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To judge by two very different Perth Festival exhibitions old time realism is back in style with a vengeance. George Gittoes war zone note books and crusty, comic-book coloured paintings shown at Greenhill Galleries, and Colin Gray's finely wrought cibachrome photograph and collage images of his parents in their natural environment in Hull, Yorkshire, UK, which were exhibited at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, both appeal to a growing need for an art that appears to deal directly with the real.
In both cases, however, the reality involved is far from the everyday or the incidental. It is both invented and maintained by its human subjects. Gittoes' souvenirs of Ruanda and other foreign massacres are, self-avowedly, exercises in making real the ghastly events he has witnessed both for himself and his audience. Gray's far more subtle work attempts to engage the no-man's land of memory between his parents and himself, mapped out over the physical territories of their home and the bleak streets of their working class outer suburb.
Since both artists ask the viewer to engage the world through social circumstances they are, by definition, old fashioned social realists. The shock value of war scenes and 'working class ' environments was always central to that almost totally discredited artistic position. Both are a long way from the experience of the average young middle class gallery goer who is, consequently, prone to mistake the merely alien or the 'authentic' real.
Gray emphasises the relationship between his parents and the things around them so that their presence and actions fill each image. In an early work, The Sitters, 1983, the mother stands to the right holding a bulky old fashioned beige/brown telephone to her ear. She is framed by a doorway which shows the modern wallpaper, blue and white plates and the plastic ceiling tiles in the living room beyond. The father sits in the lower right hand corner, cradling a sleeping baby complete with dummy. Directly above him the shelf for the telephone receiver also holds some unopened mail, a lamp with a dull orange shade and a faded red candle in holder.
This is a space like a saint's cell, in which human immediacy and memories appear almost untouched by consumerism and objects fade to ultimate familiarity. In one or two images Gray shows us his parents under siege from consumerism. In When the Price is Right, 1988 his mother's face appears in a mirror, hand to lips, framed with bottles of hairspray and shampoo. Washaway Woman, 1988 shows a detail of her washing machine rusting away around the powder cup, whereas in Hanging Line, 1988 the magic of the clean washing is celebrated in her shadow arms outstretched, shot through a wet sheet in the bright sun.
Gray has a brilliantly soft touch with human reality, always and everywhere engaged with the imaginary. In Hull Under
Water, 1991 his parents are swimming through their living room- his father even has a snorkel with a rubber duck attached. No doubt this has some relationship to the famous surrealist drawing room underwater that Cocteau made so much of, but memories of package holidays in Spain, coloured fish on sticks, and the odd bright blue ocean sunrise in the 'department store painting' on the far wall , are far more direct evidence of the reality in which his parents endure.
Gittoes sense of the human is all urgency and impermanence. This is the nature of his subject but his paintings suggest too that he seeks this existential condition as the result of a far more cliched emergency, a desperate need to restore the real as a series of crises. This is not to suggest that Gittoes is no more than a death and disaster junkie. Extreme human suffering can, however, override any number of technical , artistic difficulties in reaching the social real , locked as always into the imaginary of its creators.
Unfortunately art is generally seen in calm conditions when urgency appears as evasion or posturing. The pencil notebook drawing for Witness. shows the face of a Ruandan woman with a huge machete gash across her cheek. The notes state that she is the survivor of a massacre and may have been finished off after Gittoes left to help pregnant woman to safety. The painting from Witness is as enormous as it is awful. Gittoes is a very poor, self-indulgent painter, normally used to hiding his indecision and lack of control in a hectoring welter of detail. In this case he has nowhere to hide, only a face nearly two metres high. The result is a desert of incoherent overpainting, inexpressive, self-cancelling impasto, the outworking of his frantic search for an artistic reality as a series of crises.
The dirty secret of the art of the nineties may well be its embarrassed disavowal of the social and consequently of the possibility of realism, even when it appears to be most concerned with the human. The successes and failures of Gray and Gittoes offer an opportunity to begin to think this through.