Friday 16 September 2011

On Life and Art

I can trace it all back to a moment, when writing ArtKritique became too heavy and so vapid as not to matter. We were at the Australian Centre for Photography, which was decked as an Alice-like warren for a retrospective of Polixeni Papapetrou photographs. I reviewed the show, moved by the way it vibrated deep through culture and psyche, but I couldn't bring myself to write about the most recent sequence of work 'The Dreamkeepers'. These were vivid dislocations, fragile human figures with oversized papier maché heads redolent of grotesque Punch and Judys, placed on rocks, beaches and hilltops where nature's power hides itself least. These people's bodies seem all the more frail for the size of the masks, they wear charity shop clothes that are a register too bright and age has made them caricatures. It was as if we were looking at age, at human frailty, through the eyes of a youth obsessed media (the large scale prints have the production values of advertising or an editorial fashion shoot, and that callous dismissal makes the characters figures of immense sadness and sympathy). It wasn't that I didn't like the work it was that I couldn't find words or even feelings for it or for that matter for anything since. Two days prior to posting that review I had learnt that I was going to be a father for the first time.

Now it's been over six months since I last wrote (the only other piece I've posted since then was written much earlier as a catalogue essay) and I feel I owe myself an explanation. Those early days feel strange now, a jumble of thoughts and feelings that I didn't imagine I'd have to call upon. Images and positions that seem so clean and clear in the abstract took on a new blur, choices became seismic and irrevocable and a rock had been thrown into the mirror pool of our future. The biography and psychology around all that doesn't matter here. Now we're four weeks away from being parents and live in a state of nervous excitement. The mental space that isn't taken up with the preparations for a new life has been flooded with thoughts about care, love and values, I spend an awful lot of time thinking about how to live in the world. At the time of that exhibition I looked at that those photographs, how they dealt with the subjectivity of age, the reduction of a life and a person, and felt that art about living was too hard to write about, scraping too close to the bones of my present anxieties. Since then, as this child has become a presence in our lives, I've come to feel that art, the art I respond to, will help us and remind us of what matters. And that's why I need to start writing again.

In the time being I haven't stopped looking or talking or even laughing at art. One attempt to write about the AGNSW's Anne Landa Award show was a real low point, it made me question whether I wanted to write about things I didn't like at all. I've written about work in this biennial prize show before and enjoyed it but this time it wasn't going to happen. The title 'Unguided Tours' is probably enough to warn off anyone less optimistic than myself. There's something painful in that oxymoron, a student cliche with a ring of radical chic situationism. It's meaningless although, if that was the point, that's not a bad summary of the show. Someone called Charlie Sofo had shot deliberately banal and artless video footage of walks around Melbourne and collected, and at this point I actually roared with laughter and blurted "you are shitting me?", the pebbles that were caught between the grooves in the soles of his shoes as he walked round. It's all comically weak. There are more poe-faced practical jokes, junk art that claims to question surf and muscle car cliches, but misses the point that these cliches are regularly deconstructed and reappropriated in popular culture as they have been for forty years or more. I went to the Anne Landa award hoping to find something magical or charming or challenging and instead all I found was a series of rusty old avant garde poses recycled through a different medium. I would say a 'new' medium but that's not really true since, unlike the 'contemporary' art world, I've using video since I first saw 'The Shining' on a neighbour's betamax in the early eighties. The problem is that I had all of my buttons pushed at once and I really hate giving people with such limited ideas or ambition the pleasure of doing that. For art that hopes to be seen as modern I see an awful lot of old ideas, I see a belief that opacity, juxtaposition and irony are indicators of artistic worth. What really annoys me is that, and I grant you that this might be a moment of paranoid projection but I'm relaxed about that, someone somewhere thinks that because I think this is risible rubbish that they have achieved a moment of avant garde confrontation. They haven't. I think its crap on any terms, not just mine.

But lights in tunnels needn't be trains. During a visit to South Australia we (that 'we' isn't royal, it's two, almost three, of us) we saw a Patricia Piccinini retrospective. All it's naked fleshy vulnerability reminded me that the challenge of art was the reason I loved it. I've written about Piccinini before (and much of the work in Adelaide was tyne same) so won't go into detail here but what makes her extraordinary is this restless going over of flesh and otherness. The strangeness of her mutant creations is belied by their familiar pink vulnerability, there is a corporeality that make sit impossible to dismiss them as monsters. Piccinini explores what it is to be human and is significant because she does' t present reductive answer, it is as if she can't answer but the act of trying is an answer in itself. That's confusing perhaps but it rings true to my life now. Art and life are about uncertainty, it’s why corporate power architecture or Tea Party fundamentalism are so scary, that level of certainty, of impervious finite certainty is unnatural. From Picasso I get a sense of someone looking and tellingly restlessly re-looking, painting to try to understand. This might be why Michelangelo leaves me cold, those crystalline forms and icy contraposto seem to be too programmatic and ideological. I'm not sure I need that much more certainty in the world.

I felt robbed when I heard Cy Twombly had died. Twombly’s work was like an obsessive scratching through the accreted surfaces of Western culture. I've not seen enough of Twombly's work in the flesh, I love the references but it's the paint that sings. There's something graceful in his work a balance between the density of the marks he made and the white fields they exist in, but that balance is hard won and restless, that's what makes the abstract feel so human. Mark making is evidence of life and as such it carries a human stain. The aura of the producer is not the same as the status bestowed on saints relics. The marks we make are the signs of us trying to break through the walls of otherness between us, the curtains of individual consciousness being pulled back.

Lucian Freud might make people feel uncomfortable. A profound lack of irony, an exposed candor in the paint. There's a care there, something that states it's intention, makes it's presence clear. Freud might fail on occasion but you know he's attempting using paint to find the person through their flesh. It's not a sentimental art but it does seek affect, it seems to strive for an empathy that doesn't come automatically. There's a tension in Freud's work between the cold clinical light of the autopsy and the warmth of blood beneath skin. It's not a sentimental art but it does seek affect, it seems to strive for an empathy that doesn't come automatically. When it comes to Freud's I'm more Lucian than Sigmund can't help feel that art that claims a therapeutic value is pretty limited if not dishonest. That said art that tries to show us what it might be like to be inside another individuals head or skin seems to me to have a major claim on our attention, no matter hope successful that wrestling is. If we think art is satisfying if it can raise an eyebrow or provoke a snigger then we don't have very high expectations of it at all. One doesn't have to ascribe art with any transcendent or spiritual quality if one is to believe that it should move us.

Since then I've been into the AGNSW at times to look at the Bonnard and Rubens self-portraits. The rheumy film in Ruben's eye is one of the most beautiful things I know in art. This knight diplomat, at the peak of his artistic powers, defining an age and shaping the image of kings and queens, is an ageing human being. Something similar happens with Bonnard, he's not a young man and the gradual entropy of molecules of colour of remind you of that. The striking domesticity of the scene in front of that mirror, the smallness of a man in a blaze of yellow light are immensely moving. Art needn't be a mirror, and in a narcissistic age we don't need any more of those, but self contemplation is different than vanity. Scorates' notion that 'the unexamined life is not worth living' might be an invitation to navel gazing but great art reveals itself in the honesty of that examination. Great art is us wrestling with what is is to be ourselves.

I'm not a catastrophist and whilst there's much that worries me in the world, the cynical grip of finance on politics, the vicious dogma of religious and ideological fundamentalism and the ease with which civil society discards the concerns of the poor and frail, there's too much in this world that's hyper ideological whilst hiding behind a fallacious veneer of rationalism. Humanity and the humane demand more than glib punchlines and theories, theory isn't going to love you when you're cold and hungry.

Now I feel differently. I do believe in something more profound than art as an hermetic critique of other art or an ironic counterpoint to mass media. I believe in love and flesh and death and care and beauty. Frustration without a response doesn't seem like a healthy or positive place for prospective and opinionated parents. I look to Auden's observation that 'we must love one another or else we die' and think life does matter and art that's committed to that idea is worth fighting for.


  1. Tremendously honest and heartfelt post, Matthew. I, for one, always appreciate when abstract theories give way to "love, flesh, death, care and beauty." As a working painter/artist my whole view of the world, life and art changed the day I held my first baby in my arms. Lovely poem by Auden. It is my intention, both intuitively and consciously, to bring forth images for a revived era. With beauty and compassion as a compass perhaps the process of shifting from harming the world to living in a mutually enhancing manner can be strengthened? As a mother/artist, I can only hope and question.

  2. This post spoke to the insides of me - raw, honest, perplexed and vulnerable. not giving up. it's good for all of us.
    I value these posts, sometimes grappling, groping on an edge, often decisively lucid, having found some ledge, this one transcribes a universe, like a shimmering, raw, open body, full of little clear and beautiful stars. It encapsulates a mind.
    It speaks so directly to my own mind/being as I'm sure it does to many who struggle with this labyrinth of art.
    For, as it says, we must hold to uncertainty, tolerance, which allows us to humbly bend to try to encompass all art - yet there must be a limit, we must be allowed our moment to scream in righteous fury at the apparent excesses of some art's self deception. We must discriminate (as Buddhism counsels) - in art's sake between the products of honest self-reflection - and self-serving ambition. Or that of vapid culture-stylists who bleed honesty dry.
    I need these posts to help me find my way through the cauldron of art, wherein some of the dilemmas of life seems so strangely amplified. 'Great art is us wrestling with what it is to be ourselves' helps me. Thanks for that, thanks for it all.