Prudence Cumes

Bellas Gallery Backyard, Brisbane

The car is always bound to make a difficult subject for the artist. It is arguably the uber-sign of the twentieth century- personal liberty, national identity, even our habitats themselves are defined and inspired by the necessities of car travel.

The car inspires a devotion which outstrips that of any other consumer item and as a motif has been indispensable to twentieth century Australian culture, signifying the new-found affluence of the postwar period and embodying the pioneering conflict of civilisation against nature. However, as the tradition of auto-films and advertising demonstrates, this symbolic potency is an explicitly gendered one- the car is not simply civilisation's proxy an intrinsic masculine agent. To be without a car- to be a pedestrian- is to be without phallic clout.

It is precisely the car's potency- its pervasiveness, its symbolic gravity- that makes it such a troublesome subject matter for an artwork. How can an artist manipulate such a ubiquitous icon in an interesting fashion, without surrendering to populism?

Prudence Cumes, in her work George, has been able to transcend such anxiety and present us with a work which both scrutinises the image of the car in our culture and confounds the gender assumptions implicit within it. In what was essentially a curatorial role, Cumes extended an invitation to three artist friends (Jeremy Hynes, Rachel Perrett and Adam Stephens) to photograph the interior of 'George', her tired and cluttered Datsun Stanza. In a one-night-only event each artist's selection of images were then projected from the roof of the same car onto the large brick wall which frames the backyard of Bellas Gallery in Brisbane.

The projections have a distinctly voyeuristic appeal as documents of somebody else's private space, while their decidedly endoscopic quality claims the automobile as an extension of the female body where, culturally-speaking, interior and exterior are in a constant state of exchange. The car is subjected to a similar probing and internal scrutiny that the female body experiences on a regular basis. In this sense, the detritus of activities and consumption which litter the frames becomes a kind of iconic vandalism- a female's traces cluttering the masculine space as an antidote for the way in which so much male hubris has marked female bodies and histories. Furthermore, by projecting, billboard-style, these details on to the side of a building the exposed automobile reveals the nervousness and vulnerability of male culture for all its turbo-charged posturing.

Cumes casually and subtly demonstrates the limitations of reductivist theories of gender (significantly, the name 'George' while evoking images of the archetypical, inoffensive male is also a slang term for menstruation) while simultaneously showing us the possibilities offered by even the most tired icon. In a single image capturing the artist's favourite golf clubs on the back seat of her litter- strewn car, the work embraces a level of gender-role ambiguity which serves as a healthy rest zone from the predictable and sanitised commodification of what has clearly become our true volks wagon.