Beard Club For Men

Reviews Sep 21, 2006 No Comments

Out on the balcony the word is that the show inside is ‘lo-fi. It’s the mantra we hear all night – lo-fi, lo-fi, lo-fi…Everyone is there, it’s packed, the drink is flowing. It’s the kids Biennale that’s on every year – Primavera 06 Exhibition by Young Australian Artists. Very few seem to have actually seen the art in the show saying with half serious promises that they’ll come back later for a “proper look.” The opening shindig is sponsored by Deutsche Bank and now, finally free of having to “thank Telstra” every time someone at the Museum of Contemporary Art opens an envelope, the crowd is effing and blinding like there’s no tomorrow.

We look around – people are in high spirits. There’s the Expat Artist back for a few weeks to take care of business. There’s the Young Bearded Painter who somehow snuck in without a ticket. The Man In The Black Hat looks like a fella with murder on his mind, itchin’ to get a few like it’s nickel night at the cat house. The Well Known Academic is wearing his pyjamas and a woman in a fox stole who looks just like Margaret Dumont cuts a path through the crowd. The Cool Kids are all there too looking, well, cool, smoking. As Salvador Dali said, the only thing wrong with young people today is that one is no longer part of it. We down a few more beers while listening to some guy saying what he’d do if he had curated Primavera. At that very moment the real curator Aaron Seeto comes by wearing a crumpled suit giving him the look of a man who has slept cramped in Economy all the way from New York ….

Seeto’s laudable idea for Primavera 06 was to eschew the thematic as the organising principle for his selection of artists and their work. It’s an idea that’s gathering a lot of momentum in the art world, sick as we are of the absurdly obvious or, on the other hand, the vague, what’s-the-idea-again-? curated shows that are more about the big idea than actually discovering what artists are doing, on their terms, and then putting it all together in a logical, credible way. Remember how people used to say that comedy was the new rock and roll? Well, curators are the new stand up comedians – have you heard the one about the artist who wanted to question notions of authenticity while simultaneously problematising the dematerialisation of the art object in light of relational aesthetics and concepts of locality and community? So we were excited to hear that Seeto had torn up the rule book and travelled around Australia without a big thematic concept in mind. He says as much in the Primavera catalogue that he visited artists in their studios and let his own taste and interests be his guide. Beaudy.

That was the theory anyway. No theme. But then, reading the essay, Seeto attempts to find some connections between the artists, wondering if the ‘programmatic treatment’ he created for himself didn’t contain hidden commonalities. They do, and that’s why the 13 artists in the show make work that looks like it could have all been quite plausibly made by the one person. Seeto is also keen to deny a greater narrative at work in Primavera than mere coincidence and parallel and yet as the work is laid out in the MCA, there is a narrative. The work in Primavera presents a through line of consistent interests, an attitude of make-do-ness, a generational world view which values self effacing expressionism over demonstrative show off skills. It’s lo-fi all the way.

David Griggs, Renewing The Spirit [detail], 2006.
Acylic and collage on canvas with wall painting, 10 paintings each 180x180cms.
Courtesy the artist, Uplands Gallery, Melbourne, and Kaliman Gallery, Sydney.

Well, not quite all the way. The show starts – or finishes depending on where you look first – with a huge, 10 painting installation wall work by David Griggs. The massive piece is called Renewing The Spirit and like his recent installation at the Art Gallery of NSW, it’s big and colourful stuff. Piling up images on canvas, the stretchers are mounted over giant cut-out donuts which are in turn mounted on the gallery wall which has been painted sky blue. The doorway is festooned with a lace curtain giving the MCA the feel of a Thai nightclub. Like the tattoos and wall paintings of Asia from which much of Griggs’s images seem to be derived, they are instantaneously appealing with lots of black and white key lines and solid areas of bright colour to draw the eye. But does your eye stay there? We kept looking away and then looking back, hoping for more, yet becoming distracted again and wandering off. Griggs’s work, for all its visual chutzpah is very polite and we keep wondering if keeping so in check is a deliberate ploy. Whatever our reservations, compared to the rest of the show Griggs’s work feels like its on steroids.

Peter McKay, Save Yourself, 2006.
Type C photograph, 76x82cms.
Courtesy the artist.

Peter McKay’s series of photos on the next wall seem like they might be shots of distant galaxies but a sandshoe seen in the bottom corner of one gives the game away – they are photos of glitter sprinkled on footpaths. They are very pretty images and give some hope to those who thought that seeing stars from the gutter was only the preserve of those lucky enough to land on their backs – now if you fall face down you’ll get just as nice a view. A second series of images seem incredibly reminiscent of Chris Offili’s elephant turd sculptures complete with glitter and text – SAVE YOURSELF says one, KEEP BREATHING says another. But it turns out they are potatoes, a vegetable that the artist claims has ‘personality’, and they have something to say to us.

The middle of the room is taken up with Christian de Vietri’s sculptures. Six Degrees of Separation is a sad line of diminishing velvet rope, as though the sculpture is leading red carpet celebrities into the ground. Facing the work is a series of three sculptures – figures standing on plinths, one each in marble, gold leaf and aluminum. The last one, the aluminum man, is one of those people who do the slo-mo “am I a statue?” thing in Pitt Street Mall and Circular Quay. His companions are more formal – one quasi Egyptian the other quasi Greek. In this series de Vietri seems to be asking us to consider the deformation of classical forms into contemporary vernacular while the former piece is a reversal where a contemporary object is given a contemporary art inversion. It works well, it’s very nicely done and it’s really boring.

Rob McHaffie, Woody and Soon-yi [detail] 2006.
Oil on linen, 2 panles each 28x25cms.
Courtesy the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney.

Around the corner in the next room the work of Rob McHaffie and SimonYates share the space. McHaffie, who shows with Darren Knight Gallery, does precise small scale oil on linen paintings of stuff. Some of it is an obvious gag – a painting of Woody Allen and Soon-yi reduces their faces to hi-lariously appropriate objects while others are more obscure – one work has a banana peel and a crushed drink can in it. McHaffie’s art is where domestic digital non-art photography meets oil painting and if you can imagine Michael Zavros giving up painting horses for a Coles tidy bag, then you can get where McHaffie is at. Yates meanwhile exhibits in artist run galleries. We saw his robot man at Firstdraft and version 2.0 is installed in Primavera. Along with the balloon aided man is a couple of works on plinths of Yates’s designs for time machine and a “duplicator”. Yates is one of the few artists in Primavera who seems not to be trying too hard to be eccentric – the work really is idiosyncratic, following what appears to be a very genuine interest in made up science. The production qualities are hand made and the accompanying texts contradictory and slightly confusing. But you hardly care – sincerity is such an undervalued virtue these days.

In the catalogue interview with artist team Wilkins Hill, Seeto comments that their surnames sound like brand or a company. It does and their work – The Danger of Inheritance – looks like it’s been made by a providore of bespoke sculptural objects. Please consider the following: a steel frame sculpture like a small fence in sections; drawings of Bart Simpson as he appeared on the Tracey Ullman Show; two video screens showing an image of a spa bath being filled in bathroom with a view out to a garden: a text about Intelligent Design that argues that, despite claims to the truth of the theory of evolution, the speaker knows that Intelligent Design is proof of a creator with a master plan. There is very little in this work that makes us want to consider its hidden meanings much further than a cursory glance over its surfaces. Perhaps the logic leaps and image associations are what it’s meant to be about but it’s very hard to say and frankly, not very interesting – the work is too convoluted and willfully obscure and offers little reward for an idea that Hany Armanious does so much better.

Chayni Henry, Dead Franck, 2004.
Acylic on board, 41x27cms.
Courtesy the artist.

The 20 panel series of paintings by Chayni Henry was the hit of the opening with a long line of punters standing shoulder to shoulder reading the texts. Reminiscent of naïve paintings done for the healing power of Saints, Henry’s works are stories of everyday encounters. Some, like a tale of being nearly stranded in a national park, are what you might call quotidian-poetic while others – about lost pets and St. Francis and the Virgin of Tiwi – go for more ironic-spiritual. The works share the space with Wilkins Hill’s sculpture and it’s like putting a cuckoo clock next to a Porsche. The next room doesn’t have nearly as big a contrast, the works more or less running into each other. Benjamin Armstrong’s work channels the spirit of Sarah Lucas, limp leg like things sticking out of glass funnels reminiscent of your mum’s old vases with the odd candle holder. The sequence of sculptures is set next to Katherine Huang’s a seemingly haphazard collection of objects arranged on wooden shelves that reveal themselves to be the result of a careful plan. The aesthetic is wood a la Ikea and fits in well with Armstrong’s conversation-starter vases, but it would be surprising if they were in stock – all the good stuff in the catalogue is always an obligatory six week wait once you order them.

Katherine Huang, Untitled, 2006.
Mixed media installation, dimesions variable.
Courtesy the artist.

The mezzanine section of the MCA and the last bit of Primavera starts with Fergus Binns’s Unattended Baggage an unattended bag waiting for security to come along and blow it up. In the “post 9/11 world™” unattended baggage is to the public space as the garbage bin was once post Hilton bombing – a threatening potential. In the case of Binns’s the bag looks like it’s full of dirty socks. Binns is the king of lo-fi guy art – ironic, crappy, boozy, piss poor, Aussie. Lots of paintings, stuff laid out on the floor, more really bad paintings of really bad stuff – VB cans, a snake, the outback, builder’s crack, a painting of Steve Irwin. We know what this work is and we have to say we don’t care. We know Australia is a disgrace, but either make us laugh or let us fucking leave. An interesting contrast is the work of Koji RyuiNocturnal Emissions – Techno Homo – a fantasy landscape constructed entirely of packing foam. Like Wilkins Hill’s piece, Nocturnal Emissions is impenetrable but it doesn’t matter. It looks beautiful.

Julia de Ville, Bird Skull Brooch, 2004.
Bird skull, cubic zirconias, sterling silver, 5×2.5×3 cms.
Courtesy the artist.

The final room is a damp squib that ends with a turd in a bucket. Nature is a big subject for artists at the moment – exhibitions, monographs, big tomes in the MCA bookshop. Julia deVille makes jewellery and trophies from animals – mice and skunks and bird heads – and we’re guessing ‘problematises’ our relationship with luxury items and nature. We haven’t been past Fairfax & Roberts lately but we’re guessing ladies who lunch might think twice about sticking a bird skull on their wizened breasts. Elsewhere a mouse has been mounted trophy style. Matthew Griffin’s work is the end of the show, the last thing you see before you retrace your steps. It’s big and elaborate and starts with a tribute to a truly great movie Caddyshack and its immortal moment of a pot addled Bill Murray fishing a Pollywaffle out of a swimming pool. Griffin’s Caddyshacklemenot is a Polywaffle in a bucket, not quite the same as the movie, but, huh, funny man. The rest of the installation is a great example of the a la mode School of Depleted Aesthetics as pioneered by the alumni of Melbourne’s Uplands Gallery. Scarecrow like man stuck against the wall, some text on the wall, lots of straws, fairy floss. It all works in a way, but not in a way that really keeps you looking.

Primavera [we had always thought] had started as a prize and ended up as a survey. Not so. It was always just meant to be a showcase of young artists work. Like many annual shows it is warped and distorted by the changing fashions and moods of the people who run it and the people who curate it. It’s foolish to be always wanting things to be different from the way they always seem to turn out to be, but one thing we know which is possible is focus. Getting it just right is hard. At least an art prize gives an exhibition some focus. The ersatz “winner’ of Primavera wasn’t actually anyone in this year’s line up. Fiona Lowry, who was in the 05 show, was selected for the Colex Acquisitive Prize, a $20,000 purchase of work of art by a past participant in Primavera. Lowry went on to also win the staff voted award over at the ABN Amro gig which is another $2000 and a ‘round the world airline ticket. Not a bad week.

Here’s some cash – now git! Todd McMillan [center] receives the scholarship from Lindy Lee.
Artspace director Blair French [right] looks on. Photo courtesy Artspace.

It’s the season for prizes. Trent Parke won the main ABN Amro prize of $10,000 although he doesn’t get an airline ticket he could certainly afford one. Samuel Wade has just today been announced the winner of the $25,000 Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship while Fiona Lowry’s stable mate Jess McNeil has won Sydney College of the Art’s Fuavette Loureiro Memorial Travel Scholarship, a cool $28,000 awarded to college alumni. Although such a nice chunk of change would get you a long way it doesn’t quite compare to the grandmummy of all the traveling art scholarships – the Helen Lempriere Travelling Art Scholarship now worth a very tasty $40,000. It says in the competition fine print that you’re supposed to go overseas and study and do something or you can just doss around in Denmark. And that’s exactly what this year’s winner Todd McMillan proposes to do.

Todd McMillan, from the series Alone, Alone, 2005-06.
C-type photographic prints on aluminium.
Courtesy the artist.

The Helen Lemp’ exhibition at Artspace is a very strong field of finalists and interestingly also offers a far more accurate overview of what’s going on in the contemporary art world than Primavera 06 or a curated show is ever likely to do. There are video artists, performance-video artists, video-sculpture artists, painting-video artists, there’s even a video-kitsch artist. A lot of the work in the Lemp will be also be familiar to anyone who regularly does the gallery art trail. There’s Pep Prodromou’s collection of spooky plastic Xmas trees The Séance from Rectangular Ghost at Roslyn Oxley, Zanny Begg’s series of placards Glass Half Full from her show at Mori, McNeil, Lowry and Chris Fox from their solo outings at Gallery Barry Keldoulis, Jaki Middleton and David Lawrey’s joyous tribute to Michael Jackson in The Sound Before You Make It from a group show at Campbelltown City Gallery and Sam Smith with and without Soda_Jerk from, well, many places. Of the works not familiar to us there were a few that really stood out.

Jaki Middleton & David Lawrey, The sound before you make it, 2005.
Mixed media, dimensions variable.
Courtesy the artists.

John A Douglas has been developing an interesting body of work that seems almost completely cut off from everything else going on in the art world. Delving into male sexuality as a subject is a thankless task – people like to know someone is doing it but would probably prefer not to have to look at it. Luckily Douglas examines his subject via movies, and not the obvious ones either. In Screen Idol [Australiana] Wake Up and Puke his conflation of Wake In Fright and Walkabout into a little kitschy thing that sits on a shelf [and includes a DVD flicking up images of Douglas losing his mind] is a very apt if obscure series of reference points. Sari TM Kivinen sits in a sink and drinks booze for a DVD work called Drunk in The Kitchen Sink Again. Lauren Brincat has a cymbals stuck to her head which she hits with drum sticks for a work called Tinnitus. Both artists deal in straight up descriptive works with straight up descriptive titles – but only one of them is in her underwear. You can choose the one you prefer.

The prize giving season is the art world’s eqivalent to a family Xmas. First the presents, then the booze, then the drunken recrimnations then a long silence until next year. Part of this annual art world ritual is to celebrate the winners before turning on them like a pack of savages. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that they are the ones that get to leave Australia – a country where any minute now we’ll be forced to sign loyalty oaths, where everything will be owned by just one or two companies, where eveything that was once ours has been sold back to us and we’re expected to say thank you sir, may we have another… The artists get to leave, see how they do it overseas and maybe not ever come back. In this climate of severe depression and despair, it is everything we can do to keep our heads above the sea of whinging, bobbing heads, always complaining about everything and ready to cut down talent.

At the end of Primavera, when things got drunk and ugly, we got caught in a headlock and told in no uncertain terms that Todd McMillan, while good, aint all that. You know, they whined, he’s alright, he’s kind of funny, but you know, he’s not that great… What happened next was something that we’re going to have to live with for the rest of our lives. We smashed a glass, we busted a chair, we jumped up onto the bar and screamed – IF THERES ANYONE MAN ENOUGH TO GET UP HERE AND TELL US OF ANOTHER ARTIST WITH MORE WIT, HUMANITY, SELF-DEPRECATION, MORE INSIGHT INTO THE FRAILTY OF THE HUMAN CONDITION [WHILE ACKNOWLEDGING THE IRONY OF THE ROMANTIC NOTION OF THE ARTIST], WELL THEN MUTHA-FUKA YOU CAN KISS OUR COLLECTIVE ARSES!!!! You could have heard a pin drop.

Andrew Frost

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.