Wednesday, 15 April 2009

On Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant

'Push', a collection of four pieces performed by Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant (who choreographed them) flattered and disappointed as much as it delivered.  The opening night at the Sydney Opera House was the perfect example of a portmanteau program so patchy that a single answer to "Was it any good?" is hard to find.

There are moments of beauty that still move somewhere between my eyes and my brain, they are shapes or trajectories, movements that looked and felt perfect for an instant and in doing so sustained themselves long afterward.  At the same time so much seemed familiar and predictable.  Cliché is the enemy of art and in the trawl through familar tropes many stones were rolled and few left unturned.  

The program opens with Sylvie Guillem dancing a piece called 'Solo'.  There can be few more accomplished or starrier dancers and neither can there be many who control the whole theatre in a way where their craft speaks so much for them.
The classical flamenco guitar provides the perfect foil for her physical control and grace.  She leaves allows the Andalusian light and shade to permeate the piece so much so that still moments become a part of a one sided call and response.  Guillem is beautifully musical, there are moments where she underscores the crescendo of each staccato passage are so subtle that it takes a time or two to realise how she does it.  The second movement bathes her in a hard blue light and her limbs form arcs and tangents against the metronomic castanets.  There is a whole map of Iberian posture and gesture from both the corrida and flamenco, that these are never delivered in quotation marks,  but rather evoked and whispered is quietly accomplished.

The third piece, another Guillem solo, begins with a portentous high contrast cone of light and the dancer virtually vogueing to the bones of a techno beat.   It really does promise to be awful but almost imperceptibly and with incredible control Guillem increases the pace of her movement, still in that tight defined spotlight, and as she does the audience collectively forget to breath.  Guillem's dervish brilliance makes something sonically harsh stunningly beautiful.  The piece is highly technical like a hummingbird wing beat or an engine, but magic happens as she breaks in and out of the lit space at the front of stage in strobe of arms. It is very direct and gaspingly good. 

Russell Maliphant comes to the stage with no lack of dance credentials.  As the choreographer of all four pieces he has much to be proud of, but his first solo appearance in one of those modern dance uniforms of loose white linen is awfully underwhelming.  The piece, called 'Shift' is made worse partly because it is so obvious that its creators think it is so very clever.  Performed to a cello driven string quartet, an accompaniment that fights the industrial electro thrum for its place as dance's most predictable, this is a solo that begins almost as a slow workout.  Maliphant dances between and across a set of spotlights that cast up to three shadowed silhouettes of his posed body on the back wall, which is itself let to create layered sections.  The lighting effect is stagy but interesting but the performance is very mannered and without the effects is a pedestrian display of modern vogueing. 

The second half of the program, the eponymous 'Push', is the most problematic.  The beginning is arresting.  Guillem appears on Maliphant's back and shoulders in a series of poses, each one appearing and disappearing into total darkness.  As they appear they are fringed with a penumbra of light, their movements slow and controlled there is a sense of mystery and ritual present.  What follows is, for the most part, tremendously disappointing.  There are fewer moments of the kinetic sculpture created between the pair that the beginning promises.  Much of the time is spent in those with the pair circling one another in a stylized straight backed prowl, which is a standard modern dance cliché for some kind of emotional conflict.  With far too many of these lazy tropes and a score, by Andy Cowton, that is at times excruciating 'Push' manages to become really very boring despite its early peak.

Maybe the inconsistency between the acts in 'Push' allow us to appreciate the peaks all the better, although I'm sure that wasn't intentional.  'Push' succumbs to the current assumption that sombre slow portentous movement, discordant scores and chiaroscuro lighting equate with depth and artistry, the truth is light and shade can't hide the difference between good and bad.  Fortunately there was enough of the former here to justify coming.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

On Tim Johnson

It might be that punk saved Tim Johnson's art.  Pushed away at the back of the large room where 'Painting Ideas' at the AGNSW, a survey exhibition of the work of this Australian painter are the records of his art student 'happenings'.  It's familiar stuff from the early seventies, black and white photos of nudity and banality, smug beardy chaos all documented with the poe-faced seriousness of scientific record.  But something changes, slowly and surely Johnson takes punk's genius for bricolage and creates a unique magpie of an art that is far more interesting and arresting than the sum of its parts.

Back to the seventies, the records of Johnson's conceptual work are typical of the formalist pranks of the time, they suffer from the innate contradiction between their claim to spontaneity and apostasy and the inability to resist recording all that in a way that met the needs of the art establishment.  And then, on the other side of all this theory and pretension,  punk seems to happen.  Johnson begins to capture some of the energy and passion of the scene in paintings that look almost journalistic but for their swathes of day-glo colour.  This first disruption, or it might simply be discovery, is the first of many for Johnson.  He discovers the aboriginal art of Papunya and, later, Buddhism.  These are all present in the large canvasses, stand alone works and polyptychs, of his most recent work, dot painting meets buddhas and punkish appropriation of cartoon characters and symbols.

The punk paintings are a clue to where he eventually arrives.  They look like gig photos of the time, but rendered in almost silk screen solid blocks of colour.  Oddly the bright polymers capture some of the energy of performance, despite occasionally veering into the realms of Warhol.  Viewing the music pictures as a whole, especially those of Sydney punk band Radio Bridman, you begin to see the creative osmosis of influence.  Where first he applies the most obvious model of Pop Art to peripheral pop culture by 1983 his "Radio Birdman, Wickham Hall" and "Pink Radio Birdman" have been invaded by psychedelic swarms of dots more familiar from aboriginal painting.  That these don't look entirely gratuitous is interesting, the figures in his painting have already flattened out and the patterns seem strangely at home amidst the rituals of punk.

The first trip to Papunya was in 1980 and it informs the development of Johnson's art at every level.  The lessons Johnson took from the Papunya artists during frequent visits in the early Eighties are , firstly, formal as he begins to paint more and more across a flat single plane.  The presence of different times and places in a single image is also a characteristic of, amongst others,  pre-renaissance western art.  That allusion to the histories of so many art traditions is every bit as important as the dot formations.  In making it Johnson creates the space he needs to bring together references and symbols that might not otherwise sit together.

During his stays Johnson befriended Papunya artists such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and was invited to paint the dot patterns he had become fascinated by.  Part of Johnson's interest, and the one that is made most visible in the spread of his works, was identifying dot painting with the meditative practices of Tibetan monks.  If the work in 'Painting Ideas' leads us toward any single idea it comes from that link, Johnson uses dot-painting together with an impressionistic and indistinct figurative style and the symbols of Buddhism (and more recent Asian iconography, like manga) to make us consider the common threads between humans.

Johnson is true to his theoretical (or perhaps spiritual) underpinnings in the way he works.  Much of what is hung here is collaborative, from his work with Papunya artists to more recent collaborations with Karma Phuntsok and Brendan Smith.  It is this respect for fellow artists that produces a good deal of moving portraiture and seems to fill his quotation with something more than a post-modern cleverness.

The large canvas 'Visualisation' is the one of the most resonant pieces in the exhibition, if not the most representative visually.  Much of its power might be summed up in the way smudges of white paint, or here and there ochres and yellows, drift across the surface of the scene like smoke.  Beneath that smoke figures emerge from a dark ground dotted with an almost Byzantine gold, a Red Indian, a romanesque saint, buddhas and others all seem to force themselves through the dots whilst, if we step back further, also forming part of some primeval topography.  It is on works like these that Johnson's cultural blurring is most affecting.

Johnson's art is never static, and whilst some of it touches on Eastern philosophical notions that hasn't guaranteed a steady progression toward Nirvana.  The most recent cycles of work, in particular 'Lotus Born' feel to have found a comfortable, if not enlightening, groove.  At times the brighter palette, detailed quotation and regular structures start to look like a melding of Aboriginal and Buddhist kitsch.  

Perhaps Johnson has grown comfortable with the traditions that stimulate him.  The high points here are found during a period from the early 1980's through to the late 1990's where his negotiations between styles and techniques, cultures and symbols, takes place restlessly on the canvas.  Works like 'Pink Radio Birdman', 'Summer of Images', 'Paradise' and 'Eden Burns' feel giddy in the way they seem to wrestle to give visual form to a world of ideas.  Johnson, at his best, captures a sense that those ideas, like art forms and cultures, are messy beating living things, and that alone makes his work a pleasure.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

On Luminous

Classical music might be the least self-confident of all the arts, the one who reaches out with a fumbling need for reassurance to the first youngish, poppish collaborators its sees, too eager for their youthful charm to know whether they're good for them or not.

That's how you end up with the middlebrow mess of 'events' like 'Luminous' where the Australian Chamber Orchestra plays REM beneath the titillatingly controversial images of Bill Henson.  Like your mother wearing a crop top and a belly button stud it's not always a pretty sight .

The State theatre is Sydney's most beautiful and it gives both a grand and intimate setting for the ACO, hung over them is a large screen onto which is projected images from the photographs of Bill Henson.  The show starts ominously, both intentionally and unintentionally.  If you've been to anything in a theatre or gallery that has pretensions to that type of dark arthouse seriousness you will be familiar with the atonal sub-bass rumble that is a standard signifier of post-industrial angst...  or something.  The rumbles are apparently provided by a 'sound sculptor' and are the kind of clumsy signaling of tone that much of the music really doesn't deserve.

The first half of Luminous has lights both high and low.  The ACO accompany the singer Katie Noonan, whose operatic vocals work beautifully with Britten's 'Corpus Christi Carol' but the final song sounded like an Enya song ripe for use in a hair conditioner commerical, it was very bad indeed.  So keen are the ACO to trowel on novelty that the audience sat through a piece for cello and water, where the orchestra took to playing wine glasses with their bows.  Both physically excruciating and hilarious, especially if one has seen 'Broadway Danny Rose', the interval came as a high pitched relief and the compulsory did little to mask scattered groans. 

Musically the second half improved vastly.  The performance of Petris Vask's violin concerto "Different Light" should remind us all that subtlety, depth and beauty will create don't need to force themselves into trendy clothes.  The power of the piece together with the precision of the playing and the power of the setting (the State, acoustics aside, does make us feel we're watching and hearing something special).  I was moved beyond my limited classical music critical lexicon.

The second half of the program is defiantly good, and overcomes the cringiness of the pop collaboration.  However the music isn't the biggest barrier.  

I have written about my response to the work of Bill Henson before, I find the combination of dark melodramatic lighting and taboo sexuality the worst type of High Art Lite, he flatters viewers into feeling edgy and art literate (yes, we know Vermeer loved skin and Caravaggio liked a shadow).  What struck me about the work projected above the orchestra was how very few favours it does Henson.  If comedy is tragedy plus time (or perhaps timing) the prolonged and repeated zooming and panning across Henson's work only helps to make his sullen and ever so serious craft appear funnily monotonous.  

In galleries or print we are less conscious of the sheer repetition, of how breathless bruised lip and open mouthed pouts are just as subject to the law of diminishing returns as any other artistic device.  Shown so that a face might be perhaps twenty feet across, the grain of the film exposed, it's clear how artful Henson is in showing the supposed artlessness of his subjects.  There is dirt beneath every fingernail, skin aspires to that oily Roman smear and you quickly feel you're watching an art director rather than an artist.

As a part of the package of 'Luminous' the pictures are annoying in the first half and distracting in the second, where the music deserves the prominence.  The roaming of the rostrum camera over them really does little other than underline clichés, in fact if you were to look at the photo album application 'iPhoto' you would see that there is a facility called the 'Ken Burn's Effect' (sic) that creates similarly restless moving pictures from your own snapshots.  There is little sense of either unity or counterpoint between the various elements of Luminous, unless you count a confluence of smugness, and that does no-one much good.

The chiaroscuro and electronic groans serve to remind us how often Art Lite is dressed up as Art Dark and how what was served up in Luminous felt very light indeed.