Sunday 31 May 2009

On Patrick Hartigan

There is a particular type of ambiguity in an artist's work that always draws me closer.  It is the sense, when everything you have been shown is so acutely observed and planned,that  something is being withheld or is evading us.  In "The Village Is Quiet" by Patrick Hartigan at the Darren Knight Gallery in Waterloo this is exactly what you feel.  It's the sense of the ineffable, that the surface, a snapshot of narrative perhaps, is a signal for something larger.

Hartigan captures this with minimum expression.  His style is deadpan, pencil drawings waste the minimum carbon and his watercolours are economical, more likely to use the brightness of the paper bursting under thin wash for an effect than adding another layer.  This doesn't stop them picking up detail, but only the ones we need to take us from the general to the specific: the uneven texture of grey rendered wall, or the pink hint of a blood stained hunting bag.

'Pig Day', a water colour, shows how the fleshy pigness of shape and colour, together with the coagulating wash of red tell us all we need to know of what is here, but the bolt-hole in the pigs forehead is the telling detail that delivers the realness of the scene.  Just as he uses a muted palate that is more likely to be the memory of a colour on porous object than the colour itself Hartigan also knows that we often find truth, or perhaps just verisimilitude, in small gestures.  The angle of a head or tidemark of paint on a wall are more telling than captions.  In doing this Hartigan's restraint means that some of his images are almost as economical as an ideogram, whilst always feeling well enough observed to link to the back to a captured moment.  

Across these drawings, watercolours and oils size is a unifying feature.  Scale is important for Hartigan, most of the pictures are only a few inches across, and it's curious how this draws you close you into his world.  You can't help but lean in to engage with these small pictures of potentially mundane life, it's a refreshing and polar change from the grandiose and alienating gigantism that we see elsewhere.  The work here has the feel of a set of snapshots, not just in size but by the way that Hartigan manipulates framing and point of view.  Rather than cinematic these angles seem polaroid, we see things from where we might be when they catch our eye, we look down from a window at women walking home, find a pig's head on the kitchen floor or notice a house in the unframed middle distance.  In essence Hartigan does show rather than tell, or at least rather than point.  This seemingly artless effect combined with a minimum of extraneous detail can be a tool for suspense; as we wonder who set a house on fire, or empathy; we can't help feel the cold and anticipation as a woman stands at blasted bus stop.

Curiously these gently open ended pictures are framed by a written narrative that comes neatly printed or displayed in the gallery.  No less elusive it sketches out a trip to, we assume, to an Eastern European country possibly to the family of his wife.  It is written in an unsurprisingly stripped down prose:
No-one was in the street today. It was quieter than ever. Only one man in a dirty green parka, hood darkening his face. He came down-village like the grim reaper as I carried bags of bread and milk. An empty sack hung from his shoulder.
It's not bad, but it doesn't add much and it occasionally strives for a metaphor or extended simile that's far clumsier than the pictures 
"There is that sound, of the water’s rhythm, irregular in some intelligent way. Ears try to decipher dripping into an unknown music" 
At least it doesn't resolve the hinted narrative, which is a huge relief.  Furthermore, in a room at the back of the gallery a silent super 8 transfer runs in a continuous loop, guileless and barely edited footage of, what appears to be, Central European country life.  The words and video work in parallel with the pictures, ocassionally crossing but equally easily ignored. They do make the whole seem that bit more strange, but they're unnecessary.  It says much that the pictures are more eloquent without them.

I like Patrick Hartigan's work very much.  He seems to brush past so many styles, a little of the ambiguous non-narratives of Peter Doig or Rick Amor, some of the illustrative oddness of Marcel Dzama, but he remains his own artist

Hartigan seems to understand memory.  He knows how the picture in our mind's eye is fading and unruly.  These pictures are so effective because, like an eye-witness searching for details, we believe those things that are too clumsy or unnecessary to be lies.  So, in 'The Village is Quiet' we find a host of small observable truths of a mundane and mysterious world, which feels just about enough to me. 

Tuesday 26 May 2009

On The Crucible

Some experiences form you more than others.  Perhaps fifteen years ago, I snuck out of the office where I was working and saw Arthur Miller give a reading of his novella, 'The Homely Girl' in an Oxford theatre.  Afterwards he answered questions generously and candidly for at a couple of hours.  The experience did two things, firstly it introduced me to the work of Louise Bourgeois who had illustrated an artists book of the work; secondly it caused me to sneak around the back of the theatre find Miller and thank him.  Just to thank him.

Watching the Sydney Theatre Company's performance of The Crucible, which isn't exactly bad, more frustratingly patchy, made me think how great work can still transcend hamfisted production.

It might seem high praise to say that The Crucible is one of the great humanist works of art of the Twentieth Century.  But such an accolade, true as it is doesn't really do it justice, this is a work of art that claims its effect through painting the shaky portrait of humans both noble and frail in a century blighted by ideology and theory.  And that's precisely the problem for so many directors who approach it.  We all know what The Crucible's about, we know that it is rich in parallels about the abuses people heap on one another when religion or ideology make conformity inevitable.  When Miller has already created a play that does that through analogy what now?  More often than not the answer is that productions are linked explicitly to current affairs, and in doing so lose the power of a universal message.

If notion that cliché and stereotype are the enemy of art is somehow doubted then the next theatre director who proposes incarcerated characters be dressed in any form of orange jump suit ought to be made to use a set of Victorian pyjamas with convict arrows instead.  We miss much when we bludgeon Miller's text with contemporary references, when its very lasting resonance has come from its archetypal ambiguity.

The production struggles with religion.  The Reverends Parris and Hale highlight this.  When a director decides to evoke the modern day evangelical preacher they all too easily fall into the traps of shiny suits, declamatory hand waving and hammy eye-rolling.  That's the case here, and whilst Nathan Lovejoy is far more restrained as Hale we have been conditioned to find all these 'Elmer Gantry' (or even Reverend Lovejoy) tropes comical, it's hard for any actor to pull that back.  

The emotional core of the play ought to lie in the relationship between Elizabeth and John Proctor, a woman accused of witchcraft and her adulterous husband, whose dalliance with Parris's niece Abigail is the dramatic engine of the play.  It's strange to say that the performances of Marta Dusseldorp and Joe Manning are both very good, in and of themselves.  However the problem bigger problem, the problem of the whole production, is that as they head toward the inevitable climax their scenes together, in jail or courthouse, are played with such shouty histrionics that their power is lost.  Revenge, hysteria, and the brutal logic of a culture of accusation and denouncement, isn't a dish best served hammy.

I often suspect that directors feel they have to 'do' something.  That their imprimatur os somehow required on any text.  The dilemma is that while that 'something' so often this means 'more', greater emphasis, contemporizing irony, crashing literalness but a play as innately powerful as The Crucible benefits from less.

Miller spoke most eloquently against groupthink, against the vicious momentum of conformity and precedent as it crashes into an individual's conscience.  That is not a political position, but an ethical one.  Whilst Miller may have had an admirable political commitment (and it's worth remembering he wrote The Crucible before he was called up by HUAC) and target with the play its power to make us weep and roar cannot be attributed to a local rail against McCarthyism alone.  Spurious staging whether in the shape of Guantanamo jumpsuits of Hillsong spivvery dilutes that essential universal massage, by removing that leap of recognition we make for ourselves directors disengage the audience.

It's difficult to ruin The Crucible' but by making it 'contemporary' we make it historical and partisan.  The Crucible ought to remind us that there is no monopoly on goodness, that "Life is God's most precious gift; no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it."  

We should all thank Miller for that this reminder of the importance of that sentiment.

Sunday 24 May 2009

On I Walk The Line

When an exhibition is about a medium or a method, especially one that's so ostentatiously unfashionable as drawing has been, you know you're going to be in for lots of self-conscious disruption.  Fortunately, despite some ostentatiously silly examples, there is a lot of work in "I Walk the Line:  New Australian Drawings" at Sydney's MCA that reminds us how drawing can reveal so much of artist and subject in that short direct line between eye and hand.

The need for a curator to make a knowing mark appears in the first room, at the seven metre high charcoal mural '03/03/09' by Richard Lewer, the pencils and bricks one assumes were used to make it are strewn.  Of course this is a gallery though, so they're tidily messed up along a neat white tray with a 'do not touch' notice, as ever 'high concept' doesn't quite stand up to much creative rigour.  The mural itself is interesting, stylistically reminiscent of John Brack an urban scene with a chopped and fragmentary composition.  The scale is unexpected for charcoal and the fragility of that medium jars with the solidity of the vast wall space.  In fact much of the best work in the exhibition benefits from an understanding that, whilst the most direct and intimate of practices drawing is often the most fleeting.

That also explains what makes some of the really poor stuff fail, pieces like Sharon Goodwin's 'Afterworld', Sadie Chandler's 'Wallpaper' or James Lynch's 'Doubleday' might be drawn but feel like big empty installations, more concerned with style than thought or emotion.  Much of the drawing about drawing here is really drawing about a particular type of gallery bound idea of art, it's not very edifying.

Unsurprisingly those works that work are those that eschew the pure formal experiments but play with the medium whilst still retaining its essential intimacy.  In 'Shelf Life #3'  Peter Grziwotz's assemblage of books, photocopies, and small canvasses installed on a shelf we see an artist creating himself.  His palimpsest self portraits appear on everything, bookmarks, fanned pages, spines, some of the portraits are not much more than sketches, others more resolved but it's clear that the artist is a work in progress.  The idea of a man made by his influences might not be novel but the way Grziwotz wrestles with it through his drawing is eloquent and moving.

There is much work here that does deal with the personal, memory, its persistence and fragility is a consistent theme, explored with varying degrees of success. On the one hand Eugene Carchesio's glib cassettes labelled with variations on the theme of silence is an idea that barely survives making it to paper, on the other Patrick Hartigan's 'Country Album c1950s' uses thirty six individually framed line drawings to hint at an Australian past.  Each vignette strips back a scene to its essence, a merino ram, a man staring down into a chasm, a wallaby and a disembodied hand.  The result is eerie, there's a familiarity but without context the images become stills in some unspecified gothic Australiana.  It is more than the sum of its many parts.

If one artist here deals most explicitly with the theme of memory it is Maria Kontis.  Her work can be easily summarised as beautifully rendered pastel drawings of seemingly random ephemera, old letters or period photographs, but that does not suggest that her work is either small or glib.  The pair of images of two men in swim trunks, 'He Does Not Remember This Day', one perfect, the other smudged like a lost memory is moving in the extreme.  Kontis understands that even as we look at the marks on paper that make up a drawing we feel a sense of  impermanence, we know innately how easily they could smudge or fade.  In each of six pieces she has here Kontis has recorded something where meaning has already begun to fade.  'Eugene to Beatrice' is the image of a faded letter, 'She wondered what kissing him would be like' shows a pair of formally dressed lovers surrounded by what might be family, each of these float without context and the fading image reminds us that what was precious was that which passed between these unknown people, the absence of that leaves a beautiful ache.  

Kontis shows that an exquisitely personal vision, will always trump the vogueish showpieces that almost appear mandatory, here she appears in the same room as the photo-realist collage of Kirsty Bruce (who might have imbibed a little too much of Robert Longo and Richard Prince at art school) and the showy current affairs angst of a thirty metre long roll called 'Everyday Atrocities' by Locust Jones.  These pieces wear influence and self importance heavily, they best demonstrate that drawing has as much capacity to be empty and portentous as any other form.

But scale is less the problem here than, perhaps, the reluctance of so many artists to cast aside ironic detachment and post-modern novelty and seek something rawer and more human.  Vernon Ah Kee's portraits of grandparents and relatives are not short in ideological load, but they communicate in a direct sensory way that goes beyond their conceptual origins.  The 'portraits' from 'Fantasies of the Good' are all double life size, the graphite is written like muscle and vein onto the skin of the paper.  Great portaiture gives depth, pathos and dignity but also importantly physicality to its subject, these images could only be drawings are wonderful for that.

On the other hand Laith McGregor's finely detailed pictures of men with beards, bush beards, Ned Kelly beards, terrorist beards, look and feel very pleased with themselves.  They represent a blurring of some of the illustrative styles of pop art and a fine art tradition, but their real accomplishment is to look very serious, very detailed whilst having virtually nothing to say about anything but the artistic status of the biro.  That they do so with an apparently knowing humour is, of course, one of the great tricks of art today, as viewers we hate the idea that we might not be in on the joke.

When 'I Walk the Line' is good it's sublime, at other times it is unintentionally silly.  Drawing might be the thread that runs down through so much of what affects us deeply in art, a single line can tell us volumes and it makes demands on artists and is a litmus test for their vision as much as their technique.  Many here pass, they transcend fashion and let the paper carry something as unique and human as a fingerprint.

Tuesday 19 May 2009

On Gatz

The advice given by his father to Nick Carraway, the narrator of 'The Great Gatsby', is that "Whenever you feel like criticizing someone, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."  He might have added that when confronted with the prospect of seven and half hours in the theatre you shouldn't automatically assume it will be excruciating.  'Gatz', by New York theatre company Elevator Repair Service (performing at the Sydney Opera House on weekends until the end of May), which is something between a reading and a dramatization of every word of 'The Great Gatsby' is anything but.

The production is set in an office that reminds us what offices used to look like, all beige computers and mismatched furniture, but never reveals what people there actually do.  The fully realised set, with windows into external corridors will become the site for Gatsby's desperate bacchanals, a seedy uptown apartment and the poolside where all ends too soon.  The conceit of this tragic masterpiece breaking out from the blank filing cabinet of this shabby work-place is oddly appropriate, Fitzgerald dealt with what can fall into the gulf between American pasts and the futures not about the Jazz Age on Long Island.

Nick is played by the crumpled and engaging Scott Shepherd, and his reading gradually moves from being a private contemplation to a point where his colleagues assume roles of the novel's characters.  The transition is much needed, the first half hour or so feel like a reading with the promise of a play breaking out, that said the beginning of the novel is characterized by the absence of the eponymous protagonist and the sense of anticipation and relief when he arrives is similar.

What develops is a sensitive reading of the book that uses the actors to serve as counterpoint to the text.  Sometimes that falls too heavily on the side of ironic juxtaposition, talking about Gatsby's hair when he's played by a bald actor isn't exactly clever, but more often it adds a fleshy roundedness to characters who have become so familiar over the years.  Thus Jordan is made sporty and sparky by Susie Sokol and Myrtle is injected with the life that she needs to make her death so jarring, by Laurena Allan.  And throughout the novel is the thing, more than anything else the timing and direction bring out the beautiful rhythmic lyricism of Fitzgerald's prose, making the work of any future dramatic adpator perilous.

The moment of tragic apotheosis in the book is the hot summer night in the Plaza Hotel, where Gatsby's romantic utopia is smashed against the rocks, as we realise that whatever life he has constructed for himself it is unable to overcome the realities of an American aristocracy happy to compromise for its position.  Of course the real tragedy happens in the blur after that scene, cars, guns and flesh collide, but the damage has been dome already.

This passage is the most eloquent and compellingly staged, just as it ought to be.  Gatsby in his pink rag of a suit is lit like an interrogatee, Tom straddles a chair wide legged the dominant predator in silhouette whilst Daisy is haloed in the yellow glow of light from the office window.
The only face we see consistently is Gatsby's, and it is like he is being taken apart piece by piece, and the occasional and constant flicker of uncertainty consumes him.  It says much for direction and playing that a tiring audience can be held in breathless empathy this many hours in.
So much of the effect of 'The Great Gatsby' comes from the very form of its tragedy, so tightly conceived and inevitable is the mechanic of Gatsby's demise that the artifice of Gatz feels quite fitting.  Nick's receptive fallible narration is chorussed by his colleagues, who are drawn into something archetypal and ritualistic, just as he and Gatsby are.  'Gatz' does something remarkable, it takes a book made mythic through familiarity and reminds us of the human truths within it.  It reminds us that grand narratives of American life are only part of the story and that the way that lives, fortunes and dreams are as frail and brittle as flesh.  It's a production that everyone who can should see.

Tuesday 5 May 2009

On Patricia Piccinini

Nothing should work about the art of Patricia Piccinini.  Her special effects mutation sculptures ought to be kitsch, their appeal to the post-structuralist theories of gender, identity and biology politics ought to obscure any deep felt response and their confrontinal transgression (or at the very least the fact that you can use such a phrase about them) should set off all sorts of artwank alarm bells.  Somehow none of this is true and in 'Evolution', a retrospective exhibition in Hobart's Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, she makes a deep appeal for cerebral, visceral and emotional connection.

Piccinini has a very particular practice.  She creates sculptures, and also short films, drawings and photographs, that have a special effect like level of realism (most reminiscent of Ron Mueck's experiments with scale) even as they represent impossible mutations between human figures and pigs, reptiles or apes.  It sounds awful (and I mean 'bad', not simply repellent), but the figures manage to avoid being beautifully executed freakshow exhibits.  Once inside this feels a long way away from vogueish shlock and I found myself moving through deep felt and often contradictory responses.  A typically moving piece is 'The Long Awaited', on a bench a boy seems to fall asleep with the head of a wrinkled, grey haired, naked sea creature cradled in his lap.  It is achingly affecting, the creature with her wrinkled dugs might be Tiresias or an ancient mermaid, but she also exudes an immense weight that might be resignation or peace.  The boy too is ambiguous, his features hint at Down's Syndrome but the most striking figure is the way his tiny hand cradles the creature's immense head.  'The Long Awaited' speaks eloquently of acceptance and benediction, there is something wrenching in its grace.

Tasmania, with its singular and sometimes mythologized zoology, is a perfectly eery home for Piccinini's work.  'Evolution' is interwoven into the fabric of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.  A room with thylacine remains and a massive diorama of native wildlife (much of it unique to the island) serves as the ante-room to the exhibition, which has already colonised its displays.  In a newly polluted diorama (where manmade garbage sits between Tasmanian devils and wallabies) a contorted shark like figure that could be plucked from Dante's inferno, 'Bottom Feeder', appears to scavenge for rubbish.  Elsewhere museum staff carry pink and hairy baby creatures in black slings.

The most striking, not only physically but also for its mixture of resonance and quiet, is a room sized diorama called 'Perhaps the world is fine tonight'.  It creates the illusion of a mountain top at night, overhead fly a pair of eagles carrying, like perverted storks, a scrotal mass of flesh.  Below a girl is asleep, perhaps, on a stone that in its altar-like flatness suggests she may even be a sacrifice, it might be one of Goya's 'Caprichos' rendered in fur and fibreglass.  She has neatly removed her shoes and seems at peace for around her she is watched over by a host of curious timid Tasmanian devils.  For once, in the representation of these marsupials, no fang is bared and they appear at once solicitous and concerned at what this intruder in duck egg blue might be.  The whole work is shadowed with unease, we ought to feel uncomfortable, and yet the sense of peace and acceptance in the face of the alien and sinister (and I think that so much of Piccinini's work is about our need to accept the other and the difficulties that we face in doing so) creates a welling sense of optimism.  

Piccinini's world is not a version of 'E.T.' where here mutants are pedalled off into the moon glow by some plucky curatorial staff.  'Evolution' has been skillfully curated so that we first walk through pain, suspicion and anxiety, the world is not always a happy one for these creatures.  One, in the video piece 'When my baby (when my baby)' is not much more than the bunched and crinkled brow of orang-utan fur seen through a veil of tears.  

One of Piccinini's best known works, 'Big Mother' follows.  A naked neanderthal-like woman, as much baboon as human, but for her pink vulnerability, suckles a human child whilst hunched warily, one club like hand hanging down a reminder of animal power.  Beside her are two pieces of pale blue luggage, they hint that she might be displaced, a refugee from something awful, certainly a stranger in a strange land.  For all her strangeness, her shell like spinal column forcing through her skin, the mandril like cheeks we still look for anthropomorphic points of connection and we find them in her eyes.  She looks into the mid-distance, not quite at ease and familiar enough for us to wish to take the fear away.

Much of the effect and affect of the work in 'Evolution' comes from a dislocation of our expectations, children ought to be afraid of things with claws and an exoskeleton.  By the time we reach 'Undivided', where the creature from under the bed (and from the equally vulnerable piece 'Surrogate') might have climbed into it to join in a tender protective cuddle.  Again the scaly textures come up against pale blue (the key colour, with fleshy pink, in Piccinini's palette) flannelette and it is hard to say which is the most vulnerable or yielding.  

Piccinini's extraordinarily detailed sculpture renders flesh realistically, to the point where veins break through, hair bristles and wounds weep.  The realism is emotional as well as physical.  Pre-teen children, human or not, are a constant throughout.  The point of vulnerability is obvious but no less effective. This is not necessarily art about childhood or motherhood, although both are here and illustrate themes well.  Childhood represents an assumption of the ability of children to accept the 'other' prior to social conditioning, their responses are direct and unmediated.  Similarly motherhood represents a point of transformation and anxiety, 'Evolution' in practice.

There is so much flawed, tender and confused humanity in 'Evolution' that it easily transcends most conceptual art.  There a plethora of technological and theoretical collisions that the work passes through, but this is not an exhibition about mutation.  Piccinini shows that through contact and exposure humans can evolve to accept one another, that peace and comfort come from engagement.  This is basic but true, and it is why this exhibition is essential.