Review: Visionary Reflections
21 April - 9 June 2012
Daydream Believers, IMA, Brisbane
Jason Greig, David Noonan, John Spiteri, Francis Upritchard
An obstruction course of mismatched natural and man-made materials; a dark spiritual room with hanging woven textiles; a passageway of haunting silhouettes and menacing faces and a miniature world of curious otherworldly technicolour figures. This collection of four artists’ works at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane’s Daydream Believer’s exhibition, traverses evasive frontiers of imagined terrains somewhat akin to a distant memory, buried truth or indeed a daydream.
The commonality binding these artists is supposedly a form of ‘nostalgic neo-expressionism’ and a desire to revel ‘in retro’ and ‘craft, décor and other ‘ciphers’ of regression’.1 However, this analysis is a trifle superficial. The inter-connections, shared reflections and mythologies between this grouping of artists, is dense - like a thick fog - offering far more than mere retrograde investigation and nostalgia. Daydream Believers is a landmark exhibition showcasing some of Australia and New Zealand’s more compelling and interesting artistic talents in the contemporary visual arts. Each artist confronts the wild edge of human behaviour and hint at folklore without provenance, offering inexplicable, peculiar and magical scenes beyond the material world.
The use of reassembled historical remnants, ambiguous human gestures and silhouettes, ritual and story-telling makes the works hard to place, perhaps existing more as artefacts, documentation or allegory. Through the mysterious mixed offering of monoprints, tree trunks, figurines, glass paintings and tapestries, the artists appear as rogue time travellers who debase and discard anchors of sensible reference. These contemplations emanate a ‘timeless mystique’2 outside the everyday, providing an indeterminate connection between fantasy and the human journey.
An otherworldliness is conveyed in John Spiteri’s work. Bulging and thin alien figures on glass, canvas and board teeter between realist interpretation and uncommitted doodles. Like an incomprehensible tableau of hidden messages by unknown beings, works appear rudimentary and primitive. Time has become slow, even backward looking in Spiteri’s sparse world. The peculiar juxtaposition of materials, come custom made relics are seemingly purposeful in their placement and construction, however, the exact purpose remains undisclosed.
This eclectic compilation of images and objects is carefully synthesised and eludes origin. An odd totemic structure comprising a tree trunk is transformed with cement footings, glass and canvas. A dark skinned figure dips a foot in a river that disappears, a trio of half rendered overlapping female faces confront the viewer, amateur pottery, geometric patterns and wooden off-cuts decorate the gallery, activating the space. The result is a highly ordered and ambitious statement camouflaged by parsimoniously adorned and bland materials. Spiteri is an explorer of actual and fabricated history.3 This conglomeration of indistinct materials represents a twisted personal language of futuristic primitivism. His art therefore becomes a device, a visual by-product of filtering and investigation that does not always take itself seriously. The feeble nature of Spiteri’s representations belies a cynical humour concerning the direction of the human race.
Light humour and the free use of materials can also be found within the work of Frances Upritchard. Her approach offers an absurdist slant, finding laughter in the pathetic seriousness of modern life and the individual’s plight on a universal level, while utilising everyday objects as props.
Two large tables act as stages for seven curious multi-coloured and sickly-looking naked small-scale modelled figures. Isolated from one another these creatures perform different acts and gestures akin to a Pieter Bruegel or Hieronymous Bosch scene. Under the scrutiny of the viewer and all-seeing eyes of a custom made lamp, each figure is vulnerable and exposed. This mythical landscape is barren and smooth. It is unsettling. On one table there is a miniature forest with real tree trunks that have coloured twiggy branches and an expressionless yellow androgynous figure that decisively points to an unknown direction. A pleading orange figure outstretches its hands; one sits on an upturned pot clutching a bong like object; a yellow figure reclines on the table top with knees bent fondling male genetalia and a crouched guru with glasses sits wrapped in a coloured tartan fabcirc with symbolic hand gestures. These plasticine beings are the embodiment of ‘warped dreams of survivalists, millenarians and social exiles’.4 Time is hard to place.
The middle earth-like figures appear attuned and connected to a parallel natural world and universe, conceivably attempting to offer vital yet incomprehensible information. Hard to relate to, they are but lifeless shells, appearing as remnants of an aftermath, or confrontation with higher forces. Searching, frightened, frustrated and enlightened they are left frozen. Upritchard’s imaginary handmade world is non-sensible. At the whim of the artist’s visionary reverie, these characters are bereft of conclusive meaning. This body of work is an escapist’s delight that derives sentiment from the counter-cultural past of the 1960s and 1970s.
Spiritual aspirations and counter-cultural rhetoric are also located in two spectacular black and white tapestries by David Noonan. Noonan has consistently utilised displaced imagery to convey immaterial ideas and indeterminate ritualistic narratives. The free appropriation of memories and found imagery from different times are quite literally woven together in these two works created in collaboration with the Australian Tapestry Workshop, Melbourne. This pairing could not be more naturally suited due to Noonan’s interest in hand-crafted textiles and fabrics.
Upon entering the dimly lit room the works appear like photographs rather than textiles. The delicacy of the construction is immaculate and on closer inspection the black, white and grey threads reveal themselves.5 The smaller tapestry depicts an anonymous face with kohl-rimmed eyes and other facial markings applying lip stick - perhaps an actor in a play. This image is constructed like a patchwork, cut-up and re-assembled complete with illustrated stitch-marks in the tapestry itself.
The more significant tapestry is derived from a screenprint laminated on plywood from Noonan’s 2006 exhibition Rings of Saturn.6 A central guru dressed in black holding strong presence is surrounded by four white peacocks on different planes; an outstretched hand presents a posy of flowers from the foreground and a menacing hooded cloaked figure stands over a child riding in a small cart to the far left corner. This dreamlike sequence is set in a forest or against a theatre backdrop of trees and branches – it is hard to tell and nothing is real. The juxtaposition of images and layering is meaningful, yet hidden. This ahistorical place is for Noonan a combination of re-represented real memory mixed with utopic vision. Fact becomes blended with a dark and uncertain fiction in a beautiful textured visceral wash.
Gothic sensibilities alluded to in Noonan’s work are embraced in seven arresting and technically brilliant monoprints by Jason Greig.7 Greig’s work is centred on dark realms, entropy and impending doom. Inspired by the supernatural in ancient mythology, film, literature and art history; surreal scenes are conjured.
Brooding and sinister silhouettes depicted in framed antique chiaroscuro images are set on marbled, technicolour apocalyptic landscapes. Simultaneously fading and emerging from the background these black stranded figures face the day of reckoning. A female temptress dressed in an ankle length dress appears to be in mourning. Other gaunt faces look back at the viewer in capes and cloaks. One Goyaesque figure has demonic wings and holds a spear like weapon. Greig’s images are romantic, potent and heavy, presenting imagery of ‘the perverse dance of death’.8 These images tell stories of the ungraspable, depicting parallel dominions of darkness and loneliness.
As the exhibition title suggests, each artist has a belief in the intangible, the space and place of hidden meaning; the search for otherness. Four complex daydreams. Explorations into ideas about time and the human journey are distorted and remade, negotiating living, dead and spiritual powers. Uncertain narratives are presented, allowing the audience to take a trip outside of the deducible. The world and human behaviour is seen as strange.
"If you ever get close to a human, and human behaviour, be ready to get confused, there's definitely no logic, to human behaviour, but yet so irresistible, there is no map, to human behaviour, they're terribly moody, then all of a sudden turn happy, but, oh, to get involved in the exchange, of human emotions is ever so satisfying, there's no map and, a compass, wouldn't help at all, human behaviour."9
1 Daydream Believers media release, Institute of Modern Art, April 2012.
2 Gregory Burke (2005), Makeover: Paintings by Seven Pacific Rim Artists, catalogue essay, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, New Zealand.
3 Lionel Bawden (2009), ‘John Spiteri: Paint a Rumour’, Art World, June/July, pp160. In Bawden’s article he touches on this notion of inauthenticity in Spiteri’s work. This reminds me of a historical documentary-style film by the German artist Olaf Nicolai Rodakis. The 12 minute film depicts an extensive, elaborate and realistic profile of a person who built a historically significant house in Greece in the 19th century. This elaborately detailed film is highly ficticious, hypothetical and factually unreliable.
4 Francis Upritchard artist statement (2009), ‘New Zealand Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2009’, Eflux, <http://www.e-flux.com/announcements/venice-biennale-2009-2/>
5 These tapestries are incredible examples of the technique of Sfumato, loosely meaning evaporation, where one tonal value blends into the next without an edge to define it.
6 The original work Untitled was exhibited in the exhibition Rings of Saturn at David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, 8 September – 7 October 2006.
7 Jason Greig has been identified with the ‘New Zealand Gothic’ – In Robert Leonard’s essay ‘Hello Darkness: New Zealand Gothic’ in ‘Current: Contemporary Art From Australia and New Zealand’ (2008), published by Art & Australia.
8 Jason Greig Artist Statement April 2012, courtesy of Darren Knight Gallery.
9 Björk, Human Behaviour (1993), One Little Indian records, song lyrics