Hicks vs Papapetrou

Another compare and contrast this week, and like last week, based on a current NGV exhibition – this time, head-to-head retrospectives of two Australian photographers, Petrina Hicks and Polixeni Papapetrou.

Petrina Hickson – “Peaches and velvet” (2018) – image sourced from NGV

The challenge for contemporary photographers is the ubiquity of the medium. Anyone with a smart phone can be a “photographer”. At a basic level, the technology to capture photographic images is accessible to all, and no special skill is required. Add to this the impact that advertising, magazines, fashion, portraiture, reportage and social media have had on the way we view images, and there is a risk that audiences detect no difference between what they see on a billboard poster, in an on-line news article, on Facebook/Tumblr/Instagram/Twitter or in an art gallery or museum.

In these two particular shows, I think the NGV is trying to re-establish a platform for contemporary photography as an art form, and not merely as a technical means of capturing and creating images. (Selfies, holiday snaps and wedding photos are all very well, but they ain’t necessarily art.) It’s an admirable ambition, but I’m not sure these collections are the best examples on which to build such a thesis.

Polixeni Papapetrou – “Prize Thimble” (2004) – image sourced from NGV

Both photographers produce highly stylized, almost trademark images, which reveal a very methodical and deliberate approach to their work. Everything is highly choreographed, deliberately posed and meticulously arranged – nothing is left to chance, giving an overwhelming sense of artifice. These photographs are hyperreal yet also quite literal – what you see is what you get. This is not to say they lack formal narrative or even additional meaning, but despite their obvious visual appeal, it’s hard to see much beyond the images themselves.

In Hicks’ case, as well as recurring images, arrangements and visual motifs, the works on display reveal a very defined (even limited) colour palette, especially as many tones appear washed out, almost over-exposed. While Papapetrou’s work mostly feature her own daughter, in various staged settings, some of which allude to well-known fictional stories,  historical events, myths, legends and fairy tales. Despite both these exhibitions being retrospectives, based on these selections you would be hard-pressed to say there was much in the way of artistic development – there’s a sameness to both sets of images.

Despite each photographer having a distinctive style, there are also echoes of many other photographers – notably Julia Margaret Cameron, Madame Yevonde, Claude Cahun, Meret Oppenheim, Cyndi Sherman and Polly Borland among them.

Next week: The Current State of Popular Music

 

 

 

Haring vs Basquiat

Following last week’s “compare & contrast” entry, another similar exercise this week, between artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the subject of the NGV’s summer blockbuster exhibition.

Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Other artists: “Untitled (Symphony No. 1)” c. 1980-83 [image sourced from NGV website]

Given their friendship, collaborations and mutual connections to the New York scene of the 1980s, it was only natural that the NGV went for this double-header retrospective. Since they both gained early recognition for their street art and graffiti-based work, and their images crossed over into the worlds of music, fashion and clubbing, they had a lot in common. They were as likely to be featured in style magazines such as The Face as they were to be found in the arts section (or society pages) of the New York Times.

Both died relatively young, and it’s as if they somehow knew they each had limited time, such is the intense pace at which they worked, as evidenced by their prolific output. If there is one element that really links them is their inner drive – they had to produce art, there was no choice for them, and they threw everything into it.

They each developed their own distinctive visual styles, much imitated and appropriated throughout popular culture, graphic design, video and advertising. Haring is known for his dog motif and cartoon-like figures, Basquiat for his iconic crown and text-based work. They also placed great emphasis on issues of identity, gender, sexuality and broader sociopolitical themes.

Where they perhaps differ is that Haring relied on more simplistic imagery (albeit loaded with meaning and context), using mainly primary colours, flat perspective (no shading or depth), and strong repetition. On the other hand, Basquiat’s paintings reveal confident mark-making, bold colour choices (not always successful), and an implied love of semiotics (even more so than Haring’s almost ubiquitous iconography).

Of course, we’ll never know how their respective work would have developed over the past 30 years – maybe what we now see is all there was ever going to be? As a consequence, there is perhaps a sense that they plowed a relatively narrow field, that they did not develop artistically once they became gallery artists. I’m not suggesting their work is shallow or one-dimensional (even though it can simply be viewed and appreciated “on the surface”), but it would have been interesting to see where their work took them.

Finally, we are still very close to the era in which they were active, and in that regard their true legacy will be in the influence they cast on late 20th century art and beyond.

Next week: Hicks vs Papapetrou

 

MoMA comes to Melbourne

For its current “Winter Masterpieces”, Melbourne’s NGV International gallery is displaying around 200 works from MoMA’s permanent collection. And a finely selected, and well-curated exhibition it is. But this focus on the received canon of mainly 20th century European art has the inevitable effect of sidelining other eras/schools – and perhaps overlooks the importance of Australia’s own art movements.

Roy Lichtenstein (American 1923–97): “Drowning girl” (1963 – oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 171.6 x 169.5 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York – Philip Johnson Fund (by exchange) and gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bagley Wright, 1971
© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/Licensed by Copyright Agency, 2018

The NGV International display presents the work in a broad chronological sequence, but specifically collated by reference to key movements, themes and styles. It also takes in print-making, photography, industrial design, graphics and illustration, not just painting and sculpture.

Even though I have visited MoMA many times, and seen the bulk of these works in their usual setting (as well as when they have been on loan to other galleries), there were still some surprises – like Meret Oppenheim’s “Red Head, Blue Body”, which I don’t recall seeing before. And Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” always feels like it is much smaller than the ubiquitous reproductions and posters imply.

Of course, one of the benefits of presenting a survey of modern art like this is that it affords us the opportunity to re-assess and re-calibrate the works within a contemporary context. Both to find new meaning, and to compensate for the over-familiarity that many of these images convey. While at times, we have to separate the artists’ lives and times from the legacy of their work – the changing conventions and social mores of our contemporary society cannot always be used to judge the behaviours, values or common prejudices that were acceptable 100, 50 or even 25 years ago.

Meanwhile, over at NGV Australia, there is a reconstruction of the exhibition that marked the opening of the gallery’s new building in 1968. In “The Field Revisited”, we have a fascinating opportunity to experience a slice of Australian art that feels over-looked and under-appreciated – ironic, given that at the time, this exhibition revealed the cutting-edge nature of young artists working in Australia, and divided opinion among established artists and the art establishment. “Where are the gum trees, where are the shearers, where are the landscapes, where are the figurative images?” might have been the refrain in response to this startling collection of bold colours, geometric designs, psychedelic undertones, modern materials, and unorthodox framing.

The fact that far more people are flocking to see the MoMA collection (and it is worth seeing), than are visiting the re-casting of The Field sadly confirms that Australia’s cultural cringe is alive and well….

Next week: Modern travel is not quite rubbish, but….

 

Surrealism, Manifestos and the Art of Juxtaposition

Like all good coaches and mentors, the best artists challenge our assumptions, reframe our perspective, and re-contextualise both the positive and negative, to provide a narrative structure with which to navigate the world around us. Likewise, they don’t tell us what to think, but leave us to interpret events for ourselves, having given us the benefit of an informed and critical vantage point.

Image: "Untitled" (2012) by Greatest Hits, NGV, Melbourne © Greatest Hits

Image: “Untitled” (2012) by Greatest Hits, NGV, Melbourne © Greatest Hits

Over the holidays, I went to a couple of unrelated but inter-connected exhibitions that both played with our traditional perception of reality while demonstrating the importance of context in providing meaning.

The Comfort of the (Un)Familiar?

First up was Lurid Beauty: Australian Surrealism and its Echoes, at the NGV Australia. I’m a big fan of Surrealist art, having visited the landmark retrospective, Dada and Surrealism Reviewed at London’s Hayward Gallery in 1978 (and I later made a very minor contribution to a documentary on Eileen Agar in 1989). What I particularly like about Surrealism is its use of the familiar to create alternative realities, which is both comforting and unsettling. Sadly, I know next to nothing about Australian Surrealism (and I imagine I am hardly alone, given it has only recently gained formal recognition and critical appreciation).

So I was pleasantly surprised to find early pieces by major artists such as Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan, which to my mind were far more interesting than the works for which they are popularly known. When seen alongside contemporaneous exhibits by Max Dupain, Eric Thake and James Gleeson, it’s easy to see how Surrealism was a significant influence on Australian art from the 1930’s to 1950’s. And yet I don’t recall many references to the local Surrealist movement or a wide acknowledgment of its impact on 20th century Australian art. More’s the pity, when you can see how the threads of Surrealism continue to be woven into the work of contemporary artists like David Noonan, Julie Rrap, Anne Wallace and Pat Brasington.

The Long Shadow of 19th Century Gothic

Part of the problem might be the fact that later, more familiar works by Nolan, Tucker and Gleeson have become severed from the artists’ original (and modernist) Surrealist roots. Instead, as I see it, these artists (along with Boyd, Perceval, Olsen et al) have been re-cast as part of the continuing 19th century Australian Gothic sensibility (Goths being more tangible than Surrealists?). This prism prefers the literal over the metaphorical, “real” legends over allegories, and landscapes over mind scapes.

Even Inarticulate Art Speaks for Itself?

Another issue, from my perspective, is that contemporary Australian Surrealism continues to play with psychological and political issues, alongside themes of gender, sexuality and hierarchy – topics designed to make us feel uncomfortable. Whereas, in my view, too many contemporary artists are either obsessed with process over form/form over content (to the point that any potential meaning is lost); or conversely, output is everything (often reducing their work to mere illustration or decoration).

Not Made Here?

On a purely aesthetic level, and to be hyper-critical for one moment, I wonder if Australian Surrealism is overlooked because received art opinion considers it to be too derivative of its European counterpart – and therefore, it has fallen victim to cultural cringe. One possible example is Barry Humphries‘ sculpture “Siamese Shoes” (originally made in 1958, shown here in its 1968 remake). While Humphries, according to the exhibition notes, “is considered to be Australia’s first Dada artist” (only 40 years too late, some might say…), I don’t believe for a moment that he was trying merely to imitate Meret Oppenheim‘s almost identical and much earlier work, “Das Paar” (originally made in 1936, remade in 1956).  When viewed in the context of its companion pieces that also formed part of Humphries’ solo exhibitions and artistic happenings, and when one considers Australia’s cultural climate of the 1950’s, then it’s more likely that Humphries was appropriating Dadaism and Surrealism for his own purposes, specifically designed to stir up his local audience out of their suburban bourgeois complacency.

Re-directing Surrealism’s Legacy in Australia

What was especially telling about Lurid Beauty was the 15-20 minute conversation I had with one of the gallery volunteers. She was very keen to get my views on the work, and asked how I came to learn about this particular exhibition. I got the impression that attendance has not been as high as anticipated, perhaps due to a lack of publicity. Despite being on several mailing lists for Melbourne’s arts and cultural events, I had not received any promotional material about this exhibition. We also discussed whether Surrealism features in the high school art curriculum, and whether the exhibition needed to emphasise the contemporary works and themes (rather than taking a somewhat traditional or historical narrative, based on a selective bunch of male artists – the usual suspects).

Given the legacy of Surrealism on film, literature, advertising, music videos, fashion and design, I think more could have been done to make this exhibition appeal to a broader and younger audience. The works, for the most part, are vibrant (if at times challenging), and even the themes depicted in the older pieces still resonate today. (A concurrent exhibition of Les Mason‘s advertising, graphic and visual design work only emphasises the point about Surrealism’s continuing influence.)

Finally, one very welcome aspect of Lurid Beauty was the extensive collection of original publications from the NGV’s library: magazines, catalogues, journals, and of course, André Breton‘s “Surrealist Manifesto”.

In the Artists’ Own Words

Speaking of Manifesto, this is the title of Julian Rosefeldt‘s video exhibition next door at ACMI. I had the privilege of hearing the artist introduce one of the works at a special screening, in which he mentioned his fascination with art manifestos. In a rare example of an artist directly and explicitly acknowledging his sources and inspiration, Rosefeldt shared with the audience that he had even become somewhat obsessed with a particular feminist manifesto. Not only did this provide some fascinating insights on the artistic process, it demonstrated yet again that we are all products of what has gone before, and it reinforced the importance of understanding art in the context of the history, theory and criticism, when it comes to interpreting old and new art.

Using around 50 different manifestos (artistic, political, cultural, critical), Rosefeldt has created 13 short films, each representing a particular art movement. The selected texts have been juxtaposed as monologues for 13 different characters, who deliver their lines, seemingly out of context with the visual settings, but at the same time, totally integrated into coherent narrative forms.

The fact that Cate Blanchett is cast in all 13 lead roles has no doubt created additional interest among local audiences. But, not to take anything away from her performances, this should be irrelevant – the point is that Rosefeldt has taken something with very specific meaning from one context, combined it with a mix of related and unrelated elements, and created a whole set of new meanings. (If anything, seeing simultaneous versions of Blanchett performing multiple, disparate roles, screened side by side, only underlines the fact that actors are the great deceivers – which, if any, is the “real” Cate?)

The videos are looped and synchronised. At times, the monologues converge and overlap, creating three and four-part harmonies for spoken word. This further de-contextualises the source materials, while lending them further meaning, even if we can’t immediately fathom what that might be. (Personally, I think it could be a subliminal reference to the Tower of Babel, or simply a comment on the manifestos themselves – and by extension, the vacuous words of so many artists’ statements.)

Less Is More

Two other works in the exhibition, Stunned Man and The Soundmaker (both from The Trilogy of Failure), are more straightforward narratives, also featuring a single character cast in a familiar setting.

First, Stunned Man is a dual screen projection, comprising mirror images of the same apartment. Over time, elements appear to interchange between the two screens, in a process of forward/reverse destruction and re-construction. But there are enough visual clues to suggest that not all is as it seems, in this parallel universe.

Next, The Soundmaker deconstructs the work of the Foley artist, using a similar process of destruction and re-construction – but split across three screens and two scenes, the viewer could be left wondering whether the “real” action is actually the soundtrack for the Foley artist at work.

What all these works demonstrate is that sometimes less is more – a simple idea can still be executed with wit, sophistication and restraint, to lend it a level of complexity that does not over-burden the final result. It requires a deft touch. There is nothing obvious or ponderous in these films. Nothing about these highly staged videos has been left to chance – every detail has been meticulously thought through. They are perhaps all too rare examples of when formal planning, combined with creative process and technical production, can give us content that is fully formed, but still open to interpretation.

The Artistic License

In my professional work as a coach and mentor, I’m not in the habit of constructing manifestos (believe it or not, I don’t possess that level of didacticism…). But I try to challenge my clients’ assumptions, reframe their situations, and draw on analogous scenarios (not just from business, but from technology, culture, art, music, etc.) that can help re-contextualise their perspectives, especially when clients are stuck. I see a large part of my role as consultant to use the “artistic license” I have been given to investigate, interpret and identify solutions to client problems – which at times can even take the form of a type of alchemy. As one client I worked with recently commented, “the way you reframed the situation was like pure gold”.

Next week: Why The Service Sector Lacks Self-Awareness