Kindle and Swag

The Samstag Effect
University of South Australia Art Museum, Adelaide
4 November - 11 December 2004

Do you like American music?
We like all kinds of music.

But I like American music the BEST!
Baby
(The Violent Femmes, 'American Music'
from Why Do Birds Sing, Slash Records, 1991)

The thing that Anne and Gordon Samstag have become remembered for most in Australia is the Samstag scholarships. Gordon Samstag, obscure American painter and sometime lecturer at the South Australian School of Art, in conjunction with his wife Anne, left a perpetual bequest that has become a perpetual hope for successive waves of emerging Australian artists. The Samstag scholarship enables Australian artists, within five years of graduating, to travel and study at an overseas art school.

'Kindle and Swag' is an exhibition of work from selected Samstag alumni, curated by Samstag Director, Ross Wolfe. Wolfe states that he chose the seven artists on the basis that they are ' ...proven individuals of achievement who already command high professional interest' .1 But also on the basis of diversity. And the artists certainly work in diverse mediums, but share, I think, a sense of polish, of a highly refined, trimmed and packaged aesthetic. This may be the result of working intensively for a year or two in a new and challenging overseas environment, or maybe of recent career developments. Certainly, it seems from this show that the abject slacker aesthetic is out, and a diamond hard gloss in.

Nike Savvas's glittering flock of glass flamingos and rushing waterfall paintings using tinfoil, Zero to Infinity 2003, collapse the sublime and the kitsch into a quivering crystalline haze that makes me simultaneously think of Baudrillard, soap suds bubbles, pictures of the Florida Keys, and $2 shop foil pictures. Despite the kitsch associations of the materials and form it is 'nice' art. Beautiful, airy, aesthetic and blank. Equally blank are Megan Walch's gloopy acidhead enamels and freaky calligraphic paintings of creatures looking like refugees from the Jetsons' garden. Walch appropriates the colours and forms of surf culture, cartoons and fifties futuristic sci-fi with a hefty nod to Sigmar Polke. Again on the subject of blank, Anne Wallace's stagey scenes always remind me of old British crime fiction covers. I would love to see Wallace make an animation, I am sure they would scare us witless. Perfectly deadpan, ironically flat, her paintings' finely tuned weirdness and provoking matt-ness finally get to you.

It may be axiomatic to say Deborah Paauwe's work is about Fashion and Surface. But this often delivered statement can mask other dilemmas offered by Paauwe. Her work highlights the highly reciprocal relationship between art and fashion photography; I remember seeing Sheridan bed linen advertisements recently that seemed to adopt all the Paauwe trademarks, the back of a woman's head with a long, dark plait, folds of sensual girly fabric. Maybe the reason why Paauwe's work is so well known, and popular, is that it plays with the pleasure offered by fashion photography and offers it legitimation. These slightly guilty images are made beautiful through an individual's prolonged scrutiny. Paauwe's practice can seem to be static, as her focus is intense and changes occur slowly. Her photographs always work best in isolation-access to minute details are what makes the works interesting, but too many images together and the details get lost in a wash of soft repetitious skin.

Discomedusae a giant seething rubber chandelier, the form of which Timothy Horn derived from an etching of a Discomedusae (yes its real name) jellyfish by Ernst Haeckel, dominated the large University gallery. Delicate tentacles, capes and droplets made from dark yellow rubber, its frilly ornate forms are temptingly tactile, and creepily repulsive. The etching has all the camp outre colouring and carnivale forms of Horn's earlier urine/rhinestone works. Although this sculpture lacks the knife-edge camp humour of Horn's previous work, Discomedusae expresses a darker, perhaps more brooding, menacing beauty.

Similarly unhomely, but with an oppressive realism, Kristian Burford presented photographs of his installation Kathryn is staying at her grandparent's house... 2004, rather than the installation itself, which was, I guess, largely due to logistical limitations. Burford's work is most effective in the 'flesh', when life-size scale allows the shock of intrusion to be almost unbearably palpable. The sense of voyeurism and emotional trespass is lessened in the photographs.

Nick Folland's work Untitled-lifeboat series 2004, shows a new fragility. His past work centred on the history of landscape, Australian explorers and modes of survival. I am thinking in particular of the industrially heated boulders of Mount Hopeless. The strength and elementalism of these works is giving way to a sense of poetic narrative. Folland presented a performance work Heave Away, earlier this year; a boatload of drunken 'sailors' rowed up and down the Torrens River. The burlesque absurdity of the event was in direct contrast to the delicacy and vulnerability of the model boat Folland showed in 'Kindle and Swag'. Still dealing with travel and exploration, this work shows an anxious, tentative approach to life , perhaps facing the prospect of failure.

As Australia remains one of the last great undiscovered contemporary art continents, it is imperative for artists to travel overseas in order to further their careers. The success of the Samstag scholarship, and its importance to the development of Australian art, is apparent in any browse through of any of these artists' CVs. Their success remains a tribute to Anne and Gordon Samstag's far sighted and generous gesture.

notes: 

1. Wolfe, Ross, Kindle and Swag, exhibition catalogue, 2004. University of South Australia Art Museum, p.11.