Melburnin’ August 2014
Liminal_Narratives at Bayside Arts & Cultural Centre (until 31 August) is the fourth exhibition in their annual Midwinter Masters series. In her first major venture after retiring as Deputy Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Frances Lindsay, AM has brought together the diverse work of eleven artists through which the notion of storytelling and narrative is explored. “[These] works embody ideas and stories projected as narratives, but defined by inherent mystery. That is, while the compelling images of the works suggest ideas about content, the complete story is never fully revealed. They are submerged, non-linear narratives in which the unusual, the paradoxical, and the ambiguous, pose questions about the nature of things”, Lindsay contends.
One of Australia’s most consistently dynamic and ferocious talents, Gareth Sansom has, in recent years, been the recipient of the John McCaughey Memorial Prize (2008) and the (final) Dobell Prize for Drawing (2012) for his twenty-part suite Made in Wadeye (2012). Sansom’s splendid new triptych, And thus I clothe my naked villainy/With odd old ends stol’n out of holy writ/And seem a saint, when most I play the devil (2013-14), was painted especially for the exhibition after Lindsay approached him last year with the concept for the show and a plan of the hanging space. “Mid-last year, I began thinking about making some triptych works based on [Francis] Bacon’s triptychs – not the style or the look of a Bacon – but more the idea of a contemporary triptych, and the idea of a grand narrative with great drama and nuance,” Sansom remarks.
The ‘grand narrative’ is encapsulated in the title of the work, taken from Act 1, Scene 3 of Richard III (c.1591). It comes at a time of renewed interest in the much-vilified last Plantagenet King, with the formal identification of his remains, and the subsequent Channel 4 documentary Richard III: The King in the Car Park (2013). “[Artist] Steve Cox gave me a book of Shakespeare play quotes,and in that I was looking for something about ambiguity of behaviour which might link both with the liminal idea, and to the various suggestions in the painting. I was also conscious of the discovery of Richard’s skeleton, which showed that he wasn’t the hunchback [kyphosis] always depicted, and also his wounds from battle, which may indicate that he was braver than mostly thought”, Sansom explains. “Then I realised that the play is almost certainly propaganda, possibly commissioned. I did research all the ideas embedded within the idea of liminality, and I did do some research into Richard III, but none of that peripheral stuff was allowed to intrude into the spontaneity of the painting as it developed and progressed. If there are hints in there that satisfy the idea of the show (spiced with a bit of Richard) then for me that becomes a bonus.”
Sansom’s concerted studio process, developed over the course of almost sixty years of painting, draws on his extensive and highly personal iconography, and functions in an uncontrived, almost stream-of-consciousness manner. “The bottom line is though, I didn’t plan the work or the panels in a literal way at all; I went about the work, chopping and changing over a period of almost six months, with the order being altered and some panels being turned upside-down, until I was close to arriving at a whole that made sense to me as a painting. That is, a series of abstract suggestions, and a series of figurative suggestions … finally gelling to a point when I was satisfied with all the links and juxtapositions; remembering that I began with three white canvasses with no idea whatsoever of how the thing might pan out,” he attests.
Closer inspection of the third panel reveals a cryptic snatch of lyric – “I really fucked it up this time, didn’t I? Didn’t I, my dear?” – from Little Lion Man (2009), the début single by folk quartet Mumford & Sons. “Sometimes when I am painting I listen to FM music and occasionally if a line from a song registers while I am at the canvas with a brush, I write the line down. [It’s] a DADA kind of thing to do actually, but mostly I remove the line after a few days. In this case though I left it, perhaps because I had indeed fucked up the right panel of the triptych over a couple of months before getting it to work!” Sansom admits.
The ephemeral works of New Zealand artist Peter Madden are both captivating in their delicacy, and painstaking in their execution. Much of his source material is derived from back issues of National Geographic, which he harvests for individual paper elements and reassembles into intensely detailed collages and installation works. The sculpture Victory Over Death III (2012) has a pronounced memento mori aspect; two black painted skulls face away from each other, each with a small world globe where the spinal column should be. From this base springs a tangle of dark spiny branches in which tiny birds sit, watching over a small nest of black and white eggs.
After discussing the exhibition further with Lindsay, Madden made the new collage work The Misfits (2013). Here, the aesthetic perfection achieved by studio-era photographers in the still images they produced of major film stars, is grotesquely subverted. A vintage black and white publicity portrait of Clark Gable (1901-60), has been radically altered by superimposing a magazine cutting across his face, that of a partially excavated skull from an archaeological dig. The work alludes to John Huston’s troubled 1961 film, from a screenplay by Arthur Miller, which was Gable’s last. He suffered a heart attack two days after filming concluded and died ten days later, 16 November, 1960, plunging the film world into mourning for ‘The King of Hollywood’. Gable’s life had already been touched by tragedy when his third wife, the actress Carole Lombard (1908-42), was killed, along with her mother Elizabeth Peters and Gable’s press agent Otto Winkler, in a plane crash while returning from a tour selling war bonds. Madden offers a poignant reminder that even those we perceive as the most favoured with beauty, talent, and acclaim are not immune to the ravages of age and circumstances.
As seen on the July cover, Tony Garifalakis also utilises found images, of music and film stars, prominent public and media figures, and politicians. He does so in order to engage with notions of power imbalance, collective deference to authority figures, and the potentially corrosive impact of celebrity culture on contemporary society. Ghetto Triumvirate (2014), a triptych created specifically for the exhibition, sees Garifalakis continue his habit of obliterating the subject’s faces with black paint, leaving only the eyes and other small details visible. In doing so, he not only renders largely inert any potential appeal or recognition they might have to the viewer, but also imposes his own act of quasi-censorship. In light of growing concern in Western countries about extreme face coverings like the niqāb and burqa worn by some Muslim women, Garifalakis applies a painted version of this masking to both sexes.
Photographer Jane Burton also focuses on the face as a site of resonance and transformation. Morphée (2009) shows a woman’s face in repose, perhaps asleep, or even some sort of death mask. Fine tendrils extend over her closed eyes like spider veins or root structures, suggesting an alteration from one state of being to another might be in progress. Slightly behind this passive figure, an echo or reflection of the same face is glimpsed.
Other artists included in the show are Rick Amor, Peter Booth, Richard Lewer, Laith McGregor, Tim McMonagle, and Sonia Payes. “There are allusions and illusions within these complex and intriguing works, but in most instances there is neither a beginning nor an end point. They operate in an interstitial, transitory or liminal realm and viewers must actively engage their own imaginations to determine if the image is pure fantasy, actuality, or a mixture of both,” Lindsay observes. Also look for Andrew McQualter’s site-specific metaphor of the tree (2014) around the doorway areas within the gallery. “It was also a great privilege to work closely with Andrew … whose wall paintings engage so poetically with the conceptual process of the exhibition project while also addressing the ‘Liminal’ concept”, she says.
Liminal_Narratives, Bayside Arts & Cultural Centre, Brighton Town Hall, cnr. Carpenter & Wilson streets, Brighton (VIC) – bayside.vic.gov.au/thegalleryatbacc
Inga Walton is a writer and arts consultant based in Melbourne who contributes to numerous Australian and international publications. She has submitted copy, of an increasingly verbose nature, to Trouble since 2008. She is under the impression that readers are not morons with a short attention span, and would like to know lots of things.