Wednesday 21 October 2009

On God of Carnage @ Sydney Opera House

Sometimes it's actually better to know what to expect. I must have assumed that 'God of Carnage' the Sydney Theatre Company's production of a play by French writer Yasmina Reza would be serious. By 'serious' I don't even mean sober, let alone miserable, just about things that were serious, things that might make us question our relationship with one another, our surroundings or even ourselves. The shock of finding a sitcom wearing such portentous clothes is still irritating me.

I recall living on London when 'Art', an earlier Reza play, was on it's interminable West End run. Heavily advertised on the Tube as the run and its ever rotating cast continued it was like descending the escalator of the celebrity pecking order: movie star, stage actor, BBC actor, soap star. I'm not sure it ever reached 'reality TV star', even ten years ago we were more innocent. It was perfect, play as logo, one could see it or act in it and feel just the right (not too much) level of engagement with contemporary art, it was at a moment when 'Art' with a big A and Culture with a big C had become essential accessories.

Today Issues with a big I and Politics with a big P have that role, thus the silly unfocussed romp through issues that we find in 'God of Carnage': parenting, Kokoschka, class, genocide, corporate corruption. All are waved past the audience as a checklist of things serious people should be interested in.

This reminds me of British theatre of the nineteen fifties, of the limp and asexual bedroom farces that dominated the stage before Joe Orton got his mucky fingers on them. In these plays actors would often be caught between doors with trousers around their ankles as fumbling lust propelled them to another failed assignation. In 'God of Carnage' you can replace this with the hammy pregnant pauses after a character has delivered a laboured paradox, in both cases the emphasis is on the absence. The fifties plays were as full of real sex as 'God of Carnage' is of ideas.

The petulant baby boomer stirrings of 1968 still seem to permeate French drama, that not quite coherent whine about the aesthetic insults of capitalism. This the main villain of the piece appear to be a mobile phone, which might have been quite droll in 1995.

The four actors come on stage and run for their sterotypes, the shouty self-righteous academic, the proudly dumb tradesman (and naturally shaven headed), the sleazy (and equally naturally upper class English) lawyer. Such as anyone has a plum part it’s the ‘wealth manager’ who gets to both projectile vomit and shower the stage in an explosion of tulips. It's tough to say that the projectile vomiter stole the show but it was, at least, a moment of high (although fairly predictable) slapstick amidst a belch of pleased with itself contrivance. The problem might be that this is neither a didactic piece that presents an essay on the worlds ills nor is it a human piece that explores ambiguity and compromise, it's simply a glib set of aphorisms mouthed by ciphers. Not good.

I'll be honest here and say that the sheer hammy middle-brow smugness of 'God of Carnage' reminds me of why I find it a real force of will to attend the theatre (and certainly to sign up for subscriptions!). Please spare me this again.

Sunday 18 October 2009

On Guy Maestri @ Tim Olsen Gallery

Sometimes the laptop screen can be overly kind to art. Just as internet dating promises everyone is a Venus or Adonis pictures in an exhibition can promise a thrilling assignation when you encounter them online. In the painted flesh you know immediately that this isn't going to work. Guy Maestri's exhibition, Google Earth, at Paddington's Tim Olsen Gallery looked so good in pixels, his eerie studies looking like strange inner visions, but face to massive face his overly large canvasses seem at once portentous and vapid.

The show is made up of a group of largely monochrome paintings each of which give us single subjects or chamber pieces. There are portraits, chimps, pandas, landscapes and a repeated interest of men in space or beneath the ocean. The work is painterly, in its rough canvasses, exposed grounds and occasional distempered effects it reminds us of the painter's craft and seems to claim a kind of authenticity in doing so. The problem is that these effects look veryself-conscious. A face of Christ that's five feet high looks at once like a rorschach test, which might be interesting as we all have our own version of that particular saviour, but its rings of distemper are far more contrived than they are artful. There's also the question of size. Christ has a very big face, but it's not clear why. Mega-portraits are the bread and butter of portrait prizes like The Archibald, which Maestri won this year, but I always suspect that scale is intended to distract from vacuity, that a Mount Rushmore aesthetic is meant to overawe in the absence of insight. Maestri appears a one note paper here, he does big things.

Whilst the work here is highly realistic Maestri is not immune to the curse of the ironically portentous title, two smoking chimps are 'The Great Apes' while a roller sakting relative is entitled 'The Ascent of Man'. I can't decide whether that just elevates the work into another, more precious, level of kitsch or if it is genuinely supposed to indicate some kind of profundity. The fact is that a perfectly decent painter seems to picking up post-modern cues that make him look like a skateboarding pensioner. The traces of digital camera time-stamps in the corner of some paintings is a slightly embarrassing and vogueish addition that is really unnecessary, in fact it suggests and anxiety about relevance and contemporaneity.

That so much is so obvious and trying so hard is a shame. I have a sense that Guy Maestri does appear to have an eye for the strange, the eeriness of his diving suits promises much. He is an accomplished painter, but he sits in an odd middle ground where he has produced slightly odd subjects in a very traditional way, with ironic titles in a corporate art acreage. Good intentions aside these are easy kitsch, big pictures with small ideas.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Vernon Ah Kee @ KickArts Gallery Cairns

It's worth taking your time with the work of Vernon Ah Kee.

When so much conceptual art opts for predictable shock and the comfortable confrontation it is easy to imagine that anything that has such an immediate impact is similarly shallow. Not so. The two whole room installations at Cairns Kick Arts Gallery, 'Waru' and 'Belief Suspension' have a depth that's warm, angry serious and witty and that doesn't leave us until long after we leave the gallery.

'Waru (Innisfail Waru)' is a three screen video installation that places us in the midst of a day of cricket finals in a deep green Far North Queensland field. The players come from indigenous Australian teams and we observe them in action, posing and at rest. It's shot in a gorgeous honeyed autumnal light, and edited to establish both a langourous rhythm and a sense of immersion. The slow motion cricketing action is as beautiful as and footage you might see of the sport, shot in such a way as to elimimate depth of field it feels incredibly immediate. Some cricketers pose for photographs, proud and manly they stand and echo early anthropological studies, but here they suck in guts and struggle not to laugh.

Ah Kee is doing more than documenting aboriginal sportsmen. Cricket is the sport where Australian national identity is closet to the surface, but aboriginal faces are never seen in its representation. Here we see black men in the rituals of sportsmanship and the gestures of masculinity that are absent from popular culture. The beauty of Waru is that it is so humane, so tender and so funny. It's hard to watch it without smiling which is in itself a triumph in the grim-faced culture wars. The word Waru, the name of the team, means turtle in the indigenous languages of Far North Queensland. Underwater footage of the animal intercut into the cricket makes an analogy with the sense of liberation and pleasure felt on and around the pitch. From the warlike fast bowler who begins the piece through the rituals of pitches and trophies this is a work about people making something of their own, and we share their pleasure in it.

'Belief Suspension' sees a phalanx of six white surfboards hand from the celing. Onto them and the wall beyond is projeted another surfboard. This one is hanging from a tree in a wintry landscape, it is wrapped with barbed wire and swings in the wind whilst ocassionally a gun reports as someone takes pot shots at it. The surfboards cast menacing shadows, their points remind us of the Klu Klux Klan head dress and so a group of anonymous racists appear to loom over the proceedings. Of course the strange fruit of the surf board reminds us of lynchings and the barbed wire grips it in a vicious and inescapable embrace. The work is not subtle, it doesn't mean to be, it is a very direct challenge to the dominant myths of a white Australian culture. The work points at belief in myths of a culturally homogenous Australia as complicity in institutionalizing social and cultural racism. It's a quiet work, its stillness give sit an authority that makes it uncomfortable to view.

These two works sit beautifully together and each benefits from the others presence. Ah Kee is an incredibly accomplished draughtsman too and this aesthetic grounding allows him to capture the humane and vital in a way that so much polemical art on race misses. To describe him as a conceptual artist does him an injustice. His work breathes and bleeds but avoids manipulative clich├ęs through scalpel sharp wit and the light touch of true technique.