Sunday 22 March 2009

On The Archibald Prize

Some of the works here are wonderful and unexpected.  Sam Leach has produced a jewel like cabinet piece amidst all the acres of portentous canvass.  His portrait of Marcia Langton alludes to the classical, the Golden Fleece and Cain and Abel are all in there, but his real connection is through technique rather than aesthetic of reference.  Leach fetishises oil paint, and his love of seventeenth century Dutch virtuosity is worn proudly but lightly on the canvass.  He produces a luminous blackness perfectly in tune with his subject.  The quiet ambiguity of the piece, its hint of memento mori, lead us into the truth of portraiture, we can never know someone too well, we can only hope to capture the hints of what we don't know.  The depth lent to Leach's work through this beautifully realised ambiguity is entirely different to the glib paradox and oxymoron of so much post-modern art and is both sincere and powerful.

Surprisingly interesting, given that it represents a politician and a cause, is Richard Onn's 'Coupe SX010F', a canvass triptych of Bob Brown.  Here the Tasmanian Green Senator is presented mock heroically, standing in cruciform tension between the forces of industry and nature.  There is a lovely contrast between tree and logging truck, between bark and chrome.  At the same time Brown's face, despite being a little overpainted to the point of appearing airbrushed, could be an old growth forest topography.  The work is a classical portrait in the history painting mode.

What does strike you more than anything is the sheer size of much of the work, close cropped heads that would cover the wall of most rooms outside of a gallery.  These massive portraits, near billboard size, remind us of the debt of painting to photography.  They give themselves up immediately and cheaply, each broad expressionist stroke and smudge.  Across most of the works any sense of human scale has been well and truly lost, even the winner Guy Maestri's 'Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu' looks like a monumental Easter Island statue, hinting at his album cover rather than what we don't know or haven't seen.  This trend to massive overpowering faces is self-aggrandizing portraiture rather than revelation.  However one large scale painting that does make a virtue out of size is 'Mountain of Tom',  by Paul Ryan, the pink tremulous screeds of paint capture and bubble with Thomas Kenneally's exuberant fleshiness.

There is some really bad painting to be seen here.  Work that is both technically sloppy, conceptually asinine and desperately derivative.  Some deserve to be highlighted.  Anthony Bennett can stand for all of the painters in the show who use the magazine clichés of street art dripping, blotting and scribbling.  His eminently stupid picture, 'self portrait in the bathroom discussing beauty, bukowski, and brett whitely with my ex, now a stripper, who likes to dress as wonder woman'  does at least give us a chance to avoid it, that is if we subscribe, as I do, to the rule that the length of a painting's title is likely to be inversely proportionate to its quality.  Bennett's trendy bag of fauxhemian references would make a Year Twelve student ashamed, just as he takes pastiche and derivativeness to a previously forgotten level.   He really doesn't deserve the encouragement that inclusion might give him.

Poster boy for photo-realist kitsch is 'Brendan' by Vincent Fantauzzo.  The portrait has that level of realism that leads us to 'the uncanny valley' (Masahiro Mori's hypothesis that increased 'realism' in computer representations of humans causes revulsion in onlookers).  So shiny is it that it feels sacharine and calculated, not a good look for a young boy.

In the realm of painterly self-portraits Robert Hannaford's stands out in its restraint, human scale and stoic sensitivity.  It's hung close to Peter Hanley's hommage to Titian, the original is, perhaps, the apogee of an  artist's self portrait and the hubris in copying something that Rembrandt has already copied (as have so many artists) does win points for bravery.  Sadly the painting is a little too aware of its own limitations and is neither brilliant enough in technique or bravura enough in conception to be more than dull.

This year the Packing Room Prize was closer to getting it right.  'Flacco's Chariot', by Paul Jackosn, is an interesting painting about someone of whom I know little.  I see an ageing man perhaps clinging to a character who has taken him into the public domain.  On the framing walls behind the sitter are an oil sketch and a shadow, the genesis and exodus of a dramatic personae.  Out of the shadow, and a cartoon mousehole on the skirting board, come mice, gnawing away at the chair legs.  It's a surprisingly beautiful and melancholic work that rewards viewing.

That the Archibald should attract round the block queues is an unalloyed good thing.  Bringing more people into a gallery is not a victory in and of itself, we ought to be more ambitious than that.  A wider public should also place a further pressure on the judges and the gallery, this is an opportunity to educate (an unpopular word, I know), not just a popularity contest, and more could be achieved with hanging and glossing the pictures.  At present we get some artist blurb and a biography.  If the judges were confident in their choices they could begin to explain why some of these works deserve inclusion or perhaps explain the artistic merit of pieces, you only have to look and listen how people absorb and discuss the information there now.  Tens of thousands of people arrive in the Domain in nothing like the supine philistine state the art establishment often ascribe to them, a real legacy for the Archibald would be to give them even more of what they want, not celebrity, but art.

Saturday 21 March 2009

On The Alchemist

When Ben Jonson's 'The Alchemist' was first performed in 1610 the most powerful man in Europe, the Emperor Rudolf II, maintained a court of artists, astrologers and alchemists at his palace in Prague.  This great satire on greed, gullibility and our endless pursuit of folly was aimed at a far from marginal target.  As modern parallels scream out at us it's worth remembering that 'serious' people from Thomas Aquinas to Isaac Newton were alchemists, and that the folly of which Jonson writes is that of societies who are willing to subscribe to promises of instant gratification rather than the isolated exploits of charlatans and fool.  The Hedge Fund might be our modern Philosopher's Stone.

Bell Shakespeare's production at the Opera House (a partnership with the Queensland Theatre Company) gives vivid life to Jonson's bilious observation and reminds us that his characters live on, with and in us.

A comedy of appearances, where the chief conspirators Subtle and Face, appear in the guises best calculated to gull their prey, is aided by eclectic and evocative costume design.  The look is very much actor's dress up box but each character touching on a historical model, an Amish preacher, a pantomime hidalgo in idolatrous trousers, a slatternly Amy Winehouse and a hip hop pimp.  The overall effect both signals the particular type of folly each is identified with and allows the play to hover between periods, the farce is made universal.  All of this takes place before a long mirrored wall, reminding us that this is a comedy of vanity and that the audience is reflected from the stage.  Jonson might have relished the wicked conceit.

In belting out of the blocks the play initially stumbles over its own pace, opening on row between the three conspirators Subtle, the alchemist, Dol Common a hooker and Face, the housekeeper whose master's home the action takes place,  clarity is lost for the sake of energy and it's only once the gullible clients begin to arrive that we get to hear the actors fully relish Jonson's punning demotic dialogue.

Patrick Dickson, as Subtle, and Andrew Tighe, as Face, are the omnipresent amoral heart of the piece and give finely tuned and rhythmic performances that hold together the frentic narrative.  Subtle is a rather dog eared sort of guru his otherworldliness part of his promise to the greedy.  Face is the robust procurer of the pair, his is the more worldly role, he understands vice in himself and others and his leering and insinuating helps to promise each new fool ever more and lure them into the trap.  Dickson and Tighe manage beautifully paced performances, a slow interlude here gives greater impact to screwball face there, and they clearly enjoy Jonson's language.

The wonderfully named Sir Epicure Mammon (performed by David Whitney as a Regency recreation of Monty Python's Monsieur Creosote) steals scene after scene, which is only proper after all this is a play about avarice and lust as much as it is about those who profit from them.  He is just one a group of smart characterisations that make the play a pleasure.  Dol Common, played by Georgina Symes, is the one disappointment, all strutting and gum chewing the caricature adds little to the mix where something a little less predictable might have worked better.  However overall the casting and playing also easily evokes the messy claustrophobia of the Jacobean metropolis where all this vice seems entirely probable.   

The Alchemist is beautifully done and just about gets away with running without an interval, if that was a directorial decision to maintain the pace it asks even more of the audience's energy than that of the actors.  Jonson wrote universal satire, and it's enormously good judgement on the part of Bell to avoid banal contemporary references.  The company invests the text with an enormous energy and makes it a modern amorality tale, where we would do well to remember that we are the subject.

Sunday 8 March 2009

On Watchmen

It's rare now that I ever feel the sense of anticipation I did back in 1986 when, for twelve tantalisingly long months, Allan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen first arrived.  Something so smart, serious and sexy was a vindication of such a vital demotic medium as the comic book.  Its power came from its seriousness, it took a serious subject, treated it seriously and it was serious about comics, about their history and content.

Zack Snyder's Watchmen movie is one of those that has been so long in the making that entire timelines of cast members who signed and went exist.  Snyder has found a niche where, as with his film of Frank Miller's Thermopylae book '300', he makes films with the inky colour and emphatic framing of the comic.  Watchmen might be the most sacrosanct of all comic texts, but Snyder's movie is bold and clever enough to succeed or fail on its own terms rather than in comparison to the source.  That alone is a significant achievement.

The title sequence is exhilarating cinema, Snyder's hyperreal aesthetic captures the ability fo comic books to create narrative through single images whilst his suspended motion tableaux achieves the sequential effect of comic book frames.  The sequence tells a history of a world gone off the rails, one that continued to take a right turn when an alternative history Richard Nixon changed the constitution and kept being re-elected right up to 1985 when the story is set.  We see a group of pre-spandex superheroes, fisticuffs, medals, the Grassy Knoll and the end of the Cold War, brought prematurely to a close by Dr Manhattan, a naked blue atomic Superman, the USA's ultimate weapon.  As the sequence closes we see that populist demagogues have reacted against the superheroes, they're vilified, banned, put out to grass, which is pretty much where we find them at the beginning of the movie.

We're introduced to a sociopathic vigilante Rorschach; the smartest man in the world, Ozymandias; the nihilist fascistic Comedian and the wistful Night Owl, a sort of Al Gore figure who has been half the man since retiring his suit.  The casting is audacious, Malin Akerman as the Silk Specter, daughter of one of the originals, and Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl are eerily similair to Gibbons pen and ink originals.  As the histories and pathologies of each of the protagonists are told in complex flashback we get a strong sense of individuals, and that delivers its own set of pleasures, but at the cost of narrative.  Watchmen is set in a dystopian United States on the edge of Cold War, its characters looking back fondly at the past just as the possibility of a future seems less than certain.  Subsequently the complex chronological structure feels digressive to the point where we're unsure where we are.  

A central theme of the movie is the question of whether supermen have a responsibility to mere mortals.  Put another way, and the films explicit historical and political context invites this comparison, what price in individual lives is peace and social cohesion worth?  The power of the film's handling of this question, one that is asked of Dr Manhattan and Ozymandias at different times, is that it is never quite resolved.  The essential mess and disorder of life is not sentimentalised, but then nor are the clean clear utopias offered by men of power.  

Within this context the 'masks', as the superheroes are called, fall into two groups, the fallible vulnerable human crime fighters and the near omniscient superheroes.  The best chance of humanity is in the hands of people who are sometimes proud, violent, selfish and weak.  It's this complexity in the face of pyrotechnic CGI that keeps one's attention, but it is severely strained over almost three hours.

Early in the film, when we are first introduced to Adrian Veidt, we are transfixed as, outside the panoramic skyscraper window the nose of a bulbous zeppelin floats inevitably toward the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and whilst that reference is initially hypnotic it's also a good analogy for the film.  We wait for the familiar impact at the end of that slow path but Snyder cuts away, so we await the film's narrative to ignite and find that it just continues to smoulder.  

The fact is that the apocalypse is the missing part. It ought to be the train that drives Watchmen forward, the imminence of nuclear holocaust should focus the mind, the social and psychological disintegration of cities and characters should feel less like set dressing but it never does.  Perhaps we know that the bomb never gets dropped, whilst in 1985 we half expected to be sent to the fallout bunkers.  Today our latest apocalypse is a financial whimper, not the tangible dread felt in Cold War Britain or even the post World Trade Centre USA.

Watchmen is beautiful and  admirable in many ways and it deserves to be watched, but it lacks the sense of fatal drive toward a crescendo, ending up as curiosity rather than classic.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

On Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama describes her oeuvre as a 'hymn of praise to humanity', which all sounds very nice on paper, or on wall as is the case in her retrospective 'Mirrored Years' at Sydney's MCA.  The huge banner with the, almost, octogenarian artist in dayglo pink and polka dots gives more than a hint of what to find inside, there's a lot of dots and a lot of the artist's biography.  Normally I would resist comment on the biographical, innately suspicious of extrinsic explanation, however in the case of Kusama all I can say is 'I'm not the one who started it'.

The biography is central, if not to the art, then to the justification of its worth.  After classical art training and hallucinations as a child in Japan, and a correspondence with Georgia O'Keefe, Kusama travels to New York and becomes a doyenne of pop art, op art, conceptual and performance art.  Along the way there's a lot of polka dots, nudity and art elite friends and lovers, Donald Judd, Frank Stella and Joseph Cornell amongst others.  Then comes a return to Japan and psychiatric hospital, where she has since continued to live by choice.  Since then there's been a critical resurrection together with claims and counter claims about who did what first with Andy Warhol and Claes Oldengurg.  None of this is allowed to ever be incidental to the exhibition, it's written on walls and recorded throughout.

The 'Mirrored Years' begin on exiting the MCA's lift and walking through 'Invisible Life' (2002) a piece that creates a maze of the gallery's entrance.   The work is created by dozens of convex mirrors spaced regularly across the white walls, whilst it's what you expect to find on entering a show with such a name it's surprisingly recessive, the mirrors neither perform any particular optical magic (as they do elsewhere) nor do they genuinely disorientate or obliterate (a favourite Kusama word).  The initial effect is that one has walked into the set of a 1960's sci-fi series, something rather less than the title promises.  It must be said that the MCA have staged the show beautifully, devoting the fourth floor to successive rooms, big and small, that allows one to feel the spatial and sensory impact of Kusama's work.

The mirrors occur again, in the meandering 'Narcissus Garden' hundreds of mirrored balls, perhaps a foot across, that spread like weeds along, around and through the North side of the floor.  Clearly one has only to read the title and see one to get the point of the piece, but the fact that it seems to go on long after it manages to be interesting might hint at a reasonable analogy for Kusama. So, from mirrors to dots.

Whole rooms of dots, dots repeated ad infinitum within mirrored walls, boxes filled with vaguely topographical surfaces covered in dots.  Nothing cold be much more pop, the motif Kusama is most recognised for is said to either represent or document a lifetime of hallucinations.  Claims that these dots 'obliterate' surfaces and self is one half of the essential contradiction of Kusama, just as they change the object upon which they are placed they also shout loudly about the artful way they got there and the woman who placed them.  For an artist supposedly concentrating on the erasure of identity there's an awful lot of celebrity art branding going on with those dots.

In fact the repetitions of her op-art conceptualism feel like a style more than obsession.  One 'Dot Room' piece sees a whole period room recreated and peppered with multi coloured stick-on polka dots over every surface.  The explanation speaks of obliteration and hallucination but in reality it's a meretricious mix of affect and fashionable nihilism.

Of course as an artist operating in the greenhouse of sixties New York it is easy to see how the boundaries between style, manifesto and branding are easily blurred.  So much of her work appears to press the hot buttons of art theory, the penis shapes in her soft sculptures or the obsession with the ultimate object of self-referentiality, the mirror, that one at times feel like you have walked into a pop-art lecture on the aesthetics of the mild transgression that the modern art world thrives upon.

As annoying as all of this is there is pleasure here too, in the shape of 'Fireflies on The Water'.  Another mirrored room where we step onto a promontary going out from the door.  All around is a forest of tendrils hung with LED lights that reflect infinitely from teh walls and from the water that lies still on the floor  .The firefly is an important symbolic feature of Japanese culture, a symbol of sexual love they have also been believed to be the souls of those fallen in battle refusing to leave the field.  The room (if you can get in alone) inspires contemplation whilst also being warm and ennervating.  The sense of a void filled with something impermanent and fragile, whether it is light or energy is quite beautiful.

A room of silkscreen doodles on canvas shows how some of her obsessions and repeated tropes are reminiscent of what we might see in 'outsider art', and given her background of mental illness there's an understandable link.  That outsider position is fiercely cultivated but whilst she might have better claims to it than many middle class art school rebels it is still a dreadful stretch of credulity that one with her starry conceptual art phone book is actually an dotty idiot savant afloat in the art world.  

My problem with Kusama is simply that hers is an art far less concerned with looking than being looked at.  Her work craves attention and knows how to get it, so whatever claims for it on the basis of pathology or theory it remains essentially cold and empty like the mirrored balls strewn on the gallery floor...

Sunday 1 March 2009

On Oscar Muñoz: Biografias

 The art of Oscar Muñoz is one of transformation and erasure, where the mutation of images asks questions about identity and perception.  Set in a lower floor gallery of Sydney's AGNSW the installation takes up a high ceilinged square room, maybe thirty feet by thirty.  Across the floor are five square panels barely rising from the marble.  Onto each is projected a portrait that, literally washes away down the drain set into the panel.  This happens again and again, the cumulative effect is melancholy and immersive.

Perhaps the most striking fact thing about the experience is that one is not transfixed by technique.  For the record this isn't a piece of CGI wizardry, rather it's an adaptation of a traditional technique.  Muñoz effectively screenprints charcoal dust onto a the surface of water.  For a while each portrait sits there, and as faces melt around us we're almost anxiously transfixed.  In his studio Muñoz has drained the water and filmed it, in slow motion, as it first twists the face out of shape and then slowly in upon itself.  What's left is a suspended smear of an image that sinks inevitably down the grille of the plughole.  The charcoal granularity of the portraits lends their floating presence a naturalism and familiarity that is at warm and non-judgemental.  Muñoz's skill is to use that familiar low tech medium to connect us with the nameless faces.

Muñoz's work is not overtly political, and whilst it is tempting to project a further layer of the tragedy of Colombian politics onto the work it adds little.  The power of the piece rests on the universal rather than the specific and even its title, translated simply as biographies, is only faintly suggestive.  The power comes, not from any titular posturing but from the dissolution of another's image.  Just as the flammable stock of a photograph distorts as it burns and leaves us the water does not allow the image the dignity of an exit as itself, it degrades first.  What it leaves behind is an overwhelming sense of loss, and the repetition of this event in squares across the floor, and again on the one you stand to watch, gives us a sense of the ineluctable fate of the image and perhaps those who it represents.

Biografias is far from nihilistic.  Even as we ponder the inevitable we fight against our inexperience and hope that these people will stabilise and stay with us, a profoundly human response to the transience of life.