PERSPECTA 1989: DEEP WATER THICK SEDIMENT
PHOTOFILE WINTER 1989 p 30
Amongst the various works in this year’s Perspecta, and amidst the pluralist ‘strategies’ and ‘tendencies’ so politely described in its introduction, two related types of painterly surface recur with a frequency that can’t be accidental.
Both types of surface are layered. The first is a kind of palimpsest in which transparent images are superimposed with varying degrees of deliberation. For instance in Fiona Macdonald’s An Untitled Illustration, Man’s Mind. I the ground plan of a Renaissance cathedral is laid over the fleshy portrait of a Renaissance man in order to describe a particular historical Ideal. Similarly, in Gordon Bennet’s aboriginal counter-myths, Triptych — Requiem, of Grandeur, Empire, an overlay of Renaissance perspectival schemata re-enacts the colonization of an originary landscape as signified by historic photographs of aborigines. Mark Titmarsh superimposes the merest outline of one historical picture onto the fading afterimage of another, creating a kind of painterly depiction of the act of cultural recollection. For Pat Hoffie the effects of Cultural Convergence are best represented by a random shuffling together of images from diverse Pacific nations, using equally diverse technologies of reproduction.
The effect in these instances is rather like peering through layers of tracing paper that have been alligned on a drawing board in order to show the various ‘levels’ of a historical construction. Or else it’s like a gel placed onto an overhead projector which suddenly connects a previously confusing pattern of dots. Similarly, but perhaps with less pedagogical intent, other surfaces from other pasts float deep within the paint of Su Baker’s Sustained Sensation. Looking at her work is like fathoming verv deep, but very clear water. Debra Dawes’ paintings are also optical events in which different Modernist formal sources create interference patterns which alternatelv absorb and repel the eye at a highly modulated frequency.
The second type of painterly surface which recurs in Perspecta is a kind of sedimentation: a historical precipitation rather than a system of overlays. For instance Andrew Arnaoutapoulos’ Industrial Surfaces on Large Canvases represents the grittv accretions of factorv walls. The mutual erasure of workers’ graffiti connotes, according to its essay, the impenetrable meanings of ancient runes on a cave wall. Similarly Chris Fitzallen encrusts laminated newspapers with brutal, dripping blocks of paint, encoding not so much expressionist zeal, as the residue of a past industry — in this case whaling at Albanv. Robert Kinder constructs metaphors for ‘state power’ by assembling its refuse — charred timber, torn text, tortured metal. He predicts Threat by constructing a surface which bears the scars of its aftermath. Likewise, Bernard Sachs’ dark, dreamy surfaces, with their pathetic artefacts attached, capture filaments of both cultural and personal memorv within the powdery fallout of his charcoal.
These two types of surface — one created by the superimposition of diaphanous screens, and the other by the sedimentation of gritty thicknesses — are obviously attempts to personallv mediate the intolerable burden of the past (or at least a good Millenium’s worth of it). But their recurrence in Perspecta, more than the collective intentions of any group of artists, signals a change in the nature of the past. These surfaces do not support an image of the past, nor do they contain an image from the past, rather they are meant to somehow embody the very workings of history itself. They present us with a site for visual archaelogy. These surfaces are either deep or thick, but they are also obscure and impenetrable. No matter how hard we strain, we just can’t see through to the bottom layer, we can’t reach down to feel the smooth texture of the primeval surface.
This enticing implacability tends to conflate the processes of personal memory and social historiography. Both remembrance and history are seen to erase, occlude, modulate and veil, just as they also uncover and preserve. Neither process is seen as empirical or innocent, both are contingent and motivated.
Of course. But this artistic strategy of vertical juxtaposition isn’t quite the same as collage, or appropriation, or any of the other familiar strategies of postmodern quotation which reveal the contingency of subjectivity*. Quotation implies a quoter and a quoted, and therefore a distance between them. But within the virtual depth or thickness of these surfaces there is no distance or perspective, no possibility of reference or intertextuality, only an increasingly opaque accumulation, or an ever deepening pool in which artist and viewer swim. This is an archaelogy without location, it’s history without geography.
These surfaces implv the possibility of a dilated memory, a personal memory with a historical dimension. But in so doing they also forget. Their textural conflation nullifies the material difference between signifving surfaces — the photographic, the painterly, the textual. But not only, as we have been taught, do these signifying surfaces have different codes and histories, they also have different ontologies. So not only, as Tony Bond points out in his introduction, is “history …. [in Perspecta] …. used as a source of spectacle and is more often generalised as a non-specific otherness than as a specific historical moment”, but also the very ‘substance’ of historv is homogenised.
I can handle the capitalization of individual histories into capital ‘H’ History. The proliferation of Doric Columns and Renaissance scroll-work is generally OK because there is always the artist’s cool stance of knowing ironv to at least rescue the image from banality. But the concomitant transformation of historical materiality into historical ambience is harder to take. It means that the artist’s stance in relation to history has collapsed in a longing for historical-ity. The Perspecta’s hyper-historicality is seductive. But in its relaxing, lulling environment even a critical strategy such as irony tends to become merelY a vaguely troubling memory itself. It ends up as just another spectre in the uneasY dreams of the artist.