We had a conversation with Ugo Rondinone last year while he was having his show at the Museum of Contemporary Art. He had done some circular paintings as well as a video of Bader-Meinhof type people walking around and another of some clowns taking a rest in front of a wall of shattered mirrors. “Hey Ugo”, we asked, “Why are you doing paintings as well as photography, sculpture and video?” He didn’t miss a beat – “If you think of a painting, it would be round,” he said with a strange certainty. He was so persuasive that we became convinced he was right but as soon as we walked away we couldn’t think why a painting would be circular – but it made a crazy kind of sense that a Swiss artist would say such a thing. They’re just crazy! And paintings should be round!
We were thinking of Rondinone when we were looking at the work of Liz May Post at the exhibition Nelson + Post at the MCA. This is the fourth MCA show where an Australian artist has their work exhibited alongside the work of an international peer. Jan Nelson, an artist from Melbourne, shows with Post, an artist from the Netherlands.
When you come out of the lift on level four there is a video projection of Post trying to get her foot in a stirrup that’s been thrown over the back of an elephant. The elephant is too big l for the artist to mount so she’s just kind of just stuck there halfway between a decision and an action. In another work, a photo of the artist standing next to a railing in a park, Post is dressed in what looks like a light green-blue business suit with matching shoes and she has a rather severe haircut and very pale skin. It’s only after a second or two that you realise her feet aren’t actually touching the ground. In her video piece Visitors (which goes for just a minute and a half) three people are in a room with afghan rugs on floor, walls and ceiling. Their clothes are also made of afghan rugs and they have matching hats. The people move about in the room. In a video work called While shown on a plasma screen mounted in the gallery (and which runs for just three minutes) some people wait in a foyer or a waiting room as soot or ash rains down on them. A close up reveals the ash to be little glitter stars.
We were reminded of Rondinone because Post’s work seems to come from a similarly eccentric place where only the artist would completely understand where she’s coming from. Or perhaps not – it could very well be that the work is intuitive, casual and, although highly polished and technically accomplished, it still manages to preserve the sense of magic one finds in the best contemporary art. A painting is round because it should be so and an elephant is a horse if you think it is…
Jan Nelson’s work is being exhibited at the end of the gallery and the segue from Post’s work to hers seems like a cinch. Post has a whole bunch of photographs along one wall, a couple of sculptures and some stripy paintings and, in aesthetic terms, the change over from one body of work into the next feels like stepping into a new extension of an airport – it’s all very clean and sleek and continuous. But it was only when we were with a few paces of the photographs that we realized that they were in fact photorealistic oil on canvas paintings, the big paintings were actually photographs and the people lying on the floor were sculptures.
Sometimes painting can seem like the hoariest of all art forms – every one has had a go – and compared to video and photography it can look pretty ragged. But then you see the work of an artist like Nelson, you realise how perfect and timeless painting can be. Not only that, it can seem thrillingly modern. Apart from the masterful execution of these works, there’s an aesthetic here that is completely contemporary. It may be oil on canvas, but these works could not exist without the visual culture in which we live. Nelson has a series of portraits of young people called Walking In Tall Grass and each has a separate title presumably with the name of the subject – Charlotte, Hannah, Justin, Amelia, Carter and so on. Each of the paintings depicts the person with their faces averted from the viewer, some are concentrating on toys – Pok?mon dolls, Game Boys, guinea pigs and puppies – others are listening to headphones or drinking from Giant Slurpee cups. The effect of the collected images is quite stunning, conjuring up a world that is cool and distanced, perhaps even alienated, but at the same time enraptured by its toys.
The striped paintings set at either end of the gallery are reminiscent of early 90s Mossimo t-shirts or perhaps the colours of the 7-11, but either way the corporate nature of the colour schemes creates an ironic commentary on the portrait series and the whole of contemporary abstract painting as well. We weren’t so sure about the sculptures of unfortunate bicycle messengers even though the execution was good – we just aren’t fans of Piccinini-style figures. We inspected the two large photographs on the facing wall to make sure that they weren’t paintings and they weren’t. Phew. They were however Jeff Wall-style frozen narratives and judging by the dates and the title Walking In Tall Grass, these seem to be where Nelson’s work is now headed. We think would be great shame because just about anyone can make photos like these – and many do – but very few people can paint like Nelson.