Frogs But Few Princes
REVIEW: The Geelong Contemporary Art Prize 2018
9th June – 19th August
by Alexandra Sasse
In looking at art, sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince. That moment when the object you encounter resonates with eye and mind and takes you somewhere strangely new. The latest incarnation of the Geelong Contemporary Art Prize is no exception. Hurry on down. If you are looking for a quiet place away from the crowds; this is it. A sunny Queen’s Birthday Monday afternoon – the third day of the exhibition – had the public staying away in hordes.
And why not? Given the frog to prince ratio we have come to expect in contemporary art shows, even the June seaside weather is more reliably rewarding. I feel a bit like a punter before a pokie machine. Will this show give me anything for my invested time, my careful perusal of painting and statements? Or should I be at the beach? Like a gambling addict I am willing to give it a try.
Two large spaces are given over to a collection of paintings in which the only common denominator seems to be – no, not paint; there is the obligatory non-painting (this time a kind of macramé/tapestry). The common factor is a curious self-obsession. I am reminded of Nelson’s blind eye. Artists seem to be gazing intently with no vision.
Fiona McMonagle, Princess 2017, oil on linen. Courtesy of the artist and Sophie Gannon Gallery, Melbourne.
This prize is a brave one; it has no specified theme beyond ‘contemporary’ which is about as homogenous and useful a definition as ‘foreign’. Selection of works and achieving any coherence with the hang is difficult. The artists direct the traffic for a change, offering up works from their own muse. It can be an opportunity to sniff the wind and to find out what is on artists’ minds, throwing up chance juxtapositions and themes. Alternatively, it can just look like chaos.
It is easiest to start by stating what is not there. No satire, no politics and no nudity. Are we really at an art exhibition? None of the regular ‘discourse’ pictures you would usually expect to find on globalisation, post-colonialism, the environment, identity politics and the like. Nothing that could be called either controversial or politically correct. Whilst the world is increasingly polarised and strident, art is increasingly inward and bland. The subject matter is almost entirely personal.
Perhaps this is apt; perhaps this is the art we should be making. We are after all in a narcissistic age. All those selfies tell us something. But the difficulty is that such work often does not connect with any common feeling, idea or need. Narcissism is inherently dull for the rest of us.
Abstraction is the most subjective of styles and there is a lot of it here. Having no attachment to the objective world the artist is free to respond only to the inner world. The best of abstract painting can be an inarticulate embodiment of some sense of our interaction with the infinite; the worst a mere doodle to please ourselves. Gregory Hodge’s A Curious Glance is a swirly confection of squeegee type marks appearing to float in layers on the canvas. The marks are all similarly striated, and of almost identical width and pressure. Shadows are used to place some marks over others, translucency is used for a similar purpose; revealing marks beneath. It’s a banal plaything of illusion in tones of orange and blue. It might engage a bored child, tracing forms over and underneath; we all find trompe l’oeil mildly engaging, but it goes no further. The artist is interested in … “adapting and translating illusionistic techniques of trompe l’oeil and Baroque traditions” (in this case; swirly) with abstraction. Technical concerns are entirely valid for a painter but a painting about the intersection of traditional technique and abstraction (Hans Hoffman anyone?) still needs to work as a painting. A successful painting melds form with idea into a visual coherence. This takes a great deal of work, it is far more than a sample of swatches.
Gregory HODGE, A Curious Glance 2016, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 91.5 cm.
Louise Paramor’s Boomtown #1 is a glossy stylised painting of an apartment building with a sculpture in front of it. The view point is low, we are looking up at the pale turquoise and white three storey block of flats which appears to have come straight out of The Jetsons. A large sculpture made of what could be a honey dipping stick, a miniaturised roadworks witch’s hat and a toy plastic ball stands in front of the flats. Its all very retro and optimistic. It is clear that Paramor’s real interest is in the sculpture which dominates the painting, dwarfing the apartment building. She writes … “the work is a response to the current urban expansion that Melbourne is undergoing and attempts to bring humour and optimism to this phenomenon”. The work exudes humour and optimism, it is the connection to Melbourne that is missing. Paramor’s sculptures are much more successfully juxtaposed in real life – their brilliant colours and forms enhanced by the foil of Melbourne’s predominately sombre browns and greys.
The winning work, Andrew Browne’s The awakening is more rewarding. Melodramatic and almost silly, it doesn’t ask to be taken too seriously. A square plywood board attached to a tree trunk seems to peer at us with its two holes that we read as eyes. The setting is a twilit gloom and bare tree limbs drape themselves like a shock of silver hair. It would make an engaging cover of a children’s book. Anything might happen here. The work is well made, the surface supports but doesn’t upstage its image. Like many contemporary figurative paintings, it tends a little too far to the photographic, but the scraped surface both depicts and evokes the transparency of the silvery branches with a texture somewhere between solidity and shadow. In terms of our own times, has Browne tapped into a contemporary anxiety? Are we jumping at shadows? Have illusion and reality become conflated? We carry the world of facts in our pockets; perhaps we long for mystery and wonder. Or simply for a bit of lyrical nonsense. Here the artist’s experience collides with our own and the painting becomes part of our world as well as his.
Andrew BROWNE, The awakening 2017, oil on linen, reproduced courtesy of the artist and Tolarno Galleries Melbourne.
Brave the crowds and visit one rainy day soon.
Geelong Contemporary Art Prize, Geelong Gallery, Little Malop Street Geelong (VIC), 9 June – 19 August 2018 – geelonggallery.org.au