LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE

In a show of lit­tle sub­stance, at least the art­works are big and brash, writes Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

BY far the most mem­o­rable work in Op­ti­mism at Bris­bane’s Gallery of Mod­ern Art is the floor of a mod­est Queens­land coun­try house, owned by grain farm­ers Rod­ney and Colleen Mundt. Not a floor plan but the ac­tual floor, lifted off its foot­ings, the walls sawn off, and mounted ver­ti­cally in the enor­mous cen­tral ex­hi­bi­tion space. The re­sult is a lit­tle like looking at the re­mains of an­cient houses in arche­o­log­i­cal digs, where the mud-brick walls have long dis­in­te­grated, leav­ing only the stone foun­da­tions as a trace of what was once some­one’s home.

There is a sim­i­lar poignancy here, al­though the past al­luded to is so re­cent. We can see the en­trance porch, the suite of rooms ar­ranged on a sim­ple square plan, the kitchen, built around a fuel stove, and the bath­room ( the toi­let, of course, was in an out­house). The floors are cov­ered with linoleum, in dif­fer­ent colours and pat­terns for each room. It is all at least a half-cen­tury old, so that th­ese un­ap­peal­ing sur­faces have be­come muted and pati­nated with age. In sev­eral rooms we can read where wardrobes and dress­ing-ta­bles once stood, their shad­ows, as it were, sur­rounded by ar­eas worn by con­stant walk­ing to and fro or faded by light.

Is this art? That’s an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion. Sean Cordeiro and Claire Healy’s piece is cer­tainly an out­stand­ing idea for an ar­chi­tec­tural mu­seum, but we can let that pass be­cause it is gen­uinely thought­ful. Is it an ex­pres­sion of the op­ti­mism the ex­hi­bi­tion is meant to cel­e­brate? Not in any usual sense of the term, but then it is un­clear what the theme of the show is re­ally sup­posed to be in the first place.

At the open­ing of the ex­hi­bi­tion, which took place be­tween a crash in the stock mar­ket and a dis­as­trous storm a few days later, every­one seemed at pains to in­sist that their op­ti­mism was not to be con­fused with su­per­fi­cial­ity and silli­ness. Un­for­tu­nately, it was too late. The book of the show opens with a pho­to­graph of a young woman who calls her­self Ar­lene Tex­taQueen, work­ing on a draw­ing and quoted as declar­ing, ‘‘ Yes, I wear a su­per­hero cos­tume. I thought I needed to be some­one . . . why not a su­per­hero?’’ Why not in­deed? Ar­lene as­tutely has re­alised that she ‘‘ needed to be some­one’’ — to have an im­age and a brand — if she was to at­tract the at­ten­tion of the peo­ple who or­gan­ise shows such as Op­ti­mism. One hopes that this need to be some­one doesn’t ex­tend to her pri­vate life; that would be rather sad.

Shows such as this have an in­tel­lec­tual ra­tio­nale the way a fash­ion col­lec­tion does. The open­ing es­say be­gins by declar­ing, ‘‘ Op­ti­mism is so much more than a Latin word for hope.’’ Ac­tu­ally, op­ti­mism is not a Latin word but an English one; and it is not even de­rived from the Latin for hope, which is spes . Op­ti­mism comes from a Latin word mean­ing ex­cel­lent or best and ul­ti­mately from a verb mean­ing to choose. Our mod­ern word op­ti­mism arose in the early 18th cen­tury to de­scribe the doc­trine of Got­tfried Leib­niz, the Ger­man philoso­pher who as­serted that the world as made by God was ‘‘ the best of all pos­si­ble worlds’’. This the­ory was lam­pooned by Voltaire in his un­for­get­table story Can­dide , in which ev­ery­thing keeps go­ing hor­ri­bly wrong.

There is one thing worth read­ing in the cat­a­logue. John Birm­ing­ham, who also spoke elo­quently at the show’s open­ing, is the au­thor of a short but out­stand­ing es­say. He speaks of the pes­simism and sense of fate that were so much a part of the Greek view of life, yet in­fers an un­der­ly­ing op­ti­mism from the ex­traor­di­nary determination and hope with which they re­sisted the Per­sian in­va­sions. One might add that the whole ten­dency of hu­man­ism, that con­fi­dence in man that the Greeks in­vented and left as such a pow­er­ful legacy, is in­her­ently op­ti­mistic; the dark vein of pes­simism and the sense of the tragedy of life that they also ar­tic­u­lated is the re­al­ity prin­ci­ple of hu­man­ism, without which the op­ti­mistic in­cli­na­tion would be self-delu­sion.

If the ex­hi­bi­tion makes one thing clear, it is that what is called con­tem­po­rary art must have a cer­tain look. Of course this can be true of other pe­ri­ods and styles too: some peo­ple ex­pect art to come in an or­nate gold frame, while oth­ers want it to be cool and min­i­mal; for some it has to be ab­stract, for oth­ers fig­u­ra­tive. All too of­ten it is this gen­eral look that mat­ters more than the qual­ity or con­tent. Peo­ple tend to see works of art from the out­side, as ob­jects that an­nounce and project their own sense of iden­tity, rather than to en­ter into them imag­i­na­tively; they treat them, in other words, as signs of sta­tus and cul­tural al­le­giance.

Of course con­tem­po­rary art is no dif­fer­ent. In­di­vid­u­als and cor­po­ra­tions con­sciously col­lect such work to ad­ver­tise their own as­so­ci­a­tion with in­no­va­tion and eco­nomic per­for­mance.

So what is the look of to­day? Judg­ing by the Bris­bane show, it has to be big and bright and rather bru­tal. It must make an ef­fect im­me­di­ately, like a brand or logo, not de­mand close en­gage­ment or si­lent at­ten­tion. And each style has to be con­spic­u­ously dif­fer­ent, so that heavy-handed paint and lurid colours are jux­ta­posed with scrib­bles in felt-tip pens or dig­i­tal prints.

The ef­fect pro­duced by all th­ese stri­dent voices call­ing for our at­ten­tion at the same time is an in­evitable ca­coph­ony. Such an ex­hi­bi­tion de­sign im­plies that the au­di­ence is ex­pected to be in­sen­si­tive or un­re­spon­sive. We may for­get that art hardly ever has been shown in this un­sym­pa­thetic way, even in the very re­cent past. Usu­ally works that are hung to­gether are sim­i­lar enough for the spec­ta­tor to ad­just to a cer­tain sen­si­bil­ity and en­ter into the imag­i­na­tive world of the artist. Here we are sim­ply buf­feted from one style to an­other.

In­ter­est­ingly, a smaller space ( rather pre­ten­tiously called the Sa­lon Project) has been pro­vided for works on a more mod­est scale. The la­bel on the out­side again re­veals care­less re­search in claim­ing that the French Academy of Paint­ing was founded in the 18th cen­tury ( it was ac­tu­ally 1648). It also in­cludes a re­mark­able non sequitur about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween paint­ing and photography, ap­par­ently to jus­tify the prac­tice of bas­ing paint­ings on pho­to­graphs. The truth is that the vo­ca­tion of paint­ing is to cre­ate a vis­ual ob­ject from some­thing that is not an ob­ject at all. The painter must take the enor­mous risk of en­gag­ing with a non-ob­jec­tive, elu­sive ex­pe­ri­ence. Pho­to­graphs are a de­cep­tive short­cut. The most in­ter­est­ing pieces in this room, none­the­less, are Anna Plat­ten’s oddly sur­real fig­ures and Michael McWil­liams’s dis­con­cert­ing lit­tle in­te­ri­ors.

Else­where, there are mo­ments of gen­uine sen­si­tiv­ity and re­flec­tion, such as Dar­ren Sylvester’s in­stal­la­tion re-cre­at­ing a de­mol­ished Ja­panese gar­den, mo­ments of hu­mour with Michael Le­u­nig’s car­toons, or mo­ments of re­spect for cul­tural tra­di­tion in the re-cre­ated tra­di­tional head­dresses of Ge­orge Nona. Aleks Danko is of­ten witty, and Dale Frank’s enor­mous ab­strac-

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