Thursday, 8 May 2014

Postcard from Perth 22

AGWA: Impact/Guy Grey-Smith

It’s no secret that the Art Gallery of WA is going through some serious soul-searching after the humiliating cancellation late last year of the remaining three exhibitions in a series of six scheduled in partnership with the New York Museum of Modern Art due to a disappointing shortfall in attendance numbers. Picasso to Warhol in 2012 and Van Gogh, Dali and Beyond in 2013 were both small but perfectly proportioned, intelligently themed and thoughtfully laid out selections from MoMA’s unparalleled collection of modernist and contemporary work (I didn’t see the intervening show Picturing New York); but AGWA self-evidently overreached itself when it came to anticipated revenue, freight and insurance costs. It was a valiant attempt to put Perth on the map in terms of exclusive international exhibitions; and according to gallery figures the series attracted over 230,000 people, 60% of whom were new visitors or hadn’t been to the gallery for the last three years, and 20% of whom were from interstate or overseas; but in a city the size of Perth, and given the associated costs, in the long run even these figures simply weren’t sustainable. The cancellation of the next instalment in the series, Stranger than Fiction: Art of Our Time, also left an embarrassing hole in terms of AGWA’s presence as part of the Perth Festival, with its most spectacular recent acquisition, William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time, being installed across the square at PICA.

Partly to make up for this gap is the current exhibition of recently acquired contemporary international and Australian works mostly using video and collectively entitled Impact. Perhaps inevitably the show lacks overall coherence and I found it hugely variable in quality. Nevertheless it’s an interesting cross-section of current practice, and several works stood out for me.

The first room in fact offers two simple but monumental and moving meditations on traumatic events in recent contemporary history: Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi’s illuminated sculpture of French and Arabic books perched on a table-top and casting the shadow of pre-9/11 Manhattan in silhouette against the wall; and Turkish artist Hale Tenger’s large-scale wall-projection of illegal video footage shot just after former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated and featuring the façade of a hotel in Beirut outside which the event took place. A haunting five-minute still-shot of row upon row of identical balcony windows – their variously closed curtains flapping gently in the breeze – is suddenly and jarringly interrupted by a few seconds of shaky black-and-white footage of the same façade at night, broken by mysterious flashes of noise and light. The use of the gallery walls as projection surfaces for both works underscored for me the paradoxical vulnerability of the respective buildings and their occupants.

Around the corner in the next room is another large-scale projection-work: New Zealand/Australian artist Daniel Crooks’ video installation Pan No.9: Doppelganger. The slow-motion image of a young boxer wheels and jabs in a warehouse gym; meanwhile his ectoplasmic doubles emerge and split off from him and each other, shadow-boxing side-by-side, breaking up into fragments and blobs and eventually merging again. It’s a virtuosic piece of digital trickery, and reminded me of Bacon’s disfigured visions of (mostly masculine) flesh becoming meat – or in this case, corporeality shedding and shredding its own virtual skin.

On a wall nearby, Perth artist Rebecca Bauman’s Automated Colour Field features 100 split-panel, battery-powered flip-clocks changing colour randomly in a mesmerizing display of mechanical unpredictability. It’s an abstract kinetic work, but a strangely compelling one, though I found it as devoid of affect as an elaborate desk-ornament, despite the reference to Goethe’s colour-theory and the psychology of the emotions.

Around the corner are two Australian works that loosely belong to the genre of narrative painting, directly referencing myth or history but in a more ironic mode than the works by Fahtmi or Tenger previously described. Queensland artist Danie Mellor’s Paradise Garden: Different Country, Same Story uses pastel, pencil, wash, glitter and inlaid Svarovski crystals on Saunders Waterford watercolour paper in an elaborate gold frame. The contents place an idealised indigenous couple and cute native animals in a delicately drawn blue-and-white landscape that resembles a Willow pattern on eighteenth-century English Spode china. The effect is deliberately anomalous, disconcertingly twee and insidiously subversive.

On the next wall Poles Apart by NSW digital artist ‘R e a’ is a silent slow-motion sepia-coloured video sequence featuring an Aboriginal woman in a long black Victorian dress fleeing through a burnt-out forest. This condensed and enigmatic scene is disturbingly reminiscent of numerous nineteenth-century Gothic narratives and replete with indeterminate menace, though specifically colonial Australian themes of racial violence and genocide are irresistibly invoked. At the climax of the sequence the figure is violently sprayed from off-camera with red, white and blue gouts of paint, an obvious reference to the imperial colours of Britain, Australia and the US. Personally I found the emotionalism and didacticism of this gesture reduced the power and meaning of the work in the very act of flagging it so clearly.

More low-key, abstract and superbly executed video works from Canada and the US lurk nearby. Calgary/LA artist Owen Kydd’s durational still-lives feature mostly monochromatic objects or scraps of material carefully placed against neutral backgrounds and then digitally filmed and looped so that their apparent fixity is occasionally disturbed by random movements, changing light or gusts of wind. The eye is tricked into thinking they’re still-photographs or perhaps even cubist collages, until we suddenly realise we’re watching a moving image.

Projected along the length of one wall in a narrow alcove, Toronto artist Michael Snow’s Solar Breath: Caryatids is a more demanding work: a 60-minute fixed-shot of a window in the artist’s cabin in Newfoundland with translucent curtains unpredictably billowing in the breeze – a mysterious performance which according to the artist takes place at the same hour before sunset every day. Like Baumann’s colour-clocks, the phenomenon is strangely compelling: the more so because of its lack of mechanical artifice or indeed consciousness (other than the intentionality of observing or recording it). It also unconsciously echoes the floating blinds in the windows of Tenger’s deathly hotel in Beirut. Here though the effect is less ominous than numinous – a sense not of impending catastrophe but of pure immanence.

The stand-out work of the whole exhibition for me however is Danish artist Jesper Just’s Sirens of Chrome. I’ve been a fan of Just’s remarkable short films for some years. They’re beautifully shot and lit, feature lush atmospheric music and sound, and are highly theatrical in terms of mise en scène and performances. Content is elliptical and dialogue-free; although characters sometimes sing, the words are less important than the act of singing itself. In many ways they resemble contemporary dance or dance-theatre more than conventional narrative theatre or cinema. In fact they might almost be described as music videos, except that they don’t illustrate the soundtrack, or enact pop cultural stereotypes, but rather manipulate the tropes of the genre in order to dwell on questions of gender, sexuality, race or politics that are encoded within it. They’re also unremittingly melancholy, in a manner that recalls the work of other great Scandinavian filmmakers from Dreyer or Bergman to von Trier (or current TV Scandi-noir like The Bridge).

In the first half of Sirens of Chrome, four African-American women drive slowly through the deserted post-apocalyptic streets of downtown Detroit in a black Chevy with a purple door. In the second half, they pull up inside a vast ruined former theatre that’s apparently been converted into a carpark, where fifth woman appears, hurls herself onto the roof of the car and rolls slowly back and forth across it; the amplified sound of the roof buckling under the weight of her body, as heard from inside the car by the other women, is somehow both horrifying and erotic. The phrase ‘sirens of chrome’ refers of course to the female models – conventionally white – who drape themselves across cars for the male gaze in auto shows.

There’s much else to contemplate and enjoy – or not, depending on your taste – in Impact; but for me Sirens of Chrome eclipsed everything else on display in terms of sheer craft and as a meditation on race, gender, politics and desire in a post-industrial wasteland.


Across the floor from Impact is a contrasting exhibition that looks back squarely into the past and is emphatically local in its focus on a single painter: Guy Grey-Smith: Art as Life. This is a monumental and moving retrospective that makes a strong case for re-evaluating the artist as a major Australian modernist whose reputation has been diminished primarily by his Western Australian location and subject-matter (almost exclusively landscapes, albeit of a singular and highly stylized kind) – and perhaps more generally by his outsider status as one who consistently lived, worked and exhibited outside the mainstream. Indeed Grey-Smith based himself for much of his life in the hills outside Perth, maintaining a largely self-sufficient existence (he and his wife grew much of their own food and sold their own pottery for a living) and hiring gallery spaces whenever the need arose to show his work.

In fact, while the exhibition traces a clear arc from the post-Cézanne and post-Fauvist landscapes (and occasional portraits) of the 40s and early 50s to the increasingly harsh and abstract works (using more and more thickly applied monochromatic chunks and blocks of paint, mostly on hardboard instead of canvas) from the late 50s through to the late 70s, there’s a relentless consistency of vision in what are essentially inner, psychological and emotional landscapes – or ‘inscapes’, to borrow a term from Gerard Manly Hopkins – rather than literal representations of Rottnest, Helena Valley or Mount Magnet. In this regard – and despite the evident legacy of Cézanne and the Fauvists – Grey-Smith has more in common with the traumatized subjectivity of German Expressionist painters like Otto Kirchner, Franz Marc or others from the Blaue Reiter school or Die Brücke than the more objective optical experiments of French post-Impressionism. Perhaps this has something to do with the impact of the Second World War on the painter’s psyche (he was shot down as a pilot and interned); perhaps it also reflects something about the impact of Australian landscape and culture (or lack of it) on that generation of Australian artists (Tucker and Nolan being the most obvious near-contemporary examples). Above all, there’s an overwhelming sense of solitude and even alienation that emanates from the artist in his confrontations with deserted valleys, forests, hills and bays, or even the odd still-life, city-scape, human face or faceless figure. Indeed the looming rocks and mountain ranges in the later paintings take on the aspect of animate beings, while animals and people throughout his work remain strangely thing-like.

As such, Grey-Smith’s life and work are stark testimony to the challenges that faced – and still face ­– the European-Australian artist after the Second World War: belatedly grappling with questions about representation, identity and purpose in an increasingly cosmopolitan, placeless, desacralized and despoiled world.


Impact is on at AGWA until 2 June; Guy Grey-Smith until 14 July; both exhibitions are free.

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