There’s a certain inevitability about a show that harnesses Melbourne’s self-professed status as a subcultural capital. Throughout the ‘90s, Melbourne – or at least its subcultural residents – claimed ‘world’s best’ standing in the high stakes of Goth, NRG, ARIs – all the stuff that makes the ‘youth dollar’ big business. We still have sweet memories of artists racing from their familiar haunts of op shops and mini skips to snaffle vinyl and PVC in Brunswick Street boutiques, with Tony Garifalakis leading the shopping spree for candelabra and mascara. With ten years passed since the word ‘techno’ became passé and baby Goths became old-skool, there’s no better time than now to translate ‘90s subcultures as an exhibition. Just enough time has gone by to rekindle fond, formative memories of Goth-stepping to Bauhaus and Neubaten in five inch platform boots, just in time before all we start squeezing out the bubs and moving back to the leafy eastern suburbs.
Family First at the VCA Gallery does more than just lock subculture within ‘90s nostalgia though. Uber-spunk curator and sometime Rosetzky model, Mark Feary, has hooked his show through a great premise – a parodic play on the politics that made all non-evangelical Victorians cringe and apologise to interstate friends in 2004. Instead of the Bible-toting heterosexism of the infamous political party, Feary offers a different conception of Family First that:
refers to alternative kinds of families or groups of individuals that may serve as surrogate families for the broken, the disenfranchised, the rejected, the bored, or those who fall between the cracks… it is something that can be adopted and adapted to any group of like-minded individuals seeking community and acceptance without sacrificing individuality.
This could have been a banal justification for Feary to curate a vanity show of dragging friends together for a kick-arse opening with free booze but the show is pretty tight and very funny, with a strong focus on Goth that suits the ubiquitous Melbourne winter blues.
New York artist Marco Roso starts the show with Headbangers of the World Unite… Hell is Here, a short video clip projected onto a makeshift wall with the soundtrack seeping throughout the gallery. Long-haired beauties head bang like Tommy Lee in a Pantene ad, each throw of the hair cleverly and seamlessly spliced together to make sweaty metal heads seem tantalisingly sexy.
On the reverse of the same wall and dotted throughout the gallery are Garifalakis’ goth-style paintings framed in gaudy gilding and set between worn-down candles. While Garifalakis’ aesthetic is extremely familiar after recent shows at Conical and Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, the paintings make clever ties with other works in the exhibition. On one adjacent wall, Matt Griffin’s photo collages and wall drawings connect heavy influences from Garifalakis, The Kingpins and Gothy zine images. On another, Blair Trethowan presents a series of ransom note-style collages. Trethowan has carved into newspaper articles and book pages, sticking excised letters and words onto song lyrics and posted reminders to Trethowan from Centrelink that his payments have been stopped. It’s a bit arts-and-craftsy, with a dash of therapy to quell the panic-inducing blackmail of Centrelink reminding us that being an artist isn’t, you know, a real job.
Other works don’t tie the knot with Garifalakis or the overall premise quite as well, especially Shaun Gladwell’s videos of skaters sliding through car parks and break dancers shaking their thang at train stations in slo-mo. The two videos, reduced to tiny TV monitors tucked behind a staircase and down a side passage, are stale after their glamorous showcasing at ACMI for 2004, with Gladwell’s well-worn turn to skater culture a blip amid the slasher kitsch that dominates Family First.
The stand-out work though is Garifalakis’ Ruin of Empires, a massive hang of photocopied collages covering a wall in the VCA back room. Calvin Klein models’ faces are redrawn as skulls with requisitely and impossibly high cheekbones. Skulls pash skulls amid adbusted slogans advertising ‘skullfuckers’ and how we must ‘learn to burn’ or have razor lips, ‘time to kiss some wrists’ a line that we particularly love. Faux-horror sells big time and there’s nothing more bonding than a bit of teenage torment, even if we’re over thirty and living in Fitzroy. Whether the work is a moment of self-reflection on the premise of Family First and its marketing of old subcultural angst, or an up-yours to it, however, is harder to determine.