Art that asks the hapless viewer to make a decision about the motivations of the artist is starting to wear us out. We were looking at John Spiteri’s new show at Kaliman Gallery and all we could think was, please, stop challenging us! We just want some pretty pictures, not this crazy mélange of Symbolist and Surrealist imagery, a little bit of Brion Gysin beat collage with a smidgen of West Coast bad art sprinkled on top…
Spiteri paints figures that look like alien grays, faces piled one on top of another, and delicate cobwebs of oil paint suggesting we don’t know what. Spiteri includes nice bits of copper art in his work and he has a love for stencils, spray paint and pencil drawing. And there’s crayon too. And something that looks like sea grass matting used as frames. These elements shouldn’t go together – if you saw one of these works hanging in an op shop you’d think it was done by a shut in, someone who works late at night in a bedsit with blankets over the windows while listening to harness racing on an AM transistor radio.
We thought about the motivation of the artist because the whole methodology of the work seems so self conscious – can this be for real? Is this a joke? On the other hand, there is always the possibility that the artist just likes all this stuff and the way it goes together. It’s consistent at least and, in the right state of mind, they look strangely appealing – the paintings Riviera and A Chance Lost summon up the ghost of Francis Picabia but Die Another Day puts him right back in the bottle. Spiteri has made a series of decisions, conscious or otherwise, and he’s chosen to show his paintings in a gallery, so whatever the motivation there they are, art objects wanting to be taken seriously. The longer we studied them, and looked at each of the works up close, we could see that Spiteri is simultaneously serious and kidding. Eccentric is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, but Spiteri’s work really is eccentric in the real sense of the word – it is truly unconventional, in a conventional kind of way, the works calculating yet surprisingly free. Even if the whole world seems crammed with people wanting to be different, claiming the crown of specialness, Spiteri is out there pretty much on his own.
Su Baker’s show Serious Pleasure at Boutwell-Draper is an example of a kind of calculated specialness in that her techniques make her paintings, in fact, the painterly techniques are the paintings. That’s not to say the works are expressionist, far from it, and they are not exactly the more conceptualised school of abstraction either, they occupy instead a slightly troubling middle ground where you can sense that the artist is both thinking about what she is doing and is yet in thrall of the effects she is achieving. There’s nothing so quite so scary as a lapsed conceptualist caught huffing paint fumes – they know what they are doing but they’ve gone a bit dizzy.
There are plenty of aesthetic thrills in Serious Pleasure and we’re guessing by looking at the works that very few, if any, paint brushes were used in making them – there appears top be a lot pouring, dribbling, burnishing, burning and acrobatic manipulation of the canvases while the paint is still wet, allowing gravity to make its marks. The restful background colours look weathered and the globular clusters of paint poured over the top have the feel of late 60s abstraction where large, eggy yellows, traces of oceanic blues and greens and large blobs of intergalactic blacks join forces to create a kosmic elektronische musik of the mind. Freaky! Anyone bothered by this unseemly idea can rest assured that although the paintings have some subtle subversion up their collective sleeves, they are also painted in this season’s colours – orange, brown, red, whites – and will look good over the couch.
We don’t mean that in a bad way, the paintings are easy on the eye and very pleasant but we think that the artist is stopping short of something quite extraordinary. Serious Pleasure is reminiscent of a more polite Dale Frank work and has elements of early Hany Armanious paintings and you could probably find traces of the work of Elwyn Lynn here as well – but where those artists jumped out into the unknown, Baker is circumscribed by a certain, palpable knowingness.