colossus

roderick bunter and ben frost
Institute of Modem Art, Brisbane

Shortly after the exhibition Colossus, by Roderick Bunter and Ben Frost, opened at the Institute of Modern Art, Bunter was accused of promoting paedophilia with his painting, Never Screw with Lassie's Close-up. A debate ensued in the press. The crusaders who made the accusation also claimed that the painting was not 'real art'. If, as Marshal! Mcluhan once proclaimed, the medium is the message, then according to some, messages are not the domain of 'real art'. Perhaps if the work was hung backwards, it would contain satanic verses. lt was a debate which obviously struck a chord with one particular man who was moved to take action to protect the innocent. With the offending panel of a diptych nearly severed from its mount, a police investigation continues.

I suppose that is the trouble with irony: you run the risk of someone not getting it. But really, isn't that one of the threads of humour's discursive power? Funny that. What is also funny is that all the intent and meaning of Colossus has been reduced to the act of a lone 'vandal' slashing one of Bunter's paintings. Like a 1997 American exhibition titled Scene of the Crime, Colossus 'engages us not only in reconstructing prior actions but also in tracing the play of promiscuously intermingled cultural codes that make reality itself seem suspect'.1 What is held to scrutiny in the offending painting is the interplay of branding, family values and 'purity'. The assailant has aided and abetted the artist, unwittingly compounding a sign of these perplexing times. The artwork duplicitously and ambiguously plays as not only a scene of a crime but a sign of one as well. lt is as delicious as the smooth frosting surfaces of Bunter's paintings.

According to Elaine Showalter, hysterical epidemics can only flourish in those cultural contexts which support them.2 Clearly, hysteria about paedophilia has reached plague proportions provoking waves of witch-hunting and accusation. Because of the complexity of hysterical epidemics, censorship presents in many forms. The censorial urge seems to indicate that there are those who have secrets, those who seek to ensure no one speaks out of turn. However, Showalter points out that as religion, politics and panic kick in, scapegoating becomes rife and identities are refined and purified in the rumour mill. 3 Obviously, the hysteria is everywhere and has been simmering for rather a long while. Fully aware of this, Bunter and Frost seem to fan the coals by presenting work which might be construed as inflammatory, which can, if the winds are blowing in the right direction, fuel the blaze of moral panic. Curator, David Broker, cuts to the quick when he points out that 'artists don't shock people but rather, people shock themselves'. 4 Perhaps, here is where the irony really lies, with the trade in hypocrisy and secrets.

The centrepiece of this exhibition is a collaborative work, Where do you want to go today? which is a spectacular and panoramic assault of popism, populism and corporatism. In painting a group of children as if looking into the great unknown of their future, Bunter and Frost impel us towards the contradictions of the present, perhaps even into the contradictions of their own art which straddles the symbolic economies of both the media and art. Will these children be weighted by the forces of history, of fetishism and of capitalism? The work alludes to a choice about destination- perhaps aspiration-which does not seem to exist, providing in its stead corporate and voyeuristic paradigms about the quality of life. This freedom to choose seems to iconoclastically deride those ideas of both freedom and choice, ensconced as they are in our own 'panic democratic'.

Both artists share a concern for aesthetics. Like hysteria, beauty and humour are also culturally supported. These works trade on meticulous representation, appropriated iconography, smooth and liquid surfaces, graphic style and design values. Bunter and Frost ask, exquisitely, the same question posed by Robert Garnet: 'what kind of investment does the media have in art and, vice-versa, what is the nature of art's commerce with the popular media?'s While Colossus, as both an exhibition of art and as a scene of a crime, does not provide an answer, we are able to approach this question with a bit more information. These paintings emphasise the viewer, inviting us to piece them together with a slap on the back (or across the face) and an expectant, 'get it?'. Beauty and humour, or their veneer, are a seductive ploy which invites, drawing the viewer into a netherworld of mixed messages, invective and punchlines which uncompromisingly compromise.

notes: 

I. Ralph Rugoff, Scene of the Crime, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 1997,p.20

2. Elaine Showalter, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modem Culture, Picador, London, 1998, p. 19

3. ibid.

4. David Broker, 'Maximum Panic', Colussus catalogue, Institute of Modem Art, Brisbane, 2000, p. 3

5. Robert Garnet. 'Britpopism and the Populist Gesture', Duncan McCorquodale et al (eds). Occupational Hazard: Critical Writing on Recent British Art. Black Dog Publishing, London, 1998, p. 14