Review: Nick Devlin :Portrait series #4: 33 1/3

Nick Devlin   
Portrait series #4: 33 1/3 Hell Gallery, Melbourne    2-23 May 2009

Was it strategy or was it circumstance? Hard to say, but last Friday’s opening at Hell Gallery was over-run by tribes of screaming kids. In the scheme of things, this was quite apt as the gallery’s owners (Jess’n’Jordy) were launching their latest pint-size venture – Hell Toupee. This tiny tiny venue may soon be deemed a classic, you mark my words. Barely 2 metres by 2, and just 140 cm high, H. Toupee sits like a pristine shrunken cube in a backyard crammed with beer, weeds and 44 gallon fires. Cubby-house perfection within domestic detritus – and the kids bloody loved it, howling through the white-walled wonder, skittling round my gnomic position, seated on a milkcrate in the middle of a box. A solitary gnome at that because after kneeling and crawling through the entrance, there really is only room for one adult punter at a time.
On the pristine walls inside and hung in a crisp, formal line, Nick Devlin is showing a series of drawn likenesses of ‘perpetrators and criminals’ like Warhol’s ‘Most Wanted’.* But the manic presence of the screaming, delirious kids created a conceptual jar that made me think more of Marcus Harvey’s giant portrait of Moors murderer Myra Hindley, a disturbing paedo-graphic presence transmuted into something more ghastly and grand through its reconfigured composition via children’s handprints. An image derided as evil, malignant, repugnant, the cause of an overflow effluence of talk-back indignation. Yet brilliant, nonetheless due to its blatant conflation of innocence and guile. In the Toupee, the mugshots remained bland, as perps’ faces will always be bland when you’re ignorant of their crimes. Being hung at knee-height, they attempted to glare at the kids but the kids didn’t care. This, to me, was perfect for it’s only my ‘adult’ knowledge that casts darkness over their eyes, where nurture bludgeons nature. Close scrutiny of the drawings revealed feathered lines that mimicked frottage such as when a coin is placed under paper and a pencil rubbed over. In the 60s and 70s, hosts of backpackers returned from Europe with vast sheets of similar rubbings they’d done on the tomb reliefs of knights and saints, graphite simulacra, like the veil of Veronica. Has Devlin knowingly tapped into this idea, that a (mimicked) rubbing reveals surface detail but leaves us only ghosts? That these portraits may be a devalued portable shrine which some convicted-murderer-penpal-wife clutches to her bosom as spiritual evidence that ‘their man done no wrong’?
Either way, the kids didn’t care. Worryingly elusive yet disturbingly aesthetic, the portraits hover in some vague no-man’s land of likeness and no-likeness. Full of strangers but was there enough danger?

* Devlin is also exhibiting 33 (and a third) portraits of musicians in the main Hell Gallery. The real stars here are Cherrie Currie’s freckles and Lemmy Kilmister’s lumps.

By Andrew Gaynor

Andrew Gaynor

Andrew Gaynor is a freelance curator and researcher currently based in Melbourne.