A suite of small sculptures lie upon offcuts of aging, discoloured foam. Each work is cast in breakable glass, is slightly spongy to touch and contains an array of found objects: sandwich bags, fake nails, lace gloves, earplugs, artificial flowers, plastic beads and a small toy panda bear. The floor-based installation is swan plain, 2015, by Sydney-based Marian Tubbs, one of five Australian artists (along with Tony Garifalakis, Nathan Gray, Helen Johnson and Justene Williams) included in Pleasure & Reality.
The exhibition’s title was inspired by a key line of investigation in Tubbs’s practice related to the idea that ordinary objects and images can, when repurposed, become unexpected and enticing. Artists in the exhibition combine natural and ‘fake’ imagery, as well as familiar and found materials, in their work to call into question what is valued by the viewer and why. Tubbs’s Under striates (false semblance), 2015, a length of digitally printed silk, brings together images sourced from the internet, computer-generated text, photographs taken on her iPhone and digitally painted compositions into a fluid form that poetically evokes the immateriality of online data flows.
Similarly, Melbourne artist Helen Johnson also draws on the language of the online realm and adopts a non-hierarchical approach to her source material; likening her recent painting Watching a romcom after yoga, 2015, to a Tumblr or Instagram feed where ‘the logic of the images is not connected to narrative or sequence’1Helen Johnson, interview with Jane Devery, 4 Sep. 2015. Together with its companion paintings Passing through as a bee visiting flowers, 2015, Tripper, 2015, and the comparatively flat and more tightly executed Island (Gale), 2013, these works reflect Johnson’s constantly evolving painterly vernacular. By adopting an aesthetic that freely moves between figuration and abstraction Johnson’s work challenges assumptions that painting accurately or neutrally represents its subject. She says:
Painting is an interesting vehicle for me because it is loaded, neurotic, problematised, a market force, scattered, essentialised and recomplexified, loathed, able to operate simultaneously within and beyond itself, able to be beautiful and horrible at the same time.2 Helen Jonhson, artist statement for Pleasure & Reality.
Painting is employed to different effect – to question the authority and power of political, social, religious and artistic institutions – in the works of Melbourne artist Tony Garifalakis. Bloodline, 2014, is a suite of twelve portraits of female members of Europe’s royal families lifted from publications found by the artist in opportunity shops. Garifalakis defaces his subjects by spraying and painting layers of dripping black enamel over their faces in a way that recalls graffiti and its use as a tool to convey messages of dissent. The association is strengthened by the works’ installation on a mock concrete wall, again recalling the aesthetics of the street and de-contextualising the regal sitters’ stature. The seriality of the portraits and erasure of each individual’s features denies the subjects of their identity and selfhood, rendering them as an indistinguishable alien mob. Only their eyes and indicators of wealth – tiaras, crowns and glistening jewels – remain.
Interactions between ordinary people and everyday objects are the focus of Nathan Gray’s performative video installations. The Melbourne artist typically works with self-imposed rules and limitations, often utilising what is immediately available to create his work. Species of spaces, 2014, is a five-channel video installation featuring a series of actions performed on Cockatoo Island on Sydney Harbour. Nails, chains and pipes drop against concrete and tiles; a series of switches and levers are flicked on and off; a balloon is dragged through industrial machinery until it bursts. Together the improvised actions create a form of industrial music and percussive mapping of the island and its distinctive architectural spaces. A simple choreography is also enacted in Gray’s recent work Sharing concurrent time (Four improvisations), 2015, in which he performs a series of simple gestures that unfold across four screens. In this work, objects are removed completely and it becomes, according to the artist, ‘a performance with no content’.3Nathan Gray, interview with Serena Bentley, 15 Sep. 2015. Instead, Gray generates a series of expanding and contracting movements of varying intensity that pass from screen to screen.
Improvisation is also central to the work of Justene Williams, who employs found materials and quickly fabricated objects in performative video installations. Recalling absurdist theatre and the early twentieth-century avant-garde practices of Dada and Constructivism, Williams’s elaborate sets and costumes are activated through performances which are then re-presented as video installations alongside props and remnants from her choreographies. For Pleasure & Reality, Williams builds on a recent body of work that draws on the traditions and aesthetics of Japanese Noh theatre. Accordingly, the gallery space is transformed into a stage set where evidence of previous performances play back on a series of monitors. Classical Noh theatre relies on a reductive set in which props are fabricated quickly, often within an hour, and dismantled after the performance. Williams’s installation in Pleasure & Reality incorporates a version of the Dojoji bell, a key Noh prop, created in cane. Lowering the bell over an actor symbolises a moment of transformation, and this state is further emphasised by Williams’s title for the installation, No mind, which refers to the condition of Kokoro (‘heart’, ‘mind’, or both; nomind) – the desirable mental state in which an actor can achieve absolute transportation.
The potential for material, semantic and spatial transformation is a unifying concept in Pleasure & Reality. We see it in Williams’s Dojoji bell, in the anarchic distortions of Garifalakis’s portraits of European royal families and in the mutable aesthetic of Johnson’s painterly investigations. It underlies the DIY performative, process-based videos by Gray and the ways images and objects are brought together and manipulated in Tubbs’s installations. As materials and images take on altered significance in each of these artists’ works, we begin to see things differently.
Helen Johnson, interview with Jane Devery, 4 Sep. 2015.
Helen Jonhson, artist statement for Pleasure & Reality.
Nathan Gray, interview with Serena Bentley, 15 Sep. 2015.