Head Case: The Art of Darren Wardle
Dr Vincent Alessi
‘Would you prefer to have your work thought beautiful or interesting?’ So asked David Hockney of his contemporary Larry Rivers. If a similar question was put to Darren Wardle it may well read ‘would you prefer to have your work thought beautiful or repulsive?’
Of course such questions are not always meant to be answered definitively. They are more statement than question and speak of the complexity and challenging nature of particular practices. Darren Wardle makes art that lives within this uncomfortable space, often oscillating between the extremes of beauty and ugliness. Known for his majestic psychedelic exterior and interior architecture paintings the viewer is seduced on the one hand and left isolated and running for the exit on the other. His paintings depict the familiar but reveal the hidden – that which we prefer not to see – all at the same time. They ruminate on the notion of the modern architectural ruin: physical and metaphorical. They celebrate high modernism in order to comment on the world in which we currently live: high consumerism. They are a visual representation of the fine line between utopia and dystopia where a slippage from one to the other is only a matter of inches. They are real and unreal.
So what should one make of this new body of work? Wardle is not known for portraiture; his raison d’etre has been the built environment. However, if one looks beyond the surface, makes a leap just as the artist has, then these portraits, ranging from the grotesque to the curious, make perfect sense. They are not of themselves portraits of a sitter; Wardle has not met any of his subjects. They are, instead, part of an ongoing fascination and exploration of the collapse of the modernist ideal and promise of a utopian ever after. Just like the rest of his practice, the Head Case Studies, are views of modern day ruins – failed plastic surgery, scars from random attacks, blood-splattered faces on violent sports fields and the pursuit of beauty in both young and old.
The genesis of this series, both its title and conceptual framework, can be found in two key moments: post war America and current day Australia. The first moment is the Case Study Houses; an architectural program sponsored by the American publication Art & Architecture, which extended invitations to leading modernist architects to design new inexpensive and efficient homes to cater for the post-war housing boom in America. These homes purposefully adopted a high modernist aesthetic – minimal, clean lines, open spaces and functionality – married with the demands of an increasingly new America focussed on consumerism, mass-production and affordability. The program was only moderately successful; nineteen of the thirty-six designs were ever built and of those not many were to become the basis for future housing developments. The Case Study Houses are a lesson in utopian aspiration never met and the resultant “ruins” that are left. The second moment was an innocuous walk through a park taken by the artist on the way to his studio. Crossing paths with a young man whose head was framed with modern medicine’s scaffolding, a halo brace screwed into his skull, Wardle was both fascinated and repulsed. However, in that moment what was visible was how the figure could be used in his paintings to extend his idea and exploration of the modern ruin. The human body in decay, repair and restoration was no different to the interiors and exteriors Wardle had painted for over a decade.
The sociologist Keith Hetherington observed that only “when such novel commodities, architectures and confident expressions to the idea of progress fall into ruin and decay does their initial promise reveal its hollowness and its frailty.”1 While this comment refers to architecture and urban design its sentiment can be seen in Wardle’s first four Head Case paintings, which are based on sourced images of people post reconstructive and plastic surgery. These portraits, including images of actor Mickey Rourke and rock-star Gene Simmons, are the physical human embodiment of the architectural ruin. They reveal the pursuit of perfection, beauty and ever-lasting youth, which like buildings that fail or decay, is often unrealised and as Hetherington points out hollow and frail.
The pursuit of beauty and youth is an idealised notion that has now become commonplace in the world in which we live. There is a demand for the new and the ageless, whether that is on a Hollywood casting couch or in the sprawling new suburbs populated with MacMansions or in countries which have joined the chorus of the new world economy. This quest is driven by the promise of perfection, of utopia, of success in all measure and often sought without thought of failings and consequence. This is perhaps no more uncomfortably and grossly captured by Wardle than in Head Case Study #13. Attractive and innocuous this study in green and pink of a young girl with rosy cheeks reveals upon closer investigation one of modern life’s truly bizarre and for some, disgusting, events: the child beauty pageant. A practice which embodies all that is seen as bad in human behaviour – narcissism, manipulation, selfishness – it has at its core the aspiration of beauty and perfection and the need for reconstruction and falsification to reach the stated objective. Wardle’s young girl elicits all of these qualities seen in her sinister pursed lips, intense dagger-like eyes and over-applied make-up which would be out of place on an adult let alone a girl in her first decade of life.
While images of purposeful reconstruction and manipulation are palatable as modern-day parables for the folly of seeking an idealised dream, how does one reconcile portraits of violence? Do these images celebrate violence on the sport field, condone and excuse domestic violence or seek to find pleasure in the voyeuristic gaze aimed at those who have suffered from accidents? They are, as Wardle himself would admit, slippery in justification. However, they are by no means unique within art history, which has always depicted and aestheticized the grotesque and violent but always in an allegorical context. The black-eyed and scarred figures in Head Case Study #6 and Head Case Study #9, or the serene looking face of a young girl with a lacerated nose in Head Case Study #7 speak loudly of the ongoing violence in our world but make comment beyond these atrocious acts. Like Wardle’s interiors, such as the recent Banana Republic (2014), they speak of a world in flux and in decay. The damaged faces are no longer depictions of human wreckage but rather are monuments of ruin and destruction: morally, physically and structurally. These portraits sit side by side with Wardle’s recent interiors, based on the graffitied and derelict decommissioned high school in one of Melbourne’s poorest postcodes, as a comment on the outcome for communities when they are left behind, when social structures fracture and people become isolated in a world that promotes itself as connected.
Like van Gogh’s bedroom or Vermeer’s domestic interiors or Bacon’s tormented portraits or Parr’s fascination with his own, Wardle’s paintings are part of the long-standing tradition of interior spaces and portraits, which represent an overtly psychological space. Remaining steadfast in his commitment to the absence of the human figure in his architectural paintings, Wardle does not want to direct any particular narrative. His paintings are purposefully open-ended ensuring discomfort and forcing the viewer to imagine what has been or will come, a quality also true of the Head Case Studies. While they may be graphic in their depiction of blood, bruises and repaired faces, there is no indication of what has actually happened. This is left to the viewer to bring along based on their own biases, narratives and histories. Wardle plays the role of a reflector of experience rather than the indicator of experience.
While there are endless parallels and links between what can only be described as two parts of Wardle’s practice – his well-known interiors and exteriors and these relatively new portraits – they are technically steps apart. Still beautifully painted the Head Case Studies do not have the same sharpness of his other works. It is as though Wardle has decided to layer these images with a diffusing filter, taking the edge off the otherwise confronting content. They are quick paintings, sometimes leaving the burnt umber background visible and the head decapitated from its body. Partly due to the commitment to expediency as a rule within this series, conceptually this strategy further emphasises that these are not portraits but rather musings on the precarious space between utopia and dystopia. They are images, which remind us that we live in a world in flux, that the line between the real and the unreal is much closer than we think. That our pursuit for the unique and the ideal has become bastardized and as such has slipped closer to ruin. That in beauty there can also be banality.
This collection of paintings challenge both those who know Wardle’s practice well and those who have only recently discovered it. They play in a space that is uncomfortable, confrontational and contradictory. They ask much of the viewer, as all good art should. Head Case Study #12, which depicts a young girl peacefully asleep, perhaps synthesises all of the aims and ideas present in this exhibition. On the one hand it is beautiful and seductive and fosters feelings of empathy, warmness and care while on the other it is unnerving and challenging, prompting us to question whether it is an image which should be the subject of high art. It is a work, which one finds hard to walk away from and asks both of the artist, and us, do you prefer your art beautiful or repulsive?
Dr Vince Alessi
Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne
FOOTNOTE: 1 Keith Hetherington, “Memories of Capitalism: Cities, Phantasmagoria and Arcades”, Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 29, issue 1, March 2005, p. 191
Originally published (2014) as the catalogue essay for Darren Wardle, Head Case, curated by Dr Vincent Alessi, a La Trobe University Visual Art Centre Exhibition, La Trobe University VAC, Bendigo (VIC) until10 August 2014 – latrobe.edu.au/vac