sharon goodwin: escape from neverlands

Gertrude Street Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne
7 - 29 June 2002

The freaks have escaped from the asylum, we see them here limping, staggering, fleeing as best they can from an institution high on the hill in the distance, armed guards in pursuit. There is an odd assortment of hybrids and mutants-a man with the head of an elephant, two women, one with the head and tail of a cat, the other a mermaid, two headless dogs joined together-all bad experiments in radical surgery to combine one human or animal with another. Indeed, all of them still bear bleeding scars from this improbable suturing.

In Neverlands the grotesque end of book illustration is excerpted and re-presented in stark relief as a standing dramatic tableau in the gallery. Sharon Goodwin's style varies depending on her sources, which might range from Coles Funny Picture Book to postwar US comics. The cutout comic-figures are doubly strange in these new environs; freaks in their own fictitious worlds but also weirdly brought from a page to life-size in the gallery. In every case, the stitches are red, fresh and vivid next to the black and white line drawing.

The trope here, the suture, is the pictorial cue to the appropriation of one found image or another, the visual 'switch' that enables disparate things to easily combine under the pleasing sign of antique or kitsch horror. And there is obvious nostalgia for the sense of possibility embodied in these retro-mutants, and also for the corporeal means of transformation.

To be precise, things used to combine more easily, believably. Perhaps they still do in kid's culture, to wit, teenage mutant ninja turtles or Transformers. Indeed, mutantcy seems a very dated, naïve form of aberrancy now, which did not make it much past the '60s, unless as a Hollywood rehash for baby-boomers, like Spiderman or the Incredible Hulk, and I would say that is largely due to the elaborate explanation now required by an audience of technological sophisticates.

For which reason Superman became, more precisely, the six million dollar man: a totally rationalised fantasy. And likewise, the very idea of Frankenstein got discounted by the actual difficulty of organ transplant. Conversely, we may also say, everything has mutated or hybridised or exists in such a state of flux that the category is now useless. Which is to say, the fantasies of forty years ago have played out in either real or impractical scenarios by now.

But these mutants of Goodwin's are still joined by the intermingling of flesh, sewn together (by some heinous doctor) at the open end of two cuts, or wounds, with a good old fashioned blanket-stitch. We can imagine all those cells bumping up against each other, fusing, forming. 11 is so analogue, so abject by today's digital standards and procedures, that its continuing appeal could only be symbolic, or metaphorical.

The mutant or hybrid creature, the monstrous abomination, is of course a critique of standards imposed on normal being and behaviour (which might explain the popularity of mutants as a leitmotif in post war America). These figures are not just physically strange but socially estranged too, since they would apparently have trouble doing normal things like dating or riding a bike.

But what they display together within Goodwin's staged tableaux is a degree of freedom from the strictures of debilitating social norms, and the evil impress of 'doctors' and 'guards', rampaging across the open plains, unfurling like a coiled spring. Neverlands may well be the spoiled flipside to some '60s or other utopia but it still incarnates our fantastic desires for freedom and transformation.