SMALL WORLD

Stale, re­cy­cled the­ory chokes the Aus­tralian ef­forts in this con­tem­po­rary paint­ing sur­vey, writes Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - The World in Paint­ing Heide Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, Bulleen, Vic­to­ria. Un­til Novem­ber 9.

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

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