rod moss

once upon a time in the centre
Fire-Works Gallery, Brisbane
4 August - 2 September 2000

The drawings and paintings on paper in this exhibition are the continuation of a body of work begun by Rod Moss in the early 1980s, precipitated by his move to the Northern Territory from Victoria. Moss originally began producing landscape drawings as a means of coming to grips with the alien terrain of Alice Springs. However, an encounter with the children of a group of eastern Arrernte people living in camps at Whitegate, outside town, led to Moss's gradual engagement with these families, and their inclusion in his imagery of the Centre. It is these people who populate his large-scale figurative works. Dubbed 'realist documentary' paintings, Moss's works in fact play on the notion of truth-value inherent in realist painting. Drawing on his large collection of snapshot photographs, Moss creates both tableaux depicting real scenes and events, and enigmatically allegorical compositions.

Advocates of Moss's work argue that it has not received the exposure it deserves. It is perhaps not impossible for us to understand why this might be so. These works are hard to look at, almost everything about them inducing in the viewer a sense of unease. Moss has developed an unusual technique in which the bodies of Aboriginal figures are subtly rendered in graphite pencil, with the remainder of the image, including any non-Aboriginal figures, painted loudly in acrylic paint using a nee-pointillist style and intensely high-key chroma. Moss's choice of media produces a collision between modalities perceived as oppositions - draughtsmanship versus painterliness, objectivity versus subjectivity, realism versus expressivity - that does not sit neatly within conventional notions of high art, but strays dangerously close to kitsch.

Even more problematic is Moss's subject matter. How are we to react to these black figures depicted by a white man? We can almost feel the panic welling up inside. There is something about these black faces that brings with them uncomfortable reminders of images on 1950s transfer-printed plates. Perhaps it is our own angst that has been displaced from these figures onto the paint itself, producing this frantic, overwrought chaos of unbearable colour. Undoubtedly, there remains in the Australian consciousness an uncertainty towards figuring the black body. Those artists who have been successful in doing so, of whom Tracey Moffatt and Gordon Bennett are spectacular examples, produce work that is very self-conscious of its engagement with post-colonial discourse. They are also black. While Moss's use of graphite references the works' origins in photographs and hints at the long history of anthropological depictions of Aborigines, his project is one of genuine striving for an understanding of Eastern Arrernte culture at a personal level.

Despite the odds against it, the relationship Moss has developed with these people is a close one, the community elders seizing upon his work as a vehicle with which to record and reinforce their culture. Moss writes, 'References are made to me about being their painter. I'm given photos to draw up... l've been "commissioned" to interpret ceremonies and these efforts have been regarded as a way of keeping Arrernte culture going; in the public eye, if you like' [1]. With their dual function of educating both Aboriginal youngsters and white society about Aboriginal beliefs and traditions, the Papunya school mural and Yuendumu doors might serve as better precedents for Moss's art than any contemporary art in the usual understanding of the term. Fire-Works gallery director Michael Eather has long been interested in the possibility of contemporary Australian art based on 'shared influences' [2]. Rod Moss's work attests to this vision.

notes: 

I. Rod Moss, Where do you come from, Brother boy? (Territorial Bodies), ex. cat., The Araluen Centre, Alice Springs. 1998, p. 4.

II. Michael Eather and Marlene Hall, Balance 1990: views, visions, inruences, ex. cat . Queensland Art Gallery, South Brisbane, 1990, p. 8.