The organic and the artificial

Reinventing Modernist design
Plimsoll Gallery, Hobart

Stepping inside the compact space of the Plimsoll Gallery at the Tasmanian School of Art was like walking onto the set of the new Austin Powers movie. Flecks of light spun round the gallery walls like a 1960's disco strobe. The source of the dazzling whirlwind of light and colour was Nike Savvas's captivatingly visual installation, Untitled (Sparkly), 1998. Dozens of small gold, blue and silver disks of mirrored perspex hung in vertical rows from ceiling to floor over a large portion of the gallery space. The effect of the childlike beauty and magical energy of Savvas's work urged one on with an enthusiastic expectation of what was to follow.

Curated by Jenny Spinks, The Organic and the Artificial: Reinventing Modernist Design, was the final exhibition in a series of six, included as part of the University of Tasmania's three year project entitled 'Questioning the Practice'. A vibrantly energetic collection of works drawn from artists selected primarily for their interest in 1950's and 1960's modernist design, The Organic and the Artificial was a visual feast of warped interiors and abstract structures.

The letters I O U were moulded into tactile acrylic forms, reminiscent of a packet of 'Five Flavours' Lifesavers in Mikala Dwyer's I.O.U., 1998. The knee high, jube-like letters luxuriated on a pristine white shag-pile rug; and placed snugly inside the dot of the 'i', was a doll-sized, plastic red television. Silent, flickering images of daytime soap operas nestled in the 'eye' of the 'i', and blinked out the static blur of a vacant, buy-now-pay-later lifestyle, creating the sense of a hollow domesticity embodied within the cold, polished surfaces one might find inside a synthetically decorated, air-conditioned hotel room in Las Vegas.

A series of three Untitled works of 1996 by Simeon Nelson incorporated plywood, wallpaper, linoleum and enamel to create ripply, undulating and overlaid shapes that appeared as though they had morphed into stillness as they grew from the gallery wall. The wooden surface of the two amoeba-like constructions was covered with flowery, pastel wallpaper with a pattern similar to those discovered beneath layers of mouldy lino on a laundry floor or stuck to the inside of a suburban kitchen drawer. The mock-wood plastic covering of the largest and most abstract of Nelson's forms, had the kind of nostalgic design one would expect to see peeling from the sweaty shelves of a cramped, overused caravan at a beachside camping ground. Strong light washed over the geometric shapes and cast curvaceous silhouettes behind the precise structures, adding an organic and transparently pliable dimension to the stiff seriousness of the forms.

The most striking inclusion in the exhibition were three works of 1997 by Steven Carson. Each piece was a rectangular board covered with thousands of brightly coloured matchsticks with the titles, 26 000, 13 000 and 39 000, referring to the number of matches used. Bursting with combustible energy and colour that seemed to vibrate, Carson's work successfully combined the notions of artificially manipulated order and chaotic disarray. Every match was individually glued in place and meticulously positioned into neat rows, each balanced onto the line of matches below. The structure and disciplined placement of the matches was a contrast to the random distribution of the colours and created a work of tidy composition, injected with an anarchy of luminous hues. A cross between a liquorice allsort and a supermarket barcode, Carson's work was a taste of what Dorothy might expect to find over the rainbow.

In Elizabeth Kelly's Hookey, 1997, three shiny, metal spikes were spread along the wall and became the erect hooks that pierced the centre of blood red aluminium hoops. Like the horns of a metallic beast proudly displayed in the trophy room of a science fiction novel, Kelly's spikes protruded from the wall and dared the viewer to come too close to the lethal tips of the eye-level points. A strangely disturbing and overtly sexual piece, Hookey concluded the exhibition and wove a sinister edge around the concept of the reinvented modernist form.

Surfaces like the reflective metals and shiny steels used in sterile hospital operating rooms glinted under the light, and colours resemblant of a confectionery stand, charged with an almost edible energy, assaulted the eye. On entering the space, the exhibition caught the viewer in its spell and transformed the gallery into something like an abandoned movie set, quietly waiting for the transient characters of reverie to assume their place. Each work was a convincing comment on modernist design that excited animated descriptions with words like flashy, electric, chewy, gorgeous, cool. A playful collection of lively magnetism, The Organic and the Artificial possessed an ephemeral magic from beginning to end, initially cast by the enchanting charm of Nike Savvas's mirrored Perspex pieces. Although the occasional fingerprint dulled the overall shine of Savvas's piece, the flash and wink of the reflected light slipped in and around the space like fleeting moments of a daydream. A daydream of a place both familiar and strange, where the organic and the artificial mould as one. A place we have been before yet cannot remember where or when. Until Now.