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In this business, rarely do you have the good fortune of walking into an exhibition by an artist whom you know, anticipating one thing, yet walking away afterwards with the feeling that the artist has delivered more than you expected. Edward (less formally known as Eddie or Ed) Koumans latest exhibition Artland at KickArts in Cairns, is one such show.
Knowing that the exhibition was being held in the first floor Upper Gallery (effectively, no more than a single room), I was anticipating at most a modest display consisting of a few new works produced during Ed’s recent sojourn at ‘The House’ (a now defunct artist-run studio space that has succumbed to the real estate developer’s bulldozer). Contrary to expectations, what I found was what amounted to a mini-retrospective of Koumans’s output over the last decade, packed into an itty-bitty exhibition space. There were effectively four thematic rooms of work crammed into one (and a third, if you include the Lift Foyer). By this I mean, that the exhibition weaves together four distinct though interrelated strands in Koumans oeuvre, which can be loosely classified as, assemblages, environmental figures, (neo-)expressionistic paintings and drawings, and ‘new territory’, all of which deserve attention.
The process of assemblage (indebted to the Cubist collage) has been a driving force in Koumans output since he burst onto the Sydney art scene in the mid-1980s, with a couple of sell-out shows at the Hogarth Gallery. Then just as the artist’s star was rising, he set off from Sydney for Far North Queensland, turning his back on a big city career for the outer reaches of the galaxy. But the centre’s loss is the periphery’s gain.
Koumans's output is positively eclectic and irreverent (a ‘dare me’ attitude) to the political correctness and the rules of contemporary art, and, dare I say, unashamedly ‘Koumans’. It is this attitude that makes his work so refreshing. Now that is not to say that the artist ignores the history of art, rather, having worked in the commercial gallery sector intermittently over the years Koumans has become well versed in pretentious ‘art speak’ if he had to put it on, although at heart he is circumspect, if not cynical, about how the system functions. In his ‘primitive’ assemblages composed of discarded tourist-trade ‘artifacts’, domestic items, bric-à-brac, trinkets, and the ‘where-the-hell-did-he-find-that’ stuff, there is a lineage from early 20th century Modernism, yet with a contemporary twist, as in the largest figure Big Boy 2005, who is certainly well hung.
Koumans constant output of environmental figures is an extension of his love of assemblage, with Barbie dolls and GI Joe figures mummified in plastered bandages, their heads guillotined, to be replaced by more ‘where-the-…’. Although usually displayed as ‘groups’ cum installations, as in his Personal Myths (1996) at the Cairns Regional Gallery, in Artland each figure is being sold separately, so visitors can choose the one that suits their own personality. Yet judging by the figure’s with the red dots, I wonder how many psychos there are in Cairns interested in art.
That Koumans emerged in the neo-expressionistic eighties is perhaps most evident in his paintings and works on paper, depicting naked men, women, and an alluring blue-eyed boy, simplified and schematic figures paired with an assortment of totemic objects and symbolic creatures, such as birds and fish. It is interesting to note that the artist was born in the Netherlands, and if one, in a sweeping and probably completely ill-founded generalisation, mentions Koumans, CoBrA, the Italian Transavangardia and German Neo-expressionists in one breath, then perhaps there is an inherent European disposition to create this type of work. Although there is a pair of fabulous self-portraits (with birds) as you enter the space that somehow transcend the stylistic clichés to reveal the artist just as he is.
Last, but not least, there is one work that looks a little bit out of place, a four-panelled quadtich (let’s make up the word) Landscape I-IV 2005, which Koumans finished just days before Artland opened. Displayed across the far wall it provides a panoramic backdrop to his figurative assemblages standing in the centre of the space. This work has to be Koumans at his most serious, challenging himself to push beyond his own artistic comfort zone. Having visited Ed’s temporary studio only weeks prior to the show, I would never have anticipated this evolution in his work, which I now suspect is merely the first tentative step as he begins to chart new and unexplored territory in 2006.
As I confessed in the opening paragraph, Artland surpassed my expectations, and afterwards I left KickArts with the firm belief that Ed or Eddie (more formally known as Edward) Koumans is an artist who now deserves a serious mid-career survey.