Philip Dean

Things fall apart

Dark images of cultural interrogation were blue-tacked to THAT'Ss white brick walls in late August. Sheets of litho paper glossed with supermarket enamel gridded works in an "ideologically correct" gesture of inbuilt potential ephemerality. Across the bottom of the central work of cultural despair, Things Fall Apart was written in hasty and fugitive chalk. With perhaps unintended irony, reference to Chinua Achebe's novel of cultural disintegration and hegemonic relations also referenced the subversion of the art object.

Philip Dean underscores slices of history with temporal fragility, but overlays a sense of permanency by drawing on an "old master" tradition. Postmodern quotation is considered by the artist as "a tendency towards the single proposition that nothing is original" (P.Dean, "Against Silence", THAT Contemporary Art space Newsletter, August 1987.) Yet Dean's use of quotation is not unadulterated or disaffected. In the Economic Interest usurps authority from Northern European altarpieces, in particular from Grunewald, and the resultant cohesive triptych could be an in-focus 1980s Beckmann. In this work especially, the quotation is not specific. Rather, it moves towards the syncretic. Philip Dean's urban crucifixion is braced at left by a jaundiced St. Sebastian beneath a factory skyline, and at right by a woman twisted with crutches, both full-sized figures compressing a doubled-over naked Christ figure whose contorted gaze beneath a barbed-wire crown fixes the viewer. The bonding of commerce and worker martyrdom is emphasized by the truncated bureaucratic "patrons"/voyeurs at bottom, and by junk-mail crosses and jewel cut-outs masquerading as sources of celestial light. An inscription further directs meaning.

In his verbal statement, "Against Silence", Philip Dean argues for art to "be meaningful (sic) on the larger stage of culture", for art to go beyond "its own history". Dean does excavate art history, but his references also irreverently culled from literature and popular culture. An etching from an early edition of de Sade coalesces with an Estee Lauder model in Primitive Worlds. In another work of illusion, disguise and counter-disguise, Caravaggio's Bacchus holds a "bleeding" paintbrush instead of a claret glass above the lifeless body of Sid Vicious, in what might be a glossy fanzine version of The Death of Marat. Punk insignia is read alongside high culture symbolism.

Such works are left-wing political, though are not bound by the hackneyed confines of Marxism. Philip Dean acknowledges that "the notion that ideology can be transcended seems more and more to be an illusion". However, a work notated "landscaping the garden a bicentennial project "tackles a current "political" issue. A forties Drysdale landscape, Bushfire, fills the upper panels, its background now carrying the planar forms of dead emus. Below, a primitive female "stick" figure hovers above a barren landscape ravaged by earthmoving equipment.

Aboriginal issues also form a focus for the most ambitious and largest of Philip Dean's exhibited paintings, Things Fall Apart. Filmic units surround a central area containing black musicians. Changing viewpoints provide tensions for this still centre, and a verbal static is intended from the imposition of song titles and found "marginal" statements. Fragments of cultural disease coalesce with a fiction which is also evident in the stylistic co-existence of the realist with the expressionist, the finely crafted with the crude.

Of Things Fall Apart, Philip Dean speaks of Giotto frescoes and architectural divisions. Paper edges can denote separation or continuation. Stencilled aboriginal symbols contain reverberations of Rock the Casbah. The work is a sum of parts, a discontinuous narrative. A row of haunted faces at a clinic, a man slumped by a toilet, a figure held at gunpoint form individual vignettes. Above, a city burns, and into the dark central area are tiny figures in dramatic struggle, one in a Goya death pose. In a full vertical panel at far right, pristine B23 bombers in a burning sky are juxtaposed above Masaccio's banished Adam and Eve. Below are the vexing words: To be continued. The work? The devastation? The paradise? In this apocalyptic presentation what hope is there for the music of resistance, of resistance itself? Philip Dean quotes Chas. Manson: "You can't prove anything that happened yesterday". Philip Dean's dark paintings articulate a theatre of resistance. The drama involves interrogation, violence and ideological debate. Meaning is to be accessed, though ambiguity is not in absence.

This is Philip Dean's first exhibition of paintings, but he furthers a political statement employing human form previously evident in his work in Performance Art, and in his recent direction at the Cement Box Theatre of Sizwe Bansi is Dead and Rhinoceros. Dean's THAT exhibition fractures certainties, sometimes reassembles the pieces into more disturbing and distorted signs, and with an ethical weightiness questions the future as imposed by Western culture.

In "Against Silence", Philip Dean writes that "post-modernism seems too often an act of despair", yet his works rest at an impasse of despair. Is Dean's position not so far removed from that of Yeats? "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."

On entering THAT the first work sighted forestalled disclosure and demanded silence. The psychedelic cross within the void silences the gibbering faces whose lips are knifed together; the pensive Madonna illuminated by the night city of commerce is mute.

Philip Dean, In the Economic Interest, 1987