Same Make, Similar Model

CACSA CONTEMPORARY 2012: New South Australian Art 1 – 26 August 2012, DuPlessis Building, 203-205 North Terrace, Adelaide

Sam Howie, Non-covering (install view), 2012, enamel paint on canvases.
Sam Howie, Non-covering (install view), 2012, enamel paint on canvases.

THE NEW NEW (CACSA, 2010) was widely regarded as an amazing show, taking over the city much like the Fringe or Festival does.  It felt like you couldn’t go anywhere without encountering its transformations of the cityscape, in galleries, in parks, alleyways, even on the tram. This year has brought a series of ambitious off-site projects from CACSA, including a smaller sibling of THE NEW NEWCACSA Contemporary 2012: New South Australian Art. There are fewer artists, and the work is this time sited in a single location, but the works remain ambitious and responsive to the space they find themselves in. That space is the ground floor of the old DuPlessis Building, across the road from the state’s Museum and Art Gallery. The ground floor, the grand old auction hall, is a moldering, semi-derelict, usually disused space that has been transformed to house new work by nine South Australian artists.

First up, and smelling overwhelmingly of enamel paint is Howie’s Non-covering, a huge monochrome painting that sags and drips under the weight of still wet paint, the surface like that of wrinkled, slashed skin. These wounds still seem to flow and ooze with liquid paint. It is hard not to think of this as bodily. The colour is close to that of skin colour, but at the same time clearly not that, more a yellowy beige, like certain old computers. The extravagantly distressed and peeling wall it hangs upon appears to be a perfect match for the painting, as if it was made to complement it. The pooled paint underneath suggests that the opposite is the case; more a site-specific happening that throws the tradition of modernist painting down the deep well of l’informe. It’s not the first time modernism has received this kind of rough treatment – we think of Rauschenberg, Hesse, Benglis – but it receives some impressive contusions here.

Across the way, Arial Hassan’s inkjet print on vinyl, showing psychedelic swirls of paint magnified to the point of opulence,sweeps down the wall and onto the floor, as if bleeding into the space. Its title, thecapacityforlossandthefragmentsthatremain, suggests a psychological concern, easily read into this work and others previously. The brilliant whorls of paint bring forth a mental image of an action painter tirelessly working away to retrieve that one ‘perfect moment’ glimpsed amid the entropic swirls of pigment. At the same time it is clear that this is an inkjet print; the surface is smooth and the colour has a tendency to cyan and magenta. Hassan opts for modern technologies to illuminate this perfect moment, adding to this assured work a reflective, distanced reserve.

Amy Baker’s two beastlike sculptures, Said the Joker to the Fool and The Lawn Below, stand opposite Hassan’s work as if defending more traditional forms of materiality, making and figuration. Built from wood, brown paper, packaging tape and string, these asexual constructions are paused in animalistic poses; one seeming to set off into flight or kicking up its hind legs, while the other apparently grazes on (invisible) grass. Both are bound or tied up with eye-catching fluorescent tape and string, bringing to mind 90s fashion. They precariously position themselves as ‘other’: not male or female, not quite human or animal, not the aggressor nor the defender, neither bound nor free. We wonder if this is a take on the human condition, or more a statement on otherness.

Placed in a partitioned alcove, James L Marshall’s sculptural and photographic works draw on a wide range of references, to gloomy, menacing effect. An upside-down T-shaped wooden structure – like an inverted crucifix, we think – and painted glossy black, rests against one wall. Within its shaft is set a lit, white fluorescent tube. The elements knit together formally and conceptually: the transcendental minimalism of Dan Flavin is neatly but frighteningly mated with what looks like a prop from a heavy metal gig. On the adjacent wall rests an aluminum box with the words “NO FATE” laser-cut in a gothic typeface. It’s backlit with a red fluoro. The words are those Sarah Connor carves into a picnic bench in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in one of the character’s more lugubrious, unhinged moments, and they give the work another kind of apocalyptic–pop-culture resonance. Finally, on the third wall, two black and white photographs depict Death Valley (California). These images are sealed into custom-made boxes – one in red slightly above the other in blue, throwing into question their temporal divide. Each shows a pathway eroded through anticlinal waves of sedimentary rocks, terminating in an apparent dead-end. They are remarkable images, like geological versions of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows. Somehow, in a hard to analyse way, this collection of high and low culture clichés grinds together, expressing a sinister, paranoiac, worldview.

In Sue Kneebone’s Nature Morte and Planning for Paradise unexpected images, materials and objects sit side-by-side in a haunted assemblage as if ghosts from our past. A blackened armchair hovers over a blackened gothic style dining table. Legless, attached to the head of the table, it waits. Its supper is a spread of blackened camel bones. From the wall hangs a picture of the bronze statue of Sir Thomas Elder (known, among other things, for introducing camels to Australia) transported using CGI technology from its original site on North Terrace (across the road from the DuPlessis Building), to the desert in the Gawler Ranges during the height of the 2008 drought. On the adjacent walls are two ornate silver candle stands. Where the candles should be, there are three wax dripped emu eggs and three abalone shells. The shells are positioned at hear-height so you can ‘hear the ocean’. This strange combination of things from the home and from ‘out bush’ is the basis of the work’s effect on the viewer, an uncanny amalgam of homely and less homely aspects of our culture and history. Beyond that there seem to be deeper reflections on our disowning of our harsh natural environment, and perhaps investigations into our marred past.

Reminiscent of an open book or a magical carpet Nasim Nasr’s dual-channel videos are projected onto the floor opposite. As in other works of Nasr’s, hands play a pivotal role in these two videos. In the first, hands repeat the acts of spinning, tossing, throwing, extracting and placing golden and silver coins on a 1890s map of Persia (present-day Iran). In contrast, the other screen sequence is set against a black backdrop so that the hands appear to float in mid-air like that of a magician, repetitively flipping the coins – “heads or tails?” Referencing the Persian coin game “Lion and line”, or two-up, a distinctively Australian pastime, now only legally played on Anzac Day. For Nasr hands are symbols of identity, language, belonging and cultural background; their actions speak louder than words – often questioning meaning, values and belief systems. Alongside the floor works is a plinth holding a set of four golden coins; two are family heirlooms from before European colonisation of Persia, and two are the contemporary Iranian currency – two valuable, two virtually worthless.

Nearby, Troy-Anthony Baylis also wrestles with questions of identity, though his floor works are intrinsically different, consisting of three works made from the metallic mesh – glomesh. A material used in handbags and purses popular in the 1970s and 80s and judging from the prevalence of black and red in the pixelated designs much of it came from the latter decade. Sourced from thrift stores, Baylis has woven the mesh into text proclaiming, ”TO CRYSTAL BROOK FROM SANDY GULLY [VIA ALICE SPRINGS]”, “TO BELLA VISTA FROM CHERRYBROOK” and “TO NELLY BAY FROM MONA LISA X”, as part of his ongoing Postcard series. It appears to be going down a suburban, kitschy, maybe camp route, and while this is not far wrong, the work has another significant dimension. As the catalogue mentions, “the series design takes its cue from the crescent-shaped ‘breastplates’ of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries presented to Aboriginal people” by white authorities. So Baylis conceives his breastplate/postcards as reclaimed symbols of strength and community, “mementos … private conversations between ‘sistas’ who are living throughout Australia, connecting and conversing with each other through glamorous artefacts.”

Andrew Long’s series of three wooden box-like structures are ranged inside the partition walls in the middle of the space leading off from Baylis’s work. Uneasy wall works, they project outwards, like shelving units or mirrored bathroom cabinets, one helped along by two tall thin legs. Peering around the side of them, one makes out a mirror set against the wall, reflecting the panel’s spray-painted verso. The marks are a soft, gray blur, suggesting a dim view of something seen through the condensation on a shower cubicle. A resolutely modernist aesthetic emphasises the feeling that these are anxious objects, which seem to want to hide their awkward sense of inner life.

In contrast, Christine Collins’ living-roomesque set up consisting of two Art Deco beige armchairs beckons the viewer to recline, relax and have a fag (chairs come complete with pullout silver ashtrays). Stationed here is the first element in a three-part sound installation, ironically titled I promise I won’t sing, issuing from speakers positioned at intervals through the building. Both the furniture and the audio are at once familiar, loaded with emotive meaning and narrative that cannot but fallback into their original settings. Voices, like distant music, echo script(ure) from classic film noir: “She hates men!” “I have a psychological impediment” “I find men very attractive” confesses an unidentified femme fatale. Her voice is alone, without a face and away from a structured narrative, arranged in an expressive chorus line of different emotions and personalities. A telltale of the exaggerated persona of the Everywoman; Collins’ appears to be trying to reclaim her voice as ‘human’ once again.

The darker works in CACSA Contemporary seem to speak most strongly to us, as they engage the tumbledown interior of the DuPlessis Building in conversations of times past and our future. Among these was Collins’ work. Her nostalgic songs (Velda’s Song, Christina’s Song, Carmen’s Song, Kitty’s Song and Alicia’s Song) really grew on one of us – Polly – who found herself being dangerously allured into singing along with their voices, empathizing with the split-personalities of these archetypal femme fatales. Michael was taken with Marshall’s bleak and atmospheric works, with reference to dystopian sci-fi. Marshall’s work shared an eerie sense of address with Kneebone: the accusatory pointing finger of Sir Thomas Elder and the red warning sign, “NO FATE”, seem directed at the viewer.  We were both compelled by Kneebone’s invocation of an Australian uncanny. She uses the language of Surrealism in a way that seems quite new. For Kneebone, it is not individuals’ desires that are repressed, so much as our history. The strangeness that bubbles up in her work is testament to distinctively Australian repressions, the disowning of our harsh natural environment, and our displacement, and worse, of its original inhabitants. It is hard not to see the DuPlessis Building’s dim lighting, cavernous ceilings and dampness in an interplay with the art works in this show. But Kneebone’s, especially, primes us to look at it in a new way. Under the spell of her work, the building’s dilapidation seems to take on an unholy vigour. The gradual actions of natural forces have run, poltergeist-like, through this interior, and it seems as if cultural repressions have returned to haunt this old building, threatening to spill out onto the grand nineteenth-century boulevard on which it sits.

Same Make, Similar Model commissioned essay co-written by Michael Newall & Polly Dance and published in Chameleon from the ashes