, but rather a still radiance, an immersive substantial light.

Justin O'Brien was clearly an anachronism. It's less extraordinary that much of the very proper and restrained work here was made in the Twentieth Century that is was made in the 1960s, so much of it feels like it might have come form a more careful and polite period, one where individualism had not yet been fetishized. In fact such is the sense of quiet conformity that often Jesus's disciples look like a private school sports team on a day out. And perhaps that is the root of O'Brien's creative tension, that between conformity and individuality. Clearly anyone who decides to paint his own obsessive hommage to early-rennaissance frescoes at the end of the 1950s isn't a conformist. I'm willing to accept that there is something deep in O'Brien's work and that is veiled in a visual embrace of the gentle and the contemplative in the face of culture romanticizing shrill expressions of individualism. The sense of grace, of a surrender to ones fate, might not be terribly fashionable but that makes it no less vauable.