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Auckland-based artist Peter Madden generally, if not always, leaves the flurry of images he excises from encyclopaedias and stacks of National Geographics on the scale he finds them (like Hannah Höch in her original magazine-shredding shock tactic). For this reason many of his works, whether two-dimensional photomontages or tabletop systems of images arrayed on wire stalks, require the viewer to get in at a focal distance of half a metre or less, as for a standard printed page. His recent exhibition ‘Silk Cuts’, however, included some objects apparently more for picking up or sitting on than peering at. A gilded baseball bat, stool and bicycle seat stood out, visible from a distance.
The cultural resonances of covering something in gold leaf could no doubt be read up at length—perhaps in just such sources as encyclopaedias and National Geographic—but in the gallery, any arcane references were stopped dead. The same glossy magazines might as readily offer up Benson & Hedges advertisements milking this obvious connotation of value, already explicit in the brand’s golden carton. Madden’s brushing with this overfamiliar coding had a compellingly uneasy effect on me. For all their graspable size and icon-like visual simplicity, these were tough objects to see, speed bumps to slow my appreciation of his customarily lush collages.
The myriad flowers, birds, humans, insects and dust clouds he recombines, in his new works more than ever, present us with a visual simultaneity into which we can dip again and again. Up close, they fill peripheral vision with a decentred panorama. Individual images are notes in a chord of symphonic breadth. Amidst the blooming profusion, the images that do stand out to me first, this time, are body parts, skulls in particular emerging as points of singularity.1 The emergent suggestion of death and entropy thickens the air, rather as the gold leaf does; and there is little respite in the fact that as soon as this concept forms, its counterweight, life and energy seems equally well pictured.
Part of what Madden has to negotiate is that his pieces repeat the desires inherent in his Western scientifically informed source materials even as they rearticulate them: to know by seeing, to explore the depths of the oceans, deserts, jungles, geological time and outer space.2 Associating so much so richly, the photomontages risk leaving my head fuggy with the feel of Big Ideas—death, life, the universe and everything. Alongside Madden’s Gold Bat, Frazer’s The Golden Bough comes to mind, and its hopeless Victorian urge (like the structuralist Levi-Strauss) to know all human stories, and to try to make out from that aerial view the shape of some ancient foundations, deeper truths of human existence.
However, while Gold Bat might look set to hit us over the head with its potential as a symbolic object or contemporary totem, in fact it never does, never quite relinquishing its possible status as a garage sale oddment. Deeper in the detail of the show, metal foil is also applied to tiny objects. Some of them, like grains of rice and apple seeds, reinforce the overtones of life, death and civilisation, but such ‘timeless’ entities are mixed in their golden glory with mystery pills, human fingernails, and some chewed gum (Madden’s gold nugget becoming a distant relative of German sculptor Rosemarie Trockel’s silver ‘mouth sculpture’). The gilt surfaces test the irresistible coding of value as they try it on such an unprecious selection.
In other ways, too, the success of Madden’s show for me lies is its balance of the sacred and the profane, the potentially corny and the unexpected. A plastic deer’s head as a base for one work is the kind of Black Forest cuckoo clock kitsch that riled Adolph Loos into his crusade against ornament, and Golden Skull skirts the territory ruled by ashtrays from dragons, crystals and dope shops. On a fine or asymptotic line, the closer Madden’s work approaches Gothic, Romantic cliché, the more his dark humour and visual virtuosity is charged. The effect is of an effective re-siting of the details of the human relationship to the universe as pictured by photojournalism. Where his exhibition title evokes more cigarette advertisements, the sinister slashed purple cloth of Silk Cuts’ famous campaign, it helps me to imagine a memento mori right there in the government health warning. If we see life and death here, we might see them presented as something closer to what they are, vivid but everyday wonders, the preoccupations of even second hand magazines.
1. The body as a metaphor for a system, a relation of parts to the whole, might, then, be explored in application to Madden’s constellations of images.
2. Tessa Laird has explored the implications of the Western epistemological ethic in Madden’s work in, for example, ‘The Living Dead’, Natural Selection, Issue #2, Winter 2004, pp.30-35 (accessible via http://www.naturalselection.org.nz).