paul saint

Rata tat tat
Gitte Weise Gallery, Sydney
24 October – 17 November 2001

Music flows through Paul Saint's exhibition Rat a tat tat, but it is not the art/rock crossover stuff of many of his contemporaries. This is a more eclectic beast altogether. Saint samples history, pop culture, materials, politics and gossip like a master DJ in this group of paintings which are hung in a row around the gallery, humming on the wall with nervous energy. As in jazz or hip-hop, Saint uses a base structure and builds on it, with thirty-four small canvases of identical size riffing on the potential of painting to contain and convey meaning, their myriad signs building one upon the other in jittery, syncopated loops. Across the room are hung a row of prints, relief printed direct from vinyl records. On each, the central label contains a loaded symbol: a peace sign, a smiley face, a swastika, a hammer and sickle.

Viewed as a suite, the works provide a dense if open-ended barrage of information. Exhibited shortly after September 11, the quasi-nationalistic and military imagery in many of the works (produced some time before the event) attained an element of urgency that at times confused the subtlety of Saint's project. In Seeing forever on a clear day, the shape of the double-headed eagle of the Holy Roman Empire, appropriated from the Albanian flag, floats within a graded blue ground. Albania, the poorest country in Europe, still retains this grandiose symbol of past glories; here Saint has cut the emblem from a tea towel, rendering it ridiculous and set adrift against an endless blue sky. lt is also, though, a strange and beautiful image. In other works, iron crosses, discs and stars (as well as a Zapatista mustache) presented loaded triggers for minds filled with CNN, yet their messages-and materials- are mixed.

In this, his first painting show since the late 1980s, Saint is asking a straightforward question: Can I still paint? A highly pertinent, if rarely admitted problem, it is nevertheless evident in the searching diversity of the artist's means. lt has been said that Saint 'works with the history of the work's own making' and this includes the doubts and decision-making that the artist goes through in the process of conceiving and producing the work. The exploratory nature of this body of work is, however, always tethered to carefully controlled technique. Saint walks a fine line between casualness and self-consciousness (as suggested in titles such as Small African republic, who cares), yet his rare facility with materials always inflect his work with wit and beauty.

For example, in many of these paintings Saint has collaged cotton tea-towels onto the canvas. The modesty and homeliness of this material carries a domestic history- they have all been used-yet the towels have also been manufactured by the art patron and collector John Kaldor's fabric company. This is typical Saint, embedding his seemingly chaotic, dysfunctional objects with a sense of wry humour, as well as locating them squarely within a dialogue about art and its operations {these works also reference Italian Nuclear artists such as Burri). In a sense Saint builds upon Paul Taylor's 1980s notion of the second degree, with its careful arrangement of signs, but it is without the Pop sensibility. For Saint materials and technique remain integral, as well as having a respect for the past. In Moonboy (after Sidney No/an) the totemic round head of Nolan's Modernist figure is rendered as a circle of tea-towel, pale against a dark greenish ground. Here, Saint is not evoking Nolan as pastiche, but rather as a starting point for his own investigations into painting.

And paint he does: Four rulers (or thereabouts) is rendered with a palette knife in Rothko red, while in other works glazes, varnishes, gouache, graphite, oil, and acrylic are utilised. In several works, Saint fills the space with wavering inky lines, recalling Robert MacPherson's Robert Pene drawings, works that also appear dysfunctional or artless, yet always retain a rigorous structure. As in Saint's sculptural works, the rhythm and pleasure of making is always present. The prints involved intensive trial and error to incorporate both the oily black ink required to print from the vinyl disc and the screenprinted colour of the inner label. The labels recreate the font and format of classic LPs, and the central hole is punched through the paper, pushing the verisimilitude further, yet the right level of imperfection is retained.

This series, entitled Music for Pleasure, provides a kind of springboard for the exhibition, and displays most obviously the musical motif. For each, Saint has chosen a central figure from the great American musical genres of the 20th century: Jerry Lee Lewis (rock), Duke Ellington Uazz), Frank Sinatra (pop), Robert Johnson (blues), and George Jones (country). These iconographic figures, coupled with the sociopolitical symbols mentioned earlier, encourage our desire to make meaning and simple connections. Saint is not giving these up so easily, though: we have to look deeper, more laterally, and for longer. lt is only once the background static has faded away that these pictures really begin to sing.

 

Paul Saint, Moonboy (after Sidney Nolan), 2001. Oil paint and cotton cloth on canvas. 25.4 x 35.5cm. Courtesy Gitte Weise Gallery, Sydney.

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