D I S E M B E D D E D
These last few years I have been writing and making art immersed in a world of displaced and dis-embedded ideas, objects and people. This exhibition of new work coincides with the publication of my slim book about Lenin’s exile in Perth (1). In turn, the idea of looking at a key moment of Lenin’s time in Perth, the claustrophobically hot summer of 1949, emerged from a book I was writing with a colleague, and then abandoned, about the internal exile of artists in Korea during the Chosun Dynasty. In the way that ideas sneak like rats from ship to shore without one being fully aware of them scurrying about, I found myself one day in the city looking at trees as if they were forest expatriates. Over the weeks this idea slowly made itself at home and the trees stopped being reminders of the untramelled beauty of the expansive natural world somewhere-out there-that-isn't-here, and became bit by bit, bus journey by bus journey, careworn remnants of it. They remained beautiful of course, but it was clear they were also severely constrained in their daily life. Some were carefully trimmed, others were vigorously but unsympathetically chopped; other magnificent, unmolested trees, ones that were too tall to be pruned without a crane, were nonetheless lopsided, deformed in their competition for space with the buildings that surrounded them. Some of them looked so very weary, so old school Perth, as if they were trapped in a repressed post-war world of sliced white bread and tinned luncheon meat sandwiches.
The task became how to paint them, and convey their careworn, disenfranchised state and avoid them looking like a bored extra in a painting by Claude Lorraine, or the home of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. Two artist friends, Sebastian Befumo and Cherish Marrington, had been using pen and ink in their work, and looking at the way that they worked with the medium, intensely and minutely, it seemed that pen and ink rather than paint was the means to try and capture the relationships between leaves, branches and the tree’s overall form. Pen and ink’s aesthetic suited the mundanity of the trees’ alienated kerbside existence, but it could also convey the sense that they would, if they had the chance, read Frantz Fanon, and listen to Morrissey’s earlier records.
A tree is a complete thing in itself but also a combination of its separate parts; its branches, twigs and leaves come and go and are as engaging individually as when they hang out together. Pen and ink could capture the detail of individual components and reproduce the isolated form of the tree on the page, but what about the way those parts interact? How is it possible to reveal the relationship between a transient part and the continuing whole? That was really paint’s job. Painting the interlocking component parts of a tree was also a way of also thinking about that dialogue between the 'total' (objective reality) and the 'typical' (personal experience) that György Lukacs talks of when he explains the paradoxical relation between what we experience and how we represent it, and how the two are separate, yet bound together. The tussle of painting is also enjoyable, moving backwards and forwards between what’s there, what one thinks is there, and the polite struggle to reveal it in a representational form that plays what is usually expected. Restricting my palette to that of late 40s Soviet realism, eschewing the instant gratification of modern colours, seemed appropriate to the theme.
While the conversation is about trees being themselves but also standing in for other ideas, and given I have mentioned Lukacs it might be entertaining (for me anyway) to digress for a few sentences to develop Lukacs' ideas about how the part relates to its whole, and how our everyday assumptions get in the way of understanding the nature of things and prevent us from making leaps of the imagination. Within their fictional world Snugglepot and Cuddlepie were never able to meaningfully exist outside of the limitations of their treetop experiences, for no matter what their adventures entailed they always remained fundamentally unchanged. They had no absolutely no concept of the infinite nature of the universe, and how it framed the circumstances of their lives. They lived (happily in their case) in a naïve state of what Lukacs calls “transcendental homelessness” (3). It becomes evident I hope, after that observation, that we often remain inside created worlds in which we can't see the wood for the trees, or the tree for the leaves, and that even something like floral wallpaper and botanical illustrations operate in that space between an engagement with the world and its subsequent social and aesthetic expression. That expressive understanding then frames our return back into the world, and so on. Once this dialogue between the real and the fictional is understood, then ideas can be turned back against themselves and the artist can work against the grain and revel in the absurdity of it all, and trees can have emotional lives and gumnut babies suffer existential crises.
It is probably safest to conclude that the twig and leaf community are ultimately best as ensemble players. Such an ensemble is the garland, which has been a central theme in my work for a few years now. Some of them are tawdry things, reminiscent of Sartre’s view that the more we hear about victories the less they seem to be so. Others have embraced the totalitarian aesthetic of wanting to belong. Those in the absent Lenin etchings have a more melancholic edge, framing something that is no longer there. One of etching's principal appeals is its dialogue between industrial process and inky sensuality. An etching reveals not just the process of printing but also contributes to the aesthetic of what it is representing, moving backwards and forwards between literal and metaphorical ideas of presence and absence. The exhibited paintings also aim to dissolve certainty by displaying the way they are made; their illusion of realism exists only within a shallow focal range that suddenly collapses into brush marks onto closer inspection.
Finally, why V. I. Lenin? Well, why ever not? Imagine if Snugglepot and Cuddlepie had read him. My thanks to David Forrest and Jánis Nedéla for indulging me on this particular subject for the many years I have sheltered happily under the shady boughs of Gallery East.
1.Crouch, C. (2017), Lenin in Perth, Melbourne: Atomic Activity Books
2.Gibbs, M.(2007), The complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, Melbourne:Harper Collins
3.Lukacs, G. (1971), The Theory of the Novel, London: Merlin, 1971.(p.60)
Thanks to Rory Paton for being central to the etchings' existence, and to Nikolai Graham at Déjà Vu for the framing