Stale, recycled theory chokes the Australian efforts in this contemporary painting survey, writes Christopher Allen
HEIDE Museum of Modern Art was originally the home of art collectors and patrons John and Sunday Reed. This hilly rural property on the banks of the Yarra was named in humorous or ironic reference to the Heidelberg School painters, who had worked in the area a couple of generations earlier, and during the war years it was often home to Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker.
The Reeds’ patronage went beyond the call of duty: Sunday was Nolan’s mistress before he dropped her to marry John’s sister, and the Reeds later adopted the unfortunate Sweeney, abandoned by his mother, Tucker’s wife Joy Hester. After the war, the Reeds built and moved into a new, modernist house nearby, which became a museum in 1981. In 1993 a new wing was added, Heide III ( extended in 2005- 06), and it is here that one may see a small exhibition with the grandiose title The World in Painting.
The show was put together to tour through Southeast Asia, its stated aim to offer ‘‘ a broad insight into the depth of ideas and practices in contemporary painting in Australia’’. Does it succeed in this ambitious brief? Well, viewers may like to judge for themselves whether the eight individuals chosen are a wide enough sample or truly representative of painting in Australia today. They certainly seem rather bland and dull compared with the four Asian artists who have joined the exhibition for the showing here.
One striking difference is the sophistication with which most of these artists integrate their traditions and beliefs in the making of contempo- conversation, communal experience; a life, in short, lived within a social fabric. This seems to be the artist’s overriding concern, and a video screen shows the paddy fields that are the foundation of traditional social life in Thailand and Indochina.
Now what of the Australians? To begin with, there are two Aboriginal painters, Boxer Milner Tjampitjin and Nancy Naninurra Napanangka. There is the usual question of what to make of such work. You may like bright patterns, in the former case, or you may prefer misty suggestiveness in the latter. But this is obviously a superficial response since the works are meant to embody cultural knowledge. On the other hand, that knowledge is secret and reserved for initiates. So where does that leave the viewer, apart from simply fetishising the apparent authenticity without being able to understand it?
The catalogue is not helpful, air- brushing away the problem by weaving flat contradiction into a single sentence: ‘‘ Naninurra’s paintings are connected to the land and pass on knowledge by depicting women’s ceremonies, and have become increasingly abstract and minimal in form over her career, until they now comprise an oeuvre of stunning contemporary abstraction.’’
Then we have Gordon Bennett, barely disguising himself behind his alias John Citizen. Like a child saying, ‘‘ It’s me, it’s me!’’, Bennett claims he uses this alter ego because he is ‘‘ othered’’ when perceived as an Aboriginal artist; this is rary art. Le Quoc Viet paints hanging scrolls in which images of the Buddhist faith are combined with evocations of the increasingly consumerist world of modern Vietnam. In one work, for example, what at first sight appears to be a pyramid of figures turns out to be an opening in the robe of a Buddha, as though a universe of twisted and truncated forms were transcended in the Buddhist vision of the whole.
In its subtlety, sophistication and one may even say wisdom, his work forms a telling contrast with that of Louie Cordero. After 500 years of colonisation, first by the Spanish, then by the Americans, the culture of The Philippines is a wreck. Cordero’s pictures are the painful demonstration of what happens to an individual who lacks the resources of a functioning culture. He ends up expressing rage and hysteria with materials picked from a junk heap.
The two artists from Thailand ( the only country in the region never colonised) are remarkable in different ways. Kamin Lertchaiprasert also paints on hanging scrolls, but they are two- sided. The side facing us displays large calligraphic inscriptions ( not explained in the catalogue but presumably Buddhist mantras). The other side, facing the wall, has stylised figures with multiple arms, in the convention used for Hindu or Buddhist deities to display their different attributes, but in this case holding symbols of contemporary evils. The series of four scrolls seems to evoke the four ages of man, and again balances a grim reverse with a face of calm and serenity.
Sakarin Krue- On, finally, paints tiny and fascinating tempera images, fragments apparently copied from old temple paintings. Cut off from their original contexts, they are often enigmatic, but they all evoke relationships, wryly amusing when one considers that he has also made the most of his indigenous ancestry in building a career as an artist. Citizen paints hardedge decorative paintings of slightly retromodern interiors, exactly the kind of interior in which these pictures will find their appointed place above the leather lounge.
Also curiously retro are Diena Georgetti’s little abstract pictures to which she appends regrettably pretentious texts: ‘‘ What I don’t paint is more important than what I do’’, for example. We will have to take her word for that. Amanda Davies paints images evoking hospitals and illness on the back of plastic sheets, which gives them a particularly unattractive shiny surface. The trouble is, her style is rather literal and uninteresting and she has to make up for this by using lurid colours and gratuitous effects.
Raafat Ishak’s work consists of little panels with reproductions of the flags of the 194 countries to which he has applied for residency; over these he has painted, in Arabic script, the inevitably negative replies received. The problem with this work, aesthetically speaking, is that it’s a one- idea gimmick. No further thought is needed and the scope of the project is limited only by the number of nations to which application can be made. Morally, though, there is another problem, in that Ishak had already been accepted as an immigrant by Australia and was comfortably established here before he began wasting the time of foreign governments.
Finally, we have James Morrison, whose fairytale landscapes have a certain sense of magic if you can stomach the sweetness, and Elizabeth Newman, who doesn’t paint but cuts holes in blankets. It is always curious when contemporary artists suddenly discover something — in Newman’s case, that the impulse to make art may be
motivated by the sense of loss — that has been known since the mythical age of Orpheus. Unfortunately, cutting a hole in a blanket, or even stitching together several bits of different colours, doesn’t quite articulate this insight for anyone who hasn’t read the accompanying text.
Newman also exhibits a jug because French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan thought Palaeolithic jugs were ‘‘ signifiers of lack’’.
It does seem rather odd to suggest that this disparate group is representative of painting in Australia today. But was this the true aim of the exhibition or only the publicly avowed one? Curator Zara Stanhope writes that Newman’s blankets and jug ‘‘ set the tone by contesting conventional assumptions about the material characteristics of painting’’. Perhaps this was the real criterion for selection, couched though it is in the dismally familiar theoretical cliches that trip off the author’s keyboard.
This is why the Australian works have a stuffy, airless feel about them. They are bred in the stale atmosphere of recycled theory that seems to be the peculiar intellectual habitat of contemporary art: meaningless formulas that have been used and re- used without critical thought for 20 years or more by the curators of shows such as this. It is the same jargon you encounter on wall labels as soon as you venture into the contemporary parts of big museums: threadbare ideas that once may have been interesting before they became a reflex; a tone of smug self- satisfaction combined with sour, pursed- lips ideological preaching.
Formulas used without reflection and intellectual complacency are the deadly enemies of real inquiry. So it is not surprising to find arttheoretical writings riddled with inconsistencies: in this case particularly manifest in what one may call the politics of cultural conservation.
We forget that conservation was once a conservative cause, and in the world of art theory there is hardly a more damning epithet. People who wanted to preserve old buildings, bits of forest or, for that matter, ancient crafts or native languages were regarded as bourgeois sentimentalists getting in the way of progress. How all that has changed.
But not all conservation is approved of, for some cultures are more equal than others. Thus while it is self- evidently a good thing to ‘‘ contest conventional assumptions’’ about our own pictorial traditions, Aboriginal painting is meant to be, in the curator’s words, ‘‘ a conduit for responsible custodianship and a means to convey and celebrate the matriarchal and patriarchal ancestral stories’’.
But should we not also regret the loss of cultural memory in modern Western societies? The stories of the Bible, of ancient mythology, even of history, are our own dreamings. To be ignorant of these tales is not only to be deprived of a resource that helped our forebears to give shape to their intuitions about human existence, but to be cut off from the pictures, books and music that they produced, so we are doubly impoverished. The problem of cultural amnesia and alienation has many causes and no easy solution, but bad, tendentious theory and the bad secondary and tertiary teaching that it informs are part of the problem.
It is also a question that goes far beyond the field of visual art teaching, into areas such as literature and history, which have been in the news lately. Bad historical theory disparages linear accounts of historical development, despite the indisputable fact events happen one after the other and are linked by causal and dialectical relations. Bad literary theory invites students to deconstruct texts they don’t yet understand; to dig out their supposed dirty little secrets, instead of taking the time to understand their more complex meanings.
The foundation of all of these fallacies is the corruption of critical language and thinking. Answers are taught before questions, as they were in places such as East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down. Students are equipped with a panoply of ideological solutions to every problem: they know how to recognise the progressive and the reactionary, what to sneer at and what to treat with prim respect.
The trouble is that intelligent young people soon realise this is a game to be played. ‘‘ It’s all bullshit,’’ as one bright student observed to me recently. ‘‘ You just have to put in the things the lecturers want to hear and you get a high distinction every time.’’ This is the worst possible educational outcome: the best become cynics, while the mediocre parrot what they have been told and most likely go on to teach it in their turn.
Tradition: This is What I Heard . . . # 32 ( 2007) by Le Quoc Viet, opposite page; detail from Born, Old, Sick and Dead ( 2007) by Kamin Lertchaiprasert, below left; Elizabeth ( 2004) by James Morrison, above