Gary Carsley

Dodelijk Speelgoed—Deadly toys
Realities Gallery, Melbourne. Suzanne Blederberg Gallery, Amsterdam

In the mid 1980s Gary Carsley said that his work was concerned not only with the remembering of history, but more importantly, the history of remembering; and ~ seems that it is across the abyss that separates these two competing concepts that his art struggles to build its bridges. Old symbols are re-invested with vitality and the viewer is made aware of the fact that contemporary art exists within a continuum that stretches back to pre-history. One is impressed by his ability to reify the etymology behind the myth and evoke a sense of the complex social and cultural formations competing for attention at the present time.

The two dominant strands of this exhibition are firstly those paintings where the central image is derived from Carsley's secretive activity as a sculptor, and secondly, the more recent SIREN series. The first, the so called 'finger' paintings are obviously moralizing tracts, where the didactic tone is moderated only by Carsley's clever manipulation of the fabulous composite beasts culled from the corpus of antique legend. A sphinx, in this instance is part aircraft carrier, part woman and part Canberra bomber. This is a reminder of the symbol's origin as a murderous deity and emblem of power-Sphinx meant "throttler" in ancient Greek, and Carsley has managed to endow the image with something of its original capacity for terror, while, at the same, time implying that metaphors drawn from the natural world have lost their vitality, as the animals who served as the original models have lost their habitats. Across the surface of these paintings, like the sort of subliminal advertising nowadays mostly forbidden, gigantic words coalesce in translucent glazes: TSK, FLY and RUN are unambivalent appeals to the viewer. The use of text in this way is twofold. It serves to extend the narrative aspect of the painting and formally, it functions as a grid that contains the tendency towards entropy that is a result of the horror vacui of Carsley's technique.

In the SIREN series the artist seems to align himself with Daniel Buren and other serialist artists. The emphasis is placed on the accumulative effect. The notion of the masterpiece, the one artwork in which all relevant ideas reside, is eschewed. These paintings contain among other things representations of the same woman. Her gesture and demeanour vary slightly from painting to painting. In one piece this obviously allegorical figure is holding a cornucopia which disgorges the fruits of technology: video cameras, personal computers and sports cars. In another the cornucopia spews out industrial waste and animal bones. The connection between the opulent veneer of western life and the degradation and destruction that is invisible in the purchase price, is chillingly apparent. This process, the articulation of cause and effect is the only potent faculty left to narrative painting in an epoch which photography has assumed the role of recording the outward appearance of peoples and the events in which they participate, and Carsley realises this. He looks beyond the simple reality: the flash vestments and glittering jewels of the momentous occasion, and concerns himself instead with the animating force that is the more profound reality. He is no longer in the vile cave described by Plato, gazing at the dim shadows cast on the wall, but outside, under the sun, and he succeeds in taking the viewer with him.

The SIREN paintings fit, perhaps a little uncomfortably, into the tradition of European history painting. I say uncomfortably, because Carsley brings to this tradition certain attitudes which are alien to it. The European outlook is characterized by surrender, futility and helplessness. Generally speaking, in Europe, unless one is great or powerful one does not participate, one can only observe. There is no prevailing democratic view of history as being something constituted out of the actions of all peoples. One is powerless before the historical, and its character and outcome are determined from above. Carsley does not seem prepared to shed the belief, peculiar to the New World, that the course of events can be subject to the exercise of popular will. it is this enthusiasm and interventionist fervour, distorting the rich patina of European sensibility, that is Carsley's greatest strength.

The majority of these works are painted on abstract grounds of different sorts, mostly collaged newspaper. This acts as a metaphor for the white noise given off as a type of toxic shriek by today's over-loaded communication systems. On this 'skin', stretched over the present like cling film, Carsley's images rest like tattoos. And like a tattoo they have the effect of placing the artist outside the constraints of normal social accountability and in opposition to the authorized version of history. These paintings offer a reasoned critique of fin de siecle existence, and some of them manage to be seductively beautiful, in spite of the disgust they embody.