Jennifer McCamley

Mori Gallery, Sydney and City Gallery, Melbourne

Jennifer McCamley's recent work displays developments of several interests which have proved consuming for her and for the domain of visual representation generally. McCamley is particularly concerned with the interrogation of fundamental and inescapable paradoxes within the realm of the representable, or the non-representable.

Her exhibition seems to continue to grapple • with these paradoxes, subtly rephrasing them within a structure, a feeling and a place. The structure, the formalized area of the gallery, within which the artist placed her works according to a specific geometric arrangement. The feeling, a pervasive melancholy which does not emanate from the emotions of the artist but which almost sub-consciously embraces the grouping of works, amplified by their vaguely threatening predictions for art and semiology. In this, a melancholy which is never the property of the artist personally but always a property of all that her hand creates. Thirdly, the place within which these paradoxes are rephrased is Hybernia, a very old name for Ireland, which has (for artistic rather than geographical reasons) captured the imagination of the artist. Hybernia, for McCamley, is a brilliantly expressive context in which to re-open her continuing interrogation as the name seems to evoke a kaleidoscopic merging of 'colour· and a rich 'poetic history', in all its connotations. Perhaps, in line with many of the artist's preoccupations, Hybernia is one of the few truly fecund signifiers left to us.

The first two pieces, both entitled I Have Absolutely Nothing To Do With the XXth Century, are influenced by the Belgian artist, Thierry De Cordier. This subtle homage paid by McCamley stemmed initially from her fascination with the apparent disrepute in which much Belgian art seems to be held-so often being dismissed as repulsive. Perhaps this undercurrent tapped the artist's taste for the negative--why would an art be seen as repulsive as opposed to, perhaps, consciously, even interestingly, harsh and morbid? All this speculation circulates (in the works) around an ominous spectral figure clothed in scurezzal, who will " ... have absolutely nothing to do with the XXth century". In both pieces, (one a sculpture, the other a watercolour), the black figure has his head bowed and his back to the viewer. This gesture of unequivocal abstinence is amplified by the prohibitive black cross, X, on his back, warning of that semiological point-of-noreturn which continually beckons us all.

The first sculptured figure stands, characteristically for McCamley, on a columnar support, facing into a corner and flanked by two long glass panels. it speaks at once of Twentieth Century architecture (a continuing quality of McCamley's sculptures), and, in its hollow promise of reflection, the glass (on white) speaks of a fundamental opacity in representation.

Following this is a series of three watercolours entitled The Unformed 1-3. This group begins with the figure of a lion influenced by Fontana, which reflects these questions of opacity literally and by inference. McCamley chose the Fontana lion because of the references it makes to the presence and absence of kitsch and of metaphor. Fontana's work is often approached via a decoding of metaphor, but in fact, makes no conscious metaphorical reference. Elements of McCamley's work too, can be read as metaphorical, as the artist was amused to learn-the lion 's leg, for instance, stiffly advanced at an angle seems patently phallic although this was not necessarily the intention.

Furthermore, the lion would easily be interpreted as a symbol of Britannia, that land which presides over Hybernia (Ireland) and separates it (physically) from the rest of Europe. These are transmutations which we will always try to impose upon the signified and from which it will always recoil with equal vehemence. This is the essential property of this "non" element with which the artist is so concerned; it will always eschew an enforced decoding.

Also included in the exhibition is the earlier, The Time of Being Alive (1990). another of Jennifer McCamley's experiments with the connotations of the book form. As has been said before, a book is always intriguing as an hermeneutic invitation as well as an object that at once says so much in itself and simultaneously speaks of all other books. This commanding ironbark structure enthrones 'what'?, perhaps the vanity of intellectual endeavour in an environment of semantic collapse. In any case, it is proudly and primarily a testament to empty form, a legacy of Vercruyss.

Close by is Marble Drop, a drop made from black marble which gives off a beautiful lustre while retaining that essentially opaque quality. lt is encased in a symmetrical wooden stand which seems to have had the glass (which would complete the cabinet), left out. This work exemplifies the artist's interest in making the 'contained' art object take the role of a (positive) presence in an absent space. The emphasis of the stand and the 'place' which the sculpture delineates. pursues the Brancusian fascination with space in its own right and with the demarcation of the place of 'no-art'.

A highlight of this exhibition is the sculpture, Hybernia-a rectangular prism of solid concrete with extremely fine paper stacked upon it and punctuated by four metal (column-like) rods. It incorporates two of McCamley's consuming interests, the perfect argument in the perfect medium. Firstly, the argument is an allusion to that Utopian realm of connotation and artistic intent where linguistic reference is entirely subverted by whimthe realm of Duchamp's "non-sense". Hybernia, quite wonderfully, 'means' so much and so little. Secondly, the medium, sculpture, which is, for the artist, so definitive of place and so inherently architectural that it seems to physically augment this speculation. The thinness of the stacked sheets of paper in this work invites speculation, as does the title, into qualities of "in-betweeness". We have the structure and beyond it that attendant zone which seems to form a vacuum, absorbing all that is non-concrete, enigmatic and most difficult to grasp. Herein lies McCamley's most fervent intrigue and speculation, the most compulsive quality of her art.

These works all attest to the fundamental complexity and convolutedness of any and all representation- of which language is our most familiar medium. In this context, the art of Jennifer McCamley can be seen to be inextricably concerned with that fabulously enigmatic, Utopian realm of language and linguistic signification which is most unpalatable and intangible. Her work invites neither questions of reference nor of non-reference but rather, a delight in speculation about a moment when both these considerations become primary (and/or negligible?), a zone that hovers somewhere in between the two extremes. This strangely hybrid zone of referential possibility is the guiding fascination of the artist and the premise upon which all her 'empty forms' become individually animated-each with their own Hybernia.

notes: 

1. Scurezza is the Italian word tor shade, shadow, darkness, obscurity etcetera. A far more comprehensive term in this context than any available in English.