Litmus Paper Glowing Red

Uncategorized Aug 23, 2004 No Comments

There’s not a lot to be gained on ganging up on the same person week after week. We swore off having a go at Peter Hill, the Sydney Morning Herald art ‘reviewer’, because we just kept repeating ourselves. Hill’s m.o. doesn’t change all that much from week to week and it’s probably unfair to be criticising him when we actually agree with much of what he says. True, we don’t like the way Hill says it, and we get put off by his petty moralizing, but when he’s on form – such as when he reviewed the Talking About Abstraction show at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery – he has something to say and he can say it well. But that just makes his usual slackness all the more difficult to fathom. Is it just laziness? Does he save up all his good writing for his own art projects? Is his brief to rewrite press releases?

Perhaps the best approach, we thought, was to take a longer view of Hill’s work and see if we could come up with some answers to these imponderables. We decided to keep a random selection of Hill’s reviews from the last six months and take them into the Art Life labs, dip them in a clear liquid and then, after exposing them to heat from a Bunsen burner, see what colour they turned (blue for good or red for bad). That was the idea. Then last week the SMH announced that Spectrum, the section that Hill’s columns appear in, was getting a major overhaul. There were ads in the paper about the design rejig, a new logo and the promise of exciting, fabulous, expanded arts coverage. We knew we had to act.

Then we heard, and we almost fell over en masse when we were told, that Peter Hill lives in Melbourne. He pops up to Sydney from time to time to see shows and then flies back home to write his copy. We had wondered how an art critic (sorry, ‘reviewer’) can manage to stay in touch with the art world of another city when he only comes for the occasional visit and how that same someone might develop an intimate and nuanced understanding of the art being made there? We don’t know. Some of Hill’s more perplexing habits – such as reviewing art works seen in magazines or referring readers to web sites or Scottish artists people have never heard or cutting and pasting chunks out of other people’s essays into his reviews in place of his own opinion – all would certainly be explained if he hadn’t actually been to a show and was cribbing from other sources.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s have a look at what we found:

In Peter Hill’s latest piece for Spectrum we have a review of the Zeitgeist show at the Australian Centre for Photography. As one of the curators for the show, Hill gives an account of how he came to select the artist David Thomas and a tedious re-telling of the catalogue notes and how each of the curators chose their artists as well. Hill uses a few of his standard techniques in the review, demonstrating the perils of the critic going over the fence into curating. Perhaps mindful of his word count, Hill likes to list all the names of all the artists in a show he reviews and the Zeitgeist review does just that, wasting column inches on information that is repeated elsewhere. He also lists all his favourite Australian photographers too

“The call came late one Thursday night. Would I like to be one of 10 people chosen to select one photographer each for the Australian Centre for Photography’s 30th anniversary exhibition? Of course. But what a big ask. Photography is strong, diverse and experimental right across Australia and I have many favourite practitioners. Just for starters, into my head floated the names of Rosemary Laing, Pat Brassington’s, Sarah Ryan, Jacqueline Drinkall, J.J. Voss, Patricia Piccinini, Dan Smith, John Douglas and Patrick Pound. And that was even before I began to consider the other near neighbours to photography also permissible – video art, web design, photo installations, even sound art.”

Another of Hill’s favourite techniques is to make reference to international artists in connection to Australian artists. There’s nothing wrong with doing it, but perhaps Hill might try to make his comparisons a little more apt. In the Zeitgeist review he makes a couple of astounding comparisons:

“I’ve always been interested in artists who experiment with combining photography and painting – the Austrian surrealist Arnulf Rainer being one of the main exponents in a black-and-white expressionistic sort of way. Closer to home, Joshua Yeldham‘s new work at Art House Gallery is a similar hybrid of both mediums.”

Thomas paints on his photographs and so does Joshua Yeldham and so does Arnulf Rainer! It’s experimental photography! The comparison is incredibly wide and not very helpful to anyone who doesn’t know what Arnulf Rainer’s work looks like. Perhaps if they did they would be as agog as we were reading that sentence – when you really start to think about it, it’s absurd.

But wacky comparisons to international artists are one of Hill’s favourite pastimes. In his review of Patrick Pound’s show at GrantPirrie, Hill compared Pound to Donald Judd and Elsworth Kelly on the basis that Pound was an artist ‘before he was anything else’. In the same review, Hill compared Gina Tornatore’s video piece Catch (Struggle and Roll) at the ACP to Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho because both artists used slowed down footage.

Douglas Gordon was again invoked when Hill reviewed Dennis Del Favero’s video art exhibition and the Swiss artist duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss were also mentioned for no very good reason at all, perhaps because they make videos and films of their installations. Fischli and Weiss were also mentioned by Hill in connection to sculptor Tim Silver’s show at GrantPirrie with similarly inexplicable reasoning. The work of conceptualists can be connected in no more a profound way than by comparing two separate painters by virtue of the fact they use paint on canvas.

Artists help reviewers by making their own references, and all the better if that reference happens to be to an artist the reviewer already likes. Silver had made reference to Martin Creed, creating a facsimile of Creed’s crumpled paper ball, and that suited Hill just fine. Creed is a favourite artist of Hill and also was mentioned in connection with the work of James Angus and Angus’s installation of a truck at the Art Gallery of NSW. It would appear that Hill has a select international artists that he uses again and again, irrespective of their direct relevance to an artist’s work.

Sometimes the references are more apt and not just a chance combination when Hill reaches for an example. In his review of Adam Cullen’s show at Yuill/Crowley in May, Hill mentioned the work of Gary Hume, a British painter, and the early 80s school of ‘bad painting’. Who is Gary Hume? Well, he does paintings that are kind of similar to Cullen, but not really. There is a superficial similarity, but that’s where it ends. While Hill liked Cullen’s show, we were left wondering what these kinds of comparisons are supposed to achieve. Hill provided an answer himself in his piece on Talking About Abstraction:

“We run into all sorts of problems when we attach ‘nationhood’ to art […]. Artists ‘of a type’ or period style have more in common with overseas artists of the same school than they do with their compatriots who are investigating other visual phenomena […] Thus Melinda Hraper and Emily Kame Kngwarreye […] have a closer kinship with, say, Canadian-born Agnes Martin […] or the Scottish artist Callum Innes, than any of them would in similar group of four figurative painters: Peter Booth and James Gleeson in Australia; the Canadian-born Eric Fischl or the Scottish painter Peter Howson.”

In his review, Hill was talking about the internationalism of abstract painting and how painters investigating certain visual effects have more in common with their international counterparts than with their fellow artists at home painting in a different style. It’s tempting, however, to see this reasoning as some sort of explanation for why Hill scatters names of artists from all over the world through his reviews like confetti. The idea is that artists are not constrained by nationality but connect to other artists by virtue of their concepts and formal approaches. This is a lovely, warm and fuzzy idea but it doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny.

In his Cullen piece, Hill talked about Gary Hume and ‘bad painting’ but made no reference to where Cullen’s work fits into Australian art – there is no mention of Grunge as a defining moment in the early 90s, the connections between Cullen’s work and painters like Mike Brown or Dick Watkins, or the particular and warped version of European conceptualism that took root in Australia over the last 15 years. Nor does Hill make allowances for the fact that Cullen may have never even heard of Hume, so whatever connections the reviewer finds are just superficial similarities. Similarly, in Hill’s review of Silver, Ricky Swallow is mentioned only in passing as a name on a long list of people who make work similar to Silver, but Hill makes no reference to the fact that Silver also tipped his hat to Swallow in the show. Ironically, the image of Silver’s work used to illustrate the review – a peeled orange showing “Apple” colours beneath – was an explicit reference to Swallow that Hill either ignored or missed completely.

After a while you begin to suspect that ex-pat British artist/reviewer Peter Hill is making these references because that’s what he knows – he just doesn’t know the details of artists and their work and probably couldn’t construct a history of recent contemporary Australia art because he just doesn’t know it. Hill sometimes makes gaffs that lift the veil on what he really knows. His piece on Dennis Del Favero of July 31 is already infamous among people who know something about video art because the introduction revealed an ignorance of the subject that was breathtaking:

“What is video art? And how does it differ from Television, art-house movies or rent-with-a-pizza videos? First, it is a new medium that has arrived in the past decade or so, like web art or hip-hop music. Second, its sense of possibility has attracted a range of artists who have been grazing across different media for some time and have, for a while, settled on this thing called video. Like birds alighting for a while on a newly seeded lawn, they will peck away at all the possibilities until they have exhausted this area and then move on to another form. Many of today’s video artists trained as painters or sculptors and they have brought age-old traditions to the new medium.”

By “past decade or so” Hill obviously means the 39 year history of the medium since the mid-60s, or the 25 year history of hip hop since the late 70s, or perhaps that all the artists who “like birds” are making videos as an adjunct to their painting or photography practice, not all the hundreds of artists in Australia who make it as their prime means of expression.

Sometimes Hill’s writing is pure comedy with his usual habits running away with themselves to the point where you get a piece of writing that doesn’t inform the reader, offers no real insight into the artist’s work and then jams so much into a couple of thousand words it reads like a demented ‘what’s on’ than some piece of criticism or a ‘review’. His July 17 piece is a great example of just this sort of thing happening. Hill has about 1500 words a week to fill and that week was a doozy. He managed to cram into his piece an introduction that discussed the home of Art Monthly magazine in Canberra, who’s up for the directorship of the NGA, a short history of sculpture that included two paragraphs on the rivalry between Cellini (1500-1571) and Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), as well as name checking Brancusi, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin even before he even got to the exhibitions by Hany Armanious, Nell, Ken Unsworth, Bob & Lorraine Jenyns and the Biennale of Sydney.

We know that examining what is essentially Peter Hill’s diary serves to highlight inconsistencies and obsessions and may be unfair. We also know that an examination of The Art Life reveals our own shortcomings –we have, for example, a tendency to call out to the gods of art for ‘meaning’ in work when we know full well that the meaning is in the discourse not necessarily in the art object (blah blah blah). We also say we want to ‘get on with our lives’ when what we really mean is ‘we are sick of this bullshit’. Yes, we know we have our shortcomings and we are striving to make ourselves better.

The new Spectrum is really just the old Spectrum conjoined with 48 Hours with a slight design rejig. Failing to find enough advertising to justify Spectrum’s existence on its own, the shotgun marriage of the two sections makes sense – books and music and relaxation techniques and profiles of Paul McDermott’s hobbies meets up with Malcolm Knox and his literature mates and their reviews of new fiction and coffee table books. Even in this broad church, Peter Hill and his art ‘reviews’ stand out as an example of very slack, uninformed writing untroubled by editors who should demand a decent piece of writing by the Herald’s art critic. We know our usual sign off is that we’ll now forget about Peter Hill and ‘get on with our lives’, but you know what we really mean…

The Art Life

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