Review: Bea Maddock - NGV International

Bea Maddock, NGV International, 180 St Kilda Rd, until 21 July

In 1987, Bea Maddock made a trip to Antarctica.  During the bracing stint in the freeze, the artist pondered geological time in a way that must have gone beyond the scientific information.  According to Alisa Bunbury, the curator of a thoughtful retrospective of Maddock at the NGV, the antiquity of Australia and its relations to the ice-age were brought home to her.
It gave me a shiver, too, to think that in a sense Maddock’s career had also passed through an ice-age, which was modernism, especially the great freeze on image-making, where representation, narrative and symbolism were frosted over in the glacial slide of abstraction.
From the 1960s, Maddock sided with the more sanguine alternatives of modernism, hitching her development to austere expressionistic figure-drawing, no doubt influenced by study at the Slade.  Her medium of print favoured a poster-like aesthetic, to which Maddock added a peculiar introspection, wistful, rugged and sombre.
By the 1970s Maddock had discovered seriality and photography, having reconciled lens-capture with printmaking.  Almost perversely, Maddock enjoyed stripping the information-rich art of photography from its factual clothing.  Many of her works have their sources in newspapers but the origins were considered unimportant and have only been brought to light since.
An example is Four times five in which the image of a concentrating face is multiplied 20 times, with the condiment of a grid.  Apparently, however, the figure is no gentleman but a crook robbing a bank.  To me it’s a wicked irony but to Maddock it was just a curious image.
Some works have great resonance, like the classic abstract street scene called Square of 1972, or Caliper from 74, where the corrective leg-brace and boot lie crippled on the ground.  In such spooky pictures, we witness the revenge of imagery upon the aloofness of abstraction:  the image hobbles into the scene with a painful reminder of the irregularity of the world.
Maddock once said that “subject matter needs to be brittle, needs to be almost not working.”  This candid confession of a necessary fragility in the modern image is a valuable clue to the poetic thread of modernism.  A picture needs to be oblique; the image requires equivocal relationship with the picture-plane or a depersonalized remove through a sequence, to become inscrutable and abstract.
From behind the fuzzy veil of abstraction, Maddock’s images assume an ambiguous allure.  They’re thoughtful rather than loveable; and even when words enter in poetic agreement with the pictures, the principle of obliquity stands.  As Janine Burke wrote in 1978, “her images gain power through their anonymity”.
Some works from the 1980s consist of nothing but words, albeit fashioned in the multifarious tones of printmaking.  A large dark piece called Disquiet is entirely filled with thick block letters which fall between a personal admission of psychopathology and absurd concatenations in a thesaurus:
“Disquiet, uneasy, disturbed, anxious, avoiding familiarity, keeping one's reserve, displace, put something else in the place of.  Disallow refuse to accept as reasonable, hence discontinue, cease, give up or dissemble, disguise, pretend not to see, ignore, fail to mention the mundane.”
Most of western culture can be accused of neglecting the everyday in its zeal for grandeur, excellence and distinction.  But behind these lofty ambitions, we have calipers and mud, in fact a great turmoil of unrelated contingencies and incumbencies that occupy our mind.  In some of the works, you sense a seething struggle of inconsequential things to rise to consciousness.
One work bears the inscription “Many reasons why” and calls upon us to contemplate the measurement of writing in lines.  Another work sums up suburban madness with the line: “Garden defence fence” and beneath it, “Victims and heads lawn”.
The consummation of Maddock’s return to iconographic purpose lies in her panoramic diagrams of the Tasmanian coast from the 1990s.  These handsome friezes not only put the artist’s drawing skills to excellent use but reinscribe places with Aboriginal words, as if reinstating the voices that were suppressed by white settlement.
Together with the Antarctic frieze, these late works sum up the elegiac quality of Maddock’s output, always troubled by an existential open-endedness, over and above the icy semantic floes of modernism.

By Robert Nelson

Robert Nelson

Associate Professor Robert Nelson is Associate Director, Student Learning Experience at Monash University and Art Critic for The Age. Robert’s most recent book, Instruments of contentment: furniture and poetic sustainability, was published by Craft Victoria, 2014, available freely online.