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lt is not good form to start a review with, 'this is the best group show I've seen in ages', but that was my first and second impression, so why beat around the bush. Mutable Spaces was organised by Josh Milani, who claims it is his first curatorial outing, and featured work by six emerging artists from Melbourne and Brisbane: Damiano Bertoli, Catherine Brown, Nadine Christensen, Gareth Donnelly, Nick Mangan, and Sandra Selig. The dual-urban distinction is a minor point, apart from providing useful cultural traffic. The exhibition does, however, reflect a generation, with all the artists born between 1970 and 1980. In his accompanying catalogue essay, Milani writes of the resurgent interest in materiality and the making of art (things). Resurgence is a stretch because all art has material tissue, even the immaterial work of Robert lrwin and James Turrell, but there is a palpable material presence in this collective outing, a chicken and egg inevitability. Malleability-Milani 's 'mutable'-is, on the other hand, a modernist hallmark. However they chose to slice it, the artists each engaged something of that legacy. Milani also notes the presence of technology (in computer history terms, the artists overlap with the fourth generation, from 1971 to the present): the digital age moves quickly, but is not necessarily better. Damiano Bertoli 's The Diamond Age (one of three works shown), a room-filling , elaborate chandelier made from pristine cardboard, is a slow age work. Bertoli spoke of an evacuation, or an extraction of minimalism from a baroque source (or, eternal and mutable bad taste). Nick Mangan's Articulated Erosions is a balsa foam carved thing with a deliberate machine-like presence. Neither artist is trying to fool the eye: we know the material and can see the thing-made-useless, which is not the same as a useless thing. Beauty is a function too. Milani included two painters, Gareth Donnelly and Nadine Christensen, who are not engaged in an anti-painting denial, but whose respective works could not be further apart. Donnelly aims into the well-trod terrain of reductivist painting, with a particular twist. His sotitled Toy paintings are fingertip-sized monochromes and palm-sized geometrics, faithfully and truthfully painted. The counterpoint is a Gigantic (red monochrome) painting- not big, rather the Toy enlarged as if a prop, as one could describe both Bertoli 's and Mangan's works. Props are not inauthentic, they have real sign value and signification if one wishes to plumb the depths of semiotics. But in real-thing terms, the inflation has a slightly disturbing quality, like an over child-sized teddy bear. Christensen's compact image and scene paintings have that ominous quality, but are so disarmingly sincere as to transcend irony. In one, a blank portable projection screen (a 'monochrome') sits in a model space articulated with fine line precision. Yet the edges of the screen are goofy-awkward, a measured squiggle in the attempt to achieve the informal fold. In contrast Catherine Brown and Sandra Selig 's works are expansive and out of the frame. Brown's two-wall sited work is titled Wall drawing. lt is a drawing in a manner of speaking, composed of lengths of vertical plastic tubing nailed to the wall , and receding to a nail-head sized point at each end. Whether drawing or ready-made painting, again there is an undeniable materiality and a labour intensive precision. One of the Selig works is titled Emptied out lines, lengths of geometric scored and folded transparency film pinned at two points on the wall, and crumpled to the floor Lygia Clark (Brazilian) meets Alan Saret (American). lt is the wry counterpoint to Brown's work, a geometric precision organised in a different way. This and her other work, a stairwell sound installation, share an entropic occupation of space. Prime period Pop Art- which also had a precisionist quality- is said to have elevated the banal, but also willingly embraced the giganticism of popular culture as much as presenting a critique. Hence, the artists were both consumers and producers. Not so for the (primarily) New York inheritors of the 1980s. Their game was an objectification of the banal though a conscious commodification. But what did it achieve, much navel-gazing, neo this and- that (Peter Halley burned both ends of the candle in his 1990 neo-geo-pop take on Warhol's Double Elvis) , the new pathetic, or simply, the art of copying. Bertoli's chandelier is Richard Artschwager without copying. Donnelly does not need to copy Peter Halley, the source material is as important and resilient as the revisionism. Mangan's A geology for commodification (nowhere near as arch as the title) has a set of intricately cut PVC inserts-a topography of ergonomic design shapes-nestled perfectly (and imperfectly) inside a store bought Nylex disposal bin (you have to guess what objects are outlined). lt is as good as Jeff Koons in his prime without the preciousness of a vitrine or the tom-foolery of floating basketballs. Close the lid, wheel it away, open it up again. What could be more elegant and simple? Mutable Spaces is a redemption for some of the excesses of the 1980s, and to borrow an often-used advertising claim, a return to honest values. What is best today is conditional, as the tides of taste and fashion are strong and can wash away the best of intentions. Nonetheless, the intent is here, viewable, retrievable, and pleasurable without showing wounds, or attempting to heal those real or imagined. Good curators bring divergent ideas to a table, to present differences and commonalities and never to drown out the individual voices. Over-theorising killed the cat but the Obsessive Compulsive- as the works by these artists can otherwise be described-brought it back.
Damiano Bertoli, The Diamond Age, 2002. Cardboard and wood. 135 x 120cm. Photo: Christopher Handran. Courtesy Metro Arts, Brisbane and the artist.