Monday 21 September 2009

On Jon Cattapan @ Kaliman Gallery

The eerie beauty of Jon Cattapan's work surges with life and energy. His exhibition at Kaliman Gallery (which I'm woefully late in reviewing) is one of the more engaging, relevant and lush shows of new painting I've seen this year. The works on show stem from a commission by the Australian War Memorial that saw him join the Australian peacekeeping force in East Timor. It's a great testament to the work that it stands strong even without the knowledge of that context.
The works on show are a combination of sketches and large scale painted works, the show, entitled 'Night Visions' is in a palette of greens, clearly a reference to night vision imaging goggles but so rich and varied that at times one might be in a rainforest or on an ocean floor. The green swathes isolate figures, they remove all sense of conventional linear perspective and leave the sense that the protagonists are adrift in space and time. Cattapan has an interesting technique, he creates these lush backgrounds that teeter between the synthetic and the primal and then applies sketched outlines of figures to them in a process close to monoprinting on canvass, this gives for images that seem spontaneous as they benefit from the serendipities that come about as paint and paper are applied and peeled off. This is just a part of an accretion of layers, he adds blurs that might be radio signals and lines and pulses that could be everything from contour lines to synoptic charts.

Cattapan somehow manages to create a sense of the aether of the modern world, his canvasses buzz and hum with colour, they almost appear to vibrate. In 'Night Figures (Unloading)' a truck is almost insignificant in the foreground, sitting in the mouth of a mountain pass or perhaps just in a valley of night. Around it are the orange static crackles of data, it is under surveillance if not actually under threat. This sense of foreboding that Cattapan creates is powerful in that it doesn't purely rely on the night goggle idea. The layers of data, the hidden waves of communication, speak very directly to our modern condition, we are never quite alone, recreated and reformed somewhere in bits and bytes and pixels.

In 'Night Figures (Gleno)' Cattapan is at his best, this might be a crossroads or a history painting. Figures pass, coming into the plane of the picture from over our shoulder, there are pairs of people and although they never quite interact explicitly they seem to merge. In the centre of the frame, slightly to the left we are drawn to a figure who might be naturalistic or might be bound, it looks a little like a classical statue, or perhaps like Christ at his flagellation or crowning with thorns. The picture manages to be a live and unsettling but also quite beautiful.

There is a tendency to monumentalism in much painting today, whilst none of these works quite beat us over the head with their scale it is in the larger works where Cattapan is most effective. The vista of the canvass is there to show the breadth of our field of vision, his sizing up or down of figures in a kind of shifting perspective gives us a sense of the flighty nature of perception this might be our world as we see it rather than as we photograph it. In 'Night Figures (The two friends)' the characters, casually observed with their backs to the viewer, become mythic in what might be a star map, it's this mixture of intimacy and scope that is so powerful.

For all its abstractions and complexity Cattapan's is a deeply human art. He achieves something rare by presenting the otherness and isolation of our bodies but still retaining a sense, and at its best a palpable need, for connection. At times his images might remind us of some of the more outré branches of quantum physics, where space holds a memory of the presence of people. At others his subjects, sometimes composed of little more than dots in a blurred digital landscape, seem to hold themselves together, coalesce their images, by sheer force of self. It's a beautiful achievement, it reminds us of the fragility of our flesh and the essential power of our spirit.

Tuesday 1 September 2009

On Laith McGregor @ Sullivan + Strumpf Fine Art

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

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

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

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

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

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