Review: James & Eleanor Avery
James & Eleanor Avery
NELLIE CASTAN GALLERY, MELBOURNE
10 JUNE – 3 JULY 2010
Ok it’s kind of a long time coming, but art does that sometimes, and I’ve been thinking about this one.
For their first major exhibition in Melbourne, James and Eleanor Avery bring a beautifully malicious presence to the main gallery at Nellie Castan. Openly stating a wish to create works which are ambiguous and have multiple readings it’s not like the Avery’s are falling for the trap of anything goes. No mistake, this is tight, measured work in its making and its range of possible meanings. In terms of sculpture they cover their bases with efficiency - from a free standing central form to the leaning piece bridging floor to wall, through to a relief work. Sculptural conventions are both immediately embraced and dispatched.
The scale of the centerpiece, Double Rainbow, is such that the spacious architecture and the awkward overhead venting systems are also dealt to with a kind of ease I haven’t seen in the gallery before; almost torturing the space into submission. The very title Double Rainbow at first suggests something benign. The appearance, with its vertical spike, is more an instrument of torture or some kind of evil architecture. A multi-faceted black mirror surface ramps up the representational content here, bringing viewers and architecture into collusion with the object giving it a living presence, a kind of shape shifting form. Confounding any simple reading the viewer is bound to then end up looking at these works through abstract codes. While the grid and geometry can be seen in all of the works it is not used here for any rationalist discourse. Rather its other sides, the mystery, the horror, have slipped into the gallery. Shadows run fluid as they intermix with shards of white light. You think diamonds or you think shards of flesh-slicing glass. Possibly the title Double Rainbow refers to these shadows and reflections - or maybe it’s straight out of the 15th century manual for witch hunters that the show is named after.
The other works then: Black Magic’s steel and paint sit as an outline of the very English beaver or are they wombats after all? - taking up ‘relief’ as that place between painting and sculpture. Porticullis is at once a Medieval drawbridge, like Double Rainbow of evil spiked intent, a gateway too into Minimal histories. Flavin’s corner propped colour fluoro grids of the late eighties come to mind. There is something else going on here though. Slumped against the wall is it about opening out into the space of the gallery or an invitation to go through the wall into another place? Something here between sculpture’s object nature and the illusory spaces so often opened up in painting. Light reflects off the mirrored surface, glittering watery refractions. A fluid Medieval Minimalism. Slumped against the wall, the Averys continue to mess things up like a Heart of Glass era Debbie Harry on a bad date.
I could suggest that the occult possibilities of an art of abstraction are being teased out here. By that I don’t just mean the more overt reference to witchcraft in the show’s title, but that at its heart there is still an unknowability, a mystery and promise of strange transformations often suggested if not acknowledged even in the most rigorously geometric works. Think of Malevich’s Black Square with its dualities of transcendental possibility and formal geometry rooted in the here and now. This same duality haunts so much of Modernism, the way we picture the black/blank spaces of Reinhardt, Mondrian, or even the tangled webs of Pollock at his best.
It seems wherever there is an absence of direct representation there is an equal appeal to the recesses of imagination – the same place we reach for as site of horror and the grotesque.
Of course we can always talk of process, of constructivist possibilities, objecthood, phenomenological insights. I’m just saying that this ‘other’ is also there, so often buried in the closet by abstract practitioners. A show like the Avery’s on the other hand says it’s ok. Come out and embrace your dark side. It’s Pop, it’s cinema - through a Riddley Scott Aliens meets Bladerunner meets Robin Hood medieval kind of filter.
It’s fantasy, it’s the built, it’s clean, dirty, shiny, it’s history, life in the present – the place that all important art embraces one way or another no matter how far back it reaches. After all, history is that thing we’re making every moment. Work like this embraces the idea of history. I don’t think it’s an accident then that the authors of it are English. The European sense of history is a lived one, very different to that of most white Australia.
Balancing its heart of glass beauty with a heart of darkness intensity. At its best, slick looking work often belies a messy dialogue. As impure in its Pop as in its nods to Minimalist codes, or for that matter other histories, Melleus Maleficarum is for this viewer a meditation on the art object as sculpture, on abstraction, on popular culture, on history and, ultimately, the object as a container or generator of histories. Pure pop and circumstance? Quite possibly. But the result is a beautiful combinant. That’s the Averys.
The horror, the horror.